Sara Barker: Last of Light (3 Needles)

What is the role of Last of Light (3 Needles) in the Angel Court building scheme?

The artworks, Last of Light (3 Needles) and Selvedge with dark, which I created at the entrance and exit of the scheme give it a certain identity. The foyer of Angel Court was conceived like a gallery space, so from the outset there was sensitivity to display and context in the project. I wanted to respond to the architects’ choice of materials – the brightness and lightness, and the focus on high contrast materials, from the Carlow Irish Blue Limestone to the tower of fritted glass that appears bright white on the London skyline. I wanted the artworks to play with these dualities by appearing ephemeral in nature and at odds with their robust structure.

Can you talk about your early site visits and your initial response?

I made many site visits, but the development was quite different in the early stages with the entrance not yet opened up to the more expansive walkway. An imaginative leap was required, and conversations with the architects, Fletcher Priest, were crucial in getting the sense of the passages through buildings, and an overall impression of the space. There has to be a leap of faith from all parties when art and architecture and site come together.

How did you develop the actual design, did you make preparatory drawings or maquettes?

The maquette came first, with a few rough sketches to indicate scale on the building. Technical drawing forms an important part of the later process, but early manifestations of my work are always made. I have to engage with materials and use my hands to work through aesthetic, conceptual and practical decisions simultaneously. This was my chance to question all the aspects of composition, scale and materiality – flip all of it on its head, and allow it to surprise me. The first aluminium and paper maquette was very rudimentary, collaged together and fixed with a glue gun and tape, before I added paint to change the perception of its weight and density. This loose and experimental process is fundamental to my approach, because when I unpick the forms and make a more robust model, soldering each joint, I am forced to consolidate form and determine final positions. Every connecting rod can be worked though physically on this small scale, but still it is surprising to see the maquette translated into a template for the wall. Each oversized element was propped around the workshop, ribbons of painted flat bar like great scalextric tracks from childhood, dissecting the room, and expanses of cast white mottled and ruched fibreglass, like great animal hides, which would become portals to the whiteness of the cloudy sky outside, in the narrow dimly lit space.

How did the sculpture’s location in this long, quite enclosed space, affect your design?

For Last of Light I was very conscious of the views from below and the first quite physical encounter with the work, that sense of foreshortened perspective. I was less fixed on the artwork as an image viewed from a distance. The work is an object to be experienced in the round, unlike much of my work that comes out of painting and image-making in the first instance.

Your gallery work is often interpreted as the transformation of painting to sculpture, yet here the work seems to be hovering between those states. Indeed there is a kind of alchemy when all these elements and materials in the sculpture come together – evincing an overall state of flux.

Yes, my sculptural work often comes out of the flat painted surface, and in some ways this piece is no different, with the early models being made from scraps of material with their own painterly history and mark making. In a piece on this scale, made over an extended period of time and in so many versions, the proximity to that first painterly surface is almost indiscernible, and its physicality is much more present.

Your indoor work is often described in terms of weight, balance and delicate precarity, how do these concerns translate into your public realm work here?

In the public realm the dialogue is about robustness and longevity, whilst retaining inventive use of material and lightness of touch. The time to play and experiment here came during the small-scale model making. This allowed casual moments of chance and, unexpected material relationships to evolve, before the more protracted process of planning and engineering which is required for a large-scale project. The way the viewer experiences Last of Light (3 Needles) is complicated, with fluid lines and a tangle of branching metalwork behind its mottled, floating, Japanese paperlike panels. The work is maze-like and open-ended. Its nature is wandering, with the supports allowing for a weightless, sinewy freedom of line and free-flowing dynamism. I wanted to strive for a tension between bulk and mass, yet suggest the spindly and the vulnerable – balancing the elements compositionally. 

Scale has always been an important concern with your gallery work. You have said that you want people to feel overwhelmed. Was that your intention here?

Last of Light dominates its space, and looms over the heads of those passing through the entrance to Angel Court. It is positioned relatively close to the ground, which helps create a sense of weight and scale in a site that might otherwise dwarf the artwork.

Once Last of Light (3 Needles) had been installed and I saw it without its monumental scaffold, and with the surrounding building works completed, I was surprised by the sheer physicality of the sculpture and how it dominated the wall. I had convinced myself that it would reflect delicacy and lightness, and although it does incorporate these qualities, my overall impression was of the sculpture as a strong and animate being. 

The supporting struts and the holes they enter on the wall are so prominent, that the way the work is attached seems intrinsic to the form. How did you envision this relationship to the surface – was the form affected by the constraints of the architecture?

The struts that pin the work to the façade jab quite violently into the building. From the artwork’s conception, I was asked to consider the cladding of the building together with the sculpture, its colour and materiality. There could only be a certain amount of points piercing the cladding – while keeping its structural integrity. Like all boundaries and constraints, these provided a good mental touchstone and discipline – as the composition had to defy and indeed capitalize on these limitations. These protrusions made practical, and conceptual sense, because I conceived the piece as fabric-like panels stitched into the façade.

