The past is brought into the present, the unrecognisable made warmly familiar in the Barbican’s latest Curve commission, Francis Upritchard: Wetwang Slack.
Francis Upritchard is no Pygmalion. Her site-specific sculpture may be inspired by Greek mythology, but she certainly doesn’t attribute a ‘soul’ to it. For her, the carefully crafted figures presented in her exhibitions are simply ‘…things without spirit or self’. Unlike Pygmalion who falls in love with his own handy-work and prays to Aphrodite for a bride just like it, Upritchard refuses to imbue her creations with subjectivity. Yet these figures do have something of the human about them. Despite Upritchard’s insistence against sculptural verisimilitude; despite her attempts to deny connection between viewer and work of art, an eerie familiarity seeps from the porous polymer skins and woven silks of her figures. It is this strange, startling balance of uncanny humanity and canny otherworldliness, however artificially implied, that leaves the viewer attempting to converse with whoever – or whatever – stands before them. Willing each sculpture to speak, to divulge their unique story, the viewer pauses, curious of the language that will come out.
Wetwang Slack, the 30th Curve commission at the Barbican Centre and one curated by the innovative Leila Hasham, speaks in multiple tongues and looks in multiple directions. Beginning with Upritchard’s brightly coloured figures – a fabulously futuristic and cosmic crew arranged on metal plinths – the show winds its semi-circular way back to near-colourless sculptures reminiscent of the Parthenon reliefs and the Japanese folkloric Ashinaga-tenaga. It’s a journey that, at first, situates the viewer in alternate time zones: ancient Japan and Greece at the far-end, an unknown parallel dimension or future state at the entrance. But when traversing the curve and leaning into its bend, one realises that past ages, cultures and inscriptions are as much to do with present and future ones. In the seemingly timeless stance of her opening figures, we see ancient forms, traditions, customs and crafts evoked. Much in the same way, her closing balata-formed works alluding to the Parthenon’s battling centaurs and the Long Legs and Long Arms of the Ashinaga-tenaga, look towards modern interpretation, speculation and presentation of such characters. If in doubt of this time-bending, cultural confluence, look to her collection of exquisitely made hats. Here, Upritchard channels her love for both the charms of a chapeau and Dr Seuss’ The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938). No bigger than the circumference of a small child’s head, these hats, with names as humorous and wild as ‘Inky Inca’ and ‘Astra with Pink Dinosaur’, are at once akin to those we wear and those we wished we could. They’re as imaginatively elaborate as the feathered caps that Cubbins continues to sport, but also wackily familiar in their materiality.
To go back – or maybe forwards – to the “spiritless” futuristic figures, it’s this material familiarity rendered unfamiliar that captures our attention. From a distance, all the sculptures appear to be levitating above their diagonally upward plinths. Up close, one sees their arched heals, the toes daringly dangling off the plinth edge, a third foot resting mid-air. Such details draw us in; they are tellingly, awkwardly and refreshingly human, but their discomfort pushes us away. Do these (non-)beings want to be here? Were they conjured, arrested in another space and time, teleported and dropped into ours? Their skins, the silk skeins woven into their kimono-like garments, their embellished faces, torsos, bellies, hands and feet definitely speak of another world. They are communicating beyond us, full of unreadable signs and wonders. Green hands, yellow faces, the bluest body kneeling to what power, which god? Familiar in part, but unfamiliar, Upritchard succeeds in putting as many ‘blocks’ between viewer and figured thing. I still want to know their stories, to hear words clicking or unfurling from their tightly shut mouths. I know these individuals are seasoned travellers: they’re a conglomeration of Upritchard’s experiences, ideas and sculpting practises; they’re figurative collations of past and contemporary craftsmanship; they’re assemblages of different textiles and acrylic colours. Every bit foreign and familiar, the figures remain sealed off, eyes wide shut to our world, possibly open to an imagined other.
And still this sculpted community finds commonality with our ailing one. Care has been poured into their spindly limbs and delicate grasping hands. They may resist contact; their tongues may be purple, pink or turquoise for all I know, but Upritchard’s attention to detail is loudly and abundantly conveyed. These are loved creations, however soulless. They speak of a creator’s care and pride. This carries over to her collection of fantastical and whimsical chapeaux a la Seuss. There are miniature fez-style hats, small mountain hats, flattened berets like magical candy coloured pancakes; hats made out of felt, suede, papier mâché; hats embellished and embroidered with beads, amulets, charms and badges. Upritchard’s love of hats (a long-standing collector of them, much like Seuss himself) transforms them into totems, objects that, contrary to her own objections to anthropomorphism, have personality. Closely inspecting them, I half-expected one to chuckle at my curiosity, much like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat.
