Intersections and Historical Contexts

Rosie Morris transforms one of the Laing Gallery’s, Newcastle, original Edwardian galleries with an ambitious architectural installation, entitled Circles are Slices of Spheres, which  draws on the idea of the gallery as an intersection, a “slice” of a greater whole. Morris talks to Aesthetica about installation, collaboration and historical contexts.

A: As your first exhibition in a major public gallery, how has it been working with the Laing Art Gallery in terms of collaboration and curatorial responsibility?
RM: The work I do is almost always site-specific; I love working with interesting spaces that are perhaps not appreciated fully or which I feel drawn to and can envision working with and interpreting in a different way. So this has led to a number of projects outside of a gallery setting. As such, this time, working with a gallery – with an internal infrastructure that is set up to present artwork – has been a really valuable thing. The Laing Art Gallery has really personable staff who I feel I can talk through ideas with, as a mirror and barometer of accessibility and engagement. Whilst we are in an interesting climate at the moment with regards to arts funding, where increasingly the artist has to take on the role of project manager, there is also a team here to take on things that I would normally do, so my role is to approve these things and take a step back – but again it’s about balance and ensuring that ultimately I’m happy with what goes out into the world. I think this has been the main learning curve for me.

But I think it’s more to do with relationship s- and it’s about being open, deciphering and balancing and protecting time for reflection as the project plays itself out.  I have worked for eight years behind the scenes in art organisations and for artists, so I’ve been aware of the differing balance for a while: artists who can be divas and artists who have a zen-like approach, each relationship is different. I have had a good relationship with the curator, Madeleine Kennedy and the team at the Laing Art Gallery, and we’ve been working together on this since February, so it’s been fairly short and intense. I’ve had numerous conversations with Madeleine and I feel I can be very open about ideas and this process has helped shape my own understanding and clarity about the work as it’s developed. From the beginning Madeleine was very perceptive about my practice and I felt we had a good bedrock of initial understanding to start from.

A: Could you discuss the inspiration and themes behind the displayed work, Circles are Slices of Spheres?
Ultimately the main inspiration for the work was the Gallery space itself. Gallery C in the Laing Art Gallery, built in 1904, is one of those spaces that makes you take a deep breath when you walk in. To start with, it’s huge, the longest wall is just over 23 metres, and the ceiling is vaulted with these fantastic ribbed supports and geometric sculptural recessions between them. There are no windows, these have been boarded up, and even if they were open you could have only seen the sky. To me the space really feels like a void, it feels shut off in some way, after the busy City centre and it felt like a great place to be for a while – similar to a social space such as a library or coffee shop to just read a book or reflect.

I started reading around how gallery spaces had evolved. 19th century Galleries had been spaces for social use: picnics, courting and meeting spaces. Perhaps now, to some extent the gallery seems to have left the social sphere (though artists are working hard to bridge this divide), they are spaces which can encourage an awkward self-consciousness, as we feel framed by the white walls like the objects on show within them. So I wanted to play with some of these ideas: presenting the gallery as a meditative space for viewing art and also a space where the object, the space itself and, our own self-awareness within it, is put on a pedestal.

The focus of the room as you walk in falls on a small object from the collection, a small black lacquer bowl from the Laing Collection, and then we realise we are enveloped by a large architectural painting which emphasises and continues the architectural detail and shadows in the ceiling by bringing them down to the walls to engulf us. I have also commissioned Sam Grant to create a sound piece for the space, which really brings the work and its introspective qualities to life, it’s really beautiful.

To open the exhibition I have written a script that will be read by two performers. The script explores some of the ways I think of our experience and relationship to both the gallery space and the city outside, also exploring these stark contrasts by highlighting the rituals, rules and routines associated with them. The script itself will reside in the gallery until the exhibition closes in January. I have also worked with the Laing Art Gallery Learning team and Madeleine to devise a programme of events that challenge how we think and use the contemporary gallery space, for example the artist talk will begin with a picnic and a yoga class is being held in the space.

A: How do you think that your work links up the contemporary with the historical, by placing a new architectural installation within the Edwardian galleries of Laing?
The work takes its lead from the space, so even though it’s a new and contemporary installation of work that is very different to the Neighbouring 18th and 19th Century Collection exhibited, I think it harmonises with the space very well. Firstly, the paintings in the gallery next door, though seemingly unconnected, include works that inspired me to be an artist in the first place, so this painted installation has its roots here in many ways. For example Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1868, William Holman Hunt, resonates beautifully with the work in the array of colours that can be seen within a white surface.

I visited the space many times before making the work, taking measurements, noting lighting, shadows, sounds and acoustics. Physically, the proportions and sculpture of the painting has come about through me carefully measuring the space and making a work to fit. The colours came from wanting to create a work that can be illuminated by the warm light and reference the shadows created by the lunette lights in the space. There is a suspended lighting rig which in some ways seems out of keeping with the spaces context, but I wanted to emphasise the space within-a-space it created by mirroring it’s form with a carpeted area. The sound Sam’s made also plays on how reflective the space is acoustically, in using a surround sound approach he’s played on echoes to create a unified sound which really resonates and hums.

