Susan Atwill on her work ‘Ear Plan’ created for the New Contemporaries

Atwill speaks to STIR on her inspiration from the cultural history of the mining communities of North-East England, the edges of reality, and the intermateriality of medium.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : May 01, 2022

Susan Atwill is a multi-media research artist and sound hunter from Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, who is inspired by cultural history and her roots in the mining communities of the Northeast of England. She believes in creating alternative realities that rest on the edges of things. Elaborating on this, Atwill says, “The edges of river and the objects found embedded in the liminal space between water and earth, become fuel for telling stories. Materials are a way for me to think and I enjoy the possibilities of clay, plaster, casting and graphite, I combine this with research of excavation, archaeology, and geology. Each material or technique I work with expresses the same rhythm, but through different tones, like a different key with a different instrument.”

Ear Plan; Mining | Susan Atwill | England | STIRworld
Ear Plan; Mining, 2021, Photograph Image: Courtesy of Susan Atwill Studio

Atwill began using sound as her material while at the Royal College of Art before which she’d largely been trained in 3D techniques such as metalwork and ceramics. With sound it seemed she was opening her creative process to new possibilities, with a material that was light to carry and tangible.  She experimented with culturally enriched soundscapes that brought sounds from the Sunderland AFC football club together with sounds of machines from the coal mining industry, to create her work, ‘Ear Plan: From an Imaginary Perspective’. The sound piece was inspired by Atwill’s grandparent’s homes, cultural history, and ties to the mining community. “With this inspiration I created an alternative reality in which fossilised sound exists. Objects speak and materials sing the sounds of heritage and inheritance. Ear Plan: Research (2021), was chosen for New Contemporaries, it is essentially a tribute to the miners’ strike of the 1980s and my experience of growing up in its echoes and reverberation,” the sound artist says.

Ear Plan: Coal Drawings | Susan Atwill | England | STIRworld
Ear Plan: Coal Drawings, 2021, Mixed Media Image: Susan Atwill

New Contemporaries is one of the biggest supporters of emergent art and artists in the UK. Since 1949, they have supported and spotlighted contemporary visual artists via their nationally touring exhibition. The panel selecting the artists who are supported by the organisation comprises some of the most influential names in the art world including curators, writers, and artists. Speaking on the rigorous selection process of the New Contemporaries, Atwill says, “The selection process is certainly rigorous, and applicants’ details are not seen by the panel of selectors who change each year. They see our work first and react to that, first and foremost, it’s not about where we studied. I didn’t overthink my application and sent a varied portfolio including photography and sculpture – however, the moving image piece was selected. Ear Plan: Research was produced in my bedroom, Feb 2021, during the second lockdown of the ongoing pandemic. I was mourning the loss of being in the RCA studios with other artists.”

Ear Plan: Howay | Susan Atwill | England | STIRworld
Ear Plan: Howay, 2021, Mixed Media Image: Susan Atwill

As a platform Atwill appreciates the uniqueness of an organisation like New Contemporaries that is supportive of contemporary artists providing them the space to exhibit their work, this made more significant at a time when the world had shut down and artists along with everyone else were thrown into a disconnected isolation. The two exhibitions of this year have been at First Site Gallery, Colchester, and South London Gallery, London. “It was a fantastic experience for us to meet and experience creative emerging practices, under the cloud of a difficult last two years,” the artist says, “New Contemporaries also provides one-to-one and peer mentoring as a way of networking and expanding our practice. It’s a brilliant and supportive network.”

04 secs watch Ear Plan: Cup Chain, 2021, Mixed Media | Susan Atwill |England | STIRworld
Ear Plan: Cup Chain, 2021, Mixed Media Video: Susan Atwill

Ear Plan: Research, Atwill’s first film is showing at both galleries in Colchester and London. Through the work she tried to reflect a piece of cultural history and social politics of an area people may not have heard often edged out to the margins; Sunderland, Durham and North-East England are made sites for political discourse. Atwill shares, “The themes I had been working with included the social history and the political history of where I grew up, but also memory and childhood spaces and sounds that underpin these memories. Sounds that objects made when activated by humans’ gesture and presence. In a way I wanted to tell my family history through the materials of coal and ceramics, telling the story with material vocabulary, which in turn creates new possibilities, tangential stories, where you’re never really sure what is fiction or fact.” For her, seeing her work stand beside the work of other artists, all of whom had created art during what was arguably one of the strangest periods of time, was an experience that was equal parts stunning and overwhelming. It was varied and diverse and seeing it placed together in a show at First Site Colchester, was the first time she could really appreciate the breadth of the selected works, in South London, the curatorial changes again built a completely new experience, a different provocation. “The different curation of each show changed the conversation between the works. I loved Orsola Zane’s That one time we were playing Badminton and accidently killed the Pope (2020), its absurdity delighted me. Tom Connell Wilson’s Hong Kong Garden Echo, with its forgotten narratives and in-flux happenings, traces of things spoke to the presence/absence of what I was exploring in Ear Plan,” Atwill says. “Willy Nahi’s process of considering excavation and archaeology and combining with B&Q made me feel less alone in the world! Everybody has a mummy, 2021, the materials resonated. Also, meeting people in real life was inspiring! Conversations with Katarina Rankovic, David Leal and Christopher Bond and Kedisha Coakley opened inspiring ideas and thoughts. It was great to meet other artists, to be brought together and a big relief after working in a more solitary and distant way than usual.”

Ear Plan: Sound, 2021, Mixed Media| Susan Atwill |England | STIRworld
Ear Plan: Sound, 2021, Mixed Media Image: Susan Atwill

Interested in continuing her work exploring the industrial past, working class heritage and her own cultural inheritance as a conversation and thematic, Atwill is looking at exhibiting her work in Durham, a place she considers its spiritual home. The artist plans to draw the work together in the form of a large interactive installation. “The giant instruments featured in the film are demanding to be made and played, in this part-fiction/part-function realm,” she says.

Susan Atwill will be involved in Residency 11:11 in May 2022 as part of their Screening Room and will continue the Sound Art Collective founded with her fellow RCA graduates, a space that produces publication, performances, and installations.

Portrait of the artist |Susan Atwill | England | STIRworld
Portrait of the artist Image: Bolim Jeon, Courtesy of Susan Atwill

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