Yorkshire Sculpture International residency piece
-We made a mixture of a human and a robot with its heart hanging out. We deliberately left it unfinished because humans are never finished.
Like any artwork, the preparation for this writing reached a stopping point rather than a state of completion. There has been an emotional exchange where part of me stays with the festival and the festival stays with me, bolted on like found debris and as ephemeral and fleeting as sounds made by personal assemblages teasing handcrafted instruments. These jottings are a collection gleaned from my experiences of bearing witness to the Yorkshire Sculpture International engagement programme, which began before me and continued after me. My intersection with it was partial, incomplete, but full in other wonderful ways.
-What do you mean by vessels?
-Things that are open and can contain.
We are the stories we carry:
the receiver that is also a transmitter,
handmade expressions of identity and a sense or wish of home,
the piece of jewellery or scrap of old clothing hand-sewn into a denim sea-creature,
the shea butter residue on homesick hands,
a love of giraffes from a sculpture.
Internalised ecological concerns:
a planet we are killing,
artificial intelligence we are not controlling,
ways of being we are forcing too quickly to evolve,
questioning anthropocentric viewpoints,
seeing sculpture in nature.
Ways of seeing:
redressing historical erasure,
being open and avoiding assumptions,
a photograph under a reclaimed Victorian ceiling,
a roller-coaster built from pipes, tires and scrap metal frames,
being welcomed and not feeling like an interloper,
learning about joiners and armatures,
the all-new invention of the cyborg,
something you see through,
a bird with protected eggs,
a wildlife high-rise.
apathetic bewilderment versus intrigue,
a second telltale smile escaping from within resistance,
puzzling if an encased, embalmed sheep is art,
plaster painted to look like wood,
bronze coated in garish plastic.
relics and artefacts,
the debris of conflict,
then in dialogue with now,
vessels that look like bodies,
assemblages of others’ waste,
a preserved workbench and tools,
a mark that won’t fade when memories of how it got there do,
a recreated photograph showing the future is still black but now it is female.
bits of cyborg bodies,
perching birds and excellent elephants,
new ways of working with old materials,
temporary sculptures made in the rain,
intuitive material aptitude,
unleashing hidden insides,
play with clay,
learning by doing.
partially sculpted busts, a small pile of building blocks
and a perpetual work in progress all displayed on workbench-like plinths,
endless views from which to draw sculptures you can see all the way around,
vulnerable textiles at the mercy of visiting school groups necessitating emergency repairs,
an endlessly shifting, expanding and contracting array of invented instruments and players all present and at once disappearing in their liveness,
racing against time limits,
never finished, only stopped.
stopping one thing begins another.
On the road again.
A sense of home
I set off on a bright May morning from Newcastle upon Tyne to Leeds with a notebook gifted to me by my mum, putting it to use as my residency journal. Its pages were largely unmarked then, full of possibility. Now it is messy, bulging, full of scribbles, drawings, ideas, feelings, observations, quotations and descriptions. The markings in it document my journey, as do the traces of shakiness from writing on coaches, buses, trains, standing up, walking around and leaning on my arm.
A transitory resident.
Finding yourself in a strange, cold land where people speak differently, you are given a lump of clay. Using your hands and small tools, you make familiar animals to express your identity and the place you miss. You cannot tell the people who gave you clay how you feel, but they understand you long for home and dignity because of your noble lion.
A sense of home is a sense of self:
a breaking cyborg owl in a school-yard in Leeds,
exposed machine hearts,
a destroyed, cavernous world,
technologically evolved animals,
anticipating what home and our selves will be.
Draw a vessel that reminds you of yourself.
-I’m drawing the black things because I want to draw black things.
You compare the materials, designs and bold colours in clothes that link African-American women to West African women. You see them stride proudly, unapologetically, taking up space, listening to women pioneers speak, posing and reclaiming/continuing the narrative of their 1960s male counterparts who were in all the photographs. You arrive at a threshold and erupt in excitement – so excited you begin to touch what ought not to be touched and animatedly explain the uses of hand-processed shea butter in The Gambia. Some of your group observe the vague similarities between the blocks and human heads. They identify the basic building blocks making a pyramid. But you cannot wait to get to the third table to be elbow-deep in a material from which you have been separated for so long. We play with making shapes and you demonstrate the ways shea is used as a baby rub and for pain relief. We leave the Henry Moore Institute laughing and more moisturised than when we arrived.
