In October 2020, it will have been forty years since the first female undergraduates came to Downing College, some eight years after previously all-male colleges started to accept women. In the seventy-two years since women were first allowed to take degrees at the University of Cambridge, a lot has changed. WE ARE HERE looks at one aspect of this change, the representation of women in College art collections. Why? Because nothing tells you ‘you belong’ like the pictures on the walls.
Artists: Cathy de Monchaux, Elisabeth Frink, Thomas Gainsborough, Duncan Grant, Christiana Herringham, Lubaina Himid, Claerwen James, Mary Kelly, Juliette Losq, Melanie Manchot, Louise Nevelson, Kate Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Yelena Popova, Gwen Raverat, Sophie Seita, Alison Wilding
fig. 1. Duncan Grant, Lydia Lopokova, ca 1923. Oil on canvas. Copyright Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Courtesy The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge.
An extract from a forthcoming academic publication by Dr Sophie Pickford (King’s College, Cambridge).
Duncan Grant’s captivating portrait of Ballets Russes prima ballerina Lydia Lopokova, currently hanging in the WE ARE HERE: Women in Art at Cambridge Colleges exhibition at The Heong Gallery, was painted in 1923, a few months after Lydia had turned 30 (fig. 1). It depicts her in three-quarter length, wearing a blue empire-line dress, a gold, patterned shawl draped over her long gloves. The painting was inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière (1806), a photograph of which Duncan kept in his studio at Charleston (fig. 2). Duncan is known to have designed the dress Lydia wears in this famous portrait, but until now the exact circumstances of its design have been shrouded in mystery. The answer lies in an intriguing confluence of Bloomsbury art, American-style post-war revue, and the Russian Ballet.
Lydia was born in St. Petersburg in 1892 where she trained at the Imperial Ballet School. She first became a member of the Ballets Russes in 1910, and, on their arrival in post-war London in 1918, became a key point of contact between Bloomsbury and the ballet. Fascinated by the groundbreaking music, art, and movement of the eclectic Russian troupe, Bloomsbury became quickly entwined, both socially and artistically, with the ballet. The Ballets Russes’ influence rippled through the group’s creative output and is visible in their art, literature, relationships, and general way of living throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. In particular, Lydia became close to the celebrated economist and central member of the Bloomsbury Group, John Maynard Keynes, leading to their marriage in 1925. The relationship surprised and shocked Maynard’s friends, who had earmarked him as a life-long homosexual.
Duncan was not the only Bloomsbury artist to depict Lydia in her blue, empire line dress in the early 1920s. Roger Fry produced a poor companion piece to Grant’s Ingres-inspired work, exhibited at his one-man show at the Independent Gallery in April 1923 (fig. 3). Damned for its ‘cloying prettiness’ by the Observer, and labeled ‘ridiculous’ by Cecil Beaton, Fry’s work was not a success. Vanessa Bell also painted Lydia around 1923, though in different attire. The painting, the whereabouts of which are unknown, was exhibited in the 1923 London Group Spring exhibition. The canvas was ‘retouchéd’ by Duncan. ‘I expect she wanted it badly,’ Vanessa wrote. In addition to these key Bloomsbury figures, Lydia, as a leading ballerina, was painted or sketched by numerous other artists over the years, including Pablo Picasso, Christopher Wood, William Roberts, Walter Sickert, Dora Carrington, and August John. Grant himself produced several other portraits of Lydia in the early 1920s, including an oil portrait of her dancing in his 1922 Scotch Reel costume, and various sketches.
On 27 January 1923, Lydia appeared on the Royal Opera House stage alongside her Ballets Russes colleagues Léonide Massine, Leon Woizikovsky, Ninette de Valois, Lydia Sokolova, and Thadée Slavinsky. Together, they danced in the Anglo-American revue, You’d be Surprised. The première of this clumsily-entitled production had been delayed, the first of a series of problems to plague the staging of this unfortunate work. Featuring a star-studded line-up drawn from America, Russia, and England, the revue was described as a ‘Jazzaganza’ in two acts with a number of ‘surprises’ or scenes. Produced by American one-time juggler Jean Bedini, and presented by Australian-born British theatre king Sir Oswald Stoll, the show had all the initial trappings of success. George Robey, the popular English comedian and music hall performer, led the entertainment, which was heavily advertised in the national press.
Lydia’s contribution to this extravaganza was a ‘miniature ballet with a Mexican setting’, entitled Togo, or The Noble Savage, featuring costumes by Duncan. This short work appeared alongside a Chinese dance by Léonide Massine, a number featuring Lydia dressed as a chicken, and various other musical and theatrical ‘surprises’. You’d be Surprised, despite its poor reception, ran for several months, marking Grant’s second foray into costume design for a Ballets Russes offshoot production, following his work for Lydia’s Scotch Reel in 1922.
On 21 January 1923, prior to the première of You’d be Surprised, Lydia wrote to Maynard, ‘We tried on costumes for 3 solid hours, so much detail to attend to. Vanessa, Duncan, Massine all had something to say. My Mexican is very good…’ The first performance was originally scheduled for 24 January, but it was pushed back to the 27th. Finally, on 26 January, the eve of the première, Lydia reported to Maynard that ‘Last night Duncan showed my costume, Empire suitable for my proportions, blue, simple not short, but when I move all the legs become very visible.’ The Empire cut of the dress corresponds to a sketch Grant produced for the Togo costumes, the whereabouts of which are currently unknown, though other aspects of the design, such as the neck-line and sleeves, are different.
Closer to Lydia’s description of her costume than Grant’s sketch for Togo is the dress Lydia wore in Grant’s 1923 portrait, based on Ingres’s Mademoiselle de la Rivière. The blue colour, Empire cut and length of the dress in both Grant’s portrait and Fry’s companion work correspond perfectly with the description in Lydia’s letter. Furthermore, Milo Keynes recalls in his article, ‘Portraits of Lopokova’, that ‘Grant designed a dress for Lydia in the style of Ingres’s Mlle Rivière, and both he and Fry painted her that year in this dress at the same sittings,’ confirming Grant as the designer of the dress Lydia wore in the portrait. Milo Keynes dates these events to 1922, corresponding to the date on Fry’s portrait. Grant’s version, on show at the Heong Gallery, is instead dated 1923 on the canvas. Neither painting was exhibited until 1923, and it is highly likely that both works were painted early that year after Duncan designed Lydia’s dress for Togo.
The mysterious blue dress in Grant’s famously beautiful 1923 portrait of Lydia is, therefore, a testament not only to the ballerina’s relationship with the Bloomsbury Group, but also to Grant’s involvement with Ballets Russes offshoot productions in the early 1920s. It speaks of Ingres, of American-style revue and a post-war desperation to fill theatre seats, of Lydia and Maynard’s blossoming relationship, and, perhaps most importantly, of the ever-increasing artistic collaboration between Bloomsbury and the ballet.
 Grant’s portrait of Lydia was exhibited in his Independent Gallery exhibition in June 1923, from which it was bought by Maynard, and subsequently bequeathed in his will to King’s College, Cambridge in 1946.
Observer, 8 April 1923, quoted in F. Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life, London 1980, p.226; Cecil Beaton quoted in M. Keynes, ‘Portraits of Lopokova’ in M. Keynes, ed. 1983, p.199.
 Vanessa Bell (VB) to Duncan Grant (DG), [21 April 1923], Tate Gallery Archive (TGA) 20078/1/44/116.
 In the early 1940s Duncan painted Lydia’s portrait in a feigned oval, now hung at the National Portrait Gallery.
 Oswald Stoll presented the production on behalf of the Alhambra Company. See Royal Opera House, Covent Garden programme, King’s College Cambridge Modern Archive (KCC), LLK/1/4/1/102.
