Spatial Drifts is on display in the Central Court from 17 July – 16 October 2021.

Helen Little (Curator of exhibitions at Leeds Art Gallery) in conversation with James Thompson:

This is your third exhibition in Leeds (Inflated Space III, Project Space East Street Arts, 2017 and Parallel Architectures IIIII at Leeds Town Hall, 2019). You have lived and worked in the city for some time. How has Leeds effect you and your work?

I moved back to Leeds from London in 2016. Having affordable access to larger studio and workshop spaces has enabled me to increase the scale of my work in response to the wider landscapes that surround the city. As I have become more familiar with the city’s past and ambitions for the future, my practice has become more site-specific and responds to places more directly.

My research into former art spaces in Leeds lead me to a rich history of artist-led activity across a range of spaces in the city from office blocks and shopping centres, apartments and litter bins. These hidden histories of urban buildings that have become spaces for art offer alternative readings of the city and despite the current challenges we face, a sense of reassurance for the future.

Leeds Art Gallery has a rich architectural history, many aspects of which were rediscovered during its refurbishment in 2017.  There is something very different about the Central Court Gallery which lies at the heart of the building, with its original Victorian doorway, glass ceiling and particular kind of light. What is it that drew you to this particular space during your residency in 2017 and what did you discover there?

I am interested in how Central Court has changed over time, from the dark partitioned space with chequered black and white lino floor and wooden latticing to the bright, open naturally lit environment it is today. I am particularly drawn to the floor which was added during the 1950s to dissect the previously double height space into the current gallery with the Henry Moore Lecture theatre below. Standing on the floor in Central Court now we are almost floating between spaces outside the architects’ vision, closer to the roof than intended, providing a new architectural viewpoint, ideas which Spatial Drifts extends.

The moulds I recorded from Central Court in 2017 have been in my studio since, they are now so familiar have almost become part of my studio architecture.

 

Spatial Drifts feels very archaeological in the way it harnesses and re-interprets this location at a specific moment in time. How did your explorations of this space direct you to your materials or help you reconnect with different materials and techniques?

The changing architecture of Central Court and my experience of working in the space during it refurbishment – as different layers of architecture from previous adaptions of the space were peeled away – is reflected in the surfaces, inlays and materials that exist across various material states in Spatial Drifts.

Unfired clay is a material that is able to take multiple forms. For this project I combined this with earth dug from a Leeds construction site to record the architecture of Central Court. Connecting the work to the process of construction as potential and action, these materials are also a fragile marker of the space as it is now.  The blues and turquoises in the works reference the nineteenth century interior of the gallery’s Tiled Hall.

When did casting become a particular interest for you and what significance does this process have for you in terms of your work with architecture and public sculpture?

I started developing architectural casting processes as a student at the Royal College of Art in 2010. With each layer of casting material, I was looking for ways to document or fix transient objects in space and record movement through time. Working with pre-existing architectural forms reduces decision-making processes and enables me to be more responsive to a given situation. By working directly with these forms, I am able to re-construct new, parallel narratives found within them. The process of site-specific casting is also connected to performance as a way to navigate space following alternative rules of materials.

 

There are a number of layers of recordings and materials in Spatial Drifts. Could you take us through each of the elements, and the ways they connect with each other as well as with the space?

Brought together in the space from which they were created, each element of Spatial Drifts becomes a parallel version of Central Court and provides new multi-dimensional experiences of it. The first element is a series of modular, re-configured Jesmonite cast sections of the gallery architecture that I recorded in situ when the gallery was closed for refurbishment. These cast architectures capture fragments of the space including exposed brick work and other spatial anomalies since removed or covered. They are sculptural works in themselves but became tools in the creation of a mould for the silicone cast that in turn responds to the shifting dimensions of Central Court by inflating and deflating throughout the exhibition. During the installation of the exhibition, I made a series of recording performances taking press moulds of the gallery architecture using clay combined with earth dug from a Leeds construction site. Left to air dry in the space, the forms of these unfired clay press moulds remain fragile and temporary and form piles on the gallery floor that obscure parts of the gallery. The moving image element of the installation, Perimeter of the Central Court at varying speeds, introduces movement in space. This was recorded using a deconstructed flatbed scanner, which records space and time simultaneously through the visualisation of movement. Finally, the film Re-Imaging Central Court contextualises the history of Leeds Art Gallery within the city, reflecting upon the trajectory of several former art spaces and development trends in Leeds to speculate upon potential futures. The film relates to the map and walking tour of former art spaces in Leeds revealing the hidden histories of these spaces across the city.

