In 1979, in her famous article “Sculpture in an expanded field”, Rosalind Krauss claimed that sculpture had become a «kind of ontological absence». If the American art historian referred then to the variety of modernist practices at that time reinventing the grammar of sculpture, what can they be now, almost 40 years later, the implications of such a definition?
What sculpture can become dialoguing with other media? Katrina Palmer’s work and research tries to find an answer, involving sounds and narration, objects fading into words and words becoming tactile in the encounter with the space.
To experience End Matter her site-specific audio work commissioned by Art Angel and BBC 4 last year, I took the car from London and reached the Isle of Portland, the southern part of Dorset, tied to the main land by a narrow strip of land. At the end of the more known Jurassic coast of Chesil Beach, the island is yet known, at least to Britons, to be the source for many of the most celebrated British monuments. From St. Paul’s Cathedral to the British Museum, from Westminster Abbey to the Tower of London, Portland limestone seems to be the raw matter of the history of a nation. A history of which the island brings not the visible traces, but rather the emptiness and the loss. A 354-hectare quarry cuts his landscape as a wound, recalling its continuous physical withdrawal and acting naturally as a non-u-mental place, to use a Gordon Matta-Clark expression.
It’s there, at the 52 Easton street, in an abandoned office once housing an insurance company, that Palmer’s audio walk – but I would rather say moving listening experience–commenced. I closed the front door behind and I put my headphones on. Together with the rhythmical and obsessive sounds of printers, a quiet and composed voice drove me in an expanded dimension of my being there: “The surfaces you touch, the smells and sensations are real and to that extent continuous with the everyday space outside. However, in the same space, a number of fictional events have taken place. You’re advised to remain conscious of the working of your own mind as it is in there and which maybe in here that such happenings are summoned to emerge”.
And they did. For the entire walk, that from the office led to the quarry and to the close XVIII century church with its united cemetery, stories and sounds from a possible past crossed with real time perceptions as ghosts able to re-shape and re-code the present. At the time of augmented reality and internet of things, Palmer used a low budget technology to carve out a subtle yet meaningful interactive experience intertwining fiction and history in a form of sculpture-narration.
Essentially an audio work, between fiction and documentary, End Matter is nevertheless a reflection on sculpture and its boundaries. A research that Palmer – who is now holding a solo exhibition at the Void Galleryin Derry – has been carried out for years and that led to another site-specific installation, this time commissioned and exhibited by the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds at the beginning of 2016. The Necropolitan Lineis still a historical and fictional work, based on the London Necropolis Railway Line built in XIX century to reorganise the burial system in an ever-growing city. With a railway platform running through the galleries and sounds and words surrounding the spectator’s body, Palmer’s artistic practice continues to be an investigation on potentiality. As Giorgio Agamben would say, as “a presence of an absence”.
I talked with the artist about these projects and her wider approach, particularly about the relationship between sculpture and narration.
Giulia Simi: A few months ago the Einstein‘s intuition that space is not an empty container has been validated by the long expected detection of the gravitational waves. Now it’s sure that space trembles telling us the history of the universe. This reminds me of your works, where words (are) matter and tremble to tell us lives and memories invisibly shaping our time-space. You carve sculpture-stories using words as stone or wood. How did your research begin? When did you start thinking that writing could be a form of sculpture?
Katrina Palmer: It’s great to have your reference to tremors and invisible forces to kick off the conversation. I’m no physicist but I’m certainly curious about the expanded thinking into materiality it provides, especially the idea that so much of our universe might be dark matter that can only be inferred by its gravitational effect. One of the reasons I moved towards writing about objects, instead of making them by hand, was an awareness that there’s something undetermined and precarious about the physical things we encounter. That’s also drawn from a personal sense of everyday uncertainties as much as it’s about wider issues such as spatial and economic insecurities.
So when I wrote my first book, “The Dark Object”, I started by investing in the idea that sculpture could be a language-based enquiry in which the existence of the object was at stake. I developed a scenario in which the protagonist is a student artist who’s forbidden to make objects by the pseudo-conceptual educational institution. The activity of researching and writing the book was a way for me to look at the seemingly cumbersome body in the social space and sculpture’s awkward relationship to conceptual art.
Even though I was only producing words, as was the student, part of the dynamic of the storytelling is that the pressure caused by the attempt to supress physicality, makes its sensual presence all the more potent. The work was essentially what we call fiction, but like all fiction it was devised by drawing on a series of facts, the main one being that the enquiry was my real-life research, the scenario and characters were obviously a fabrication. Although I’m starting to wonder if I imagined the role of the sculptor who writes and then started living it.
