Thursday, 5 December 2013

‘My Head is an Animal’: Reality and Performance

Clare Nadal writes

From Shrines. Rebecca Cusworth, 2013. 

This Friday evening is the preview night for ‘My Head is an Animal’, my first curated exhibition project, featuring the work of established artists Linder and Margaret Harrison, alongside nine regional emerging artists. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the experience of curating this project and provide a little sneak preview of what can be expected on Friday.

The ideas behind the exhibition came from a diverse range of influences that have informed my academic and professional practices. These are at once highly personal to me yet also universal, addressing questions of humanity and our place within the world, which naturally reach out to the wider collective imagination. I am interested in our desire to shape a self and control and influence our identity and how this is influenced by society’s constant desire for youth, beauty and success.

A choice of title for the exhibition was obvious: the words ‘My Head is an Animal’(a direct quotation from the Finnish band Of Monsters and Men) kept haunting me, repeating themselves in my head. This fascination with dreaming ourselves as Other and animalistic was something that interested me; the wealth of cultural myths of half humans, fauns, centaurs, talking animals, beavers that have sewing machines, pigs that go to market. It felt appropriate for the exhibition title to be a song lyric, since popular music and culture was a key influence on the show. I like to think of song lyrics as ‘a 21st century poetical form’, akin to the poetic inspirations that have long informed artists across centuries of art history.

Two songs seemed particularly pertinent: Lana del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’ (commissioned for Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby), and Marina and the Diamonds’ Teen Idle’. I would like to take the opportunity here to display them in full as I feel is their due:

~Lana Del Ray ‘Young and Beautiful’

 I’ve seen the world, done it all,
 Had my cake now.
Diamonds brilliant
Unbelieved now.

At summer nights, mid July,
When you and I were forever wild.
The crazy days, the city lights,
The way you’d play with me like a child.

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothin’ but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will, I know that you will,
Will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?

I’ve seen the world, lit it up,
As my stage now.
Channelling angels
In a new age now.

At summer days, rock and roll,
The way you played for me, all assured
All the ways I got to know
Your  pretty face and electric soul.

Dear Lord when I get to heaven
Please let me bring my man.
When he comes tell me that you’ll let him
Father, tell me if you can.

All that grace, all that body,
All that face makes me wanna party
He’s my son, he makes me shine,
Like diamonds.

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothin’ but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will, I know that you will,
Will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?

 ~Marina and the Diamonds ‘Teen Idle’

I wanna be a bottle blonde
I don’t why but I feel conned
I wanna be an idle teen
I  wish I had an insult clean.

I wanna stay inside all day
I want the world to go away
I want blood, guts and chocolate cake
I wanna be a real fake.

Shopping, shopping  a teen teen  idle,
Shopping  a prom queen fighting for the title
‘Stead of bein’ sixteen and burning up a bible
Feeling super super suicidal

The wasted years, the wasted youth,
The pretty lies, the ugly truth
The day has where I have died,
Only to find I’ve come alive.

I wanna be a virgin pure,
A 21st century whore
I want back my virginity
So I can feel infinity.

I wanna drink until i ache
I wanna make a big mistake
I want blood, guts and angel cake
I’m going to puke it anyway

I wish I wasn’t such a narcisst
I wish I didn’t really kiss
The mirror when I’m on my own
Oh God I’m gonna die alone

And then a sense,
A little loss of innocence
The ugly years of being a fool,
The youth until you’re beautiful.

Both of these songs speak of the experience and state of living in the modern world - disillusion, dislocation and ennui. They also have a darker psychological level that speaks of paranoia, suicide and disassociation. It was for these thoughts, as well as her strident feminism and redefinition of self that I was attracted to the work of Linder. Born Linda Mulvey, she became ‘Linder Sterling’ and then just ‘Linder’, a fantastical being living in the mystical ‘Linderland’.