 George Robey’s real name was Sir George Edward Wade, CBE. Quentin Bell recalls how he would ‘go to the Coliseum with tickets given us by Lydia to see her transformed, etherealized, almost unrecognizably lovely upon the stage. We enjoyed this tremendously, although I cannot say that we didn’t enjoy George Robey and Little Titch with equal passion…’, Q. Bell, ‘Bloomsbury and Lydia,’ in Lydia Lopokova, ed. M. Keynes, London 1983, p.88.
You’d be Surprised ran until mid-April at the Opera house before moving to the Alhambra. Togo was cut before the transfer.
 LL to JMK, 21 January 1923, KCC JMK/PP/45/190/13, reproduced in Hill & Keynes 1989, pp.75.
 LL to JMK, 26 January 1923, KCC JMK/PP/45/190/13, reproduced in Hill & Keynes 1989, pp.75-6.
 M. Keynes, ‘Portraits of Lopokova’ in M. Keynes, ed., Lydia Lopokova, p.198.
 Grant’s portrait of Lydia is signed and dated under the frame ‘D Grant 1923’. Roger Fry’s companion portrait is signed and dated ‘Fry. 1922.’
 Duncan Grant’s painting was exhibited at the Independent Gallery in June 1923; Roger Fry’s portrait was exhibited at the Independent Gallery in April 1923.
Lydia was a famous ballerina and, in this picture of her, she is actually playing dress-up! No one had worn this type of dress for over a hundred years, but her friend Duncan made it for her and painted her in it.
Today we have cameras for instant portraits. Are you ready for our ‘Recreate Art’ challenge?
Look closely at this painting of Lydia Lopokova by Duncan Grant.
Now, let’s get dressed up!
Do you have anything blue in your wardrobe? It could be a dress, someone else’s shirt, or even a blanket.
Now for the gloves? Washing up gloves? Gardening gloves? Your winter mittens?
And, finally, a scarf. Make it colourful!
You are ready for your closeup! Get someone to take a picture of you in the same pose as Lydia. Share it with us.
Ready? Sit like Lydia and get someone to take a picture of you.
Share it with us so that we can see how well you did!
All dressed up with nowhere to go? Maybe you could have a party in your kitchen with everyone you live with.
This week, we spoke to filmmaker and photographer Melanie Manchot about truth, agency, the magic of the dark room, and the ontology of the selfie. Interview by Prerona Prasad.
Should we start with the photographic series called The Ladies? How did the project come about? How did you decide where you were going to take them? How did you get this group of women to trust you? What did they think they were doing?
The project came about through an invitation from Kettle’s Yard and Andrew Nairne in particular. At the time, I was working on a commission with the North West Cambridge Development through the Contemporary Art Society and Fabienne Nicholas. They had commissioned me to make a new work in relation and response to the university’s new development in North West Cambridge. Andrew was on the panel of the Development and, very early on, asked me whether I would be interested in having a conversation with him about making a new work for the re-opening of Kettle’s Yard. The remit he proposed was really specific – they were to engage with their nearest neighbours. The nearest neighbours to Kettle’s Yard are a community of Bangladeshi families, who have been living in North Cambridge for quite a long time. It is, physically, a tight-knit community. They live very close to each other. They have been there, sometimes for a couple of generations, but they seem largely invisible within the official idea of the city of Cambridge.
We decided that we would, initially, make contact with a group of women, partly because they seemed even more distanced from the civic life of Cambridge. As I was in Cambridge quite a lot at that time because of the commission, I had developed a view of Cambridge as being largely authored by the University. Although Cambridge is bigger, wider, more multiple than just the University, in many ways it speaks through its voice as a university city. The University of Cambridge is so powerful – it is world renowned and produces so much important research. If you come into Cambridge, the University buildings are everywhere, especially in the centre.
We convened a group of women and it became clear very quickly that we were not asking a set of disparate families to come together. They are already a group that meets regularly, mainly through their children and through their family lives. Some of them have lived in Cambridge for a very long time. One has also worked on the City Council. However, a lot of these women do not at all engage with the Cambridge of the University. Initially, we just had a number of conversations. Whenever I start a project, I need time to be with people and form a common language, create a shared space of thinking before we go into the actual process of producing work. Through our conversations, I gained an understanding that there was no communication, overlap, or connection between these women and the University. They had self-censored their sense of agency. They felt no ownership over the centre of Cambridge. They didn’t feel that it was part of their agency to enter a College and stroll around, even though tourists from all over the world do it. This was the starting point.
Whenever I make work, I almost always have a set of references that come out of either the history of art or film. In this case, I was really keen to work with the history of feminist performance and put together a Powerpoint with lots of images. At the time, I was particularly interested in Valie Export and her series Body Configurations. In these works, she addresses and speaks to the dominance of architecture through her body. If you look them up, they are these fantastic images where she articulates the built environment by shaping her body around architecture, moulding herself around features and structures. Architecture is, like at the University, often highly authored and predominantly authored through a male voice. Valie Export’s practice was and has remained very radical, while at the same time producing works that are very striking visually. I showed the group many of these Body Configurations and we would go on a walk into the centre of Cambridge with printouts of these images. We looked at the architecture and discussed if there was a way of appropriating some of it through gestures.
The project developed into an investigation of specific spaces that represent power, history and authority – particularly a male authority – and seeing whether their bodies could in some way articulate something, quite playfully, about this architecture. We went to the Union Debating Chamber, King’s Dining Hall, the Wren Library, and a whole lot of other spaces in different colleges. We looked at the outside and inside of buildings and then decided that we would work mainly inside.
Another thing that is really important to my practice is that I don’t want to speak about people, or for them. I try and create platforms so that the participants, co-authors, or collaborators step up and speak for themselves. Speaking is not just literal speech, but also through gestures. After we had met four or five times, we went into these spaces with the camera. I said that that we were not making the work yet – that I was intending to record the spaces, for our research. But, they immediately said, ‘You could take pictures of us, too.’ In an unexpected way, it became really playful.
Then what happened is that they, physically, staged each other. They started to arrange themselves and each other in these spaces, rather than me forming hierarchies by saying who was going to go where. They claimed the space, and that became what is at the core of the final images.
It is so apparent when you see the images, that they authored their own presence.
The process was very much about them exploring their agency. When bringing in the camera, I knew that it would change things. The camera has agency, it is a protagonist, it establishes a new kind of power relationship because it is a viewing device. It is never neutral. So, it was also important that they became confident and in control when the camera was there, so that it never became a threatening object. It was a device that was invited in by all of us, rather than me saying that I was bringing it in and taking the pictures. The camera was there on a tripod. They could see the images. They could rearrange themselves. There was this choreography that happened around the camera.
It makes complete sense when you look at the works. There is a sense of ease and lack of hesitation. Their bodies don’t look like they are doing anything against their instincts. That’s what makes it so powerful for the viewer, because you immediately imagine the space in a completely different way.
The Wren Library, for example, is a very historically important space and it is highly codified. It’s a representation of itself – a symbolic space as well as a real space. It holds so much symbolic power. Over these visits, through a sense of collective creativity, we could break down some of this authority. It’s a little bit like parkour runners, who will use everything that is put in our paths to circumvent particular places as launch pads in traversing a particular line. I like the philosophy of parkour that every obstacle is a way to propel yourself forward. In the library, areas and books were cordoned off. We asked for permission to move a few things around. The women felt a real sense of permission; they were allowed to inhabit the space because of the sense of a collective purpose.
You’ve talked about identity and belonging in a lot of your work. Who do spaces belong to? From the horse in Cornered Starto the tourists in Alpine dress in Perfect Mountain, what starts off as feeling anachronistic, ends up feeling natural. Do you think that those kinds of juxtapositions allow you to say things?
