A Q&A with… Claire Barclay

Deep Spoils‘ at Swansea’s Mission Gallery is Glasgow-based artist Claire Barclay’s first exhibition in Wales. In response to the rich history of the building, it sees her reconfiguring and reassembling existing works alongside new elements.

Following recent successes at Tramway (2017) and Glasgow International (2016), Barclay’s exhibition looks to build on these directly by referencing and reworking pieces shown in these presentations, as well as at Touchstones, Rochdale (2015).

Represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, the Scottish artist’s distinctive practice typically responds to industrial contexts and processes via precision-making across a wide range of materials and forms.

For ‘Deep Spoils’ she combines sculptural installation and digitally printed fabric elements, drawing on the materiality of industrial heritage with a combination of machine-engineered elements, cage-like steel sculptures, ceramics and soot, creating what she describes as a “language that speaks to people”.


Let’s start by talking about the reconfiguring of existing works for Mission Gallery.
It’s not the usual way I work. I tend to make work specifically for a space. The space here is so beautiful but because of practicalities and funding, I wasn’t able to make a whole new body of work. In looking into the history of the space as a seaman’s mission in a post-industrial city, I found connections with other shows and works I’ve made in recent years: with Touchstones in Rochdale, Kelvin Hall for Glasgow International which was about the industrial prowess of Scotland and at Tramway. I’m stealing little bits from each.

Your visual vocabulary is quite disparate. How are you selecting elements?
I’ve honed in on a flavour of the post-industrial, using soot, fabric, ceramics, steel and machine-engineered objects. It’s a basic framework for me to work within which is not about a specific industrial history but a gathering together of materials, motifs and substances into a language that speaks to people.

How intuitive does this allow you to be?
I work intuitively with material because I know it has an ability to communicate in a physical way. Loose themes provide a structure within which I can work and place objects in relation to the space and to enable me to respond a bit more to the site. I have thought through how works will adapt but I haven’t yet seen everything together. There is a bit of a plan, especially when you are involving other people in installation and fabrication, though I try to resist that in order to make room for intuition in relation to architecture, for example. Here, it’s going to be subtle – about placement and about new connections between works from three different shows. Hopefully there will be new dynamics. As I work at a large scale, it’s only when I exhibit that I see the work completed because works are fabricated in different places and need to be separate to avoid being damaged. The gallery is important as a place for seeing what I’m imagining in my mind come to be realised. Sometimes it’s quite surprising.


Have you worked with producers in the city?
The art school here have kindly offered to assist with welding and hopefully to apply soot to the ceramics using welding equipment. I like to use processes as a way of getting to know places and people and to start a dialogue.

Do you consider these new pieces? Will you be titling them to reference their histories? 
I haven’t actually decided on that yet (laughs) I’ve forgotten a lot of the titles. The exhibition is called ‘Deep Spoils’ which is tuning into the thoughts and the mood behind the work. It’s like making another painting in a series – a new element or version. The connection is the industrial heritage as an inroad to speaking to an audience in a place through material familiar to that. I’m excited about it.

I’ve made a new digitally-printed fabric element that refreshes the work and enables adaption to the space. At Tramway, I showed a grease-like fabric. There have been muddy and shitty ones too. Here, the fabric looks like blood and soot smudges. The soot one is patchworked amongst pristine fabric. On top of this are white ceramic domes with actual soot on them so there’s a play with what’s imitation and what’s authentic. The other fabric elements hang inside a steel cage – two long sacks that have a blood smear design – like lungs. This is placed alongside machined objects that appear like a miners’ pick, connecting manual labour to coal and soot and the body. Similiarly, the prints I’m showing were made for Rochdale and were abstracted from templates for workers’ clogs. These are geometric forms printed in transparent inks and layered up to build a skin-like quality. It’s an exploration of machine body / human body.


You set precision against messiness …

There is often a sense of chaos at first glance and then a realisation that everything is considered. That frustrates some people and they want it to be messier! There’s always a contrast and a balance of control. I’m interested in how materials touch, threaten or soil one another. The work is a combination and the forms try to emphasise those meeting points. The precise machine-made objects are shiny, seductive, sharp and suggestive of function – it’s about accentuating these kinds of physical properties by resting them on soft rubber or fabric where it’s about a yielding or intimacy.

You’ve said that making exhibitions is a ‘pause in an ongoing process’. Does this hold true here?
Maybe it’s more to do with the ongoing process of working with a new space but there will always be a thread of thought within the exhibition and the thread of my own practice. It’s been quite subconscious that I’ve ended up with three elements from three shows that are all connected by research. I will try to make this exhibition like an environment hovering between an installation and a sculpture, with the prints informing the other works. It’s less of a formal pause, I suppose, than a way of thinking and evolving the practice.

Would you work in this way again? 
I don’t often get the chance to reshow or reinvent work. I love making new work in response to new places and that’s my default or ideal scenario but it means it only exists during that period. I don’t really get a chance to be involved with it after the exhibition as it’s often been destroyed. Reimagining and reassembling is something artists and curators are doing all the time but my work usually doesn’t allow for that. This has been a nice opportunity to re-examine. That’s fruitful.

A reflection upon wider practice?
It’s nice for me to work in a reflective way rather than being swept away by experiments and responding to context. I’m realising that works could have relevance in a new context. This allows the work to have a longer life and to live other lives.

‘Deep Spoils’ continues at Mission Gallery, Swansea until 2 June 2018. www.missiongallery.co.uk


Images:
1. Claire Barclay at Mission Gallery, Swansea. Photo: Matthew Otten
2-5. Claire Barclay, ‘Deep Spoils’, installation view, Mission Gallery, Swansea. Photo: Matthew Otten

Commissioned and published by a-n news, 27 March 2018

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