Sophie J Williamson on her curatorial enquiry into the themes of life and death

STIR speaks with Sophie J Williamson about her new curatorial project, Undead Matter - an intimate entanglement between the living and the decaying.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Jan 09, 2022

Sophie J Williamson has spent the past 16 years working in the rather ‘particular’ environment of public art institution, building exhibitions and event programmes alongside the task of developing a broad and diverse audience for the Camden Art Centre where she has been the curator for the last eight years. At the Camden Art Centre, Williamson’s curatorial projects are a mix of international artists and nurturing young local talent. Working with her team at the Raven Row, she co-developed a major survey show of the ground-breaking artist collective, Artist Placement Group, which foregrounded her thesis, Aims Without Objectives, that argues against neoliberalism utilisation of the arts. “This is an ethos that has underpinned my ambitions for art throughout my career; a fundamental belief that art acts in the margins between things, and that its ripple-like impact takes form over extended time frames, through interactions and connections that are rarely immediately visible, but can transcend generational boundaries, and even era,” says Williamson.

Fossil by the Sea | Sophie J Williamson | STIRworld
Fossil by the Sea Image: Sophie J Williamson

Much of Williamson’s work in recent years deals with the fundamental themes – of life, death, existence, and the meaning of it all! – which she believes is central to art in one way or another; “arts are the mirror that reflect the world back to us,” she says. She adds, “I have always seen my role as curator as one of facilitating artists’ ambition and collaborating with them to realise this vision.” Williamson began her career as an artist earning her BA in art practice at Goldsmiths, and from her early days focused on the active role that art plays in the world, how it opens spaces for contemplation, questioning and reimagining the status quo. She says, “Even back then as a student in the early 2000s, my work was quite curatorial, telling stories through the items I placed alongside one another, taking the audience on a journey with me, along with a desire to collaborate with others. Holding space for a multitude of voices and perspectives has always been important to me.” This willingness is reflected in her curatorial research on cultural translation and molecular curation, and rather than being focused on producing structure, it is more about feeling comfortable with the possibilities of disjuncture and empathies within those. The dialogue in itself according to Williamson holds significance almost as much as the work of art itself. It is this possibility of openness, contemplative spaces and the potential to interact and redivert the dialogue that is vital to Williamson, and what takes centre stage in her latest project Undead Matter. A cross-disciplinary constellation of conversations around the idea of where life lies, Undead Matter Williamson explains is an ongoing artistic-philosophical enquiry. It is an ongoing project that will take on a variety of forms as it progresses, which will be both private and public, for instance ranging from intimate email exchanges to institutional exhibition, long meandering conversations walking along the beach to event series, publications, and podcasts.

Fossil of a Sea urchin Margate | Sophie Williamson | STIRworld
Fossil of a Sea Urchin Margate Image: Sophie J Williamson

It is the intimate entanglement between the living and the dying that lies at the heart of Undead Matter. “I first read the poetry of Myung Mi Kim in the shadow of the breathtaking Mount Rundle in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The continual shifts and silences that hold apart her words,” the curator says, “play witness to the unspoken experience of displacement, the turmoil of colonialism, the incoherencies of the migrant experience and the consequence of history indicating what Spivak calls the ‘founding violence of the silence at work’ within rhetoric.”

Cueva de las Manos Handprints | Sophie Williamson | STIRworld
Cueva de las Manos Handprints Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Williamson sensed a similar weight of silence in the mountain’s stoic sedimentary strata-ed rockface, impacted by a history, by climate changes, ecosystems and lives leaving their impressions upon it compressed in every centimetre of the rock. “Each epoch layers, merges, and converses with its predecessors,” she says, explaining the inspiration from the deep intimacies stemming from being with loved ones in their dying moments. Undead Matter considers the intimacies of dying not only on the personal level but also as a species, a planet, in an experience of entangled oneness and empathy by the death bed of a loved one. “Can we feel that deep entangled emotion with a body of rock strata, which is itself composed of other lives that were cared about within their own generations of non-human communities?” Williamson wonders. “Starting from these silent moments of intimacy between two breathing, vulnerable contemporary bodies facing their inevitable mortality, the Undead Matter research follows empathetic relationships outwards over expanded timeframes: backward into geological times, forwards into the deep future, out into the celestial expanse and turning inwardly through quantum possibility.”

Subterranean World Illustration Athanasius Kircher Mundus Subterraneus | Sophie J Williamson | STIRworld
Subterranean World Illustration; Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With Undead Matter, Williamson reaches out to intersecting voices from a range of thought schools and creative schools – artists, writers, and philosophers, and also paleo geologists, permafrost-geographers and cryo-microbiologists, indigenous elders and more – merging and intertwining diverse and distinct voices, works and knowledge forms. “There are many, many people involved in the intersecting conversations!” she says. “I love the unfettered messiness of the research and I think this is actually much more valuable than authoring a cohesive narrative. Over the past eighteen months, I have been collecting conversations with artists, poets, dancers, writers and musicians, as well as those in diverse fields such as traditional woodworkers, bondage masters, fossil enthusiasts, cryonics companies, indigenous elders, extraction miners, nuclear scientists, cryo-microbiologists, quantum mathematicians, permafrost geographers, mineralogists, paleo-geologists, astronomers and others I have met along the way.”

Ursula K. Le Guinn | Wikimedia Commons | STIRworld
Ursula K. Le Guinn Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These culturally and scientifically rich conversations unfold into a wider narrative and Williamson uses various activities such as publishing ‘constellations’ of research online, pairing contributors from different fields in podcast conversations, instigating collaborations for video or performance works, etc. Undead Matter thus positions each of the diverse contributors in relation to one another and allows for a space for poetic disjuncture and overlap. “It is not a single project, but a line of artistic-philosophical enquiry that encapsulates the breadth of my independent curatorial practice. It will unfold over many years through exhibitions, projects, events, performances, talks, etc. but fundamentally I perceive it as something that is alive, transmutable, and endlessly ongoing”, she adds.

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