Last night launched the 2017 edition of Vitrine‘s Sculpture At, presenting in Bermondsey Square, London a new artwork by Lucy Tomlins. Her sculpture, entitled Pylon and Pier will be on view until August 2017. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Lucy about the work in anticipation of this evening’s official opening.
ArtAttack: What is your first memory of art and when did you decide to pursue it as your career?
Lucy Tomlins: I actually came to art as a career quite late, though I haven’t stopped making art since the days when my mum would pin up the drawings and paintings my sisters and I had made around the kitchen and proudly displayed my little Blue Peter-esque miniature sculptures and constructions on the shelves. I kept art making as a hobby for a long time and initially listened to my father to ‘get a proper job’, cliché as that is. I tried to fulfil my creative urges by working in creative industries – magazine publishing, design and marketing – but ultimately, in these jobs, any creativity is always restricted to someone else’s agenda. With art you have complete freedom and choice. You can say and do what you like. You don’t have to confirm to social structures and systems. So I went back to art school in my twenties and on to the Royal College of Art for the sculpture MA from there.
I don’t think that my time and experience working in those industries was wasted though. It’s given me a range of different life experiences which all feeds in to my unique perspective on life and how I think, which both feed into my art making. Plus, I always think its better to try something and know you don’t like it, than to wonder what if; I know I’m on the right path now.
I grew up in the Midlands and we rarely got down to London when I was young. However, pivotal for me was a school trip down to London to see my first contemporary art exhibitions, including the legendary 1997 Sensations show at the Royal Academy. It completely opened my eyes to a whole new side of art. I’d mostly been introduced to historic works and genres up until this point, from Neoclassicism or Pop. It made me realise that making art should be a reflection on the times you live it and reflect your own point of view and style.
AA: Why sculpture?
LT: It’s always been about the physical act of making for me. The relationship between body and materials. Lifting things, pushing things, pulling things; that kind of relationship that comes with sculpture. Sculpture feels real. You’re making real objects that take up real space; that have a dialogue and interact with the world around them. Although sculpture is often called functionless, I think that is its function: to offer you a phenomenological encounter that enables a reflection back onto your known reality and encourages a re-looking and revaluation of the things we know and the world around us.
Ossian Ward [in the panel discussion ‘True or False: There’s no such thing as Sculpture’; (July 2013, Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre)] talks about a sculptural sensibility as a ‘frisson’ between man and ‘something’, a literacy of sorts and a sense or sensuous knowledge. To say I am a sculptor defines how I approach my art practice and how my artworks should resonate and be read. I am committed to the importance of craft skills as a principle but I wouldn’t say I have traditional notion of sculpture. I embrace an elasticity of sculptural technique that harnesses the values, principles and commitments of a sensibility preoccupied with the phenomenological experience of materiality and space but this doesn’t always look like the classic notion of sculpture. Though ironically, on this occasion, in Pylon and Pier, I have intentionally chosen to create a pastiche of a classical statue. In a time of dematerialised art practice, where there is so much ‘stuff’ that seems to be intentionally unintentional, to work from a clear position such as this might almost be avant-garde or radical.
There are a lot of cross-discipline artists today but I think often this can also mean that an artist has only skimmed the surface of these disciplines rather than gaining a deep-rooted knowledge or skill in any of these art forms. My work also engages in non-traditional sculptural techniques, such as video and sound, but I work from an area of specialisation and engage outwards into these disciplines from within a sculptural sensibility. I think taking a position like this and making it public also helps the audience to know how to approach and engage with the work, as it gives a sense of the artist’s intent.
AA: How do you approach a setting such as Bermondsey Square?
LT: When I was invited by VITRINE to make work for Bermondsey Square I took the opportunity to directly consider the nature and function of the public square, as a space for coming together, a meeting place, for ideas exchange. Squares have long and lively histories, of rallies and public voice, a place for democracy as well as with more violent histories. I particularly enjoy making site-specific and responsive work and so to literally take the public square and its role in society as the starting point seemed to make sense as a rare opportunity.
In carrying out my research I came across a Wallace Stevens’ poem called The Public Square (1931) from his first book of poetry Harmonium. The poem uses a modernist, architectural structure and describes the falling of a building in a public square.
‘A slash and the edifice fell,
Pylon and pier fell down.
A mountain-blue cloud arose
Like a thing in which they fell’, he writes.
At the time of modern industrialisation and the Great Depression, the edifice’s demolition is used as a symbol of the loss of a tradition or idea, the collapse of a system. There are a lot of parallels being drawn with today’s socio-political context and that of the 1930s and reading the poem, it could have been written today. It resonated with me and the poem locked in some of this thinking.
The fact that the work is temporary and only on display for six months also factored in how the sculpture has developed. It has meant I’ve been able to use time as a key element in how the work is to be read. Something so time-specific, as well as context-specific, is a rare opportunity. If I’d been invited to contribute to the first phase of Sculpture At (2014/16) this work could not have been made.
AA: Are there any artists that particularly influence your work and aesthetic?
LT: I wouldn’t say any artist in particular but rather that I draw influence from a range of different inspirations. From the everyday realism of the still life paintings of the Old Dutch Masters, to the large replicas of every day objects in the public art of Coosje van Bruggen and Claus Oldenburg, to a colour palette heavily influenced by industrial German design and formal thinking on the cusp of Modernism. From conceptual artists like Ryan Gander who are lead by concept before aesthetic to the material and making sensibility manifest in the aesthetics of the works of contemporaries like Manfred Pernice and Anne Hardy.
With my latest body of work, of which Atlas is the first to be exhibited, I’ve chosen to directly reference a range of historical artworks, across various art forms, from poetry, to film, to classical sculpture for the first time. I’ve been looking for, and taking inspiration from, historic works that, through a ‘remaking’, seem just as relevant now as at the time they were made. This includes the Farnese Atlas (at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples) for Pylon and Pier. The next piece getting a remaking is Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave, which is being reimagined for the 21st Century, eroticised as a figure that holds within it both the male and female form. This will be shown later this year in Mexico.
AA: What was the thinking behind using the figure of Atlas?
Traditionally, the public square is where statues of distinguished people are sited, usually placed there to reinforce notions of power or national prestige. Their toppling has become the visual symbol of the overthrowing of a system, in the same way as Stevens used the collapse of the building. Presenting a statue of the Titan Atlas – not as in Greek mythology holding up the sky for eternity, but fallen from its plinth and, grasping the globe, lain on its side is intended o reverse this norm. The viewer’s gaze, which would usually be directed upwards in awe, now stares across on the felled colossus drained, the loss of his mythological strength underscored by the diminutive size of his body – he is only 1.4 metres in height which allows the viewer a more intimate interaction with the work.
Using the figure of Atlas is also a direct visual reference to the Wallace Stevens’ poem. After the dust settles, all that remains, Wallace avers, is, ‘The bijou of Atlas, the moon/Was last with its porcelain leer.’
Though not didactic, my work has often involved social commentary and it feels difficult, at this specific time, not to make work that is in some way responsive to the socio-political context we find ourselves in post-Brexit Referendum and Trump’s inauguration. Islamic State also uses the media to spread imagery of the vandalism and destruction of ancient artefacts in their attempt to erase history and our connection with the past and traditions. The fallen statue is a very loaded image, full of history but also of the moment.