Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Interview with Annabel Tilley

Chantelle Purcell talks to Annabel Tilley to find out about the current exhibition ‘Home’ at Core Gallery, which is co-curated by Annabel Tilley and Rosalind Davis. Home features the work of 12 contemporary and internationally acclaimed artists who explore the question: What does home mean today?

Image: Knitted Homes Of Crime © Freddie Robins

The concept of home has become a widespread subject of increasing tension in the 21st Century, affecting all aspects of society and identity. Home is no longer a safe word but a loaded word and a delicate place, vulnerable to attack – both globally, financially and intimately. In this interview we find out about the motivations and curatorial development of this exhibition. We talk about the resurgence in drawing over the past decade and the potentials of contemporary drawing practice we also discover more about Annabel’s practice.

‘Home’ has been extended to this months Last Fridays in association with South London Art Map where Core will also be holding a closing party (as they will be relocating to a space in Deptford).

October 2011 >>

CP: Can you tell me more about the current exhibition ‘Home’ at Core Gallery?

AT: The idea for the exhibition came to me in two ways. The first was when I visited the 2010 Jerwood Drawing Prize and I noticed a drawing by artist, Lucy Austin, entitled: A Machine for Cleaning my House. This red watercolour of a surreal phallic shaped, feather duster-like object fascinated me. A week or so later I had a tutorial at Core Gallery with British artist, Graham Crowley, and critiquing my work, he suggested that in subject matter I might consider moving ‘closer to home’. And in that moment something clicked in my mind and, almost immediately, I approached Rosalind Davis and asked her if she wanted to co-curate an exhibition on the theme of home.

Image: A Machine for Cleaning my House, 2010 © Lucy Austin

CP: How did you go about selecting each of the artists? And how does their work respond to the very loaded ‘concept of home’?

We chose artists whose work we knew and liked but who made work that had some connection to our combined notion of Home and that, often in some form, celebrated or subverted the idea of the domestic. For instance I chose Lucy Austin because her drawing not only ridiculed the idea of the domestic machine but was also referencing a darker subject altogether, the self.

RD suggested Freddie Robins for her wry and perverse work Knitted Homes of Crime, which, literally, features a collection of knitted homes – of infamous female murderers. Rose Wylie was a natural choice for me, as she had once shown me a collection of obsessive watercolour drawings of the many brick surfaces in her own home.

Carolyn Lefley’s photographs appealed to both of us but led to different and interesting choices. I was drawn ‘Living Room (from the series ‘Home’) an image of a dimly lit, warm, surburban sitting-room, and the safe middle-England upbringing it suggested. While Rosalind chose a larger-than life bleak image of a bare room except for an empty bed and curtains. On first sight the scale of the room is mystifying until one realises one is looking at a dolls house.

Image: Living Room (from the series Home) © Carolyn Lefley

For Home the artist Delaine Le Bas specially created: The World Turned Upside Down. In the Cathedral of Exotic Misery (after Kurt Schwitters). I chose Le Bas after having seen her work in the first ever Roma Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Her installation piece features a candy-coloured, Disney-print structure with a celebratory ribboned exterior suggesting a village fete. Yet on closer inspection this tent-like structure leaves one feeling uneasy with its life-size manikin of a masked child in wellington boots surrounded by an array of discarded stuffed animals, fragile model aeroplanes and clothes with exquisite embroideries of words like FEAR.

In Kate Murdoch’s Birdcage and I Don’t Suppose I’ll Ever Go There, chosen by RD, home is a domestic prison and a poignant receptacle for souvenirs, signifying other people’s holidays and the elderly recipient’s unfulfilled dreams of travel or escape.

In Rich White’s installation, Not At This Address one enters a wooden labrinyth and walks forward – with trust in one’s heart – into the darkness through short, uneven corridors towards the light. Eventually one mounts a platform and comes upon a small and cosy white room with an armchair, a place to meditate, to think – a quiet place – a place called home. Rich White’s initial proposal had hinted at something more desperate, a place of refuge or escape from a difficult world. Yet what Rich White actually created is a place concerned with serious reflection, in general, but more specifically on the idea of home, and what that might be.

We both chose Emily Speed’s cast plaster piece entitled: egg – nest – home – country – universe which consisted of a group of slightly larger than life-sized eggs [I am guessing Duck eggs!] each with a fantastical miniature type of home cast onto the side.

Image: egg – nest – home – country – universe © Emily Speed

Meanwhile RD chose Peter Davis’s evocative and exquisite hand carved figures of women – Standing Woman & Seated Woman which, for me, can’t help but suggest the continued cultural dominance of the woman as central to the idea or memory of home.

We felt very privileged that RD was able to borrow several old and new works from the British painter, Graham Crowley, particularly his lyrical landscape, Yellowdrift and the huge but infinitely graceful black and white oil painting of flowers arranged in a vase.

Image: Yellowdrift © Graham Crowley

RD suggested that I include my large-scale drawing Rememberance of plants past (extracts from: The Encyclopaedia of Plant Portraits, compiled by A. G. L. Hellyer, 1953).

This monochrome ink-on-paper drawing is based on images from Hellyer’s book, and considers a world that was once reflected back to us in black and white, be that originally television, newspapers, books or photographs. Hellyer’s book was a best-seller for over a decade and would have been on the bookshelves or coffee tables of many homes in the fifties and sixties.

CP: Can you tell us more about the curatorial working process between yourself and Rosalind Davis?

It became apparent, early on that we would take different approaches and this provided a vital tension in our relationship as co-curators. It meant nothing was taken for granted, and that each artist and piece of work had to win their place on merit, including on the publicity and private view cards. I really enjoyed that debate and dialogue and it meant each of us stuck out for what we believed would create a good overerall show, rather than just championing the individual artists we wanted to work include. Rosalind is highly intelligent, and quick-witted and kept me on my toes. We didn’t know each other very well when we began but it’s been a fascinating and wholly pleasurable journey, where I feel I have been stretched to consider an old subject in a new way.

