By Holly Willats

During a camping weekend this summer in Dorset, I found myself on a country walk that gave a fantastic view over coastal cliffs towards Lyme Regis – a classic destination for my family’s annual summer holiday whilst I was growing up. I hadn’t realised the walk touched upon this area of the coastline, and it took me slightly aback. I felt unsure I wanted to revisit a place so strongly connected to my childhood. It always seems risky to me to revisit places: better left as how I remember them, rather than discover my memory has served me wrong. But far from being disappointing, there was actually something comforting in gazing down on the seaside town, and for a brief moment I felt connected to my younger self. Although this encounter had not been planned, the walk had served as a kind of pilgrimage. I feel that this sense of retracing can be appreciated by any who encounter Stuart Robinson’s project, I’m Westward Ho! for this shared sense of reflection, and the ideals we often put upon places of retreat.

I’m Westward Ho! | Stuart Robinson | Overlooking Porlock Bay | 2019

At a time of such uncertainty, Stuart’s work presents structured worlds that glimmer with references from our past that appear comforting and reassuring. These pieces are about the hope that a place can represent: dreams of utopia, and the relics of these sites. Stuart’s recent project I’m Westward Ho! brings different points of his practice together for a fantastic performative work that explores a journey through memory as a site of utopia.

Many of us who grew up in the UK will have experienced the seaside family holiday, and a strong recollection from such trips will be the long car journey to reach the destination. I’m Westward Ho! sees Stuart recreate the holiday journey his family took in his childhood; from his home in Northamptonshire down to the Devon coastline. In particular, the arrival point for the work is the coastal village of Westward Ho!

The work appears as a homage to Stuart’s father. When his father passed away, Stuart found himself thinking back on the holidays they had together and wanted to research these memories further through his work, as a way to consider his relationship with his father. Stuart painstakingly re-enacts these memories, from sourcing the same make and style of car his father drove, following the same route and stop-off points, and printing old road tax discs; the addition of the teeth to the Volvo recreates the scene Stuart’s father had jokingly instigated to tease the boys that the family car was alive.

One could be mistaken in viewing this work as a nostalgia for the artist that we are merely witnessing, but there is a shared journey taking place in the work. This is an experience many of us have had, and the process of thinking back on these important moments in our histories is also a manner in which we can acknowledge the passing of time.

I’m Westward Ho! | Stuart Robinson | Blisworth, 2019 (The starting point of the journey)

The aim of any journey is to reach a place we have been wanting to arrive at: heading somewhere for something better; in this case, a holiday, and the destination of Westward Ho! is highly pertinent. The village’s name derives from a Victorian novel by the American writer Charles Kingsley; a novel that was themed around dreams of moving West for a better life. Interest in the novel at the time prompted a new tourist industry for the area and so the town appropriated the name. It is the only place in Britain with an exclamation mark in its name, which gives a sense that this town comes out of a film (... Oklahoma!) and that the destination presents a site of desire.

A pink neon arrow adorns the project vehicle and encapsulates this dream spirit, directing us all to a bright place, full of hope. Stuart often works with signage as a representation of ideals. He has made work that responds to American neon signage, the kinds of which are often seen to encapsulate the idea of the American West - the typical diner sign that we have grown up with in films. You don’t need to have visited the place to recognise the sign.

There is something playfully absurd in seeing the neon sign on its journey; I particularly like a photograph of the car parked in Avebury – the arrow pointing ahead, disregarding the ancient stone that looms to its side. The whole journey from Northamptonshire to Westward Ho! is documented as part of the project through film and photography. There is something eerily familiar in the photographs, of road-side picnic spots and the mist from an early morning start, and a sense that we have all been here before.

When Stuart reached Westward Ho! he parked the car by the sea front and filmed it for a while, observing reactions of passers-by from afar. Some stop to look, drawn in by the glowing sign and curious as to its message, whilst others seem to miss it entirely and walk by; the arrow being so at home amongst the arcades, ice cream vans, and bright skies.

I’m Westward Ho! | Stuart Robinson | Avebury | 2019

I’m Westward Ho! | Stuart Robinson | Westward Ho! Seafront | 2019

In writing this text, I have been thinking about where the artwork sits in this process. Is the artwork the car itself, the neon sign, or the research that Stuart went through in its recreation; is it the journey, the performance of the journey – for which the audience was circumstantial and unknown? It is hard to pinpoint, perhaps because it will depend on your experience of the work. If I had been on the side of the road that day, perhaps waiting patiently at a bus stop, and glimpsed Stuart’s performance – witnessed this car from the ‘80s dashing past with its flashing sign pointing me to an unknown ahead – I would certainly have smiled and the image would have stayed with me for the rest of the day; I would have pondered on it. As it is, I have experienced the work through its documentation, and the story of the performance.

I think it is the story of the process that is the greatest outcome of this work. You would have been lucky to see the project, but there is still joy to be taken from revisiting it through its documentation. It presents a tale that seems almost close to home, but has something magical about it that takes it beyond the present.

Perhaps like the films that we all watched as children, we witness the plight and adventures of our hero, following the path of the glowing arrow that points to another world, but it is the journey in the story that keeps us watching; the promise of a destination holds in it so much hope and potential that the end point is almost a sorrow.

 Stuart Robinson | John Mersey | Studio, 2020

RGB by Stuart Robinson | John Mersey | Studio, 2020

Stuart Robinson | John Mersey | Studio, 2020