It’s it interesting that you use the word ‘anachronism’, because it also means that it is outdated or comes from another time. Quite often, there is a reference to particular histories. It could be to recent histories, like the history of feminist art or modern music. There is quite often a reference to rituals and modes of being that bring people together. With the horse in post-industrial city of Marl in Germany, the reference is obviously to equestrian sculpture, which is a sort of archetype of how art is used to elevate human heroism. You have the pedestal, and then the horse, and then the hero. The hero is normally the smallest element. Horses in history of art have always acted as amplifiers of heroic achievement. Horses are seen as noble, animals of flight, heroic in themselves, and exceptionally beautiful. But horses are part of an artificial construction. The domestic horse has been bred over hundreds of years by humans, for our purposes. The history of the horse and humanity stands for so many of our achievements and advancements.
Marl, the setting for Cornered Star, is a post-industrial city, and once was one of the richest towns in Germany. It had one of the biggest coal mining industries, it was in a very prosperous area, and, at the height of its prosperity, it commissioned all this public sculpture. It is full of Modernist public sculpture amidst this incredible Brutalist architecture. Shortly after the mines closed, the city took a nosedive and became destitute over a very short number of years. The public sculptures are crumbling and all of this beautiful concrete architecture is deteriorating. The city centre has emptied out. All this grandiose architecture and public art are no longer animated.
Coincidentally, the town is also the home of the country’s most famous show jumper and his stud farm is located close by. All these incredible Olympic horses are bred right there. I got in touch with him and suggested that we would take one of his horses and put it into this empty architecture. It was like a performance, where architecture and civic pride is articulated both through the absence of humans and the presence of this one living being. These Olympic horses stand for our interference with nature. They stand for our desire to heighten and perfect nature for ourselves. In a roundabout way, it speaks to the crises we face in the interaction between humans and the natural world. It is hinting at the problematics of a situation where everything is overdetermined by human desire.
I hadn’t thought about that, but you are absolutely right. Horses and dogs are the creatures to which humans are attached most strongly, but they’re both the ones that we have bred into ideal creatures for our affections.
We breed them further and further so that they best suit our intentions.
I don’t know if this is still the case in the age of the deepfake, but in many ways photography and film are media that are considered ‘true’. That they don’t lie. Can you say something about that?
We could speak about this for a long time, because I think both photography and film do not speak the truth. It is always, inevitably, an interpretation. I also find this whole notion of truth really complicated. I think it is highly debatable that any artistic representation pertains to the idea of truth. In past centuries, there was a very strong correlation between truth and beauty, which is hugely complicated, especially from a feminist perspective, if you think about how women have been curtailed through notions of beauty. Philosophically, beauty and truth were so intertwined, that it gave beauty a great deal of power. Personally, I think that the moment you bring in the camera, you are speaking about interpretation. It is always about subjective interpretation and intention. Cameras create the situations that they record.
There is a big difference between a still image and film. Still imagery can condense many moments into one. I also don’t believe in the decisive moment, that Cartier Bresson notion that the precise 1/60th of a second is what is real, important, and true. The condensing that a still photograph offers is part of its power and attraction and why, as an image, it comes to encompass and speak to our desires. Moving image has all these other elements: duration, succession, gesture, and sound, but it is ephemeral. The moments disappear. In terms of time, photography and film inhabit very different temporalities. It is something of a cliché that photography always inhabits the past, whereas in film, arguably, time is more continuous. I think those temporalities are really important in understanding static and moving images.
Photographic image making now, is so accessible. Everybody is always doing it, all the time. This wasn’t the case when we were younger. There is a shift from photographing important things or occasions to this loose, casual, relationship with image making, with images pinging back and forth. Has that changed the way you think about the medium?
Inevitably, it has changed all of our understanding of image making and the presence of images. I kind of wish there were different words for it. I actually think that the images that we all make endlessly through various devices, most likely our phones, should have a different name, rather than photograph. Arguably, they are so close, i.e. made by light passing through a lens and creating a representation of the outside onto a device, but they are so different, ontologically. The confusion between these forms of image making arises because they look so similar and use the same apparatus. The ontology of one has shifted that of the other.
It is a little like portraiture. If you think about seventeenth- or eighteenth-century portraiture, the intention was completely different and to do with hierarchy and power and class. It was not necessarily to do with likeness. Now, the era of the selfie has changed the idea of representing ourselves to the world. The question is whether these are all the same objects, or categories of things. I don’t think that a painted portrait is the same entity, ontologically, as a selfie made by someone fifteen times a day, while going about their lives. They are entirely different objects, even though they share something. What they share is probably much smaller than what differentiates them.
Coming back to the question of whether it has changed how I make work, I think it has. But there is the fundamental difference, which is to do with time and the decision-making processes that happen around an image. That is not a judgement; I just think they come from completely different methodologies.
Speaking of time, a project that you have been working on for ten years is your work in Engelberg in the Swiss Alps. What brought you there and what makes you return time and time again?
At first it was a personal passion. The way we form notions of our place in the world and how we keep becoming are affected by relational associations with places, people, and non-human agents – the Latour–ian idea of a network of actors, who are not necessarily human. For me, mountains have played a huge part in how I conceive that illusive sense of self. Even though I didn’t grow up amongst them, I have an absolute desire for mountains. Engelberg is a place I’ve known for half my life, where I would go to ski and be in the mountains. In 2009, I came back to the village and experienced an instant flood of ideas, something that had never happened before. Ideas for works presented themselves, with a real sense of urgency. Returning to London they didn’t let up but instead become more and more powerful so I returned to Engelberg to explore and have been spending a lot of time there ever since.
I had never made any work about mountains before, partly because they are very contested spaces. Particularly as a German, mountains are overdetermined, embedded in Fascist image making. Nazis claimed mountains as their own heroic places. I was cautious about making any representations of mountains. Until then, I was completely dedicated to making work about and with people not spaces. Ten years ago, coming back to Engelberg, I realised that making work about spaces is making work about people, even if that is not immediately visible in the work. I suddenly experienced a cascade of ideas about work I wanted to make there.
One of the first works I produced there was LEAP After the Great Ecstasy, which is about the world’s largest natural ski jump, located in Engelberg. It’s a natural jump cut into the forest with the perfect pitch for ski jumping competitions. The title refers to the film made by Werner Herzog called The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. I’m a huge Herzog fan, and this film is a great example of his mythmaking. I have been making work in Engelberg ever since, pretty much every year.
The focus of so much of your work in Engelberg is something that nobody thinks about when they think of mountains. It’s all about managing mountains, optimising them, literally switching them on and off.
The work is about what happens backstage, how the mountain functions and how the mountain industry functions. Mountains don’t belong to us. We don’t own them. The village of Engelberg does not own these mountains, it is using them and has a great responsibility to take care of them. How do you sustain these environments that feed us through tourism or agriculture? How do you make decisions that regulate the flow of the mountain? How does what you do affect the glacier? What are the long-term effects? It’s deep time. Mountains are part of a timescale we can’t even imagine. We are just tiny flecks. In the traditional Romantic sense, that is why they are considered the archetype of the sublime. They throw us back onto ourselves and our own minuscule timeframes compared to the geological time, and deep time, that mountains represent.
When we stand before a mountain, we have a deep sense of the sublime, which is complicated. It is complicated because it introduces the sense of distance. We are here, nature is there, and we contemplate it. In the current moment, this is problematic, because it doesn’t implicate us. We need to implicate ourselves within nature as a part of our discourse, otherwise we don’t take responsibility for it. These questions underpin my interest in the backstage of mountains.
I used to live in the Himalayas as a child, in Shimla, which is about 2,100m above sea level. We used to go up into the mountains, and I found them terrifying. Driving through mountains, with the ever-present danger of avalanches, landslides, and rock-falls, I don’t think I was ever as aware of myself in relation to space as I was traveling through mountains.