Rosalind and I are at different stages in our lives, and I think our approach to the subject, and the work suggested, is a reflection of that. For instance, I was thinking more literally about the home, as a domestic space that we are born, grow up, live in as adults, often with partners & families, whereas, Rosalind took a more metaphorical approach and considered the bigger picture. I believe this has led to an interesting balance between the intimate and the grandiose, the fantastic and the poignant.

CP: Do you think the notion of home as a safe and congenial space exists within this current climate? Is this exhibition a hybrid or conflict between old and new ideals of the home? And what does home mean today?

I do believe ‘the notion of home as a safe and congenial space exists today’, has always existed, and will continue to exist. In fact I believe whether as a desired domestic space or the idea of a safe mental space, this is what we are all searching for. And that that search is encapsulated by the age-old question first posed by the Greeks: How should we live?

However, in another sense, in a difficult financial climate or a world challenged by natural disasters, as Rosalind makes clear in her own paintings, people are very susceptible to losing their physical homes.

What is also noticeable today is also an emphasis on streamlined style – the IKEA-factor – one might call it, where the interior of houses often look similar and bland. You buy into a designed style rather than creating it yourself. The eclectic look of many disparate objects coming together in one room, new and old, antique and modern etc, seems to be rare. This was obvious to me looking at my own adolescent and deadpan work: Silent but for a clock-ticking, 1977. A black and white photograph of the family sitting-room in our West London flat; where the appearance gives the impression of a group of eclectic objects collected over a long period of time. I think the conflict is very apparent if you compare that work with say, Carolyn Lefley’s colour photograph Living Room (from the series ‘Home’).

I am not sure there is one answer to that question: What does home mean today? Because the exhibition, and our thinking around it, has created a whole myriad of possibilities. My instinctual response would be that home is a place buried deep inside all of us; it is also a profound place of memory in our childhood, and remains a current place of abode – I like to think of home as a happy place, and a space where you can be yourself – neither of these statements applied to my rather privileged & bohemian yet ungoverned & chaotic childhood where my sister and I grew up to be ‘seen but not heard’.

Image: Delaine Le Bas

CP: How did you curatorially approach the space of the gallery, to create a sense of place?

At one point I suggested we quite literally create the idea of someone’s flat in the space, with a front door and furniture etc. But we quickly rejected this idea as impractical, and perhaps, gimmicky. However, it is possible to see the space as like a corridor in a house, where you hang work next to each other for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. The exhibition was also built round the knowledge we would have at least two large works, one obvious and exposed, the Delaine Le Bas installation and another, by Rich White, invisible and hidden.

Image: Souvenir, Deutsche Kirche, 2011. Ink on paper, 28 x 19 cm © Annabel Tilley

CP: In the essay ‘The Inexorable Rise of Drawing’ in Issue 6 of Garageland, you discuss the resurgence of drawing in the past decade. What revelations have been made within contemporary thinking of ‘drawing practice’ and what potentials have you found from working within this discipline?

The main revelation in the last decade with the arrival of exhibition spaces like The Drawing Room and Andrew Hewish’s Centre For Recent Drawing is that drawing is, indeed, now regarded as a practice in its own right. In some ways it always has been but often, in monetary & art-world status terms it has been forced to be seen as the poor relation of its big-macho-brother painting [but, I hasten to add rarely in intellectual or aesthetic terms, and among artists, certainly drawing is seen as a sophisticated tool for conveying ideas and feelings, if not shapes & colours!].

I see the second revelation as being about the idea of defining drawing, and what it might be. I believe competitions like The Jerwood Drawing Prize have contributed to this debate as did some of the original drawing degrees and MAs that were available, but have now been replaced, due to financial constraints, by the all-encomposing bland term: Fine Art, which by its very breadth ceases to pose the once exciting and specific question: What is drawing?

Of course, drawing can be anything one wants to use a single leap of imagination to define, as such. However, for myself, I am more interested in how traditional practices of drawing can be used to convey contemporary and conceptual ideas, often by inverting the subject matter and questioning people’s preconceptions or by simply re-emphasising the mundane, the everyday, so we look at our world a new.

Living artists I particularly admire for their drawing are: Kiki Smith, Rose Wylie, Tracey Emin, Marlene Dumas, Adam Dant, Claude Heath, Rachel Goodyear, Susan Collis, David Hockney, Emma Stibbon, Heather Deedman and Lucy Austin.

Dead artists I look at, all the time are: Joseph Beuys, Leonardo da Vinci, William Blake, John Ruskin & Thomas Bewick [Oh dear, nearly all men!] and I forgot the great, and dearly lamented, Louise Bourgeoise – amazing drawings that just make you want to draw.

Image: (Detail) Rememberance of plants past, 2011 © Annabel Tilley

CP: Curator Audrey Yeo states that your work is ‘a poetic aesthetic of time that also shows a reverence for history.’ How do you bring a contemporary twist to these objects of the past? And what new insight can we learn about the present through history and vice versa?

In my drawing practice I like to use traditional paper-based forms of drawing such as pencil and ink on paper, and my desired intention is to explore contemporary ideas. These often include the use of archive images.

