What you do ... a text by Jacqueline Yallop
We commissioned the writer Jacqueline Yallop to write a short text about our project which now has a name, is nearing completion and is due to be installed at Musuems Sheffield's Millennium Gallery for their forthcoming exhibition "In The Making".
Here it is:-
What You Do * Where You’re From * Who You Know laces together a series of contradictions: you are invited into an intimate, personal space, an enclosed wooden pod, but you remain in a public place, partly on view to passers-by, aware of noises and activity beyond; you’re drawn into a work inspired by the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin but there is nothing didactic or old fashioned about the piece, no pithy quotes from Ruskin’s 39 weighty volumes of writings, no nineteenth-century paraphernalia; you’re presented with detailed, highly-finished illustrations on wood which draw on elements of a folk art tradition but the effect is contemporary, urban and political. What seems, at first glance, a simple globe-like structure becomes as you enter it, an immersive, dreamlike experience of prompts and impressions and intuitions. At the heart of an exhibition about craftsmanship and creativity, the piece raises key questions about what it means to make things with your hands and how material, form and technique both shape, and are shaped by, ideas.
The germ of the project emerged from a wider Sheffield initiative organised by the Guild of St George. This explains its Ruskin roots. The Guild was established by John Ruskin in 1871 as a Utopian reaction to the worst horrors of the Industrial Revolution, an experiment to find fairer, more sustainable ways of living. Today it uses Ruskin’s philosophical and financial legacy to create arts, education and environmental projects, and in 2014 launched Ruskin in Sheffield, an initiative to rediscover Ruskin’s spirit with a series of public events in the city where he founded a museum for working people in 1875. Inspired by a chance conversation during the early days of Ruskin in Sheffield, Mir Jansen began to see links between Ruskin’s preoccupation with social justice and healthy societies and her own work.
The collaboration which followed with Henk Littlewood was a new departure. Both artists knew of the other, but they had not met and did not yet know where their interests might overlap. As a furniture maker, Henk had rarely attempted a work of such size and sculptural complexity, simultaneously demanding precision and the physical brutality of manipulating timber of such bulk. Having previously preferred to work with video and digitally manipulated stills, Mir had only recently begun to explore painting and illustration, and was unsure how her new skills might impact on her ideas and process. But it’s clear that the two artists quickly found common approaches, not just in technique but more importantly in a certain inquiring, adventurous outlook. When they talk about What you do... both are warm and enthusiastic and thoughtful, but underlying their affability there are glimpses of the uncompromising and the exacting. This is one of those finely balanced collaborations, you sense, where each artist demands a great deal of the other and where each uses these demands to test and advance their own work.
In Spring 2015, Mir and Henk travelled together to Bewdley in Worcestershire to fell a tree which they’d selected from the ancient oak woodland, known as Ruskinland, owned and managed by the Guild of St George. This was originally the site of several smallholdings intended to offer an alternative to the urban slums of the late nineteenth century. The Guild land is still managed in the spirit of Ruskin’s early priorities: ‘we will try to make some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful,’ he wrote in May 1871. And Henk discusses with enthusiasm the positive effect of felling their tree correctly, so that the coppiced stem can regrow and the woodland, in time, become stronger and more healthy. He is unequivocal, too, about the quality of the Bewdley oak: its long, straight-grained stem lent itself perfectly to the steambending required to make the pod and meant hardly any timber was wasted. An entire tree was used for What you do...; all that was discarded was what Henk terms ‘a few knobbly bits and lumps’.
Just as importantly, the sensual properties of the wood became increasingly evident as Henk worked, and are an important element of the finished piece. What you do... is a tactile experience, at turns drawing you in with its smoothness and intriguing you with the textures of the tooling marks; the warm pinkish colour of the oak evokes impressions of delicacy and newness and sunlight; the scent, in contrast, is quite heavy, reminiscent of sherry casks and vintners and so provoking associations with dark cellars and winter nights. The basic material of the piece, the oak, demands attention and encourages a nuanced response. And although the tree was chosen for practical reasons – it was easy to access and had an interesting crown – there is an element of romance to it which links the wood directly to the ideas being explored: having counted the rings after felling, Henk estimates the tree to be around 120 years old, which would mean that it was growing as a sapling when John Ruskin was still alive.
For her part of the piece – around 40 linked artworks lining the interior of the pod – Mir began by tackling biographies of Ruskin, trying, to ‘read between the lines’ and consider how his beliefs and actions might be interpreted today. She came face to face with a melancholic, complex person, she says, who sounded generous enough but whose tendency to lay down rules for living and guidelines for artists made him seem pompous and distant, distinctly mid-Victorian. She was not, initially, sympathetic to either the man or his approach to life but she did respond to a sense that Ruskin was trapped by the conventions of his upbringing and by the expectations of nineteenth-century society. And spending time with the collection which Ruskin gathered together for his Sheffield Museum, rummaging in the stores and exploring works with a magnifying glass, Mir enjoyed pieces such as the tiny bright insects painted by Edward Donovan and the wild flower illustrations in Flora Danica. She gradually began to share some of Ruskin’s enthusiasms: here, now, was a man who took delight in the natural world, in detail and colour, who was encouraging to inexperienced artists, and passionately engaged in trying to bring about a fairer society.
With these new discoveries in mind, Mir’s concern was to ‘bring Ruskin alive again’ for today. She wanted to capture a sense of Ruskin’s animation and joy, as well as his intensity and sincerity. She found she was constantly asking herself how Ruskin would have reacted to current issues and news stories, and allowing herself a free interpretation of his ideas based on her own principles of social justice. She speaks with eloquence about not ‘looking directly’ at Ruskin but allowing his voice to emerge obliquely through her work. What you do... might begin with what Mir calls the ‘grand themes’ which preoccupied Ruskin – power, inequality, climate change, work, craftsmanship, collecting – but the strength of the piece is that it resists simply regurgitating these ideas or recounting them from Ruskin’s point of view. Instead, the contemplative space inside the pod is designed to be more fluid and instinctive, prompting more volatile questions and reactions: what is our relationship to the natural world? How do we treat those around us? How should society function?
Above all, the emphasis is on the contemporary, offering ways of interpreting the present, rather than a memorial to the past, or to Ruskin himself. The title of the work nods to the social and personal restrictions of the nineteenth century, but more openly encourages us to examine ourselves now, as individuals in a thoroughly twenty-first century context (albeit one inevitably dependent on its histories). The gaps between the laths of the pod allows the external to filter through inexorably to the person inside: even when we’re tucked away within the pod space, what is happening around in the here and now changes our reaction to the piece and our perception of what we’re viewing. Mir’s series of artworks float around the space as ideas float in a dreamy mind: beetles painted in careful detail; headless, suited bureaucrats; Polish dancers whirling in traditional costume; poppies; dandelions; hooded teenagers; bright geometrics, all further confusing our sense of where we are and prompting unexpected connections.
What you do... places the notion of craftsmanship at the centre of things today by considering the ways in which we craft our own lives and our relationships with the natural and human world. This is craftsmanship in its widest, fullest sense as Ruskin explored it in perhaps his most influential work, The Nature of Gothic: craftsmanship as a means of expressing natural complexity, linking what we do with our hands to how we think and to a healthy, organic, communal way of life. The achievement of this collaborative piece is that is draws us into its heart and thus into ourselves, but in so doing, forces us to sit and contemplate – if we can bear it – what is happening beyond.