Oh, you poor things. The upcoming sculpture exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket riffs off a phrase as humiliating, humorous, and aptly objectifying for a show comprised of objects (and, before you ask, not a conscious reference to Alasdair Gray’s novel). Poor Things interrogates the impact of social class on art and the artist, showcasing work from 22 artists.
SNACK chatted to artists, and the show’s curators, Emma Hart and Dean Kenning about the impact of class on artistic decision-making, and sculpture that dents the viewer’s world; sculpture which demands to be seen whether the viewer likes it or not.
Of the decision to base the exhibition around sculpture, you’ve said the medium made the most sense as it occupies the same space as the viewer and is often made with found objects. For a total art noob, what does this mean?
Dean Kenning: Well, we both make sculpture so that’s the starting point. Emma and I have been friends for a long, long time. So we’ve talked about our art, and we’ve often talked about that in relation to class. When we were thinking about the show, we were thinking about the specificity of sculpture or people who make work out of things, rather than, you know, painting and creating representations. So that was the starting point.
One thing about sculpture is that it’s in the same space as you [the viewer], it’s occupying the same ground, and it’s not in some sort of idealised space; you can bump into it. There’s no separation. That’s something we’re interested in, as well as things like the idea of its relation to manual work, using your hands, which has class connotations. Then there’s also the division between arts and crafts, where art is supposed to be superior to craft, those sorts of things.
Emma Hart: [With sculpture] you can use things that you find in your life, you can reach for readymade stuff, and put it in a sculpture. I mean, certainly in the show, lots of the sculptures have recognisable features, so they’re not abstract, they can talk about the everyday. Also, when you encounter a sculpture that’s physically in your way, you have to walk around it. So even if you don’t want to look at it, you’re forced to, otherwise you’re gonna hit it. It interrupts your experience within the art gallery. So whether you want it or not, something happens when you look at a sculpture, even if it’s just that you’ve had to negotiate it.
Dean: There’s not this not such a distance [between viewer and artwork]. We’re against a certain notion of aesthetics as being about distance and a sort of serenity.
Emma: I don’t think you contemplate sculptures, you have to negotiate them.
Dean: As you know, the sculptures in our show aren’t like bronze sculptures and stuff like that. They’re often made out of very ordinary stuff, and are cheaply made for the most part.
You mentioned a disinterest in aesthetics; how do you think that impacts the viewer’s engagement with the work and their expectations?
Dean: I don’t know what people’s expectations are. There’s this sort of serenity in the gallery and a refinement, the whole thing is about a refined attitude and behaving in the right way, keeping your voice down. There’s a sense that the more boring work is, the more veneration is given. You’re supposed to treat work that’s given a lot of space and that you don’t quite understand as somehow being very important or of value.
The sort of aesthetics we’re interested in are in terms of immediacy and recognition, work that really has a sense of life. We’ve chosen the artworks in the exhibition because although they relate to class and to the class background of the artists, they also have a positivity, a sort of energy. And that’s what we’re interested in, in our own work, and any work in general. So that’s what we’re hoping we’ve achieved.
And in terms of conversation, a big part of the exhibition is that you had conversations with the artists in front of their work which is then recorded. What were the standout discussions you had?
Emma: We haven’t had those discussions yet. The show opens on 4th March, so we won’t be in front of the work till the last week in February. I think that the notion of class is extremely slippery. People have a wide range of experiences. Instead of looking at the background of the artist, we wanted to look at the sculpture itself and see how their background perhaps manifests, the decisions they’ve made, and talk through the art with them. The aim is to understand their working-class experience through their work, rather than hearing stories from their childhood or thinking about class in terms of statistics.
The exhibition is an investigation of sculpture, of the decisions that artists make and how they manifest within their sculptures and if they have been influenced by their background. There are many different types of working-class backgrounds, not least within the intersection between race and gender within the show. We’re going to have a conversation with other artists, we’re going to ask them a question about their work in front of their work, and then the edited transcript of that discussion will be made available in the book. So, the artist’s voices are there in the show.
Dean: We don’t want to speak for any of the artists. I think it’s important that people speak for themselves. So often class is quite objective and statistical and sort of sociological, or there’s a sort of ‘Rags to Riches’ narrative, which is very popular. But it’s really ideological, the way it’s used as an alibi for the existing society.
Emma and I have a lot in common in our work. We both are very much against a compositional approach, where we’re trying to arrange things carefully to make a certain aesthetic. Both of our artworks seem to be sticking out somehow, or shouting out. In my case, they’re sort of moving and they seem to be drawing attention to themselves.
We’ve chosen these artists and we’ve suggested works that they might show. We’re interested in the decisions that they made, and if they correlate with the decisions we make in terms of the question of class, but we don’t really know. So part of the show is really about finding out.
