Conflict and Collisions: New Contemporary Sculpture

Can you explain your idea for commemorating World War I and how this exhibition came together?

The idea for the show came from an initial project with the artist Toby Ziegler which was drawing on the World War I plaster memorial relief No Man’s Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934) which is in the permanent collection of the Hepworth Wakefield, but was being displayed for the first time in twenty years.

We wanted to commemorate World War I and highlight this particularly important piece, so we invited Ziegler to come and look at it and hear his response, as a springboard for the project. At the same time we were working with the Dutch artist, Folkert de Jong, and we introduced him to the Royal Armouries Collection in Leeds, knowing he was interested in warfare and weaponry and the darker side of life. We also started talking to Alexandra Bircken because it transpired that all her recent exhibitions were connected and seemed to draw on the idea of conflict, although it manifested itself in different ways.

She is concerned with the dualities and conflicts between softness and hardness, armour, protectiveness and vulnerability. The exhibition opens withFellow(2014) which Bircken places in a potentially threatening position, so that it confronts the viewer when they first enter the gallery, and yet the piece feels cradled and held – there is an intrinsic sense of ambiguity to her work.

Bircken’s work B.U.F.F. (2014) exudes these tensions where the weapon itself seems ‘wounded’, and although made from fetishistic latex, their hand-made craftquality almost negates their overt sexuality…

As you say, it’s the importance of this tension – as Bircken explained to us about how they are ‘bandaged’, vulnerable and soft. Yet the work B.U.F.F. engages with the significance of machinery, as these totem sculptures are based on B52 bombs and have a phallic, masculine and aggressive appearance – so again it’s these conflicts at play within the work. On another level, there is also the duality of referencing the mass production of sleek bullets and bombs with the notion of the artist creating a hand-made object, a key theme that resonates throughout her practice and thus permeates the exhibition.

Bircken is fascinated by the innate meanings and significance of materials. In Demolition Ball (2014) as the skin is ‘dead’ but imbued with memory, how does the artist transform the material?

Here pommel horse skins have been remade into this object which in one way is very threatening and menacing, a sort of wrecking ball or punch bag, yet at the same time a complex narrative and human history is woven into it. One thinks of the children leaping over the pommel horse in the gym, Bircken referred to the physical imprint of their ‘sweaty hands’ on the leather, so it carries all those ideals of hope and youth. The piece is also hanging very low which lends to the ambiguity of its nature and purpose, and connotations of natural forms which Bircken weaves throughout the exhibition. Although the object has a generosity of form – the element of potential danger that it could swing, injure or destroy is prevalent. Again there is the play with the idea of the machine-made wrecking ball and Bircken’s lovingly hand-stitched art object, Demolition Ball.

In the work Furygan and Storm (Assault) (2014) can you expand on how Bircken utilises motorbike leather ‘skin’ as armour to explore how themes of protection and vulnerability affect notions of identity?

She is a biker herself, so has a unique insight into that world! Bircken mounts them on the gallery wall as splayed animal skins or hunting trophies. However, what really interests her is the history and memory of the leather material, and how people have crashed in accidents, which have taken off parts of the animal skin that is supposed to protect the human skin, and then left a ‘scar’ on the surface or been patched up. She connects to those individual layers and that build up of surface and therefore of narrative. These repairs operate as a visual and very visceral reminder of the vulnerability of the body and the significance of skin. Bircken challenges the viewer to question how the animal skin has ‘become’ us.

In that relationship of a real animal skin becoming our ‘artificial skin’ and taking on our identity – the concept of ‘branding’ ourselves also works on many levels….

Bircken is very engaged with the concept of artifice and the commercialisation and design led context of the work. It works as a reflection of an ‘industry’, with all the various companies emblazoned upon the skins, raising questions of personal identity and corporate branding. The skins are at once individual and take on our unique body shape, they reveal and chart that personal narrative of our accidents – yet very much place us within a commercial system.

