Visions of A City Yet to Be—Public Art as Cultural Renewal: A Profile of Artist Rebecca Locke

England-born and New York City-based artist Rebecca Locke is thankful to come from a place that has inspired her work—a faded seaside resort for which she has great affection. And yet, it is not a place one readily admits one is from. Its name, “Bognor,” is a byword for “nowhere-ness”; in common English usage it suggests “a place that one would rather not be”—the opposite of aspirational.

Examples from the local culture itself highlight this further, including “Bognor or Bust”—a Saturday night game show that awards losers a vacation in Bognor Regis—and “Bognor Today, Tomorrow Bermuda”—the current advertising campaign for the UK’s National Lottery. English singer Morrissey’s song “Every Day Is Like Sunday” perfectly captures this sentiment: “a coastal town...they forgot to close down.”

But it wasn’t always like this. In the 1920’s Bognor had a Cannes-like draw and it is the faint mysteries of its gilded past that captivates this artist’s heart.

Rebecca has resided mainly in New York City since 1996, leaving only temporarily to receive her Masters in Fine Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London. After years away, the return to Bognor was a culture shock indeed, but her rich memories inspired her to see the town with the curiosity of a visitor. She would photograph the quirkiness and beauty she saw, and something of the place itself began to infuse her practice.

Her recent series Brooklyn // Bognor attempts to express this culture shock, contrasting the artist’s experience of New York City with her roots by the English seaside. The images are centered on Locke’s self-portraiture in which she wears her Brooklyn clothes out of context, walking through Bognor. They depict the charm and beauty of the English seaside, but hint at the uncanny—is there something of New York echoed in Bognor? A move to the city traditionally allows for the creation of a new narrative—a new self. In reverse, this work—a series of twelve staged photographs—asked if it was possible to create a new narrative of place. The artist’s work attempts to do this—Bognor is redefined and becomes regarded as an attractive and exotic place, a go-to place in England, defying the existing myths.

While on the surface, Bognor Regis serves as the common thread tying together much of Rebecca’s art, it is the theme of redemption that echoes beneath her work. Indeed the thread of redemption continues to weave through her recent public art project, the William Blake Imagination Photo Booth, inspired by the epic poetry of William Blake. Blake spent three years living outside of London in…you guessed it, Bognor Regis, in a seaside flint cottage at Felpham that still stands. This stretch of coast is regarded as the inspiration for much of his work, including epic poems Milton a Poem and Jerusalem, and is the place where he himself had his infamous visions. It is Blake’s regard for the imagination and the unseen that Rebecca references through the long exposure and light painting techniques employed in this recent series. Echoing the tradition of the seaside photo booth, Locke invited participants to “draw with light,” creating scenes from their own imagination, using the night sky and sea as a backdrop. (This portrait series will be on exhibit in Bognor Regis in June 2013.)

It is wholly fitting to remind people of Blake, his visions and hope for redemption, as he imagined a new Jerusalem, the holy city of God, coming down.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

The famous words set to Sir Hubert Parry’s music have been used as the English anthem at sporting events, but it is not actually a poem of national pride. It is a vision of building God’s Kingdom here on earth, a vision of what could be.

Highly involved in the Redeemer community whenever present in NYC, Rebecca works in the communications department and helped to develop many of Redeemer’s early designs.

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