It’s Big Nature. The mountain shakes itself and it results in an avalanche or rock-fall and you are dust! The mountain doesn’t care about you. It just rumbles in the earth.
It is amoral?
I am not sure about morality here, that is such a complex question. We could discuss though that mountains have always been projected upon within our moral universe. It is partly why it is difficult to make work about or with mountains.
Yes, there is this whole human narrative about conquering and summiting with mountains. From the sublime to the particular, when did using a camera become more for you than what it is for most people?
It was a long and not very straight road. In school, I had no intention of becoming an artist or a photographer. I actually wanted to study Philosophy, but it didn’t happen. I found myself doing an internship and then a job in a New York artists’ agency, which was doing a lot of PR and management for performance artists, most of them in contemporary music. I stayed for a year and a half, but I needed to enrol in the Performing Arts department of New York University, to be able to work legally. I took an acting class, an art history class, and a photography class. I went to my first photography class, and when we went into the darkroom, it was like *snaps fingers*! It was one of those rare moments of instant recognition. In the dark room, all the metaphorical lightbulbs in my head were going off right, left, and centre. I became engrossed in the history of photography, the practicalities of photography, and the magic of photography. That magic goes back to the dark room, in taking time, in developing a photograph, not knowing whether the image you saw in your head is anywhere on the film. Or if something else is there that could be better, different, or equally enjoyable.
After a year and half, it became clear that I could no longer pay my way through university and that I had grown out of the job. Also, if I am anything, I am European. I loved being in New York, but I do feel very strong connections to being European. So, I decided to come to London and studied at the Royal College of Art.
Finally, is there anything you wanted to say about lockdown and working at this time?
Well, I wanted to say that I am making a feature film with Liverpool Biennial, and we just received an amazing Impact grant from Outset Partners. I am working on that for the next three years. It will be released in 2022 as a cinematic piece and in 2023 as a sculptural installation at Liverpool Biennial. I’m working with a group of people in recovery from addictions, both substances and gaming and gambling. It addresses themes of isolation and mental health. This pandemic is quite powerfully connecting to all of these questions, because it is making it so hard for people to stay in recovery. It’s a very timely work, even though I had already been working on it for the last couple of years. It seems even more urgent to work on it now.
Things are not always what they seem. Sometimes you need to scratch the surface to see what lies beneath. Make your own scratch art with us from… SCRATCH! (See what we did there?)
Get your materials together and prepare your work space.
You will need a sheet of a thicker paper – a cereal box would work;
any drawing material to create a background image;
oil pastels, crayons or a candle to do a hidden layer;
either chalk and ink or gouache and a dash of dish soap as well as brushes to create a final layer.
It’s going to get messy, so don’t forget to cover your work area in newspaper or work on a newspaper.
Don’t worry! We’ll get through this together!
Think of a place that you are not allowed to enter. A neighbour’s garden full of delicious apples or ant farm? Draw it using colour pencils.
Cover the image with oil-based material. Rub the picture with oil pastels, crayons, or even a candle. Cover the image as evenly as you can. You will want it to completely cover your first drawing.
Now we are ready for the dark top layer. If you are using chalk and ink, sprinkle the chalk dust over the image and cover it with ink. If you are using gouache, add a drop of dish soap, and thinly cover the image. The darker the colour, the better the result.
Take a toothpick and scratch some line figures in the dark layer. Can you see the colours of your earlier drawing peep through? We are breaking the rules here!
You can do the image in a great detail and then scratch it in as a pattern; or you can do the opposite – cover the paper with big areas of colour and then scratch the detailed image.
Most important step – HAVE FUN! And share your results with us.
This week, we spoke to award-winning artist Juliette Losq about Cambridge, surviving art school, and the importance of being true to your voice. Interview by Prerona Prasad.
I was introduced to your work by Laura Dennis, Curator of the Newnham College Art Collection. We were borrowing a work by Christiana Herringham, a watercolourist and tempera painter. Do you remember seeing her work while you were at Newnham?
When I was there, there were very few works on show in the corridors. Works were on show in the Dining Hall and in meeting rooms and offices. Since I left in 2000, the art collection has become much more prominent, and is managed in a different way. When I was there, it was all nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century portraits of figures from the College. Now it seems, with work like the one by Cathy de Monchaux, that it has changed and is unrecognisable from how it was.
That brings me to a question that I can ask you that I haven’t been able to ask anyone else. You’ve actually been a student at Cambridge University. What brought you to Cambridge? Did you actually want to be here?
I always had two interests academically, Art History and English Literature. I wanted to study English Literature and History of Art and Fine Art, but it wasn’t such a broad education system where you could study more than one thing at once. I did love studying English Literature, which I studied for two years. And then I studied History of Art for one year and went to the Courtauld Institute for an MA in History of Art.
I ended up working in the City for a few years because I really wanted to go back and study Fine Art. I saved up to do a degree and was lucky enough to get into Wimbledon College of Arts without having to do a Foundation and then on to the Royal Academy Schools. I got my own way at the end – studying everything I wanted to study – but via having to work at a job as an insurance agent for Lloyds of London which I didn’t like. It paved the way for me doing what I wanted to do, so I can’t complain.
Having had the opportunity to study all three subjects, I’m really happy to have been able to study art. Now, it fills my days. I have a studio, which is like an addiction. If you’re deprived of it for any period of time, you really do notice that. I was already winning prizes from my first year of study, and it all seemed to fit into place.
You mentioned that at College, it was all ‘standard-issue’ College Art – portraits arranged in a predictable sort of way. Did you feel that you had any avenues for fine art while you were at Cambridge?
It was very limited. Obviously, you could work in your own room, but were very conscious of making a mess because you were surrounded by antique furniture. There was another student who was a couple of years above me at Newnham, and we did manage to put on an exhibition. It was very much making use of an available space to get some of our art out. There was an annual student exhibition at the University, which you could submit work for, and I did do that. There wasn’t a community associated with art. I don’t know if it is different now. I got involved in set design at the ADC. I don’t think there is any replacement for being thrown into a studio setting with lots of other people who are studying art, because that is where you battle and find your voice. Being at art school, with so many different styles and opinions around, and struggling through that – there isn’t really any replacement for that.
It’s interest you mentioned set design. You do these fantastic installations that you can walk through and walk around – something that no one expects to see with watercolour and paper. Do you think that it had anything to do with those early experiences of set design?
They just wanted painted backdrops and the odd prop. I am very interested in Victorian and early-twentieth-century set design and optical devises like toy theatres. I’m doing a PhD on an optical device known as a teleorama.
Is that the thing that is concertinaed and you lift it up and can look in?
You can get a concertina one, or you can get ones that are static tunnels. I went to the Musee d’Orsay last year and saw the opera and ballet sets. All made out of paper and miniaturised. The PhD is looking at the structure of the teleorama and trying to figure out new ways of making and exhibiting drawings of contemporary ruin sites, but using that structure.
The idea of going from a miniaturised world to creating an immersive world is really interesting. Your immersive pieces are very different from the teleoramas of the Great Exhibition and things like that. They tell a very different story and memorialise very different things.
My subject matter is modern ruins. They are places that I found on walks or places around my studios that were semi-derelict. It’s that idea that they are never the same again. You can more-or-less guarantee that they won’t be there within a few months. That is the nature of contemporary ruins. It’s that idea that you are preserving them at a particular moment in their decay or collapse. Not in a nostalgic way. I’m using them as imaginative structures. I’m imagining them in a more ruinous state than they are in. For me, the modern ruin is a springboard for my imagination. These little toy theatre structures, these teleoramas, are a really good way of developing that and getting it across.