For instance, I recently took part in LONDON/BERLIN – a group show, curated by Andrew Hewish of London’s Centre For Recent Drawing, that explored contemporary drawing in those two cities. Andrew asked me to create a wall drawing based on motifs from the old GDR. I chose architecture and worked with the sublime East Berlin archive photographs of Gisela Stappenbeck. I allowed myself to let go of my literal tendencies, and worked purely from the emerging patterns, and repetitions I found in her photographs. I recreated the structures as individual motifs. The idea of drawing straight onto a wall in a gallery was a new venture for me but far from suffering the anxiety I had feared. I found the experience of creating something that would later be painted over, rather liberating. It caused me to work harder, and create even more elaborate detail, and as I did so a shakey, hand-drawn remnant of the once-held GDR socialist dream appeared in pattern-form on the wall, 50 years after the Berlin Wall was built amid barbed wire, guns and tanks, and 21 years after peace demonstrations caused it finally vanquished torn down. However, I do not think of my work as in any way political, or commenting on current or past political maneouvres.

My recent large-format ink-on-paper drawing:

Rememberance of plants past (extracts from: The Encyclopaedia of Plant Portraits, compiled by A. G. L. Hellyer, 1953).

is, as I said earlier based on images from Hellyer’s book, and considers a world that was once reflected back to us in black and white, In post-war Britain the use of colour was expensive, and thus rare. Colour denoted luxury. Today colour is taken for granted and b/w images are, ironically, rare and often used to create a stylised statement.

In Hellyer’s mass-produced: Encyclopaedia of Plant Portraits from the 1950’s each plant is photographed individually in b/w. The book allows no sense of scale, so a type of democracy is imposed on the plant world where everything appears a similar size, and in comparable tones of b/w. Nothing appears bigger or better. Only a plants individual structure stands out.

I have taken that idea literally and reinvented the monochrome images as hand-drawn individual motifs, emphasising their distinct structure and pattern. Yet taken as a whole, the overwhelming effect could be a printed wallpaper. Indeed, the drawing is presented unframed on a roll of Fabriano paper which rests on the floor beneath.

The process of making this drawing has made me realise I have become interested not only in the way that our world was once reflected back to us in black and white, but in the significance of these out-of-focus, blurred images that represented our world, then, as perhaps a cold, distant, disinterested, post-war, poverty-of-ideas time and place. When I draw from the photographs in Hellyer’s book, I invert what I see and recreate them as sharp, tonal, detailed almost larger-than life images but still using B/W. In my practice I love the idea of limitation, and how once one imposes such limitations, for instance: ‘I will only draw in black ink, I will only draw old photographs of plants from one book etc’ one discovers a whole new freedom within those limitations.

Image: Souvenir, Amalgamation, Ink on paper, 56 x 38 cm, 2011 © Annabel Tilley

CP: Within your work you ‘collect and source fragments of long forgotten news clippings or distorted taxonomic images.’ Presenting them in an anthropological way akin to how museums classify and present artefacts and specimens in collections. Would you say that your work is an epistemological critique on how museums / media shape our perception of culture and nature?

It is quite new work so I am still trying to understand the subtext for wanting to draw from old black and white, out-of-focus photographs in mildewed books bought from Oxfam.

However, I like the idea that everything used to be ‘understated’ and now everything appears to be overstated &, indeed, often overated. We live in a world that exaggerates everything, making it bigger & better, and faster and more colourful than it really is. Today we produce so many images, and so much colour and so fast that it is overwhelming and it creates an impossible-to-quench thirst of expectations. The ‘bad’ photos I work from now seem to have an integrity, they are what they are, they make no false claims, and if anything, totally under-represent the often stunning and colourful product they are ‘selling’ – flowers & plants. I like this irony.

Image: Souvenir, Deutsche Kirche, 2011. Ink on paper, 28 x 19 cm © Annabel Tilley

CP: You have been involved in the DIY Educate Programme at Core Gallery. Can you talk of the importance of educating and nurturing other artists? And can you tell us about the forthcoming events?

Rosalind & I are passionate about this subject because, at different times, we both left art school and entered a world that seemed unhelpful and unconcerned with the plight of new graduates, and the way they might orientate themselves, through an indifferent-seeming art world. We have been hugely fortunate in 2012 to work with a great variety of artists who have been totally enthusiastic about what we are trying to do. From the young British Painter, Phoebe Unwin, RCA graduate & printmaker, Jenny Weiner, and a-n artist-talking editor, Andrew Bryant, all have made a great contribution to a programme that aims to support and encourage new graduates with practical experience straight from the horses mouth; acting as role models providing the artist’s own advice and narratives regarding the highs and lows, joys and disappointments of being an artist in Britain today. So far, so good, it has been a great success, and we will be back next year with a whole new exciting 2012 programme. And you heard it hear first.

CP: Home will be the last exhibition at Core Gallery’s current space before relocating in Deptford. This exhibition therefore seems highly topical and and poignant. How do you think this will heighten the fragility of the show?

Actually, the sudden wave of unexpected joy, fulfillment & pleasure that has come as a result of working with intelligent, generous, and hugely talented artists on a great and varied theme like home, makes me think you may not have seen the last of Home, or the extremely productive and pleasurable TilleyDavis partnership. Let’s end on another high!

Watch this space ….

To find out more about Annabel Tilley’s practice and curatorial projects visit:

Or follow Annabel on:


Annabel Tilley has exhibited in Britain and Europe, and was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2005. She has undertaken several residencies and public commissions, Most recently, she created a wall drawing for London/Berlin, a drawing survey exhibition curated by Andrew Hewish (C4RD, London) at Fruehsorge Contemporary Drawing in Berlin.

Her work is held in private collections in Britain and France. Annabel Tilley has written for Arty Magazine and Garageland, and also writes regular reviews for a-n’s Interface, and the blog: how to emerge?. Annabel Tilley trained in Fine Art Painting at The University of Brighton, and has a studio in Deptford, South London.