A young, self-taught artist’s material concern with how to recycle combined with black-diasporic resourcefulness and the communities emerging in and despite spaces of limitation. The long, repetitive labour of searching, seeking, wandering, collecting, archiving and hand-sewing. The catharsis of creating new from old, of drawing together fabrics and items scented, marked and worn from previous owners carrying stories we cannot access. Making myths to account for erased pasts. Joining the human with the natural world to create something familiar and strange to bring about a sea-change. Giving part of yourself as a protective totem – things we cannot know are there. Drawing parallels between stolen ancestry and endangered aquatic ecosystems. A scene reproduced from a painting in her mother’s kitchen assembled from discarded clothing. A sense of home and belonging in a quilted, patchwork seascape.
A sense of home drawn from encountering something strange:
a gilded carousel rhino,
bricks made of words,
a rooftop birdbath,
a mother and child released from stone,
a close-up walk around two aeroplane engines,
a sculpture you can run through made of words,
feeling sleepy or scared within a sound sculpture,
traversing a poo studio to draw large two forms,
noticing holes and height and shape and togetherness in everything
from your school trip to Yorkshire Sculpture Park;
an alien visitor waiting to receive you and listen,
its body marked, scored and scarred from an arduous past,
its colouring unworldly, yet matching land and sky,
a stranger from a strange land facing a colonial monarch no longer of living memory,
a temporary protector of Wakefield who might not want it to leave,
a receiver with a story to tell;
bringing personal artefacts with you with which to play invented instruments.
An elaborate, intricate set-up of technologies, instruments and arranged items wired to a central mixing desk ready to receive and transmit – a shuffle orchestra in the old Calder mill on a warm Saturday afternoon in June.
engineered instruments: percussive, stringed, tubed, brass, ceramic, plastic, balloons, air, electronics, recorded voices, ball bearings
<outside construction noise>
People draw close as the first artist begins,
then spread and move around as others gradually join.
building rhythms and sounds
teasing strings with a special bow
Elements positioned to pass vibrations through and cause noise and its amplification.
Reminds me of monster movie soundtracks.
sustained tones and deeper rumbling
I listen closely to two helium-filled balloons next to microphones.
A Hepworth helper sees me and tells me that if you blow into the clear tube between the balloons, the movement changes the sounds.
A rare invitation to play with the artwork, even if only your breath can touch it.
The vibrations and changes can only be heard close up.
Proximity is key in finding the details.
Same as with vision.
Some of the lighter rattling comes from a small brass bowl filled with tiny brass spheres and ball bearings sitting on a large, flat, brass, reverberating disc.
They jiggle quietly with occasional passers-by noticing and bending down to hear the effect.
Liveness and contingency.
We slowly become drawn in.
All the many people milling around, watching and listening, are sculptural, if ephemeral, elements of the work – as ephemeral as the sounds in this space and time.
The orchestrator holds court at the digital mixing desk, controlling aural focus, moving sound around the speakers.
Some of the set-ups control the sound dissemination – one is attached to several black pipes of various lengths spiking out in different directions.
Experiencing sound bodily.
Some people found a perch at the beginning and did not leave.
Most traversed the space.
So rare to not be separated from musicians by their stage.
This takes trust and reverence.
The children are curious, learning by doing.
Draw a vessel that has an exciting texture.
-Why is clay an interesting material?
-Because you can mould it!
-Use the clay around your bodies; use your hands to mould it round something.
Keep working to eventually form a vessel.
Use different things to make different structures.
Use the rollers to flatten or as a surface to shape.
Roll up your sleeves!