When I encounter the multi-dimensional experiences of your work, I think about a longer history of representation in art, specifically Cubism and its philosophy about objects being unfixed and indeterminate in space and time. Your work strikes me at an attempt to make sense of these multi-dimensions and to invest them with a strong sense of the human.

The Cubist’s depiction of multiple dimensions of space and ideas of parallel spaces in quantum physics were strong influences on my work at the Royal College of Art. This led me to develop the de-constructed flatbed scanner as an attempt to record four-dimensional space-time by simultaneously recording space and time through the visualisation of movements as the scanner is passed over the subject. The fragmentation and re-composing of space in casting processes were directly informed by these ideas of depiction through the record of time through movement captured in each brush stroke set in the material, with the casts themselves as thin laminates, which describe front and back or positive and negative forms of the same object.

 

The film element of the exhibition is an extension of your sculptural practice in many ways, particularly given your interest in capturing moments of transition and future realities. Could you tell us about this?

The film, Re-Imaging Central Court, captures the moment before an idea is materialised as sculpture. The work draws on unrealised designs for remodelling the frontage of Leeds Art Gallery in the 1930s. The film investigates potentials for the city through the use of CGI imagery – a medium commonly used in architectural visualisations to communicate a new future as a precursor to action – and through the residual value of earth dug from a Leeds construction site, a future in progress. The texts in the film document the materiality of Central Court during its refurbishment. Images of former art spaces in Leeds are accompanied with descriptions of their former use as art spaces, contributing to debates about the value of space for art in Leeds today.

There seems to be a political thread running through your work. I’m thinking specifically about your film depicting the destruction of 114 clay moulds recorded from the re-situated statues of Henry Rowland Marsden, the Memorial to Queen Victoria, The Duke Of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel on Woodhouse Moor, Leeds on the steps of Leeds Town Hall; the site from which three of the statues were relocated in 1937 to make way for a car park. It’s fascinating to think about the complex history of Leeds Art Gallery from its origins in the Victorian era which at the height of empire placed greater emphasis on civic museums and galleries. Thinking about this legacy that is still present in the fabric of museums and galleries today, how is your attempt to reimagine the museum’s future part of the way collections and monuments need to be reinterpreted and contextualised?

Creating platforms for discussion and dialogues with museums and their collections and an openness to exploring their histories is important. My experience of working closely with the Leeds Art Gallery when it was closed to the public was really refreshing and gave me an insight into its systems and structures. Opportunities for artists to reflect and develop work in response to collections and public monuments and contribute to wider debates in the field is an approach that is of mutual benefit.

There is a strong sense of legacy in your work and to compliment Spatial Drifts, you have developed a map identifying former art spaces in a one-mile radius of Leeds Art Gallery since 1888. With cities and public spaces recalibrating to their new realities and audiences post –pandemic, what are your aspirations in drawing attention to these places and for the ways art and artists might intervene in our urban centres?

The map identifies former art spaces in the city from the time of the opening of Leeds Art Gallery in 1888, highlighting the hidden histories of these spaces and reflecting on the city’s wide-ranging DIY artist culture. It responds to the precarity of spaces for artists in Leeds, by tracing how artists have moved across the city in search of affordable spaces to work, only to be followed by urban developments that ultimately price them out of the area and the cycle continues. Our high streets are evolving dramatically as a result of the pandemic and with the current shift to online consumerism leaving so many city centre premises empty, we need to find ways to re-invigorate the high street. Opportunities for artists and designers to use of these empty spaces will help shape the high street as a new social space for dialogue and exchange of ideas.

Photo credit: Jules Lister

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