Artist, Ben Woodeson discusses his practice and his solo exhibition, Obstacle at Berloni Gallery, London, with Joanne Lee and Kit Hammonds. Artist and writer, Joanne Lee is Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Institute of Art. Kit Hammonds, an independent curator based in London and Tapei, works in exhibition-making and curatorial education, and was formerly tutor of the Curating Contemporary Art programme at the Royal College of Art, London.
Joanne Lee: I would like to draw some key points out of the essay I wrote for the catalogue, as a starting point for today’s discussion. I am interested in the everyday. Here, at Berloni Gallery, we are surrounded by quite familiar things and materials, like glass and tables, and there is an attention to the objects. For example, clamps which you might find in a workshop, but not normally notice – Ben makes them part of his work; things in the world versus art objects and where they crossover. It is about the materials themselves, the ‘stuffness’ of glass, brass, steel and electricity, their sculptural qualities; properties such as weight, light, shape and volume and the way they lean, slump and drop (fig.1). Looking at the idea of performance, these objects come into the world and he has made them do something – they perform. Ben’s titles such as Unstuck, Bent and Omnidirectional often seem to suggest action or potential action. Or maybe they’re even a weird invitation to do something slightly pervy – a polymorphous perversity…
Ben Woodeson: I like that idea, an ‘invitation to polymorphous perversity’!
JL: There is the sense of ‘I shouldn’t but I want to’! These are sculptures, but they are also ‘things’, and I am interested in the ambiguity of this word. We use it when we are not quite sure what something is, we say ‘thingummybob’ or ‘thingummyjig’ and there are many curious objects here. I came across an essay by John Plotz, who explained how ‘thing’ can describe the imponderable and slightly creepy. Thinking of Ben’s work, these are the main concerns – ‘thingness’, ‘objectness’, materiality and a kind of perversity, which formed the conversations that I began to think about.
Kit Hammonds: Joanne mentioned perversity, and it links to the book, Perversion and the social relation, edited by Molly Anne Rothenberg, Dennis Foster and Slavoj Žižek, where the art object or thing sits between being a material and then having an action within a social space. My essay in the exhibition catalogue looks at the idea of risk and its management through contemporary society. We try to maintain safety on one hand, yet also allow some risks to be taken in order to profit either intellectually or financially.
BW: Working in my studio, I am probably taking more risks than I should, although I am careful. My friend Alan Magee was once showered with broken glass when he was helping! Although I do plan, as there are concepts and ideas, there is a lot of experimentation – as I am never sure. With Towering Fuck, (fig.2) a massive sheet of glass leaning out on a bracket, I measured what I wanted and ordered the re-creation of a found bracket that wasn’t strong enough. When the glass arrived I assembled it all – and hoped it would work!
You discuss risk management in public spaces, some of my older works belonged to the group The Health and Safety Violations and were overtly annoying – they set out to tease and challenge (fig.3). These earlier pieces banged, crashed, exploded and made people jump and run away; their title The Health and Safety Violations was a useful hook that attracted a lot of press attention. The Berloni show sculptures are a little more quiet and subtle…
Audience member: But they still talk about potential, and they are set up with the notion that there could be a potential incident.
BW: Nothing has actually fallen or broken, but they are very close to that edge, realistically with most of these pieces I could not push them any further or someone could get hurt.
Audience member: You ‘play’ with the materials, an important methodology, encouraging the material to do something it shouldn’t. The works aren’t built to a certain qualification that if you do A you get B, the excitement of risk is still very much inherent within the pieces.
BW: Literally, because it is an experiment and I don’t know what’s coming out the other end, it is very much pushing the limits of the materials.
JL: There is something intriguing about what happens when your works are brought into the gallery, having seen photographs of you in the studio, trying things out, holding things. It is the gallery space itself, and the way the works are lit, particularly the glass pieces – I find those really ambiguous. The works upstairs feel both visible and invisible, whereas downstairs they are quite theatrically lit, and so the shadows and reflections are explicitly confusing – there is an artifice about the way they are presented. The shadows and reflections that fall on the floor are almost as physical as the things themselves – which bit is glass and which isn’t? (fig.4)
BW: Some families saw the shadows last week and asked how I controlled them, but it is varies every time because each site will have a different set of lighting – so the works don’t come with specifications.
JL: Your work isn’t set up and so you don’t know what you are going to find when you install it in the gallery. There is an artificial, performative element of what these things become when they are made public and how you react when installing your work – the decisions you make.
BW: The show is called Obstacle, and in your writing Kit, you talked quite a lot about how we are expected to behave or how we think we are required to behave in a gallery.
