The work of Wigan-born artist, Bethan Hughes, is the focus of an exhibition at the new Project Space of the University of Leeds’ School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. The incarnation of Hughes’ interest the relationship between theory and practice, as well as the bodily and the (im)material, Softbodies (2017) is the latest installation in The Fold, a new programme of exhibitions and talks by five artists affiliated with the PhD programme.
An inspired and conceptually challenging installation, Softbodies sees Hughes push the boundaries of ‘the human’ and offer an astute critique of our contemporary condition. The installation reflects the artist’s sustained interest in digital visualisation media and features a triptych of A1 prints beside a similarly-sized trio of video screens that depict her process and become an integral part of the aesthetic. Meanwhile, two large sculptures of scaffolding and latex occupy the centre of the exhibition space. Hughes describes the installation as a single body of work that depicts ‘different elements of the whole soft body’.
The exhibition is partly an appropriation of Gilles Deleuze’s concept of ‘the fold’, and of his ideas concerning the possible ‘becomings’ and ‘becoming-otherwise’ of the human. Within the unpredictability of the fabrics (digital and material) used in Hughes’ work, viewers are exposed to the contingent, and thus fragile, nature of our everyday being. As the artist herself reflected during the private viewing, ‘You can set the parameters [of digital software] but the fabric will always fall how it falls’. Softbodies tears the human from its hermetically sealed paradigm, recognising our profound interdependence with things as well as bodies, and opens us up to consider our organic precarity.
The coloured latex of the sculptures ultimately melts into and grafts onto the floor, becoming almost translucent, taking on the fragile, malleable qualities of skin. The prints, depicting quasi-fabrics hangings from digitalised scaffolding, reinforce this material metaphor. In several of the prints, the scaffold is obscured by the hanging fabric, whilst in others it has a spectral presence, suggesting an interdependence and indistinguishability of materials. It is through these slippages of meaning and material that Hughes lays bare the porous and soluble nature of both the human and the human body.
Bethan Hughes: Softbodies, Project Space, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, 4-23 March 2017.
Hayley Toth is a PhD student in the School of English at the University of Leeds.
Image: Installation photo courtesy of Jules Lister.