The motorbike leathers which Bircken describes as a ‘second skin’ seem closely linked to her attraction and repulsion to tights, which she finds ‘eerie’ in the artificial way they mimic the skin yet conceal it…

The tights are a strange material, we think about it as a type of skin, we put it on as a protective layer, linking to the important theme of ‘armour’, and it is supposed to look very much like our skin, but it also has a subtext that is quite unpleasant. It is at once familiar and yet unsettling. Themes of concealing, hiding and revealing are redolent throughout the exhibition. The curator has written about the Freudian idea of women concealing their genitals, and I think that here Bircken uses this as a way of addressing and bringing some of these ideas to the forefront whilst not necessarily subscribing to them – just as a way of thinking about the contrast between feminine spheres of activity and masculine spheres of activity. The viewer can then examine how these ideas of concealment and sexuality manifest themselves in the objects. Indeed, with its hand-stitching, the crotch of the tights is imbued with both a delicacy and strength as it is displayed like a trophy. 

Although the tights retain a memory of us, unlike the motorbike skins they do not bear our mould, evincing notions of presence and absence…

Again there are compelling questions of identity to challenge the viewer, making one aware of these concerns on a very physical level. Yet there is also a sense of detachment as the tights are a material in themselves, in a more formal sense, that does not necessarily relate to the wearer.

In Repeat II, (2012) how does Bircken’s work engage with the notion of mass-production in the context of the meaning of the local word ‘shoddy’?

The word ‘shoddy’ describes that waste material left over from factory mass-production of textiles, that was ground up and reused. Similarly Bircken is interested in potential of pulling together a new materialisation or version of the fabric tight crotches. Bircken initially trained in fashion, and at this point in her career she is now moving back to thinking about many of these issues relating to fashion, materials and the human form. She has a confidence within her practice of how she can absorb new concepts and bring these ideas of design and mass-production into the artistic sphere.

In GiMoto (2014) presence and absence recurs, and Bircken introduces the idea of the ‘fragment’ which resonates within the work of each artist here…

This is a very disconcerting work as there is a suggestion that the body is still somehow present and contained yet at the same time it is truncated, so the viewer knows it has undergone some kind of attack or damage in an accident. There is a disturbing ambiguity in the movement and form of the limbs – as if they were still alive, and yet they also seem very clinically dismembered. Indeed, the ‘fragment’ is a key theme in this exhibition, especially for Toby Ziegler. The artist talks about the fragmentary body; he researched war pornography on the internet, and when he was responding to the Jagger frieze and thinking about the very visceral elements of the human body that are portrayed in that starting point of the frieze – and then incorporating them into the installation. The idea of the fragmented body is very significant and was originally another idea for the title of the exhibition. For Ziegler, it was the concept of taking this one element of the foot and extrapolating it from both the internet and the frieze and then making it into an imperfect sculptural manifestation.

Can you explain the preparation behind Deflated Bodies (2011), her main installation and how Bircken was inspired by the space?

The exhibition is entitled, Eskalation, and this work really takes on the elevation and space of the gallery with the very high ceilings and light shaft which she was very keen to find a way to use – and then transfer that into a kind of scenario or installation with these found objects. However, she has not just rethought the gallery’s physical proportions, but also the psychical effect you can derive from interacting with those aspects of the gallery.

To prepare for the exhibition, the second-hand ladders were all sourced by Bircken, the curators and technicians. She brought the tights with her and the ‘bodies’ she had made were transported here in wardrobe cardboard boxes – the kind you use for moving house – and when we opened them, the skins were just hanging there as if they belonged to a fetishist or mass murderer – it looked quite extraordinary! There are both male and female deflated, lifeless figures – the latter with circular breasts, all hollow and drained, defusing any sexuality connoted by the fetishistic leather material. The skins are beautifully crafted as objects. Then she created this huge Rapunzel like hair coming down, which sums up all our ideals of a fairy story, yet is presented in this disquieting context. The hair itself is a mixture of human and artificial hair, again reflecting Bircken’s concern with materiality and memory, identity and artifice.

