by Dilpreet BhullarApr 23, 2022
A 500-acre landscape in Wakefield, United Kingdom, dedicated to an open-air park, hosts an annual edition of contemporary sculptures. In 1977, Bretton Hall College lecturer, Peter Murray, proposed siting sculpture in the Estate, opening the landscape to the public, providing artists with the opportunity to explore sculptural issues in the open-air. And so, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) evolved. The erstwhile 18th century Bretton Estate has layers of history and stories, but what is noteworthy is that some of the land on which YSP is situated was marked ‘waste’ in the great survey of the Domesday Book completed in 1086. How we wish several such pieces of land across the world are declared ‘waste’ and can be reclaimed for art display!
YSP's 2021 programme focuses on new works in the open air, new indoor exhibitions and artist projects that explore narratives of identities and histories, with a material focus on textiles, photography, ceramics and the natural world. The programme particularly prioritises female practitioners, working across a range of media and scales.
I speak with Clare Lilley, Director of Programme at YSP, on the overall curatorial framework and few intriguing projects from the upcoming edition.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered the focus for 2021 programming on “identity and histories”?
Clare Lilley (CL): At YSP we are very aware of the issues that affect people on a daily basis and the way in which people view themselves in relation to their gender, sexuality, appearance, race, physical and mental ability, social status – and many other factors – making a massive impact on aspiration and self-belief. We all project versions of ourselves that deny the ‘real me’ and social media can be part of a process that disturbs people of all ages. YSP is a place where people who might not ordinarily visit art museums or galleries feel welcome and inspired, so working with extraordinary artists who engage with these crucial issues is a pathway to diversity and inclusion that we think is vital – it’s fundamental to our existence. By unpicking certain themes and allowing the space for thoughtful encounters and discussion, the work of artists such as Joana Vasconcelos, Rachel Kneebone and Matty Bovan also leaves space for wonder, delight and sheer enjoyment. They are artists whose careers we follow – sometimes for years – and then circumstances mean we can at last present them in Yorkshire in a way that is very cohesive and, I think, satisfying for our audiences.
RK: In the context of this curatorial framework, how does Beyond by artist Joana Vasconcelos fit in? How does she consider ideas of gender through materials and process traditionally defined as ‘feminine’ in her work?
CL: In 2020-21 we have a particular focus on female artists and Joana’s exhibition forms the backbone of the programme, with 25 sculptures in the gallery and adjacent landscape. During the pandemic we have sometimes needed to close the gallery in line with government regulations, but with six large works outdoors there is still plenty to see. Joana comes from the first generation growing to adulthood following the 1974/5 Portuguese Revolution and she deals with issues of identity that range from the very intimate to universal socio-political themes. She has given great consideration to the role that Portuguese ‘icons’ like the Rooster of Barcelos and fado songs played under the autocratic Estado Novo regime and into these she has breathed new, radical life.
Similarly, she takes a medium such as crochet, stitching or knitting – traditionally ‘women’s work’ – and has given it huge, dynamic sculptural form in works such as the extraordinary 12-metre-long Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi, which speaks for both the powerful and nurturing characteristics of women and which specifically honours the resilient great-grandmother of the founder of the Max Mara fashion brand. Marilyn is a pair of massive stiletto shoes made from stainless steel saucepans; clearly referencing Marilyn Monroe, the work speaks of domesticity and celebrity – viewers find it subversive and captivating.
RK: In continuation, exhibit Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945, is a survey of women sculptors from post-war to the present day. How would this weave-in the curatorial narrative?
CL: Organised by the Arts Council Collection, this exhibition gives voice to 49 post-war British women sculptors from the collection. Amazingly, it’s the first survey of its kind and is an essential recalibration that addresses how literature and exhibitions have marginalised women or airbrushed their work out of the art historical canon altogether. Women contribute hugely to the nuance of sculpture-making, offering much and including a sensibility of which Barbara Hepworth wrote: “It may be that the sensation of being a woman presents yet another facet of the sculptural idea.” In number, however, female sculptors are still far fewer and they have far less power within the industry. Search online for ‘British women sculptors’ and Wikipedia throws out a blindingly incomplete but still meagre list in comparison to a ‘male’ search; make a similar online search for ‘most important artist’ of any gender and the results are dominated by painters, highlighting the particular challenges of making sculpture.
There is still a long way to go but this important exhibition pays tribute to many, from Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink, Kim Lim, Mona Hatoum and Sokari Douglas Camp to Tracey Emin, Fiona Banner, Bharti Kher, Rana Begum, Helen Marten and Holly Hendry.
RK: Rachel Kneebone will showcase a large-scale porcelain sculpture 399 Days, where she uses reference of architectural columns and historical sculptures. How does her practice and this work in particular complement the 2021 focus?
CL: Rachel takes a medium – porcelain – that is most commonly associated with domestic ornaments and tableware and completely transforms it by accumulating hundreds of individually formed naked bodies into a monumental, five-metre-high column. Shown in our chapel, which was built in 1744 and is illuminated by the most beautiful natural light, 399 Days is a pure white, seething tower of humanity, punctuated by floral and architectural elements. Allowing the porcelain to crack and rupture, the sculpture prompts us to think about the relationship between strength and vulnerability – again alluding to issues of identity and how we display and mask our true feelings. Born from deep emotions, Rachel’s work is guided by themes of transformation and renewal and 399 Days conveys ideas of what it means to inhabit a body with all its physical limitations and psychological possibilities. Titles of related works are extremely telling, for example, The Consciousness of an Unbearable Tragedy At Once Dreaded and Desired. 399 Days is named after the number of days it took the artist to make this incredible work of art.
RK: What is the overarching objective of Yorkshire Sculpture Park?
CL: Since 1977 Yorkshire Sculpture Park has set out to present and make accessible the best of world sculpture to the region, nation and internationally. We work with artists at all points in their careers, from recent graduates to some of the most eminent, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth – who were both born nearby – Ai Weiwei, James Turrell, Shirin Neshat, Yinka Shonibare, Fiona Banner, Amar Kanwar, Kimsooja and Alfredo Jaar. We are dedicated to working with artists to realise exceptional, meaningful projects whilst learning and engagement with large numbers of students and people of all ages and backgrounds underscores everything we do. Contributing millions of pounds to the local economy each year, YSP is a highly unusual art museum, with 500 acres of 18th century designed parkland, gardens, lakes and woodland, as well as six galleries, restaurants and historic features. It’s a vigorous and healthy environment where all the senses can be electrified by this irrepressible combination of art and nature – for many YSP is a place of intellectual and emotional stimulation and sanctuary and every day we see its transformative power played out. It’s truly wonderful.