Text by Kathy Noble, The Soft Machine, June 2014 I found myself surrounded by things that I wanted to touch, pick up, or use; strange primal, perhaps Neolithic, entities made from clay, wool and felt, in primary colours–tools that were for a task that was unknown to me at that moment. Hung in different spots on the walls were other objects–fan like disks woven from corn and wonky amorphous forms–verging on phalluses hung off hooks, as if kitchen implements, dangling, ready for use.
Dominating the space were a series of different soft sculptures; hulking rock like rectangles and squares, some potted with holes or orifices, in blue, brown and yellow–their hard skeletons covered in soft felt skins, sewn tightly together using blanket or surgical stitches that scarred their surfaces. Several were piled on top of one another. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two knitted things lying on the floor. These were loosely human in shape–slumped bodies with heads hanging low, depressed, over their chests, their clumpy arms and legs, sprawled outwards, ending in bulbous, heavy hands and feet.
I asked Jonathan Baldock–who was standing next to me in his exhibition at Wysing Arts Centre (2013), in order to do a public talk with me about his work–whether they were costumes or sculptures and suggested that we wore them whilst we did our talk; Jonathan laughed hesitantly. It struck me that they needed to be enacted or adorned, to become animated characters, in order to complete them.
What followed was physically traumatic. It was a very hot summer’s day and the costumes were made entirely from knitted wool, filled with itchy stuffing, with only small holes for our faces to poke out. Even though I removed much of my clothing before donning the costume, ten minutes into the talk I hugely regretted the decision to wear them, as I sweated and scratched, hot and dizzy, attempting to focus my brain and mouth in a vaguely intelligent way. I could tell Jonathan was seriously uncomfortable too, as he wriggled around opposite me, perching on the side of the stage, looking like he might pass out. We talked about many things: making, materials, sewing, knitting, his mother’s influence, artist inspirations such as Sarah Lucas, and choreographies of people and objects. But it was only through wearing the costume that I realised something extremely important to him and the work that he makes–the bodies we have, the skins we are in, the masks that we hide behind, and the things we use to extend ourselves – our movements and abilities–such as simple needles or tools, are the essence behind everything he makes.
When we are babies we learn to differentiate things via shadow, light and movement. In order for them to become objects or spaces the brain needs dynamic information or motion to understand what is around us. Colour is not an essential ‘truth’: it is an artificial construction formed by the brain in order to pick up different wavelengths, which eventually form the environments around us. As such, we are not biologically conditioned to see the world but, in fact, we have to learn to see. Whilst doing so we are taught how to exist within the framework of architecture and objects that constitute the contemporary world, and to behave appropriately within the different social contexts that we experience.
In 1975 the sociologist Erwin Goffman wrote the book Frame Analysis in which he argued that much of our behaviour is cued, or prompted, by the ‘frames’ that constitute the context of action. Which essentially means that our behaviour is triggered by the structures in which we find ourselves, and by the objects around us–we use frames to identify what is taking place. This is our “organization of experience”. More recently the anthropologist Daniel Miller began investigating Goffman’s theory and was also influenced by art historian Ernst Gombrich, and his book The Sense of Order (1979), that focused not on the artwork but on the frame in which it is placed or displayed.
Miller’s research focuses on the objects that we do not ‘see’ as such, and how these determine socially correct behaviour: “The less we are aware of them the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviour, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.”
Art is often considered as an act of ‘seeing’ and experiencing, for both artist and viewer. The impulse to make art arises from a need by the artist to see or envision the world around them in a unique way. As very young children we have no pre-conceived view of the world. We are encouraged to play, to create, to invent language and to imagine other worlds. As adults we are rarely encouraged (or perhaps allowed) to do any of this–however essential these may be for the human psyche. We learn to see and use objects as a physical language before we learn to speak–yet so much of the language of seeing is sublimated, unacknowledged, or taken for granted.