The ‘bodies’ are like a shell, an echo or even a shadow. There is a sense of loss and of limbo – a disconnection and alienation which she utilises the space, objects and ‘skins’ to convey…

Bircken talked about the work communicating a sense of ‘unease’. She is concerned with ideas of descent and ascent and flight and escape – the disconnection of being trapped between realms. Allusions of ascending to heaven or perhaps down to hell and that ambiguity implicit in the ladders, as the viewer is not quite sure what realm these ‘bodies’ belong to. The disjointed postures of the ‘bodies’ convey a sense of physical pain or sadness and some are in groups as if hanging from the gallows. There are many dualities here, as they are at once collapsed and being supported by the ladders yet others seem to be actively trying to escape by climbing through the rungs. There is an overwhelming sense of resignation and defeat, with many ‘bodies’ suspended, paralysed – in that limbo.

It is also the disconnection in making everyday objects functionless and removing their purpose, as the ladders go nowhere. Indeed Bircken even uses one ladder like a bridge, running across from one ladder to another – thus an everyday object is removed from its usual context to operate quite differently within the gallery space. The artist also activates that ‘dead’ space at the top of the ladder as it becomes a focal point for the viewer and the touchstone for the imagination, disturbing yet intriguing.

The faces of the ‘bodies’ are anonymous, yet the leather is contorted to express individual suffering, creating a singular atmosphere of anxiety and apprehension.The material almost has a viscous quality.…

Yes, I love the way one of the figures seems to be melting into the floor. It has the sense of a slump – of disappearing and again demonstrates how Bircken uses the gallery space to create this complete scenario and environment of displacement and ambiguity. We did not barrier the show in any way, which in terms of practicality could have been a problem, as wewanted the viewer to have an immersive experience – but actually the installation is so deeply disconcerting that people do not have that urge to touch and interact. They wander around and under the ladders but keep their distance, as the work is so affecting.

Amidst the ladder rungs Bircken stretches tights into fluid biomorphic forms, creating a complex layering of negative space – where a subtle dialogue between organic and man-made forms emerges…

The way she does this is both beautiful and extraordinary and shifts how the space seems to operate in and amongst those objects – caught between those skins and ‘skeins’. Again there is that sense of ‘unease’ as she manipulates space and creates mysterious voids and possible ‘openings’. There is also play on words, as the tights are often ‘laddered’ and are themselves rendered functionless! There is also an early woven work, White Landscape, 2005, that uses these natural forms with wool wound round them, but surrounded by shards of broken glass and found objects. She wanted something that had an initial feeling of threat and attack, but when you experienced it and spent time with it perhaps would elicit a different relationship to it – a response to the materiality of the object.

The forms seem elusive and ethereal…

They have that quality – almost like a dreamcatcher or talisman. This works very well juxtaposed within Eskalation, as again, the work has its own scenario and particular sense of a hermetic environment. Again Bircken utilises a material to create a very particular atmosphere. Of course, it also references her interest in craft, since it is woven as if it were her own tapestry. The strings also directly reference Barbara Hepworth’s iconic ‘stringed sculptures’ which form the foundation of our collection.

Moving on to Toby Ziegler, what is the nature of the relationship between the Charles Sargeant Jagger frieze No Man’s Land and Ziegler’s response to it (2014)?

The Jagger has this incredibly powerful subject-matter at its heart, and tends to illicit a very visceral, embodied reaction to the work. When I give tours I don’t stand near it, as viewers immediately start examining the frieze and become completely immersed in the subject matter. When planning the exhibition, we were aware of how complex it would be to ask an artist to work with such a powerful piece. I know Ziegler was very aware of the importance of the piece and how he could honour the frieze, and make work that responded to it in a respectful way.

Ziegler had a generative proposition for the exhibition in which several elements connect to each other; one is as blank screen, exactly the same proportions as the Charles Sargeant Jagger frieze, a two-dimensional plane, which responds directly to the curious in between nature of a frieze, which is not free-standing sculpture, nor painting, nor architecture. In turn the Jagger frieze generates the dismembered foot sculpture, which in its turn is producing these mini teapot sculptures of a Newall teapot over and over again. The idea of having the 3D printer replicating an object prompts the viewer to think of these images and objects constantly circulating and having a source image and then a manifested object and how that system functions. 

A revealing dichotomy – this technology evinces a detached and dispassionate quality at play in Ziegler’s highly emotive installation…

The way the installation works is certainly emotive and deeply affecting in the connection between the frieze and this articulated and dismembered foot – a fragment from a fragmented body that has suffered in devastating circumstances; this immediately makes people think of the realities and experience of the body under threat.

