‘What is the Matter? Materials, Commodities, Narratives’
Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield
12 – 29 September 2019.
Material Voice commissioned free-lance curator Abi Spinks to write text for the exhibition leaflet and for each artist’s work .
Material Voice are a newly formed collective of artists based in Sheffield. The group represents diverse voices united in the sculptural exploration of materials and as women artists seeking visibility. For this exhibition at Kelham Island Museum, each artist has developed new work in response to the site and museum collections.
Sheffield’s topography led to its development as an industrial centre and the materials produced here are an important part of the city’s identity. How do the resonances of Sheffield’s material history manifest themselves in the globalised and digital world of the 21st century? Where do women sit in this narrative? Is the bringing together of materials into new composites comparable to how artists create and collaborate? Mining the rich industrial history of Sheffield, the collective considered their own relationship to that history and sought to uncover overlooked narratives through their artworks.
Material Voice have intervened within the collections at Kelham Island Museum, offering visitors the opportunity to encounter contemporary works of art amongst the displays. The Crossley Gas Engine was a point of departure for Heliya Badakhshan, who has used lubricant oil in her sculpture. Usually required to reduce friction in moving parts and prevent rust, Badakhshan has instead worked with the reflective properties of the oil, pooling it around handmade objects so that their forms and colours are mirrored. Seiko Kinoshita was also drawn to the unexpected beauty of industrial machinery. Kinoshita has reworked the design of several machine components, remaking their forms out of fragile materials and thus removing their practical purpose, to focus purely on their aesthetic qualities as sculptural objects.
Steel manufacture was the lifeblood of Sheffield, and the people that made it were the lifeblood of the factories and steel mills. Responding to the visceral experience of the women who worked in the factories during the world wars Sarah Villeneau’s sculptures merge the machinery of industry with the workings of the body. The role of women’s reproductive labour in the creation of Sheffield as an industrial powerhouse is highlighted in Clee Claire Lee’s work in Tom Parkin’s workshop, where Lee has drawn on elements of her family history to raise the profile of women’s contributions to the history of Steel City.
In Dixon’s Workshop and the 1916 House, Gillian Brent considers the concept of work life balance for the working classes in the 19th and 20thCentury, connecting the trials of cutlers and knife blade makers from the past with those of low paid skilled workers in today’s global economy. Mandy Gamsu focuses on cultures of excess and the production of unnecessary, luxury items by workers who are struggling to get by, with her reinterpretation of traditional asparagus dishes and serving accoutrements. Sheffield has played a part in the huge, profitable worldwide snuff trade since the 1700s and the museum’s industrial snuff grinders caught the attention of Kate Langrish-Smith. Her presentation of ceramic forms take inspiration from the shapes of the grinding equipment, bringing the forms back to a human, domestic scale.
In the Exhibition Pod upstairs in the Museum, visitors can view additional selected works by each of the artists, offering a broader perspective on their individual practices.
Heliya Badakhshan’s sculptures evolve organically out of her experiments with materials. Working intuitively with clay and plaster, she explores texture, weight and form. Materials are chosen for their tactile qualities; metal supports provide hard contrast to pliable substances that ooze and bulge. Her titles are often poetic, hinting at rich narratives surrounding the work.
The Crossley Gas Engine was a point of departure for Badakhshan, who has used lubricant oil in her sculpture. Oil is a new material for the artist; unlike most of her materials, it does not hold shape, is viscous and slippery. Usually required to reduce friction in moving parts and prevent rust, Badakhshan has instead worked with the reflective properties of lubricant oil, pooling it around handmade objects so that their forms and colours are mirrored. The split level in the room means that the sculpture can be viewed from different vantage points, with the reflections changing depending upon your angle.
The sheer physicality and power of the gas engine was a draw for Badakhshan, the repetitive sound of the engine in action providing a rhythmic soundtrack to her sculptures. Attracted by the strong colour the engine is painted, which is enhanced by the quality of natural light in the room, she has replicated some of this vibrancy in her sculptural forms.
Gillian Brent’s sculpture and installations engage with ideas around desirability, functionality and purpose. Working with a range of materials including steel, wood, acrylic, and found objects, she interprets particular contexts, investigating connections and relationships.
