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We Are As Much What Lies Behind As We Are Tomorrow

We Are As Much What Lies Behind As We Are Tomorrow
Photographs: Caed Parker, 2012

To look at this new work by Emily Hesse is to see the world around us from a different perspective. Hesse gathers the material for her sculpture from life, found objects, in which she seeks to uncover a history, perhaps a poetry, that comes precisely from the everydayness of these things. She ask us to consider what these objects meant in their past – in their life of use – and what traces of this life they carry forward now as sculpture: the memories of those who touched them, those who walked across them, those who made them. Hesse is the inaugral artist in residence at the Saltburn School and over the course of one year will be making a series of new works that respond to building, the area and the ideas that are important to it.

To position Hesse within art history, we need to consider British art of the modern period and how this drew upon influences from Europe. The artistic colony of St Ives, which became the hot bed of British Modernism through the influence of figures such as Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Barbara Hepworth is one influence, certainly. When Naum Gabo joined the colony, bringing the formal rigour of European Constructivism with him, the basic principles of geometry became the building blocks for the construction of work. The white abstract reliefs that Nicholson began making from the 1930s typify this in their almost minimal purity. Modernism grew messier. Followers of Nicholson, such as Margaret Mellis introduced a greater emphasis on colour in their work, but at the same time the work became less abstract through the specific use of material. Mellis herself is perhaps synonymous with the driftwood constructions that she made from fragments of fishing boats that she found washed up on the shore, and Hesse’s early work has often been compared with this. Another influence though filters into Hesse’s work and that can perhaps best be recognised as a development from the post war avant-garde, particularly the Italian Arte Povera movement, in which a group of artists deliberately sought non-art material from which to make their work, believing that this would be able to connect to its viewers.

Alongside the use of the everyday, Hesse attaches a particular importance to finding something to say about the specific locality. For We are as much what lies behind as we are tomorrow Hesse has chosen material that has a particular resonance with Saltburn and in some instances the school itself. The wooden beams are salvaged from the Saltburn pier; the bricks are Scoria bricks, made in the area and once used to pave the back alleys and yards of Saltburn; the clay was dug locally, from South Gare, and its thick oily consistency speaks of the industry that it sits against and, literally, beneath. The paint and the coal both come from the Saltburn School. The coal, found discarded in a locked out building, was perhaps left over from the time when the school was heated by coal fired boilers. The fragments of paint come from the internal doors in the school, which are gradually being stripped. Layer after layer of different colours are like strata, revealing past lives of the building. In each instance Hesse is questioning how the material can carry its memories forward and speak to us today.

Living now in one of the newly developing gallery spaces of the Saltburn School, the material has been re-structured with a sense of composition that draws on those aforementioned artistic precedents, but which also responds directly to the space in which the artist is operating. There is a pleasing symmetry in the room, viewed from the back windows, but perhaps most striking is the sense of movement. That which was once low, planks on the pier or clay from the ground, now surges up. The beams break up towards the ceiling, whilst simultaneously pushing out to great the visitor as they enter the room. The clay is perhaps the most mysterious form: a slender cord that seems to defy gravity and its own material properties to grow out of the floor towards the ceiling. It might symbolise rebirth; the future; a new life for these objects, for the school and for the lives that they will continue to touch. It’s an optimistic piece, just as it is beautiful, but it remains rooted in a strong sense of past and history. Ultimately to respond to this work you may not need to know where Hesse comes from, what the developments have been in modern art over the last century, nor what this work “means”. You may simply wish to ask, “what do I remember”.

James Beighton
Senior Curator, mima