Jagger, who fought in the trenches, was accused of making a critique or an ironic comment with his frieze which was perceived as too expressionistic and realistic, and that it didn’t valorise the soldiers sufficiently. Jagger was so emotionally and physically connected to the subject of the work, but Ziegler is obviously removed from that subject matter. For me, that remove is partly manifested in that blank screen of the same proportions as the frieze – which is an acknowledgment that he can’t represent the same kind of experience as Jagger. There is also the relationship of the two-dimensional plane and flat surface and how that might connect to the three dimensional possibilities of Jagger’s frieze and through to a sculpture as well, so thinking about objects and art objects at the same time.

Ziegler is fascinated by ‘war porn’ and the trophy images posted online from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effect of this dissemination…

I think that it connects to an idea of not just ‘war porn’ but pornography and explicit imagery in general and how many people experience these images on an everyday basis and perhaps have become immune to them, desensitised. This impact on how we experience the world, and how we experience visual representation, is a key theme within Ziegler’s work. The artist is questioning how we represent conflict, and experience things within this current moment – and what has meaning? He asks what can affect us when we are saturated with imagery?

On the website there is a photograph of the human foot on a bed! – yet it is presented very differently in the gallery setting. How is the transition from 3D image to physical sculpture effected?

When we asked Ziegler for an image to start talking about the show, he sent us the photo where he had lifted the foot onto a bed which we thought was humorous and extraordinary! This works on many levels, as it is making an art-historical comment about plinths and the place of sculpture and it also rehumanises this object which has already been through an incredibly laborious process. Firstly the image is taken from the internet, scanned and then used in three dimensional computer imaging programmes which manipulate it. Finally the image is made into a cardboard, weighted foot. I think that by putting the foot in the context of the bed, it is reconnected to that idea of being ‘human’ again. The setting gives it that sense of the ordinary and everyday, as opposed to its high tech origins.

In what way does the foot’s ambivalent sense of motion and physicality, perhaps settling back onto the floor or getting ready to leap, directly relate to that process of transformation?

The foot is precariously balanced and one can’t quite work out how it is actually staying up or working. It is about the transference from the computer screen, where the image is very easy to manipulate and you can watch Ziegler put the foot up and move it around at different angles. When that is manifested in real life, however, it operates very differently as an object that was once weightless on the computer and now has the ‘appearance’ of weightlessness as it is made from this cardboard; yet at the same time the viewer knows it is weighted down and that something is happening within the object to give it a kind of substance.

In his paintings, Ziegler relishes subverting the notion of technological perfection and precision as human fallibility becomes the springboard of his process. Similarly, here the artist delights in the constraints from natural forces which emerge during the image’s translation into the physical sphere…

It is fascinating to study Ziegler’s motivations here. I think the notion of failure also comes into play. The failure of technology to produce an object which is supposed to be about platonic perfection, yet when it is realised in the physical realm, it cannot live up to its promise and may relate to the viewer in a different way. In some of his works, the sculptures purposefully seem to sag and slump or need a prop, as Ziegler accentuates the physicality of gravity’s impact on mass weight and volume in space. In this transferral from the perfection of the 3D printer and image, the artist anchors his work in a spatial and physical honesty.

That fundamental honesty chimes with the ‘truth to materials’ attitude which is important to Ziegler, linking his work to Bircken on many levels…

He is very involved with these concerns; with this work, it very much about piercing the surface. Ziegler has drilled into the cardboard and this makes the viewer question the permanence, solidity and weight of the object and what operates to make it less tangible, even though it is a manifestation of something intangible. It looks expertly hand-made, in the way that Bircken’s work evinces those notions of craft . The artist also talks about actually making the ‘skin’ of the foot and is thinking about ‘surface’ and the relationship between the skin of the human and the skin of the object. Close to Bircken’s practice, this is a very significant part of Ziegler’s practice as he is looking at how sculpture works with the idea of ‘skin’ and sometimes he thinks of this literally in terms of the cardboard or the oxidized aluminium. He is interested in the idea of a very thin skin like an oil slick, something that barely holds itself together, and how this operates visually in the real world. Ziegler makes viewers confront how they experience their own skin in relation to these skins that he puts in front of us.