‘Work Life Balance’ reflects upon working life in the 19th and early 20th century, when long hours and unhealthy conditions for most meant that work impinged on every aspect of home life. Brent is interested in the pressures on those involved in the mass production of goods, generating wealth for the few, whilst being unable to afford to buy the products they made. Whilst working conditions in more affluent parts of the world have improved, industrialised mass production and related poor working conditions have not disappeared. In today’s globalised economy, cheap labour fuels our consumer habits, as we purchase and accumulate more commodities than ever before.
In Dixon’s workshop, Brent has placed a 1.6m tall sculpture featuring a bunch of knife blade blanks, scaled up to the size of a human body. Made from laser cut steel sheet, hand cut acrylic and Valchromat sheet, the bundle of forms hangs on a chaotic yet balanced structure of welded steel rod. Accompanying the sculpture is an installation of nearly 200 table knives, borrowed from the Hawley Collection, which fills the kitchen of the 1916 house. The installation references the infiltration of working life into the domestic sphere and provides a mass where there would have been an absence – despite spending a large portion of their lives makes these objects, many skilled cutlers and handle makers would not have been able to afford to buy them.
Mandy Gamsu explores form, colour and space through collage, painting, sculpture and installation. Gamsu’s work is often fragile, ephemeral, or in other ways short-lived, pushing the boundaries of our notions of value in relation to artwork. Intrigued by the way objects come together, Gamsu investigates their function and uselessness, their awkwardness and discomfort, their meaning and emptiness.
During the 19th century, the cutlery and silverware firms of Sheffield were producing vast catalogues of their designs for an expanding consumer market. In 1880, James Dixon & Sons offered 10 different styles of silver dishes just for serving asparagus, along with 15 different eating tongs and serving ‘helpers’. A taste for opulent and mannered dining amongst the wealthy in the Victorian period was fuelling poor health and premature death in the working classes; workers producing asparagus dishes and cutlery were subjected to noisy and dangerous conditions, where silicosis – a fatal lung disease caused by dust inhalation – eye injuries, lacerations, amputations and deafness were common.
Gamsu’s work is placed in an old workshop, a place where people may have laboured over the production of asparagus utensils for the elite. Stamping, grinding, engraving, soldering, buffing, silver-plating, and burnishing – the finished asparagus dishes and cutlery would have been exchanged for low wages and poor conditions, despite the skill required of the men, women and children employed. In the presentation of “Your asparagus is served”, Gamsu reflects upon the nature of decadence, greed and entitlement and on how patterns of production and consumption continue today. In the UK, modern slavery exists in the construction, agriculture and food production industries; elsewhere, workers are entrapped in appalling working conditions, producing trainers, laptops and mobile phones for our use.
Seiko Kinoshita works with traditional textile techniques to create sculptures and installations that test our perception of textiles as craft. Informed by the magnificence and beauty of nature, she creates meditative works that offer the possibility for contemplation in a hectic world.
Drawn to the unexpected beauty of industrial machinery, Kinoshita has reworked the design of several machine components, remaking their forms out of fragile materials. By removing their practical purpose, the artist brings focus to the objects’ purely aesthetic qualities. Using intricate hand craft skills, including paper cutting, Kinoshita duplicates the shapes of these pieces of industrial design. By encouraging visitors to study the incidental patterns created by necessity, Kinoshita asks us to appreciate the hidden elegance and technique captured in these forms. The use of colour is central to Kinoshita’s practice. Her work relies upon a sensory response and the way she uses colour is about making an impact. In this new work, she has inverted both material and colour, replacing the industrial grey of durable steel with vibrantly colourful fine paper. Intimate and handheld in size, the sculptures contrast with the large-scale installations the artist is known for.
Working across the fields of fashion and art, Kate Langrish-Smith makes sculptural ceramics that are sometimes wearable. She explores notions of worth and desire in her sculptures and is concerned with the display of objects. Using hand building, casting and mould-making techniques in ceramic, plaster and silicone, her works play with composition, gravity and balance.
