Reading Arnolfini CEO, Kate Brindley’s introduction to Daphne Wright’s solo exhibition, ‘Emotional Archaeology’ left me slightly surprised at the number of influences Wright’s work uses, “...the suburban and the domestic realm, also drawing upon references from art history, literature and film, to nonsense poetry and country and western music...” Brindley continues her intro in stating that through these references Wright, “offers us ways to think about difficult, often side-lined issues relating to class, aspiration, faith, parenthood, aging and care.” That’s a lot to process and leaves the sceptic in me wondering how many of these ideas Wright actually intended to be present in her work and how much of the aforementioned was Kate Brindley possibly over-outlining the ways of interpreting it? [Though it is important to note that this exhibition is in two halves, at Arnolfini and a National Trust property, Tyntesfield in North Somerset; this post focusing solely on the Arnolfini work]. Either way it points to the occupation for much of contemporary art as being ‘all encompassing’ or dealing with a wide range of ideas such as 'contemporary culture', whatever that is exactly? Whether it does this to make itself more accessible to audiences or give it an authority that ‘the establishment’ feels art needs in order to be credible or taken seriously I am unsure. What I will say however is that in writing about art I often worry about over analysing it as sometimes you miss the overall message; there’s a skill in being able to pick out themes in an artwork and another in being able to succinctly capture what it is about in only a few words. I’m still practising at both! In my stubbornness, I wanted to challenge that introduction a little and make my own conclusions about Daphne Wright’s work; so upon walking into the first room of the exhibition at Arnolfini and being confronted with an upturned, life-size flayed sculpture of a horse, a swan and monkey each in similar states of distress, one way or another, I was about to find out!
|Stallion (2009) Marble dust and Resin.|
From the beginning, the works in this exhibition clearly present themselves as being made by a highly skilled and competent sculptor interested in the nature of materials; this is an exhibition by an artist that, without wanting to dumb it down too much, ‘likes making’ (in other works upstairs it almost comes across as a kind-of 'thinking through the process of making'). The sculpture ‘Stallion’ in the first room; a life-size horse exquisitely cast from resin and covered in marble dust to give the effect of being entirely sculpted from marble whilst also mimicking a museum copied process. The whiteness of the marble against the theatrical red painted walls of the gallery creates for dramatic effect in what is the first of a series of contrasts throughout the exhibition used to create tension, anxiety or unease. The first piece that strikes you is the horse; it is an unusual perspective to see a horse from, yes it is distressing but in that infamous Andy Warhol, ‘car crash’ voyeuristic kind-of way it is also very interesting; even more so in context to its neighbours the hanging lamb, sickly monkey and flailing swan.
|Lamb (2006) Marble dust, resin.|
It is emotive, possibly all the more so for the animals various states being suspended in time, almost as if to prolong or scrutinise their situation. They play upon our understanding of myths; the powerful, heroic horse now fallen; the swan referring to the fallen young male in the Greek myth, Leda and the Swan’. Whether I would have picked-up on these specific references or not I did make the association between the portrayals of the animals as though museum sculpture in contrast to those ideals being presented in a much darker reality. The material and craftsmanship ignites a curiosity into the work before being repulsed or affected by the 'tragedy' of their situation.
That first room is where the animal theme begins and ends. Upstairs is a stylistically similar treatment of materials and shares with it a sense of conflict but is completely unexpected in content. A pot-plant made from unfired clay limply droops on the stairs to the upper gallery its sorry state reminiscent of a guilty truth of many whom will relate to the familiarity a neglected houseplant. The plant’s domesticity being more familiar than that of the horse, and in my opinion, more poignant in capturing the fragility between life and death. It is far more subtle. ‘Could this be what Wright’s work is about?’ I ask myself; ‘A reaction or set of emotive responses to these objects and their unusual materials?’ If so then the viewer’s conscious is pricked, pardon the pun, further in works such as ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go?’ cacti made from tinfoil, into a sparse aluminium sci-fi desert complete with Country and Western songs. It is kind of tragic in its falseness and sense of melodrama. In a separate room Wright casts her two sons in jesmonite, they sit coldly and serenely on a family kitchen table in a part of the exhibition dedicated to children and child rearing. Here is also an unfired piece titled, ‘Clay Heads’ comprised of several free-standing naive faces with slits for eyes, their features unfinished or childlike again in attempt to use the material as a metaphor of both the malleable as well as fragility or vulnerability of childhood identity. If taken as a room unto itself it is quite interesting and you could draw a lot upon conversations of time, childhood and growing-up but for me personally, it is an idea touched upon in art and clay before (think Antony Gormley).
