Words destined to wrap fish ’n’ chips, line budgie cages and fill the recycling bin have been given unintended longevity by a man with an eye for the ephemeral.
Andrew Guest’s exhibition, Signs of the Times, consists of ceramic plates inscribed with newspaper slogans and acronyms culled from a host of unlikely artistic sources.
You can browse among them at the Lit & Phil on Newcastle’s Westgate Road until the end of the month, smiling occasionally – as you doubtless will – while trying to guess what the likes of WMEH, PPPP and TDH might stand for.
As exhibitions go, it’s whimsical and mildly eccentric, using a 19th-century medium – a plate design dating from about 1890 – as a vehicle for recording the communication styles of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Andrew Guest now lives in Edinburgh, where he was born, but from 2002-9 he was director of Northern Architecture, based in Newcastle.
At the Lit & Phil, where he used to be a member, he recalls: “When I was in Newcastle, as I walked around the streets, I would see these news bills with their quirky but highly explicit language. I would jot them down on scraps of paper.
“Once I’d started making plates I decided I wanted to use them to celebrate the language of the streets.” He felt this was captured perfectly on the strident news bills, not exactly headlines but supposedly tantalising summaries of the big stories in that day’s Journal or Chronicle.
“I decided I wanted to enshrine these temporary, fleeting things in permanent form.”
So it is that a plate of a kind you might see in a museum or at auction is decorated with the legend “City Bongo Player Drummed Out Of Toon”.
Others are similarly permanently marked with the likes of “North-East Man Loses Ear In Attack Hell”, “City Bins Fines Plan Shock” and, on a sporting note, “Owen Boost For Toon”.
While the latter, reflecting the signing of Michael Owen by Newcastle United, can be pinpointed to a particular year – 2005 – perhaps only the bongo player remembers exactly when he was drummed out of Newcastle, and he may not be around to see the exhibition or read this article in print.
In the pamphlet printed to accompany the exhibition, Andrew explains that his fascination for “the strange nature of everyday language” began with the coded shorthand found in newspaper lonely hearts columns and property ads.
With classified advertisers charging per word, acronyms were devised to minimise costs. Thus the aforementioned TDH stands for “tall, dark and handsome”, while WMEH means “well-maintained entrance hall”.
Having worked in the public sector, Andrew was also drawn to the seemingly impenetrable language of civil servants and bureaucrats. PPPP is one of a long list of acronyms related to PFI. Put another way, “public private partnerships programme” is part of the language of the Private Finance Initiative, a project funding device first implemented in the UK in 1992.
Andrew’s plates also reflect the dispassionate language of modern warfare – EKIA for “enemy killed in action” and GSW for “gunshot wound” – and, more appropriately, food, where you’ll find a real deluge of important-sounding capital letters.
“I started doing ceramics when I worked on Tyneside and used the fantastic studio in Bensham which Christine Constant (the potter) set up,” says Andrew.
“I did an evening class there and when I went to Edinburgh and went freelance I tried to do a day a week using ceramics.”
In that pamphlet he writes: “I learned to love clay and all the stages it goes through, from slippery to brick hard; but I also loved casting things in plaster. I can still remember the first time I witnessed that magic moment when plaster turns from slurpy liquid to solid block.”
He turned his attention to plates because his wife had collected them for years. “Quite a lot of this hangs on the walls of our house like pictures, so maybe I was using these familiar ceramic forms as a starting point,” he writes, adding that there is a tradition of plates bearing text.
Andrew says this is his first exhibition. It does raise questions, albeit gently. Plates are safe, domestic items used by everybody but much of what they tell us in this context is shadowy and obscure.
He muses: “I think some of it is celebrating language but some of it relates to the way certain groups of people use private language to exclude outsiders.”
As for those news bills, they deploy a shorthand of their own. Will it survive the transition from newspaper to website? Maybe not – but it will be around for a while, courtesy of Andrew’s plates.