Ruth Barker

Camilla Løw, by Ruth Barker




Ruth Barker: Camilla, you're an artist who I think of an having a very clear 'voice' in your work - there is an aesthetic, as well as a set of concerns, which are unmistakably yours. And yet as I look through some recent images, I'm also very aware of how your work has grown and evolved - your practice certainly isn't static. Could you talk about about where those artistic concerns have come from, and perhaps how your exploration of them has developed?

Camilla Løw: I like to think that I work within a set of rules or concerns, not too strictly, but ideas that interest me within sculptural practice and that I'm constantly exploring as I gain more information about them. It could for example be a question of how much material you can remove from one piece before it collapses or stops making sense - this kind of a logic. I think this is how my practice has developed - through a constant curiousity, that leads to one experiment after another.

RB: One of the things I've always found exciting about your sculpture is the tension that seems to exist between your clear, formal vocabulary that describes space, colour, matter, form, and so on; and a very delicate associative or poetic quality that’s able to transcend the physical edges of a piece. Some of your works for example, makes me think of dancers, or gestures, or songs. Is that a fair reading, do you think?

CL: I'm very aware of that my practice deals with fragments of art history and art theory - at the same time I look to more everyday culture and experience, architecture, music, clothing, dance, typography - all of the many forms that articulate the relationship between people and their environment. I consider the work as a set of interactions with the
viewer that depend on the viewer's position and movements. For this reason my sculptures relate to human scale and human presence and the titles sometimes also refer to human characters, or even to actual humans, though this is rarer. I tend to place the sculptures in groups or a larger installation where they can communicate together. In my most recent solo exhibition I explicitly imagined the different sculptures as a set of characters on stage, a flashback to the Cabaret Voltaire, Dadaist theatre. But in fact, though these works were not exactly abstract, they more deliberately recalled inanimate things than figures, so they kept one step away from the theatre.

RB: That’s interesting because of how your sculptures articulate as well as occupy space. There's a very dynamic quality to much of your work even when sculpturally there may be an intact stillness that remains within the objects themselves. There's one exhibition of yours that I've actually seen twice for example: Straight Letters, which I saw in 2008, first at the DCA in Dundee, and then at The Pier in Orkney. The exhibitions were surprisingly divergent in how the works played with the very different gallery architectures in which they found themselves. Could you talk more about that?

CL: My work is made in relation to the space or context in which it will be seen, whether it is an outdoor piece, public commission or an exhibition in a gallery or institution. The space surrounding the sculptures, the architecture and the landscape is part of what defines and shapes the works. The sculptures made for these to shows consisted of wooden constructions and concrete cubes stacked upon each other. Bringing in modular elements such as these concrete cubes allowed me to work more directly and spontaneously with the space itself during the installation of the exhibition. At one point during the conception of the work, I realised it was possible to make sculpture that I could not physically lift, move, manipulate. So breaking the work into modular sections was a way to avoid this, to keep control. And some of the pieces shown at DCA where replaced with other works in Orkney and a couple of new pieces were made during the installation in order to sit within the exhibition and the gallery. I still like David Harding's favorite line "context is half the work".

I think I'm always looking at ways of reading sculpture - making it less autonomous and more mobile, or at least potentially mobile. I rarely fix my sculptures permanently but allow them to be stacked or balanced on each other or against a wall. If a nail is enough to hold a hanging piece up then that's how it'll be presented. This is of course a constant battle when making permanent outdoor works. I have recently been working on a new language, or a set of systems that will allow me to make outdoor sculptures that appear less monumental. By making sculptures that can be slotted together rather than welded, the system will allow for many configurations within a piece.

RB: This sense of being mobile returns to the figurative qualities that your pieces at times suggest. Can you tell me more about this idea of your sculptures inhabiting a stage - albeit, as you say, remaining 'one step away from theatre'?

CL: There are clear references in my work to the historical origins of sculpture, where the human figure is the main subject. There are often anthropometric qualities - as with the concrete cubes that each weigh just about as much as I can comfortably lift, or the nine pieces in 'Embraced, Open, Reassembled' at Sutton Lane (2008), that were all about my height. But the relationship to figuration is often indirect, coming via architecture, or fashion, through looking at the way that the structures humans create or inhabit also describe the body and its movements. I'm interested in the way that abstraction can create a double presence - objects that are both figure and architecture. As though the separation in traditional sculpture of the bust and the plinth and the room could be erased and maintained at the same time.

RB: Do you feel that this is a central concern for you?

