Rachel Bailey is an artist I’ve got to know through the artist peer mentoring group over the course of the past 2 years (she was one of our original members). As artists, we have shared a common preoccupation with themes of identity and draw upon the theoretical influences of our respective trainings as Art Therapists. Rachel has been supportive of my practice and continues to signpost me towards artists, texts and exhibitions that she feels might be relevant to my work. Recently she has drawn my attention to an interesting article about the Claude Cahun/Gillian Wearing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Behind the Mask, Another Mask. I have since seen this exhibition and hope to write about it through the blog.
As a means of repaying the favor, I was keen to promote Rachel’s upcoming exhibition – The Transgression of Dolls (Exploring myth, fiction and its relation to self and identity – through material objects) at Waterstones on Gower Street in London. The following blog entry is an interview I conducted with Rachel on Friday 31st March where she outlines her current art practice and the rationale for the exhibition. Please be sure to check it out!
Can you say a little bit about your training/ art practice?
Well my MA was at the Ruskin which is Oxford. It was quite hard as we were mostly left to our own devices so it was kind of sink or swim. I spent the first two years floundering but by the third year I had found my feet and did well and enjoyed it. I was making sculptural objects mostly out of paper, scrunched up and gathered paper (paper made into textiles).
I then went to the Slade where I applied and got into the painting department, which may have been an error because I was never a painter. I don’t know why they accepted me, but they did. I could never make the things that were inside my head because I didn’t have the technical support. It was quite compartmentalized. I always seem to be a bit of an outsider, maybe that’s what I choose for myself.
After the Slade I won a really big prize – The Vordemberge-Gildewart Art Prize. He was a Swiss Constructivist Artist. It’s given annually in a different European country and I was nominated. I didn’t know what it was, I remember I had to take my work to the Annely Juda Gallery, but they wouldn’t tell me what the prize was so I just left my stuff there. I ended up winning it and received £18,000 which just came out of the blue. It was a really good thing, but I didn’t know how to become an Artist off the back of it. Maybe I was already too isolated; maybe I wasn’t speaking with my own voice.
You also previously trained as an Art Therapist at Goldsmiths. Can you say how this has informed your art practice?
I think my art education set up a lot of mental prohibitions; all the things it shouldn’t be. So, it shouldn’t be craft, it shouldn’t be narrative, it shouldn’t illustrative and I added a few more like it shouldn’t be detailed or decorative…. And I think by the time I got to thirty I reached a dead end, I couldn’t do anything. I remember my partner at the time saying that my work was so quiet it was virtually silent. Anyway we split up and in the emotional trauma that followed I reevaluated many things, including my art making self.
I did an Art Therapy foundation course at City University. It was very directive and I think the first or second session we had to make a mask to represent ourselves. Goldsmiths was so anti that, you’d never do anything like that there. But it was amazing. I remember going up and getting sugar paper, a feather, glitter and the pipe cleaners. I felt exciting and creative. I think I was quite surprised by what I did. It so expresses something about me, and nobody else could see how deeply it really resonated. I seemed to be able to get myself back into my work again after that but in a different way.
It sounds as though your art education narrowed your field of vision. And then, something about studying to become an Art Therapist kind of broadened it out a bit so you were less blinkered.
Yeah, nicely put.
Your exhibition is called The Transgression of Dolls (Exploring myth, fiction and its relation to self and identity – through material objects). Where did this title come from?
Well, I had a life coaching session (about the exhibition) with a new friend of mine who I met through the open studios. It was helpful to have someone I didn’t know ask me what I wanted to get out of it. She suggested that it would good to include some sort of provocative statement and ‘transgression’ does kind of hint at something a bit dark and potentially sexually alluring. I quite like that dirty world aspect of it. But it does have a link to play and play as transgression: an activity that, as an adult, it’s hard to find the time to do and it just feels a bit naughty. So, transgression has a link to play and getting a creative energy from not doing something that you think you should (being a trickster to yourself).