When you look at the Romantic ruin, works by Hubert Robert and others, they tend to be quiet, uninhabited spaces. But, in fact, people have always lived around ruins as part of their everyday life. Do you think that idea also translates to our urban settings – that we just take it as given that modern buildings and installations should be allowed to fall apart and we don’t even notice them until they are gone?
There is this division between acceptable ruins and unacceptable ruins. You can have ruins of the walls of London amongst the new and shiny structures of the City. If you have a concrete bunker decaying somewhere, it’s not going to last long according to the vision of what a Modern, Western city is supposed to be. It’s those ruins I’m interested in, the ones that are doomed. They carry certain associations that are specific to modern ruins. We often see them in science fiction films, horror films, and crime dramas. They’ve got a latent menace about them. Also, they can be rather beautiful if they are allowed just to be. You get nature creeping in. That’s the point I’m interested in. In my versions of modern ruins, I overdo nature, and nature becomes the main character. Hopefully it creates this world where you are questioning how long these ruins have been there, whether there are people in this world anymore. I find I’m creating this peaceful, tranquil environment, which, at the same time, makes you question how it got to be like that. It’s a benign vision of what could be an apocalyptic future.
I didn’t think about it that way. You’ve talked before about being influenced by Romantic painting, and you won the John Ruskin Prize. At first glance, it would seem that these structures in your work are romanticised as something worth preserving. What you are saying is completely the opposite.
You can’t preserve them in any real way. Such is the nature of capitalist society that space on the edge of a city now is prime. These places cannot persist in the same way as a Ruskinian ruin. But, you can see value in them. They are places where you can escape progress and go off grid. In that way, for me, they are refuges – not only spatially, but also in terms of your imagination. They can be quite scary if you are exploring them on your own, but this is mainly because of the things that our imaginations associate with them. Almost every time you visit these sites, they are completely empty. They are marginal zones in all senses of the word. For me, they are both, places that I want to preserve in my imagination and also places that are always changeable. They are never the same again and you don’t know what to expect when you go back there.
You deal with subject matter that is three-dimensional and overpowered by nature, but your medium is one that has always been associated with the delicate and impressionistic – paper and watercolour. That is a really remarkable juxtaposition. You build these powerful, arresting images in a medium that is considered quite transient.
Historically, on the hierarchy of media, watercolour is near the bottom. I like the idea that you can make something on the scale of an Old Master Painting and use watercolour for it. These installations are never put up the same way twice. They are only shown once, or they may be reconfigured. Exposed paper in itself is constantly decaying, much like the sites themselves. That the sites are very throwaway chimes with the idea that I am going into a gallery and putting something up for a limited period of time and then rolling it up and taking it away again. I’ve spent all of that time and labour making it. It’s madness in a way.
I do work in other media, but I find it interesting to challenge people’s notion of what a watercolour should like, what size it should be, how detailed it should be, and how that detail manifests itself. I don’t use watercolour in a traditional way. I tend to use the paints and resists in the opposite way to how they are usually used. I might use more resist to build up the paint itself. A lot of the time, I’m actually drawing with paint.
So, youare using influences from printmaking, using resists, exposing areas that can take colour, and masking others? Have you ever been interested in printmaking?
The technique that I developed is directly inspired by an etching course I did while at Wimbledon. I like the look and tonal detail of etching. I had to work out how to translate that into another medium without having to spend all that time building up an etching plate. Can I do something a bit more instantaneous?
Masking off the paper and then removing all the mask at the end and working on the image again is labour intensive. And it is not a process that can be used to create multiples. It is achieving the effects that I like about etchings. I can also work on a very large scale, which is often not possible with printmaking.
When you are masking and revealing, you are putting so much strain on your paper. Do you now think that you have got the technique down pat, and you are not risking damaging the work?
My most successful works are where the paper and how light interacts with it are active parts of the composition. You build up this language of marks, but the paper is also responding in its own way. The risk is when you overwork it and haven’t really planned it out. I’ve developed this technique for fifteen years and I know now what to look out for and how to avoid pitfalls. I’ve had pieces tear off the wall because of the weight of the paper. There’s always a risk involved.
The work we have in the Gallery is a smaller piece. What drives you to abandon the limitations of the traditional scale of works on paper? Is it ambition?
I think it comes back to the desire to create an immersive environment. I also enjoy pushing the boundaries of the materials I am working with and the boundaries of figurative painting and drawing. I’m making installations, but they are still drawings. They are three-dimensional and sculptural but are still paintings that go into the space inhabited by the viewer. It is about questioning what they are. I like working at all different scales, but I like the idea of feeling like you are falling into a painting.
A sense of transportation is quite difficult to achieve with wall-based art. You are doing this by taking the works off the wall and allowing people to enter into them. You’ve mentioned the word ‘figurative’ and so many of your influences are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Did you find resistance to some of the work you were doing at art school?
Definitely. Wimbledon was so lucky for me. I got a studio space to myself and they allowed me to develop in the way I wanted to develop. I hadn’t been working in the way I work before I went there. I was responding to what I was learning there and the environment. When I went on the MA at the Royal Academy Schools, it was three years of almost nobody really liking my work. Figurative work wasn’t fashionable at all, and if it was figurative, it was in the style of somebody like Luc Tuymans. Nobody was working in watercolour, which was super untrendy. There were negative views of the medium itself, even before we got to the subject matter. It seemed to really anger people.
It was three years of defending yourself in ‘crits’ and it is harsh. People came from very different art schools, many of which would not have accepted somebody who was a figurative painter at that time. Things do go in cycles. Perhaps now you get more figurative painters on MA courses. Many people adapt their style or work to the institution they are working at, or to the galleries they want to show with. Some are successful, but many are not. I had to ask myself if I was going to maintain my own voice or try and blend in. If you can’t take the criticism, which feels very personal at times, you can’t survive.
What did you draw on in your defence?
A common criticism was ‘Why don’t you go and take a photograph, instead?’ For me, that’s missing the whole point. I want you to see that this is a paper-based drawing, and if you get close to it, you can see that it dissolves into mark-making. If you don’t bother to look at it, or look from afar, it can look photographic. I still frequently get asked if I have painted over a photograph or if it is a print. These are the sorts of questions I want people to ask. That’s my defence. If you’re questioning what you are looking at, then you are at least looking at it.
It’s not fair to photographers either!
Would I be saying to somebody, who had created an installation that looked like a room ‘Why don’t you take me to the room?’ It is all about that hierarchy of genres as well. It’s meaningless now when we have so many more media. We have virtual reality. Why paint again?
A lot of that criticism is quite old fashioned. It’s that same ‘What is the purpose of art?’ question, which is quite a reductive and outdated way of looking at art.
When you are at Art School, you are outnumbered by people who are not willing to engage with the process, the subject matter, the materials. You can either change what you are doing entirely, or you can just relish the bad ‘crit’ and carry on!
You’ve been able to do it. The first ten years are often so critical in an artist’s career. How were you able to negotiate that, especially doing work that didn’t seem to fit in with current tastes?
I have been lucky. I have had collectors, some with an interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century work. Others like Kit Kemp, who runs an international chain of art hotels, have put my work out for people to see. I’ve also worked with galleries quite consistently. I’ve also tried to show with artist-led collectives and galleries. Roaming Room would go out and find disused buildings, and I have done a couple of shows with them where you just colonise a part of a building. I have also won prizes ever since I’ve graduated. The John Ruskin Prize is particularly significant because it was for an installation. It means that that area of my practice is being recognised by industry professionals, some of whom are artists that I really like and have studied. I am now working on an Arts Council commission for a walk-through installation at Sewerby Hall. Rather than just making small-scale work that can be framed, and that a gallery might want to sell, I have this other strand of my practice that is developing.
I’ve made it work. You make sacrifices as you go. It’s expensive to rent a studio and a flat. I don’t live in Central London anymore. I live in Twickenham and I have found a great studio on Eel Pie Island. It’s partly luck and partly really committing to it, applying for things, submitting work, and making sure the work is exposed.