Giulia Simi: Talking about the post-60s art, Rosalind Krauss writes: “Sculpture itself had become a kind of ontological absence”. It is certain that your research is rooted in the form of immaterialism and object-disappearing that bursts in the 60s art revolution. Yet if we try to find a more ancient lineage in the history of art that brings to your poetics and language, I immediately think of “the hole” of the modernist sculpture – let’s think of Barbara Hepworth – but also of the Baroque aesthetics of “the fold”. “The Baroque twists and turns the folds, takes them to infinity, fold upon folds, fold after folds” as Gilles Deleuze wrote. I think your sculpture is not far from that. Your “fold” may be the encounter between history and story, memory and imagination…
Katrina Palmer: I’ve never aimed for the immaterial, never thought it was even possible, but I would propose that the presence of the sculptural object in particular has an inherent and necessary relationship to absence. This might be about the association with death in the construction of memorials, or it might practically refer to the process of carving to remove mass and yes, we can literally see the absence in Barbara Hepworth or Gordon Matta-Clark, for example. When you mention Baroque folds this immediately introduces a sense of overlaid time (the material folded back on itself) but it does so in a way that highlights the sensuality of shaping the twisted and intertwined contours of an imagined landscape or the convoluted attempt to describe a series of narrated encounters.
Giulia Simi: The fold can be also interpreted with Walter Benjamin’s “Now-Time”, that suggests a simultaneity of the past in the present time. Your works do the same, particularly when the “viewer/performer” experiences the actual places – shops, cemeteries, quarries, paths and villages in End Matter to give an example – inhabited by ghosts’ memories. Absence then becomes presence…
Katrina Palmer: That’s the thing you notice about the gaping holes of Portland’s quarries, the compressed geological time of past eras is both brought back to the surface and left exposed in the stratifications of the stone. When I wrote End Matter I wanted to draw an analogy with that physical form, I mean, the series of events set on Portland employed a layering of historical characters and storylines that resurfaced as part of a contemporary narrative.
And then with the audio walk I was keen for any visitor’s to island to be aware of the immediate environment while simultaneously introducing imaginative possibilities beyond it, or emerging from inside it. When you walk on the narrow path between Bowers Quarry and St George’s graveyard the ground is literally opening up beneath you. The characters are invested in the uncertainties of this terrain; its layers of death but also the raw and elemental nature of the landscape that’s exposed. I imagined those characters emerging from the stone, almost like a relief.
Giulia Simi: In End matter you unfolded the story buried in a tiny infamous island, the isle of Portland, connected with the most ancient history of our natural world – it’s part of the Jurassic Coast – and at the same time, less visibly, with the history of our Western’s culture and power. The marble quarries gave us the “matter” of one of the most known monuments in the UK’s and more widely world’s history: the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, part of Buckingham Palace and even the British Museum are made with Portland stones. Buildings of cultural, religious and political power. Yet you chose to tell us the stories behind, the “micro-history” hidden in these gigantic quarries, where prisoners used to work, memories without monuments. And you acted both as an investigator, following traces, intertwining fragments of memories, and as a writer, adding fictional elements to your story. How did this work start? Why have you chosen to work on this? And how long did your research take? What kind of method did you use? I know, for example, you lived in the flat above the shop where your sculpture-story begun…
Katrina Palmer: Yes I lived in that flat for about a year on and off and being there was crucial to developing the work. Reading about Portland from my home in London, the idea from the outset was to narrativise the island as a form of sculpture that had cavities carved out by quarrymen. Moreover I wanted to reimagine it as a memorial for the loss of its mass. It’s an inversion of the grand and stable memorials and buildings, often symbols of state power and permanence, made from Portland in London and elsewhere. I originally imagined that I’d write on the edge of the island in one of the beach huts, but this turned out to be completely impractical – a little too precarious.
When I found the house it was only in response to its configuration that I developed the idea of the characters, the Loss Adjusters, who are employed to account for the vast scale of loss of Portland’s mass. I spent time walking on and through the stone, discovering pathways, making field recordings, talking to people, shopping in the local supermarket and so on and generally getting a feel for the place that you can only guess at from a distance. As an artist who writes I was also in the flat on my own a lot. Certainly I was sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of information I was gathering and the challenges of filtering through it, working through the implications and possibilities of its manifestations in the book, the installation and the audio walk.
Giulia Simi: The theme of “death”, and more extensively of the “end”, crosses the major part of your practice and in your last work, The Necropolitan Line, this assumes a main and explicit role. You recreated the station of the train connecting Central London with the Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, the Western’s Europe largest necropolis, and invited visitors to live the transition, the space between life and death, surrounded by sounds and images. Why have you chosen to work on the London Necropolis Railway and why the death is a crucial theme for your research?
