in conversation

In Conversation with Caroline Broadhead: 2007

In Conversation with Caroline Broadhead: 2007

CB | You have been invited to show your work in Mission Gallery, tell me how did this come about?

AL | Mission Gallery wanted to challenge a maker to work outside of their normal disciplines. With the work I have made so far, I am used to responding with the contours of the body, the largest piece I have made is a dress, so to use an entire building has been both exciting and daunting, it is a challenge to work on such a huge scale. In some ways it has been so refreshing to be free from the restrictions making something fit the body and be wearable.

CB | It is fantastic and very unusual for someone who is used to working making jewellery, intimate objects for the body, to be offered the opportunity to present work on a larger scale. How do you feel about that?

AL | I've approached it with an open mind – no restrictions – I wanted to aim high and create something special with a visual impact. I feel in some ways I have approached the installation in the same way as I would when creating jewellery body pieces, as if I am ‘dressing’ the building. It's just that the gallery has a different kind of body shape. The installation will move and flow around the room’s contours as though it were the body.

CB | That's interesting, the room is somehow the body - a sort of inside out body and the adornment happens on the inside. Can you describe the new piece for me?

AL | There will be around 3000 birds cut from wood, suspended from the ceiling. With strong lighting, the shadows and reflections will triple this number – it will exaggerate the sense of mass and movement. Each bird will be printed with images of objects, textiles, lace, crochet and writing which relate to memories of members of my family, particularly, my Gran. There will be a progression of colour - the birds will be printed from black to pewter, silver and gold, then from silver to pure white. They will come in from the entrance, fly across and off the walls and concentrate into a mass in the apse, then fly back out onto the opposite wall and up into the ceiling where they disappear. The installation will be like capturing a moment, pausing the movement of a flight of birds, moving underneath and in-between these suspended elements will be almost like being inside a photograph. I want it to have a sense of movement and flight, of lightness and delicacy of stillness and quiet.

CB | Why have you called it Cathexis?

AL | I first came across this word reading about objects in the ‘life laundry’ TV programme and as soon as I read its definition (the investment of emotional significance in an activity, object or idea; the charge of psychic energy so invested; concentration of emotional energy on an object or idea), I thought this is the very thing that describes the inspiration to my work – it encompasses everything I’ve been looking at to do with memory, belief and the objects, which are significant to us. At the end of the day, all objects are meaningless until someone invests something into them – then they have energy or charge – as if they are personified, made real, made to matter by this emotional investment.  It is the same type of energy whether it an heirloom, an amulet, a memorial, a souvenir, a collection, an offering in a shrine, a childhood possession. This one word captures the concept I have been searching for.

CB | You have had a strong interest in the power of objects to reflect sentiment and trigger memory for a long time, can you say something about how you think this works? Can it be any object? Does it depend on material quality?

AL | The power of an object or the hold it has over you has nothing to do with the material quality or value. It does not have to be an antique item of jewellery, it can be anything from a button to a chest of drawers. Certain items can spark a collective memory or sentiment or belief – items an entire generation or culture can relate to – a type of fabric print, a wallpaper, a toy or game. Some objects are more important than others in terms of sentiment and memory triggers. I feel all possessions relate and tell stories in a way but it is a small few which resonate. It is those which we are attached to and almost anthropomorphise in our relationship to it. The belongings of the dead are most significant – they seem to hold the person's essence, they become symbolic of that person and over time become harder to detach from. However, this relationship to ‘sentimental’ objects is not always a good one while they can be comforting there is also a possibility that they can suffocate and weigh us down. The pieces I create are extremely personal. Because I am using imagery related to things owned by people I have lost, they become a type of memorial and take on an energy or some sort of power. I see parallels to the power and belief in amulets – the personalised amulet is the most powerful of all – am I in fact creating my own amulets? Are they comforting and protective?

CB | Over the last few years, you've travelled to Japan, Singapore, Thailand and Italy, and looked at different ways objects play a role in the continuance of faith and remembrance rituals. This is obviously having a major bearing on what you are doing now.