If you expect that art trends are cyclical, you have to expect that what was popular when you went to art school will not be popular now. Or, that a whole raft of new people will be working in the same way. If you haven’t got your own voice, you could just get swept along.
Do you think being at strident place like Newnham helped you in any way. I’m really interested in the experience of women at Oxbridge. On the one hand, everybody is expected to perform great intellectual calisthenics, but on the other, these spaces can be deeply traditional and suspicious of change.
There’s got to be something in the fact that we had weekly group classes where you would debate with everybody over your reading of a book. You have to develop the ability to back everything up with an argument. In a sense, it’s about not making flippant judgements. When I was in groups of people critiquing my art, I was always aware of flippant judgements. I remember being in a ‘crit’ where the only contribution was someone saying, ‘If I saw this in a gallery, I would just walk past it.’ That is not engaging with the work in any way. People do get very heated in discussions about literature and history of art, I guess I learned to not take it personally. I fear some art students do just lose all motivation because of criticism. I think there is a statistic that only 5% of BA Fine Art students end up working in the field. That’s quite depressing. I wonder if a lot of that is because people get convinced out of it by the harshness of the environment. Studying it when I was a bit older, those years of working a very boring job helped. I really appreciated being there and I was not going to give up because people didn’t like figurative painting.
You’d seen the other side?
Having saved up to go, I really valued being there. I remember, as an undergraduate, going in and seeing that fifty percent of the studios were always empty. I just really wanted to work and I work quite obsessively.
Finally, what has been going on over the last two months, for you?
The arrival of the virus has coincided with all the shows I had for the year. They are all going on online. I have been lucky with my work as my studio is self-contained, and I can walk to it. I foresee problems in being able to install things later in the year. My partner is a cabinet maker and helps with the wooden frames for my installations. He is shielding, so I don’t know how he could come out with me to install.
As an artist, you always have to deal with uncertainty. Do you think it has equipped you in any way for the current moment?
Definitely. You never know what’s going to happen year to year as an artist. Often, opportunities come up when you are not expecting them. With this enforced isolation, I suppose I’m always in self-imposed isolation with the work, anyway. You can cope with isolation, as an artist, but you want the work to be seen.
Two fantastical garments hang on loose chains off a blank wall. Although tethered for the duration of the exhibition, the brightly-coloured robes only take on their true meaning when donned for a performance of Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings by artist, writer, and scholar, Sophie Seita. With the scheduled date for the performance looking unlikely due to current circumstances, we bring you a statement from Sophie Seita (published in the exhibition catalogue for WE ARE HERE: Women in Art at Cambridge Colleges). We hope to unite artist and costumes for a performance once we can all meet again.
poetry is the oil for fixed stars
reality is there to be corrected
to translate is to surpass the source
My text- and research-based practice spans performance, lecture-performance, poetry, video, translation, and multi-media and queer-feminist collaborations. I explore how text and the act of reading can be visualised and embodied in movement and material, via costume, choreography, sound, interaction with sculptural objects, and installation. A friend once described my work as ‘polyvocal, opulent research into the ways we are choreographed by language’. Around 1700, choreography began to mean the act of notating a dance on paper. We don’t tend to think of language in space, the same way we do with sculpture, but bodies and texts can become sculptural, too. For me, a choreography of language is also about gesture, about motion and emotion, about inviting an audience into a relationship of close attention.
I usually say that I work with language in different media and forms. Everything returns me to text. I often respond to various older literary, archival, and philosophical materials, by reworking a concept, character name, plotline, or feature of the language. I also recycle my own work. I make my own decals out of words. In that way, language is turned into material: a citational and felt experience (i.e. abstraction and difficulty can still be affective or generate their own affect), always energised by prosody. While my texts can often stand alone as pieces on the page, they gain density (in German, poetry is ‘Dichtung’, which contains the word ‘dicht’, meaning ‘dense’) when they are heard and seen, in live performance, as video, or as audio pieces. Fascinated with sequencing, formal poise, and with seductive rhythms, my pieces create a sonic and visual pleasure that presents language materially. I often visualise text in performance to draw attention to processes of making and reading. ‘Paper’ is a character in one performance and text is often printed onto sculptural objects and costumes, from which I and my co-performers read. My fascination with paper and materiality is related to the connection between documents, identity, and rights (say, to remain in a country, or publication as a form of legitimation). My interdisciplinary angle takes inspiration from Carolee Schneemann, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and the abstract choreography and costumes of Dada, Oskar Schlemmer, and Sonia Delaunay. It is in my playful and interventionist approach to archival and historical materials that my critical and creative interests overlap. I’m dedicated to queer-feminist politics beyond the text and to a politics of form that still recognises that aesthetic forms are highly contextual and never unburdened. Formally and tonally, I’m interested in the whimsical and witty, in polyrhythms, lush abstraction, sonic pleasure, performative poise, and conceptual rigour.
What does it mean to write and think through source materials as a serious dialogue with other voices? It’s a form of autobiographical abstraction or an autobiography of my reading. There’s a self-referential line in my piece Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings, in which one character says: ‘I basically think through other people’s language.’ We all do that, all the time, but my little Enlightenment project, part of which is included in WE ARE HERE and on which I worked during my Junior Research Fellowship at Cambridge, generates this thinking-through-reading as its poetic and performative model. Cambridge has been an incredibly generative place for me: a place in which engaged and enthusiastic conversation about art, writing, and politics are a given every day—over lunch, dinner, or at an event. But traditionally, the university has tilted towards the academic, not the creative. Things are changing now, with practice-based research being taken more seriously, following the recognition that creative and critical knowledges inform one another. My Little Enlightenment Plays attempted precisely that: to bring scholarship and creative practice into dialogue.
My Little Enlightenment Plays is a multimedia project centred around three experimental theatre pieces: 1. Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly; 2. Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers; 3. Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings — all of which present imaginary tête-a-têtes with Enlightenment thinkers, writers, and scientists. The costumes and props are often a trace of past performance, but also a score that can be activated yet again in performance. Each element in a performance translates my text into another material and medium – which is itself a queer-feminist and oblique translation of Enlightenment texts and ideas.
The project as a whole asks how a dialogue with Enlightenment figures can positively mobilise politically and aesthetically aspects of that era (tolerance, hospitality, a diverse utopia), while critiquing others (an obsession with progress, fraternity, imperialism). Highlighting the Enlightenment’s relevance to our contemporary artistic and political preoccupation with ‘values’ and ‘truth’, My Little Enlightenment Plays tests knowledge, universality, rationality, individualism and certain forms of empiricism, asking: for what and whom? How and how far? In a time of ‘alternative facts’, how can we salvage the speculative in creative work and follow its utopian promise towards imaginative ways of producing and distributing knowledge? What would a new feminist, queer, and welcoming ‘Republic of Letters’ look like today?
My Little Enlightenment Plays blends this reworking of historical material (astronomy, astrology, Mesmer’s energy healing, salon culture), with contemporary queer affect theory, the (pseudo-)psychology of colour-symbolism, Bauhaus-style abstract costumes, and experimental dance. Challenging the Enlightenment’s opposition of sentiment and rationality, the project harnesses the experimental spirit of things that don’t quite work and are thus exactly aligned or fizzingly oblique, toying with current assumptions about seriousness, identity, obscurity, form and fun, and showing that deliberate artifice can be an affective space and vivid presence in which the audience can dwell and be held.
Balancing on the pliancy on which rests that expansion of seesaw recognition, of desire,you trip flatteringly. A body hitched to the tenderness of an imagination.
My Little Enlightenment Plays by Sophie Seita is soon to be published by Parmenar Press. Her lecture performance of My Little Enlightenment is available from Other Forms.