Baldock has developed his own physical language of material and colour, creating things that function as sculptures, props and paintings. Imagine an art world version of the The Wizard of Oz set in Stonehenge with Barbara Hepworth playing Dorothy, Sarah Lucas as the Scarecrow, Oskar Schlemmer as the Tin Man and Phyllida Barlow as the Lion.
Elements of his bulky amorphous, rock like sculptures are rooted in British Modernism: Hepworth’s large stone sculptures often had circular orifices, such as Pierced Form (1932), waiting to be penetrated–an idea Baldock regularly echoes in his sculptures. Yet rather than eluding to human form, Baldock’s holes often take a more literal or human form, such as mouths or holes for arms.
Baldock often creates extensions of the body that, as costumes and usable objects, can both highlight and conceal it. In this sense, Sarah Lucas’ more recent Nuds series–sculptures made from tights as if female body parts, cut up and reordered like a three dimensional version of a Hans Bellmer Pupee (the German artist’s darkly surreal photographs of limbs and torsos of plastic dolls, taken apart and reformed into monstrously sexual objects)–are relevant to this interest, in highlighting, separating, or reconstructing elements of the human form.
The sculpture-costumes Baldock has created for The Soft Machine also have predecessors in Oskar Schlemmer’s visionary work the Triadisches Ballett created in 1922 at a time of enormous social, political, scientific, mechanical and cultural transformation. Schlemmer’s sculpture-costumes masked the dancer’s bodies – in rounded, elongated, extended shapes, often accentuating a limb or curve–into an entirely new body part. He was interested in a kind of mechanisation of the body, masking the vulnerable mortal flesh–as his own ‘super-humans’–that also created smooth lines, so that the dance became a kind of abstracted painting. Prostheses, in medical terms, are used to extend, or replace parts of the human body in order to advance or replace lost function or movement. Baldock’s ‘prosthetics’ may extend elements of the body, via hard and soft forms, but they do not necessarily enhance or advance the movement. Both Schlemmer’s and Baldock’s costumes inhibit the person inside them, restricting and confining their range of movement and action. Baldock’s could also be considered in terms of cybernetics, as in its most basic form, it is about the circular relationship between object and human and the affect that occurs when one uses, or relates, thus creating a network, to the other.
Throughout the later twentieth century, there is a rich history of artists experimenting with costumes and sculptures as material forms of body, mask or prosthesis. Franz Erhard Walther created sculptures out of simple lengths of fabric, with tasks such as unfolding them, wearing them, standing in them, or otherwise used to unite those experiencing them. James Lee Byars created numerous living sculptures such as Dress for Five Persons (1969); Rebecca Horn created extensions of her body, sewing together simple fabric and wood that developed into large prosthetic extensions using material, padding and bandages–that formed bird- or dinosaur-like creatures.
Baldock often uses the objects he makes within choreographed performances. Ritual objects are utilised in most religious or belief systems as performative tools for worship, where the ‘thing’ becomes a vessel for an action or meaning greater than its materiality. One of the most common forms is a ‘rosary’–a string of beads, bones or seeds, varying in number, used to sequence prayers or remind the user of certain ideas or stories. Spiritual and transcendental values are placed upon a simple object; when engaged, it communicates to its user and could be considered to be momentarily alive.
In comparison, most objects that we actually use with our hands or bodies have a purely practical role. Artist Franz West’s Passtukes (Adaptives) were sculptures formed roughly from bandage and plaster. These wonky, bumpy, lumpen white forms were West’s ritual object: they were made to be ‘used’, yet had no ‘purpose’, other than to be handled by the viewer in whatever way he or she saw fit. As such, art, which purportedly has no inherent ‘use’, is perhaps more similar to these early forms of religious ritualistic objects than we may like to think today, in that its value lies in its transformative ability, provoking or enabling us to look or see in new ways–Baldock’s work offers us an alternative language, or frame, with which to view the world.