CL: I think the relationship to theatre came initially from the spaces certain works were made for. For example, 'Culture and Leisure', the exhibition I mentioned earlier where I imagined the different sculptures as characters on stage, was made for a gallery where one wall was entirely glass, overlooking a sculpture park - so you could also view the entire space from outside, as a kind of frieze. The room was really a gallery, a long narrow room that stepped down over three levels, and walking through it seemed to be a very narrative act. So the show became a kind of promenade, where the audience inside would 'meet' each work, each character, one by one, while viewers outside would see this interaction as a kind of surreal cabaret. But, for the future, the central concern remains the idea of experimenting within a set of rules that themselves evolve, responding both to the spaces I show in and to the world around me. Right now I am working in two very different directions, developing several new, large-scale public works, and at the same time trying to find a sculptural method for making two-dimensional images in the studio.


RB: Let me ask you directly then, about that relationship between your work and the viewers who negotiate it. My own feeling is that it’s a proximity that prioritises dynamism and movement, not too dissimilar to how the sculptures maintain relationships to each other. Could you talk about that? How are the sculptures' relationships to the viewer similar of different to the sculptures' relationships to one another?


CL: I want the relationship between the sculptures to be similar to the relationship between the sculptures and the viewers - in the same way that you move around a cityscape - the relationship between you and the surrounding buildings, signs, images, other people etc. I think the experience of looking at the work is totally dependent on the viewer's participation, and I have this in mind when placing the works for an exhibition; the way certain works will frame other works or partially block the view, ask the viewer to look up, to turn around. I hope there is a certain logic to the participation of the viewer, and perhaps a curiosity or satisfaction when the viewer does participate and recognize certain systems, references or fragments within the work. I hope there is a positive sense in which it is difficult to get an overview, or find the correct viewpoint. This might lead to a suggestion of possible alternate paths through the work, an impulse to move oneself, to think through movement. Ideally, there is an accumulation of ideas, of visual concepts, that overlap, and produce a different result depending on the sequence in which they are encountered.


RB: I'm very excited by the way you bring together images of figuration (the occupied stage, the anthropometric dimensions) with images of the architectural (the traversed city, the encountered building). Of course, both of these sets of images hinge around the (implied) presence of the human, and you've spoken about the importance of your audience in the work. But I wanted to ask you something else as well: Is there a possibility of reading your work as a kind of 'deferred portraiture', which differs from the conventional portrait because rather than investigating the sitter or subject, you are rigorously examining the various vessels (the architectural spaces, the projected stages, the tailored garments) that physically and conceptually contain them? 


CL: That's an interesting question. I would say that my work is no more or less a portrait than a shirt or a coat is, or a necklace or bracelet, or a chair, or a door. It is very specific, and yet not tied to any individual. To the extent that the works seem to me to recall certain people, I discover that through making the work, rather than the other way around. And the whole process feels to me as if it is most about the relations between things, the movement around them, the gaps and holes and spaces, the way meaning comes in afterwards. Sometimes, though, when I am making the work, I think about an imaginary person who might be looking at it, and imagine how the work could describe them, make them aware of themselves, at the same time as they are looking at the work. But equally, I might imagine another sculpture that takes the role of observer. And then there are the titles, which always come afterwards, and perhaps say something about me. 


RB: I'd like to finish by asking you about the future, Camilla. I want to know more about the public works that you've been thinking of, as these seem very important to you at the moment. Tell us more about them if you can. I feel as though this shift might bring together much of what we've already spoken about - particularly the spaces between your sculptures and the architectural and human contexts in which they find themselves. 


CL: The commissions that I'm currently working on are all within quite contained and defined places. There are four projects, all in public spaces, in settings that mean people will read the works within an existing context. Each of the four projects concerns a group of sculptures in a larger configuration rather than a singular piece. People will be able to enter the spaces, to walk around them. One project will also have a tiled ground to emphasize the area. I'm finding myself concerned with solving technical questions without compromising my approach to sculpture. I'm experimenting with new materials, new ways of thinking about shapes and materials, and with apparently simple problems such as how you join one element to another, how a work meets the ground. The underlying ideas remain, but they also develop and adapt. In one group of works I'm concentrating on an idea of openness, of framing, fragmenting and cutting the landscape visually. Another group will be able to be seen from almost directly above, so at this point they will seem to resolve into a flat image. Some of the works will keep a very human scale, while others come closer to architecture. The way that I work means that it makes no sense just to amplify forms I have used in the past. The forms are not symbols or signatures with a life of their own. So I am finding different approaches to this question of scale. One, as I mentioned, has been to strip down, to open up, to empty volumes and remove barriers. Another is almost the opposite - treating massive objects as though they were feather light, aiming to create a total transformation that turns the surrounding architecture into stage setting. Working in these public spaces brings a different sense of responsibility, and a different sense of time. As well as looking at works from all angles, I have to imagine them from the future, imagine them growing older, or remaining the same as the landscape or society around them changes. This element of the unknown is the most interesting, but also the most difficult part.