KH: That’s the idea of social relation, the majority of people who enter a gallery like Berloni would have a tacit understanding of how one relates to the objects around them. What Jo was just referring to is very important, there is a staging element, the object is not just the object – but it is about where it’s placed (fig.5). The piece, Antagonistic Wall Piece (Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes) , above the staircase for example, becomes a work as a whole because of its position. But installed differently in a more ‘stand-offish’ way, like an object on a wall or a plinth, it wouldn’t create that tension between how one’s meant to behave and how one feels when encountering the work. Even if some of that is contingent on the nature of when Ben installed it, like the shadows which might not be planned; there is a very conscious relationship between the contingency and the disruption of the visitor’s expectations. You need to site the works so they become obstacles rather than objects or just things…
BW: The pieces are installed in such a way that there is almost this a journey through the gallery, that I lead people on. It is also the question of the pragmatics, the stainless steel Bent (fig.1) is actually quite strong so it’s out there threatening people with its sharp edges, but it can’t really cause harm as many have brushed against it. The work above the staircase Antagonistic Wall Piece (Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes) is incredibly vulnerable, and in a space where the visitor is in very close contact, it would become subservient and not have much threat. Yet by deliberately putting the piece above people’s heads, I managed to give it that physical space and potential threat, so certainly it is about how we encounter and react to objects.
JL: When I think about the glass pieces, there is something bossy about the scale of the sheet materials that is anti-domestic, even though they could feasibly be a patio door. With the work Point Taken (fig.6) the table itself is an ordinary type, but the scale of the glass intersecting it makes me consider the everyday differently. Suddenly I am thinking about being in this gallery and wondering what the glass windows would look like if they came out; there is something very sculptural that makes my body feel those things, the size and weight – the violence of it.
Audience member: Can you talk about the inherent beauty of the material?
BW: The materials themselves are very seductive (fig.7) I have tried using other things, but I keep returning to these very industrial sheets like stainless steel, glass and polished brass. They are aesthetically rich, but there is something subconscious and conscious going on as well. I have had a few mirrors in the studio and they are beautiful, but they bring another dialogue. I won’t go near them, as it becomes about you the viewer or me as the maker reflected in them. But it’s not about you or me, or about appearance and being presented in front of yourself – it’s about your reaction. Yet at the same time the glass sheets and the metal reflect us, so I am consciously avoiding that very specific thing about the artist’s gaze and the viewer’s gaze.
Audience member: You mentioned The Health and Safety Violation series where the works were quite active, so as a viewer you became a kind of a victim. Coming into a space you encountered these works doing stuff, but didn’t know exactly what was going on (fig.8).
BW: You had no control.
Audience member: These later works are quieter and the relationship between the work and the viewer is different because when you approach them, you are then implicated in the danger and in a way are causing it.
BW: With my recent works here, there is a conscious awareness that we are vulnerable to them – but they are to us. Whereas some of The Health and Safety Violations were performative and actually self-destructed, and the remains were all that was left. There is this symbiotic balance that we are vulnerable to the stainless steel and glass, but also that they would be consumed in the consuming – like a honey bee dying when it stings.
JL: There is a history of art works that are exceptionally destructive or dangerous and extreme, so I am thinking about what Kit touched on, the context of showing this type of artwork in a gallery or institution.
KH: You transgress into areas of what shouldn’t be allowed, but appears to be accepted. As a viewer you think the pieces must be safe, otherwise they wouldn’t be exhibited; the works must have been managed, even when sometimes they are not. This happens in the financial sector, where we have this basic trust in the financial system – yet it’s extremely fragile. Some of the theories I have been looking at in relation to Ben’s work come from gallery management, management of public space and also financial theory, which is often seen as antithetical to art theory. Your work Ben sits somewhere uncomfortably between these worlds, and shows that they are not so disconnected. That is the point about the placement of an object in a gallery, can it be installed where both the object and viewer are safe – but possibly only just?
This stops the works being objects and they become what Joanne called ‘things’, their edges are much blurrier than they first appear. Ben takes the purity of the unformed material, and presents it almost in a raw state – there is a beauty to that. The brass sheet is very beautiful in this original state, then you’ve hammered on the words so the material has gone through a process – putting itself in a state of risk. You are damaging it, but the sheet has already lost its usefulness. Those areas where it falls between one thing and another, rather than defining itself as a finished work of art are interesting.
BW: The piece Kit referred to Aberration, Agitation, Anger… (fig.9) had an extra layer of risk because I am dyslexic, so to hand stamp 96 synonyms for uncertainty into the brass without making a spelling mistake was very traumatic. It is one of the rare pieces where there is a trace of the human, with the other works I use lengths or sheets of glass as they come. The intention has created these things, but there is neither the cliché of the brush mark nor the thumbprint in wax.
JL: Your body of work at Berloni Gallery is actually quite funny and there is a lot of humour in here, but the works are threatening – like a nervous giggle.