The subtitle is a bit labored. I’ve been working in solitude for such a long time, just allowing myself to do what I want to do. It’s very hard now to stand back and say, “this is what it is.”
A thread which seems to run through your work concerns the juxtaposition between concealment and exposure. Similarly, within your blog, you speculate on which side of yourself will be ‘seen’ at this exhibition. I wondered how it felt to show these works publicly for the first time.
I seem to be oscillating between a dogged, “I’m just going to do it” and sheer demented terror, but that’s under control. I think my friends and colleagues will be interested and that’s fine.
What relevance, if any, is there to showing your work at Waterstones?
I worked at Waterstones myself for a very long time so I have a history with the company. I like the idea of doing it there because when I started writing my blog I didn’t realize that my inspiration comes so much about what I’ve been reading. I discovered that books seem to inform me more than the things I look at. It was interesting going through that Tate Etc. article you sent me [Are We All Anxious Now? By Jill Bennett] as she talks about how reading is between yourself and the book whereas as soon as you show and make work it’s immediately more sociable. Much more is revealed. So I feel quite good about the exhibition being in Waterstones. I had intended to have a little display of books and also a copy of The Doll Dossier which is featured on my website. This is a collection of images and quotations that I have gathered about dolls, puppets, transitional objects etc.
One’s association of dolls is that they are to be touched, held or handled in some way. Do you have any expectation as to how people should interact with your dolls given their materiality as objects?
Well because the space is not completely invigilated, I’ve made boxes for them. I’ve got a couple that I’ll bring out on the days when I’m there, but mostly they’re not going to be handled. They’ll either be in little boxes or there will be photographs of them. The thing that has really remained with me is this quote from the French feminist-thinker, Luce Irigaray who talks about using dolls as a handmade object between mothers and daughters to communicate what they can’t say (to take up a special relationship). I don’t think I really understand it, but for some reason it’s kind of stuck with me. There’s definitely something about the exchange and I really liked passing my doll around at the [peer mentoring group] meeting. They were envisaged to be passed around, but they’re not. They don’t fulfill their destiny in some way.
In my blog, I’ve been looking at a Brazilian Artist called Lygia Clark as she did happenings with objects which are passed around. People interact with them. Although, my dolls take a long time to make and if they are handed around they’ll be spoilt and dirtied. I don’t know how to get around that. Lygia Clark’s objects are things like rubber bands, balls, inflated plastic bags – quickly replaceable or mass produced things; not loaded with crafting hours like mine.
There’s also something quite erotic about other people handling something you’ve made. Maybe it’s an extension of yourself? There’s one doll that I showed at an open studio event, it’s the doll that’s disappearing into a horn shape. A woman visitor to the studio just pulled the doll out and I could feel it in my body, it was electric. It was as though she had touched me.
What would you like people to take away from this exhibition?
I’ve mostly invited people that I know, like people that I’ve lost touch with from Goldsmiths and from the Ruskin. I’m also hoping that I’ll have some nice conversations with people who just pop in. I sent an invite to UCL’s department of Psychoanalysis because that’s been a big thing that’s informed the work. I don’t know if anyone will come.
Because I haven’t really shown before, it’s like a big experiment. I’m thinking of it like a big laboratory of things I think are quite good and things that are maybe less good, but I’m still glad I made them. I don’t know how to articulate what I want someone else to get from it. I hope I will find out!
Will there be an opportunity for you to gain feedback?
Because I’m planning on being there for the tail end of the week I thought I might take some work, or sewing, and think about it almost like an open studio because those conversations are really nice. I would’ve liked to have had some workshops, but I can’t get my head around it at this point. Being there and seeing how people respond means that hopefully they’ll be an invitation to share (instead of it just all being about me).
The Transgression of Dolls…. will be showing from April 19th – 20th May 2017 at The Gallery, Waterstone’s, 82 Gower Street, WC1E 6EQ.
For more information about Rachel’s art practice (and her blog), please go to: www.quietmedusa.com