After completing her Junior Research Fellowship at Queens’ College, Cambridge, Dr Sophie Seita was appointed Assistant Professor at the English Department of Boston University.
After reminding ourselves what day of the week it was, and sharing our new-found belief in the sanctity of weekends, the artist Cathy de Monchaux and I discussed chance, accounting for creative time, our very personal relationships with books, and sitting still in the lockdown.
The work in WE ARE HERE is the maquette for Beyond Thinking, the bronze relief running up the side of the new entrance to Newnham College. I thought we could chat about that and how it fits into the rest of your work. When you were thinking of applying for this commission, what did you have in mind?
The offer to apply for the commission came to me quite late. I’ve always had this affinity with the essay, A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, which was was based on lectures delivered in October 1929 at Newnham and Girton Colleges. Just based on this essay, I thought I knew about Newnham. It explains how women were being educated, but not equally to the men. They didn’t have the social life, they didn’t have the fun. I went and walked around Cambridge and looked at lots of buildings. The proposal was not so much a concrete proposal, but to convince them that one was keen.
The things that were striking me as I walked around were the vines on the sides of the venerable buildings that had been built in Tudor times with statues of kings with globes and sceptres. As Virginia Woolf says, it’s a city built on men’s gold for men to learn. Walking around Cambridge for research, taking photographs, just reinforced that feeling. When I went to Newnham, a lovely and friendly College, the lunch wasn’t quite mutton stew, but it was quite basic. I just felt that I was the right person for the job.
I went to do the preliminary interview. As you know there are lots of unicorns in my current work, and I recalled seeing all this heraldry around the University – unicorns, lions, and that sort of thing. It seemed to me that, maybe, one could weave something like that into the piece that I was maybe going to make. Halfway through the interview, Jenny Morton, who is now a great friend, said, ‘See, Cathy, here at Newnham we don’t really like unicorns.’
It was great, because I think what convinced them was that, instead of just saying, ‘But, why am I here?’, I took a deep breath and said that there were other things. The committee was surprised that I hadn’t lost my temper – I think that is what swung it for me. At that point, it was persuading them that I was interested in doing something.
The next part of the process was to look at this new building, that had already been designed and approved. There were various limitations – it had to be on the street, it had to be user friendly, the passing public would have total access to it. I made myself a big cardboard model of the building, and my immediate thought was ‘there’s nowhere to put anything’. There weren’t really any walls. There was just one wall next to the front entrance, over a metre wide.
I went for a walk, feeling quite grumpy. I happened to see this tiny bit of architecture, a wall about the same size. I took a picture of it, but as I took a photograph of it I realised that it was next to a glass door and it was reflected. It is funny, when you’re up against it, and you’re so in it but you can’t find an answer to your question. I looked at the reflection and remembered that my piece would be next to a three-storey, plate-glass, ‘mirror’ (window). That was the point I realised that my work could actually have enough room on this wall, and that it would be embedded in the wall and go floor to ceiling like the windows.
Then I was thinking that it would have female figures in it. I had recently made a piece of sculpture, which had these pregnant figures in it. So, I thought I would have female figures and some sort of image of vines because, to me, the idea of making a vine on a new building seemed quite interesting.
The next stage was to go back to the committee with my ‘workings out’, for want of a better word. As an artist, I’m used to getting on with my own inner discussions. Showing my ‘workings out’ to this group of very dedicated academics was quite a challenge. Sometimes there isn’t anything physically there – there isn’t a drawing, just something in one’s mind. Often, I don’t draw things because I don’t want to get stuck with a form or idea.
You don’t want to pre-empt the work?
Yes, it’s something to do with the chance – like walking down the street and seeing this wall. Sometimes you have to get yourself into this quite anxious state to find something that isn’t what you already know. So, the first meeting when I went back to the committee was the hardest. I had to come up with something very quickly and, looking back, I would have explained that the important thing is the idea. It’s the thing that I, as the artist, have to visualise and work out, and that’s the thing that takes the time. I had not really done this sort of public commission before. The part of the process that is the sitting and the thinking, and the not really understanding, is difficult to communicate. I was really empathetic towards this group of people that I was trying to make a piece of work for, but, at some points in the process, I felt that I was not allowing myself to be as fanciful, or giving enough time. Putting myself in their shoes, I understand that when we are watching other people taking this sort of time, it’s sometimes a bit hard to see where it is going.
It is very hard to account for that creative time, isn’t it?
Even when I am working on other projects, I sometimes wonder why it has taken me a month to do nothing. I know that the nothing is the thing, but it is very difficult to communicate that because it goes totally against what we think of as a good work ethic. Particularly with work like mine, which looks very made and crafted, it is easy to assume that I just get up in the morning and start bending and wrapping things. It’s not really like that at all. It was interesting and frustrating in equal measure to look at my process and explain it at these early stages. There would be a meeting in the diary and I would have to turn up with something. To be fair, I think they got it quite quickly that what I was showing them was the process, and there wasn’t a simple linear progression to the final work.
Getting back to the piece, the part about the books came in totally by accident. I had made a form for the maquette and had gone to bed. I got up in the middle of the night and started working (de Monchaux has a studio in her bedroom) and suddenly saw the book in the form that I had made. It had come to me backwards, but it made sense of the form that I had, which was this long, tall thing that was going to attach to the building. The book came about three days before the next meeting, and then it was a matter of, very quickly, making the maquette. It was very quick considering I had tormented myself for weeks and weeks on end.
The committee loved it and the next step was grappling with the technical task of how to make the work in bronze and how it was going to attach to the building. It got to the point at which I was making the book to be made into bronze. I was working very late into the night and I was wondering why I was making such heavy weather of this book. I had always known that I don’t go in libraries and don’t go into bookshops. Then I remembered that I had been molested in a public library at the age of about eleven, something I had forgotten. I had just accepted that I didn’t go into libraries or bookshops. I can just about go into the front of a bookshop and get to the bestsellers, but after that I get really anxious and have to get out of there very fast. I like books and I like reading, and it never really bothered me that I couldn’t go into these places.
This revelation of memory took me by storm. On one level, it was quite traumatic, but on another level, it cleared some things up for me. There were point going through the committees when I questioned whether I had an emotional relationship to this piece. I realised that I had somehow found a subject that was quite natural for a College – a book – but, I hadn’t really worked out what it meant to me.
You hadn’t made that connection?
Yes, it went from being something I felt a bit far away from to finding myself right in there. I felt very emotionally engaged, and felt confident that I could see it through to the final piece. There is a lot of back and forth with the bronze-casting process until the result feels true to your idea.
Ultimately it was a very valuable experience because I was having to frame the creative part of my practice in words. I tend to not bang on too much about my ‘emotional journey’. I am far more interested in people having their own interpretation of my work and their own emotional relationship. With this piece, I was working with other people, and it was important to communicate my thinking. Normally I would have kept it (the memory) to myself and not been so public. It was quite good for me to be able to say ‘this is personal to me, because…’
Hopefully it resonates with the people who see it and make them think of women’s education. Women didn’t get degrees in Cambridge until 1948. Because there were such few universities where women could go, many of the most brilliant women of the last century went to Newnham or Girton. They were hives of extraordinarily gifted women. I’d like to think that the piece celebrates that, in a way that is quite different to the Tudor king holding a globe.
I must confess that I had avoided reading A Room of One’s Own for my entire life, but I did read it very closely for this exhibition. The exhortation that women should write books about everything, and that they needed to populate libraries with their work; if you see that in the context of the early women’s colleges with their severely limited resources, you see that these women were working in every conceivable field. Scientists, archaeologists, linguists – considering their constraints, their output was astonishing.