Monday, 19 September 2011



Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Interview with Sarah Williams

Laura Eldret and Sarah Williams, The Multiplicity of a Moment, Exhibition, 2010

I am delighted to interview Sarah Williams, artist and curator of the Jerwood Visual Arts programme at Jerwood Space. Williams is one of the four judges for this year’s Open Submission Competition that will be selecting works for an exhibition at coregallery which will run during the Deptford X 2011; an international contemporary arts festival in south east london, 23rd September - 2nd October 2011. (Other selectors include; Alli Sharma, Graham Crowley and Fiona Macdonald). 

Sarah Williams uses sculptural objects, architectural interventions, performance and photography to explore the relationship between object, live event and documentation. 

Sarah Williams recent exhibitions: ‘The Multiplicity of a Moment’, Two-person show with Laura Eldret, Five Hundred Dollars, London (2010), ‘Kunskog’, Five Hundred Dollars, London; ‘Director’s Choice’, Curwen & New Academy Gallery, London (2010); Recent curatorial projects: ‘SHOW’, Jerwood Space, London (2011); ‘Locate’, Jerwood Space, London (2010); ‘Build’, Blyth Gallery, London; ‘Breaking New’, Five Hundred Dollars, Vyner Street, London (2009).

July 2011 >>

CP: As one of the judges for Core Gallery’s ‘DX Open Competition 2011, what will you be looking for when selecting artists?

Originality and innovation.

CP: What is the significance of ‘independent’ competitions such as Core Gallery’s DX Open? 

SW: Independent competitions are crucial to artists who are seeking opportunities and who may or may not have an existing network, providing a platform to exhibit their work and to have their work seen by a group of selectors and curators. Competitions also offer the organizers the opportunity to engage with a new pool of artists. 

CP: You recently had an exhibition with Laura Eldret ‘The Multiplicity of a Moment’ at Five Hundred Dollars Gallery which was described as exploring “the tensions of a live moment between a viewer, and a series of objects and scenarios”. Could you describe how you and Eldret considered the work in relation to the past, present and future? And how intrinsic were the spectator’s within this staging? 

SW: The exhibition was staged in a way that allowed the spectator to experience the space in two parts. The viewers entered the first gallery through a covered archway, which signaled the start to the exhibition where minimal artworks, made by both Laura and I, were displayed. These works could be defined as either as  

Laura Eldret and Sarah Williams, The Multiplicity of a Moment, Exhibition, 2010

sculpture, props, backdrops, platforms or something ‘other’. This part of the exhibition showed potential to be an active space, almost like a stage or set. 

The second gallery contained two films which ran concurrently. The films were created in the space before the exhibition opened to the public. Three dancers were invited to respond to the artworks in the exhibition and their performances were filmed in twenty-five minutes cycles on a black and white CCTV camera and digital camera. 

The exhibition addressed the present moment (a spectator experiencing the objects and installation in the space), the past (the films which showed performance action that had occurred previously within the space) and the future (the potential for each objects/art work to be used for future interactions). The spectator was key in linking these phases together.

Williams Suggitt, Metamorphosis series, 2003

CP: Since 1999, you have collaboratively worked with Natalie Suggitt, creating various characters and scenarios in a continued attempt to transform yourselves. Where do you draw your inspiration for these fictive characters? And how important is the role of documentation within these performances? 

SW: Our collaborative practice explores continued attempts to transform ourselves and our surroundings. Characters are created within strange, unexpected and ridiculous scenarios inspired by everyday happenings and daydreams. The work often plays upon the childlike desire in wanting to experience the world as another form, and from a new perspective, leaving behind the restrictions of the human body. Yet these transformation attempts inevitably result in frustrated failure and comment on our limitations of being human. 

The live moment and subsequent documentation can sometimes be co-dependent. For example work doesn’t always materialize as a performance. We have made work as sculpture, photography and cardboard cut-outs which are then placed within a site specific environment. The use of photography, which comes from documenting a performative action, allows us to play with a sense of scale, where characters can be shrunk or enlarged in size. For example, ‘Metamorphosis series’ includes photographs of performances of us dressed as birds. The photographs were then printed to the same scale as a black bird and installed in trees at an exhibition in Queens Wood, London. 

In 2000 I studied for a brief time in America in the sculpture department at Ohio State University and performance was a major way of working for artists there. I was taught by Stelarc and during that time he curated a series of 1 minute performance which I took part in. Some of the performance pieces have really stayed with me despite there being no existing documentation of the work. Performance can be a really potent medium because the work often relies on memory to exist, and the audience, are responsible for carrying that memory on to other places and experiences through recollection and story-telling. 

Photographic, film or written documentation of a live moment cannot fully hope to capture an original performance, but can sometimes open up another angle to the work.

Williams Suggitt, Invention No 1, 2007

CP: Within these fictional scenarios you seem to move beyond the imaginary into the realm of the ‘virtual’ and the ‘other’, approaching the concept of fabulation. (Creation of fables / stories filled with fantasy). Fabulation is thus not a subjective or a deprived matter, it is rather a question of becoming and of visions and belongs to the world of affects and pure percepts, where a life appears as immanent and released from its subjective attachments, a life wrested from the personal lived.

How do these transformations of the ‘self’ help you to re-examine subjectivity and approach the ‘other’? Would you say there is a sense of futility in the continued attempts at transformation? 

SW: Addressing issues of ‘other’ within the work inevitable leads back to the’ self’, the inadequacies of the human form and the true impossibility of attempting to transform to ‘other’. The key part of the performances and creation of fictive characters is to show the failure to become something other than the human self.

Williams Suggitt, Invention No 1, 2007


Made from rudimentary materials, the costumes and props embrace this sense of failure, but again represent potential to embody an imagined fictive space or situation. The characters, though aspirational in nature and in their appearance, will never be able to encompass the characteristics of the subjects they act or play. For example the professor who has built a time machine out of cardboard and tin foil won’t ever actually be able to travel forward or back in time (as with ‘Invention no.1) but can only imagine the possibility. 