There is also a tension in the work as though it is being wrenched off the building – or stitched in…

Yes, an interesting ambiguity pervades, it is as if it is being pulled off. The struts are uncompromising, and you have to deal with their presence. I hope people question their function and recognise the metaphors at work, of mending, stitching and joining – but also see its ferocity and dynamism. The highly polished brass flourishes, and lathe-turned brass needles appear to stitch and pin the shapes to one another and in turn to the wall itself. It is almost root-like in its structure.

Can you explain the significance of your evocative title, the metaphors and the narrative behind the needles?

Last of Light (3 Needles) finds autonomy in its title, but in parenthesis I wanted to be more explicit about a reference for the work. The history of the area as the locality of clothmakers was particularly interesting to me. The story goes that the name Threadneedle Street itself originated as Three Needle Street, perhaps from a signboard depicting three needles, or from the needlemakers who had premises on the street. In developing the drawings for the work, the image of these three needles became present in the piece itself. The needles’ clear relationship to craft serves as a symbol that carries right through from the meticulous stitching of kimonos in Nihonbashi, to the metaphorical stitching together of the fabric of London city – mending and preserving its historic core. The metaphor seemed a powerful one, not least because for me the three needles also represented the collaboration of Mitsui Fudosan, their development partner Stanhope Plc and the architects, Fletcher Priest.

You mention a Japanese influence? Is there an allusion to their traditional calligraphy and particularly rice paper?

The Japanese commissioning body Mitsui Fudosan influenced my thinking about the materiality of the work in the first instance. I felt this was an opportunity to draw on a specific work or works from their family collection of decorative arts. I was particularly drawn to Pine Trees in Snow, a screen that shows a view from beneath a great Japanese pine, illuminated in all the whiteness of the snow – an important view for the sculpture itself. This became the starting point for developing the linear and organic form of a wall sculpture – a multi-layered and textured piece, that would try to draw upon this craft aesthetic, and literally stitch itself into the fabric of the building and into space. Indeed, the large bespoke curved panels resemble thick expanses of mottled Japanese paper with frayed edges, forming dramatic oblique shapes within the linear metalwork. The panels should be both fabric and paper-like, much like strong watercolour paper, absorbing whiteness and casting shadows in ways that exaggerate both. The predominantly black painted steel is ribbon-like, forming gestural inky sweeps – as if made by a Japanese paintbrush.

Significantly, the Japanese pine symbolises longevity, good fortune and steadfastness, and given that the Bank Conservation area is most famous as the site of Bank of England (known as ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’) the pine became a fitting symbol for the area. Therefore, it seemed a good opportunity to explore in greater depth my own fascination with aspects of Japanese culture – and evoke a uniquely Japanese sensibility.

Can you elaborate on your choice of materials?

The paper-like organic planes of material which form large sections of the sculpture, were made of a bespoke composite material that combines glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), polyester resin, and scaled handmade Japanese paper. This created the rigid curved sections of strong paintable material, which have the mottled surface and apparently delicate edges of the original craft material. I tested various materials for the panels, including Jesmonite which wasn’t strong enough. In the end, I chose fibreglass because it picked up the folded details so well and allowed me to be involved in the sculpting process pre-casting. 

One of the most dominant elements in Last of Light (3 Needles) is the honeycomb. The tessellated honeycomb seems organic yet somehow industrial, or even like a tank track. The edges are broken, almost torn – how did this evolve?

The sections of honeycomb-like structure make up a fourth contrasting sculptural element in the composition. Borrowed from the structural core of corrugated cardboard, the shapes also relate directly to the aesthetic of the non-directional paving proposed for the entrance to Angel Court.

The honeycomb shape initially came from playing around with cardboard. It seemed to relate to the architecture of the site, while being part of the playful character of my work. So much of my work from the previous decade has been made in cardboard, often soaked in cement or mortar to make it strong enough to hold its own form. The edges of the cardboard always felt important to me, and I would paint with plaster on them, later casting from them and eventually gravitating towards metallic versions. The squashed corrugated form, which is integrally strong, is the geometry of the organic and cellular – that form that you see repeated in nature. This creates a tension as the organic is translated to the machine-made and industrial, whilst also picking up all the marks of the metal casting process.

You feature the same motif in Warp and Weft(Cass Sculpture Foundation), where it is matt white, and appears weightless and dematerialized. Yet here it is heavy and brutal, with a naked rough surface and welded joints visible from the ground…

Using this technique for the second time, I was conscious to make it function differently. Colour profoundly alters our experience, something which endlessly surprises me, but actually it was the process of casting poured metal at the foundry, rather than a plaster-like material finish which added to the dark language of the work.

As light is the overarching theme within the sculpture, was the work conceived in relation to where light and shadow would fall on it? The shadows of the square windows opposite dramatically activate it, particularly in contrast to the white panels…

I tried to predict where the light would hit the work and how the shadows would behave on the oblique forms. This was drawn in CAD at various times of day, and it is possible to get eerily close to reality this way. The shadows on the work create another layer in its form, a layer that is never fixed, which brings the work to life. The square forms in the reflections are less predictable, adding such an interesting and appropriately Cubist geometry that allows the looping forms to expand out of these rigid frameworks.