Emma: We had spoken as friends and noticed that our work shares similar decision-making processes. We don’t like composite composition. We haven’t got time to worry about whether it’s pink, or if the pink should be dark pink, or whether it should be five millimetres to the left. We’re interested in the kind of sculpture that interrupts the viewer, dents the viewer’s world or demands our attention.
We trace these decisions back to thinking about class, and we both come from working-class backgrounds. So perhaps we’re not interested in taste, or composition, because it’s not been part of our backgrounds, we disregard it.
The main purpose of the show is to gather artists together and see if any of this makes sense. To find out what other artists are doing that can be traced back to class. So it’s an investigation really, based on the mini investigation that we had between us.
Is now a pertinent time to be putting on an exhibition like this, that interrogates art and social class?
Dean: The show has been a long time in the making but you’re right, class has risen up the agenda, both within the art world and the real world. Obviously, the extent of inequality in this country is really shocking. People are very poor and you don’t want to be poor in this country. It’s one of the worst countries to be poor in. There are strikes now, and I think that’s a good thing. So we hope to contribute to those conversations about class that are happening at the moment.
Could tell me about both of your pieces in the exhibition?
Emma: I predominantly work in ceramics. My work in the show is ceramic megaphones, I refer to them as spoilers. Basically, a nice, neat, vivid face speaks into a megaphone, and out of it comes a kind of twisted, spun mess. And it’s there, they’re displayed at head height, so they are shouting into the viewers or projecting themselves into the viewer’s face. What they’re saying is kind of messed up, they’re loudly saying the wrong thing. This is a sensation I have when I attempt to spend time in the art world, I just walk this feeling of being with one of these megaphones or spoilers. That’s me.
Emma: They’re both self-portraits actually, aren’t they? My work and your work?
Dean: Yeah. I started doing kinetics and this is sort of a self-portrait. It’s a cast of my face, my hands and feet as well, so they become this weird animal sort of machine. Deciding to do kinetics, I thought it was quite a looked down upon art genre, it wasn’t taken seriously. It’s sort of seen as gimmicky, which I quite liked, but also this interruption of the serene environment of the gallery. It’s a bit like Emma’s, it’s sort of drawing attention to itself. It’s a bit embarrassing, like it’s drawing attention to itself in slightly the wrong way, interrupting the other works and so on.
I don’t have sort of time or space to worry about exactly what it’s going to look like, so it just ends up looking like what it’s going to look like. My job is really just to get it working. And there’s a sort of aspect of manual production in this like metalworking.
It’s really uncanny.
Dean: [Laughs] Yeah, thanks.
I definitely meant it as a compliment [laughs].
Dean: In the work in the show there’s lots of animism. There are things that are coming alive, materials coming alive. Often the artist is in the work somehow, so they become part of it. It’s going to be jam-packed. It’s 21 artworks so the gallery is gonna be absolutely jam-packed with stuff. And each artwork has a sort of animation or vibe. So it’s the vital spirit to me, I think that’s what we’re aiming for anyway.
What relevance do you think the exhibition will have specifically to a Scottish audience? There’s actually a book called Poor Things by Scottish author Alasdair Gray.
Emma: We weren’t aware of the book, but we are now. It was a coincidence, so there isn’t a reference. The title dwells on our version of poor things, it is a joke around the word poor and being a poor thing that people might dismiss. We were also interested in the word ‘thing’ as perhaps an easier way to describe a sculpture rather than an object. I think in terms of the show for a Scottish audience, there are some Scottish artists in the show and we’ve worked hard to try and make sure that lots of different types of artists from lots of different types of places have been invited.
Dean: It’s all UK artists and we haven’t intended to do a survey show of artists from working-class backgrounds. We’ve worked quite hard to find works that we like, there are probably loads of amazing works that are not in a show that we were just not aware of. Class is obviously just as relevant to people living in Scotland, as it is anywhere else in the UK. With the title, we just thought it was funny, a bit of a pun. We’ll have to read the book now, I guess.
The book, Poor Things, is like a contemporary Frankenstein, which perhaps accidently links with your exhibition of sculptures.
Dean: It’s [the phrase, poor things] in the spirit of the show. There’s a lot of humour in the art that we’re showing like we both like art that is funny and entertaining in some way. Art that meets the audience halfway at least, offering something without you feeling like you’re a total idiot because you don’t get the work.
Behind that humour, there’s a lot of pain and shame and embarrassment and all those kinds of things just in terms of coming from a working-class background. In the art world, that sort of environment can be a real killer. It’s very, very hard and wears people down, you know. We’re looking forward to seeing how other people talk about that in relation to what they do as artists and the objects and sculptures that we’ve made.