Exactly, they should have been completely invisible, but they weren’t. The essay might seem shrill, but I don’t mind it. It’s calling on women to run across a minefield, because no one had investigated life from women’s point of view before. In the time that went before, women might have had all those thoughts and ideas, but they weren’t able to transmit them. I think her point is that it is clearly not because women are incapable.
It’s a funny thing about books you think you must read but never do. I actually read it very early on in my life, when I was in my twenties. I deliberately didn’t go back to it. I firmly relied on my memory of what I had learned from it in my twenties. I did actually buy a nice copy of it, and it was sitting next to my bed through this whole process.
I’m somebody who doesn’t re-read books. I know that there are people who re-read books all the time. When you read a book that has such an impact, there is a rush of recognition and affinity to the object. I fear if I read it at different stages of my life, it just becomes another book rather than this talismanic object.
You don’t want to come back to it and miss those things that threw themselves off the page at you. That’s probably part of my reasoning for not going back. I had my very old copy, and I know where it is in my storage. I know that it is very heavily annotated. I couldn’t even make myself find that copy and rediscover all my notes. The memory of something you discover when you are young is your own personal interpretation. With a book like that, you can form a very personal and not academic relationship.
With books that you read in your youth, teens or twenties, they shape you so much more than anything you read at any time later. In some ways, re-reading them is confronting yourself at that age, and so much of growing up is about forgetting.
You don’t necessarily remember everything very accurately. Sometimes one goes back and you think, ‘Oh, really, is that all it was?’
I want to draw you back to the making of an object. You said you resist making detailed drawings before you start. Do you find that the work emerges as you make it and it is different from what you had in mind?
It is always different. Because I do so much work that is wall-based, you would imagine it is easy to translate it from a drawing into a sculptural work. But, because I make these hybrid things that are slightly like a picture and slightly like a sculpture, the process of making that look viable is actually quite intense. It is quite instinctive and based purely on how a thing looks. It either looks right or it doesn’t and there isn’t an in-between.
There isn’t a mathematical calculation that you could rely on?
There’s a sense of the mathematical, and I’m interested in the Golden Section, for example, as a starting point, but the reality is that as soon as you’re dealing with depth, it changes. What you are doing in a drawing to explain perspective, and what you’re doing in a wall-based three-dimensional object to explain perspective are entirely different.
The rules of perspective from painting break down?
As soon as you want to explain depth in a physical space, it doesn’t translate at all. It’s a constant juggle between what I want to make and what I get while making it. At some point, my internal discussion becomes all that I do – I’m not going out, I’m not talking to friends. With each piece, it’s a different problem to solve. The nice thing about the imagining is that it can be anything, but when you start out it all starts going wrong. At the beginning it’s all mine, but it starts feeling that it could turn out to be its own thing.
You can always see the influence of painting and perspective in your works, but they never lose their sculptural presence. Personally, I have always loved dioramas and tableaux from my childhood. There’s always something so attractive about seeing things in miniature.
I think it’s something that goes back to childhood. That interpretation of the world into smallness – dollhouses and things like that. With the work that I am making, it’s trying to fire up people’s imaginations and take them somewhere which is not like all the other somewheres. You have to entice people with the distant painterly feel, but, when they are up close they should be able to get in there, and enter it imaginatively. When we gaze at art, it’s quite hard to actually enter it. I want to incite a childlike fascination.
Your works are just like that. From afar, you think, ‘Oh, I know what this is.’ The closer you get to them, the more disconcerting the experience is. There is a far more unfamiliar story that you have to work out for yourself. There is familiarity in forms, but the way that they are presented challenges received knowledge. You don’t see unicorns quite like yours.
The unicorn is such a strange and potent icon. It’s a creature that doesn’t exist, but it is so formed in our heads and imaginations, that we all recognise it. It stands for lots of things, for me, but I can’t really explain why I keep returning to this image. It stands in for an idea about humanity, and it is for other people to fill in the gaps.
It is strange, isn’t it, to be able to confidently state, ‘oh, that is a unicorn’, having never seen one.
They are real. A unicorn is no stranger than an elephant, but elephants exist. Humans also have such intense relationships with dogs and horses. At the moment, that is what I’m using. Occasionally, I question it, but I try not to worry too much about it.
Your work is so grounded in skill and technique. Do you think, in some ways, that your work wouldn’t ‘work’ without that mastery of technique?
There is something about that imaginative ‘entering-into’ quality… The work is very handmade and made very finely. You can engage with the decisiveness of the craftsmanship. It looks like it was meant, like a shamanistic object might look meant. I tend to use the term ‘spell-making’ as an analogy. If I say I have a spell that can turn you into a frog, you have to be very convinced in my ‘frog-making spell ability’. For my work, the highly-crafted elements are the pull that draw people to look.
We have that with literature, and we understand that need for complexity with words. With my work, what draws people is that it’s not like something else. You can’t use words and it doesn’t get any easier. The well-made-ness has to bring the viewer to the brink of the complex and emotional. Every single piece has to have this balance between the making intensity and the emotional intensity.
When I think of domestic embroidery, stump work, beadwork, I think a lot of women were really pouring themselves into these objects. They were making them all day every day. There is constant experimentation in these anonymous works. I wonder if you have any views on them.
If you were to imagine the frustrated woman of the eighteenth century, there is something quite scary about that internalised frustration that didn’t make it to those things. There’s a burgeoning sense of the intensity, but most of it remains in the realm of craft. There is the energy of the action of making, but I am not sure there is that permission to express the self or engage with the unconscious. Everything I make, there is a point where it has to go beyond the physical object. I’m trying to push into something different, intangible.
Perhaps I’d think differently if I looked closely into those objects. I’m quite nervous about the idea of craft, because, instinctively I’m trying not to do that. That’s quite hard because I’m always teetering on that line. You feel safe with things that are well made, well designed, symmetrical. All those things make us calm.
Stabilised. At this moment, for example, we are all so destabilised. I don’t believe anyone who says they are having an easy time of it. It is going to disrupt all our certainties. It’s awful, but it’s interesting.
I think it’s the world-before and world-after. That sort of feeling in the past, or even recently, has been generated by wars and conflicts. But this is silent, this thing that we are all shielding from, until it comes to our door. We don’t see people being affected, they are isolating or in closely guarded medical facilities.
We’re all holding that dread in our souls. Absolutely everybody is in a state of extreme fear. Our fight or flight is out of kilter, while we are all trying to appear sane. As an artist, my job is to be open to the uncertainty.
That uncertainty and sense of foreboding is something one finds so often in your work.
(Laughs) Sometimes, now, I feel like I’ve already done that piece! It sounds cynical, but that’s what artists work with. For the past three days, I’ve been taking long walks and making myself to look at trees and my surroundings. I’m waiting to see what is going to make it into my work.
All the artists that I have spoken to, because it is such a self-driven vocation, they have been incredibly self-disciplined. Apart from the fact that there are artists worrying about their future careers, do you think artists are peculiarly suited to this situation.
Certainly, in terms of isolation and working by yourself all day, that’s relatively simple. But we also have to spend time figuring things out, however frustrating it might be to end the day and not really think you got anywhere. In retrospect, it is the most interesting time, but the hardest time to account for. There is nothing better than a day when I really know what I’m doing. I can put the radio on and sit all day and do a task. There are days when you wake up wrestling with an unsolved problem, and, of course, you want to run away and avoid it.
Especially now, I think we have to acknowledge that we are all in a daze and don’t know what is going on.
All the frameworks of daily life have been undermined.
Right. There is nothing we are doing right and nothing we are doing wrong. I have a twenty-year-old son and his only job, really, is to stay in, but it’s hard. To do that when there is this worry about all the people we love and their safety is difficult. On the whole, I think humanity has been very well disciplined. The extraordinary and moving thing is that everybody has been prepared to stand still and wait. It’s not easy for anybody.