In the centre of the Curve (the inner-most curve of this crescent space, if you will), the chapeaux are a comment on collecting itself. Aside from the list of names or titles for each hat, Upritchard provides no captions or wall cards. Much like her figures, the hats retain a kind of mystic aura. They infer, but don’t fully answer. They have a kind of relic-like mystery, a ludic holiness, but they also point to the ludicrousness of museological categorisation and display. Some hats mischievously hover below the hanging shelf unit, others look as if they’re floating above it. Again, the sense that these objects, like the sculpted figures, are not behaving as they should, is felt. Curatorial rules are flouted, classificatory systems ignored. Whether artefacts from the past or souvenirs of a yet-to-be-encountered era, these hats won’t be boxed much in the spirit of Upritchard’s remaining artworks.
Pots, reminiscent of ancient Greek funerary urns, stare blankly from a table near the far-end of the Curve. Pygmalion uncanniness in potted form – although this isn’t what he prayed for. Little faces peek out, squished, as the clay would have been when wet. Cryptic countenances, silent in their spiritedness. Spirit commingled in earth? Far from acting the mad hatter or potter here, Upritchard performs the purpose of the urn on its surface. In doing so, we sense the absurdity, even sacrilege of placing ancient objects in museum-like spaces for inspection, for “civilisation-making” projects. We once lived in use, they might say. Excavated from the ruins of imagination only, they refuse to be put in a glass vitrine or cabinet.
The subversion of ancient Greek culture is seen again in the final section of Upritchard’s show. Taking her inspiration from the Parthenon metopes (or Elgin Marbles as they’re known), Upritchard uses a unique rubber called Balata to create almost life-size sculptures of centaurs. There’s no getting away from the museological reference here. When looking at the sculptures one immediately thinks about the Parthenon reliefs and the ongoing dispute between Britain and Greece over their return to Athens. But one also laughs at Upritchard’s respectful redaction and reinterpretation of Phidias’ famed marbles. Most Parthenon metopes depict men battling beasts – Lapiths caught in brutal conflict with centaurs (half man, half horse-like creatures). It’s the usual story of art versus nature, civilisation taming unbridled instinct, man heralding his divine right over the animal kingdom. Upritchard dispenses with this narrative and cuts man out altogether. Instead she has the centaurs moving, arms raised or holding a boulder. Men – and their institutions – aren’t the focus here; there’s no battle to win, no art worth the war. Just nature, raw materials – the precious and ethically cultivated balata rubber extracted from trees in Brazil. The centaurs look more peat-bog man than barbarous beast – proof that nature has taken over. Featureless and caught in mid-motion, the centaurs strain against the display surface they’re pinned to. Still ready for action, there’s a sadness to these museum-confined “finds”. We need to dig deeper when presenting objects from the past or any object for that matter, as the title of her show – the name of an ancient burial site in East Riding, Yorkshire – suggests.
Centaurs, poker-faced pots and last to be exhibited, the Long Legs and Long Arms (Ashinaga-tenaga) – all speak of enchanted realms or eras where water, sky and land was populated with spirits. Unwittingly Upritchard returns us to the beginning, despite the discoloured or pallid appearance of the final sculptures. No doubt Pygmalion wouldn’t have prayed for any of these sculptures to come to life. These are no classical statues after all. There is, however, a life, a magic, a mischief, a sentient genius that runs through each work. Fading to sepia, an old photograph brought to life, the past is brought into the present, the unfamiliar is warmly recognisable, the human manifest in the mythical. There’s so much that could be said about this impressively detailed and daringly imagined exhibition, but I’ll keep it all under my hat.
Francis Upritchard: Wetwang Slack is on at the Barbican until 6th January 2019. Click on the links to find out more about the exhibition or Upritchard. All quotations were taken from the text Francis Upritchard: Wetwang Slack (Barbican publishing, 2018), which can be purchased from the gallery.