An Interview with Iain Morrison, Writer in Residence at JHG by Sophie Jones

Iain Morrison held the writers’ residency at the John Hansard Gallery during its move from the University of Southampton’s Highfield Campus to the Cultural Quarter of Southampton’s city centre. This inspired his Moving Gallery Notes, a set of poems recording the gallery’s move. I was able to talk to him about his year at the gallery, and what inspired his final piece.

The residency initially interested Morrison because of his prior experience: “I’ve got a poetry practice,” he explains, “and they were looking for someone who was also comfortable in the contemporary art world. I worked for the Fruitmarket gallery in Edinburgh, and my job here is cross-art form events, bringing the exhibitions closer to other practices including writing practices.”

His initial idea was a continuation of “a previous set of poems that I had been working on for a few years”, called Art Talk Notes, which were in turn inspired by notes made by Morrison during artists’ talks. “I’ve never really known what I would do with those,” he admits, “but I realised that I was also creating a record of the more transitory thoughts that you have in those situations. It seemed like a way of creating a bit more of a human record. I knew the gallery would be going through a big period of change as it came from the Highfield campus to the city centre, and I was curious to see whether the approach of taking notes would allow me to track the changes in the same way that it had done in the art talks.” Morrison edited the notes into poems, which were then named for the “origin occasion, its location and date, so that the final poem signals back to the place and time from which it was taken.”

While his Art Talk Notes had been written only in public talks, his residency at the John Hansard Gallery gave him access to private meetings and events, and the chance to “work out what happens in a space where they’re not deliberately being focused on, spending time in the gallery between exhibitions or in meetings, things that I hadn’t previously thought of as moments.”

“Suddenly there was a whole different set of ethical concerns, I could see the staff at the gallery wondering how I was going to negotiate that privileged access, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how to capture the thinking process of the gallery staff authentically without being ungenerous.”

He was also “a bit nervous at the start,” about having to write about the staff of the gallery even if he didn’t believe they were doing a good job. Luckily, this didn’t end up being a problem – “These people are really committed, they’re compassionate, they’re intelligent, and they want to be good standard-bearers of what’s been achieved so far, and take it forward.” He saw the project as a way of “giving them a big cheer, in a sense. I suppose when they read the poems there might be some things for them to think about, there might be an element of reflectiveness and maybe there are some things in there that might be constructive criticism, but mainly it was just ‘I think you can do this, and I want you to know that.’”

As for the title, Moving Gallery Notes, Morrison explains that this is a pun – “on moving, because [the gallery] was literally moving, but also trying to think beyond the surface of how art’s talked about and think about the emotional content. I was conscious of the way the communities were mapping themselves onto the spaces, so I think at some point in the titles of the poems it shifts from talking about the ‘John Hansard Gallery at Highfield’ to talking about ‘Building 50’, I think it was, on the campus. There was a feeling that I noticed that people had shifted their centre of gravity, into seeing the new space going from being Studio 144 to being the ‘John Hansard Gallery. One of the main questions was ‘how does this actually happen? What are the mechanisms by which a community, a gallery, a team of people, an audience, is able or not able to travel with such a big transition from one space to another?” Morrison answers this question through a mix of observation and community engagement. Although in his blog, Morrison talks about his interest in “observation”, and attempting to “make myself into a recorder,” he aimed to be one that “acknowledges its subjectiveness.”

“Over the course of the year the distance between me and the writing subjects, for want of a better word, collapsed,” he reveals. “It was nice to see,” he continues, that Woodrow Kernohan, director of the John Hansard Gallery, had written in the Introduction to his publication about “the way in which he felt that I’d become involved and become part of the process, and I could feel that happening.”  He explains that he had started the project attempting to uphold an “artificial distance”, but that this proved unsustainable. One way he found of “slowing down” the collapse of this distance was the art itself.

“It was good having the art as a space to walk into when it all got a bit too personal, the art offered a really good place to just fall back into and get your perspective back, a way to think about the issues, the struggles, that the gallery was dealing with, for example, against the backdrop of the Richter paintings, or against the 2018 commemoration of the Representation of the People’s Act”

However, losing that distance “wasn’t a problem because actually capturing my gravitational pull towards the community was part of the interest. I think, apart from anything else, it’s my journey into being part of a community and embraced and accepted by them.”

His final project is a film poem, the Moving Gallery Notes accompanied by just over an hour of footage taken by Morrison of the galleries and other relevant settings, in order to “stand back”, and take a “middle-distance look at what’s going on.” It also allows the project to “have a life beyond the residency.” The film poem can either invite audiences to “sit and watch it all the way through,” or can be set up as “an installation in other gallery spaces. I quite like the idea that I can find different gallery spaces that sit within the same networks and put this project into them, so that people get to know about what John Hansard Gallery is doing […] but also,” says Morrison, “because I think the poems are universal enough so that even if you don’t know who Val or Will or Matt or Elsbeth are, you can still think about your own equivalents.”

Morrison, with his own gallery, “could see how this was a bit of a ‘through the looking glass’ experience, that I could see some of the same jobs or situations being played out in a slightly different way. It might be an enjoyable experience for people with their own gallery communities to see and reflect on how theirs work.” On the residency programme itself, Morrison says he hopes it has “shown some of the possible ‘business’ that writing can get up to when it’s let loose in different communities and cultural organisations.”

To hear from Morrison himself about his work at the John Hansard Gallery, come along to the book launch event on Sunday 4th November – tickets are available here. You can also read his blog of his time at the Gallery here, and our profiles of the two other Southampton Writers in Residence here, and here.