It was for Linder’s critique of gender values that I began to start considering the relationship of her work to that of another northern feminist artist – Margaret Harrison. As two different generation feminists with similar issues of concern, it seemed an exciting dialogue to open up, particularly as their work has rarely ever been shown together before.  With my own cross-historical practice, I was also interested in the way both artists engage with art history as a subject matter to then rewrite and redefine. Linder’s latest body of work has drawn upon her research into her “household god” Barbara Hepworth, which has informed her recent exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield and Tate St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth/ Hannah Bateman as The Young Girl.
The Ultimate Form Study 1
, 2013. Photgraph by Christina Birrer.

Recent exhibitions of Margaret’s work, including On Reflection at Payne Shurvell, London and her work for the 2013 Northern Art Prize have explored the role of the mirror as a composition device in Western European painting and depictions of the male gaze in canonical works such as Manet’s Olympia and Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. Margaret produces feminist reimaginings of these works that subvert the male gaze and question the patriarchal power hierarchy implicit within them.

After securing the support and involvement of Margaret and Linder, I composed an open call to send out to recruit other artists for the exhibition. After receiving over 40 proposals I selected nine artists to work with: Mette Sterre, Holly Slingsby, Samantha Donnelly, Sarah Eyre, Jamie Crewe, Rebecca Cusworth, Elizabeth Hudson, Lorna Barrowclough and Anna Turner. Mette works with costume to create fantastical performances; Holly is a performance artist interested in deconstructing and critiquing religious and classical iconography. Samantha works in mixed media and sculpture, creating pieces drawing on consumer culture and media; Sarah explores cultural definitions of feminity and the uncanny in everyday objects. Jamie uses print and sculpture to examine representations of homoerotic desire throughout history; Rebecca uses sculpture, photography and reinactment to explore female Otherness. Elizabeth explores the cultural significance of ruins and relics; Lorna creates sculptural works that reflect upon the nature of transformation and anthropomorphism; and Anna Turner has a materials based sculptural practice that explores the human qualities of inanimate objects.

It was a fantastic experience bringing the show together – it grew, expanded, mutated and shape shifted. It still is in the process of evolving and will very much likely continue to do so for the duration of its display and in its afterlife also. Many alternatives were explored before the final curated project came into being; processes of dialogue and engagement with artists occurred as works were chosen and alternative narratives were discussed. Works like Lorna Barrowclough’s ‘A bed, a knot, a charm - fanciful coquilles’ (a series of intricate oyster shells that interact with found objects and their gallery location) will move throughout the show to form new formations; whilst Elizabeth Hudson’s 'Can't Wait Till All The World Is Like This' are living plant sculptural pieces that may grow or wither away during the course of the show. In the final week of January the show will be recurated and reconfigured as a reminder of its temporal nature (and that of exhibitions more generally), thus performing itself a new identity also.   

'My Head is an Animal' opens on Saturday 7th December and runs until 2nd February. The opening night is Friday 6th December 6-9pm and there will be a closing event on 31st January 7-9pm.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Sigbjørn Bratlie: Igloos in Thornton

Sigbjørn Bratlie: Igloos in Thornton

Clare Nadal writes
Meltdown by Sigbjørn Bratlie
Back in June we announced the exciting news that for the first time ever our summer residency would feature an international artist, Oslo born Sigbjørn Bratlie. I took some time to speak to Sigbjørn find out a bit more about him, his artistic practice and his hopes for this summer project.

When South Square was constructed in 1852 it was originally designed as twelve adjoining cottages to house the local stonemasons as they worked on the now famous Thornton viaduct. The annual South Square summer residency celebrates this heritage by once again becoming a home, and offering the gallery as a live in space for an artist in residence. In 2011, Alfie Strong became the first artist to spend the month of August living and working within the gallery, choosing to live in a tent within the space, whilst creating artwork in response to the gallery’s past and our connection to it.
Alfie Strong in residence at South Square Gallery
Taking this context for his starting point, Sigbjørn will spend his residency period constructing a house-like structure, considering what it is to layer a house within a house. However, in his typical humorously whimsical and mischievous way, Sigbjørn doesn’t want it to be a recognisable English house that he builds, but a realistic white wooden igloo. Having worked for his uncle’s interior decorating and carpentry business for over eleven years, he has the technical skills to realise this aim. The project forms a perfect opportunity to incorporate these practical skills into his art practice. 

He says to me, I wanted the structure to be a slightly absurd one; I like the idea of building an impossible house, to invent a type of traditional living that doesn't exist, and maybe doesn't even make sense. The wooden igloo project is kind of crazy, which I like about it.
“I want to present it as ancient lore, the age-old tradition of Norwegian wooden igloo-building; that I am the representative of some tradition-bearing institution. Obviously I know I am fooling no-one: everyone in Britain knows that there are no igloos in Norway. But I intend to play my role with conviction!”

In this way, Sigbjørn’s project will have a performative element as he creates an extensive fictitious setting within the gallery space, surrounding his wooden igloo.  This is a technique he has used in previous projects, specifically his 2007 installation Vanlagnad ('sad destiny') at Galleri 69 in Oslo, which saw the gallery transformed into the home and workspace of a fictitious Norwegian poet. 

This show was an attempt at creating the antithesis to contemporary popular culture: the home of a traditional eccentric Romanticist poet, living by himself, removed from civilisation, churning out lyrical observations on nature, animals and the imagination.
Vanlagnad Galleri 69, Oslo (2007)

Vanlagnad Galleri 69, Oslo (2007)

All Apologies UKS, Oslo (2008)
To make the fictitious setting complete, Sigbjørn even took the time to write the poet’s complete works, which featured around 400 short poems, written in an archaic and partly incomprehensible Norwegian dialect. Surprisingly enough however, during the entire exhibition, the poet himself remained “mysteriously absent”. Visitors were able to occupy his living space, sit on his chairs and bed, put their cigarettes out on his floor, and read the paper sheets of poetry which lay scattered all over the place.

A follow up event at The White Tube, Oslo in 2008, in collaboration with Arne Langleite, featured a fictitious book launch of a fictitious collection of Romanticist poetry, published by a fictitious Norwegian publishing house.

Båt på land The White Tube, Oslo (2008)

Sigbjørn's South Square residency is titled My Wooden Igloo, a purposely simple, childlike title that reflects the humour always embedded in his art. Drawing on 'luftstott', the Norwegian word for 'pipe dream', this references Sigbjørn's notion of 'the artist as anti-hero', a concept key to his creative practice. This 'anti-hero' figure is one who desperately tries to create ground-breaking profound work, yet most often fails miserably, inspiring an absurdist humour.

As Sigbjørn points out to me, constructing an intricate structure like an igloo is not easy, "it may be that the igloo ends up being just a tad wonky and askew, but I think that adds to the charm of the project." Likewise, a dramatic irony exists in the knowledge the viewer possesses that this age-old tradition of Norwegian wooden igloo-building is in fact hollow and non-existent.

Sigbjørn's projects, whether installation, painting or performance, are always a humorous comment on contemporary culture, art history and theatricality, and often tend to influence one another. His most recent residency in Latvia, has involved him spending a month working with a local theatre company to learn the famous 'To be or not to be' monologue from Hamlet - in Latvian - and create a video piece from this. Like The Wooden Igloo, the finished video work will be an ode to creative and literary genius, undercut by the knowledge that Sigbjørn (and many other non-Latvian speaking viewers)
will be entirely unable to understand the true meaning of the piece, in many ways making it quite meaningless.

The Wooden Igloo is open from 3rd August until 22nd September. A closing event will be held on 20th September, open to all. I shall be blogging during the two-month residency period so look out for further updates from me on what is happening in the gallery.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

South Square Gallery Curatorial Traineeship: June Update

South Square Gallery Curatorial Traineeship: June Update

Clare Nadal writes

Summer finally being with us (well a summer of sorts), the leaves beautiful and lush on the trees outside the office window of South Square, I feel it is high time to provide my blog readers with an update on the progress of my Curatorial Traineeship.

Curatorial Development

After the excitement of painting the gallery walls a beautiful muted blue and meticulously arranging beautiful pastel ceramics for David McLeavy’s show home/flat Villa, I had only a short space to breathe before I began my first placement at The Hepworth Wakefield.

Feeling a conflicting mixture of nervous expectation and excitement, I began my first two week placement. I joined the Collections and Exhibitions team for the de-install of the hugely successful Alice Channer, Linder and Jessica Jackson Hutchins exhibitions and the install of the current Haroon Mirza and William Scott shows.

During the de-install, I was involved with filling in the condition reports for the Alice Channer sculptures on loan to the Hepworth before they journeyed to their next location, checking the sculptures for any changes and damages. Then as the Scott loans arrived I donned my white curators’ gloves and assisted the couriers and conservators, documenting the packaging and checking the condition of the works. This was a real eye-opening experience for me to learn just how much care and detail is involved in conservation.
Later in the second week, alongside Holly Grange, the Collections and Exhibition Assistant, I began work on a small archive display for the Scott exhibition. Having never worked with archives before, this was hugely exciting for me, in particular being able to handle and transcribe original correspondence between William Scott and Barbara Hepworth. In addition to assisting with the selection and arrangement of objects and artefacts for the display, I also created a timeline of Scott’s life, allowing me to develop my research skills and increase my knowledge of Scott and his artistic practice. I also assisted with editing the labels for the Scott works and was able to learn the conventions of long and short labels that The Hepworth use.

Summer Projects

Back at South Square we are currently working on an exciting partnership with the Bronte Parsonage Museum to commission a new outdoor artwork in the Parsonage Meadow with a sister exhibition at South Square. The new works created will celebrate the local heritage of the area, the relationship between the Thornton and Haworth villages, and the Bronte sisters’ connections to these places. For this project I have been a member of the selection and interview panels, providing me with the exciting opportunity to interview artists and hear them speak about their work, practice and ideas. Both the outdoor artwork and the South Square exhibition will be on display at the time of Le Tour Yorkshire cultural festival, held when the Tour de France comes through Yorkshire in Summer 2014.

Summer 2013 looks set to be an exciting time for me as I spend some more time at The Hepworth, this time in Collections, assisting with the auditing of the collection the gallery is carrying out over the summer period. Last week I began work on this project, receiving training in using MODES, the Museums and Collections Database, as well as art handling and cataloguing. I will also be hopefully assisting artist Des Hughes with some archive research he is carrying out into Henry Moore’s links with Castleford.

I shall also find myself busy with my own research for my trainee exhibition in December as I start to shape and plan my show. Catch up with me in the autumn when I will provide an update on how everything is going and give a taster of what to espect from my exhibtion!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Sally Barker: ‘Sticks and Stones’

Clare Nadal writes

Stack by Sally Barker
On a suitably grey and misty morning in March, Artistic Programme Manager David and I drove over the moors to Hebden Bridge to pay a studio visit to South Square Gallery’s next exhibiting artist, Sally Barker, praying that our failure to remember the trusted sat nav wouldn’t cause too much disaster.

I would like to take a moment to describe my experience of the journey, since I feel this is central to understanding Sally’s work…. ‘I find myself am amazed how quickly the green fields and hedgerows of Thornton are left behind and instead we find ourselves high up on eerie, mysterious moorland. It is a different world up here; we haven’t seen snow for weeks down in the valley but up here blocks of snow stubbornly remain, like some otherworldly relic. Then without warning, we suddenly find ourselves dropping sharply down into the steep narrow valley and suddenly we are back in civilisation, fallen down the rabbit hole into the centre of Hebden Bridge. Sally’s home lies up another hidden fork in the valley, again taking us away from civilisation. As we drive up the narrow road I am aware always of trees, dampness and rock, covered in moss and lichens.’

This constantly shifting world is the world Sally self-consciously engages with in her artwork, exploring the interplay of the built and natural environment and our relationship to the landscape around us. As she tells us, she regards her role as an artist “somewhere in between that of a scientist, farmer and gardener.”

