Katrina Palmer,
The Necropolitan Line

A black and white photograph of railway infrastructure.

A train station platform brought into a gallery. It features the concrete and tarmac platform itself, red lights to warn about approaching trains, grey benches, yellow handrails and a tall wooden fence.

Katrina Palmer’s latest exhibition, The Necropolitan Line, opened at the Henry Moore Institute on 10th December. Anna Ratcliffe talks to Palmer about the exhibition and her surrounding art practice.

Anna Ratcliffe: How did the concepts behind the exhibition emerge and could you tell me a little bit about the significance of the title: The Necropolitian Line?

Katrina Palmer: I live in Waterloo, near the Necropolis building, which backs on to the original siding for the London Necropolis Railway and Cross Bones burial ground is a few minutes away. These are clandestine and mysterious sites and the more I read about them, the more intrigued I am by their histories.  It’s well documented that bodies were moved on the Necropolis Railway to ease the overcrowded cemeteries in London but the Cross Bones burial ground is shrouded by a lack of official recognition and attempts to conceal the existence of the women whose remains lie under its ground. In the work that I’ve made I’ve responded to these events and sites as a sculptor and writer. The displacement of matter and the relationship to memorial is important, but so is the physical risk implied in standing at the edge of a platform or a narrative that moves towards an end point. The title is metaphorical as much as anything because it’s about words and journeys, but it’s best not to give too much explanation because it’s an arrangement of objects, lights and space, and I hope it can be entered into in an experiential way.

AR: Your work has previously been very site specific, Endmatter in Portland as part of the ArtAngel project stemmed from the Portland stone being so heavily mined that the island has been left hollowed. However, The Necropolitan Line is part of London’s history and I was wondering why you have chosen to put this exhibition on in Yorkshire?

KP: I was excited about making a work for the HMI because of my engagement with the debates around sculpture and why I find it a relevant and peculiar subject. Although some of the specifics of the show relate stories about London, it’s a history that has relevance across the country. Leeds experienced the same problems of overcrowded cemeteries in the 19th century. I’ve worked closely with the institute and responded to the specific configuration of spaces in the HMI galleries and employed some of its particularities, like the goods lift, for example.

AR: This is the largest overhaul of the galleries to date. The exhibition transports us to an all too well known location: an English train station where no-one really wants to be but inevitably has to wait to get to their desired destination. Does the physical manifestation of this environment bear any relation to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation? If so how does simulacra within the show affect the reading of the work? Is the platform a work or a prop?

KP: Baudrillard’s theory isn’t a direct influence. I like to think that objects aren’t stable and fixed entities so that the platform, for example, can shift from being an everyday object, to an artwork, to a theatrical prop, a stage for the audience’s performance, or it can be or something drawn from the fiction in the newspaper stories that accompany that show. People engage with the environment of the work and I hope their imaginations and personal associations take them in directions beyond the immediacy of the things I’ve arranged in the space. Having said this I tend to think very practically about the use of objects in the first instance, I mean this in the sense that I was concerned to guide people through the gallery, to facilitate their journey so the objects include hand rails, illuminated posters that provide light, a map, the platform divides the journey for those who want to sit on the benches to hear the announcements or read the newspaper and the ground level allows people to pass through – in this way these things are literally props or supports. And it might be relevant to say something about the lightboxes with semaphore signals. These immediately appealed to me as sculptural forms which were found in the everyday where they’re carefully balanced and silently communicating, they might equally be experienced as props in a theatrical sense or as you follow the course of the exhibition you might engage with everything in a less superficial way than that because of they way the things actually function.

AR: The Henry Moore Institute is an art gallery that specifically exhibits sculpture and you present writing and amplified sound as sculpture – is it important to you that your practice is classified as such? It’s curious as your work is conceptual and immersive, which are attributes of contemporary art practice, but sculpture harks back to a more art historical context. In contemporary times do you believe it is important to have work defined by the medium/form as the distinctions between different art practises become more blurred?

KP: I know there’s much talk of the irrelevance of sculpture and a suggestion that we’re in a post-discipline era.  While I agree that being constrained by some outmoded sense of discipline is generally not a good thing for creative freedom, I think that sculpture is a special case. I say this because unlike other disciplines, sculpture is not defined or delimited by any particular medium like paint for painting or photographs for photography. In fact it’s almost impossible to define, and as it doesn’t curtail an artist’s choices or experiences, I see it as an exception to the post-discipline argument.  I talk about my work as sculptural because in my work I employ the uncertainties around the idea of sculpture as a way of thinking about bodies, death, memorial, balance and so on. I write about physicality but generally in relation to absences, holes, banging, cutting and often with reference to loss. These are my concerns when I’m writing and I think any sculptor should be able to move freely between the use of writing, sound, photography, installation, performance or whatever else they want to do. A sculptor might even want to work with a lump of clay and it could well be very challenging to make something interesting out of something so base and familiar.

AR: In your work sex, death and humour appear as reoccurring themes; we have Slavoj Zizek looking down from his top story window and shouting “Vegetarians” in disdain at a left wing student in ‘The Dark Object’ or violent sexual passages interspersed with a list of the contents of someone’s desk draw in ‘The Fabricator’s Tale’. I was wondering about the reasons you have these as recurring themes and why you portray them in this way?

KP: Having spent a lot of time physically making objects and structures while I was at art college, I moved from that into mainly, but not exclusively, writing about things but I still wanted to represent material engagement in words.  What I mean is, sometimes I almost need to compensate for the covert nature of the physicality of written object, by working with visceral language and stories of heightened emotional and bodily engagements.

AR: Is feminist discourse something that enters your work – I ask because the female secretary and protagonist in ‘The Dark Object’ turns the tables on her swarthy predatory employer, inverting the gendered power balance. Is this a comment on something larger?

KP: I have no hesitation in answering quite plainly: I am a feminist.

AR: Can you tell me a bit more about your upcoming Leeds-based project?

KP: I’m itching to dive into this project. It’s about Pablo Fanque, the circus proprietor and his wife who died in front his eyes. I’m reimagining the library dome as the circus big top and the story revolves around a time travelling circus, but I shouldn’t say too much more about this for now!

The Necropolitan Line continues at the Henry Moore Institute till the 21st February 2016.

Anna Ratcliffe is a writer based in Leeds.

Top Image: Katrina Palmer, The Necropolitan Line, 2015. Image courtesy of the Henry Moore Institute and Jerry Handman-Jones.

Image: Katrina Palmer, The Necropolitan Line, 2015.Image courtesy of the Henry Moore Institute and Jerry Handman-Jones.

Published 21.12.2015 by Rebecca Senior in Interviews

1,404 words