My self directed residency in Copenhagen has been an opportunity for me to fully focus on thoughts and ways of working that I would otherwise find hard to do. For the past two months I have drawn different strands of ideas together to make a series of sculptures placed around the city, exploring narrative in sculpture and how we attach meaning to places and things.
One strand I had been hoping to explore further was the feet that I had ‘escaped’ during lockdown. Through these sculptural pieces, I was able to escape, to leave behind the difficult and limiting experience of being stuck in the city in 2020. When we had a break between lockdowns, taking them to the countryside or to the beach allowed me to feel free and suddenly unrestricted.
Feet on Ardrossan Beach
When I look back on the photos on the beach, I still feel the thrill of liberation. This comes about both by the feet being placed in an open and expansive landscape, and also because they are unexpected objects to see in that space. Being by the sea, the tiptoeing feet could be running and playing, but they also seem like strange objects that have been found, washed ashore. I liked to imagine someone coming across them and wondering how they had appeared there, what their story was – whether they had been washed up on a beach, left behind by someone, or slowly exposed by waves. I wanted to continue with this sense of freedom and curiosty in the next sculptures I made.
Another project I wanted to look at was a continuation of something I had begun before lockdown – an exhibition of Giovanni Battista Piranesi alongside the responses of selected artists to his work, set in the Dublin Castle. Due to coronavirus, this has been rescheduled to May 2022. Researching for the exhibition, I was most excited when leafing through Piranesi’s prints of ruins, particularly the broken ruins of statues, and what they had to say about a real or imagined past. As part of my research I have written about the feelings evoked by ruins but would like to wait until the exhibition opens before publishing it. However, here in Copenhagen I want to build on some of the thoughts I had explored for the project – the idea of ruins, particularly ruined sculptures, of how they can tell a story about a past that has been lost.
The first exhibition I visited when I arrived in Copenhagen was Auguste Rodin – Displacements at the Glyptoteket. This brought together Rodin’s sculptures with items from his collection of broken Greek and Roman sculpture. He would display his fragments of antiquity alongside his sculpture or incorporate them into his own work. The exhibition notes explain that –
“What fascinated Rodin about antiquity was… the shattered fragments and broken objects. The fragment was a sign of the object’s life and passage through time.”
This perfectly encapsulated something I hoped to explore – how broken fragments of sculpture can show their own history. They are displaced and on their own, without the context that would provide them with a biography. The fragments themselves can only show us a part of their story, one that is as incomplete as they are, but in some ways more interesting than the whole.
“Rodin used partial bodies, isolated iconic postures, simplified forms and fragmented limbs. By doing so, meaning was displaced or the works were completely stripped of their narratives.”
When sculpture is fragmented and seen in a new location, it is stripped of its biography. A sculpted face that was a portrait of someone, removed from anything that can tell us about that person, means that it is also separated from its meaning. As a viewer we have to invent a narrative ourselves. For this residency I wanted to create drawings of broken sculptures, to place them in an entirely new context, and see how this impacts how they are seen and what narratives are created about them.
Some elements within the exhibition combined Rodin’s work with his fragments, for example, there were two sculptures of Rodin’s hand holding smaller sculptural figures of a woman. This interplay between his hand and the broken sculpture created a new connection. Rodin would place his own sculpture in tableaux where they would “enter into dialogue with objects from his collection.”
I wondered if the displacement and fragmentation of older pieces meant fragmenting their appeal, but I think instead it drives a curiosity about what they are and where they come from. There is something melancholic, a faded grandeur, a loneliness about them. Stripped of their original meaning they no longer have their original purpose and have to be in dialogue with their location or with you as the viewer in order to make sense again.
Another exhibit at the Glyptoteket that I found interesting was the Nasotek – a collection of plaster and marble noses and ears that had been used to fix Greek and Roman sculptures. Seeing it as a whole, the collection felt quite unsettling and macabre, a bit like a serial killer’s secret hoard. However, it was also an amazing catalogue or inventory of the nose, each one different and characterful. After having a conversation with my brother about this residency, I decided to draw them, to make my own catalogue and display them around the city.
Walking through the city, I came across someone who seemed to have explored just this idea – Per Kirkeby has made a series of noses and other body elements called “Inventory” at Kalvebod.
Unfortunately, my drawings didn’t manage to portray the distinctiveness of different noses, and looked rather comical. I thought fragments of other limbs might work better.
An artist whose fragmented sculptures I have always admired is Igor Mitoraj whose colossal broken sections of classical sculpture were inspired by the legends of ancient Greece and Rome. Often located next to classical or neoclassical buildings, they give both a sense of grandeur and also a fractured sense of loss. Despite being monumental in size, they seem fragile, exploring the fragility of human life and our hold on history.
