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On the heights

Miriam Austin


From the Archive

In 2017, Art Licks presented a group residency and exhibition titled On the heights, in collaboration with Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We reflect on the project with commissioned artist Miriam Austin, and consider her approach to the residency, the process of working in response to the location, and the final exhibition.

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Holly Willats, Curator of On the heights: The project began with you living and working in the Park, where you could access the workshops, library and studio space, as well as the estate at all hours. How did you frame your ideas in this time?

Miriam Austin: I spent a lot of time in the studio reading about British folklore, trying particularly to find stories related to the landscape around Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I also walked a lot – it was spring and the gardens were particularly magical in the early mornings before they were open to the public. On these walks I gathered an archive of plants: bluebells, fireweed, aconitum, solanum, horse chestnut and foxgloves. I spent time reading about the folklore and customs associated with each plant; practices of healing and protection, poison and death. 

Towards the end of my time I read Donna Haraway’s book ‘Staying with the Trouble’, which has remained a significant point of reference within my practice in the years since. I was struck by her approach to the importance of storytelling – she’s particularly focussed on speculative and science fiction – in allowing us to imagine new ways to live together in our threatened environment. 

After the residency I started to weave my own narratives to create a structure I could build my research and ideas around. This brought together figures and motifs from the folklore and histories I’d found during the residency through my own writing and drawing. The narrative was open enough to contain my response to the landscape and also gave rise to ideas for the sculptures that eventually formed the backbone of the show. 

What fables did you discover about the local area, and how did these feed into the piece (if indeed they did)?

I became particularly interested in folklore and history associated with bodies of water – rivers, lakes and wells – which revealed the history of successive Viking invasions, as well as the Roman, Pagan and early Christian influences in the area. 

Specific figures became very important, and I was fascinated by various stories and sites associated with Peg Powler: a figure believed to inhabit the area around the River Tees. She was a water-hag lingering on the margin of life and death, who was thought to both lure children to their deaths and – sometimes – to offer her protection to the drowning. 

I also discovered a series of sites linked to the Norse God Odin, whose first son was believed to have drowned in a well in North Yorkshire. According to legend, Odin sacrificed his own eye to a well associated with Mimir, a prophet, whose severed head Odin carried to bring him secret knowledge. 

I was struck by how few women I found as protagonists within the stories, but Sinmara – a giantess believed by some to be the wife of Mimir – became a key figure within the work. I found only limited information about her, but I used these fragments as a starting point for a series of fictional sequences that brought her into relation with other figures linked to the landscape around YSP. 

The objects I made were designed to be used within this fictional world: casts in silicone that incorporated specific plants, ‘skins’ made to be worn (and shed) by my characters, a series of metal and alabaster tools for Sinmara, and a large bar of forms cast from foxgloves for a ritual I devised for a site on Ilkley Moor. 

Could you say something about your approach to physically making the work? It is very sculptural and I am aware it requires a lot of trial & error, and time?

I was interested in incorporating synthetic and organic materials, and my instinct is often to push materials to their limits. I worked with the plants that I found in and around the park during the residency, and from trips over the subsequent months. I also began working for the first time with alabaster, carved wood and combining jesmonite and wax for rather unpredictable casts. 

I wanted to find ways to develop a sculptural language that would reflect the hybrid nature of many of the figures I’d chosen, and to speak to the intersections between the natural and the industrial within the Yorkshire landscape. 

I also wanted to use materials to convey the ambiguous symbolic significance of water within the traditions and narratives that I had found. I cast quite a number of fish – the largest of which was a 6ft shark that I came across one evening about to go to waste on Deptford market. 

The casting process took several days and involved hanging the shark from a meat hook in the carpark outside my studio while I made a plaster jacket to contain the mould. The shark’s physical presence became very real to me during this process and we struggled against each other every step of the way. Shark skin is like sandpaper when rubbed in one direction and more like silk when rubbed in the other, and because of this it refused to release the mould, (or the subsequent casts I took from it), requiring constant reassessment of my approach. There was something surprisingly violent in the process that remains as a spirit in the final work.

I also navigated the unpredictable responses of different plants to silicone casting, trying to develop silicone casts within the fish and body moulds that would delicately hold parts of plants together into lace-like skins. 

I spent a lot of time working to develop a series of alabaster ‘tools’ inscribed with symbols I developed for each figure. I hadn’t worked with alabaster before, and found the process very unpredictable: as with all the materials I use, it has a life of its own and the relationship I have with it becomes one of negotiation, defeat and occasional collaboration. 

With this in mind, I was also thinking of your process of installing that is very responsive to the particular space and light. Could you say something about how you chose to install the work in The Bothy gallery?

I tend to work very intuitively when I’m installing, trying to get a feel for how the works can sit in the space, and how this can help to open up the narrative’s dimensions and the feeling of the worlds I have created imaginatively around the works. The process always involves balancing the things I imagine in advance and trying to be very sensitive to my experience of being with the works in the space. A conversation starts to form between the sculptures, the fictional or imagined narratives and the feeling I have for their presence and relationships in the space over time. It’s as if the space becomes a new character in the story I’m weaving – it always takes time to understand what is has to say and what role it should play. 

What is your favourite memory of working in West Bretton?

I have lots of great memories of the five of us living together in the lodge and exploring the local area – late night excursions to the pub and various hilarious physical challenges! Memories of the landscape have really stayed with me – the way the project was devised allowed us to experience seasonal shifts from spring to summer, autumn and eventually winter. My experience of the area became so rich as the project unfolded. I’m still developing strands in my work that emerged during that time, and planning another trip to shoot a video later next year. 

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Miriam Austin graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Sculpture in 2012 and is currently studying towards a PhD in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. Recent exhibitions include: UNO, Allegra Projects, Switzerland (2019), Future Primitive, Gossamer Fog, London (2019), The Domestic Landscape, Jupiter Woods, London (2019), Gimmel (Solo Show), Bosse and Baum, London (2018); Artist of the Day, Flowers Gallery, London (2018); Andraste (Solo Show), Alma Zevi, Venice, (2018), On the Heights, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, (2017).

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