The Dutch artist Folkert de Jong is concerned with theatre and the theatrical and with story-telling, costume and role–play…

For a long time de Jong’s work has embraced this idea of theatricality and setting up a mise-en-scène, which often involve figurative sculptures which interact with each other in a scenario. Another layer of culture and society de Jong finds compelling is the more sinister side of life, rife with crime and conflict – the darker side of life. He suggests that amongst the everyday experience is an underbelly, another seam and that what we might hold to be precious may have a counterpoint.

For his installation, The Holy Land(2014) can you tell me about de Jong’s dialogue with the Royal Armouries in Leeds? Does it connect to Bircken in that sense of material being suffused with memory?

He was allowed to touch and hold all the armour and experience this weapons repository, effectively a library of weapons which have been collected for over several hundred years. It was quite overwhelming to see such a vast array! For instance, there were many different types of one gun – a Kalashnikov rifle, made in different places and manufactured in subtly different ways. Similar to Bircken, the focus here is the underlying narrative and memory that emanates from the object – the knowledge that these weapons may have been used to kill people has a powerful impact. The artist did talk about how these objects, particularly the armour of Henry VIII, retain these complex mythic narratives, which often are not celebratory, but involve his extraordinary story of warfare and beheadings. De Jong is interested in investigating those objects that have such a powerful aura surrounding them, and how he can make art works that can relate to these notions.

By making works based on Henry VIII at different stages in his life, de Jong encourages the viewer to consider the nature of Henry’s identity and ‘image’, confronting stereotypical preconceptions of the king in later life…

Indeed, it plays with the idea of visual identity as Henry VIII was very keen on self- promotion, and had his image inside the flyleaf of the New English Bible. For him this kind of visual representation was manifested partly in that way, and partly in these suits of armour which at some points became incredibly decorative and were designed to show how fashionable and powerful he was. The huge codpiece would again represent power and was an aggressive statement of masculinity and physical and political strength that is manifested visually in this object.

Recalling Bircken’s motorbike leathers, the armour has that sense of ‘life’ – a ‘second skin’, a mould…

We talked about the armour as an indexical imprint, as each suit of armour is made bespoke, so when we had that chance to be close to these objects – we were literally in the same space as Henry VIII, and within his actual ‘skin’. There was something deeply disconcerting and yet affecting about that experience. For the Henry VIII figures, he put the armour through these processes of scanning them and then printing them in this cheap polystyrene, and then casting them again in an incredibly expensive method of bronze, raising concepts of ‘value’. The artist is also interested in the history of bronze-making, how significant it was in terms of cultural shifts and how early weapons were made out of bronze; here, early technological processes involved a sense of ritual and that this history is embedded within the material as well as the subject matter. Again, Bircken’s concern with memory and materials and Ziegler’s use of digital technology are recurrent threads throughout the exhibition.

Can you discuss the implications of de Jong’s casting everyday, mass-produced objects into bronze, but using cheap polyurethane in the process, and how this engages with issues of ‘value’…

I think that the immense value attached to the original objects – which is connected to their role in history, their unique status and complicated further by Henry’s own belief that he was appointed by God – means that the original objects are fraught with meaning. By subjecting these invaluable objects to a process that dematerialises them completely into digital data, reproduces them in a debased material, polystyrene and then remakes them into a valuable art object, their status is undone and remade, drawing attention to the ways in which we choose to valorise objects.

The armatures and evidence of the process of bronze casting are still present in the works – and are an intrinsic part of their character, which links to Bircken’s ‘craft’ and Ziegler’s ‘truth to materials’. However, the artist also creates an artificial ‘verdigris’ on the surface….

All those spurs are still there and they look like organic or biomorphic forms – or possibly like lichen or moss. It is very important for de Jong to have that bronze process still very much evidenced in the work. These artists are all linked by their incredible craftsmanship and skill, even though all the varying materials have been manipulated in different ways, the outcome are these extremely dramatic and resonant sculptures.