Temporal shadows become an integral part of the work, some slice and fracture the ruching…

I really enjoy the distortions that light gives the work, particularly the shapes of windows. Graphic and yet faintly billowing, They sometimes seem to create a film across the work. The fractured imagery also brings the work back to my early influences in Cubist language and literature, where multiple fragments synthesise to form images, as if in motion.

What is the role of light in the companion piece, Selvedge with dark?

There is a conversation between my two artworks at Angel Court, alluding to the significance of Japanese paper as a light absorber. Last of Light (3 Needles) is a more vibrant work immersed in natural light, while the second artwork, Selvedge with dark, needed to embrace the passageway’s restrictions of darkness and enclosure, letting colour come through in the close detail.

With your very liquid wash-like painting on metal in Last of Light (3 Needles) one strip can be seen very close up with a freshness and immediacy – as if it might drip on you, but I notice the much higher one you silhouette against a gestural black strip, giving it a different kind of impact.

I was determined to make a bold statement utilizing that height, and some of the metalwork just needed a more graphic quality to define itself against the other materials. It was a difficult decision to choose a darker palette in areas of the work, while holding onto a notion of the natural and light. I kept close to my original concept, however, with the calligraphic Japanese brush marks and black lacquer-box finishes as a guide.

The painted strips are never presented flat against the wall but arranged and treated in a sculptural, architectural manner…

I am always cautious of flatness in my sculptural oeuvre. I want to stress the piece’s object-hood. One line snakes and curves as if escaping and another stands upright so that it can only be seen from a particular angle, forcing the viewer to move around the work to see if fully.

The painting has a spontaneous, sketch-like quality – almost like a watercolour…

I try to use automotive paint with immediacy and lightness that floats on the surface of the metal. I wanted to avoid creating flatness by using powder coating, and also move away from just the natural colour of materials. The surface appears to be in motion, intangible, as if form is appearing through a veil of light or fog. I wanted to achieve a level of mystery that mirrors these ephemeral states in nature.

With your sensory connection to nature, I was wondering if you feel a kinship with the nineteenth-century English Romantic landscape tradition of artists like Turner and Constable?

I grew up by the sea on the Isle of Man, and I think that since my work has moved outside, and then back inside again – it has become more elemental in nature. There is movement, gesture and mark-making, qualities that I always thought were tied up with my interest in literature and language – yet are so much to do with a kind of violence in nature. In that sense there is a connection to the English Romantic tradition of landscape painting, in particular to the luminosity and the sense of movement in the surfaces.

How was nature incorporated in your early outdoor work?

My first temporary outdoor piece was at the Sculpture Park, Jupiter Artland in West Lothian, Scotland. Patterns was made largely from glass, which as a partly invisible material, supported in a reciprocal way, a slim painted metalwork drawing. It was sited in an area dominated by ferns, and in the summer became very overgrown and verdant. The foliage powerfully contained the work, and in the evening sunlight the glass would appear completely green with ferns, so that it became intrinsically, but unpredictably part of the work. Nature in all its complex geometry became another sculptural layer in the work – the very symbol of refraction. This was my first lesson in the importance of siting an outdoor work in order to define, complete and make it more than the sum of its parts.

I know you love Virginia Woolf and you often talk about the ideas of female space and a creative space. Has placing this work led you to reflect on public/private space and differing forms of space in that way?

My major concern from private to public, were the different voices that inevitably have to enter the process. Collaboration isn’t always an easy process, and can mean compromise. Making decisions by committee rarely works, but defending our choices by fully working them through is a healthy process where we feel the questioning of ideas is in an atmosphere of respect and mutual trust. The Contemporary Art Society set the tone for this healthy dialogue, negotiating and supporting conversations between artist and client with care.

It is still quite rare to experience public sculpture made by women, and it is some of the best, perhaps because it manages to escape our preconceptions of art in the public realm. Work made by Barbara Hepworth, Alison Wilding, Iza Genzen, Phyllida Barlow with its playfulness, sensitivity, light touch and conceptual freedom, can be divorced from the history of metalworking as an industrial or a male preoccupation – and indeed from the cultural boundaries predetermined for Virginia Woolf’s peers.

What do you feel is the role of public art?

There’s a familiarity with the public sculpture we value – it not only forms part of the local architecture and gives character to an area, but is part of the fabric of our day-to-day experience. There is a sense of comfort and ownership at best, an initial confrontation, and perhaps an invisibility over time too…I hope this artwork provokes questions about its form and narrative so that it continues to evolve in people’s repeat experience to become a landmark for the area.

Main image: Sara Barker, Last of Light (3 Needles) (photo: courtesy  of Marc Wilmot and the Contemporary Art Society)

Aurora Corio