Paul Moss profiles Tanya Axford and discusses the strategies she has employed to maintain her practice.
Tanya Axford is widely regarded as one of the most exciting artists currently working in north east England, where she has been based since graduating from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1997.
This profile by artist and curator Paul Moss provides an overview of her development and identifies the approaches that underpin her practice.
Axford makes artworks that rely on a meticulous process of choosing and collecting objects that are then reinterpreted into ambitious site-specific installations.
The objects use man-made, domestic, and mass-produced materials, assembled in vast quantities to create rich and theatrical landscapes. In early works such as Sod's Lawn the audience's experience of the work was controlled by only allowing the piece to be viewed from one perspective.
In later works such as Forming Attachments and Babel's Folly the audience was allowed to interact by walking around the installation. Each time the work is exhibited it is reformed in response to the new site. The idea of a constantly evolving artwork and the way in which the viewer interacts with it are central themes in the work.
Immediately following her BA, Axford committed herself to staying in Newcastle for a year to "look for a chance" that would allow her to continue making work. Whilst signing on, she volunteered to co-ordinate the Newcastle Community Green Festival sculpture trail. This gave Axford her first experience of working alongside other artists, fundraising, and presenting work outside an art school environment.
In 1999 the installation Sod's Lawn was first shown in the group exhibition Lead by the nose, which formed part of VANE 99. The work consisted of a rolling grassy landscape made from DIY paint cards and marked an important stage in her career.
Sod's Lawn was perceived to be one of the most exciting works in VANE99. This was confirmed when the then curator of NGCA Ele Carpenter asked if the piece could be included in a forthcoming exhibition called 'Paint Too'. For Axford this will remain an exciting point, as it was the first time someone had approached her independently.
The inclusion of Sods Lawn in 'Paint Too':
- Raised her profile by presenting Sods Lawn alongside the work of other national artists.
- Gave her valuable experience of how her work might fit into a gallery context.
- Enabled her to be more confident and therefore more ambitious in terms of seeking and applying for other opportunities.
- Led to being selected for other exhibitions including 'Playing Fields' at the Laing Art Gallery where she later went on to become artist in residence.
Sod's Lawn has been included in several exhibitions including 'Goethe's Oak has Woodworm' at Static Gallery, Liverpool and 'Prospects 2001' at the Britart Gallery, London, after Axford had won the north east Pizza Express prize.
The re-exhibiting of an existing work enabled Axford to learn more about the process of exhibiting without the stress of creating and installing a completely new work, and provided an important lesson in the value of exhibiting as a networking opportunity.
Finding a place
Despite remaining committed to the continuation of her practice in the years following graduation, Axford found it difficult to gain a clear understanding of the opportunities available to her. After VANE99 she realised that there was an established local art scene that at the time didn't really feel part of. This was a feeling shared by fellow artist Cath Campbell and together they founded the organisation Chew + Show.
Chew + Show aimed to provide artists with other options, enabling them to show in unique exhibitions and events in non-gallery settings. Their first project was 'Engaged an exhibition of site specific installations and interventions in toilets in Newcastle upon Tyne'. Engaged increased Axford's visibility without the pressure being focused entirely on her own work.
Engaged was also a vehicle for Axford to meet people who provide support for artists and artist led projects. It soon became apparent that maintaining clear lines of communication with these people and organisations was essential.
People she feels have been the most influential in her career include:
- Her friends and colleagues Axford considers herself to be part of a wider group of graduates from Newcastle University who have all continued to practice as artists. This has proved to be a valuable support network as well as offering a level of healthy competition.
- Visual arts officers at Northern Arts (now Arts Council England North East) who supported her with Engaged and continue to provide advice and support.
- Curators who have shown her work and who continue to promote it.
By recognising that one opportunity often leads to another and that whilst there is perhaps an element of luck regarding the right person seeing the right work at the right time. Being as visible as possible can only add to this process along with sheer hard work and determination.
In 2000 Axford was invited along with three other north east artists to propose a new work for Locus+. This was an exciting chance to work with an organisation whose previous projects had received national and international acclaim. The resulting work was Babel's Folly, a labyrinth of thousands of rolls of domestic wallpaper crammed into an empty shop, each roll pulled into a teetering pillar pointing towards the ceiling.
As with previous works, Babel's Folly was a hugely ambitious installation, and like other works, the construction process was one of reworking and correcting until a compromise between an evolving process and a finished artwork was reached.
Limitations and priorities
While appreciating the role applying for opportunities has played in the development of her practice, Axford is aware that the nature of her work presents limitations. Opportunities often prove to be unfeasible due to the tight budget or time constraints. In a practice that relies so heavily on the process of making on site, the exhibiting of existing work, working in residence, and the commissioning of new work also present difficulties.
People are unaware of how long the work takes to install or practical issues regarding access to a site or the cost of transporting work. Whilst not wanting to appear ruthless considering the value of a project compared to the budget and timetable is crucial, and managing these issues has become a vital part of her practice. On the other hand Axford understands in some cases the profile and possibilities of an opportunity can vastly outweigh its lack of money.
In July 2002 Axford was invited to make a new work as part of 5 artists residencies at Kielder Forest supported by the Samling Foundation. The process of making new work through an investigative period in residence in a remote site gave her the chance to immerse herself in the process she thrives on.
However a forest of densely planted pine trees meant that she was forced to explore the idea of her work being an intervention into artificial landscape of somebody else's making. Untitled 2002 consisted of hundreds of digital alarm clocks concealed within an area of the forest. At 1.30pm each day the alarms sounded simultaneously, providing a sound track for the trees around.
Axford enjoyed the chance to work alongside other artists on a project that focused on a critical dialogue surrounding the work produced.
Axford recently applied for and received an Encore 10 x 10 award from Northern Arts (now Arts Council England North East. The awards are designed to enable artists to develop new work or explore new lines of enquiry without the pressure of working towards a brief or deadline. She sees this as a time of rediscovery and is at present unsure what the resulting work will be, but has decided to use her time to investigate the possibilities of creating artificial landscapes and environments through the use of new technology.
Commissions North invited Axford to make proposals for several commissions in the past, before she successfully received a commission to make a new work for the atrium space of a large business headquarters in Newcastle.
The opportunity has presented her with the challenge of making a permanently-sited work that retains the organic qualities of previous projects. Adapting her ideas to fit in with the requirements of a public or private commission is an area Axford had been keen to explore for some time.
Strategies and aspirations
Although Axford is pleased with her regional profile, she feels it can often detract from a desire to be more visible nationally and internationally, something she sees as the next important step to take. In the beginning "things seemed to just happen really quickly", but over the last year through support from a mentoring scheme she has started to take control, realising the value of being more strategic about what she does.
The success over the last few years has made her even more confident and determined to continue making new work and to challenge both her own and the audiences perception of her work.
Paul Moss is an artist and curator.
First published: a-n.co.uk April 2003
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