Sheffield played a part in the huge, profitable worldwide snuff trade since the 1700s and it was the museum’s industrial snuff grinders that caught the attention of Langrish-Smith. Her presentation of ceramic forms take inspiration from the shapes of the grinding equipment, which look like oversized, mechanical pestle and mortar. Langrish-Smith was interested in the rapid growth of this industry and the contrast between the previously personal rituals of snuff-preparation and the drive towards mass production during the snuff-taking boom. By reducing the forms down to a human, domestic scale, the artist restores some of the intimacy and ceremony of the processing and preparation of the tobacco product. The museum’s industrial snuff grinders belonged to the Sheffield company Wilsons & Co. who still manufacture snuff today, from their premises on the appropriately named Snuff Mill Lane. The family-run business came into possession of the secrets of snuffmaking in the 1740s and since then, this has formed the main part of their activity. Some of the ceramic pieces have been electro-formed in silver – a process which coats the surface of the object in silver – in a nod to Wilsons & Co.’s previous business as electro formers.
Clee Claire Lee
Clee Claire Lee’s sculptures are the result of intuitive working with industrial materials. Their allure comes from their ambiguities – fluid forms that are also voids, the sculptures hover between visibility and invisibility. Steel wire is woven into delicate, almost ethereal structures that embody many hours of hard labour with unyielding materials.
‘Male Issue: Drawing Narratives’, 2019
Wire drawing items, birthing equipment, weaving tools, memorabilia, steel wire
Working with the collections at Kelham Island Museum and research into her own family history and relationships to the steel industry in Sheffield, Lee links the established steel manufacturer Arthur Lee with the tragically short life of her own uncle, also Arthur Lee, who died in infancy. One of triplets, the birth of Arthur Lee and his two siblings, only one of whom survived, was traumatic. Objects belonging to Arthur Lee & Sons from the museum’s collection are presented alongside tools associated with childbirth, artefacts related to the year of Arthur Lee’s birth and Lee’s materials for her installation. The presentation of these parallel histories and the intermingling of these tools connects the productive labour of manufacturing with the unpaid and overlooked reproductive labour of women.
‘On Caul: Unpaid Labour’, 2019
Crocheted steel wire, hand-made steel chain
In Tom Parkin’s workshop, we are asked to imagine the daily grind of a cutlery maker, over a 40-year period. Lee has created an installation of ghostly wire vessels in the workshop, that references the labouring bodies of women. By making visible the otherwise invisible domestic and reproductive labour of women, the artist recognises the role women played in the industrial history of Sheffield; women like Lily Lee, the artist’s paternal grandmother, who bore Arthur Lee, plus two more babies, and returned to her domestic duties and older children without pause. Lily Lee spent 40 years bearing and rearing children, producing and supporting the workforce of the city.
Sarah Villeneau creates sensuous, tactile and intriguing ceramic vessels and sculptures. Each piece is individually handmade using techniques of slabbing, press-moulding and pinching. Evoking the fleshy materiality of the body and its simultaneously fascinating and repulsive qualities, Villeneau’s boundary-pushing ceramics challenge our relationships to our own bodies.
Steel manufacture was the lifeblood of Sheffield, and the people that made it were the lifeblood of the factories and steel mills. During the First World War, women were aggressively recruited to the war industry through the passing of the Munitions of War Act 1915. Known as ‘Munitionettes’, these women were required to work with minimal training and with little regard to health and safety, whilst retaining their domestic duties in the home. At the beginning of the war, women were paid less than men for the same work as they were expected to be less efficient. Pay was eventually equalised, as the women proved faster than the men, but once the war ended, they were summarily dismissed.
Work in the munitions factories was dangerous; molten metal could explode, causing severe burns, and exposure to hazardous chemicals caused jaundice and eventually severe liver damage, leading to the women being dubbed ‘Canary Girls’ for their yellowed skin. The women were expected to work in synchronicity with the machines, toiling for the war effort, whilst their bodies bore the brunt of unsafe practices. Unpredictable, dirty and messy, the work carried out was far from the image of engineering as a clean and precise occupation. Responding to their visceral experience, Villeneau has created sculptures that merge the machinery of industry with the workings of the body. Functioning as resonating‘listening tubes’, the sculptures look like parts of our anatomy or the engineering of our own visceral and unpredictable bodies.