- The Cello Factory, Waterloo, London SE1 8TJ
The silhouettes of two giant figures, long eared, long armed—human? —animal? —mythical? —straddle the entrance to the gallery. They appear to have their backs to us, guarding what lies ahead. Or are they facing us, offering us protection, or warning, as we enter? Between the figures, a giant, golden-haired baboon can be seen against the light. Beside it, is a wooden horse, reminiscent of a nursery toy, but enlarged out of all proportion. It is one of the most striking entrances to an exhibition I’ve ever seen.
Inside the baboon seems menacing, sinister, towering over the horse. The horse, made simply of wood with its stylized, half-closed eyes, and its naïve contours, appears vulnerable, its head down, demurely facing the baboon. But as you approach The Night Horse and The Holy Baboon your perceptions are subverted. It’s the horse that has a sinister air about it, the baboon a protective one. Can the simplicity of the horse figure be trusted? Can the dominating presence of the golden baboon perhaps be interpreted as comforting, a protective giant, watching over us?
Victoria was inspired to make the Night Horse after seeing a Nigerian amulet in the Pitts Rivers museum in Oxford. One of the beliefs of the secret society of the Tiv people who made it, is that they can mount this horse, become invisible, and travel long distances to kill their enemy. It was just after the election of Donald Trump. Victoria was struck by the ferocity of feeling this had aroused. Women particularly often vocalized a wish to see Trump killed. And so Victoria made The Night Horse as a vehicle to express this dark desire. But to counteract the murderous instinct she had symbolically facilitated through the horse, The Holy Baboon came to mind, a reminder that all killing is wrong. The Holy Baboon tempers our desire to destroy. He/she acts as a kind of universal conscience.
And it is this ambiguity in Victoria’s work that is so arresting. She encapsulates through her sculpture the Jungian concepts of outward persona and shadow side. She expresses the light and dark, vulnerability and destructive feeling, love and hate that is present in all of us.
Along one wall, garments are displayed like armour, but some made of felted wool, striped yellow and black like bees. Others have protuberances; spiky porcupine-like spines that urge the viewer to step back, to keep away. Yet others are delicately woven from chains or feathers. All of these garments at once protect and entrap the wearer. They are part of Victoria’s Sculpture to Wear series. Nut/Nuit is a cloak decorated with eyes painted onto pistachio shells. The eyes are reminiscent of the ‘evil eye’ painted onto the sides of boats in Eastern Mediterranean countries. They act in Victoria’s work as a defence against those whose envy or whose negative feelings toward the wearer threaten to disrupt. Again, Victoria’s ability to perceive, acknowledge, and express our darker impulses, and to provide a shell or protection against them is at play here.
What’s most remarkable is Victoria’s versatility. I knew her first as a forger, producing steel sculptures of human and animal figures, abstracted, the lines pared back. She has since begun to use materials as diverse as wool, wood, brass, and pewter with equal creativity. It seems her skills in making small and large scale sculpture, in drawing, writing and animation, are infinite.
Victoria hasn’t abandoned her respect for our animal kingdom, however, and her firm pronouncement that humans are also primates, part of a bigger, natural, more diverse world, runs through all her work. The imperative to respect and protect nature at all costs is a consistent thread. Upstairs in the gallery, her Otherworld series of small pewter sculptures is displayed. Beautiful, intricately rendered creatures, some animal, some mythical, each carefully placed in small groups to create scenes or tableaux that tell their own stories. A heron stands proudly beside its fledging as it tries to fly. A bear dances with two figures. A group of half-human, half mythical women ‘ sisters’ gather to mourn one that is fallen and lies corpse-like between them. While these groups of figures tell stories, they also have individual value. At home, I keep a pewter frog made by Victoria on my desk. I pick it up from time to time, and it sits comfortably in my hand, the pewter warming up and reminding me of our connection with the natural world.
What I enjoy most as a non-artist about Victoria’s work is its accessibility. Playfulness combines with aesthetic appeal — everything she makes has a sensuality and a balance to it that is pleasing in itself. But perhaps her most inclusive work has been produced through her interactive I Wish project. Again, this draws on her interest in the human psyche, our hidden desires, fears, anxieties and wishes, as well as her ability to acknowledge our darker motivations. In response to a confession or wish made in confidence in a one-to-one setting, Victoria produces tiny, hand-held objects for the confidante. These talismanic objects help them to focus on a wish, or to ward off a fear.
Victoria is careful to emphasize that her objects are not intended to trick us into believing she can perform magic, or work miracles. Rather, the pieces provide comfort, and give optimism to those for whom hope is flagging. Her film, narrating the arc of the project from its conception, further explores the alchemy that can arise from this intimate interaction in a one-to-one setting and the positive responses she has received from her participants.
I took part myself, at a time when things seemed stuck. My talisman sits beside me when I work, reminding me that things do change, move on, that everything must pass. It is also a beautiful thing in itself, although I won’t say more as I have a superstitious belief that giving away too much will result in it losing its meaning for me. There’s no doubt I Wish does tap into a human instinct to believe in a force beyond the purely rational. Humans have always, in all societies, imbued inanimate objects with meaning but it’s something adults in the West have lost, and which might serve us well to reinstate. Victoria has taken her I Wish project to women asylum seekers and a children’s ward, bringing her intricate objects into the lives of people who need to have faith in something beyond the quotidian. The pieces employ a range of materials from wishbones to felt, from shiny engraved metal discs to flowers, shells, jewels, seeds or grains of sand, and are works of art in themselves, regardless of the what they may symbolize. The I Wish project, with its interactive element, provides a creative, imaginative space for people to explore their hopes in a world that might feel very bleak at times. It allows people the time to focus on what they want or need to move forward, and provides them with a physical representation of this.
It would be remiss not to mention Victoria’s interest in the emotional and physical spaces women occupy—or are prevented from occupying— in society. Her Space for a Woman series, based on trips to Istanbul where she explored the female-only parts of mosques employs many of the themes of protection versus restriction apparent in her other work. I was particularly moved by the sculpture made for her niece, an intricately woven cage, but wrapped in a softly hand-knitted woolen blanket, that combines the qualities of strength and comfort so necessary for anybody, but young women in particular, to make their way in the sometimes harsh world we inhabit today.
And overall it is this human element to Victoria’s work that singles it out. As a woman, as a mother, she doesn’t turn away from the desire to protect, nurture and play through her creations. Nor does she shy from the Jungian idea of the mother as powerful, sometimes destructive, even.
It is these conflicting, ambivalent elements that she brings to her images and stories, her sculptures and films, that make Victoria’s work so honest, warm, and rich with meaning.
Penny Hancock November 2nd 2017