Annie’s room

If you’ll excuse some trumpet-blowin for a moment, I have a piece in the current issue of Selvedge about the doll-art of Tabitha Moses. I find Tabitha’s work incredibly suggestive for many reasons, especially her thoughtful engagement with stitch as both process and mark. I urge anyone who’s interested to have a look at the catalogue from her superb exhibition at Bolton Museum, The Lost and the Found, in which Alexandra Wolcowicz’s photography goes some way toward capturing the powerful effect of objects like ‘Untitled’ (2006).

Anyway, in the course of researching the piece, I rediscovered Annie’s room. For those of you who do not know, Annie’s room is a talking point of the Edinburgh attraction Mary King’s Close, which has opened up the fascinating world of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century streets hidden beneath the Royal Mile. Many tourist attractions in Scotland seem to feature a wee Annie as a matter of course, but this particular Annie is particularly interesting. In 1992, just after the rediscovery of Edinburgh’s hidden city-beneath-the-city, Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, visited a tenement in Mary King’s Close and in one room reportedly felt the tugging hands of a girl abandoned there to die in a plague year. Gibo comforted the restless ghost with a tiny tartan doll, leaving her a curiously nationalist playmate.

(The doll originally left in Annie’s room by Aiko Gibo)

Since then, numerous visitors to what quickly became known as Annie’s room have done the same. While the original doll is now dusty and showing signs of age, she has been joined over the years by hundreds of new companions. There are Barbies and beanie-babies and several Raggedy-Anns. Stuffed animals jostle alongside plastic infants; painted wooden soldiers smile up at porcelain princesses.

(miscellaneous gifts in Annie’s Room)

As well as toys, visitors also leave money for Annie (which is charitably donated by Mary King’s Close, and which, in the last year alone raised a staggering ten-thousand pounds for the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital). So what are we to make of this shrine, this spontaneous memorial to the ghost of a girl no-one remembers? Are we moved or repelled by Annie’s room?

When, as a tourist myself several years ago, I first visited Annie’s room, I remember that I was most definitely repelled. The shrine seemed completely grotesque to me. Lying in that cold tenement for a decade or more, some of the toys had taken on the appearance of textile objects abandoned at a landfill site. They were ugly things, making an interesting space, an historic site, ugly too. And my immediate reaction to the story behind the shrine was to regard it as a laughable testimony to a ludicrous superstition. I have no truck with ghosts or saints, a world beyond or an after-life, and the impulse that would lead someone to leave a commemorative object for the ghost of a child who probably never existed seemed to me odd and incomprehensible. Why even bother?

But when I recently enountered Annie’s room again, I discovered that my reactions had completely changed. I’m certainly not saying I suddenly believed in Annie’s ghost, or even that I found anything remotely admirable or appealling in the strongly-held belief that a ghost innhabits that room. I still think that’s all superstitious nonsense. I also continued to find the shrine ugly, both as object and as space. But even though I do not really understand the motive for the placing of the objects, there seems to me now to be something particpatory, celebratory, even radical about Annie’s room. It is a spontaneous act of commemoration, a popular and populist and incredibly democratic act of making in which everyone might play a part. Annie’s room is perhaps folk art at its best, a thing in process, an object in a constant state of becoming, being made and re-made anew every time another visitor adds their contribution. The whole ghost business now seemed weirdly incidental. . .

(the shrine)

. . . and what’s interesting when one begins to look closely at the piled-up array of gifts in that dark tenement is their many different associations. Some have been left with evident care (a pricey bébé) others with apparent thoughtlessness (a screen wipe). So many of Annie’s toys seem just misplaced or random: plastic binoculars, a Westlife CD, an enormous grinning bear. Together, though, these things have transformed a space that is supposed to be terribly spooky and lent it a spectacular ordinariness. Annie’s room has a materiality in which there is a pathos that exceeds, or defies, the uncanny. Like the dolls of Tabitha Moses, the toys in Annie’s room are, in the end just part of the everyday world of things.

(thanks to Lisa Helsby of Mary King’s Close for the tour and the chat)