Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, The Year Without a Summer (installation view), 2008

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, The Year Without a Summer (installation view), 2008

Like comparable spaces in museums everywhere, Room 18 in London’s National Portrait Gallery is trapped in a suspension of time and history. The images of the great and good – artists, writers, chemists (the room is titled ‘Art, Invention and Thought: The Romantics’) – never change, never reinvent themselves. The building itself, its architectural coding, and the décor remain similarly caught in their own time. 

There’s a peculiar intersection between past and present: at least two historical lineages come into alignment and temporarily run in parallel. There’s a subjective tableau of Nineteenth Century cultural history; and there’s a new, ever developing narrative in the form of the museum’s visitors. As this encounter takes place, it’s flanked by two images that, in their narrative roots, offer a more specific engagement and displacement. This was the starting point for Teresa Hubbard (B. 1965, Dublin) and Alexander Birchler (b. 1962, Badam)’s video installation for MADE UP, entitled The Year Without a Summer (2008).

At one end of the room hung a portrait of Mary Shelley wearing a black shoulder-less evening dress; at the other, a portrait of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, finished while she was pregnant with her daughter. It’s likely that Wollstonecraft died as a result of the pregnancy, surviving for just six weeks after giving birth. Looking at the paintings, it was clear that the sitters were of similar age, and the two were so placed that their subjects looked at each other once more, and at themselves, the gaze reflected back within the glazing of each work.

These juxtapositions of frozen moments in history were the loose threads of potential narratives located, revealed, developed and then fractured in Hubbard and Birchler’s video. Their two-channel installation depicted two groups of female students from different schools visiting Room 18. Just as the room itself revealed alternative layers of history, the scenes of the video showed the groups visiting at different times and played out in parallel on the two screens. The first group of students gathered around Shelley’s portrait, sketching the image while one of them read aloud from the introduction to Frankenstein. The second, sat before the portrait of Shelley’s mother and sketched while listening to a passage from her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Fluid and documentary in style, Hubbard and Birchler's cinematography proposed these scenes as real, just as the portraits within the room did. The gap in time between the schools' visits, enforced through the space between the projection screens, echoed the present, the migration of narrative elements from one screen to the next - the seamless passing figure - just for a moment dissolved the temporal and spatial division. Watching the school children watching the portraits watching the room, we saw a continual slippage between narratives, mother and daughter, past and present, fiction and historical fact. 

Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler at Liverpool Biennial 2008

The Year Without a Summer
, 2008
High Definition Video with Sound, Duration: 18 min, loop
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2008
Exhibited at Tate Liverpool

Supported by

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Pro Helvetia
Swiss Arts Council
Swiss Cultural Fund in Britain
Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation