Writing / Essays

Ghosts and Sculpture
Catalogue text for 'Phantom Sculpture' exhibition at Mead Gallery, 2023 - 24. Published by University of Warwick, 2024

We are all haunted by the ghosts of our past, by the hoped-for things that never transpired, by the future that never arrived, by things we said that should have remained unsaid; things we didn’t say; friends, family, dreams and moments we have lost. If we are lucky, we are also visited by more generous, generative ghosts who ply us with enthusiasm and establish a hot-line to the past, creating possibilities for invention and hopeful futures. These ghosts, they shift around us as we move through the world. Sometimes we bump up against them and are startled by their insistence, their clarity, but mostly they are silent, acquiescent, living out their own lives in relative obscurity.

They teach us things, these ghosts. Perhaps it’s the same for artists as they navigate the histories of their discipline, sifting through the achievements, projects and failures of those who lived before them, accruing a pile of immaterial bodies and practices that move them, influence them, irritate them, shunt into their work in some way.

For Phantom Sculpture, works of art made over the past sixty years are presented alongside each other - the march of linear time, art historical movements, and accreted, developmental maps are compressed, tantalisingly live, as notes are passed from one generation to the next, whispers gathering across the gallery space. The artists all forge a connection to the British Isles, in that they were either born here, have spent time here, fled from here, or have lived their entire lives here. So, this is a story about the recent history of British sculpture, in all its parochial glory, bombast, dreaming and fragility.

The story contains many other stories, of course, but the dominance of the dominant story is notable for its insistence. The points at which the baton is handed over, dropped, smashed or cherished by artists of different generations, are clearly identifiable as we move, like an Art History undergraduate syllabus, through the decades. From 1950s abstraction, commitment to natural materials and a kind of post-war delirium (Hepworth), to the 1960s when the ‘New Generation’ banished the plinth in order to forge a more democratic relation to the viewer, and employed industrial and synthetic materials to make minimal, conceptual sculptures that resisted monumentality and embraced dematerialisation (Caro). By the 1980s, ‘New British Sculpture’ (always the new) fulfilled the role of recalcitrant child by rejecting their forebearers to produce elemental, sensual or metaphoric imagery, sometimes using traditional processes and materials (Turnbull). Working under the shadow of the Thatcher years, when the burgeoning free-market economy was establishing the tentacled, malign roots of neo-liberalism, these artists often used the debris of contemporary life to play with colour, humour, and variegated forms of physicality.
The 2000’s brought a less easily packaged range of approaches (the nearer we get to the present, the harder it is to identify the characteristics of an era – it takes time to paint out other voices). There’s the introduction of surrealist language, an exploration of the uncanny (Hatoum and Ekks), and an ongoing experimentation with materials and abstraction (Deacon). Bawdy, rule-breaking louchness was celebrated, and the ready-made was employed to celebrate irreverence and humour (Lucas). It was the dawn of a new millennium, we were drunk on the promise of a Labour government and the delusional idea that capitalist growth would deliver a slipstream of comfort for each successive generation. The Iraq War was the beginning of the end of the dream and by the 2010s we were reaching what Mark Fisher (via Franco Berardi) called ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ in which our ability to differentiate the past from the present was compromised by the impact of postmodernity. This ‘temporal bleed’ or ‘dyschromia’ created a strange simultaneity which, Fisher contends, made it hard to locate oneself in a creative present (there is no ‘now’).

And the 2020s? Where have we arrived? Well, every era seems to revel in the construction of its own cataclysmic end-time scenarios, but this decade is promising to deliver a quite spectacular range of possibilities including onanistic globalisation, muscular authoritarianism, aggressive exploitation of labour across and within countries, increasingly desperate refugee flows, social media-propelled right-wing nationalisms, the ongoing delusion of white supremacy, and the obscene, forever expanding chasm dividing the rich from the poor. As I write, the impact of Britain’s rapacious colonial past is rising to meet the present in the horrors that are unfolding in Palestine, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. And, the most cataclysmic cataclysm of them all, the unravelling climate catastrophe. It seems that Fisher underestimated the future of stunted or unrealised futures.

Throughout all of this, art is still made, things need to be said. The artists in Phantom Sculpture deliver a compelling array of disturbing, beautiful, poetic, angry responses to their place in the world. There is a glorious opening up of the range of voices that we are able to hear, reaching beyond the white, predominantly male makeup of recent art historical movements, to welcome the female, the Black, the disabled, the trans, the working class, the Other. Signalling a resounding refusal of old categories and assumptions around what can and can’t be said, there is a synthesis of figuration and abstraction, and a curiosity about the breakdown of binaries between the non-human and human, male and female, machine and organism.

The bombast of previous generations has gone. It has been replaced by fragility, ambiguity and tenderness (Freije, Ackroyd, Buckley, White, and Darling) along with an understanding of impermanence and our entanglement with nature and each other (Lai). There are shape-shifters and mystics in the fray (Baldock and Ekks), as well as unruly bodies that revel in sex and seduction (Ackroyd). Craft, the touch of the hand, the insistence of the power of making, is beautifully evident (Bax, Collings-James, Baldock, and Ryan), as is a scratching at the perversions of consumerism (Wermers). A refusal of Euro-centric modes of knowledge-building and history-making, and a move to create counter-histories, speculative models and forms of resistance are defiantly present (Collings-James, Buckley, Wahid, and White). And there’s an interest in words, language, different ways of making stories through experimental text and collaboration with writers (Bax, Darling, Buckley, Freije). All these approaches and projects, I think, make it easier for artists – and the artworks themselves – to socialise with, and learn from, ghosts. There is an openness, a vulnerability, a seepage into other worlds that conveys a tangible sense that there are many answers to the same question, and that multiple constellations are possible.

But this tidy, art historical narrative, that moves from the 1960s to the present day, obeys the diktats of linear time, and therefore appears to refuse temporal transgressions of ghostly travel across clearly delimited periods - and causal sequences. Maverick art historian Aby Warburg proposed, through his concept of Nachleben, that this disorienting mash-up of eras where images, in their anachronistic, enigmatic, metaphorical state, produce an afterlife that spans and moves through centuries and multiple art historical timeframes, leads to the ‘paradox where the oldest things may appear as less old ones’. Ghosts need to be able to move through time, to party with older, maybe no wiser ghosts, or ones who are new to the scene, just learning the ropes. It seems clear that dreams, lives, and artistic endeavours are not linear, they are fragmented, they fly across situations, centuries and generations. There is a crackle or glitch where time is out of joint, sounds gather and never die, and a cacophonous present is made manifest. I’m thinking that Phantom Sculpture provides a framework within which to witness this crackle, and I have fabricated a scene in my mind in which the holes in Jonathan Baldock’s and Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures move together in the darkness of the Mead Gallery at night, exchanging stories about material reality, spaces that are infused with hope, and the risks that come with being constrained within the assumed boundaries of one’s existence. Further back, in the darkest corner, the sadness that is present in the work of Dominique White, Kira Freije and William Turnbull find a place to rest within the ghostly ruins of humanity’s future.

It can’t seem too fanciful to propose that there are probably more ghosts coalescing around sculpture than any other artform. This may have something to do with the fact that sculpture dances close to the body (its history, after all, tracks the making of monuments and statues) and that ghosts, however immaterial they might be, take up three-dimensional space in our dreams. Unlike paintings or films which create two-dimensional worlds and hug walls and screens as flatness, sculptures are objects that exist in space - we must walk around them with our bodies in order to grasp their entirety, accreting time and varying viewpoints in our wake. This negotiation lends itself to the idea that sculpture has a ghostly aura, an invisible effect that appeals on a visceral, physico-temporal level. In more ways than one, sculpture casts shadows.

How important is it for artists to be visited by these shadows or ghosts of the past? A common mechanism for this type of haunting is the teacher-student relationship, as established in art schools and studios across centuries. (You don’t have to be dead to haunt the next generation). It is important that we have some sense of a story of art, to be able to contribute to, or create a fissure, in its arc. In the group of artists presented here, the ghost of Anthony Caro looms large. His role at the forefront of the ‘New Generation’ working in the 1960s, and as an influential tutor at Central Saint Martins (dubbed the ‘School of Caro’), has earned him a prominent place in the history of 20th century sculpture. (He also taught Kim Lim and, in his later years, Olivia Bax worked as one of his many assistants.) The late, great Phyllida Barlow began her haunting long before she died last year, working for much of her career in isolation, largely unknown and uncelebrated, teaching future generations of artists at The Slade for forty years. She is the link between many UK-based practitioners, including those who have not yet been born.

Half way through the run of Phantom Sculpture, seven artworks were removed and others installed in their place. Apart from being a useful reminder that there are multiple stories of art, this is also an acknowledgement that ghosts are always on the move, shuffling around in the past, present and future, creating schisms, relationships, and provocations across time, space and generations.

Phantom Sculpture
Mead Gallery catalogue text
Jan 2024

Essay for Emscherkunstweg publication. Published by Hatje Cantz, 2023

When the curators of the Emscherkunstweg art commissioning programme began discussions with artist Nicole Wermers about making a new work of art for this post-industrial landscape, conversations about potential damage went on for months, if not years. Will the work invite vandalism? Will that vandalism be more or less likely if we install the work here or there? How can we mitigate against this? What type of materials should we use? The list of questions was endless and easily transferable to any number of other public art commissioning contexts. This road of enquiry inevitably leads to a point where we must address whether what we are making is art or just really well constructed, embattled objects in space.

None of these discussions foresaw the fact that when Emscher Folly by Wermers was finally installed in 2022, it was the birds that wreaked havoc on the work, not the kids. Our feathered friends took apparent joy in pecking the bicycle seats, on the hunt for chunks of foam to construct their nests, defying expectations about who, or what, gets to destroy art. Their interaction necessitated the swift replacement of parts of the sculpture with more durable, less bird-enticing options.

What I’d like to discuss here, in this text, is the important role that destruction plays in art commissioning programmes, and how the vulnerability of a work of art is, in my view, intrinsic to its success. The ability of a work to forge a visceral relationship to its public (by which I mean human and non-human) is what gives it its traction. An artwork installed in the public realm is never a static entity - it is a hot-wire to the ever-changing political, social, and environmental contexts in which it is located, and acts as a catalyst for all sorts of engagement and activity, sometimes disturbing or hurtful, at other times joyful or tender.

A charged example of this ever-shifting, often productive terrain is Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed which was made in the grounds of Kent State University in January 1970. The artist dumped twenty truckloads of soil onto the central beam of an empty shed until the structure began to crack. His aim was for the shed to ‘go back to the land’ and begin a process of ‘slow destruction’. The conceptual thrust of the work radically changed when members of the National Guard shot at, and killed, four unarmed students protesting at the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War. This shocking, deeply traumatic event was commemorated on Partially Buried Woodshed with the words ‘MAY 4 KENT 70’ painted on the central beam, presumably by a student - forever linking the work of art and the ‘breaking point’ of the shed to the cultural shift that many consider the Kent State shootings to represent in American history. Much to the irritation of the university authorities, the work has assumed a different relation to its audience, shifting from a conversation around entropy to one that critiques the prevalence of American imperialism, and proselytises the importance of protest and civil defiance.

For public artworks that are destroyed by violent and disturbing aggressors, there may too, be scope for things reborn. When the queer bodies of Nicole Eisenman’s temporary public fountain in Münster were defaced with a Swastika and other offensive imagery in September 2017, the day before Germany elected a far right party to the Bundestag for the first time since World War II, the outrage and upset was palpable. The commissioner (Skulptur Projekte Münster) and the artist were thrown into a press frenzy that stirred up scepticism around contemporary art and its ability to forge a meaningful relation to its public. A group of local women worked with Eisenman to devise an ambitious plan to make a new -permanent - iteration of the work. This grass-roots activity has resulted in the creation of an on-going dialogue with the people of Münster about their city, the role of art in society, and the importance of constructing inclusive spaces for all citizens. In this case, as in many others, destruction became a kind of gathering action in which a space is opened up for the creation of a work that forges a more expansive, powerful relation to the world.

Artworks that have remained untouched for years can become lightning rods for the expression of public emotion at a particular moment in history. The rationale of a work may be unpalatable in a different era (as we have witnessed with the recent wide-spread dismantling of racist, colonial, and patriarchal monuments installed in cities across the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries), or societal conditions can create a situation in which a work is just used in a different way. Tadashi Kawamata’s Walkway and Tower (2010) remained on site in Emscher largely untouched until the Covid pandemic hit in 2020 and the desire to meet friends, flee the house, and forge relationships became urgent, particularly amongst the young. This twelve-metre high wooden observation point with accompanying walkway was explicitly designed by the artist to reflect the passing of time and trace marks of human interaction, which it had done movingly for ten years. However, during lockdown, the sculpture became a hangout for young people to meet illicitly, and inevitably, evidence of their presence was left in the form of discarded bottles, litter, and tagging. Things came to head when a fire broke out, presumably the result of an ill-fated BBQ, and the was temporarily closed. Exasperating, no doubt, for other visitors, as well as the sculpture park commissioners and the maintenance team, but this is artwork as public service – a vital, live, usable entity that reflects and provides for any given moment in time.

This commitment to the acceptance of the fallout of destruction is, of course, problematic in all sorts of ways and is vehemently contested within the visual art infrastructure. Destruction, after all, is the ‘antithesis of the process of making’ - it works against our understanding of what it means to create. More prosaically, but no less powerfully, it is also a threat to the machinery of the market which dictates that the value of an artwork is dependent on its status as a static, unchanging, sellable thing.

Beyond these powerful obstacles, there is the emotional impact of destruction. Many artists and commissioners describe a deep sense of failure and shame at seeing their work interacted with in such a way, on a public stage. The scepticism aimed at contemporary art by hard-core traditionalists, often stirred up by the media, serves to fuel this anxiety. ‘The emperor has no clothes’ they seem to say – ‘see how the artists in their ivory towers are unable to communicate with the masses!’ It is only in laying bare this complex set of emotions and broader societal issues that we can begin to carve out a space where taking risks and allowing for the unknown becomes an intrinsic part of all commissioning process.

The Emscher region has a gnarled and problematic history that is born of extraction, pollution, and destruction. This is reflected in the rough-and-ready post-industrial aesthetic of the landscape, one which refutes a bucolic idea of the past and grapples with the responsibilities of the future. I like the idea that this commitment to veracity and fearlessness continues to be expressed in the artworks that are installed in the landscape - artworks which recognise that risk, vulnerability, and potential failure are an intrinsic part of what we call art.

if i walk behind you
Text for Natasha MacVoy's exhibition 'U & I' at Eastside Projects. Published by Eastside Projects, 2023

if I walk behind you and try to imagine what it feels like to move like you, listen and think like you, can I become closer to you, protect you, pave the way for you?

if I do this again and again, can I become invisible?

if I invert my assumptions, we can perhaps question who is guiding who here?

if I sit cross-legged on the ground, I am able to pay more attention and focus on what matters. I feel a sense of defiance - the same, I imagine, as that of students and small children who use all that is available to them, the physical reality of their bodies, to make a claim, decry a situation, state a desire. If I sit here long enough, will they hear my plea for more care and consideration to be given to those who see and experience the world differently? To enable you to live your lives without constant recourse to private, protected, cut off worlds.

if I think about my estranged father, I think about the Death Club I set up after he died. He gave me a copy of his CV as a summary of his life. Along the top, he had written 'Born 1941. Married with three adult children. Clean driving licence.' A year later, two friends died who had collaborated on a tattoo on my arm. They never met, but I spoke at length about death and life with both of them, and for this club I wanted to create a space in which things could be said that often remain unsaid. Long before he was diagnosed with prostate and lung cancer, my father started a 5.31 club which involved meeting in a pub immediately after work each day. It’s likely that members of my club and his club would have had a lot to talk about.

if I read this text aloud, does the meaning shift? If the voice inside my head is projected out into the world, does it assume an audience, an exterior life, that enables it to reach beyond an internal dialogue towards something that is more ‘real’? Or should I recognise that there is already an ‘other’ in my head when I use language – that this is the way I locate myself in the world, using this second person voice? Siri Hustvedt puts it well: In language we represent the passage of time as we sense it - the was, the is, the will be. We abstract and think and we tell. We order our memories and link them together, and those disparate fragments gain an owner: the "I" of autobiography, who is no one without a "you." For whom do we narrate, after all? Even when alone in our heads, there is a presumed other, the second person of our speech. This constant questioning about where and how to locate myself, how can I harness it in order to move me close to you?

if I google ‘stunt man’ I summon Yakima Canutt, an American rodeo rider, cowboy, and stand-in for many Hollywood actors. He died in 1986 at the age of ninety-one. A long life for someone so willing to fling themselves into someone else’s oblivion. He developed a complex array of techniques to protect himself and other stunt men from injury, while perfecting the art of making artificially constructed violence, catastrophe and death look real. The artist and writer Mary Walling Blackburn has suggested that viewers, in watching these films ‘indulge in the sorrows of others in order to defer the trauma of their own grief.’ There is something comforting about the fact that someone (in this case Canutt), is willing to pave the way, one step removed, to the insistence of our denial.

if I lie down on the grass and look up at the sky, I fabricate a hazy daydream that the clouds are ethereal bodies, full of life and emotions. I invite each one to swell with anger or dance with joy, before moving on, with no sense of impingement, self-consciousness or constraint.

if I bring all these ideas together here, in the kitchen with you watching TV, is it still art? Where do I, you, the art, begin and end?

if I invite this wig-maker to be part of my project, do my intentions become clearer? She is constructing an identity for those who wish – or need – to look different. Through this complex, intricate, time-consuming task, she is creating the conditions for doubling, masking, and rehearsing. These are tactics I constantly employ, as I move through the logistics, challenges, and richness of caring for you each day.

if I tell you a story about where I bought a wig that matches the back of my head, will you think it strange? I found a Bristol-based hair and make-up specialist online. Her workshop was in a garage next to her house on the edge of town. She answered the door wearing a heavy, purple tweed suit. It was a particularly hot day. We moved past a section of prosthetic limbs to reach the shelves of wigs that were displayed on white, mute polystyrene heads. The wig-maker’s deceased husband created the fake injuries for Casualty, and she worked on hair and make-up for crime reconstructions. We talked about one reconstruction she did that I remembered from the early 2000s, based on a woman - Melanie Hall - who had gone missing outside Cadillacs nightclub in Bath. She explained that it is usually policewomen who act as female victims in reconstructions, because they are well acquainted with the case - trauma and vulnerability are rarely recognised as dangerous side-effects of the job.

if I am confused about where I end and you begin, I guess that is to be expected.

if I try to comprehend, or even think about, the relationship between my brain and my mind, I am dumbfounded. I want to outsource the work to another brain, to ensure a non-partisan approach, one that recognises that my involvement would sully the observations. I want to come closer to an understanding of ‘the self’, in order to move towards a place where I can begin to see how my self interacts with your self.

if I walk with Susan Lynch, who is you and also someone else, the conversation naturally leads to Happy Valley, a phenomenal piece of TV writing, acting, and directing that she was part of. Women living through trauma, holding things together, watching things fall apart, creating the conditions for others to hold things together. Everyone forever failing, holding and falling.

if I question whether it is possible to imagine life in another body, I am reminded of Leslie Jamison’s essay The Empathy Exams. She takes a job as a medical actor who must feign symptoms whilst drawing on a backstory that provides motivation for her character (‘Appendicitis Angela has a dead guitarist uncle whose tour bus was hit by a tornado’). Through these constructed narratives and fragile, speculative catastrophes, trainee doctors try to guess her maladies and learn the art of simulated empathy. Jamison’s conclusion is that empathy is hard work, ‘made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse’. I am aware that, as Jamison points out, ‘empathy is ..perched precariously between gift and invasion’, but my attempts to think through your body, your mind, your approach to the world – are they working??

if I think about stunts, I inevitably think about performances with unplanned endings. They aren’t the same thing, but you can see how they might get confused. Bas Jan Ader knew that when he went out to sea and never came back, he was embarking on a performance with an unplanned ending. Maybe he had no idea what would become of him, but his search for the miraculous fits the narrative that he was, in some way, searching for death.

if I change the fabric of my world to create a world for you, will you fall back on it, use it, feel safe in it? Will you find a way of constructing your own some day?

Tenderness and how to get there
Exhibition text for 'Making Together', Royal Society of Sculptors in partnership with ActionSpace and and Venture Arts. Published by RSS, 2023

Cecil Thomas (1885 - 1976) used his skills as an artist to make models that helped the British army anticipate enemy attacks during World War I. He was injured in the process and recuperated in a French hospital. With shrapnel lodged in his diaphragm, and the gruelling associated trauma of life in the trenches establishing roots in his brain, he returned to London in 1918, homeless and in search of a studio in which to make his sculpture. He came across a handsome deserted building in South Kensington, broke into the basement using a table knife, and discovered a series of beautiful, spacious rooms. Many months later, after an interminable series of rebuffs, dead-ends, and financial challenges, he acquired a lease to the house and moved in. That was 1920. Fast forward a hundred years, and that building is now Dora House, home to the Royal Society of Sculptors, where the exhibition Making Together is being staged.

It is serendipitous, but also deeply moving, that two of the four exhibiting artists of Making Together have created sculptures, paintings and installations that summon the ghost of Cecil Thomas through their exploration of the subjects of homelessness, social justice and trauma. Drawing on their lived experience and family narratives, Thompson Hall and Simone Kennedy have made a coruscating, live body of work that brings us nearer to an understanding of the varying, often disturbing, ways that the world impacts on how we think and feel about ourselves, how anxiety and conflict flourish under certain conditions, and how art can lead us to a place of transcendence and possibility.

Together, Hall and Kennedy have constructed a tent, the fabric of which has been painted with isolated, running figures, bulbous, pulsating larvae, threatening bullseye targets and scuttling, arachnid forms. It is a menacing, unsettling sight that expresses both artists’ feelings of alienation and exclusion from society. Using colour as a mechanism to draw the viewer in, the experience of looking becomes increasingly more contemplative, with darker overtones weaving their way through to our consciousness. Experimenting with soft sculpture, found objects, and beguiling honesty, the brain is employed as a metaphor for childhood development, personality construction, different ways of thinking and processing, and the mystery of the unknown. Suits mourn absent fathers and continue the conversation about who we are and where we come from (Kennedy’s father was a tailor who loved plaid and Hall’s grandfather came to England from Ghana in the 1950s where he was compelled to exchange his colourful smock for a drab, grey suit).

Symbolism is the thread that draws these two practices together - both artists looking to find ways to express their ideas through a visual language that is seductive and strange. Kennedy’s use of the fly as a metaphor for her sense of self and her relation to her mother alludes to societal ambivalence about both flies and mothers – they are often un-loved or dismissed, but they are also resourceful, hugely complex, and incredibly useful (I am delighted to learn that flies are the unsung cleaners of the world, pollinate plants at least as well as honey bees, and can be used, in their larvae form, to heal infected wounds). Hall’s gestural free-standing drawings of shadowy figures speak of isolation, lost father-figures, and the fraught nature of masculinity in 21st century life. His brain sculptures allude to the psychological impact of burying hardship, and the damaging impact of trauma on one’s life. The symbolism is often stark, but it is presented with a sense of care and tenderness.

When I look through, read around and consider the second artist pairing of Leslie Thompson and Eleni Maragaki, I am cast adrift – I find it hard to see how these two very different artists could build a productive working relationship, their practices diverge so wildly. Thompson, with his fluid, generative, often multi-coloured drawings, all made from memory with no preconceived plan, and Maragaki with her kinetic sculptures, 3d drawings, books and puzzles which present precisely constructed worlds made up of order, geometry and monocolour. Thompson depicts family members, super heroes, animals and favourite pop stars, whereas Maragaki is interested in creating symbolic links between natural and artificial environments. But this is the magic of collaboration! Together, these two artists have discovered a portal that has led them to a place of discovery, joy and intrigue through a shared interest in the natural world, animals, landscapes and colour.

Their collaboration was generative, with work going to and fro between the two artists, creating a responsive learning process that delighted both. After a conversation about Maragaki’s homeland of Greece and the animals that inhabit the landscape, Thompson began to draw goats, cats and tortoises and make clay models of the creatures from memory. Thompson taught Maragaki his singular method of working with clay to construct animals, and Maragaki taught Thompson to make little flag books, a sculptural, accordion-like object that offers multiple viewpoints and a rich 3d experience. On the train home from London to Manchester, Thompson filled one of these expansive books with an array of his favourite African animals (giraffes, rhinoceroses, tigers and lions) and his trademark hand-written text snaking its way around the drawings. In another flag book, also on display here, Maragaki has drawn ninety-nine landscapes from the Savanna and South Africa – working for the first time from memory, echoing Thompson’s intuitive process.

In another collaborative work (Meteorite), Thompson has populated one of Maragaki’s meteorite drawings with a procession of gayly advancing animals, each following in each other’s footsteps (look carefully and you can also see a second meteorite in that dancing party - a delicious mirroring that adds humour and intrigue to the proceedings). The hard edge of Maragaki’s constellational structure creates a tender meeting point for Thompson’s soft, organic forms. The red, purple and blue of that meteorite also denotes the artists’ favourite colours: Thompson (purple) and Maragaki (blue and red, which of course mixed together to make purple). Another pleasing piece of serendipity that weaves its way through the artists’ practices.

Making art with someone you don’t know can be a raw and liberating process. There is ego, fear and ambivalence, as well as magic, intrigue and the promise of new worlds. All four of these artists expressed a desire to experiment with, and learn from, each other and this is what they have done, through working more instinctively, broadening their repertoire of subjects and materials, acquiring new skills, and finding new ways to express their interests.

Something beautiful has happened here. It is evident in the spirit of the project, the enthusiasm the artists have for their joint endeavours and each other’s practice, and the end result – the sculpture, the books, the drawing, the time spent, the risks taken, the things learned. It is rich and strange and generous, and it is all there for the taking.

Image: Leslie Thompson, 2023

Making Together
Four artists, working in pairs (Thompson Hall and Simone Kennedy; Leslie Thompson and Eleni Maragaki), were invited to collaborate with each other to make this exhibition. They have spent the last four months visiting each other’s studios, talking on zoom, feeling their way towards something that is unreachable within the confines of their own practice. The project represents a desire to support and facilitate dialogue between neurodivergent and learning disabled artists from Action Space and Venture Arts, and members of the Royal Society of Sculptors. The aim is to help create a richer, more diverse visual art infrastructure that challenges expectations and traverses boundaries. The project was facilitated by Art et al , an inclusive curatorial platform that sets up collaborations between artists from supported studios, peers and arts professionals.

We Are All Over The Place
Catalogue text for Trickster Figures: Sculpture and the Body. Published by MKGallery 2023

The story of sculpture begins with the body, through the making of monuments and statues. Signifiers of power and status, they established a closely guarded language of accepted norms concerning where sculpture should sit, how it should look, what it should be made of, what it should represent, and who gets to make it. The most conservative of disciplines, it became loaded with expectations around solidity, weight, scale and longevity which, even after decades of kneading and stretching and twisting (to paraphrase Rosalind Krauss) , continue to linger in contemporary discourse and art-making practice.

At this moment, in the early stages of the 21st century, seismic social, political and environmental shifts have created the foundation for new thinking around the body’s relation to the world and to sculpture. There is a growing, visceral sense that our bodies are vulnerable and fragile things that exist within a crumbling ecosystem; that the binary approach we employ to create systems of knowledge is increasingly outmoded; and that the hierarchical structure we have created in which the human body is viewed as superior to - or separate from - other life forms and organisms is not only inaccurate but also deeply pernicious.

Trickster Figures: Sculpture and the Body brings together the work of eleven artists who are exploring this new configuration of the body’s relation to the world. It shines a light on the potent slippages that are taking place between bodily systems, technology, humans, animals, identities and the environment, and acknowledges that the distinction between human and animal, man and woman, organism and machine is gradually eroding. It recognises that our bodies are entangled in the geopolitical landscape of contemporary life, or to put it another way, that our bodies are contaminated with the pollutants of 21st century extractive capitalism. Bodies are on the move, in search of scarce resources and viable climates. Desperation-driven migration is the result of a planetary polycrisis born of inequality, colonialism, precarity and cultural supremacy. This world of destabilised borders and breached boundaries has resulted in a situation in which everything opens onto everything else, and bodies are implicated.

We may be parched (metaphorically, morally, physically), but the artists in the exhibition insist on experimenting with categorial fluidity. They work with and beyond existing frameworks in order to invent new languages, new bodies, and new relations to the world. In many cases, the artwork is slippery and opaque - the artists asserting that beauty, glamour, seduction, compulsion, and things unknown and unspeakable remain at its core. Craftsmanship, exquisite attention to detail, and abundant care is manifestly evident. There is also a marked sense of solidarity between the artists themselves – they recognise that solo bodies, including those of artists, are vulnerable and more able to flourish within a support structure. This care and solidarity is political – it expresses an awareness of the way bodies, in broader societal contexts, are treated, how they are described, impacted on, and controlled. This proximity and generosity of spirit can be extended to the rhizomatic ways that artworks in the exhibition overlap, connect with, and move through each other. Visitors are invited to dance on a sculpture while wearing another; look through a sculpture to view the work of another; sit with a sculpture and listen to another.

Many of the artists in the exhibition identify as non-binary, neuro-divergent, non-verbal, Black, queer, or trans. While identity is in no way the sole driver in the work, it inevitably surfaces at key points, through the expression of expansive mind-bending world views, and a freeing up of the body to explore new connections to its environment through dance, movement, conceptual framing and material closeness. In an oblique, playful, sometimes disturbing way, much of the work asks if we can move beyond a system that categorises art and artists in binary terms (female / male; figurative / abstract; human / animal; able-bodied / disabled) to reach a more porous place that recognises the shifts, the seepage, the hybrid spaces, the unmoored places, the worlds that are newly forming. Perhaps in this moment, we can engineer a glitch in the planetary system of the visual art infrastructure that moves beyond ‘women only’ exhibition and book-making formats, to include a more fluid mix of practitioners who embrace instability, and lean into something that exists beyond language and gender.

This grouping together of artists living predominantly in the UK inevitably leads to a discussion about the concept of ‘British sculpture’, a term tied to the 1980s, when a number of artists rose to prominence on an international stage. Rejecting the dematerialisation of art in its minimal and conceptual form as practised in the 1960s and 70s, these artists returned to the traditional materials and processes of the previous generation. Working in the politically tumultuous Thatcher years which spawned our post-industrial landscape and free-market economy, this loosely configured group that included Bill Woodrow, Alison Wilding, Barry Flanagan, Tony Cragg, and Shirazeh Houshiary, rejected abstraction in favour of figurative and metaphoric imagery. Often using the debris of contemporary life (including old sofas, clothes, shopping trolleys, tyres, and plastic toys) they considered ways that objects are assigned meaning, and played with colour, humour, and variegated forms of physicality. Seminal exhibitions were held at the Hayward Gallery and Serpentine Gallery in 1983 (The Sculpture Show), and twenty years later, in 2002, the Whitechapel Gallery staged an exhibition Early One Morning (a tribute to Anthony Caro’s eponymous sculpture of 1962) showing the work of five young UK based artists: Eva Rothschild, Gary Webb, Shahin Afrassiabi, Claire Barclay, and Jim Lambie. Notable for their sense of optimism about the future (this was, after all, the dawn of a new millennium), they experimented with three dimensional form primarily through the assemblage of found materials, often constructing the work on site, in the gallery space. There were a number of defining features of the works: they were explicitly non-figurative, it was hard to tell if they were sculptures or installations, they were made with whatever was to hand (synthetic plastic, bits of leather, buttons, lightbulbs, loudspeakers), and they were anti-monumental and curious about the relationship between the viewer and the work. Also evident was the artists’ interest in broader contemporary culture, as well as issues around consumerism, modernism and politics.

How does Trickster Figures extend this narrative? The most obvious ‘extension’ can be seen in the variegated character of the practitioners themselves, in terms of geographical and cultural heritage, but also in terms of race and gender. In marked contrast to work in the Whitechapel exhibition twenty years previously, there is a foreboding about the future expressed in many of the works that is unnerving and strange. There is also little sense that these artists are interested in what they should or shouldn’t be using as materials, the choice is dictated by what the work itself appears to demand. So, bronze and copper sculptures sit alongside ones made of polystyrene, resin, plastic bags and body wash. Other previously upheld orthodoxies are ignored, toyed with, or embraced: a plinth is employed when it is useful, while other works sit directly on the floor (and in one case, the work is the floor), and the human figure is explicitly present in some works, while other works offer more elusive, abstract representations of the body. Some are stand-alone sculptures, while others are part of an installation made up of murals, groupings, and drawings. Some artists spend days finely crafting a work, while others outsource production or use ‘found’ objects, for example a piece of industrial machinery found on a factory floor. There is no ‘truth to materials’ diktat that establishes a clear relationship between the size and shape of an object and the inherent qualities – some works are stretched, painted, and moulded, while others retain their original material state. There is an urgent interest in process – how the works are made, and the political, ideological context in which they are situated. This inevitably extends to an awareness of the ethical issues relating to the use of other bodies, and the means of extraction employed in the sourcing of materials. Many of the artists seem interested in the idea that form is not an attribute that is necessarily fixed, but one that is malleable and even unstable. Broadly speaking, the artists extend their reach beyond the closed-loop system of art appraisal by form, to arrive at a place that is less shackled to historical norms and practices.

The provocation implicit in the subtitle of the exhibition (‘the next chapter in the story of British sculpture’) is perhaps evidence that the Trickster has entered the fray. It could be argued that there is now no such thing as ‘British sculpture’. The tech-enabled ease with which bodies move across the planet, combined with the ghostly, tendrilled workings of the internet, means that it is increasingly hard to align art with national characteristics or geographic specificity. Unlike artists working in the mid and late 20th century, who were predominantly born and lived in the UK, many of the artists in Trickster Figures were brought up far from UK shores, from São Paulo to Nancy and Ávila, and don’t consider themselves to be ‘British’ at all. This is an island whose people seem loath to confront the reality of their colonial past and whose identity is looking increasingly fragile on the world stage due to its ongoing campaign of xenophobia, misanthropy and cultural jingoism. With the fallout of Brexit, draconian anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, an ideological commitment to austerity, restrictions on freedom of expression, and growing calls for independence from Scotland, the concept of ‘Britishness’ is fraught, at best, and perhaps one that few artists are clamouring to be part of.

The historical or mythological ‘trickster’ is often defined as a character who disobeys rules and defies categories and conventions. But he (for he is almost always a he) is so much more: ‘Lord of the in-between’, the crossroad at the edge of town, the confounder of distinctions (between wrong / right, sacred / profane, young / old, living / dead, male / female), the mythic embodiment of ambiguity, an eternal state of mind. Trickster is also a truly global phenomenon, assuming a multitude of forms and characters, west Africa’s Legba, to Native America’s Wakdjunkaga. Old Norse tales and Greek myths focus on the antics of Loki and Hermes. He is described as polytropic (‘turning many ways’) and often regarded as the creator of culture. He encourages embodied thinking and speaks freshly where language has been blocked. The academic and philosopher Donna Haraway refers to tricksters as ‘wild cards that reconfigure possible worlds’ . The artists in this exhibition are doing just that, although here, trickster assumes a more elusive and fluid identity that befits the ambiguity that marks their character.

This letting go of old systems and categories is mirrored in the ways that artists and writers are currently experimenting with text and format in art criticism and writing. Developed over the last twenty years, this approach challenges conventional ideas about how art writing looks, sounds, and feels, where it is published, who writes and reads it, and whose voice is prioritised within it. It provides us with an alternative model of disseminating the thinking that takes place around contemporary art practice, and is ‘an attempt to attend to that which does not fit’. While this experimental turn is gaining traction within the established core of the artworld, it is marginal feminist, queer, non-binary, anti-racist voices that originally sought to disrupt the nest with their embodied narratives. These writers move fluidly between genres such as theory, fiction and criticism to create playful, speculative, and politically astute contributions to the field. Many of the artists in Trickster Figures are interested in this new portal into the world of art. It felt apt, therefore, to invite artist and writer Francis Whorrall-Campbell to contribute a text to this publication that builds on this genre. The Cowboy, written in the form of an on-line community message board in which a trickster carries out a series of fantastical, botched odd-jobs that take the assume the character of the artworks in the exhibition, is a joyful, strange, sometimes troubling addition to our project. It casts the exhibition as a piece of fiction, using the language of 21st century communication, with its constructed identities, swagger and sloppy grammar. Like much of the work in the exhibition, it exists in the in-between, the glitch where new things are born.

The breadth of interests of these artists is evident in the ways that many of them situate and think through their work within the fictive worlds of literature, poetry, and film, as well as YouTube videos, popular science books, and political theory. In order to highlight these eclectic, expansive pool of influences we have invited the artists to suggest books, podcasts, films or TV programmes to include in our bibliography at the back of this publication, and in the reading space at MK Gallery. Ranging from a book on the testimonies of survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to an anime TV series about an alien parasite, and a children’s story about a west African trickster, they forge generous and generative conversations across disciplines, and tell apposite stories about the interests of a selection of artists working in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Although only manifesting as a finite three-month exhibition, Trickster Figures is part of an ongoing, evolving project. It remains full of gaps and unstable propositions, but the hope is that it will resonate with, and draw sustenance from, other discourses and conversations within the field of sculpture and beyond.

The science fiction author Octavia Butler wasn’t able to finish her Parable of the Trickster before she died in 2006, but she did arrive at an epigram for the book which beautifully expresses the possibility of breaking through an impasse to arrive at something previously unexpressed. Her lines mirror the varying, magical ways that the artists in Trickster Figures are able to reach beyond existing frameworks to imagine new worlds:

There’s nothing new

under the sun,

but there are new suns.

PDF of catalogue here

The Peculiar People
Text for Magnum Photos. Published 2023.

Is Essex a stupid place? I heard someone describe it recently as a stupid place. Perhaps it’s hard to pin down exactly what they meant, but I think we get the gist. It’s a place in which stupid people live. People with no taste, little education, and a wild desire to acquire material goods (an indoor pool, a pair of tight white trousers, fake breasts perhaps), fame for fame’s sake, and an overwhelming desire to be loved.

All of this is true! But it is also true of many places, and there are so many other ways to describe Essex. Essex is a gnarled and unforgiving place. It is the armpit of the east of England. A place where industrial effluence is accrued; old, unwanted things are washed up; and secrets remain well hidden. Its proximity to London and the Thames Estuary means that it has become an intestinal superhighway for the transport of goods and cargo from across the world. Fridges from South Korea, Christmas decorations from China, cars to Northern Cyprus – they shunt into and out of the historic port of Harwich on container ships the size of small towns, gantries looming over the horizon like ominous robotic creatures on a day trip from a futuristic past.

Essex is a leaky, porous, slow place. The relationship between salty sea water and fresh river water is hazy. The tides are fast-moving, covering great swaths of land in alarmingly brief intervals, the moon’s gravitational pull working its rhythmic magic. There is mud. Plenty of mud. The marshland, made up of sopping soft vegetation, arterial creeks and fibrous channels, is seething with life – bats, otters, water voles, they love these conditions. Curlews, with their achingly sorrowful cry and elegant, curved bills, populate the landscape like characters in a museum diorama, planting perfectly formed footprints in their wake.

The horizon is low, there is never much happening, eyes are hugged close to the ground. Sky and land merge with the aid of mist which makes a regular appearance, imbuing the landscape with a melancholy that is easy to romanticise – not much can be seen, people and dreams get lost, some manage to find new homes. You can easily disappear here, into an unruly world of constructed identities, perilous conditions, and hazy futures. You could be seen off when your house gets washed away by the sea. Coastal erosion, the gradual gnawing of land by an eager and hungry ocean, is a thing here, a thing that is increasingly urgent, violent, and destructive.

Essex has a madly long coastline – the longest of any English county. 350 miles over a relatively small area, it loops and swerves and goes back on itself, no apparent urgency to get to its final destination. Unravelling this line would be like laying out your tightly coiled, deceptively long intestinal tracts, which, in turn, would be like Mary Poppins unpacking her capacious carpet bag. You can’t believe your stomach, or the land (or the bag, for that matter) could hold so much material weight.

In the unlikely, discouraging event that things get too pretty, there’s always something that promises to break the spell. A nuclear power plant, the rotting carcass of a washed-up boat, a teenager whose prospects look bleak.

In the middle of the 20th century, Essex earned itself a reputation as a place for cheap holidays for East Enders – you could buy yourself a bit of sand and sea in the form of a self-build chalet, come down for the weekend, join in the dancing, the revelry, and the laughter. Photographs of Jaywick and Clacton in the 1950s and 60s show proudly tended holiday homes, packed social events, and children splashing about in the sea. It’s a bit different now – these areas have been blighted by lack of investment, stunted future prospects, and unnervingly high levels of social deprivation. The towns may be scorned by outsiders, but a belligerent spirit remains – a tightknit community that refuses to be constrained or judged continues to thrive, against the odds.

This nonconformism has a proud history – anarchy and religious zealotry are part of the unlikely character of Essex. Cheap land, proximity to London, and the promise of relative isolation proved an alluring sell to people on the look-out for new beginnings, alternative living arrangements and forgiving gods. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, religious colonies and communities sprung up all over the county, at Purleigh, Bradwell, Osea Island and Hadleigh. The delightfully named ‘Peculiar People’ movement was established in the 1830s by an ex-alcoholic keen to preach the word of God to agricultural workers. It managed to expand and flourish but fractured in the early stages of the 20th century under arguments about faith healing and pacifism, issues that became hot topics at the outbreak of World War I.

Fast forward to current-day Essex and this gleeful truculence is still evidenced in spades.
Unlike many other parts of the UK which proved to take a more balanced view, the people of Essex voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union in 2016. The expressed wish that the British people should make their own rules and defy so-called ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ was emblazoned on placards across the county, against a backdrop of Union Jack enthusiasm, barely suppressed jingoism, and a plentiful supply of hopeful bunting.

When I moved to Colchester (a city in north Essex) from London twenty years ago, in search of affordable housing and childcare, I felt so alien, my body and viewpoint the wrong shape for such a place. I found the low horizons stifling and the lack of urban life draining. It took me years to understand that there is value in occupying what is considered to be the margins. A place that conjures such vivid, often negative, responses and stereotypes is, it turns out, a place worth exploring. I discovered a magical place that is rarely discussed in any serious way. I took day trips to low-lying murky islands, talked to ghosts in abandoned churches, waded through shore lines that assume the character of other planets, and dozed under oak trees so old they’re listed in the Domesday Book. It was dreamy, and continues to be dreamy - a state reinforced by the fact that much of these experiences are ones that are unsullied by the presence of other people who are too busy exploring Suffolk or Kent, or somewhere a bit more well-behaved and palatable.

Years into my Essex life, I am visited by an unknown relative from Australia who presents me with a large envelope stuffed with newspaper clippings. I sift through them to discover the story of my grand aunt who fled Colchester for Australia in 1906 in search of adventure. When her three-year stint teaching at a religious school in Perth came to an end, instead of embarking on the long-boat trip home to tend to her ailing mother, she buried her clothes in the dunes of Cottesloe Beach, cut off her hair, and dressed as a man. She changed her name from Margaret Bale to Martin Able and worked as a clerk at the National Liberal League and a ‘strong boy and cellarman’ at the Oddfellows Hotel. Her story is told in a series of sensationalist newspaper articles entitled ‘A Girl’s Remarkable Freak’, ‘In Man’s Attire’, ‘Experiences in Masculine Callings’. A crudely doctored photograph of ‘Martin Able’ sporting a stiff collar and tie sits alongside one of Margaret Bale wearing a white cotton dress, long hair, and a locket around her neck. Her father hired a private investigator to locate her whereabouts. The search was successful but she refused to come home. I am delighted and intrigued to learn that I have blood ties to this county and that I can claim a bit of the famed Essex stroppiness as my own. I find solace, too, in the fact that when I walk the streets of Colchester where am mistaken for a man at least once a week (my height, my hair, my clothing), I can throw myself back in time and exchange a wry smile with my fabulous grand aunt.

Photographers looking to tell the story of Essex over the years have had to grapple with the powerful temptation of reconfirming well-honed narratives involving poverty, isolation, ostentatious wealth, mildly brutish behaviour, and right-wing ideology. It seems that for many of them, the temptation is too enticing. The ‘Essex’ section of the Magnum and Getty Images archives are full of people sporting tattoos, bad teeth, no teeth, face-lifts, people who are old before their time, who look malnourished, over-nourished, rangy, poor and loud. People sniffing glue at bus stops, teddy boys and girls looking aggressive and proprietorial, drunk women at hen parties, people wearing pink tracksuits eating chips on the beach. There’s space now for new narratives, ones that welcomes the ghosts, the brave, the unruly, and embraces all the strangeness.

Photograph by Lúa Ribeira, Canvey Island, 2023

Magnum Photos

No More Kings
Text for 'The Brightness of JuJu', a book by Dunya Kalantery and Rima Patel with Willow Bank and Harris Garrard Primary school children. Published by TACO! 2023

I’m looking at a series of photographs of children playing in ‘junk parks’ in Denmark, Japan, the UK from the 1950s to the present day. These parks are alternative playgrounds that grew out of the devastation of post-war landscapes to provide places for children to experiment, take risks, and go wild. They are joyful, terrifying and maniacal worlds involving burnt out tyres, hammers, saws, clapped-out old cars, mattresses, bits of wood, and lots of fire. Landscapes are strewn with half-built dens, makeshift aerial runways, tunnels, fire pits, shonky see-saws, and mud caves. It’s every parent’s nightmare and every child’s dream.

I find some films online – archival black and white footage, alongside more recent colour film – and for a fleeting moment I am removed from the formal shackles of my work desk and thrown into a world of anarchy. Children all around are jumping, clambering, swinging, digging, swearing, yelling, setting things alight. Others are sitting quietly, dreaming, painting, singing. They are steeped in mud, glee, and determination. I can’t help smiling at the hopefulness of it all. I get a lump in my throat when I see a young girl swing wildly across a stream on a precarious-looking bit of old rope that is tied to a huge tree. Her face moves from serious focus to stark fear, and ultimately elation when she manages to reach the other side. It’s the kind of experience that is not only joyful in the moment but prepares children for the turmoil of life beyond childhood. It is also an experience that children are increasingly alienated from, in a society that militates against risk, injury, challenge, and fear.

These kids would no doubt fare well on the Island of Thamesmead in 2090, from which all adults have gone, leaving children to roam free. In this east London community, children construct their own world, join forces with seagulls to collect plastic bags and lonely shoes, forge friendships with colours, burn bad energy, and when they fail, they build again. Pretty soon, they find out they need to know where they have come from in order to have a sense of where they are going. They discover the importance of stories, and of things they’ve amassed. They understand that they need to slow down and take time to listen in order to hear what things are saying. If only adults were so wise: these activities could save us from ourselves, and earth from us, marking out a path to an alternate future in which defiance and freedom form joyous pitstops along the way.

There’s a type of magic that happens when the world inside children’s heads become visually manifest. Look at the drawings, photographs, things, and words in this book. They live in the past and the future, in a place that is strange, unrestricted, complex, and fluid. There’s hilarity, intensity and joy. Travelcards, plastic spoons, whimsy, and love are peppered with statements about interspecies dalliances (my ancestors died and turned into an egg) and made-up words, misspellings and magnificent poetry (Curly Swift / Lific / Tailor Swift / Terrific) sit alongside darkness and depression (from which the deepest knowing emanates). Those ink drawings are like Rorschach tests that flatly refuse to be tested. And, who doesn’t want to go to the pink party past the massive yellow bins? Part way into the story, the children discover agency and manage to form a working relationship with their surroundings. They also discover the danger that arises from organising the world in a way that reflects adult preoccupations with competition, categorisation, and hubris.

Like synaesthetic creatures, they listen to the sound of colours and feel the sadness of football boots when they are dirty. They paint blackness so dense that the turmoil becomes real, and they’ve invented a crunchy black that is lonely. They imagine a turquoise that can turn into a surprise but which can also render you invisible. This easy movement between different forms of emotion, experience, and activity sits in direct contrast to the formal, often restrictive, systems of categorisation so prevalent in the adult world. While children are drawing or painting or constructing or writing, they might also be singing, shouting, dancing, talking to themselves. I’ve heard this referred to as ‘multimodal experience’ but really it’s just a way to be free.

There’s an anxiety evident in the multiple ways that adults try to control children, something that reveals itself in our responses to their drawings: “What is it?”, “Do it like this”, “Copy this”, “Stop, let me show you”. It seems clear that it is adults who can learn from children (or at least that the learning relationship should be reciprocal), but that we insist on the inverse. What is it that we are afraid of? The wilfully strange, sometimes disturbing world of children is perhaps not what we’d like it to be, but to deny their reality seems counter-productive in a most alarming way – this ecstatic energy, it has to go somewhere. The more we recognise children’s power and agency, listen to them, give them space to express a whole panoply of emotions (rage, enthusiasm, confusion, love), the more viable and fantastic all our lives can be.

A few years ago, a Norwegian friend came to visit. We walked by the sea and ate crabs. She told me about a sculpture of a dinosaur by Ola Enstad (a Stegosaurus, for the experts among us) which was installed in 1979 in an Oslo neighbourhood called Grünerløkka. It was a great big, lumbering thing made primarily of wood. Kids clambered to the top, swung from the ribs, and gleefully looked down on their parents. A petition started circulating, signed by adults, that claimed Stego was ugly and unsafe, and should be removed. It was installed in another area of Oslo where its legs were brutally amputated. Battered but not entirely defeated, it was moved to a third location in the city, where it was also attacked, before eventually being transported to the ‘Department of Discarded Art’ at the Fjordane Art Museum, where it slowly decomposed. Today, if you visit the original site that Stego once inhabited you will find a large egg made of marble. The children who befriended Stego and became so angry with their parents for banishing it to an alien landscape, have their revenge. The next generation of unruly, risk-taking, imaginative children is in the making.

Ever since my children became adults, I’ve had an on-going, haunting sense that their childhood selves are lost, somewhere out there in the cold, in their pyjamas, with no home to go to. They have been replaced by adults who bear little resemblance to their former selves. I find myself on the verge of tears, attempting to stem the influx of emotions, no doubt indulgent and trite, but through writing this text, looking at these drawings, and reading this book, I’m thinking that perhaps this is an opportunity to reconstruct that narrative. Maybe they ARE out there but they aren’t fearful or passive or cold, and they certainly don’t want to come home. They are inhabiting a different world where children are wild and free.

Real Thing
Text written about a notional artwork by Mona Yoo when she was in residence at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 2020 - 2022. Published by Talbot Rice Gallery, 2022

You came! I’m so pleased you’re here.

Excuse the mess. This might not be what you are expecting.

You probably haven’t been out for a while. I’m aware that there is a heaviness that weighs upon us, a sadness that is the result of two years of isolation, millions dead, the shortening of breath. The streets are still emptied of people and life. I’m wondering if they’ll ever be the same again.

Take a look around. It’s dark, I know. You’re lucky - you have the place to yourself. If you feel something crunch underfoot, don’t be alarmed. It’s part of the story.

Those arches, colonnades, capitals - they’re the language of neo-classical grandeur, aren’t they? This space (the Sculpture Court) has been home to Edinburgh College of Art for over a century. It was designed to house plaster casts of busts, statues, friezes, bits of cultural and public life used by students across the decades to study classical form. Those ghostly things (destined never to be ‘the real thing’), have been removed, gone elsewhere.

The colonnades have been boarded up and architectural fragments lie scattered across the floor. One of the boards has fallen in, like a collapsed toy soldier, face down on the earth. Some of the others have shunted their way into the space. This must have all happened a while ago because there are weeds growing from the floor, crawling up the walls. And those traces of dust, stickers on the columns, lines taped to the floor (are these remnants from the city streets, building sites, advertising hoardings?), they look worn, torn and weathered. The space seems to have become a stage for other possibilities – ones that bring the outside in.

If you’re losing a grip on time, that’s ok. It’s a slippery entity here, and one to be cherished. Someone came yesterday and stayed for two thousand years. It’s hard to tell if that architectural fragment is a century old, finished or not yet begun, made at some point in the future, or is destined to disappear tomorrow.

If you come again next week, things will be different. Perhaps a few subtle changes involving variations in focus, positioning, and light, but enough to make you feel that time has shifted, life has intervened, and the weeds have grown a little bit taller or perhaps receded back into the floor.

Let’s walk out into the streets of Edinburgh. It’s cold, I know. That northern wind bites hard and is never far away.

You’ve probably read in your guide that this is the Athens of the North. The cradle of Scottish civilization. The birth place of the Enlightenment. Proud and learned men did away with superstition and metaphysics and heralded a new era of empiricism and fact. This dogma is embedded within the city’s streets, its topography, its sense of self. Can you feel it? This place is dripping with history, ego, architectural posturing, colonial ghosts, bombastic monuments, unfeasibly steep steps, patriarchal baggage, scientific, political and philosophical endeavour, and big, blackened sandstones.

The writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton wrote, more than a hundred years ago, about Edinburgh’s majestic physical topology: ‘…it seems like a city built on precipices, a perilous city. Great roads rush down hills like rivers in spate. Great buildings rush up like rockets’. It hasn’t changed much at all.

But listen, can you hear that? It’s the sound of time running after shadows. There’s a ghostly layering of space here that ushers in strangers. Buildings are forever ‘under wraps’, being updated, tended to, converted, reconstructed. You see that bridge over there? The one that’s covered in white plastic? If you squint, or take a sideways glance, it becomes an abstract sculpture, monumental and transient, billowing in the wind. There’s always something else on offer, you just have to find a way of seeing it.

I can sense you’re keen to get home now; the allure of the streets has palled in comparison to the promise of a hot meal, your family. Take the ghosts, the things that are other than what they are supposed to be (the plaster casts, the bridges, the sculptures, the hoarding, the weeds, the fragments, the debris), and find a place for them in your memory – for either the years ahead, or the ones that have already past.

Somewhere other than here
Text about socially engaged art practice, bringing together issues raised by speakers at the Assembly talks programme held in 2021 Published by UP Projects

Shape of Story
Conversation between Rhys Coren and Jes Fernie, published by Seventeen Gallery, 2020

Contaminated, implicated
Text for Alice Channer's exhibition Birthing Pool, at Turf Projects, 2019


// Text by Jes Fernie

How shall we play this? There are a number of options. We can walk through the door, make some small talk, take a leaflet and look at the work. Worry about whether we’re allowed to get into that pool. Or we can put our hands up to the window and maintain a safe distance. No need for conversation or interaction. I do this, but am not satisfied. The glare is too bright and my viewpoint restricted.

There aren’t many people around. By the escalators outside I drop down onto my belly, forearms supporting my torso. My new stance affords me a refreshingly different vantage point. Legs and feet brush past me; my nose hovers above the highly polished granite floor. I begin to edge my way towards Turf’s window, adopting a reptilian swagger as each elbow heaves my weight forward. I nudge my nose up against the base of the window frame and locate a vulnerable spot, slithering through from the outside in, gasping slightly as I make my entrance.

I blink and take a moment to adjust to the light, temperature, and mood in the room. Nobody seems particularly shocked by my mode of entry. My route to the pool is blocked by a spikey, low-lying object. As I shunt past it, I realise it echoes the form of my body – two hind legs, a spine and cross-sectional skeletal elements. Laying my cheek down on the cool concrete floor, I begin to hum an unrecognisable tune, understanding intuitively that words won’t wash here – this is an alien form from millennia past and future, with uncertain pedigree and almost certainly no language. There is no response. Frustrated, I lodge my head between the translucent blue resin and steel frame in an attempt to obliterate the shadows – to limit their impact on the world. It works and I smile to myself.

I become anxious that time is running out, that soon things will no longer be viable. With a renewed sense of urgency, I enter the pool, bashing my arms and legs on the threshold as I do so, oblivious to the damage I might cause. What I thought was liquid turns out to be little black pellets that are painful to lean on – my elbows assume the ghostly shape of their form. I sniff them – they smell of plastic, they are entirely artificial and small enough to enter the tiniest of cavities. Ahead of me, there are tightly coiled, pleated bits of fabric, swimming on this sea of pellets. Sliced brain or elegant CT scans – each one takes on a fraught, co-dependent relationship with its neighbour and the surrounding steel frame. I am seduced by their splendour and the evident care with which they have been constructed.

In an attempt to alleviate the weight from my arms, I turn onto my side and assume a foetal position, burrowing deep into the pellets until I can no longer see or be seen. I hear the sound of muffled voices above me, the pressure of feet on my hips. “I’m here, underneath you! Tread softly!” I yell. No response. The feet move on.

Overwhelmed by tiredness, I fall into a deep sleep and dream of suffocation and darkness, my body floating in a constricted space, a heavy throb in my temples. I am a mutant form sliding between this world and the next, made up of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, toxic waste and wilful carelessness. Contaminated, implicated, edging towards a place where humans, animals and inanimate objects are indistinguishable, I wait for evolution to catch up with my constituent parts. A fossil of unknown origin, I shall be unearthed in millennia to come, prized for my exquisite strangeness and heralded as the first of my kind.

Audacity and what to do with it
Milton Keynes Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 2019

I’m looking at a black and white photograph of children clambering over a large, steel animal-like sculpture by Swiss artist Bernhard Luginbühl installed in the Kunshalle Hamburg in 1967. One child has just jumped down from the head, while others clamber over the top. In the distance a woman navigates the precarious depths of an adjacent sculpture, as another child sweeps in at the bottom right of the frame, eager to get a bit of the action. There’s a joyous sense of boundless energy here, and, certainly within the context of a contemporary art gallery, even anarchy. It’s hard to imagine this type of activity being sanctioned in 21st century museum spaces – beyond the tightly controlled whizz down a Carsten Höller slide.

As benign as these types of photographs seem, there was revolutionary intent at work. In the 1950s and 60s there was a drive to create public spaces, playgrounds and artworks that harnessed the imagination of children and adults, expanded their physical and mental parameters and resulted in a playful, dynamic public realm. In post war Britain, educationalists and academics were keen to communicate their new-found research on the effect of the environment on the populace, and were fired up with ambition to make the world a better place for everybody.

Architecture and planning departments in local authorities were granted extensive powers to sweep away the old and bring in the new. An enviable combination of money, vision and ambition resulted in the development of a huge range of housing estates, town halls, civic spaces, cultural buildings, schools and even entirely new towns being built across the UK.

In the same year that those children were clambering over Luginbühl’s sculpture, Milton Keynes was formally designated a new town. Built predominantly on farmland, its main function was to relieve housing pressure in London. Its grid system, de-centralised city plan, and emphasis on car use that resulted in a ‘community without propinquity’ , gave the town a character that was clearly influenced by north American city planning and which resulted in a lived experience that was wholly and fantastically un-English. Learning from the mistakes of their predecessors working in the 1940s, emphasis was placed on public realm provision including broad boulevards, pedestrian-friendly streets and extensive tree planting, civic furniture, and public art schemes.

The city became a magnet for architecture students and critics who saw it as way to invent the future. Its reputation as the most ambitious social and architectural project of its kind in the UK gained traction and in the early 1970s it became known as a place where young architects could make their mark. Designs for the town were launched in internationally feted architecture magazines Domus and Architectural Digest – a marker of the level at which MKDC were pitching their plans.

Artists, designers and illustrators were installed in the architecture and planning departments where they were tasked with the job of making a beautiful, liveable city. Residency programmes with artists were developed as a way of bringing new inhabitants together. Illustrators such as the mighty Helmut Jacoby were employed to dream up visions of the future, creating an indelible sense of a town untroubled by the past. Jacoby’s exquisite drawings include expansive streetscapes, a profusion of plants that inhabit a world of sheet glass and steel, men with groovy moustaches, and futuristic blimps that roam the sky. These drawings are significant not only because they provide a sense of the atmosphere of the time, but also because they point to something we have since lost: the importance of speculative thinking. As designer and academic Fiona Raby has written: ‘Dreams…can inspire us to imagine that things could be radically different...and that we can progress toward an imaginary world’ . With the rise of neoliberalism, pragmatism, project managers and health & safety diktats, exacerbated by the economic crisis, the power of local authorities and architects to not only play a part in designing cities but also to dream about what might be, has greatly diminished.

It is these utopian ideals that artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman were interested in unearthing when they approached Anthony Spira, Director of Milton Keynes Gallery, in 2013. They did so with a conviction that the audacious original ambitions of the city could be re-introduced to residents through a proposal that took the original ‘total plan’ logic of the scheme and applied it to the public realm area around the gallery. Confounding expectations concerning the role of artists in public realm projects, Jones and Norman drew up a set of rules within which they were permitted to improvise. No random ideas were allowed; everything had to link back to the original plan. This working methodology mirrored the Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s ‘Infrastructure Pack’ (1975) which was made up of design guidelines that could be used by other cities to spruce up their public spaces. This original pack included signage, furniture, play equipment and bins, all of which exuded a 1970s pop design aesthetic. The perforated steel bench designed by Brian Milne, in particular, caught on and became a feature of many high streets across the UK and an iconic piece of 70s street furniture.

Jones and Norman have reinstated some of the Infrastructure Pack elements in their public realm scheme for MK Gallery which they named ‘City Club’, including the porte cochere (archway), sculptural trellises, paving grids and climbing frames. They talk of producing ‘interactive sculptures that act as triggers for imaginative play, visual pleasure, and new models of education’ in a way that is reminiscent of landscape designers, artists and educationalists working in the 1960s and 70s. Central Milton Keynes to them is a giant public sculpture in which the normal hierarchies of art, architecture and design are dismissed; a place where buildings, trees and boulevards combine to create a complete cityscape (a Gesamtstadtwerk! ) which is ‘porous and liberating, rather than closely identified with a signature style of an artist or architect’ .

It is important to remember here that although this approach is rare, it’s not new. Artists were employed on a number of occasions by local authorities and, in particular, development corporations in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to treat housing, landscaping and the built environment as a total concept. In Peterlee, County Durham, in the 1950s, the artist Victor Pasmore was plucked from his job as Master of Painting at King’s College in Newcastle to become the lead visual art consultant on the development of Peterlee New Town. His interest in combining the qualities of cubist painting with contemporary architecture was realised in the development of flat-roof houses that were grouped together with patio gardens, courtyards and open spaces. Twenty years later, while the designs for Milton Keynes were being launched, Stuart Brisley was invited by the Peterlee New Town Development Corporation, under the auspices of the Artist Placement Group , to take an overview of the visual character of the town, carry out a programme of community workshops and develop a system of recording and archiving the history of the area.

What Jones and Norman have done at Milton Keynes is take the involvement of artists in civic design onto a new and playful level. The idea that public art can be infrastructure, and infrastructure can be public art, is a theme that runs through almost every element of their project, along with detailed references to the Milton Keynes of the 70s and 80s. A street lamp located in front of MK Gallery (based on the design of an original Central Milton Keynes lamp) assumes the guise of a climbing frame but could also be thought of as public art. A play mound for older children, that Jones and Norman have christened ‘Tri-stack labyrinth’, references the design of an unbuilt scheme for a park in Milton Keynes and boasts a zigzag pattern that is based on a climbing frame in the Infrastructure Pack. A pair of gates which take the form of two hands that became heavily identified with the branding of Milton Keynes in the 1970s, have been refurbished and installed flat on the ground in the public realm area outside the learning centre as a place for performative play. A sculpture that doubles up as a slide by Dhruva Mistry called ‘The Object’ (1995-97) has been relocated from a small piece of grassland behind the gallery to a more prominent site on Midsummer Boulevard.

This harnessing of the spirit of Milton Keynes and its original soaring vision is poignant, practical and provocative. Does it matter that some of Jones and Norman’s interventions will be ignored, barely recognized as something useful, let alone considered to be art? Here too, we bump into the ghosts of the past when we learn that part of the ambition for the city was for it to be so seamless, so easy to navigate, that you could ‘drive through it without knowing you’ve been there’ . Perhaps Jones / Norman’s climbing frame is a ruse – an under-cover agent cunningly disguised as a functional object, sparking the imagination of kids, invisible to the eyes of adults.

The artists’ involvement in the redevelopment of MK Gallery is so wide-ranging it’s hard to get a sense of its edges – where their proposals bleed into other team members’ activities. Along with their public realm scheme, Jones and Norman worked with graphic designer Mark El-khatib to develop a colour chart that referenced both the urban and pastoral iconographies of the city (red, pink and yellow moving in to green, blue and brown); they engaged in lengthy discussions with Tom Emerson at 6a Architects about the design and character of the foyer, the auditorium, learning space and café, as well as the decoration of the existing gallery envelope. Much of the outcome of these discussions is manifest in the bricks and mortar of the building, but is more evident in the form of an awning for the learning space; a curtain for the auditorium; and a colour scheme for the café and façade – all of which emerge from the artists’ colour chart algorithm. The red neon heart on the façade of the building (which became a symbol of central Milton Keynes in the 1970s ) and the early logotype for the city with its drop-shadows and curly ‘M’, are both overt references to the original character and exuberance of the city. The café is a joyful re-envisioning of the design of the now infamous Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s Architecture Department, with its explosion of yellow and red detailing. It is magical to see 6a Architects reach beyond the controlled, subtle aesthetic for which they have become so well known, to embrace the post-modern language of 1980s design – a bit of Milton Keynes’ unruly spirit edging its way into 21st century life. And it’s good to think that Jones and Norman had a role to play in this.

All this activity (the public realm and visual identity scheme) is grouped together under the banner of ‘City Club’, a name Jones and Norman took from an unbuilt leisure complex in the centre of Milton Keynes which was to become a playground for the city, where residents and visitors could ‘have a game of football, relax in a sauna bath, buy a book, meet friends for a drink in the bar, look at an exhibition and eat in restaurants without leaving the Club’ . The artists have reimagined City Club for the 21st century, to create a new social space in the area surrounding MK Gallery and Milton Keynes Theatre.

An unlikely structure that did get built in Milton Keynes was ‘The Point’, a huge multiplex cinema designed by Building Design Partnership which opened in 1985. It was the first of its kind in the country and for a while became the UK’s most visited cinema complex. With its giant red pyramid frame, reflective glass, and block-like elevation, it looked like something dreamed up by utopian architects that never left the drawing board - a sort of Po-Mo take on Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s never realised ‘Fun Palace’ for east London (1959 – 61). Conceived of as a ‘university of the streets’ and a ‘laboratory of fun’, the ‘Fun Palace’ strikes many parallels with the ambitions of City Club and the MK Gallery of today, with its porous relationship to the public realm, its desire to create a flexible, democratic place of play, activity, engagement and debate, and its insistence that creativity should be at the heart of a city.

The history of modernism and post-modernism is strewn with examples of developments that placed these ambitions at the centre of their projects. Very few have managed to turn vision into reality. Lina Bo Bardi’s ‘SESC Pompeia’ in Sao Paulo (1977 – 86) is an exception. A converted 1920s oil drum factory, this sprawling and fantastic cultural centre offers a space in the tumultuous city of Sao Paulo in which residents can sunbathe, play football, take a ballet class, see a play, have a barbeque, hang out with friends. The conflation of ‘high and low’ culture and different art forms is at the route of its success, but so too is a deep-seated understanding of the way the city works and what the people want. Like much of the architecture of Milton Keynes, the physical manifestation of SESC Pompeia seems strange, out of scale, even ugly and confrontational to some people, but both schemes are truly audacious, bold propositions that shocked and enthralled, and continue to do so today.

The reinvented City Club project constitutes a kind of ongoing historical, visual, conceptual palimpsest, involving the layering of multiple fictions. The introduction and re-imagining of proposals from the 1970s into the streets of Milton Keynes in 2019, is a scurrilous form of civic story-telling. By 1975, the grand plans for the city were being scaled-down and key proposals for the city were shelved. No doubt, a number of Jones and Normans’ proposals, which stem from the aspirations of the original design team, will graduate to the heady heights of the ‘unrealised proposals’ file. But this thinking through what could be, making drawings to visualise the possibilities, are a crucial part of projecting ourselves into the future in order to stake our place in the world. Perhaps in another fifty years, a partnership of dreamers will pick up where Jones and Norman left off, weaving new narratives from the past into the future.

Without the audacious planning, bold thinking, commitment to the importance of play and experimentation, the urban infrastructure of Milton Keynes might be said to amount to very little. The revised City Club proposals, and, indeed, the refurbishment of MK Gallery as a whole, are a challenge to the city to take care of its dreams.

The Thingness of the Thing
Matt's Gallery, 2018

When Lorina Bulwer was interned in a Great Yarmouth workhouse in 1894 until her death fifteen years later, she was classified as a lunatic. She made protest embroideries to express anger at her incarceration. In a series of exquisitely produced lengthy texts, she rails against falsehood, men, taxes, flea-bag tribes, eunuchs and hermaphrodites, the French, bastards, tramps and hawkers, anarchists, nihilists, whores, traitors and bad onions. One particularly fine diatribe is aimed squarely at her sister-in-law who is deemed to be false in every way: FALSE NOSE, FALSE TEETH, FALSE HAIR, ENAMELED HANDS, FALSE FEET, STUMP LEGS, FALSE CHEST.

Embroidery and text are an incredibly effective way of announcing one’s place in the world. I’m standing, looking at Bulwer’s work at Norwich Castle Museum. There is a palpable sense of a defiant declaration: “I exist! I will not be silenced.” It is beautiful, rich, strange, disturbing and wildly unique. The format of the two-metre-long, twenty-centimetre-wide invective is dictated by the material conditions under which it was made: the workhouse received donations of cheap fabric, and the violent red used throughout is flannel from inmates’ petticoats. The scroll-like nature of the work also made it easy to roll up and store under garments. The colours of the text have been carefully selected to achieve maximum effect on varying types of background. The letters are all upper case (she uses a simple straight and couching stitch), and those that require emphasis are underlined.

Embroidery is often connected to incarceration of varying kinds, from women trapped in a system of socially sanctioned control, to men behind bars. The act of stitching is repetitive, often private and always time-consuming. It can be fashioned out of materials that are widely available and can include built up forms, applique and semi-detached elements. It can be picked up and put down with little fuss or mess; and it is easy to transport and store. It requires patience, practice, judgement and sensitivity, as well as a sophisticated approach to colour, form and texture. There are moments, probably, when it bleeds into boredom and may be readily linked to forms of OCD, even insanity.

When I meet Richard Grayson, the artist behind the By Our Own Hand project, he tells me that as a challenge to himself he made a piece of embroidery over a three-year period based on one of Guy Debord’s declarations: ‘Boredom is always counter-revolutionary’. He wondered if the act of making this tightly constructed cross-stitch panel would lead him to a conclusion about the nature of boredom. With no hint of disappointment, he says: “The process revealed nothing but pleasure”. The repetitive, absorbing, painstaking process of stitching soon becomes a form of meditation in which the maker enters a dialogue with the materials and the passing of time shifts into an amorphous, unquantifiable haze.

It’s a craft with a noble, convoluted history closely aligned with the labour patterns and social mores of the day. In the 21st century, it is carried out by people with time on their hands and no need for financial or practical gain. It could be viewed as a mode of self-actualisation, a way of finding meaning and joy through the process of making. In the 17th and 18th centuries, sewing, stitching and embroidery was primarily an act of labour, carried out by working class women, predominantly in their home or the home of their employers. It was often tedious, physically demanding (eye-sight and posture were often compromised) and one of the few ways women were able to earn a living and a place in the world. By the early 19th century it was increasingly used to inculcate a sense of obedience, submission and piety in young women, with the emphasis placed on the newly constructed ideology of motherhood. Mary Wollstonecraft, the most glorious of feminist philosophers and writers, penned a passionate critique of the destructive effects of this sedentary occupation that rendered women sickly, restless and lonely: ‘This employment contracts their faculties more than any other by confining their thoughts to their persons.’

Somewhat paradoxically perhaps, this suffocating ideology, so closely aligned with gender, was often used as an instrument for resistance. There are fine stories of women using their needle to stab their way into history, communicate forbidden thoughts, register unmentionable acts and log moments of extreme desperation. It is said that one of the incriminating bits of evidence used to behead Mary Queen of Scots was her treasonous embroidery which depicts her half-sister, Elizabeth I, as a mass of barren twisting vine and tendrils, while Mary is laden with bunches of fecund grapes, an allusion to the women’s child-bearing capacities. Elizabeth Parker, a nursery maid working at a house in Ashburnham on the south coast in the 1830s, used tiny and perfectly formed cross-stitched red letters on a plain linen background to tell the violent story of her early life, which included rape by her employer and attempted suicide. It ends abruptly with ‘what will become of my soul?’.

A shift occurred in the status of making, stitching, constructing by hand, in the second half of the 19th century with the inception of the Arts & Crafts Movement. As a repost to the alienating effects of the industrial revolution, its founding principles expounded the value of traditional craftsmanship and a rigorous reconfiguration of the relationship between art, labour and society. One of the founding figures, William Morris, spoke and wrote movingly about the joy of craftsmanship and a wider appreciation of the natural beauty of materials. At a time when it was considered a woman’s pastime, Morris researched the lost art of medieval embroidery with an eccentric enthusiasm that became his hallmark. His daughter May Morris went on to become the leading embroiderer of her day and established the Women’s Guild of Arts. In Wandsworth, the home of By Our Own Hand, a borough with a proud tradition of textile-making, Evelyn and William De Morgan, key figures in the Arts & Crafts Movement, became widely known for their paintings and ceramics as well as their commitment to social reform, women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. It was a movement whose ambitions were beguilingly seductive but which ultimately failed to gain wide-spread traction: the buildings, furniture, fabrics, wallpaper and embroideries produced under the Arts & Crafts banner were beyond the financial and cultural means of the masses and were taken up by the wealthy middle and upper-classes. Much like other utopian design movements that dreamt of creating a better, more equal society, very little of its revolutionary intent remains today.

My mum gives me a book called Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn. It tells the story of a Norfolk fisherman who spent a large part of his adult life moving in and out of a ‘stuporous state’. To cope with his separation from the sea and his condition (which would probably be diagnosed today as a form of depression brought on by his WWI army service) he made embroideries. Propped up in bed with a wooden frame fashioned from an old deckchair, he used pudding cloths and scraps of wool and thread to create scenes of the sea: fishermen at work, fighting the elements; menacing skies and tumultuous waves. He and his wife managed to eke out a meagre living selling his work to passers-by, most notably to the poet Valentine and her lover the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, who stayed in a nearby holiday home. It seems that embroidery, scene-making and make-believe saved Craske from himself.

I visit my partner’s father in Sweden who recently had a stroke. His rehabilitation treatment included using a loom to make a rug which is now placed in the entrance to his apartment. I am taken with the realisation that this is the one thing in a large collection of objects built up over eighty-five years that he has made. Apart from the obvious physical and psychological benefits of this type of activity for stroke victims, there is also the beguiling reality of the thingness of the thing. Its physical properties bear witness to a person’s life, traces the characteristics of that life, and somehow makes manifest a particular moment in that life. It will also, in all likelihood, be used long after my father-in-law is dead, taking on a new guise in another home, creating a link with the past and providing a space for familial hospitality underfoot.

I ask my 16-year-old to send a thank you letter to a relative. She writes the address in the wrong place and applies stamp to envelope like it’s some weird alchemic practice reserved for freaks and witches (“Top right, right?”). The act of writing, using a pen or needle, sending letters, communicating through the physical word, is fast becoming a quaint pastime, a throw-back to a by-gone age. We increasingly inhabit a world made up of code, virtual space and intangible strangeness. It’s exciting to think where this might lead, but it may be a while before we learn how to build a picture of a life that has meaning for future generations to unearth. There’s a Black Mirror episode that has stayed with me since I saw it over two years ago. A young woman is unable to cope with the death of her husband. She is offered the chance to reconnect with him through text messages, using an algorithm based on his online activity, accumulated over his lifetime. When she has wrung this service dry, she progresses to the next level of make-believe and orders an android that looks and acts entirely like her ‘real’ husband, the only difference being that he doesn’t sleep. He lies on his back with his eyes wide open every night, staring up at the ceiling - a glitch in the process of building a character that will no doubt be ironed out as we progress further into the parallel worlds of our desires.

Looking at the embroideries made for the By Our Own Hand project, I become acutely aware of the sculptural nature of stitching. Thread isn’t applied to the surface in the same way as paint; it is an integral part of the thing itself – a unit of construction that exists in three dimensions. This seems important both symbolically and practically. It can’t be erased and can only be destroyed by a laborious process of unpicking or, if the situation calls for more extreme measures, burning, cutting or burying. Each letter has forged a dynamic and dependent relationship to its foundation. Like my father-in-law’s rug, the character of each of those letters carry a permanent imprint of an individual personality. There are ones that include a figurative element (that fabulous blocky, 3-dimensional ‘R’ with its Van Gogh clouds and humble church spire, and the ‘L’ which houses skulls on a background of what looks like computer coding); and ones that play with abstraction and patterns in a joyful way (the blindingly bold, yellow ‘S’ and the fat ‘R’ with its shiny zigzags). One of the ‘N’s is fantastically anarchic; with its disregard for any type of rule or uniform aesthetic; it looks like the back of many embroideries, an area that provides another layer ripe for character analysis. For all the maverick richness of each of these thirty-five letters, there’s a deeply humbling sense of a collective endeavour, to which time and imagination have been generously committed. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that Debord’s proclamation is a relic of the past, something that came out of an era when a certain type of revolution seemed possible and young idealists across France fought passionately for a new way of living.

The statement ‘Boredom is always counter-revolutionary’ stems from Debord’s interest in the way people found meaning in contemporary life. He thought of boredom as a modern phenomenon and saw play and experimentation as a crucial part of the way that individuals could take an active role in defining their future. Almost a hundred years earlier, William Morris and John Ruskin were thinking through the evils of boredom and its ruinous effect. In one of his lectures Morris expounded the idea that modern society was indolent and saw potential violence in languor. He even went on to make a connection between lethargy and fascism. A few years earlier, Ruskin had attacked the destructive monotony of the Victorian industrial age, drawing a parallel between alienation and moral bankruptcy.

In the 21st century, boredom, like embroidery, has assumed a new guise. Our constant state of stimulation via social media, internet access and smart ‘phones means that we very rarely experience the luxury of boredom as we once knew it. In the near future, we will no doubt reach a sublime level of boredom that involves us falling into alternative realities and dream-like states. There is something both scurrilous and fantastic about the way that Grayson’s project slips through time, art forms and revolutionary intent, to bring us meaning, tedium, rage, individualism, collective endeavour and things.

Text written for a catalogue published by Matt's Gallery for Richard Grayson's project By Our Own Hand.

'My Home Is Your Home', editors: Torange Khonsari and Jane Rendell, published by public works 2016

In 1998, the artist and activist Tania Bruguera did a performance in her house in Old Havana during the so-called 'Special Period in Time of Peace' in Cuba, a period of extreme hardship brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. The artist stood naked with a lamb carcass attached to her neck, eating dirt, looking out into the street from an open window. A few years later, the house became the centre of a project called Catedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art Department), a school for socially engaged art practice. In 2015 Bruguera established the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism in the same house. The event was marked by a 100 hour-long reading of Arendt's seminal book 'The Origins of Totalitarianism' (1951), which took place in the living room. Shortly after the performance Bruguera was arrested and interrogated by the Cuban secret police. The institute has no formal constitution; the artist intends for it to become a place for research, conversation, residencies, public events and political action.

Homes have long been used by artists to make and show artwork, to collaborate with other artists and thinkers, and to develop a platform for political and social statements. Crucially, the spaces are 'free', both financially and conceptually; they bypass institutional systems of control and add little significant financial burden beyond that of living. They can be radical and transgressive, a space in which to merge public and private worlds and challenge mainstream culture and social norms. Events and projects staged in homes are often beguilingly simple, requiring nothing more than a book, a window and a sense of purpose. The boundary between art and life, practice and persona becomes blurred, offering new ways of thinking about art and the artist's role in society.

When artist Eduardo Padilha moved into a local authority flat in Southwark, south London, in 2005, he had spent the previous ten years living for very brief periods in a multitude of different flats in the city. He felt a pressing need to establish roots, commit to a place and to find a way of relating to his immediate environment that worked for him as both artist and citizen. As a foreigner in the city, Padilha felt an acute need to interact with people and to construct an identity for himself. He began to ask friends and artists passing through London if they'd like to show their work in his flat. One artist - Eduardo Navarro - covered all the floors with 'boring green' office carpet; another made a sound work for the toilet cistern. Padilha held 'openings' on Sundays and set up a free bar on the balcony. A programme was soon established in which artists, curators, students and local people mingled freely and engaged with art in a domestic setting. An informal exchange system took root that bypassed financial transactions whereby local carpenters and builders carried out small repairs in return for materials from Padilha's studio. They brought their friends and family to openings and have become frequent visitors to the flat for social events.

In 2009 Padilha's ambitions for the project changed. He became interested in the potential for an expanded conversation with his immediate locale. Instead of inviting artists to show existing work, he invited a response to the character or make-up of Tabard Gardens Estate (the area where his flat is located). The emphasis was on social exchange and public participation. Uruguayan artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre kicked off the programme with a series of themed 'Night Salons' that facilitated conversations between artists and local residents and a 20-mile 'Border Patrol' cycle ride with Southwalk Cyclists to mark the longest night of the year. Padilha collaborated with the Tenants & residents Association, held workshops with local residents and formed partnerships with local arts organisations (South London Gallery, ACME Studios and Tate Modern) in order to extend his networks and position his activity within a broader context.

A key marker in the development of Balin House Projects, as it became known, was the extension of Padilha's flat into the neighbouring laundry room, and the refurbishment of the space in 2013. As well as increasing the space available to show art, the laundry room allowed for artwork to be given more public prominence through window displays. Alongside this, Padilha developed a programme for artists to show work in designated spaces throughout the flat (the balcony and shrimp tank were two of them). He held a series of carefully orchestrated Sunday lunches for artists, curators and writers as a way of creating an environment for in-depth conversations amongst strangers; creating links; making new projects; exchanging ideas and establishing friendships.

What makes this project (and many like it) so interesting for me is the fluid relationship between skills, disciplines and art programmes. As a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) these projects often engage with architecture and design (and even cookery and gardening) in a way that is rare in the world of the white cube. The architecture of the space becomes an intrinsic part of the work and the way it is experienced, creating a charged atmosphere that is at once personal, political and vital. When Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro set up Womanhouse as part of the Feminist Art Programme at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1972, 25 students carried out extensive reconstruction of a condemned three-storey house in Los Angeles. The intention was to break the age-old authoritarian rules of power established between teacher and student and to develop a platform for discussion about the ideological and symbolic conflation of women and houses. Through the winter months, with no access to hot water, heating or plumbing, the students built walls, replaced windows, sanded floors, painted and wallpapered rooms and installed lighting. Skill acquisition was deemed to be a political tool which enabled women to 'restructure their personalities' and achieve their artistic goals.

Using a similar type of artistic conflation, the American artist Theaster Gates works within his run-down Chicago neighbourhood to reactivate cultural life in abandoned houses and municipal buildings. Over the last eight years he has created the Stoney Island Arts Bank, the black Cinema House, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Archive House and Listening House. Using reclaimed materials garnered from the city, Gates has developed an immediately identifiable aesthetic; he describes his project as both 'practical and poetic, bridging the creation of new art with the adaptive reuse of resources'. Like Padilha, Gates sees reconstruction and hosting as an important part of his project - offering an opportunity for people from many strands of life to come together in an informal environment to enjoy food, music and conversation. This 'radical hospitality', as Gates calls it, is a tool used by a number of other contemporary artists who Padilha references in his conversations about Balin House Projects, including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Jorge Pardo.

Other ways of using a house or home as an artistic statement or site of production can assume a more personal character. Miroslaw Balka renovated his childhood home in Otwock, Poland in the 1990s and turned it into his studio. Much of his work references the trauma of the Holocaust, economic depression and Catholic dogma, but it is often brought back to the immediate, personal details of his house and family history. He makes sculptures, videos and installations which draw on stories from both the town of Otwock and his house; he recontextualises mundane items that have informed his personal landscape such as bars of soap, ashes and strands of hair, to make intimate and harrowing links between domestic environments and Jewish history. Like Gates and Padilha, Balka is forever rebuilding, hoarding, re-appropriating materials from elsewhere to construct his environment and his sculptures - his studio is crammed with floorboards and dismantled staircases and much of his work is made up of bits of wallpaper, old planks and linoleum.

Padilha's home environment is a site for constant and potential action. There is never a moment when all has been finalised, as it is at a private view for a gallery exhibition. There are always discussions to be had with local authority officers about leases, a potential take-over of another space in the block, new and expanded horizons. He harbours ambitions to inhabit a bigger space, to explore installation as a potential programming strand and to develop an international commissioning programme.

The type of programme Padilha is creating is an increasingly rare phenomenon in a city where even the private sphere and 'hosting' is now monetised (the recent explosion of Airbnb is one of the most unsavory example of this). The enormous growth in the London property market makes it impossible for artists with no alternative means of support to live and work in the city. Situations and contexts where artists can share a social space, bypass formal financial control systems and show work beyond the over-arching umbrella of an institution are central to a healthy artistic infrastructure. The home is a live and vital part of this context.

On the Enclosure of Time
Essay by Jes Fernie with photographs by Marjolijn Dijkman Published in P.E.A.R. (Paper for Emerging Architectural Research), Issue No 6, Landscape/Ecology 2014

When the poet John Clare was admitted into an insane asylum in 1837, it was commonly understood that the cause could partly be put down to the effects of the Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Introduced by Parliament in order to increase productivity but also to limit the number of commoners who had access to land, the Acts radically changed the psychological and as well as physical landscape of Britain.

Land that was previously accessible to commoners was closed off, leaving a drastically reduced set of options available for people to graze their animals, fish and hunt, cultivate the land and escape their squalid living conditions. Perhaps most damaging of all, the Acts resulted in psychological scarring on a huge scale, constraining the human spirit and shutting down access to other worlds.

Before the Acts came in to force, John Clare could often be found drinking and singing with local gypsies under a tree near his home in Helpston, East Anglia. Escaping the limited set of expectations set by his peers (mainly wealthy poets in London), his family and in all likelihood himself, the tree and its surroundings represented a space where he was free to express himself in any way he wished. He refers to this tree in his poems as the 'Langley Bush'.

During the Anglo Saxon period, the site of this tree was an open-air court attended by representatives from surrounding parishes who met twice a year to judge serious crimes. The court was presided over by the Abbot of Peterborough who dictated the terms of use for the gibbet (a gallows-type structure). Clare, along with his neighbours, friends and work mates, was probably aware of this rich and murky background, which added another layer of historical weight to the site.

The tree became a victim of the Enclosures Acts and was removed. Soon after, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 made it an offence 'to be in the open air, or under a tent, or in a cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself, or herself'. Clare and his gipsy comrades were disenfranchised to the core. In a diary entry made on 29 September 1824, Clare states that 'last year Langley Bush was destroyed an old white-thorn that had stood for more than a century full of fame the Gipseys Shepherds & Herdmen all had their tales of its history and it will be long ere its memory is forgotten.'

One hundred and seventy years later, in 1996, the John Clare Society proposed that a tree be planted in the area to commemorate and celebrate Clare's legacy. Farcically, the chosen site was on private land. To visit the site without permission, one must trespass on land acquired from the commons during the Enclosures. Today, the tree is a symbol of restrictions to freedom - from the 19th to 21st century - as well as a representation of misguided nostalgia for the past.

John Clare's cottage in Helpston was bought by the John Clare Trust in 2005 and after a period of refurbishment, opened to the public in 2008. Like most museums of its kind, it struggles to strike a balance between the often opposing demands of authenticity and nostalgia. Rooms are replete with displays of 'how they once lived' but are devoid of any political or social context. Any acknowledgement that the museum is situated within a geographic area fraught with social and economic challenges, many of which hold parallels with John Clare's life, is entirely invisible (the living conditions of Eastern European farm workers in and around Peterborough is an obvious example). As the British Marxist Historian Raphael Samuel has written 'Heritage becomes the fulcrum that eases present discontinuities (labour protests, reports of sexual gender and racial discrimination, identity politics etc) into a position of timeless harmony.'

The rise of the multi-million pound heritage industry in Britain was brought about by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s. While stoking the fires of capitalism she was also establishing English Heritage - an act that has been viewed by some as a response to the loss of Empire and the threat of assimilating English identity to the EEC. Thatcher very cleverly balanced her drive to create opportunities for enterprise, innovation and capital growth with an appeal to the continuity of tradition in heritage. While the rate of change stormed all around us, 'pastness' was inserted into the popular imaginary' - a common inheritance that gave the British public a strong sense of identity.

Recent right wing political leaders and parties have taken a more direct route to harnessing nostalgia for the past in order to gain public support. The Tea Party's adoption of historical costumes from the 18th century Boston Tea party is an obvious example, but Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom in The Netherlands, is the perhaps one of the most fantastical, with his adoption of the character of Michiel de Ruyter, the 17th century Dutch admiral. In his campaign film, Wilders travels through the Dutch landscape on a rowing boat, dressed in flamboyant admiral garb, delighting in the pastoral idyll of a past never realised, boldly enlisting the imagination to fight the status quo.

Our obsession with holding on to, and preserving an idealised view of the past is literally strangling our ability to create new futures. In a lecture at the Royal Academy (London) in 2011, architects from OMA presented a diagram showing that 12% of the world's surface is now preserved, much of this through UNESCO's World Heritage programme. Buildings and sites are being preserved at such a rapid rate that the time span between the creation of an object and its preservation is reducing to the point that preservation is in danger of becoming a prospective practice, '...heritage is becoming more and more the dominant metaphor for our lives today'.

How we tell the stories of our past, and the selection process that inevitably goes on when we tell them, are issues that all historians, museologists and UNECSO officials must all grapple with. John Clare spent forty years in that asylum, trying to come terms with the implications of his story.

1. Samuel, Raphael Theatres of Memory. London and New York: Verso 1994
2. An argument put by Ryan S Trimm in his essay Haunting Heritage and Cultural Politics: Signifying Britain Since the Rise of Thatcher, 2005.
3. See article by Merijn Oudenampsen, Political Populism: Speaking to the Imagination, Open 2010/No.20/The Populist Imagination

Situations of Contemporary Art and Architecture since 2000
Editor: Fatos Ustek Book Concept and Design: Bulent Erkmen PrePress: BEK © Zorlu Center, 2011

Camouflage Church
Nathan Coley is interested in how the values of a society are articulated in the architecture and public spaces it produces. He uses the immediately identifiable architectural forms of mosques, churches, saloon bars and holiday homes, as a way to unearth our social, political and ideological value systems. Controlled spaces, thresholds and platforms become signifiers for the often fraught relationship between church and state; performers and spectators; politicians, monarchs and subjects.

In 2005 Coley made a series of small-scale models of a church, synagogue and mosque which were stripped of their unique characteristics but remained very clearly signifiers of their religious types: steeple for church, dome for mosque and single storey for synagogue. The most striking element of the work is the dazzle pattern applied to the surface, reminiscent of the camouflage pattern used to confound the enemy on World War I & II ships. These religious structures are attempting to deny their existence - to appear other than what they are - while also spelling out their religious allegiance through their form.

Coley is playful enough to not be didactic. He isn't prescriptive about the kind of questions that he wants us to ask when viewing his work, but there is a palpable sense that he wants us as citizens to be aware of the power structures that define the parameters of our society. With the camouflage series, he may be asking us to consider the position of the church in our increasingly secular way of life; the insidious power that faith still wields whilst becoming seemingly more invisible, or maybe he is pointing out the conflict between form and surface application – warning us that things are never as they seem.

In 2006 Coley was invited to make a public sculpture in the historically and religiously loaded city of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The context for Camouflage Church 2006 (pictured) could hardly have been more rich: the city's Cathedral is the final destination of the popular medieval pilgrimage route and is the reputed burial-place of one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. This large-scale version of the model has become even more of a sign of itself; the architectural details such as windows and doors are gone and we are left with a mute generic church installed within a city populated by the architecture of faith in the form of pilgrims, cathedrals and prayer.

More recently, Coley has been considering the symbolic layers inherent in a larger expanse of public space, beyond Europe. Built in 1960 and designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, the Square of the Three Powers in Brasilia was constructed for the inauguration of the new Brazilian capital. It is a box of Coley delights: it contains the Brazilian Congress, the administrative seat of the republic's president, a statue of the blind figure of Justice, the Supreme Federal Court and an expansive platform for citizens and tourists to enjoy. These four power structures - the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and the voice (and actions) of the everyman - are overlaid with the melancholic air of failed modernism. The square's civic structures remain, but socially and ideologically, the square is a relic from a time when utopian ideals were at the heart of urban planning strategies. Coley designed a series of these platforms for an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art , offering us the opportunity to consider both intellectually and physically the varying hierarchies inherent in the original square as well as the platforms themselves - as sculpture, performative structures and plinths. The loaded architectural space of the contemporary art gallery (the 21st century equivalent of a church perhaps) added yet another layer to Coley's rich trove of associations.

Jes Fernie, independent curator and writer
October 2011

Architecture on a Plinth
An essay in 'Ideas Exchange: The Collaborative Studio of Hawkins\Brown', Edited by Tim Abrahams, published by Birkhauser, 2010

It took thirty years for the architectural avant-garde to recover from Adolf Loos' statement that 'the omission of ornament is a sign of intellectual strength'. It was not until 1943 that Sigfried Giedion challenged the modernist orthodoxy on ornamentation. Working under the auspices of CIAM (Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne) he argued that modern architecture in undecorated form was mute and that it needed art to give it symbolic meaning. It was not until the much-maligned years of post-modernism in the 70s and 80s that the first real opportunities arose for artists to effect the built environment. It was at this point that we saw the beginning of the numerous collaborations between artists and architects that we take for granted today.

The explosive growth of collaborative practice between artists and architects that followed post-modernism can be crudely divided in to three decades which takes us from clunky 80s add-on, to 90s dictatorship to eclecticism in the 2000s. In the 1980s, the 'Percent for Art' drive from local authorities established a space in which artists could form a dialogue, however superficial, with architects to make work which was at best iconic and at worst tokenistic. Artists such as Claes Oldenburg and William Pye were heralded as the high priests of scatological bravado in the public realm. Lonely spaces in corporate landscapes were filled with empty statements in the form of monumental sculptures. It wasn't pretty but it did establish the groundwork for more interesting relationships to come.

The 1990s saw a more mature dialogue. Practitioners, clients and funders began to recognise the value of an artists voice as part of a design team even if their contribution did not necessarily end in a physical form. The most astute practictioners learned that questions are often more powerful than statements -whether these statements are sculptural or verbal - and artists became increasingly called upon to challenge assumptions about, and approaches to, architectural projects. This enthused architects eager to claw back some of the thinking time that the rise of planning authorities and project managers was increasingly stripping away.

Tania Kovats' work with Axel Burrough of Levitt Bernstein Associates on the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in the mid 1990s is often quoted as an early example of an artist working with an architect on a conceptual level. Kovats' asked the design team (and herself) to consider what would happen if we put this gallery on a plinth? What would it mean metaphorically and practically? It was a deeply provocative statement that managed to encompass the monumental and the invisible in one fell swoop. Architect Levitt Bernstein acknowledged that Kovats was an important member of the design team and conceived the dark slate plinth upon which the converted school building now rests.

At the same time Hawkins\Brown were working with Nicky Hirst at the University of Birmingham, and with Richard Wilson, Peter Doig and Markin Richman at the University of Portsmouth Sudent Centre.

In some quarters the mantra of artists inclusion on design teams became overly dictatorial. It seemed for a while that all architects were forced into accepting that if they didn't work with an artist their scheme would be lacking an artistic sensibility or integrity. An absurd idea that Rem Koolhaas, who has become known for his conversations with artists, has often commented on, extending his dislike of the dictat to his refusal to believe that every time an artist and architect come to together something great happens. Indeed, in contemporary society the long-held belief in the redemptive power of art has made something of a resurgence. Often an architect will announce that they are collaborating with an artist as if this is somehow morally improving. Let us not forget that when an artist and architects come together sometimes something awful happens.

The partners at Hawkins/Brown were well aware that there were only a small number of very particular projects which presented an opportunity for them to form a close dialogue with an artist. The heady cocktail of client commitment, funding availability and appropriateness is a rare combination. Having established the practice in the late 1980s, they were becoming a significant player in the UK architectural landscape by the early 1990s and the partners began to develop their long-standing interest in art by channeling their conversations with artists into the working machinations of their practice.

In 2001 partner David Bickle invited photographer and film maker Andrew Cross to consider how a small public square in Dalston, East London, might be rethought and repositioned for a broader, more inclusive audience. Cross made a photographic study of the area and, along with Bickle, devised a hair-brained scheme to create an opportunity for members of the public to view the building site from a crane, creating a democratic vantage point, usually only accorded to the design team members and the client. A little later, in the mid-90s Bickle was taken with Kovats' Ikon intervention and has often sited this project as a major influence on his thinking about the possibilities for artists' engagement with the language of architecture.

At the same time, students in art and architecture schools were taking their cursory nods at one another one step further by developing long-standing collaborative relationships. Artists became interested in working on a much larger scale. Indeed, in an art world determined by decisive turns in art practice since the late 1960s, by the 1990s artists were expected to work on a large scale. Many artists were still toying with the idea of a social sculpture in which art would transform society, as proposed by Joseph Beuys. Land Art filtered through the practice of Gordon Matta clark and was making itself felt in art colleges. If art wanted to influence society, one of the best ways it could do so was by addressing that most social of art forms, architecture.

Architects meanwhile were keen to develop conceptual languages of expression through engaging with art practice. With the demise of modernism and its overarching set of functional principles, architects not taken by the easy fix of postmodernism, looked to new areas for a conceptual framework. The art world with its more dynamic intellectual atmosphere was ripe for plundering. David Adjaye and Chris Ofili met at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 1990s, when Adjaye was studying architecture and Ofili painting. They have worked together ever since, Ofili contributing ideas for patterns on the surfaces of Adjaye's buildings and Adjaye contributing ideas for gallery installations in which Ofili's paintings can be set.

It is Herzog & de Meuron however who have shown how collaboration with artists on conceptual level can invigorate architecture in a more exciting fashion. Their interest in forming dialogues with artist such as Thomas Ruff and Remy Zaugg lent a powerful currency to their proposals and formed a major part of their rise to architectural stardom. Their collaboration with Michael Craig-Martin on Tate Modern and the Laban Dance Centre, established their British credentials, but it was their work with Ai Wei Wei on the Beijing National Stadium in 2008 which presented an international face to the range of possibilities that collaboration with an artist could offer. There is no overt separation between art and architecture in the project, no object in a plaza, but instead a seamless amalgamation of art and architecture that has evolved out of a series of conversations about the social and cultural context in which physical statements are made.

This loosening up of the rules has been a defining feature of the last decade; a diverse, eclectic area of practice between artists and architects has developed. This is creating a more level playing field between the two disciplines. Instead of working within the limits set by architects and clients, artists are challenging the architectural world by appropriating the public realm as well as the language of architecture in unprecedented ways. Artists are increasingly bold in their determination to have a dialogue with the city, influencing the mood and atmosphere of the streets. When designing a new square or park, local authorities are as likely to turn to an artist as an engineer or an architect.

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist actively looks for opportunities to do projects in the public realm before a competition is devised to invite her proposal: 'In these big public schemes, there's this bloody crazy, bad situation that you have to wait to be asked to be involved. I always try to be faster and propose something first'. Rist's hugely successful red carpet, designed in collaboration with architect Carlos Martinez for a small town in Switzerland, is a playground for children, adults and cars. It brings a dynamism and sense of life to a previously disused part of the town and shows the huge impact an artist can have on the physical environment, given the opportunity.

When interviewed for their first book &\also Russell Brown explained what they had appropriated from art practice into their own: 'Artists seem to be able to tackle the bigger questions, be they practical, philosophical or just human. They are seeking a much more direct communication with their audience, they are less hidebound by formulae, rules and doctrices. They seem to be fearless in their pursuit of a great, populist, funny, extraordinary idea'.

Hawkins\Brown brought Nicky Hirst in to work with them on a scheme for the Biochemistry Department at Oxford University (Glass Menagerie 2009). The ink blot drawings on the façade of the building (just one part of a much larger commissioning programme) form an extravagant and intriguing dialogue with the new public square in which it is situated, which comes alive in the evening when the shapes become voids. Hirst worked with Morag Morrison, Associate at Hawkins\Brown on this project, and in a telling display of Hawkins\Brown's commitment to working with artists, formed an intense two year dialogue in which Morrison's in-depth knowledge of contemporary art and the ways in which artists work played a crucial role in the success of this collaboration.

While Morrison was grappling with the glass contractors at Oxford, Seth Rutt was introducing the work of Sarah Staton into Hawkins\Brown's work for Jammerson at Sevenstone in Sheffield. He sensed that an artist could take the decorative themes from the surrounding Victorian buildings and find patterns that would blur the boundary between the new and the old.

Over its twenty one year life-span, Hawkins\Brown has witnessed, and been part of, the rich development of collaborative practice between artists and architects. One of their most recent collaborations has been with Bob and Roberta Smith on his Faites L'Art, pas La Guerre, 2008, shortlisted for the Fourth Plinth commissioning programme in London's Trafalgar Square. Smith's competition proposal for the empty plinth was powered by the sun and designed in collaboration with David Bickle at Hawkins\Brown.

We have reached a moment where the rules have been frayed and the possibilities are open-ended and dynamic, heralding a bright future. The argument for an artists' inclusion in design teams or involvement in the public realm no longer has to be made and that there is now a well-established system to support artists through the process. In fact, artists are playing an increasingly discursive and significant role in the formation of our public spaces and in so doing they are broadening the scope of architectural practice. Even so, David Bickle, Morag Morrison and others at Hawkins/Brown are only too well aware that the system relies heavily on the visionary sensibilities of the clients and developers who are, largely, in control of the way in which our towns and cities look. The considerable inroad into collaborative practice that has been made over the past thirty years is, to a large part, in their hands.

Prunes, Potatoes, Pears and Prisms
Sarah Staton exhibition text for Roche Court, November 2009

The setting of Roche Court for Sarah Staton's sculptures brilliantly frames Staton's on-going dialogue with design, architecture, modernism and taste. The Georgian architecture of the original house and the contemporary architecture of Stephan Marshall's additions are bookends to the intervening century which boasted the dominant era of modernism. It is modernism that holds such weight in both Staton's work and the narrative strand of Roche Court: in the former, through the disavowal of the plinth, the interest in construction techniques and the assemblage of found objects from seemingly disparate places, and the latter through the banishment of ornament as evident in Marshall's extensions and their insistence of a dialogue with the surrounding landscape.

Here at Roche Court, Staton's sculptures act as a prod to our historical and social sensibilities. Are we supposed to sit on Tilda Chair, put our drink on Square Stack and consume that glistening cherry on Bean Tree? Is that an original 60s, mass-produced item or is it a one-off - a 21st century sculpture that has been lovingly made by hand? Is this a reference to the actress Tilda Swinton and what is the relationship between the title of this sculpture to 'named' furniture pieces produced by contemporary design masters such as Matthew Hilton (Balzac Chair) or Herman Miller (Aeron Chair)? These are questions that are echoed, once again, in the grounds of Roche Court: what is the relationship of Julian Opie's reclining nude to one by Henry Moore made fifty years previously, or a pitchfork by Michael Craig-Martin to a torso by Barbara Hepworth?

Over the past twenty years Staton has traversed the clearly demarcated boundaries of her discipline by working with architects on large-scale public buildings as well as designing clothes and a range of products such as mugs, writing paper and bags. Now she is taking up the challenge of making sculpture that bears all the hallmarks of furniture. This range of activity is rare in the field of art where artists who dare to step outside their chosen discipline are viewed with scepticism. Is she serious? How can I position her? If I can use it, is it art?

What makes Staton's work so exciting and rewarding to look at, use or wear, is the level of commitment she invests in her 'project' across such a broad range of media. Like an artist, craftswoman, designer and thinker all wrapped in one, she looks at a proposal from every possible angle, taking risks, asking questions, pushing boundaries. Look again at Tilda Chair and consider the myriad of connections to be made in that work: the retro pattern which exudes a Scandinavian fifties-fabric air; the flat-pack design which would look at home on the shelves of an Ikea store; and the fact that it is located in a domestic setting (the Artists House) but is presented as a sculpture. All these elements combine to create a rich layering of textures in Staton's work.

The final cause for celebration and confusion is evident in Square Stack with its willful application of ornament (the glass elements - check with Sarah). This is an object whose form and presentation is clearly influenced by modernism but it embodies a wry rejection of Adolf Loos' fabulously verbose declaration made in 1910 (the birth of modernism) that 'the omission of ornament is a sign of intellectual strength'. A hundred years later, Staton's positioning of those glass balls (check) stand as a startling and glorious challenge to Loos and all those who encounter her work today.

Jes Fernie
November 2009

Canal Wall, A Project For Regents Canal, London
Yuki Shiraishi, A text for PEER 2008

The Regent's Canal was a main component of London's early industrial landscape which connects Paddington with Limehouse. It opened in 1820 and served as an important means of transporting cargo until the early 1960s. In 1996, British Waterways formed the London's Waterway Partnership thus reenergising the canal and the canal-side for living, working and leisure. The last decade has seen the landscape of the eastern end of Regent's Canal gradually transform from a polluted, partly inaccessible and sometimes dangerous environment into a busy waterside thoroughfare. At the morning and evening rush hour the 'ding-ding' of bicycle bells chime with the sound of ducks, coots and the lapping of water created by the wake of a passing barge.

The Canal has become an important focus for the regeneration opportunities it offers, from environmental improvements and affordable housing to rowing classes for local school groups. It is part of the urban landscape but is experienced at a relatively slower and quieter pace than the street, thus also making it an enticing platform for the presentation of art.

Yuko Shiraishi has spent the last 25 years researching the psychological, social and physical effects of colour and has brought this body of knowledge to her commission for the Regent's Canal. When, in 2005, she was invited by Jiundo Psychiatric Hospital in Tokyo to contribute ideas for the design of treatment rooms, she proposed deep red floors and white walls. The client dismissed her proposal, stipulating that all floors in the hospital had to be white in order for the patients to witness the results of self-harm. The colour of blood is a powerful and emotive reference in all societies; it is used to create discomfort and unease, but it can also be medative and is even said to have healing properties.

Shiraishi enjoys the symbolic and synesthesic potential of colour. Her scheme for the 70-metre long Canal Wall just west of the Kingsland Basin engages pedestrians, cyclists and canal-users in a kind of melodic dialogue of tone and hue of varying intensities. Shiraishi also holds the conviction that colour preference is inscribed in our DNA - we are born with our own colour scheme - and therefore we will have individual experiences of the work as it reacts to changing light and weather conditions.

Shiraishi hasn't always worked in the public realm on projects of this kind. She began her career working solely in her studio making abstract paintings on canvas comprised of primarily two fields of colour. These deceptively simple works followed Josef Albers' insistence on 'maximum effect from minimum means' and created a sense of harmony through a process of intuition and rigorous discipline. In the late 1990s Shiraishi began to incorporate the frame within the architecture by embedding her paintings into the wall so that the picture plane was flush with their display surface. Her exhibitions increasingly became installations of space manipulated by colour, partition walls and bespoke seating - taking the viewer on a three-dimensional spatial journey.

Canal Wall is just a stone's throw away from Shiraishi's studio of more than 20 years; it is therefore an environment that she is very familiar with. The project is the most recent in a series of initiatives where Shiraishi has moved beyond the gallery entirely and entered the public realm. Working with architects, clients and contractors on public projects in London for the Children's Centre at Moorefields Eye Hospital and the BBC White City and in Germany at Insel Hombroich Foundation, the artist has become an anthropologist of sorts. Talking about her contact with people working in other disciplines, she says she feels like filmmaker Robert Altman and naturalist David Attenborough wrapped into one: both observing human interaction from the position of an outsider and viewing the un-natural world of the urban landscape as if humans were its strange inhabitants.

This interest in, and openness to, how viewers interact with her work sets her apart from many of the artists whose work she is influenced by (Joseph Albers and Donald Judd among them). She does not insist on a strict adherence to a definitive meaning in her work and positively invites interaction, unexpected responses and even, in the case of Canal Wall, the likelihood of additions to the work. For this project she refuses to apply anti-graffiti paint to the surface, saying that the plain blocks of colour will accommodate this response.

In another form of expectation reversal, Shiraishi's project for Regent's Canal is working against the tide of current public realm practice where members of the public are invited to 'complete' a work in some way, through participation or direct engagement. This project has been made by the artist for, rather than with, its audience. It is a massive work of quiet significance, effecting the canal side environment in tangential ways and presenting residents and visitors with a regeneration project that reaches beyond the bombastic and towards the sublime.

Jes Fernie

William Kentridge: Four Films Exhibition Text
University of Essex Gallery, Jan-Feb 2007

Soho Eckstein is a property developer, a mine owner and a Johannesburg magnate. He is fat, he wears a pinstripe suit and he smokes cigars. He represents greed, and evokes guilt and vulnerability in a society mangled by racism, apartheid, and its fall-out. A fictional character devised by William Kentridge over the last fifteen years, Eckstein is the protagonist in three of the four films showing at Essex University Gallery in January 2007: Mine (1991), Weighing... and Wanting (1998) and Tide Table (2003). These films span the pre and post apartheid era in South Africa, encompassing, among other things, the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 1996, and the AIDS epidemic - the so-called 'African problem' of the 21st century.

Kentridge is South Africa's most widely known and respected contemporary artist. He has lived and worked in Johannesburg all his life and came to international acclaim, in the art world at least, at the age of forty when he showed at the Johannesburg Biennial in 1995. The son of a prominent South African lawyer who was involved in the investigation into Steve Biko's death and the Mandela trials, the progressive, intellectual context in which Kentridge was raised plays a significant role in the work he makes. His degree in Fine Art was preceded by a BA in Politics and African Studies and for twenty years he was an actor, designer and director for film and theatre companies making work with a political edge.

All this is a preamble to the significant point that although Kentridge has reached the giddy heights of art world fame, he makes unfashionable art. His films, or 'drawings for projection' as he calls them, take the form of expressive and political narratives (however fractured), an approach not celebrated in Europe since the early 20th century when Beckmann, Kollwitz and Dix were taking a stance against hypocrisy, greed and failure in war-torn Germany. The fact that Kentridge's work is so powerful and arresting is certainly a key factor in this bombastic over-riding of fashion. But his success is primarily to do with the fact that he manages to extract fundamental elements of the human condition from the narrative and the politics, something that few artists manage to pull off. His central project is to relay the incoherence of human thought and action (most evident in the disjointed and contradictory elements in his films) and to explore the membranes that exist between 'what is us and what is not us'.(1)

I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalised society left in its wake. I am interested in a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.(2) In Mine, the third film that Kentridge made, Soho Eckstein is a mine owner enjoying the fruits of his labour. He sits propped up in bed wearing a suit with his breakfast placed before him. He presses the plunger of his cafetiere through his tray down into a noisy, claustrophobic, hellish mine in which misery, physical confinement, and the violent sound of drilling are horribly apparent. The contrast between the spaces above and below ground evokes Eckstein's exploitation of the land and the labourers he employs beneath it. He is ignorant of the suffering he is causing, thus avoiding the incapacitating emotion of guilt. The contradictions and ambiguities in the film emerge when we realise that we can't dismiss Eckstein (or any of Kentridge's characters, Ubu included) as a straightforward representative of evil distant from ourselves, but someone or something inside us all. The physical resemblance of Eckstein to Kentridge himself is striking, and indeed Kentridge has talked about the fact that Eckstein is loosely based on his grandfather, Morris Kentridge, a lawyer and parliamentarian for the Labour Party in South Africa during the first half of the 20th century. 'And of course' Kentridge says 'that only makes Soho a displaced self portrait'.(3)

The physical stature of the repulsive protagonist in the film Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) is also based on Kentridge - more specifically on photographs of himself naked taken in his studio. The character of Ubu is based on Ubu Roi, a wild and grotesque despot, conceived by the French dramatist Alfred Jarry in 1888, whose irrational acts terrorise and devastate his country. In Ubu Tells the Truth violent footage of the Soweto uprising of 1976 is interspersed with chalk drawings on black paper of Ubu morphing into a murderous tripod, radio, cat and finally a camera. Through the disturbing sound of unpalatable human suffering, a voice proclaims 'There is no other alternative for South Africa'. The film is an attempt to absorb the horror of the weight of evidence presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. How to absorb the 'implications of what one knew, half knew, and did not know of the abuses of the apartheid years'.(4)

Memory, time and change are constant themes in Kentridge's work, his 'stone age' film-making technique serving only to underline this. He sticks a large piece of paper to his studio wall and places an old Bolex camera half way across the room. 'A drawing is started on the paper, I walk across to the camera, shoot one or two frames, walk back to the paper, change the drawing (marginally), walk back to the camera, walk back to the paper, to the camera and so on. So that each sequence as opposed to each frame of the film is a singe drawing'.(5) Each film consists of twenty to forty charcoal drawings. The rubbing out in the drawings is evident in every frame, hinting at people, landscapes, buildings and animals whose past cannot be forgotten; so that the present becomes something that is linked to the past. A core moral dilemma in Kentridge's work is the question of how the issue of past crimes can be properly confronted and dealt with. This can only be done as long as we retain - in one form or another - the memory of those crimes, as represented by the smudges of Kentridge's charcoal.

Reconciliation is the subject of Weighing... and Wanting. Made in the period during which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was bearing witness to, and recording, human rights violations in apartheid South Africa, the film shows Eckstein recollecting his life, both personal and public. A rock becomes a metaphor for Eckstein's brain and ultimately his memory. He puts a cup to his ear as if it were a sea shell and loses himself in memories of the past. His loving relationship with a bespectacled naked woman explodes into fragments, creating chaos and isolation. The woman is then reborn from within the rock and reunited with Eckstein. The textual complexity of Kentridge's films, with their diverse array of heterogeneous sources, objects, and characters, make the narrative hard to locate - perhaps Weighing... and Wanting embodies a desire to achieve some sort of redemption and to reconcile the past with the future, however uneasily.

In Tide Table (shown here for the first time in the UK) Soho Eckstein is portrayed as a middle aged man approaching the end of his working life, longing for something that has eluded him. Lost and alone, his suit no longer an emblem of power but of vulnerability, he sits in a deckchair studying the tide table in an ever-expanding newspaper. A woman comforts him as he dozes off. A baptism is performed and cattle decompose in the sea. Images of hospital wards crammed with dying patients allude to the AIDS epidemic. Is Eckstein dreaming? Are the closing images of him throwing stones into the sea (and thus becoming the boy who does the same) a sign of reconciliation with the past? Or something more ambiguous? Kentridge once again invites us in to the powerful place that exists between our experience of reality and the machinations of our minds.

It is twelve years since apartheid was dismantled and Kentridge came to international prominence. Looking at the films in 2007 it is easier to detach the politics from the universal themes inherent in the work. The gruelling violence (physical, emotional, mental) is still overwhelming, but what one is left with is a paradoxical sense of tragic optimism.

1. San Franscisco Chronicle, February 25, 2006. Interview with Kenneth Baker.
2. Statement in William Kentridge: Drawings for Projection. Four Animated Films, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 1992.
3. William Kentridge, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, published by Societe des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998.
4. William Kentridge, letter to Carolyn Christov-Bakagiev, 1996.
5. William Kentridge, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, published by Societe des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998.

Jes Fernie
Jan - Feb 2007

What’s a ‘creative agent’?
Artists' collaborations with architects. An essay in Open Space, Art in the public realm in London 1995 - 2005. Edited by Jemima Montagu, Arts Council England, London, 2007

I was recently invited to take part in a selection process to find an artist to work with an architect on designs for a new gallery in the north of England. At the interview stage I voiced my concern that the brief was overly prescriptive and that there was no room for the appointed artist to fail or at the very least, tamper with the boundaries. Gasps of disbelief echoed around the room and the funding body representative present made it clear that she wished to be disassociated from the statement. But if failure is not an option for artists involved in public realm projects, what is it that we are asking artists to do or be? If artists aren't given the option of failure, is what they make for the public domain, art?

A growing number of artists are invited to become 'creative agents' in the construction of our public spaces. The language surrounding these schemes (manifested in the form of briefs, marketing material, funding applications, local authority documents and magazine articles) is now fully professionalised. Artists are no longer requested to make stand-alone works of art for designated spaces (the insensitive 'plop' associations that come with this type of commissioning have been well documented), they are now invited to help local authorities or clients 'deliver a vision'; to become part of a large team of architects, planners, engineers, local authority officers and facilitators who are engaged in the process of making a building or a public space. The danger of this type of language and involvement is that the voice of the artist frequently goes unheard. An even larger danger is that artists themselves become professionalised and savvy to this way of working and in so doing become part of the system which kills the essence of an art programme. Who, after all, wants to work with an artist who can guarantee that they'll come in on budget and on time? I received an email from an artist recently who introduced himself as a 'professional public artist'. What does this mean? The fact that there is now a profession known as 'public artist' does not guarantee the quality of the artists' work or even their ability to work on time and to budget.

In any commissioning programme, it is important to start off with a series of questions: "Why do we want to involve an artist in this project?"; "What role will she or he play in the design team?" If you're feeling particularly discursive you might ask yourself "What do artists do?" If these questions are answered honestly and constructively, you might reach the conclusion that it would be more appropriate to appoint a furniture designer, a branding consultant, a social worker or perhaps a better architect, rather than an artist.

When you've come through the other side of all these questions and reached the conclusion that appointing an artist is an appropriate route to take, the exciting bit begins. Involving an artist in a public realm scheme can be an exhilarating experience and can result in the creation of a curious, dynamic and unique environment or event, as the projects in this book show. Artists are good at many things, but in this context they might bring the following to a design team:

- A critical, discursive voice which can either radically change or subtly shift the direction of a scheme
- The ability to question a plan or approach in unorthodox ways
- Disorder
- A creative or aesthetic dimension
- The ability to inject a sense of the impossible into a design team
- No vested interests
- A willingness to laugh at themselves and explore new ideas
- The ability to present ideas and proposals in engaging ways
- An interest in, and ability to carry out, off-beat research

But artists don't come free: quite apart from the amount of time it takes to manage a commissioning process, their involvement requires a significant amount of intellectual and sometimes emotional input from the client and architect. If an architect sees their partnership with an artist as 'extra work', they're probably working with the wrong artist or shouldn't be working with an artist at all. Having said this, artists are often pretty adept at seeking out a person in a design team with whom they can build a productive relationship. When artist Laura Ford realised that the architect she had been assigned to work with was not very sympathetic to her presence on the design team for the refurbishment of Swiss Cottage Library in London (how would her colourful scheme work alongside their commitment to white-washed modernism?), she formed a close working relationship with the carpenter and carpet designer who fabricated the seats, tables and flooring that she had designed for the children's space (see p.98). Ford was able to find a way of working that did not disturb the overall design of the new interior. The strongest collaborations, however, come about from genuine interaction between members of the team, and require a clear definition of roles and responsibilities at the outset.

Finding the right artist is obviously a crucial task in the commissioning process. All the best projects, in my experience, stem from relationships that have been proposed or established by the parties involved, ie an architect or client has an interest in working with a particular artist with whom they either have an established relationship or wish to work with. In the case of Michael Craig-Martin's work at Laban, the collaboration with architects Herzog and De Meuron came about through a previous friendship. Craig-Martin was on the board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery during the transformation by Herzog and De Meuron of the Bankside power station into Tate Modern. Later, when it was proposed that the architects might work with an artist on the development of the new contemporary dance centre, they didn't hesitate in proposing Craig-Martin.

In situations where there is no such link, a good way to proceed is to bring in the expertise of an art consultant who will initiate a selection process. A long-list is usually drawn up by the art consultant, with the client and architect, and is later whittled down to a short-list of two or three. The short-listed artists are invited to meet the client and architect in order to take part in a general discussion concerning the project and the work of both the artist and architect. This informal approach gets round the hierarchy often involved in a selection process, and becomes a conversation amongst equals who are able to reach a consensus regarding their interest in working with each other. There are very rare occasions where the blind-date approach works; in 1999, art consultant Isabel Vasseur engineered a meeting between artist Mark Dion and landscape architect Eelco Hooftman, for a project at the Earth Centre in Yorkshire, and they're still working together today. But success stories like this one usually require the help and knowledge of an expert who can broker the 'chance' encounter.

Artists are often asked to draw up proposals as part of the short-listing process, although this can be unproductive and prejudicial. An artist will probably know very little about site or scheme at this stage, and the personal connection between the artist, client and architect is often more important than a proposal, which may be subject to extensive change and development. If you aim to treat all professionals involved in the project on an equal basis, offer the artist a fee to attend the initial conversation. Contrary to popular belief, artists are unable to live off air alone.

Every collaboration is different, and there are always subjective personal views that come into play. But there are a few guidelines that might be followed. Acknowledging that very few important decisions are made in design meetings, but rather in the pub, over the photocopier, the phone or in somebody's head at three in the morning, is the first one. If an artist is only invited to attend design meetings and is kept out of the loop in between these meetings, the chances are that she or he will be unable to make a significant impact on the final scheme. It is often a good idea to set up a formal route of communication - through meetings, email or phone - between the artist and a project architect who can keep them informed of even minor changes to plans or the work programme. When artist Simon Moretti worked with architect Adam Caruso of Caruso St John on the refurbishment of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in 2003, he found this set up invaluable: "it allowed us to talk through ideas at design meetings without having to consider logistical matters".

Another important guideline is to develop a careful brief. They are absolutely crucial to a commissioning process: they provide a framework for the artists' involvement, along with a description of their role, the site and the context, but most importantly, they set the tone for the ongoing partnership between artist, client and architect which is likely to be in place for a period of at least two years. If a brief is too limiting, prescriptive or unimaginative, the outcome of an artist's involvement is likely to be clunky, laboured or just plain bad.

Trust and respect play an important part in any relationship and a collaborative partnership between artist and architect is no exception. This leads me back to the point I made at the beginning of this essay relating to the freedom of artists to fail. An artist is invited onto a design team to make, do or say things that nobody else can make, do or say. The consequences of this appointment should be followed through. This may be tricky, perhaps almost impossible or infuriating at times, but the art, or input by the artist, is likely to be of a much higher standard if the artist is supported and trusted rather than bombarded with a barrage of negativity, such as "It won't stay up" or "That's just not possible".

Behind every successful commissioning programme there lurks a supportive, engaged and passionate client. It is almost impossible to negotiate the quagmire that makes up tight timescales, budget restrictions and conflicting aims without the presence of one person who has the power to push through a proposal, find funds to cover fabrication costs and to support the voice of the artist. Liam Bond from More London Development Ltd personally initiated the art commissioning programme at More London by Tower Bridge, and showed commitment and flexibility throughout the process; likewise art patrons Stuart Lipton and John Ritblat have brought their commitment to the arts into the ethos of their organisations, resulting in art commissions at Broadgate Circus and Regent's Place. Of course the champion of an art programme does not need to be at the top of an organisation; it is often the project managers who ensure the success of many art commissioning programmes.

We want something unique, ground-breaking and significant from artists working on public realm projects, but we also want something which adheres to health and safety regulations, which won't cost too much, which is achievable within the stipulated time frame and which ticks all the social inclusion boxes set by many funders and clients. If good art manages to come out the other end of this process it is a testament to the commitment, energy and imagination of the artist, client, art consultant and other members of the design team. And good art shows that risks are worth taking.

We must cultivate our garden
Northern City, Between Light and Dark Lighthouse, December 2006

The sum of money required to live comfortably in 21st century Britain is said to be £24,000 per year. The protagonist in Voltaire's Candide highlights the temptation to fall for a more comparative understanding of happiness. Candide travels the globe in search of happiness, and when he reaches the isolated country of Eldorado he meets children playing with emeralds and is waited on by maidservants of unsurpassed beauty. Candide and his travelling companion decide that their happiness is worthless in Eldorado.

If we stay here, we shall be no different from anybody else; but if we go back to the old world with a mere twelve sheep laden with Eldorado stones, we shall be richer than all the kings of Europe put together.

At the end of the book, after months of tortuous arguments with his famous tutor Pangloss concerning the best way to live life, Candide meets an old man sitting under an arbour of orange trees. The man is happy with his lot; he has twenty acres which he tends with his children and is ignorant of the political machinations of Constantinople and beyond. Candide leaves the farm a changed man: That old fellow… seemed to me to have done much better for himself than those six kings we had the honour of supping with. He returns to his small estate and organises his life according to the simple principle that happiness is to be found in cultivating the land, relationships and talents that surround you. His wife Cunegonde discovers she has a flair for pastry making and Brother Giroflee is a good carpenter. Candide concludes that in order to obtain happiness 'We must cultivate our garden'.

Nathan Coley has mounted these words on a six foot scaffolding structure where their powerful and complex overtones become explicit. The use of the plural 'we' is inclusive, conveying the sense that a joint effort is necessary for an endeavour to have any effect. The imperative 'must' lends an active, almost dictatorial tone. The words 'cultivate' and 'garden' are loaded with metaphorical weight: we can cultivate our minds, our souls, our relationships as well as the soil. Our 'garden' might constitute a house, a spirit, a child or a patch of land.

The intention of Voltaire to allow for multiple interpretations is clear and this is the point that interests Coley. A literal reading of the statement is obvious: tend to your garden and you will feel better about life. A broader, metaphorical reading might yield an anti-church, anti-royalty message which propounds an active, self-reliant approach to life; a belief that a hunger for knowledge and understanding can be satiated through investigation and hard work rather than reliance on fate, tenuous beliefs or social standing.

The Penguin Classics edition of Candide translates 'il faut cultiver notre jardin' into the rather more limp statement 'we must go and work in the garden'. While Coley is convinced that he has selected the correct translation, he is interested in the idea that the sentence is open to multiple forms of translation and interpretation. As in all his work, this element of ambiguity is crucial. The onus is placed on the viewer to locate a meaning which interests them. In a recent exhibition at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute Coley installed the words 'THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE' on a similar scaffolding structure in the grounds of a 19th century gothic mansion, using the same type of fairground bulbs and typeface (designed by James Goggin for the purpose). The statement is derived from a public decree issued in 17th century France in a village persistently troubled by supernatural activity. Such a bold assertion belies its essential tenuousness, leaving the viewer wondering where they can, indeed, be witness to a miracle. The author (in this case, the King) is clearly raising himself above the status of God, taking ownership of real and metaphysical space - a somewhat presumptuous position to take, particularly in 17th century France when religion was still at the heart of civilised society. At first glance the statement is absurd; on second viewing it is amusingly pedantic and even deflationary in that it seems to close down the possibility of an imaginary space where miracles can occur. But it can also be read as a wholly positive statement with which Voltaire would no doubt have concurred: a plea to citizens to shed their superstitious beliefs in favour of a rational, exploratory, evidence-based approach to life, resulting in a more satisfying and meaningful existence.

The formal elements of the miracles piece are echoed in the Lighthouse installation. In both cases the words are carefully set out on a makeshift scaffolding structure. The first line of THERE WILL BE / NO MIRACLES / HERE is declaratory and affirmative, the second line is equally declaratory but negative, while the third line emphasises the location of the statement, presenting a notional boundary within which the diktat must be obeyed. Coley sets out WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN in one line of text where the word 'cultivate' is sandwiched between four words, two on either side. This provides the eye with an element of visual harmony but also draws attention to the authoritative tone of the text. The upper case text exaggerates this tone, as does the location of the work in the room. An elevated sign (one that is above head height, at least) exudes very different overtones to one that is viewed at eye level. It becomes an injunction which lends an air of authority beyond the grasp of the mortal beneath it. Coley kills two birds with one stone here, as the space below the text provides ample room for a lush and well cared for garden to grow.

In the context of this exhibition WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN assumes yet another guise. The garden becomes Edinburgh, the city from which, according to some, modern life emerged. Candide was first published in France in 1759, when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing and there are many parallels to be drawn between Voltaire's philosophy and those of his contemporaries in Scotland. David Hume and Adam Smith echoed Voltaire's insistence that empiricism and the inductive method were superior to superstition and metaphysics and that the division of church and state was essential for the creation of a modern state.

Contemporary Edinburgh is steeped in the architectural and emotive fabric of its past. Its distinctive topology lends itself to a type of conservatism that, while conveying a sense of stability, stifles imaginative and physical growth. The medieval castle, perched on its volcanic base and rising majestically above Princess Street, is an icon that is difficult for any contemporary visionary to compete with. The imposing museums, gardens, monuments and crescents were all born of the intellectual and economic renaissance that stemmed, in part, from Scotland's political union with England in 1707. While this wealth of history is quite rightly carefully preserved in the 21st century, it also provides an insidious backdrop to cries of dissent from traditionalists who, for example, complain of the 'blight' to the landscape caused by Eric Miralles' recently completed Scottish Parliament.

If you cultivate your garden with any integrity, you will obviously have to carry out the tedious task of weeding, but you will also need to experiment with new and perhaps exotic plants, some of which will no doubt disappoint, while others will grow and become firm favourites.

In the broader context of contemporary society, WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN becomes a criticism of the current demand for easy access to everything, where the least amount of physical or mental effort is required to achieve happiness or enlightenment. Government policies which seem to support the idea that elitism is a dirty word are evident in their approach to education and the arts. Voltaire's hatred of church and monarchy would today be replaced, no doubt, by a hatred of a media culture in which teenagers dream of fame for fame's sake and the far corners of the world are reached in the comfort of an SUV.

Finally, the fact that the enlightenment baton was grasped so zealously by the founding fathers of America in 1776 adds an element of poignancy to Coley's installation. The separation of church and state in the constitution drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton with help from, amongst others, Adam Smith, represented the culmination of Hume and Voltaire's ambitions. This is a country where seventy per cent of the population now believes in Satan and the groundswell of support for Creationism (euphemistically called 'Intelligent Design') seems to overwhelm all rational thought. Two hundred and fifty years later, it appears to be more imperative than ever that we cultivate our garden.

Jes Fernie
October 2006

Sculpture in 20th Century Britain 2
Edited by Penelope Curtis, Denise Raine, Matthew Withey, Jon Wood and Victoria Worsley Published by the Henry Moore Institute, 2003 Essay on Andrew Sabin

Andrew Sabin

The terrible thing about much art that is placed in the public domain is that it is visible. I suppose there are just as many bad studio artists as there are bad artists who choose to flash their wares in public, but at least artists who are wedded to their studios and the white cube keep their work behind closed doors.

So, it is a joy and possibly even a relief to see a studio based artist whose work is interesting, vital and important, take a leap into the public domain.

Throughout the 1980s Andrew Sabin worked predominantly in his studio and showed his sculpture in galleries. This work could be called traditional in the sense that the sculptures were stand alone objects placed within a gallery setting (of which Penn Ponds* 1989 is one). In the 1990s Sabin began making large scale installations such as Sea of Sun (1991) and The Open Sea (1997) also for gallery spaces. It seemed as if these installations were both physically and metaphorically pushing against the gallery walls, straining to get out. Since then, Sabin has placed his work almost exclusively in public settings.

In all of Sabin's work there is expressed a deep and enduring interest in the fundamental nature of matter, how it can be used, pieced together and negotiated. This interest is employed to make work which is formally, intellectually, and often physically challenging. It can also often be very funny. When I saw Penn Ponds I laughed aloud. The texture, the shapes, the curious flirty black holes along with the odd pairing of the chequered base and the oozing, gaping, biomorphic wounds which form the perimeter of the pond, seem fantastic and absurd. They make you feel alive, finding yourself wanting to touch, jump in, run round and swim. But the work is also curiously aggressive (largely as a result of his selection of materials: cement, rubber, wood, polyester and PVC), even menacing (the black holes threaten to swallow you up if you so much as dangle a toe near their curly edges).

Sabin wants viewers to dissolve any preconceived ideas they may have about art or sculpture and to consider the work for what it is, what it gives them and what they (as viewers) are, in relation to it. This is one of the elements which make his work sit so well in the public domain. Coming across his work in a street, on a beach, or in a wood, you don't have time to put your art tart hat on. When I met with Andrew to discuss his work I noticed that he very rarely uses the word 'I' in relation to his work. Not because he is bashful or unassuming (he is nothing of the kind), but because he sees his work as something which is borne of group activity. So, he says things like: "We wanted the bridges to exist as viewing platforms". It is true that public projects are always the product of a team of people, but it is not often one meets an artist who positively embraces this and makes something of it.

A theme which runs through much of Sabin's recent work is environmentalism. This, I think, has more to do with his interest in materials and the visual and psychological impact of recycling, than any moralising finger-wagging. For example, the ongoing C-bin project (conceived and carried out in partnership with the artist Stefan Shankland) proposes the installation of huge sculptural containers made of galvanised steel on beaches across Europe. Two are now in situ on the north coast of France and it is hoped that they will spawn others. These containers are bins into which passers-by can fling synthetic debris washed up by the sea. When the bins are full they resemble alien forms, packed full of squalling, slimy, unruly waste. There is a sense in which this project amplifies an aspect of Sabin's earlier work. With his installations Sabin invited people into an environment, to consider themselves as physical beings in relation to the space. With the C-bin project he is literally inviting the audience to help make the work.

This year, in Whitstable, Kent, Sabin built a temporary structure called The History Wall. Made of salvaged material from the demolished buildings that once existed on the site, the work exposes the guts of the construction process and reveals the history of the area. Layers of tightly packed wood, stone and plaster are held within gabion walls and ordered in a way that makes the object look like a vast abstract painting. The gabion structure can be located anywhere and filled with debris from a particular area. It is, in effect, a canvas for the public domain.

It is not a coincidence that I have beside me three catalogues of Sabin's work which consist of one on his sculpture made between the period 1986 - 1989, one on The Sea of Sun (1993) and the last one on The Open Sea (1997). And there it stops. Since Sabin left the gallery as a space for showing art, his work has not been written about with the same serious intent. This is a curious and irritating fact: artists who work in the public domain are not documented to the standard of artists working in a gallery setting. What Sabin needs, along with the handful of other interesting artists working out in the cold, is to be studied, considered and contextualised in an informed way which reflects the hugely important body of work that they are producing.

* Henry Moore Institute collection

Moving Up
An essay in City Levels Edited by Ally Ireson and Nick Barley Published by August, 2000

The first thing I did when I moved in to my flat on the top floor of a twelve story building was rip up all the carpets and chuck them off the balcony. The sound of dead weight meeting ground at high speed reverberated across the street; a kind of echoing thwack in which nightmares of squashed children played a large, but fleeting part.

In the centre of the concrete floor of my living room, revealed by the removal of the carpet, was a curious patch of hastily applied plaster. I thought nothing of it and got on with the usual business of nurturing a personalised moving-in neurosis.

The person who owned the flat before me came round a few weeks later (he misses the view) and asked if I'd noticed the plaster bit in the middle of the floor. It turned out that when he'd moved in, seventeen years previously, he'd discovered a hole leading right through to the downstairs neighbours' bedroom. Know thy neighbour, indeed.

It was then that I fully registered the layered texture of living space. I imagined an entire block of inhabitants drilling holes in their floors hoping to catch the peep show of their dreams, seeing nothing but another body lying flat on the floor staring at another body lying flat on the floor staring at another body lying flat on the floor, ad infinitum. It was like discovering a tower block equivalent of Borges' Library of Babel.

The English don't like the idea of living in tower blocks; it goes against the tradition - not to say instinct - of our privileged privacy and possessive individualism. Compared to our continental counterparts, a larger chunk of our social status is attached to the ownership of a plot of land, which can be defined, hoarded and labeled as something which belongs to us. Living in a tower block transgresses the sense of secure 'grounding' which has become synonymous with ownership; instead, tower dwellers are offered the more ephemeral idea that they are inhabiting space.

When I went to see my solicitor in order to 'exchange', she read out a ream of words which drifted off somewhere between my head and the window. "....you are making the purchase of the flat on floors nine and ten of said block....". I caught this bit and said "Er no, sorry, it's not floors nine and ten actually, it's eleven and twelve..". Solicitor: "No, you're buying the flat on floors nine and ten..". Me: "No, really...". It took months (twelve, I think) to receive a paper from the council certifying that I had bought the top floor flat and not the one beneath. (I toyed with the idea of moving in to the top floor flat and chucking the people downstairs out of their flat, on the grounds that I owned it). But it seemed rather churlish to be arguing over which floor my flat was on. After all, when you look at a tower block from the outside, the flats all look the same; there is very little display of the individuality of the people who inhabit the block.

Outsiders often assume that this lack of external individuality is relayed onto the people who live inside the block: a faceless morass of sad and desolate people who are to be both feared and pitied. But when you enter the space of one of the 'cells', this feeling of uniformity and isolation is immediately inverted. You look out at the view and feel like you're the centre of the universe. You look down on the masses and the world appears yours for the taking.

From my balcony I can see St Paul's Cathedral, the Wheel, tower blocks by Lasdun, Goldfinger and Lubetkin, Kay's City Sauna emporium at the end of my road, TV aerials, the Dome, kids playing football, kids abusing other kids, cars, buses, women pushing prams, the Virgin helicopter on top of Royal London Hospital, trees, sky (lots of sky), buildings being built, buildings being neglected, fireworks, sky storms, airplanes, gas towers (exhaling and inhaling throughout the day), washing, clouds, dogs shitting and pigeons courting. And trains, of course: they thread together the elements of this scenic smorgasbord, weaving their way through the mostly static blocks of the city, creating a visual and audible beat which we might once have been able to set our watches by. All this from the balcony. Even when I retire to bed I am presented with an exquisite, uninterrupted view of the Lloyds building. Sex and architecture. I'm sure Mr Rogers would be delighted.

Fellow tower block dwellers come to my flat and we scour the landscape for their buildings. We draw notional pathways across the city joining our abodes and somehow we feel they belong to us - an imaginary set of lines suspended above the tangled web of buildings and lives down below. It's a pleasing conceit which perhaps comes from the satisfaction of being able to locate yourself in a landscape.

All buildings have rhythms, but the rhythms of a tower block are made explicit by the sheer density of people living in it. I can tell the time of day by the rhythm of my block: by the movement of people walking past my front door, by the smell of other people's cooking drifting in through the windows (a mixture of curry and boiled vegetables), the sound of rubbish being deposited into the rubbish chute and by the soft hum of the lift as it collects and deposits it's passengers. This rhythm is a constant reminder of the space between me and the ground.

The one thing I'm still not used to is the complicated maneuver which comes with sharing that small bit of moving space called the lift. My front door leads straight out onto a public outdoor walkway with incredible views of north London. Six footsteps later I am at the lift. Inside the lift I am still in public space, but it is enclosed and moving - slicing down the layers of lives which make up my neighbours' flats. Chat about the weather, stare at the back of someone's neck, moan about the state of the lift, think about how romantic it is that someone has written 'SEX' (instead of 'FUCK') on the ceiling, talk about holiday plans. The doors open and I am at ground level, once again in outdoor public space. From private space (my flat), to outdoor public space, to very enclosed public space and finally to outdoor ground space: it gives a new twist to the concept of space travel.

I met a young girl and her mother in the lift soon after I had moved in. She spent the journey staring at me so hard that I found it difficult to ignore her. I smiled and said "I'm really tall, aren't I?" (I'm 6ft 2"). Her mouth snapped shut and she looked towards her mother for salvation. Ever since then she greets me with "You're that tall person from the lift". I like the idea of being a nomad giant, weaving my way up and down people's lives, occasionally being identified by fellow inhabitants.

But the identity of block dwellers need not be based primarily on personal characteristics, like height. Like the characters in JG Ballard's novel High Rise, people in my block are often identified by the floor they live on. My neighbour says "It's nice up here, nice and quiet. Not like the fifth floor.... all them foreigners...never used to be like that...". Instead of segregated, ground-based neighborhoods where clusters of houses are characterised by specific ethnic (and/or class) traits, my block accomplishes a kind of layered segregation whereby ethnic distribution is defined vertically rather than horizontally.

Tower blocks began to shoot up in the 1950's and 60's, built by town planners whose energy and socialist commitments inadvertently transformed ground-based slum dwellings into multiple layered slum dwellings. The working classes were moved en masse into cities in the sky. Attempts were made to install the feeling of community associated with the working class way of life: open air walkways, clusters of doorways and communal play areas, etc. But it soon became evident that this idealism was misplaced. Vandalism and alienation set in and people wanted nothing more than to touch the earth again, and retreat back to their houses.

Thatcher's Right to Buy campaign of the 1980's and the exploding property market of the 1990's created the conditions for a small minority of first-time buyers to move in to ex-council flats in tower blocks which are still considered by most people to be undesirable spaces for living. These urban professionals are members of a very specific demographic group: white, middle class, aged 25-35, child-free, generally working in the fields of media, art or architecture. Being part of this group, I am able to see the radically different take we have on living in these blocks, compared to the long-established residents. In their eyes, we are just passers-by. Many of my neighbours have lived here since 1958 when the block was built. I don't have much money, but am likely to make more in the future, and I will move on and out. The man who I bought my flat from (he is a white, middle class, professional) was leaving because he wanted to start a family: "This is no place to bring up kids" he said. There's a couple up the corridor who live in a small two bedroom flat with four children. Living here isn't a lifestyle choice for them.

Jane and Tom Bell at number 70 used to live in the council-run Lasdun tower block, five minutes walk from our building. It was condemned in 1994 and sold by Tower Hamlets Council to a private developer who converted the building into luxury flats. They're on sale now for as much as £375,000. The funny thing is that the flats aren't that different (according to Jane), they're just private with a few cosmetic displays of privileged living: a CCTV system and Mies chairs.

Consider the perceived difference between living in a private block and a public block. Take a penthouse, for example. That's the coveted open-space, life-style dream at the top of a private block where your money literally buys you a view. There's a porter who sifts the rabble from the privileged; he (I've never seen a 'she') enables the inhabitants to enjoy their view without the worry that someone who hasn't paid for it is also enjoying it. In the council block, just across the way, the reverse is true: nobody wants to live up high because the lift breaks down, the stairs stink of piss, and hormone-strung adolescents hang out at the top.

Depending on your situation or your frame of mind, living up high can give rise to a whole set of layered, oppositional experiences (verticality / horizontality, empowerment / alienation, uniqueness / uniformity, spatiality / temporality, etc.), creating an unsettling kind of love-hate ambivalence towards the place where you live.

I've been here for a year now and there are days I look down at the nice, neat, clean terraces below me with a sense of envy, yearning for the day when I no longer have to negotiate the lives of my neighbours to such a large degree, and other days when I can't bear the idea of ever leaving the place. I found a perfect representation of my frame of mind in an exhibition of Felix Gonazalez-Torres' work, held at the Serpentine Gallery in London a few months ago. In one room, two large piles of stacked paper were placed on the gallery floor. Written in the middle of each piece of paper, in very small script, was the following:

Somewhere better than this place

Nowhere better than this place

Jes Fernie

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