-Mine doesn't have sleeves! (rolls up arms)
pushing down using whole body weight, driving in the knuckles
teasing, teasing out
vessel drawings on the wall for inspiration
tapping on the table
rolling the clay, rolling things on the clay
buttons, bits and pieces, shapes
perfecting, restarting to get it right
-It's getting harder.
basket with flowers
liking how it feels, the cold, the dampness, the softness
teachers saying they need to get clay in school
engaged and focused
displaying and talking
messy trousers, dusty arms
signs of hard work
-How did you like working with clay?
-Weird – squishy.
When verbal communication is absent, hand gestures and showing how to shape and mark with tools accompanied by smiles and laughter take over.
Far from home and staying as a young family in an initial accommodation centre, you join activities at a local church hall. Rachael has a big bag of clay and is outside gleaning debris from the trees in the churchyard. She returns and shows you how to make sculptures with twigs using the clay as a joiner and ways to decorate your work. Together you use the clay board as a canvas and the clay as your paint to draw a house, a shining sun, a soaring bird and a tree decked with alder cones. You make a bird resting on a fruit-bearing branch. You make clay spaghetti with a garlic mincer and tiny creatures from the strings. You make a snowperson with twiggy arms on a warm day in May. You concentrate, are absorbed in your task, and I perceive the comfort it gives you after a journey unimaginable to me but all too real for you.
Collective pain and shared joy.
You are tasked with making a vessel, but on a previous trip to Yorkshire Sculpture Park you became enthralled with a giraffe that now consumes your thoughts, and so you quickly make an enclosure to meet the task, then diligently and lovingly shape more clay into the long-necked creature of your dreams. You name your giraffe Bailey Benji Angus and smile contently. You help your quiet friend who unnoticed for some time has been making a similar enclosure – a jungle – and what your carer calls an excellent elephant, for it truly is beautiful.
-You made similar things and helped each other – I call that teamwork!
As a group, Year 9, you collaborated with Zara who explains how you thought about, performed and captured the hand gestures we make when using smartphones and tablets. You made moulds of your hands, cast, dried and painted them gold. You arranged them with their fingertips upwards, imagining them as part of you when you operate your devices while reclining. You grouped them on a broad, low, white plinth to show your handiwork reaching, pointing up. You displayed it beside an older sculpture, AG5, which also bears markers of human incorporation with machines.
technology and nature
clay and plasticine joiners
monuments to ways of making
processed materials and debris
a bustling street party
an assemblage of invented
instruments and artists to play them
The shuffle orchestra ends and people mill around the space. Some ask the artists questions or chat, and some artists demonstrate and explain their inventions and what they can do. Many of these inventions are not yet named, so I feel better about struggling to find appropriate descriptions for them. I am peripheral, writing in my journal, observing others interacting. I feel astonished at the collection, the mass of objects and the clever things done with them to create incredible, terrible, beautiful, affecting noises, and the ways the performance causes knock-on actions in the audience. We are part of the work: flowing, moving, vibrating particles, making noiseless noises contributing to the aural landscape swirling about us, interacting through gesture and precariously stepping over wires, pipes and around low platforms and other people, quietly gathering and craning around and over to see the sounds.
Opportunities to make. Colourful masks grinning, frowning, bearing teeth, eyes closed or wide open, the corrugations in the cardboard giving texture and tone to the blended, vibrant hues. Flaps for hair, rounded shapes, long noses, rounded noses, or simply parted, flaring nostrils. Greens, blues, reds, purples, oranges. Scary, friendly, unassuming, laughing. Telling stories in a face, then telling stories of a face. Being photographed with a face that is yours but not your own. Then on to make a cone that can be worn as a crown or played like a horn. Something recognisable but free to be different. All the while the very little ones spontaneously play together and rearrange the loose s t r e e t p a r t y letters.
A provocation that few people have access to a lump of clay defied by giving people lumps of clay. Some is wetted and shovelled into icing bags and excitedly but carefully piped into swirling towers, flowers, pots and names. Hands little and big scrape and scoop at a large clump nearby. The lions and houses and vessels and birds so familiar from a month before are dried and present, risking breakage as more making accumulates. A fruit bowl, butterflies, dragons, alligators, balls on sticks, vases, candle holders, beakers – everything imaginable vying for space on a granite bench, already drying and becoming a collection of ideas, experiences, play, home and healing.
All in perpetual process.