Christina Reihill’s work addresses deep dilemmas inherent in the human condition and, through poetry, she narrates the journey to know love.
Christina achieves this with words and language in various mediums to provide an immediate, immersive experience.
“As a poet, I see in three dimensions, feeling thoughts and thinking feelings and view my role as an artist as a voice, not a personality. Words placed well on a page can serve this purpose but its traditional method of inviting poetic knowing is limited, not least of all because most people don’t read poetry or, if they do, form rigid views early in life. My work seeks to question this in showing, not telling experiences.”
In Glad I Did It, the artist focuses on the life and death of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England, for an interactive experience.
Here the visitor is invited into the mind of Ruth Ellis, represented by the condemned cell the 29 year old nightclub hostess occupied in 1955. The furniture and props are true to the facts during her stay in Holloway Prison, based on Ruth Ellis’s words, her letters, court documents, prison reports and psychiatric evaluations at the time.
The items are detailed but shown as Ellis perceived them. For example, she viewed herself as a brave “for love” storyteller. Thus, the artist has placed a seanchaí chair at her cell table. The seanchaí (pronounced ‘shunna-hee’) were the bardic tellers of tales, myths and legends in these islands in ancient times. Ellis takes this seat of honour to spellbind us, her audience, with how she wants to tell her story and become famous for it.
A manuscript of an audio recording from Ruth Ellis to her children, who were ten and four years of age when she was executed, is written by the artist. There is also a poem – imagined by the artist – written by Ellis to the lover she shot five times at close range. Various “doodles” can also be examined by visitors, placed alongside a copy of the prison diary, documenting Ellis’ moods and movements.
These, together, offer an authentic voice for visitors to engage with in this enduring London story and invite a deeper understanding of the artist’s subject. But, more particularly for the artist, they offer a mirror for visitors to see or not see themselves.
Project Space, with three L-shaped rooms, provides the perfect template for the work. The window on the ground floor represents the eyes to the soul. Just as in life, some will pass its portal without noticing, while others will pause momentarily or – in response to the poet’s calling – step inside.
The basement, drenched in red “felt” fabric, displays the artist’s poetry from SoulBurgers, her 10 year spiritual odyssey in verse to know love alongside a 20-minute video conversation of the artist in the artist’s space, with only the voice of the interviewer, to represent the souks of soul and how this voice might reveal this aspect of ourselves.
Each element of the artist’s installations are carefully chosen to tell a physical reality but also to evoke much more, including the erotic impulse which determined so much in Ruth Ellis’s story.
Our sexuality defines who we are, however we identify or choose not to recognise this in ourselves. Ruth Ellis’s impulse to pursue, shoot and unashamedly declare “he deserved it” in 1950’s England, when male and female roles were so closely defined, is a potent symbolic tool for the artist. Ruth Ellis was deemed sane when she shot David Blakely in 1955.
For some, the handles on the closed doors on the ground and first floors of the work will represent a pull to darkness. For others, these might evoke exclusion or a stimulus to know more. The power of symbolism to inform and determine choices features strongly in all the artist’s work.
In Glad I Did It, the erotic narrative of Ruth Ellis’s story is revealed and tells of a furious love, a love grown so hungry in jealousy, lust and violence that – for the artist – her subject hanged herself long before her executioner pulled the rope. Ellis’s desire to know love and be loved turned to hate as obsession gripped her mind and controlled her thinking.
For the artist, Ellis’s experience of humiliation from the moment of her birth made it an easy choice to fall into addictions to block these reminders. In making this choice, Ellis lost her way to know love. Tragically, it was the frustration of this experience which led her to express contempt for and seek revenge on a world, which – in her view – had failed her. According to the artist, she would have preferred us to see her as a proud woman, the daughter of a Jewish immigrant mother, who lost her voice in love’s song.
Reihill’s intention, whether visitors agree or disagree with her interpretation of the facts, is to show the humanity of the darkness in the human condition and to demonstrate that, whatever our interpretations, we are building narratives based on our past all the time.
In this constant internal narrative, whether unchecked or properly evaluated, the artist states that we, too, are prone to these destructive narratives. They can deny our capacity for critical thinking and mistakenly take charge of our emotions.
For the artist, there is no right or wrong way of interpreting our narratives or our making of choices. When it comes time for us to understand the heart’s longing to love and be loved, she states that there
is right and wrong thinking.
The artist’s premise begins in the acknowledgement that we all possess a shadow, which consciously or unconsciously reacts to thwarted desire. To avoid the pain of this experience, we engage in “numbing out” behaviours or thinking (delusions). This work asks us to consider the cost of these very human behaviours.
The cost, for the artist, is what she terms “half–lived lives”. These are lives conducted to avoid knowing the risks and the ‘ego-sacrifices’ required to know love and admit to the difficult truths for love’s pure experience. For the artist, we live in a cult of comfortableness which denies the tenets of love’s right thinking and that the cost of this easier way of interpreting love only feeds a narcissistic understanding of love.
This false thinking led to what happened for Ruth Ellis. “Narcissistic love offers a map to know love but its experience is not the map of love.” Reihill shows this in Glad I Did It.
Ultimately, for the artist, the cost of a half-life is a living death within which there is no true sense of personal justice, joy, hilarity, fulfilment, wonder or love. For the artist, half-lives deny the ultimate exquisite mystery of the heart’s desire to be known in its capacity for connection and appreciate the indefinable ‘more’ of true contact.
That Ruth Ellis was honest about her shadow, and her rejection of love’s experience in connection with another person, wins the artist’s admiration and determines the choice of Ruth Ellis as a subject for this work.
Christina’s previous installation, Wit’s End, featured a subjective narrative of the life and death of 1920’s poet and wit, Dorothy Parker.
Because the artist presents the bold truth of her subjects, she can pose bold questions of who we are, as opposed to who we think we are and what we understand about love and its great misunderstanding in the human condition.
Ellis believed that in killing her lover and dying, she would meet him in another life. “I want to join him,” she told her solicitor repeatedly.
Ellis’s “logic” – as Reihill sees it – was informed by impulsive thoughts and deeds without proper thinking or the choices these faculties offer a sober mind. Ellis’s impulsivity in the grip of her addictions to alcohol, drugs, lust and violence led to a deluded state of mind, one to which we are all vulnerable, particularly in matters of romantic love. As Plato famously acknowledged, this love in the human condition is a “serious mental disease.”
Ultimately, for the artist, a life without hard reflection and personal responsibility is a life hanging from a rope, driven by impulse and unrecognised desire, to which the ground floor of Glad I Did It speaks.