Katrina Palmer: Actually I didn’t recreate the original station. We built a very contemporary platform, and used that as a site to look back from. The Necropolis building still exists at Waterloo where I live and I’ve long been fascinated by the train service that ran from there to Brookwood, exclusively carrying bodies and parties of mourners. This was the starting point for my research alongside Cross Bones, the prostitutes and paupers cemetery, which is also nearby. Cross Bones has very little formal documentation as it wasn’t consecrated, but it’s surrounded by myth and one of the rumors is that some of the bodies were relocated from there to Brookwood. I find the dislocation and unsettling of bodies that’s part of these histories, deeply evocative and troubling in a way that resounds in the present.
That feeling provoked the narratives I produced and their flow across a contemporary platform. There was a free newspaper containing the stories and a tannoy speaker system with short announcements like ‘Please move towards the light’ and apologies such as ‘We are sorry for the lost and the recently departed.’ These apologies were developed into a longer narration through the tannoys and the whole things was accompanied by the Rachmaninov motif from Brief Encounter turned into a repeated tone to introduce the announcements.
There’s a lot of goodbyes, sadness and expectation around railway platforms, and I wanted the audience to be suspended in that reflective place as if waiting for a train you know will never come. I also used images of misleading signals, so there were numerous objects in the show in a way that would have failed for me if people saw the platform as a sculpture. I mean I was pleased that people didn’t stand back and look at it, instead they took part and used the objects, as everything in the space was there to allow people either to sit in the space or to guide then through and out. The gallery goods lift was in operation as part of the show, the audience would go in and they were taken on a journey down in the lift and let out on the other side, which is the street in the everyday world. I insisted that the lift attendant was quite abrupt in telling people to leave once they reached ground level, they couldn’t ride back up, so they were cast out and abandoned. It was quite a cruel ending.
Giulia Simi: Many contemporary artists have been working on death which seems one of the main thread of our decadent current time but I think your work is less conceptual and more “mystical”, if I can use this term. I think your work suggests that mourning is a form of knowledge and in this sense may be more in dialogue with the one of Christian Boltanski than the Damien Hirst’s. Which are the artists’ and writers’ you feel more in connection with?
Katrina Palmer: My answer to this would have been different if you’d asked me yesterday and might change if ask tomorrow, but today I could certainly cite Ilya Kabakov, Mike Nelson, Kathy Acker, Jorge Luis Borges and Flannery O’Conner among the artists and writers whose dark and enigmatic works I enjoy.
Giulia Simi: Emotions play also a great role in your works. They seem to live through the viewers’ “moving body” that act as a liminal narrative space between architecture, landscape and history. Do you perceive your research also as a sociological reflection?
Katrina Palmer: There’s so much uncertainty about fundamentals such as employment and especially housing. Add to this the thinness or ethereal nature of contemporary material experience and what you have is high levels of insecurity. Yes, that’s why my protagonists are frequently in danger, some feel doubtful about the social space, or they’re confronted by the precarity and insubstantiality of the fabric of their context.
As I’m part of this environment, I definitely experience a sense of unease and I try to grasp at objects that are reduced to words as digitised sound, or I reproduce something like the experience of listening to voices in your head. But having said all this I generally attempt to get closer to the physical by usingheightened descriptions, visceral language and live encounters. So I hope in some way these elements add up to, or at least raise questions about what might be, sensually engaged experiences.
Giulia Simi: Can you tell us something about your solo show now opening at the Void Gallery in Derry?
Katrina Palmer: That will be a large hand-written wall-based work alongside two previous pieces that I’ve extensively reformulated. All the works include a formal compression and contortion, like The Fabricator’s Tale (Blood-Bespattered Table), which is an audio story about a room. The viewer is in a partially lit corridor and can only see the room via a narrowed perspective, a 3mm gap in the wall.
Then the large wall work is a text inspired by Ash, the gravedigger character from End Matter. I’ve extrapolated the conditions of his possibility – that’s his proximity to what’s underground and the volatility of his status – into a narrative called Now Landscape. Formally, it’s a portrait in text that shifts and condenses across the wall until it turns into a compressed landscape of compacted words. The story allows the gravedigger to consider the present day as the stone of the future and it’s a material full of artificial and highly processed substances.
I’m excited about realizing this work directly on the wall along with a number of other items that are distributed through the gallery – in many ways its new territory for me spatially, although it’s the same area conceptually. Maybe all my work is a single project and I’m repeatedly chipping away at it from different angles.