CP: What are you currently working on within your practice?

Monument 1, 2011
SW: My practice is curatorial and studio based. I see both aspects interlinked, feeding into one another. In my studio i’m currently working on a series of large scale drawings that explore monumentality, the partial recreation of stage sets and historic artifacts. These works contain a sense of failure within their format and scale. These works may prompt future performances or actions. I’m also really interested in how we discover information and how the internet is being utilised by artists as medium, subject matter and source material.

CP: Can you describe the unique programme of opportunities, awards, events and exhibitions that Jerwood Visual Arts Gallery provides? 

SW: Jerwood Visual Arts (JVA) is a contemporary gallery programme of awards, exhibitions and events at Jerwood Space, London and on tour nationally. Jerwood Visual Arts promotes and celebrates the work of talented emerging artists across the disciplines of drawing, painting, sculpture, applied arts, photography and moving image and is a major initiative of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. 

JVA became an umbrella programme in 2006 and during that time we have worked with 549 artists, 85 

selectors and curators and numerous writer and designers, bringing together a huge network of artistic practice. The programme is quite unique in that it focuses on specific art forms allowing us to investigate current approaches in drawing, painting, film and making. The Jerwood Encounters exhibition series allows us to create exhibitions across disciplines and to test out ideas. 

Working for JVA allows for collaboration and the sharing of ideas. It is a dream to work with artists who are at relatively early stages in their career, who will go on to shape the future cultural landscape. 

CP: You recently curated ‘SHOW’ (the fourth in a series of Jerwood encounters shows) which commissioned the work of artists Edwina Ashton, Jack Strange and Bedwyr Williams. Can you tell us more about your curatorial involvement within this and other exhibitions at Jerwood Visual Arts? And how have you sought to challenge the notion of exhibition making through performance and durational works? 

SW: My role at Jerwood Visual Arts is to coordinate and curate the exhibition programme alongside Shonagh Manson, Director of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris Partnership. I curate the JVA blog and work with 3 writers per year to use the JVA exhibition 

programme as a spring board for their writing. 

‘SHOW’ was the fourth Jerwood Encounters exhibition that I curated for Jerwood Visual Arts and sought to examine the integral role that performance plays within an artist’s practice and its subsequent representation in an exhibition context. The exhibition consisted of live performances and experiments in performance 

Jack Strange, Zip And Zing, 2011. Photo: Thomas Rydin

As with ‘SHOW’ and other exhibitions I have previously curated for JVA I tend approach the exhibition as a medium and consider how that medium can best be utilised by both artist and curator in order to produce ambitious works and an interesting exhibition. 

I work with artists who are making extraordinary works and are willing to take risks, working in an experimental way with unknown outcomes. I like to think that an exhibition can be an opportunity not only to showcase an artist’s work but to be a catalyst for an experimental way of working, where an artist gets to realise an idea within a supportive structure and with some funding. For example ‘Locate’ (2010) was an exhibition of three artists’ responses to the concept of ‘site’ with artists Mel Brimfield, Sarah Pickering and Aura Satz. The exhibition allowed for the creation of new bodies of work by each artist. 

Mel Brimfield, Four Characters in Search of a Performance (Installation view) 2010.
Photo: Paul Winch-Furness 

In order to allow for experimentation, I set up a specific structured environment, a testing ground of sorts. For example the exhibition ‘Laboratory’ (2009) gave three artists, Steven Eastwood, Jock Mooney and Mia Taylor the opportunity to use a gallery space as an experimental site for the production of new work over a period of 4 weeks. The exhibition doesn’t have to be a static experience, but can be something that shifts and develops over a period of time. 

With these experimental exhibitions, I always create an online catalogue which have been made in partnership with Nick Eagleton at The Partners. This seems to be the most appropriate way to document the changes and developments that occur within a live or process-led exhibition. For ‘An Experiment in Collaboration’ six artists (Gemma Anderson, Daniel Baker, Michael Pybus, Paul Richards, Karen Tang and Jackson Webb) were asked to choose a collaborator/s to work with to create a new piece of work for the exhibition. The collaborative activity was mapped over the course of 5 months through an online blog: 


Jock Mooney, Laboratory (Installation view) 2009. Photo: Paul Winch-Furness

CP: Do you have any forthcoming projects / news to divulge? 

SW: I’m working on an exhibition with Clare Undy for Abstract Critical, about current issues in abstract  practice focusing on artwork of all mediums which uses its own materiality as its central subject matter. I’m also working on an exhibition for JVA which will be shown in early 2012. 

CP: Thankyou Sarah!

Karen Tang and Daniel Sanderson, Modern Molluscs (Installation view) 2008. Photo: Emily Picot 

Friday, 24 June 2011

Interview with Elizabeth Murton

I am delighted to interview Elizabeth Murton, artist and curator of the forthcoming exhibition ‘A Theory of Everything’. This transdisciplinary exhibition brings together artists and scientists who work in different media and fields, ranging from sculpture, installation, photography, video and scientific research. Bringing science together with art is an opportunity to look for patterns and comparisons in a different context. Through this exploratory process the exhibition aims to set up conversations that lead into a discovery of the re-interpretation of what is possible.

Rules & Regs © Elizabeth Murton

Elizabeth’s practice explores installation, sculpture and drawing inspired by structures and methods of construction, specifically: textiles, weaving, architecture, psychology and theoretical physics. Her interests are in the physical world, both human-made and otherwise and how we form our understanding of our surroundings.