I explored similar themes through this residency, the fragility of of the past (even in the apparent solidity of stone) and our link to it. For the first month I worked in a blacksmith’s workshop, making steel pieces around 40cm in size – large enough to have an impact but small enough to carry around the city to photograph. The workshop did not seem to have a forge, so the drawings had to be simple enough to be bent cold, by hand. This strictness forced me to rethink the way I make, as I am used to being able to heat and bend whenever I want. I later discovered a small gas forge, a bit dusty and unused, and did as much as I could in it, but it set an early restriction that I quite enjoyed.
After making four sculptures, I began to find locations for photography. The placement was important – as linear drawings they act as a frame for the landscape, so the piece and the location have to engage with each other. I also thought more about the colour of the pieces. Often my work is black – this is the dominant paint colour for metalwork, and in many contexts, clear black lines are easy to see and are reminiscent of ink drawings. However, with this project I wanted to bring to mind the marble we associate with ancient greek and roman sculpture. Although those sculptures would originally have been painted bright colours and gilded, I wanted to evoke the broken and ruined remnants rather than the original. The marble whites and greys show the sculptures bleached by sun and scarred by time.
There are different ways to view these pieces, and I hope to combine these in an exhibition back in Glasgow. They are sculptures, pieces that can either stand alone or hang on the wall. They are windows through which you can see the landscape, that can frame whatever is behind and around them. They cast shadows that can either distort or augment the sculpture itself.
For the second half of my residency I moved to a goldsmiths workshop, and experimented in silver. I had convinced myself that I cannot work on a small scale, so it was stimulating working in a material that has always seemed delicate and alien to me. Creating pieces this small allowed me to think of the sculptural forms in a completely different way. No longer monumental, they feel fragile and subtle, much more sensitive than the solid steel structures. The process began with “drawing” the wire out, then moved onto drawing with the wire.
Working with a material that seems so precious, but trying to remain free with it was, in the beginning, quite uncomfortable. In order to change this, Nicolai Appel, who runs the workshop, encouraged me to break the silver, to melt and burn it. Destroying the silver felt almost offensive, but the outcomes were enjoyable and allowed me to understand the material’s characteristics more. As it overheats, the surface starts to melt, becoming liquid and moving around. It bubbles and quickly shrinks in on itself, creating a matchstick like bulbous head. The impurities in the charcoal the silver sat on brought out a gold tint, and when I soldered them together to form drawings I enjoyed seeing the flux create different colours and the oxidisation blackening it. Denaturing the silver echoed the destruction of the marble sculptures I was drawing.
In placing my sculptures of fragments around the city, and removed from any context or story, I encouraged the viewer to invent an idea of what they mean for themselves. I paid attention to how the sculptures would be seen and how they would interact with both the location and the people who were looking at them. One thing that I have noticed is that it’s so much easier to see the pieces against something blank like the sky, rather than against a busy background, which makes some photography within the city context difficult. But when the photos are successful they are visually arresting and surprising. It is interesting to see pieces that feel like they shouldn’t be there, in locations that have never held anything like them before. The photos make you ask why there is a broken head in the street, why there is a hand on the end of the pier. You are left to wonder how they came to be there, what force placed them in this spot. Often the photos are completely free of people – sometimes this was a choice, sometimes it was chance. But it means the sculptures often seem lonely, lost in a space on their own.
I will photograph the silver pieces as I have done with the larger steel pieces but with the body as the landscape, using the small pieces to frame and impact the body. As these are all drawings of human sculpture, I look forward to seeing how the placement of them affects them – a body on the body, a face on the face. These photographs, and the silver pieces themselves, will form the second part of the exhibition.
After arriving home from the residency, I came across a piece by Tom Crewe in the London Review of Books which seemed to have been written to explain the very things I have been exploring for the past few months. He writes –
“Objects from the past, if they survive, lose and accrue meaning over time. Their original human associations and contexts, their given purposes and original attractions, dissolve and are replaced by others, which might be replaced again… Other objects don’t go through this process: they are still trapped in time; they have lost their old meanings, and are waiting for new ones… The physical proofs of past existence set our imaginations running”1
The sculptural pieces I have made are intended to set imaginations running, encouraging the viewer to create new meanings to replace the old. I feel the sculptures and their locations inspire questions and thoughts that engage the viewer, although I also I find that they look lonely and lost, much more melancholic than I was expecting. I wanted to ask others whether they succeeded, so I showed some photos to a friend who said that they looked like they had “broken from something else, fell from it to land on earth, longing for the rest of their body and their world, their story, their mythology.”
Being on residency in Copenhagen allowed me to explore these new sculptural pieces because it allowed me to step outside my own space, to experience a new location and see both it and my work as if for the first time. As my sculptures allow you to see views through them, having new settings (both rural and urban) energised me, allowing me to explore some ideas that I have found intriguing and stimulating. I look forward to seeing where it leads next.
- London Review of Books 12th August 2021 P27