Getting their hands dirty: The malleable materiality of ‘Glorious Estate’

‘Glorious Estate’, featuring the work of Anna Chrystal Stephens, Keef Winter and Carla Wright, was shown at Bruno Glint in December 2012. This essay was published as part of Allotrope Edition 04.

Keef Winter

Each provide access to the fabric of made space, having already fingered it loose from more abstract processes. As such, they feel impermanent, temporary and tractable. There seems to be the possibility of re-structuring or re-assembling, adding and subtracting to these constructions that reference D.I.Y. and hand-crafted activities. However, the added elements go beyond object-hood as the artists reach into the fabric of the gallery’s maintenance architecture, tinkering with the plumbing and lighting. More than placed, the works have been incorporated. There is the distinct sense that the artists have worked here, built here, had a cup of tea and, in conversation with one another, arranged things to their liking.

In this way, the exhibition channels its setting: the Clapton Tram Depot. Over the years this historical building has been re-purposed by small businesses, art galleries and project spaces, studios and residential units. Like many sites reclaimed after industry has abandoned them, it has the romantic atmosphere of a forgotten place that individuals and small communities can make truly theirs; physically maintaining, altering and shaping the space for their own purposes. Such spaces are always at risk of being noticed by the zealous eye of the urban planner or developer, but whilst they remain unseen, they can be places of great spatial and material freedom.

These communally defined and self-made spaces are a key interest within Anna Chrystal Stephen’s work as she reconstitutes discarded and handmade materials into makeshift constructions, balancing a highly finished and rougher aesthetic. Built within and in response to the specific situation of Bruno Glint gallery, her sculptural assemblage ‘Survivalism’ is made up of separate elements collected, altered and made by the artist that were brought into the space to work with in situ. Two wide wooden rectangles covered with printed and knitted material arch out horizontally from the wall, a mysterious totem standing erect from within the v-shaped zone behind them. As such, ‘Survivalism’ appears to defiantly lay claim to a delineated space within the gallery, setting up camp next to the wall.

This possession of space is reflected in Keef Winter’s wooden-screen-like construction, which curves protectively around a corner of the gallery, one side of the rough wooden panelled screen bulging confidently out into the space, the apex of the tapered geometric sections coming to a sharp point. Glimmering through the ripped black plastic panel of the protective, but misshapen wooden screen, a light is prettily refracted through an intriguingly shaped bulb. Hanging from a cable protruding from a hole in the ceiling that leads into the dusty recesses of the building’s roof, Wright’s work takes advantage of an already present feature, taking the opportunity to present something surprising precious from what looks like an act of vandalism. Winter’s work was also built site-specifically for this show from materials gathered nearby. The result has an element of the ‘accident’ borne from a more reactive way of working, but has also been designed for the space specifically, as, like Stephen’s work, formal decisions were made in situ.

As a whole, the exhibition takes an attitude of temporary spatial possession. The direct, if incidental, relationships between individual pieces come together to communally inhabit the gallery and give it the aura of a personalised and collectively formed place. For example, small pencil drawings sketched onto the surface of Winter’s wooden construction could almost be plans for Carla Wright’s geometrically shaped wall pieces. Just as Winter’s screen encircles a space lit by Wright’s light piece, their works ‘Artefacts – Rubble Series’ by Wright and ‘What happens when concrete is cast in cardboard’ by Winter, appear to materially mirror one another and form a strong bond as if they had been made in congruence as the artists worked together to furnish the space.

Additionally, the attribution of preciousness particular to Wright’s work reflects the personal investment within handmade or D.I.Y. activity, such as in ‘Concerns of the living interacting with the dead stuff of buildings’, in which a found fragment of safety glass has been made ornamental, having been shaped, smoothed and hung from a carefully constructed bracket on the wall. Despite the makeshift aesthetic and the use of discarded or rough building materials there are clear signs of design consideration. Each have a purposeful presence within the space, positioned with care, combining to create a collectively meaningful place.

At the same time, the makeshift aesthetic imbues the objects with a certain lack of solidity and therefore impermanence. This is either in terms of their material form or in their mode of presentation. Stephen’s photographically printed silk scarves may be delicately perfect, but are draped casually over the fire alarm (‘Dreamcatcher’), the broken-umbrella-topped totem in ‘Survivalism’ and even the ‘Untitled’ silk piece in the gallery foyer, which seems to be more traditionally displayed, is actually hung from a metal pole placed nonchalantly on top of a lightbox that is a constant of the gallery fabric. An experimental, reactive mode of making and display remain obvious and there is an oblique tension between the preciousness of the finished moment of display and its ephemerality; the changeable character of the art space. As such the different pieces retain a sense of flux. We can imagine them being built upon further, or taken apart or simply rearranged.

This sense of flux inherent to self-made spaces is explored by Jane Rendell in her essay ‘Undoing Architecture’ in which she revisits the experience of living in the “fragile structure” of a once derelict house, taken on by a group of friends and made into a home. In doing so she questions the authorial relationship of the architect to buildings and built spaces as well as their assumption of the permanence or completeness of their solid structures, much as the collective work of ‘Glorious Estate’ does. In her less than solid, non-contained home, the everyday rules of domesticity were broken and living spaces were constantly morphing, overlapping and running into one another; the normally enclosed structure of its walls gaining a porosity as things, people and architecture reacted with and against one another. The fabric of the building and the space it punctuated was theirs to play with and their occupation of space was intensified by its malleability and sense of possibility:

This condition of potentiality… provided the catalyst to achieve flexibility through transformation, through misuse. Within one life a single table was the crowded focus of a drunken evening, it then became several café tables, then again frames for candle-lit icons, and finally a hot blaze on a cold night. Deciding just how and when to use an object in a certain way provokes interesting questions. At what point does furniture become firewood?

Many of the material elements that make up the work in Glorious Estate have this same sense of a multiplicity of potential, although it is sometimes hard to tell at what point in a making process they currently belong to. Wright’s ‘Artefacts’ present the found waste products of building sites as valuable pieces that could also be geological samples of natural material. Equally, Winter’s ‘What happens when concrete is cast in cardboard’ is the finished product of an experimental artistic process, but lies on the floor like a piece of diamond shaped rock waiting to be chiselled into.

Material is presented here, and in the rest of the exhibition as unstable. It is touchable and workable. The basic, unrefined processes of all built environments, often hidden, are exposed. Such is the dark viscous fluid that appears to have leaked from an attractive brass tap connected to a copper pipe on the gallery wall. Winter’s piece ‘Extraction’ mirrors a functional pipe next to it, but unlike its hidden, painted-over neighbour, its bronzed colour attracts attention. The tap appears to provide access to hidden recesses within the building, from which a mess of sweet black treacle emerges. ‘Extraction’, like much of Winter’s practice, details the unseen and the less attractive, yet necessary working components behind the neat external surfaces of the built environment.

An awareness and understanding of this hidden materiality within the built environment provides access to it as something that can be manipulated. There is a great sense of freedom in being actively involved in the shaping of one’s spatial environment: “Desiring creatures transgress; they resist the logic of architecture as the other who completes self.1” Such interventions are not clean. They are personal, messy and difficult, but also potent, like the ooze from Winter’s extraction, or surprisingly beautiful, like the delightful form of Wright’s delicate bottle-like light bulb.

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