Since graduating from Textiles (Visual Arts) at Goldsmiths, Elizabeth has probed the notion of process through exploring the capabilities and visual qualities of different materials. Elizabeth Murton’s structure ‘Module’ was selected for a Crafts Council commission for their annual show in Somerset House in 2009. Cited by Emma Chrichton-Miller in the Financial Times How To Spend It magazine (Nov 2009) as a ‘striking, sculptural woven piece…’

Other commissions and exhibitions include ‘Can’ at South Hill Park, Berkshire; ‘Work and Play’ at The Maltings, Farnham, Surrey; ‘Orbis Opifex’ at the Crypt at Euston; ‘2012 Prototype’ at Islington Car Free Day and Deptford X in 2010.

June 2011 >>

CP: Can you tell us more about the forthcoming exhibition ‘The Theory of Everything’? 

EM: I have been interested in the idea of ‘A Theory of Everything’ for a long time. Imagining that everything is linked in some way, and that there is some inherent order in the world opens up interesting questions and debates. When we see chaos, is it in fact chaos, or that we are limited by our perception and can not see the bigger picture? 

‘A Theory of Everything’ is what string theory is often called. As stated in the press release, it ‘is a concept in theoretical physics bringing together the micro and macro: small scale theories like quantum science which describes the world at the size of atoms and electrons, and large scale theories such as general relativity, which describe things at the scale of planets and galaxies. This theory concerns all forces and matter and their influences on the patterns and behaviours we see surrounding us.’ 

String theory describes the world as if made from vibrating strings on a micro or quantum level. It needs at least 10 dimensions to work - both scale and space wise difficult for us to comprehend. It is thought the 11th dimension is a layer that wraps around or indeed spreads out from the other like a membrane or ‘brane’. Strings and membranes are great ways to visualise these abstract concepts of dimensions, 
particles and forces we can’t see. I think this appealed to my textile-art back ground. The ideas of construction in textiles are obvious metaphors, but also provide physicality and comparisons to these concepts. The exhibition is not focused on textile metaphors, but rather how we search for patterns and the limits of our perception. How we structure and attempt to understand the world through grids, theories, science, models and other structures and patterns and of course the chaos we see as well.

CP: In the press release it states: ‘The theory of everything implies all things are linked in some way and one expression of this could be found in patterns.’ What patterns and comparisons can be found between the artists and scientists ideas? And how accessible will the exhibition be to the viewer?

EM: Patterns in their simplest form are something repeated and in regular order. Whether this be line, mark making, sound, or form. In the exhibition, the work relates to the aspect of science that is attempting to apply, find and form patterns (and order) in our environment and the possible synthesis of this with visual and audio art. We do not know if the patterns we do see are present or it is just our interpretation. Some pieces look at how we understand information in psychology theories, perception, physics, and biology. Approaching the theory of everything from possible patterns and order in the environment and our ability to perceive them are vital parts of the equation. 

The audio pieces in the exhibition both respond to the sound in the gallery space, but in different ways. Daniel Jones’ piece concerns how bacteria communicate through sharing packets of DNA called plasmids. This leads to complex evolutionary patterns in their behaviour. ‘Horizontal Transmission’ is setup so that the bacteria respond to gallery noise which they then mimic back to the gallery. The behaviour they use to share DNA, is used to respond and repeat noise. 

This mimicking occurs in Hugh Metcalf’s installation as it picks up ambient sound, applies rules and plays it back into the space. The process of the copying involves rules that evolve within set limits. This creates seemingly chaotic soundscapes. Like human perception, there are a set of rules applied, but here the rules do not lead to a product that encourages (human) understanding. 

Rules of perception are expressed in Ed John’s research from his PhD. He is studying and developing vision for robots. This is difficult as we don’t understand how we see. The rules he places are different from human perception processes, and divide up visual information for robots to analyse which creates images we don’t necessarily understand. We do not know how our brain processes vision, therefore we can not replicate the patterns we see in visual information for robots to use. 

‘Eleutherobin, Coralline Swansong’ © Anna Cocciadiferro

Anna Cocciadiferro’s piece is based on the chemical structure of coral which is synthesized to be used for medical purposes. It was found that this coral, eleutherobia, produces a chemical which is much gentler for the patient and a stronger drug. The copying of the chemical structure and reusing is a process of repetition from one area of science to another. If there is an underlying link between everything, the fact that something in the ocean can affect and cure an animal on land, and that bacteria can share DNA, like a conversation, demonstrates our ability to find cross-overs between separate things. 

It may be tempting to say these links a coincidental but perhaps it is because, if the big bang is the start of the universe, everything began with the same building blocks. The study of cosmology- the universe, looks back into time to gain an understanding. Our universe is currently growing, so as you look back it is smaller and smaller, until it is just particles. The piece inspired by quantum particle behaviour, ‘Quantum Communication Through a Spin Chain’ uses ink drawings to represent a trace of the electron spin. The surface itself is not regular or consistent and folds, overlaps and changes directions randomly- much like the unpredictability of the quantum world. Balint Bolygo’s piece, ‘Animechanics’ again uses a strip of material (film), but on a much smaller scale. The film physically moves and is gradually marked by the movement of gravity affecting a pendulum. The circular mark making is similar in both pieces, but represents two different scaled parts of string theory: gravity in the theory of relativity and quantum science. And in these pieces the scale is reversed- macro science representation being much smaller the micro science! 

The mark making on a moving or continuous surface with Metcalf, Bolygo and myself using this form brings us to the idea of ‘branes’ I spoke about in the first answer. M-theory is an extension of string theory, some people theorise that the 11th dimension either wraps around the other 10, or rolls out from it, to infinity. On the rolled paper, tape or film the mark making represents particle ‘spin’, the force of gravity and sound. These bursts of activity have created pattern on these surfaces. Like non linear (chaotic) bursts of action. These could be used equally to show non-linear representations of the growth of bacteria populations or the birth of a star. Bursts of energy and events that change the outcome and development of things. 

