by Janice Li

‘We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original. But for the reproduction to be desired, the original has to be idolised.’
- Umberto Eco, Hyperreality

Garniture/fake ginger jar (wip) | Photo by John Hersey | 2022

Artificialia 01 | Photo by Paul Mounsey | 2021

At a glance, Bridgette Ashton’s latest works such as Fake Ginger Jars (2021 - ongoing) and Artificialia (2018 - 2021) could appear as a departure from her earlier works, The Lost Cave (2015 - 2017), Worth’s Folly (2018), and Margate Subterranea (2011 - 2013), which are relatively monumental and situated in the public sphere. Her recent works come in smaller multiples, with roots in domestic collectibles. Though they are different in scale, something reads on the opposite ends of the same thread, whether that is intentional or subconscious. Before delving into the witty and sophisticated observations and provocations Ashton explores in her practice, it is significant to note how she ridicules with grace and humour one of the most bizarre phenomena of the modern world: the spectacle of tourism and souvenir collecting.

The chronicle of the Lascaux cave replicas is an exemplary case study of hyperreal tourism for Ashton. After a short spell as a tourist attraction from 1948 to 1963 since its rediscovery in 1940, the Lascaux Cave complex faced a critical conservation challenge — the parietal wall paintings covering the interior walls and ceilings of the Upper Palaeolithic caves rapidly deteriorated due to an unstable and polluting environment caused by the sudden influx of visitors in those 15 years. The solution was a series of exact replicas produced and displayed in the cave’s vicinity, just 200m away from the original cave, titled Lascaux II, Lascaux III and Lascaux IV, made with the same materials believed to be used 19,000 years ago. In cultural critic and philosopher Umberto Eco’s own pilgrimage to the United States in search of hyperreality, he came to the realisation these replicas, such as those of Lascaux, reach a status where they no longer pretend that they are imitating reality. Eco contends: within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced’. It is this element of fantasy that Bridgette Ashton is revealing to us through her earlier works of large scale sculptures of touring replicas.

Margate Subterranea, Proposal For The Clifton Baths Experience | Bridgette Ashton | 2013

The Lost Cave (Model for Banqueting Cave Touring Replica) | Photo by Colin Robins | 2015

Model for Banqueting Cave Touring Replica | Bridgette Ashton | 2014

For The Lost Cave Requiem (2015) Ashton looks back on the performing history of the Banqueting Hall Cavern in Porth/Whipsiderry (north Cornish coast), where soprano Clara Novello sang concerts during exceptionally low tides from the 1890s until the 1930s. To replicate what we might call today a fully immersive experience of attending a concert in a dark and immense cavern, Ashton created architectural maquettes and sculptural propositions that imitate the volume of the cave, along with ‘cut-out-and-keep’ souvenir kits that allude to tourist obsession for miniature keepsakes. Visually, it is clear that these replicas are not made in the total likeness of the caves themselves; psychologically, they evoke a level of credibility at the same level of fakery. Preceding that was Margate Subterranea (2011 - 2013), through which Ashton similarly plays with the idea of touring replicas as rebranded attractions for three underground attractions in Margate, namely The Vortigern Caves, the Clifton Baths Estate and the Shell Grotto. As much as the purchasing power and the active decision to enter these sites of ‘iconic reassurance’—another name Eco gives these spatial replicas—may lead one to believe that the agency lies within the hands of the consumer, the visitor may just find themselves passively participating in the fantasy, playing a role void of individual initiatives. Through prints that draw out the manipulative nature of tourist advertisements and sculptures that suggest the promise of fantastical experiences, Ashton gently exposes the reconstructed truth within these sensations.

Caves Follies Grottoes Hermitages | Photo by Rob Smith | 2017

‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.’
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Sumulation

Italia (part of Zip Up Cases for a Motoring Tour of Europe, c.1982) | Photo by Rob Smith | 2005

An examination of modern tourism is not complete without discussing the subsidiary culture of souvenir manufacturing and collecting, its link to the wider history of collecting and in the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, the system of objects. Following years of exploring public sites of attraction, Ashton found in herself a desire to work with more intimate objects. ‘There is a distinct intimacy of something one can physically possess and hold in one’s hand,’ citing artist Richard Serra’s use of art historian George Kubler’s concept of prime object, Ashton explains why her works on replicas of small collectibles are her way of disrupting the preconceived notions of taste and values in modern material culture.

Artificialia 62 | Photo by Paul Mounsey | 2021

Artificialia 41 | Photo by Paul Mounsey | 2021

The Artificialia Cabinet | Photo by Oli Udy  | 2022

Plan for Artificialia 71 | Photo by Paul Mounsey | 2021

Minerals & Rocks in Colour | Photo by Paul Mounsey | 2021

Artificialia (2018 - 2021) is a project that teases out hidden relationships between physical objects and illustrated materials, minerals and mineralogy, collectors and collections, science and decoration, and ultimately, value and authenticity. In her research, Ashton came across museum mineral collections in the British Museum and Sedgwick Museum that are presented in a matter-of-fact tone, as well as fake specimens in Cornwall and Wales where their lack of authenticity does not make them less ‘valuable’ and are in fact objets d’art on a par with their counterparts in museums. Ashton’s bold and almost mischievous combination of plinths and minerals in ceramics, fake gold leaf and cardboard toys with the fixation on assigned values and opens up a new way of seeing those relationships embedded in the collecting process. Historic diagrams of Cornish minerals from J H Collins not only informed the accompanying linocut prints but also formed the basis for Ashton’s 3D models after processes of moulding, casting and glazing. Although it might mean that these specific ceramic minerals are not truly faithful to type, Ashton’s methodical approach and tremendous care placed in this laborious making process speak further to her questioning of how and why we assign value to what objects and materials.

Garnitures/Fake Ginger Jars (wip)

Photo by John Hershey | 

Ashton’s latest work, Garniture/Ginger Jar (2021 - ongoing), probes deeper into the collector’s domestic treasures. It is particularly resonating with this country’s passion for taste-making through collecting. As Baudrillard claims, nostalgia for origins and the obsession with authenticity are the two distinct features of the mythology of collecting antique, decorative objects. Ginger jars originated from 200 BCE China, the term itself is but a Western invention. At the height of Chinoiserie in the 18th century, Chinese ceramics like the ginger jar became sought-after decorative objects, which created a new export industry in southern coastal China where ceramists produce specific designs tailored to European tastes for merchants to bring back home as souvenirs. As Ashton shrewdly notes, they are intrinsically fake, just like the jars she creates, fantastical creatures with ormolu made not of gold and stand made of cardboard, yet as a set of garniture, they strengthen each other’s credibility and sense of certainty. Once collected, these objects become mental precincts that are abstracted from their function and thus brought into relationship with the collector: they became ‘my property and my passion’.

These pieces, to Ashton, exist together and in their own right. Regardless of the scale and subject matter she explores in each project, the visual and material qualities are always rich and layered with meaning. Unlike in a hyperreal tourist attraction, her works are activating. They invite viewers’ participation in deciding what kind of relationships they might form with these replicas. A tourist, a spectator, or a potential collector? If one is able to read into this rich language, the relationship will be one of playful collaboration.