Lucy Tomlins talks to Traction about her upcoming public sculpture commission, ‘Pylon and Pier’.
Playing with traditional notions of public sculpture as a means with which to reinforce the status and prestige of those in power, Tomlin’s sculpture, sited in London’s Bermondsey Square, will show the Titan Atlas – not, as in Greek mythology, condemned to hold up the sky for eternity, but rather toppled from his plinth, as if the weight of the globe he clutches has overwhelmed him.
‘Pylon and Pier’ will be the first of three commissions that will form the second phase of ‘SCULPTURE AT Bermondsey Square’. Prior to its launch next week, Tomlins unpacks some of the ideas behind the piece in a conversation with Susie Pentelow.
Your new work ‘Pylon and Pier’ takes inspiration from Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘The Public Square’ (1931). How did this poem influence you?
The poem is from Wallace Steven’s first book of poetry ‘Harmonium’ (1931) and describes the falling of a building in a public square.
‘A slash and the edifice fell,
Pylon and pier fell down.
A mountain-blue cloud arose
Like a thing in which they fell’, he writes.
At the time of modern industrialization and the Great Depression, the edifice’s demolition is used as a symbol of the loss of a tradition or idea; the collapse of a system. There are a lot of parallels being drawn with today’s socio-political context and that of the 1930s and reading the poem, it could have been written today. It resonated with me and became the jumping off point for the work. The poem also uses a modernist, architectural structure which relates to the visual language of my own work and directly informed the minimal clean form of the plinth. The title is also a direct citation. Pylon makes reference to the Greek origin of the word pulōn meaning gate, a point of transition, and pier another place of departure.
I particularly enjoy making work that is site responsive, where the sculpture is what it is just as much because of the dialogue it has with its immediate, situated context as to what form it takes or what it is made from; how it is read in relation to the world around it. When I was invited by VITRINE to make work for Bermondsey Square, I took this opportunity to directly consider the nature and function of the public square, as a space for coming together, a meeting place, for ideas exchange. Squares have long and lively histories, of rallies and public voice, a place for democracy as well as with more violent histories. The poem locked in some of this thinking.
The fallen figure of Atlas in your sculpture reminds me of the symbolic gesture of toppling a statue, something that we often see (via the media) as an act of protest or rebellion. Does this link to your work?
Absolutely. Traditionally, the public square is where statues of distinguished people are sited, usually placed there to reinforce notions of power or national prestige. Their toppling has become the visual symbol of the overthrowing of a system, in the same way as Stevens used the collapse of the building.
The figure represented in my sculpture is the Titan Atlas, as a young man. Not as in Greek mythology holding up the sky for eternity, but collapsed under the weight of the world and its problems. Though not didactic, my work has often involved social commentary and it feels difficult, at this specific time, not to make work that is in some way responsive to the socio-political context we find ourselves in post-Brexit and Trump. ISIS also uses the media to spread imagery of the vandalism and destruction of ancient artifacts in their attempt to erase history and our connection with the past and traditions. The fallen statue is a very loaded image, full of history but also of the moment.
‘SCULPTURE AT Bermondsey Square’ feels particularly exciting as a public sculpture programme because the sculpture is installed for six months, rather than permanently, freeing the commissioned artist from the constraints of making something permanent. Has this factored into your plans for the work?
Because the work is only on display for six months it has meant I’ve been able to make a work which specifically factors in time as a key element in its conceptual meaning. Something so time-specific, as well as context-specific, is a rare opportunity. If I’d been invited to contribute to the first phase of Sculpture At (2014/16) this work could not have been made.
Practically, a temporary installation means you can do more with a small budget as there is less expense around durability of materials, health and safety, installation and planning constraints etc. The work can be more experimental as with something permanent there are a lot more stakeholders you have to get agreement from which can often mean the dilution of an idea or a ‘safe’ work gets chosen. Look at all the great temporary works that have been on the 4th plinth from Wallinger’s ‘Ecce Homo’ (1999-2000) to Katrina Fritsch’s ‘Hahn/Cock’ (2013-2015). Would those works have been allowed if they were permanent? I don’t think so.
I was also able to use this opportunity to experiment with digitally design and production techniques (5-axis milling and 3D printing) for the first time. This is an expansion of my usual practice which is much more hands-on and so a new area for me. Knowing that the work is only on display for six months, I felt I could experiment in a way I may not have felt comfortable with if the work had been permanent.
You emphasize your role as a sculptor, something that is becoming increasingly rare as more and more artists discard medium-specific labels. Why is this so important to you?
There are a lot of cross-discipline artists today but I think often this can also mean that an artist has only skimmed the surface of these disciplines rather than gaining a deep-rooted knowledge or skill in any of these art forms. My work also engages in non-traditional sculptural techniques, such as video and sound, but I work from an area of specialization and engage outwards into these disciplines from within a sculptural sensibility. I think taking a position like this and making it public also helps the audience to know how to approach and engage with the work, as it gives a sense of the artist’s intent.
Ossian Ward [in the panel discussion ‘True or False: There’s no such thing as Sculpture’; (July 2013, Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre)] talks about a sculptural sensibility as a ‘frisson’ between man and ‘something’, a literacy of sorts and a sense or sensuous knowledge. To say I am a sculptor defines how I approach my art practice and how my artworks should resonate and be read. I am committed to the importance of craft skills as a principle but this is not a traditional notion of sculpture. I embrace an elasticity of sculptural technique that harnesses the values, principles, and commitments of a sensibility preoccupied with the phenomenological experience of materiality and space but doesn’t always look like the classic notion of sculpture. Though ironically, on this occasion, in ‘Pylon and Pier’, I have intentionally chosen to create a pastiche of a classical statue. In a time of dematerialized art practice, where there is so much ‘stuff’ that seems to be intentionally unintentional, to work from a clear position such as this might almost be avant-garde or radical.
This is the first in a new body of works you will be developing. What are your plans for these?
Last year, I moved from London to live and work between London and Castéllon, in rural Spain. Moving my studio practice to the dramatic environs of the Spanish mountains has enabled space for reflection, a renewed vigour for my studio practice and has resulted in a new body of work that for the first time directly references a range of historical artworks, across various art forms, from poetry, to film, to classical sculpture. I’ve been looking for, and taking inspiration from, historic works that, through a ‘remaking’, seem just as relevant now as at the time they were made. This includes the ‘Farnese Atlas’ (at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples) for Pylon and Pier. The next piece getting a remaking is Michelangelo’s ‘The Dying Slave’, which is being reimagined for the 21st Century, eroticised as a figure that holds within it both the male and female form. This will be shown later this year in Mexico.
‘Lucy Tomlins: Pylon and Pier’ launches on 30 March 2017 and will stay in situ until 24 September 2017. The sculpture will be sited on Bermondsey Square, SE1 3UN. For more information, visit http://www.vitrinegallery.com/collections/sculpture-at.
To find out more about Lucy Tomlins’ work, visit http://www.lucytomlins.co.uk.