Brain Collage © Paula Salischiker’s

There is a tactility in the exhibition which contrasts with the abstract concepts and computer/ audio works. The materials showing through the exhibition are from a muted palette. The burst of colour mostly come from Liliana Sanchez’s ‘Soup’ and are reflected subtly in Caroline Lambard’s installation and Paula Salischker’s brains collages. I hope the colour carries you through and draws you on through the space, as the texture brings it back to the materiality in our scale of existence. The green ‘Soup’ represents an excess, a chaos which could be a comment on our society today and it’s use of resources.

And, in comparison to cosmology, it goes back to when everything was just a big soup of things. With the big bang at the beginning of the universe and the beginning of life on earth, it is suggestive of the time when things were not differentiated and had developed the diversity of functioning live forms and structures that surround us today.

CP: An article written by Ken Arnold about Science and art: Symbiosis or just good friends? Seems highly relevant. Would you say that science and art have a symbiotic relationship? How has the coupling of art-science proven mutually beneficial within this exhibition? And have you faced any curatorial challenges in bringing together a transdisciplinary exhibition?

For me, science and art are about exploring; seeking understanding of the world around us and expressing possibilities (or sometimes ruling them out). I think ‘science’ and ‘art’ are just massive topics, and difficult to define. To summarise two massive topics to allow discussion, you could say, does science: testable knowledge; and art: created for thought and/ or emotion/ expression; have a relationship? Yes. They both seek - the difference is science strives to be testable. Interesting both the science topics I have been looking at in my own practice are difficult to test, on the fore front of our knowledge. Theoretical physics relies somewhat on computer programmes testing theories. Perhaps this lack of visual and physical representation in everyday live is what attracted me: visualizing the invisible. Perhaps this is one way in which these types of collaborations are mutually beneficial. 

Soupa © Liliana Sanchez

Speaking briefly to Ed Johns this morning, he is arranging his research for presentation, I brought up some interesting projects and colour experiments for him. Provoking thought for him as well as me through our discussions.
I have found this exhibition really enjoyable to curate. I think because it is something I am interested in anyway. It was not a challenge to find pieces that portray elements of us understanding and searching for patterns. In future it would be a great project to perhaps focus on these different elements for an exhibition like quantum science or gravity. In contrast the breadth of possibility has been the fun of this show as a theory of, well, everything!

© Edward John

CP: In the lead up to the exhibition you have held a series of ‘Tea Party Discussions’ on and around the topic and managed a continuous blog promoting the active exchange of dialogue and debate. Within this show there seems to be a re-thinking of the exhibition as the manifestation of the final ‘event’ to something more process orientated. Through your curating how have you tried to extend the exhibition format and make it more interactive?

My practice is process lead and I like to leave the construction and the materials exposed. Perhaps it is the same here. I have left all the ‘nuts and bolts’; the thinking and discussion. My work is often about potential, representing possible for movement and change. I hope this exhibition opens this up too, and does not tell people what is what, but allows them the space to think. This links to your previous question, as it is about other ways to engage the viewer.

The thought possibilities and the scope of the project emerged especially with the tea parties. The two different discussion groups added completely new dimensions to the debate. The rolling discussions provided a longer period of development and further engaged with the ideas around the show. Extending the exhibition format to have a larger time element where it has existed, not just when it is physically on display, seemed a natural form for it to take. The ideas literally encompass space and time, and even with this long development time, we have barely even scratched the surface!

The blog seemed like another natural extension of the project in time. With curating and researching lots of thoughts and links come up, it seems a shame not to offer these elements, especially as it is about discovery and process. A blog is a great communication tool. (The Tea Parties will be available to listen to in the exhibition).

Not to Scale © Elizabeth Murton

CP: For this show you have collaborated with psychologist Kaidy Stautz to create a sculpture inspired by Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of Personality (1970). You have also collaborated with physicist Bobby Antonio to create a wall piece inspired by his research into 'quantum communication in a spin chain'. Can you tell us more about these two works?

With the psychology inspired piece, 'Not to Scale,' it was interesting working through the ideas and trying not being too didactic about the theory as it already has a visual form. Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory of personality (1982, 2000) can be represented within a circumplex, with orthogonal lines each representing the spectrum of a trait, for example impulsivity to self-control, or extraversion to introversion. An individual’s placement within the circumplex would be dependent on the interaction between separate traits. The theory has a biological basis, linking the traits anxiety and impulsivity to the reactivity of underlying brain systems.

As Kaidy began explaining how to interpret the diagram it became more mysterious. How you relate to the piece also depends on the experimental definitions and values you ascribe it. So the boundaries of the theory vary again. I studied psychology and I am interested in understanding humanity, personality and how we work. I am not sure it is as linear as we would like it to be. 

Layers of paper, printing and mark making create the piece. The neatness of the circular 'factor space' of the theory, is repeated, and sometimes marked with the linear spectrum aspects of the theory, but not enough to ascertain how you fit into it. It is like looking in on it, but being outside of the theory. The printed brains are exhibited separately from the circles. The shape of the brain is concentrated on areas that correspond with the behaviours in Gray's theory, but they are not linked or identified in the space. 

Not to Scale © Elizabeth Murton

The other piece is large new installation. It is a three dimensional drawing where the surface comes away from the wall, spinning out in new directions. It is inspired by Bobby Antonio's research which looks at 'Quantum Communication Through a Spin Chain'. The 'Theory of Everything' is trying to unite quantum physics, which relates to the world at a very small scale and is unpredictable, and macro physics like general relativity, which relates to things like planets, and is measurable and predictable.

The idea of the 'spinning' has immediate visual connections, spinning tops, dancing, movement. The particles are in a chain. Each individual particle has a spin. The movement of the particles which make the spin however is a mysterious internal property which we do not have any analogies for our world. Bobby describes his research below;

'...I look at things such as electrons interacting through this mysterious 'spin' property, and I see if I can use this interaction to transfer information through the chain - in fact there doesn't have to be any 'movement' in the chain at all (at least not in the way we would normally think of movement), and the changes in the chain that I look at are purely internal changes - changes in what 'direction' the spin points in.

