Geoff Currie interviews the artists behind the St Mary’s installation, Five Sisters.
Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings have brought their unique artistic vision to York St. Mary’s for this year’s installation. Working with sherds of medieval pottery recovered from the York Art Gallery vaults, Biggs and Collings have given the sherds a new context, the installation continuing the work of the 13th century potters.
The concept, Biggs explains, is to “bring to life these sherds. We wanted to find some way of making them lively and different”. The mosaic reflects this variation in its arrangement of handles, bases and rims. The Five Sisters installation is a sensitive response to the Five Sisters window at York Minster, Biggs was inspired by the “marvellous differences in colour” and the choice the large roundels as a design unit “echoes the Five Sisters window”.
Each circle of the mosaic has its own approach to form: handles, pieces with the potter’s thumbprint or the stamp of the pottery workshop. Subtle differences in the sherds, created by damage and repair, mimic the colour variations and geometrical structure of the Five Sisters Window.
The mosaic, laid out upon the foundation of a large rectangle in the central nave, resonates with the paintings and building. There are paintings on each end of the mosaic, “one housed in an enclave, and one on a wall, each purpose built, with the fresh pink plaster left uncoated”. This arrangement is “so that you feel there is an arena in which our installation takes place, but at the same time that it’s an open thing which flows through and connects to the rest of the building. You see mosaic and painting unified”, Collins states.
Each piece bears the mark of a 13th century potter in a unique way. There was “a great sense of privilege, being able to cut through these materials”, Biggs says. The longer one spends with the work the more the material begins to divulge its secrets. Materiality, in contemporary art, is often the manipulation of modern materials into a form that is perhaps somewhat inaccessible to the viewer. The history of these sherds gives the work “a rather timeless feel. If you put your thumb there, you really are putting it in a dent created by someone’s thumb 700 years ago”. The artists’ refined sensitivity to the history of the sherds was instrumental to their choice of placement. The congregation of like markings encourages the viewer to contemplate the place from which the potsherds have come. The painting’s response to the asymmetrical chaos within the circular structures is key.
The significance of the paintings, might be overlooked: “Somebody could look at our paintings and think ‘OK, I get it, it’s a grid shape of simple diamonds’ – but the whole thing is actually quite difficult to get. You think you know the system but you don’t know it”, says Biggs. Collings concurs, “the idea of different registers is very important to us. What seems minimal, really quite quiet, turns out to be full of rich differences. We lay in some relationships and then we come back and alter them, sometimes creating more fragmentation and sometimes more unity.”
Crucially, Collings explains, “the work should reward people who want to look and stay a while with an object, and see how it resolves itself and how things are rationalized – rather than people who want that kind of transformation of materials to go on in the mind, as conceptual art does”.
The painting and the mosaic speak in their subtle variations. An initial reading may give light to the geometrical structure behind each of the four works: mosaic, painting, church and the Five Sisters Window; however, the depth of the work begins to resonate as one engages with the elements beyond our and the artist’s control. In this sense, one is engaging with a conflation of newly earthed history and the artist’s response to environment. Evident in the paintings is the addition and presentation made by Collings and Biggs.
The exhibition runs from May 21st until November 1st 2009.