De Jong himself worked in the foundry to achieve those surfaces, to create the patination and colour with chemicals. He describes the process as almost like painting and when the viewer studies the surface closely, particularly over the breast plate, one can see dappled colours such as blue, green and purple. It looks like a universe, like a thousand stars shining in the sky and de Jong wanted that idea to be conveyed. Therefore you have these very strong and heavy and valuable objects connected to Henry VIII but they also have this magical aura around them that the artist has created.

These surfaces exude a sense of decay and neglect and the installation has a pervasive atmosphere of abandonment – as the sand is piled around the feet of the figures…

It is a very ambiguous setting and scenario, I often talked about them as mysterious objects you came upon and unearthed whilst digging, as if they were trapped at Herculaneum and it was your job to construct a narrative around them. There is a sand enclosure consisting of some of the Henry VIII figures, trees made of guns with fruits and walnuts and other sculptures that look like charging stations for electricity pylons. The Henry VIII looks forlorn and somehow neglected , or possibly even trapped in the sand. There are also acrylic glass boxes, with figures looking on at the scene, but preserved in a different way. Some of the works are a sculptural amalgamation of objects that de Jong has brought together. In one of the works, there are the objects like the bowler hat that lighten the tone and refer to his previous work and to other art-historical precedents – like Magritte’s bowler hat or Picasso’s chair caning. De Jong always has an awareness of art-history which is running through his work.

When we installed the show, there was also a feeling of things being under water, recalling images of bronzes being lifted from the Mediterranean which have that beautiful patination of thousands of years. It is the idea that memory and history operate in layers like an archaeological dig.

Like a palimpsest?

That’s right and then the artist can extract from those layers of palimpsest , whether it be Henry VIII or contemporary weapons and everyday objects such as gramophones, movie cameras and cameras that record the past and have a way of projecting this into the present, to remind us that there are ways of capturing the past. All those layers are contained within the same installation thinking about how we uncover these various strata of history and of meaning. The title, The Holy Land, clearly feeds into the religious and political implications inherent here. The artist is looking at notions of a crusade, and references our contemporary ‘crusades’ and how the West operates in relation to other countries. De Jong points to how warfare is still continuing, in a different context, which makes our past still relevant to our contemporary moment.

The glass cases suggest a discourse between the status of the museum object and the art object, and where meaning can be posited…

There are three figures in acrylic glass cases which have coloured screens, and the artist and I talked about them as museum exhibits, as he is thinking about how we preserve objects from the past and how they can convey meaning. He also described these figures as trapped and possibly unable to communicate. One of them is a Henry VIII lying down with his soul escaping from his chest, with the heads of six women around him representing his wives. The other is a soldier figure wearing a military overcoat like a voyeur, all them are worldly witnesses to this unknown event that has happened in front of them. They are silent witnesses. As I said, there is a strong subtext questioning how curators should preserve objects from the past, should we put them in collections like the Royal Armouries, can they still communicate with us if removed behind glass, and how do we attach value to objects? How do we re-present them as art works and what happens when it shifts from being a historical object to having this kind of narrative or experience of tableau or story that the viewer has seen.

What response have you had to the three artists, as although the works are contrasting – the threads between them are so evident, a compelling dynamic…?

The exhibition has been well-received. I think that with these strong themes and threads, viewers have been encouraged to make their own connections, and because the works function within this title and rubric of Conflict and Collisions, it is a very wide remit. The viewers are therefore really engaging with the works in a very active way and wanting to learn more about the background of both the installations and the artists. Each of the artist’s installations has a highly individual character and experience. For de Jong, viewers seem to be caught up in that narrative in the otherworldly nature of the installation, whereas Bircken’s work is characterised by that imaginative use of space utilised for a most unsettling effect, and finally Ziegler’s combining of new technologies with the process of generating ideas. I think he had a very difficult task in dealing with the Jagger frieze sensitively, and getting people to think about the subject-matter and how art is made and how it might connect to these ideas of conflict.

Main image: Toby Ziegler, Human Foot, 2014, The Hepworth Wakefield, image courtesy of the artist, The Hepworth Wakefield & Simon Lee Gallery (photo: Asadour Guzelian)

Conflict and Collisions: New Contemporary Sculpture, The Hepworth, Wakefield.
1 October 2014 – 25 January 2015

Toby Ziegler/Charles Sargeant Jagger now extended until 12th April 2015

Aurora Corio