Shadow Spans

970 words

Louisa Elderton

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Claire Barclay, one of the seven artists whose printmaking is exhibited in Surface Noise, currently has another facet of her practice resonating within gallery two at The Whitechapel Gallery; namely, her sculptural installations. The poetically titled Shadow Spans, 2010, is part of The Whitechapel Gallery’s new Bloomberg Commission series – her installation was preceded by Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast — where an artist is asked to produce a year-long, site-specific response to this characterful space, with its rough and porous exposed brick walls.


Goshka Macuga, The Nature of the Beast, 2010. Image: Whitechapel Gallery

 Shadow Spans groups, or rather, divides objects and materials into three main sections within the gallery, and yet these seem to be intrinsically connected as their shapes and forms create dance-like rhythms that reflect one another. The installation plays with notions of interior and exterior space, and sets into motion the dissolution of this dichotomy. Minimalist forms, echoing window and door-like shapes, define space by creating both physical barriers but also portals through which to venture; the work assumes a performative quality as it activates the space, defining the various angles, planes, heights, blockages and openings available to the viewer, who also occupies the gallery.

 There is a tension implicit within Shadow Span’s configuration of contrasting objects and materials, as carefully-placed austere steel frames set off the dry-terracotta pots and strewn compost that seem to have been haphazardly knocked from a window ledge; silky draped curtains are printed with cobbled brick patterns which strangely reflect the four solid walls that enclose the area; visceral gold curved handles tempt you to grasp them, caressing their wrinkled surfaces, whilst a cold empty frame beckons you to pass through its negative space.

Claire Barclay, Shadow Spans, Whitechapel Gallery, 2010. Image: Whitechapel Gallery
Barclay is interested in both making, but also the idea of unmaking, and this process of craft is important in the realisation of her work. While the artist formulates these dialogues between form and material, she also deconstructs the urban architectural surroundings within which we move and meander everyday. Her work is in flux, not set, and invites a plethora of potential interpretations from the viewer whose presence is implicit in activating this constructed environment. In fact, the participatory presence of the human body is felt strongly within this inanimate grouping of forms, as the debris of life is subtly interwoven with these geometric structures. Top hats, fingers of gloves and bird cages are encountered incidentally as you wander through the installation, suggesting undisclosed narrative histories that require unravelling – or building, even. Barclay’s installation seems to reference Minimalism’s preoccupation with the object and the phenomenological experience it generates, whilst merging with this the appropriation of natural environments.


Claire Barclay, Pieced Apart, 2010. Image: Claire Barclay


The forms and motifs of Shadow Spans are reflected in the screen print Pieced Apart, 2010, which the artist has produced for The Whitechapel Gallery’s limited edition series. The hand of the artist is implicit in the creation of each individual print as the colour pigments were mixed and then screen-printed by Barclay at her studio in Glasgow. This same technique is applied to the artist’s five screen prints exhibited in Surface Noise, where the pigments have been mixed and then carefully layered to create complex surfaces and palimpsests of form.


The performative qualities of Shadow Spans have led The Whitechapel Gallery to commission a series of contemporary dance pieces that respond directly to this installation. The first of these took place at the end of January, as Dog Kennel Hill Project performed Figure Stuck, Stuck. This dance collective comprises Ben Ash, Henrietta Hale and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, all of whom spent two weeks within the installation in November 2010, building experiences and movements that would lead to their final performance piece.

As the onomatopoeic title of the performance suggests, a sense of repetition pervaded Figure Stuck, Stuck. A tracing and retracing of movement precipitated a considered reflection upon the actions of the dancer’s bodies. They seemed to explore how variation is embedded in repetition, considering the uniqueness of everyday repeated movements. Echoing the shapes formed by the sculptures, but never directly touching the works, Dog Kennel Hill Project responded to Shadow Spans as if it were an extension of the cityscape that we move within daily; they thereby inverted the normalcy of everyday movements and activities, enabling these to resonate with us on a conscious and analytical level.

Henrietta Hale seemed to assume the role of omniscient creator as she observed, or controlled, the clusters of activity taking place within the installation. The audience were separated into three distinct areas, mirroring the grouping of objects within Shadow Spans, and their participation in the performance was initiated as Hale choreographed a dance of words spoken directly to the viewers; she engaged in a subtle play of words, uttering ever so slight changes in the sentence syntax, pronunciation, and choice of words as she rotated her body to speak to each group: ‘feel free to move from your clusters … you may like to move from your cloisters … if I touch myself … will you touch yourself?’ This thought provoking performance simultaneously activated, framed, and merged with Claire Barclay’s installation, and the line between performer, audience, stage and the everyday was entirely blurred at the end of the piece as the viewers moved through the gallery to contribute their own repeated movements to the mix.