As part of exploring human intervention in the natural landscape, Sally is interested in both how we cut into the environment and how we build onto it, physically pinning it down. Consequently much of her photographic work explores images of ruins on the nearby moors, in particular Top Withens, the famous ruin which is popularly thought to have inspired Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Contemporary Handmade Ruin at the Hushings by Sally Barker
Reservoirs also feature highly in both her photographic and sculptural work. Sally tells us that she is intrigued by the ability of both of these features to breach the divide between manmade and natural landscape feature. Reservoirs become assimilated into the landscape around them, eventually becoming a feature of beauty in their own right (such as the popular Ladybower, Derwent and Howden reservoirs in the Peak District), whilst ruins tend to become endowed with something of the sacred reverence of a holy relic.
The Ice and the Hole by Sally Barker
With such features as these present in her sculptural work, ideas of history, time and fragility are all evoked. Attached to the rough pieces of natural rock that Sally scavenges for in her local quarry are Greek-like columns made from ice and resin. Human presence is implied from the cast body parts she places in her sculptures. These body parts, in particular the delicate nipple flowers and cast heart, bring a sense of intimacy to these works; this is personal artistic expression that the viewer is privileged access to.     

Artmaking is a highly personal process for Sally, both informing and being informed by the course of her daily life. Her house is both home and studio space simultaneously. In her dining room-come-workshop space, dvds share home with sculptures, vases and architectural scaffolding structures sit side by side, and the piano and photographic prints battle for centre of attention. The artist’s studio is not some mysterious distanced and hidden entity, shut off in both physical and metaphorical zones of creative expression, but something integrated into everyday life.

As part of this, Sally continually scavenges for local organic raw and found materials for her sculptural work, often from her very garden. She is always keen to experiment, the process of making being integral to her work. Recently she has been using YouTube to learn how to knit with sheep’s wool and stitch pieces of stone together with steel wire.

Architectural elements are also important to Sally and have featured in much of her previous work and conceptual thinking. Having built The Sally Barker Gallery (2000), a small cardboard and polystyrene model which houses miniature versions of all of her artworks, made on a scale of 1:100, she now has widened her horizons to “world domination”. The Sally Barker Empire is to be the realisation of this aim, a project aimed at encouraging self-promotion and empowerment through architectural hijacking, annexing and the imposition of her sculpture, in model form.

The Empire so far consists of a mix of models, drawings, photographs and postcards: visions of galleries, studios and structures designed and built in Sally’s name to promote her work. Some of these are hi-jacked famous art institutions, subsumed into The Sally Barker Empire, such as Hi-Jack Tate Modern.
Hi-jack Tate Modern by Sally Barker
Sally describes this work as ‘sculpitechture, quite literally models which fuse architecture and sculpture. She is clear to emphasise that whilst this playful connection to architecture exists, her models inescapably remain sculptures ultimately. As she tells me, “I have no desire to ever have them built; they exist as tiny monuments to artistic vision. The intention is to offer total creative license, both with the models and with the ideas they potentially house.”

This exhibition will feature several of her ‘invisible building’ sculpitectures, architectural plan-like structures, made in three dimension out of natural grasses. Housed within are model scale figures, providing an almost utopian vision of a potential future in society and architecture.

Sally is keen for her exhibition to engage with its locality. To this end, she is creating a new body of work that critically engages with South Square Gallery’s stone heritage and history as a series of stonemasons’ cottages. Central to this will be a new photographic work of the famous Thornton Viaduct. For Sally, the viaduct exemplifies many of her conceptual ideas about landscape; rather than seeing it as simply a testimony to historic architecture, she sees it as humans stitching the two sides of the valley together with stone, a bid to negotiate and mark the landscape.

Following on from Villa by David McLeavy, which is currently showing in the gallery, Sally Barker’s exhibition continues South Square Gallery’s summer season of exploring contemporary art responding to space, landscape and habitation. During August and September, the gallery space will once again be offered as a live in studio for an artist to research and produce new work whilst engaging with the gallery visitors.

Sally Barker’s South Square Gallery exhibition opens on Friday 7 June and will run until 28 July 2013