AL | It is the direct comparisons of material meanings which fascinate me the most - different ways in which human beings remember through memorials, amulets, different beliefs about life, prayers, dreams, faith in tiny offerings. How objects symbolise and signify different things engages and excites me. I have observed shrines, offerings and rituals directly, spoken to people about them, as well as reading books and taking photographs. I don’t tend to conform to normal tourist visits and holiday snaps – top of my list on a trip will be to study the graveyards, shrines, temples and flea markets.  On a recent ski trip to Austria half of my photos were in a village graveyard observing every little detail, in Italy, it was small Catholic shrines on the sides of buildings, in Paris, the decaying objects in the flea market but most inspiring of all, the Buddhist shrines of Thailand and Japan.

CB | One of your photographs is of Japanese ema plates in Kyoto, it illustrates the idea of collective belief demonstrated and reinforced by a multitude of individual actions, can you tell me more?

AL | There were hundreds of wooden plaques piled up on strings on hooks along a wall outside the shrine.  These are purchased there, then a prayer, wish or thanks are inscribed on the back and added to the collection of everyone else's. Individual action en masse emphasises the importance of belief within a culture. Beliefs are united and strengthened by this action. There are direct comparisons between the ema wooden plates piled up in multiples at Japanese shrines and the reams and reams of tiny origami birds there also – each representing a wish, prayer, hope and cathexis.

CB | The space of the Mission Gallery is a former chapel, how has this influenced what you are doing? Have you discovered anything about the space itself that has a bearing on your piece?

AL | It is a space I am familiar, I worked there as a student, a space I have visited many times and have grown very fond of and yet by installing pieces in this space it's like discovering it again – the scale and height, archways and cold stone walls, the curved wall of the apse. The space is a former seamen’s chapel which welcomed all religions, and so is already heavy with meaning, history and narratives. Traces of countless prayers and secrets echo in the stillness. Previously used for worship and contemplation, it is a shrine in itself, which makes my piece more poignant.

CB | From the way you have explained the new piece, as well as referencing amuletic elements, it will have a sensuality and a flow like the forms of some of your previous feather pieces.

AL | I want it to flow in and around the building and highlight the importance of the apse area by creating a large mass of flocking birds which will reflect light and create patterns on the walls. It reminds me of the squares of gold leaf foils worshippers place in layers over the Buddha statues in Thai shrines and the way they reflected light and emphasised significance and preciousness.

CB | Your work seems to use multiple units behaving together to become a unified whole, like the feathers were all stitched to overlap and follow the form of the piece. There is a strong element of harmony and shared direction. How have you developed ideas from other works into Cathexis?

AL | I am still using the elements of flight, freedom and weightlessness in this installation - I feel even though I am using different materials I can capture them through a sense of movement, detailing and shadows. I love to watch the beauty of flocking birds, there is a flock I see several times a week over my house and I have been observing closely the way they move and interact with each other and as an entire collective moving form.

CB | The idea of birds has been a continuous theme, particularly in the feather pieces, what is the significance for you?

AL | There was significance in the use of actual feathers previously and their symbolic connotations. I am now using the symbol of a bird. Birds are often associated with superstitions, and thought to have talismanic powers as they are considered to be part of the spirit realm – forming a link between man and the heavens, and maybe because of this, they are believed, in many cultures, to embody the spirit of the dead. In particular, seagulls are said to be connected to the souls of dead seamen, so this seems appropriate considering the history of the Mission Gallery. In more personal terms, I have chosen to use the seagull as a symbol because there are strong connections with my Gran.

CB | Birds are often thought to have superstitious connotations. You told me once you kept a superstition diary, were there any results or conclusions?