BW: I agree there is slapstick, teasing humour in many of my pieces. I get asked about relating my work to art history. I’ve definitely suckled at the teat of Arte Povera and the aesthetic is obviously influenced by Minimalism – but it can be very po-faced and serious. One question that often comes up is: does your work refer to mortality? To me it does not. Inevitably when the viewer is around work that has an element of risk, threat or edge, they have that soft, squidgy feeling that we’re just mortal – but it is not my prime motivation. As the maker it’s more about prodding someone and seeing how will they react?
KH: Ben’s sense of humour is not a weakness, it’s actually a strength. It is more of a base humour rather than a wit! Health and Safety is fundamentally amusing, the newspapers often have stories of ridiculous over-managed situations, where things no longer do what they are supposed to do – it’s quite often absurd. Arte Povera often played with the absurd, and with the artist Roman Signer there is this basic, stupid play with materials; the relationship between function and dysfunction. I find your work quite funny because there is this slightly adolescent backfiring mechanism built into it, like the billiard balls about to fall and the electric shock. It provokes and teases so that you to want to try it, to see how bad the shock is, and not to back away in fear. This is an interesting tension, art which makes you laugh yet also makes you think; there’s a duality here…
BW: I like that provoking with my work, some pieces are overtly dangerous, some vulnerable and some not – there is always this range of experience and meaning. I’ve been thinking a lot since this show opened about the electric shock work, and about how people react to it (fig.10). When the gallery is empty and one or two people come in, they are often very nervous about that piece, and that’s what I like. When there is a group, schadenfreude comes in and there’s a sense of the playground dynamic where people ‘play’ – transmitting the shock to others. This causes me to rethink about whether these works should exist or not and how they can be presented.
KH: Risk as a benefit is based in play, it comes from role-play – a testing of limits within a safe environment. When kittens play, they’re role-playing hunting, they’re learning, building skills – but they’re also seeing how far they can go.
JL: You are playing in the studio…
BW: There are more risks in the studio, the works that are allowed out of the studio are ones that have been tested – I break a shit load of glass! The things that I have been sketching and moving forward from this exhibition, are large sheets of glass as big as I can get them, either held, suspended or on one corner point. I use rope, bungee cord and wire, wrapped round or leaning – very much held in stasis. Also a combination of the semi-rigidity of glass sheets and the bendiness of metal sheets, perhaps supporting, bracing, semi-bracing; I won’t know where that is going until I get in to the studio and break some stuff!
I use myself as litmus paper or a miner’s canary, but there is also the dialogue with the gallery or the institution. It is a process of them liking the piece, and then a discussion that might involve altering the works, which raises questions of whether they can be changed to make the works safe – without effectively ‘neutering’ them.
Audience member: Do you run into trouble with exhibiting – do you have to change the works?
BW: I do tweak them but I have a strong sense of what is or is not acceptable, it can also go the other way. Kristoffer Gansing, the director of the transmediale festival in Berlin wanted a piece on my website called Spinning Cobblestone (High Speed Crack Your Skull Open Bleed Through Your Ears Version) which I have never shown, and potentially never will. The work consists of a Berlin cobblestone on a rope which whizzes around the gallery, and if it hit your head or rib cage you would be dead. It is not a piece of polystyrene, but a seven-kilo lump of rock! In the end it worked out and finally for the commission a massive electric shock piece 25 metres long was made. The festival technicians built the work Health & Safety Violation #36 – Bite you on your ass and kiss your socks goodbye (fig.11) and it was all supervised and risk assessed; it was a managed risk. Yet an hour before it opened the building owners said absolutely not! So they negotiated and in the end the piece was shown – but it had eight guards protecting people from the work! So if we talk about managed risk, the guards guarding the people…but who guards them?
Audience member: Are you a physicist, or mathematician or a crazy inventor?
BW: The older works were kinetic and they had that frenetic movement. They exploded, caught fire, things turned over, and there were motors and works that were computer controlled. I studied Design and Technology at school, which was essentially woodwork, metal work, technical drawing and bits of engineering, that was the subject I loved. I have motorbikes, give me spanners, saws and tools and I am happy. This is a mash up of my desire to make something that isn’t quite engineering or design but demonstrates my ability to make things. I can make pretty much anything I want to, or I know enough to envisage it and then have it made. With The Health and Safety Violations there was a lot of ‘mad professor’ discussion, so rather than calling myself crazy, I think I’ll just go with slightly mad…
Main image: Ben Woodeson: Obstacle, Berloni Gallery, London, 29 May – 1 August 2015, installation view of the basement, A Little Slice of Loveliness (far left), Slotted (centre foreground), Rat Trap Neon (far right) (photo: courtesy of the artist and Berloni Gallery).