For me it’s essential to really absorb a space before making work, only through spending time with it can I really see things in the space which I in turn want to enable other people to see. As I’ve been installing I’ve uncovered more in the space, which I wish I’d seen earlier and had the foresight to reference. In some ways in referencing the space itself so closely the work encourages us to look beyond it to see the walls and the lunette paintings, the lighting and shadows and the sense of scale.

A: How far do you think that the piece resonates in making self-reflective layers for the viewer as it intersects with the greater, communal whole?
: That’s difficult to say at this stage as the exhibition is just about to open. It’s certainly an intention and for me it works, even though I’ve been so close to the idea, I’m starting to feel I can reflect on the finished piece I’m very happy. Last weekend I met with the performers Camilla and Catherine and Jill Heslop, Creative Producer at Open Clasp Theatre Company for rehearsals. This was my first real experience seeing how the work is received and, in the discussions I had with Jill, Camilla and Catherine, I was really pleased with how they engaged with the work: they really felt the introspection of the work and the correlation between how you felt inside the space and in the context of the outside levels. Sam and I have been working on our own for the last stages of the install and you can only see how the work resonates for people by seeing it with them through their eyes, and that’s a very personal thing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the work is received.

A: Could you explain your interests in experiencing architecture and how this informs your practice on a whole and within this artwork?
I’ve always been interested in architectural spaces in a way that you feel; from the sublime experience of walking into the Pantheon in Rome and gasping, or being at the top of a mountain and feeling small and both connected and alone; to the feeling of creeping and stooping in a cellar, or ascending a loft with a skylight. I’m interested in how these experiences are formed through language and literature, psychological associations, and the immediate sensory stimuli such as light and sound which animate the space. I see the space as a container for these transient and shifting things, thoughts and feelings.

During the initial conversations with Madeleine about exhibiting at the Laing Art Gallery I was reflecting on the varying ideas in my work to date and realising that there was an umbrella or system to organise these interests. I had been sitting in the library reading architectural and philosophical books which laid out a classification of levels in terms of how we experience being the world: starting from the micro, the thing or object, the second level was defined as the dwelling space, the third the urban, then the landscape and finally the cosmic. These levels are conjoined, if not in our vision then in our psychological awareness of being in the world.

I realised this was very much how I felt about being in a space and the awareness I wanted to elicit through an artwork. In some way I see space as a membrane or a bubble, often we have reached the dwelling space through the urban, there is a transition from the outside we have left behind, we can often see it through the window or hear the traffic and despite not necessarily seeing the levels of the landscape and cosmic we are aware of our situation within them. The main aim of my work is to encourage a sense of introspection set in the context of this broader awareness, for me that’s a powerful thing.

A: Is it your intentions to create a meditative space for the audience, and if so, for what purpose?
: Yes absolutely, I think a lot of work being shown in galleries looks outward and deals with issues and themes that are vital for artists to contend with, explore and communicate. But I also believe it’s as important to start with the self, and also the present. Whilst studying for my MFA at Newcastle I realised I didn’t want to make paintings or art work anymore that created a window into an outside space, it felt too escapist. I wanted to deal with the hear-and-now and began to make work which directly addresses our experience of the space we share with the work.

As I mentioned before I think of the Laing’s Galleries as voids, with an architecture designed to emphasise the sublime experience of viewing art. This also ties in with how I look at galleries as existing somehow outside or apart from things. This isn’t necessarily something I agree with, I’d love it if art was much more open and part of everything, but it felt like a good opportunity to highlight this separation in a positive light. It would be great if people felt a desire to use the space to be in, either to feel calm or a sense of meditation or simply to absorb the space itself and be in the here-and-now.

A: Is there a sense of being prescient within the artworks – perhaps a reflection on time and relativity?
: I think this is down to each person’s interpretation of the work. I wouldn’t say for me the work is prescient in the sense of being a clairvoyant, though maybe you could interpret this as being far-seeing and having a psychological awareness of the spaces beyond and, as you say, on time and relativity. It would be fantastic if you got this from the work. There are a few hints that relate to the unified relativity of time and space, parallels between the here-and-now and the cosmic: the bowl depicts a full moon seen through the reeds and depending on your viewing perspective seems to levitate outside the cup which I love. The text also depicts the encircling sun, and the idea of us rotating: being connected to a bigger order of things. The rest is down to peoples perception of the work as a whole and the personal connections and interpretations they make.

A: What do you have planned in terms of future projects?
I’ve been working on a film collaboration with artist and friend Taryn Edmonds which has been on hold for the last couple of months, this has been a really fun project to work on with Taryn and explores the nature of conversation and collaboration in the context of our environment and the urban city, a sort of psycho-geography approach to making a film. I’m looking forward to picking this back up with her in October. I’ve also been asked by John Kippin to edit a selection of clips he took in Rome; I really admire John as a photographer and filmmaker, so it’s an exciting and daunting role. I want to bring something to the concept through the editing and to do the footage justice.

Circles are Slices of Spheres runs until 8 January at Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. Find out more:

1. Installation view of Circles are Slices of Spheres at Laing Art Gallery. Courtesy of the artist.