Staging an Intervention

Acclaimed artist Susan Stockwell talks to about sending art out into the public arena

Photography by Shannon Tofts

Photography by Shannon Tofts

Consisting of six tons of disused computer components, Flood is the latest instalment in a long series of site specific art installations to open at York’s St Marys, Castlegate. A deconsecrated church cum exhibition space, St Mary’s, run by the York Museums Trust, regularly plays host to innovative art installations constructed on site and referred to as interventions. I met with internationally renowned artist Susan Stockwell, the sixth artist to stage such an intervention, to discuss the creation of site specific art and what it means for her to release a work out into the public arena.

St Mary’s is by no means an easy space to work with, “It’s loaded”, as Susan describes, a space with centuries of existing connotations and affiliations attached to it. Affiliations which become unavoidable for anyone attempting to stage a contemporary project there: “At first I thought how I am going to make something that holds its own in this space, it’s so big and heavy and particular in a way,” explains Susan. “But if you draw that into it it’s better and I think I’ve managed to make something that holds its own and even affects the space.”

A tower of discarded electronic components, wires and cables designed to appear as if pouring from a pointed arch in the church’s nave, Flood succeeds in its aim to transform this ancient space by operating on both formal and conceptual levels.

“The shape of the piece relates to the spire,” says Susan. “It’s the tallest spire in York. The components are like rocks the way they are all tumbling; I guess that relates to how York is full of archaeology. Originally I envisioned more of a flood flowing out into the space, but it worked best as a pile of rubble.”

The success of Susan’s project stems from her ability to tap into the building’s history and to utilise its past to inform her work in the present. She comments: “Often in a space like this which is demanding and difficult people tend to find something they know and repeat it and it can become formulaic if you are not careful. To me the idea of a site specific work is that it will change the space.”

Although in Flood Susan uses similar objects, or rather components, as in previous projects she does so only when and where appropriate and with both caution and consideration for the space: “Although they (the components) are very contemporary they start to look very different in this ancient setting, and of course there is the connection between the components being scrapped and the church having been deconsecrated”.

As a result, Susan manages to pull both the new and old together, making Flood not only a contemporary piece but also a retrospective piece: “Flood has so many readings and connotations. It’s a very new piece coming into an ancient space, bringing new into the old, it works on lots of levels.”

Photography by Shannon Tofts

One of the main themes of Susan’s work is communication: “I guess when I first walked into the church it drew my eyes up, because that is what churches are designed to do. I wanted to draw the eye upwards in a sort of godly way. I guess that’s what modern technology is, the computer is the new god. I’m looking at the church as a way of communicating, but it was probably much more important in the past, while these days these components are our way of communicating and as important to our lives.

“The title flood not only relates to the fact that this stuff is pouring down but to a flood of information” states Susan, referring not only to modern technology but also to Christian dogma “Looking at the piece in a biblical sense, the colour red running through the work is a reference to the blood of Christ, but also York is a city that floods a lot and this church has a river running underneath it. At the same time one of our future problems is flooding with climate change so the piece fits in with all of those things.”

Stripped of its gaudy decor during the Reformation, Susan gives St Mary’s austere interior an injection of life by filling the space with a rose tinted glow set off by the red of the piece and stained glass behind it: “I painted the walls behind and across from the piece red. On the floor below the stained glass windows you get this lovely pink glow. It gives it an ethereal quality and pulls it all together, but it’s not just beautiful it’s raw and gritty. Red is the colour of innards and the cores of things. Flood is like a River of blood, it’s almost living.”

Susan is very much open to alternate interpretations of her art: “When you put a piece of work out into the public arena it’s no longer yours. The meanings and readings that other people bring are then what it becomes. I quite like that someone said it’s like a volcano coming out of the earth, because it made me think of the volcano in Iceland and this reading makes it all very topical even though it wasn’t what I intended.”

And she asks me what I think? I have to agree that the Flood seems almost animate. For me the structure becomes the lifeblood of the church, a huge pulsating heart enclosed by the arch like a protective ribcage, the very architecture of the building forming a kind of skeletal framework. Where the top of the pile of components and the pinnacle of the supporting arch meet the thrust of the two opposing elements is seemingly balanced out, uniting the older structure with the modern components in harmony and creating a close connection between the two. Flood with all its wires and intimate links across the existing space appears almost as a vessel for communication charged with and channelling an inexplicable energy in and around the space.

Photography by Shannon Tofts

It is possibly the adjustments made to the piece’s base during its construction which gives Flood the illusion of something more solid than fluid, rooted within the very architecture of the building, or perhaps reaching down to the river running beneath, though this does not seem to faze Susan who is extremely experienced in working on site specific projects and maintains that the difficulties she encounters on such projects only improve her work as an artist: “I think when you are pushed, beyond your comfort zone its difficult, we all like to stay within our comfort zone it’s a human trait, Flood did push me I have to say but I’m pleased now because its pushed my work further, and so I’m coming away from this project with something very new to take further into the future.”

So what is in store next for Susan? “I have a few Museum shows, one at the Berardo Foundation in Lisbon and one at the Katonah museum in New York in autumn,” where she has been asked to speak at a conference for the Art College Association. “I’m talking about art in the public sphere, looking at public art in a new way, public art but not as we know it. What I always thought of as public art was big sculpture that sits on a roundabout, but you know there’s a lot more to it!”

Flood at St Mary’s, Castlegate, is free to visit until October 31 2010. See more of Susan’s work at

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