This month Selected on-line talks to Sara Roberts about Laura Ellen Bacon's installation at Ruthin Craft Centre.
Laura Ellen Bacon: Inundation
Inundation by Laura Ellen Bacon. Photograph Dewi Tannatt Lloyd
Last summer, willow artist Laura Ellen Bacon filled gallery 2 at the Ruthin Craft Centre with a monumental and immersive installation titled Inundation. Here, the show’s curator Sara Roberts explains how it came about.
Laura Ellen Bacon uses willow in a manner which is quite different from basketry. Her work has a sculptural language that seems freeform but is, in fact, precise and ordered. She understands the inherent tensions of the material and builds initially with loops of willow tethered by knots, later defining edges and structure with built mass and directional bundling. A significant part of the visual excitement of the work is derived from the life embodied in the material, with its inherent spring and potential for movement.
I am a freelance curator, and I had proposed to Ruthin Craft Centre that Laura make a site-specific work in the galleries there. Early on in the discussion, Laura travelled from her studio in Derbyshire to put on a weekend willow workshop, which I attended. Far from walking a mile in Laura’s shoes, I took a few faltering steps. Nevertheless, I found experience of manipulating willow to be intensely physical, spatially challenging and curiously satisfying and by the end of the two days, I had an object of my own making which resembled a small coracle. It had nothing like the size, presence and complexity of Laura’s work, but making it had been a revealing experience, as a means of getting to know the artist better, and of gaining a glimpse of the absorbing rhythms of the processes she employs.
The initial brief for the Inundation project was fairly open and allowed Laura free rein to develop an ambitious concept. At first, we discussed making something which would appear to pierce the fabric of the building but as she grew used to the spaces and her ideas took shape, Laura decided to make something which did not push through the building but rather was very evidently contained by it. Laura’s work treated the white-cube gallery like an architectural container, with four distinct forms appearing to pour in through the roof apertures, waterfalling to the floor, eddying and surging against the constraints of three of the walls, and concluding with a frontal wave at the wide, usual entrance to the gallery. Access via this entrance was thus rendered impossible, turning it into a viewpoint, whilst a side access allowed more intimate viewing of the length of the piece. Visitors were fairly contained by the piece themselves, forced up close to the billowing curves as they walked along the length of the only remaining wall of the gallery. The work was startling in its scale, and immersive.
Mass was created by multiple human-scale gestures in willow, the whole bound together and articulated through a kind of drawing in space with the material to describe the direction and force of the work. Laura has drawn analogies between the immersive nature of the process, an all-consuming inundation, and the recent extraordinarily destructive flooding in Somerset and North Wales. Her experience of the flood was after the event; the willow she uses is a crop grown in Westonzoyland on the Somerset Levels. Flooding is a natural and accepted part of the cycle of the seasons there, but in the last winter, record-breaking levels of flooding forced people out of their homes and caused physical, social and economic devastation. The waters subsided just in time for the willow growers to perform their annual cropping but evidence of the event remained; Laura observed that a silty residue was left on the willow whips, up to a tide-line which marked the flood level on the crop. While this was easily washed away during use, the notion remained that these plants could carry evidence of the event, even through the processes of cutting, bundling and transport from Somerset to her studio in the Peak District.
‘This fascinating, temporary trace on each stem has given me vivid mental images of the thousands of willow stems standing stoutly in the flood water, waiting quietly for the threatening water levels to drop,’ Laura says. ‘Throughout the whole period of flooding and amid all the alarm and anxiety, the willow was standing, still and quiet; I can imagine how cloudy and cold the water was, how immensely crushed the ground below must have been, how the daylight would be mirrored brilliantly between the willow stems. Reflecting this observation within the installation, she applied pale colour to the base of the pieces to recreate the tide-line of the flood, further emphasising the notion of a filled space.
Communication for the purposes of the commission was spoken, written and visual. The process of conveying intent for site-specific works is obviously crucial – how is it best to discuss the concepts, parameters and issues of such an organically influenced form within an architectural space? Drawing played an important role in the way Laura conveyed the scale and ambition of the piece she had in mind, and she worked with digital drawings over floor plans and photographs of the space from several angles so that all the details were identified and resolved. Laura is a good communicator, quick to realise the sensitivities of a particular space, and articulate in conveying a sense of purpose to commissioners, assistants and audience alike. On the other side, the management team at Ruthin is highly experienced and patiently accommodating. The trajectory of the process may be typified by the contrast between our fairly loose early discussions, which allowed ambition to grow, and the final written contract which addressed the minutiae of execution of the piece. There is also, however, an element of pure trust involved in such a commission, a faith in the past reputation of an artist to deliver on a promise, however large, untested and ambitious. This requires particularly diligent communication, addressing issues the moment they arise and an attention to the fine detail.
Planning this kind of installation clearly raises many issues of practicality and access. The daughter of an architect, Laura is sensitive to the demands and limitations of the built environment, and has past experience of responding to architecture from the modern - works clinging to the exterior of the modernist Artist’s House in New Art Centre, Roche Court, Wiltshire - to the ancient – the sixteenth century National Trust property Barrington Court in Somerset. In Ruthin, she gained a certain satisfaction in forging a relationship with the building – even down to the fiddly details like avoiding smoke sensors and lighting tracks in the planning of the project. This project required an enormous amount of willow, most of which was delivered directly to the gallery, and all of which needed to be moved through to the gallery space in bundles, following a period of soaking to make it pliant. A team of six assistants was organised locally to help with the enormously labour-intensive handling of material, elements of the making, and the public response to the installation, part of which went on while the rest of the galleries were open for business. This public access to the process of making was recognised early on as an important aspect of the project, and Laura gave public talks at scheduled intervals to add to the transparency of what was happening.
It is a privilege to work with artists; they almost always guarantee that you will look at the world anew, through conversations and exposure to their practice. Working with Laura at what seems like a key stage in her career, when she is scaling up her vision and her ambition, has been both revealing and rewarding. Fired up at the success of this collaboration, we look forward to the prospect of working together on another project.