|Still Life Plant (2014) Unfired clay.*|
One of the most successful pieces in the exhibition for me, is ‘Domestic Shrubbery’ and takes the form of decorative Victorian plaster flowers, fauna and twisting branches that fill a room, floor to ceiling on every wall. Imagine a 3D version of William Morris wallpaper! What was once dismissively decorative now takes on a more constricting and sinister reality becoming an ensnaring cage of artificial nature than twee, idyllic country pattern. In some ways it is still quite beautiful from a craftsmanship point-of-view but I think the way that Wright subverts the domesticity and symbolism of nature used in that Victorian decoration and draws upon the wildness and threatening nature of those patterns into something that is altogether more confrontational. This was something designed to cause unease and if further proof was needed then hidden amongst the crisscrossing fronds is tiny shrivelled hearts accompanied by an eerie soundtrack of a woman’s voice making cuckoo calls. The heart’s make it a bit cliché and aren’t really needed but the presence of the cuckoo call is a reminder of the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ and the bird’s nature of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The viewer here is the outsider, the intruder in the nest both seduced by the inherent skill and beauty of the fragile casted decor and trapped by it at the same time. It is the sort of work and space that changes your behaviour whilst you’re in it; a mixture of carefulness and curiosity. For these reasons it is one of the few pieces that best fits the following description, I read online about her work; “Wright’s art is the result of a relentless curiosity into the way in which a range of materials can create an involvement with often unspoken human preoccupations.”
|Domestic Shrubbery (2009) Plaster, sand and spoken word.|
After seeing the exhibition it raises an important issue for me with Wright’s work, in that it is hard to pin down to a single set of ideas or theme and instead of having one clear message it has several. People will go away remembering pieces from ‘Emotional Archaeology’, the horse, the lamb, the wallpaper, the monkey, but the link between the, ‘what was this all about?’ was more woolly when viewing the exhibition as a whole. Neither is there a huge amount of information about the artist to provide clues so you are left only with the work on display. Content-wise it is quite fragmented to piece together though an attempt to link the work comes through in the concept of archaeology derived in the exhibition title. If archaeology is taken to mean ‘the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture’ then the exhibition does take material culture of the home and references to childhood or Westerns in pop-culture and analyses how these themes can be reconstructed in tinfoil, clay or film and during that process new ideas are discovered that subvert our original understanding of that culture. Though more considerable effort and imagination is required to link pieces such a ‘Swan’ and ‘Primate’ to an ideas of the museum, myths and archaeological practices. I do not want to get too hung up on exhibition titles but in this case I was looking to the title for more guidance as to what Daphne Wright’s work was all about, it almost felt like it was trying to say too much and was possibly in danger of saying nothing at all. The exhibition's curator, Josephine Lanyon likens Wright's process of making work to that of emotional archaeology, "uncovers truths in the process of reproducing our contemporary culture." Whether those truths were about life, death, guilt, relationships, I am unsure? And I still do not know why you would necessarily go looking for anything truth seeking or meaningful in wallpaper without a reason I seem to be missing. If all of the above then the exhibition felt like a sweeping statement rather than a close look in depth at any one of those ‘truths’. It felt a little bit clichéd. Essentially there are many great parts in this exhibition but, perhaps like archaeology there are many gaps as there are answers, I’m just not sure about the whole.
Daphne Wright ‘Emotional Archaeology’ is on at The Arnolfini until December 31st. http://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/daphne-wright-emotional-archaeology