The artist and art-historian Nicola McCartney visits the studio of French-born sculptor Virgile Ittah, who is renowned for her work in wax.
On the top floor of a precarious-looking building in the midst of an industrial estate in East London sits Virgile Ittah’s studio. The airy loft is flooded with natural light, which casts beams of dust onto the slabs of wax we sit among. A memento mori of a skull sits atop the artist’s book of anatomical drawings by our feet and above our heads, familiar twin busts peer out gormlessly; gaping holes for pupils and lips slightly parted (fig.1).
As we discuss Ittah’s latest project, an entirely new installation specially conceived for the artist’s show as part of The Catlin Art Prize, I discover that the busts are indeed self-portraits. Supported by Catlin, the art insurers and their curator, Justin Hammond, who has been a great mentor she says, Ittah is creating an entire room of dripping wax that the viewer can walk through. In the middle of the 50 square metres will lay the twined self-portraits. Their full bodies, the armatures of which are across the road at the metalwork factory, will each be draped across Victorian iron-cast bed frames (figs.3,4&5). The figures will no-doubt, like her other wax-works, appear ghost-like. In this case, however, themes of mortality and exile will be even more explicit as their feet become one and the same with the wax floor the viewer treads on. Whether Ittah’s spirited sculptures are nearing death or new life in their cycle is ambiguous and complemented by their physical suspense.
The iron-cast bed frames are covered in peeling white paint, they are cold and institutionalised. This is not a coincidence, it symbolises Ittah’s personal understanding of her family’s history of mental health and the asylum. The mirrored-image of incarceration thus evokes questions of self, psyche and the ego. Of Jewish background, Ittah discusses how her family has a history of exile, constant flux and her personal sense of displacement. It’s this nomadic cultural history, she says, that can lead to feelings of insecurity and a need for assimilation: ‘As a child, I felt that my lack of identity was a hindrance but now I realise that it gives me freedom to recreate myself and my artwork again and again.’ Indeed, not only is Ittah’s home in any one country of residence of temporary nature, so too is her work, which is always site-specific. At 60 kilos each, her large-scale, heavy sculptures are difficult to store and they are often destroyed at the end of an exhibition. So too is the nature of wax inherently transient.
It is important to Ittah that she ‘creates’ and does not ‘copy’. For example, while she regards the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere as an influential artist on her practice, Ittah does not cast her subjects, she sculpts the wax and works outwards, adding new layers progressively like Rodin did – another of her inspirations. Called modelling, this technique ‘gives life’ to the subject and ‘contains a sense of movement’ unlike the cast, she says, which is instantly inanimate and dead.
White is also a recurring theme. For this show, Ittah will mix in marble effect dust with the wax. Not only is this a clever way of conveying a clinical and ghostly feel, the mimicking material has its own pertinent history for the artist. For her: ‘It represents falseness, a false Western civilisation’. Ittah tells me that the classical Roman sculptures we think of as white were once coloured but that later ages removed this polychromy as a means of conceptual and aesthetic purity. Conversely, she says Venice’s first synagogue was prevented from using real marble because the faith wasn’t deemed pure enough, and so the false marble effect and false Westernisation began.
Virgile Ittah only graduated from the Royal College of Art in London last year. Selection for inclusion in The Catlin Guide to cool new artists and then for their subsequent exhibition of only seven of the 40 featured in the guide, should demonstrate a promising career for any artist. However, Ittah had already achieved relative success, having exhibited with the Charlie Smith Gallery last year and being one of Channel 4 and Saatchi Gallery’s group show, ‘New Sensations’. While I hope her installation for The Catlin Prize gains deserved interest, Ittah already has two solo exhibitions with her partner, Hitomi Kai Yoda, lined up for the end of this year.Virgile Ittah was a pleasure to meet and I look forward to seeing her work realised and respectively praised.
The Catlin Art Prize 2014 exhibition is on from 2-24 May at Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, London, E2 7DP.
Main Image: Virgile Ittah Studio Portrait (photo: © Aaron Hammond)