AL | The results were that I thought about superstition virtually every day – mostly in connection with magpies which I always salute to avert bad luck. Even though rationally I know superstitions are silly, I still have belief in them. I also noted seeing one magpie did not necessarily mean I had bad luck – good and bad things happened randomly anyway but of course, I already knew this. While I have researched superstition as a theme and see links to belief, amulets and memory, it is not a theme I have expressed conclusively in my work – merely touched upon and referred to. The main focus is in memory, belief and amulets.

CB | What do you think about the craft element of your work, is this important?

AL | The craft element is very important to me – everything I do is hand crafted and is often repetitive and precise – I never thought of myself as a patient person as I’m always rushing around but I must have immense patience to do the painstaking task of cutting and layering tiny pieces of feathers and knotting them together.

CB | What is the role of decoration in your work?

AL | The role of decoration is key in my work. It is important to point out I do not consider myself a fine artist, I am a designer maker and even though my background inspiration is conceptually informed, aesthetics of form and decoration are a major factor. I have used some of the background research into objects and memory to create decoration, for printing patterns – little traces or fragments of memory layered and pieced together.  This decoration grows and evolves gradually – letters, buttons, lace, embroidery, sewing ephemera, postcards, old fabric, maps, and envelopes.

CB | What about beauty?

AL | Beauty is very important to me – I am drawn to different visual qualities within objects and surfaces.  This does not necessarily mean it has to be something everyone observes as beautiful.  I find beauty in places other people discard or even that go unnoticed.  I am drawn to the beauty in old objects, which hold the traces of time and human touch.  I document old decaying surfaces, peeling paint, rusted metals etc.  My observations of beauty lie in my many visual research files which I obsessively research and document. I keep records of anything I find beautiful or visually interesting from contemporary jewellery, ceramics, textiles, glass, interiors, fashion, photography, graphics to images of nature.  It is important my own work is beautiful or has strong visual qualities, the concepts are important but without aesthetic qualities I would not be content.

CB | There seems to have been a shift in your approach to making, the fine work and time involved in the feather pieces and now you are making use of digitally driven technology. How does this change your attitude to the work and how do you think it changes the way it is read?

AL | I don’t feel there has been much of a shift as such in my approach to making – the elements of hand made and time consuming construction are still very much apparent and highly important to me.  The majority of my work is made by hand, I need to control the qualities in the work and I enjoy the making process.  I am interested in digitally driven technology and what you can achieve with it that you could never do by hand – I see it as another tool in the box to enhance the work but hand skills are still key to me.  The processes in the installation on the whole are by hand, sheets of wood are sanded and screen-printed both sides, then foiled in a heat press, then waxed.  The bird components are laser cut (by me) from my own drawings – this is the only aspect using digital technology – it would be physically impossible to hand cut 3000 birds – the installation would not be able to happen.  I love that this process gives me the freedom to create so many multiple components – each bird is still different because of the individual prints - they are also different shapes and sizes as they would be in a flock.

CB | The laboriousness, the patience required by the feather work seems to have shifted to the installation, is this the major part of the work now?

AL | The birds are then drilled and strung ready to be installed – very time consuming. Again, I seem to be drawn to laborious repetitive processes, the gradual build up in layers to create forms – patience and control is a major part of the work.  Both the creation of the components and in the hanging of each bird will be painstaking.  Because the time consuming nature of the piece will be more than evident, I do not think it will change the way the work is read or my attitude towards it – it is a slightly different way of working but still hinges on investing time and working with repetitions in a subtle way.

CB | What do you want to achieve with this work?

AL | It could be interpreted given the context of a once sacred space as the silent prayers and confessions of those who prayed there each one encapsulated in this flock of tiny birds. It refers also to the wooden Japanese ema plates and origami birds with offerings – prayers in multiples. The piece is about loss, one of the motivations behind the piece is to create a memorial to my Gran who I lost to cancer last year, but also about hope. More and more I am questioning what happens when you die. Will you see each other again? What do others believe? All the really big questions in life, I guess. I think the piece could be read on several levels and I am interested to see how my own personal interpretations will differ from others.