Installation Shot © Elizabeth Murton

The ink is the trace of the movement but how it was made remains a mystery. This separation of source and effect is found in quantum science and therefore it is a representation of our interaction with this quantum world. The paper's form and shape, also imply that the space where the spin is is different from our ideas of space in our world. Some of the drawings are obscured, referencing the unpredictability not only of the electrons, but also of the quantum world they exist within. 

This idea of unpredictable movement is captured in this new installation. The ink 'spin' drawings appear on paper which itself looks as though it is moving. The ink is the trace of the movement, not the source which is, apparently, very quantum. The paper's form and shape, also imply the space where the spin is, is different from our ideas of space in our world. Some of the drawings are obscured, referencing the unpredictability not only of the electrons, but also the quantum world they exist within.

Detail of Indevelopment, 2008 © Elizabeth Murton

CP: Within your own practice you explore methods of construction, specifically: “textiles, weaving, architecture, psychology and theoretical physics.” How does theory help you to explore the capabilities of materials?

In this exhibition my main material has been paper and ink. It wasn't a conscious decision from the start, but both pieces naturally evolved onto paper. It really has been a pleasure working with such simple and elegant materials. Paper is inexpensive, not precious, but part of everyday. As my materials often are.

The theory provides limits, within which I can then use to structure the ideas and ascribe them onto materials. The materials I often like to push and pull them away from their natural purpose. With the quantum piece it is a subtle change of use of lining paper, which is repeated and becomes dramatic. 

Spinbang © Elizabeth Murton

The paper on the large quantum piece took some manipulating, coercing it into curves and waves. This goes against it's straight fibres and limited elasticity of the paper, as quantum science seems to avoid being understood and predictable! It is however a fabric of sorts, and I believe it starts to take on much more of that element of movement and flow in the installation. Much like the tape in Balint's and Hugh's work, and the fabric in Anna's. 

Can © Elizabeth Murton

The psychology piece 'Not to Scale' I dreamt about after I had finished. The holes somehow make it spongy and absorbent, allow you to look through, but the layers of tracing obscure it again. The construction is delicate and temporary. The printed circles and the stencils are both in the piece, showing both how the work was made, and what is left over once something is designed and made, thought through and rationalised. Here the left over excess of paper is still in the space for all to see.

CP: Can you tell us more about the upcoming Salon Event: (Science & Art Discussion, 6th July 2011) that features the guest speaker Dr David S Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary College?

This will be a very interesting event. The salon event will explore the idea of a theory of everything, a concept in theoretical physics, and the relationships that develop between art and science. Each speaker will give a brief introduction to their specialist areas followed by open discussion. It will be a unique opportunity to question the experts and present your own views.

Speakers will be Dr David S Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary College, recent collaborations have included the Cartier award winning project with artist Jordan Wolfson at the 2009 London Frieze Art Fair and he is now working with Turner prize winning sculptor Grenville Davey;. Dr Berman will present an introduction to the notion of unification in fundamental physics leading up to a description of the peak of our current understanding of nature, which goes by the name of M- theory.

Adrian Holme, a Biologist and Lecturer in Visual theory, Camberwell College of Art & Design, and UCA, Maidstone, and convenor of the Research Cluster in Art, Science and Culture. In his talk, Adrian will consider aspects of the relationship between art and science - initially a unified enterprise during the early European Renaissance. Do art and science really form the distinct ‘two cultures’ described by CP Snow in 1959? What role does art and imagination (and Romanticism) have in relation to science and culture?

Bobby Antonio, PhD student researching quantum computation at University College London. His talk will present a brief overview of quantum physics, an extremely important and successful yet counter-intuitive theory. The talk will aim to give a short introduction for those not familiar with quantum  physics, highlighting the reasons why many people, including Einstein, found the concepts hard to accept, and why it has had such a profound effect on disciplines outside science, such as philosophy and art.

Salon places will be limited, so early booking is advisable.

Further details on exhibition website. 

To book please email

Engine ChatChat

CP: You are an integral member of Core Gallery and part of the DIY Educate management team, in which you run the group Art Crit ‘Engine ChatChat. Can you tell us more about the developments that have been made through this educational engagement? And how has Core Gallery’s ethos has helped you gain autonomy? 

EM: It is about engagement, discussion and critical context. Core Gallery has a great atmosphere as it is surrounded by people (literally as our studios surround the gallery) who are committed artists.

Engine ChatChat sprang from my need for discussion and sharing of ideas. You might propose that the tea party debates are in fact a spin off of this, but the item on the agenda is not someone’s practice but a theory in science. As the artist Helen Pynor said, who was at a Tea Party Debate said, art can provide science with critical discourse. After all, science is just one methodology for understanding.

Core Gallery is a great space for curatorial and artistic experimentation. Being in a place with a great, supportive gallery team- Rosalind Davis, Gillian Best Powell, Charlie Norwood, to name but a few, means you can take risks and... learn. This is so important. The over gentrification of these areas means that it will drive this type of space out. The team and great ideas at Core rely on the being Deptford; the affordability and artist run spaces in general allow us to push, take risks and create artistic capital. If we can’t afford the space. We will go else where. I think this is an issue London needs to address.

CP:Do you have any forthcoming projects / news to divulge?

: All new ideas are top secret for now, one thing I will guarantee is more science-art collaborations. I have more ideas for quantum derived pieces too. More Engine and more Tea Party discussions!

CP: Thank you so much Elizabeth

Thank you, great questions.

NB: Please note, I am not a scientist and whilst I try to be accurate I might have got a thing or two down inaccurately here!!