Beth Collar pieces together the remnants of stories to create artworks that fall between performance and sculpture. Recalling segments from books, school lessons and urban myth, she fashions objects that harness the power of – what are often – collective narratives. Both fact and fiction fall by the wayside as these works embody their own truth.
Performances such as her 2013 piece Like Valhalla arise from half-gleaned information – in this instance a school lesson about Norman soldiers drowning in the mud of the Cambridgeshire fens near to where Collar grew up.
Driven by the resonance of this narrative, Collar later dug up earth from the site, living with it in her bedroom while she considered what to do next.
“Not having a place for them to be and not knowing how to do anything with them, I ended up writing this letter to them. The performance is me reading a letter to the mud.”
Collar studied at London Metropolitan University and the Princes Drawing School before completeing her MA at the Royal College of Art in 2012. In March 2016, she won Standpoint Gallery’s Mark Tanner Sculpture Award 2016-17.
For the last year and a half she has been based in Bristol and holds a studio at Spike Island. In 2014, Collar was approached by curators Helen and Elizabeth Wewiora, who had seen her perform Like Valhalla at Rowing in London. They invited her to undertake a speculative residency at Glasgow Women’s Library.
Two years on, the Wewiora sisters’ initial invitation has taken the shape of a larger national touring exhibition. ‘Tall Tales‘ is an exhibition that explores the myths in our society through the work of 17 female artists.
Following exhibitions in London it is at Touchstones Rochdale in Lancashire this summer, before touring to Glasgow Women’s Library, where Collar will present a new performance work, alongside her two sculptures that are part of the touring exhibition.
How did the residency at Glasgow Women’s Library influence the work your are showing in ‘Tall Tales’?
Having undertaken it a couple of years ago, almost everything I have been producing since then has in some way been influenced by the literature that I discovered during that residency. That’s been the nice thing about the project being long term. I spent around three weeks in their archive during summer and autumn 2014. I had no particular instruction at all. The archive contains a lot of Glasgow-specific material, lots of feminist and LGTB zines and a lot of material relating to the women’s suffrage movement. I’d never really thought about my work in relation to gender, I’d always seen myself as an artist first and foremost. Doing the residency pushed me to also think about my practice in feminist terms.
I’m dyslexic and so I find library indexing difficult; once I had read something, I would often struggle to find it again. I’ve realised through this residency that I can quite happily use segments of information that I recall, without it having to be an academic way of conducting research. That’s how I work, anyway.
You’ll be back in Glasgow for a performance as part of ‘Tall Tales’…
When I return to the Glasgow Women’s Library in October for the ‘Tall Tales’ exhibition, I hope to make a performance for them specifically. I’m trying to make it quite particular to their archive. I’m interested in how memories of things get put together.
And you have two sculptures currently touring with the Tall Tales exhibition?
I’m showing two wooden carved sculptures of women’s faces; they’re almost like masks. They hang on the wall at average head height, peering outwards, brow furrowed. The facial expression of the knotted brow, with wrinkles on the forehead, is often attached to an idea of the brooding hero in popular culture – a James Dean-like expression of thought. If it appears on a woman’s face, it doesn’t hold those connotations, but has a completely different set of meanings. I was interested by the double standard and double meaning conveyed within this shared expression. I carved the faces in lime, which is a Northern European ecclesiastical wood often used in church carvings. The tree has holy connotations and also features in many Northern European fairytales. There is a power invested in this kind of material.
The texture of the faces is intriguing…
The polychroming of the sculptures was done in collaboration with a make-up artist from the Bristol branch of MAC cosmetics. I took the faces into the shop to have their make-up put on. We made them more alive – rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. If you colour-in a sculpture of a human or other creature, it becomes more real; mimesis happens and the piece begins to occupy an uncanny place. I’m interested in objects that have a power beyond themselves, that have some sort of agency. I wanted to make objects that had their own presence and that held a gaze.
While you were at Glasgow Women’s Library, were there particular themes that you started focusing on?
Because everything at Glasgow Women’s Library is a donation, they have a lot of first and second wave feminist books. I was struck by Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth from 1990. It’s quite a fun and hyperbolic book. A lot of what she was talking about, like the smoothness of women’s faces and the cosmetics advertising industry that she was highly critical of, is still existent today. The use of make-up and my focus on the forehead came out of this idea of the need for a smooth perfection.
Wolf’s book also reminded me of a really strong rumour that was in circulation when I was a kid; that a certain skin-care brand contained aborted foetuses. That’s such a ridiculously horrific image and idea. It really chimes with research that I’ve been doing into witches and the age old narrative that witches eat babies. When you look at this story online now, you uncover this impossible internet rumour machine. I’m more interested in seeing how it has gained a life online as an unresolvable tale instead of actually finding out the real truth behind it. My practice is concerned with how our memories of history – or how we were taught history – rather than history itself, shape the image we build up of the world around us.
Tall Tales is at Touchstones Gallery and Museum, Rochdale until 3 September 2016. It will then tour to Glasgow Women’s Library, 22 October – 21 December 2016
Beth Collar, Untitled (furrowed brow), Lime wood, MAC cosmetics, installed at the Freud Museum as part of Tall Tales touring exhibition