After a period of collaboration prolonged by the pandemic, Lily Lavorato and Amelia Frances Wood deliver a beguiling collaborative installation of sculptural works, brought to life by alchemical processes of making; mixing together ideas, objects, materials and symbols to create mysterious and potent new forms.
Upon entering A Passing Place at Assembly House, I find myself absorbed into a darkened space. It requires some perceptual readjustment to trace the outlines of artworks around me. My situational awareness is heightened, and utilising all of my senses – olfactory, audio, visual – to make sense of my surrounds, I smell a faint herbaceous scent and hear trickle of water. Carefully placed lights conceal and reveal elements of the sculptures, but there is an ambiguity about where their physical parameters begin and end, with long deep shadows cast across the floor and walls.
Disorientated as if entering a cave, I blink into the dim light. The sound piece I hear, created by collaborator Pete Cox, is designed to invoke a subterranean feeling. The fantastical rock formations and carvings found in caves, their glistening mineral-encrusted bulges, icicle-shaped growths, accumulated geological debris and animal remains, are fertile sites of inspiration for both Lavorato and Wood (in particular the cave systems of Calabria, Italy, where Lavorato’s paternal family live). Caves were used by our ancestors as sacred sites for worship and gathering, as well as providing refuge from weather and predators. The cave as a ‘place of retreat’ feels particularly poignant given the experience of many of us over lockdown, and in light of pop-psychology theories about ‘cave syndrome’ (a newly invented term to describe feelings of anxiety around re-entering society).
In the gallery, against the back wall, is a metal armature from which hang two chains of identical ceramic faces, glazed with a chequered harlequin pattern. Harlequins, mischievous tricksters of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition (comedic theatre from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), used masks to conceal who they really were. They provide the perfect vehicle for Wood to explore the gulf between our constructed social faces and our true nature as human beings.
Spot-lit dramatically, the ceramic masks create a shadowy puppet theatre on the wall behind. In conversation, Wood explained her intention was to ‘create an interaction between the exhibition and the viewer’ and for ‘the shadows of sculptures and the shadows of the audience to blur’, both becoming performative actors in a story. Looking at this work, I am reminded of Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’. In this cautionary philosophical tale, people chained to the wall of a cave watch shadows projected from objects passing in front of a fire. These shadows are the prisoners’ reality but are not accurate representations of the real world outside. Without being able to see the clear picture, they are entrapped by false perceptions in a which truth remains elusive. In lockdown many of us experienced a similar kind of reality, the outside world mediated by digital screens and unprecedented levels of disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories.
At the back of the gallery stands a totem-like metal pole, around eight feet in height, topped with a gold-painted clay mask. This work, by Wood, stares out at the viewer. Both sinister and benevolent, it observes eerily from an elevated perspective. In conversation, Wood talks about her feelings of discomfort as a woman navigating certain spaces, of ‘feeling watched’ and wanting to convey this through her work. I am reminded of John Berger, writing in Ways of Seeing (1972), about how women pass through the world with an acute awareness of their own self-image and how others perceive them, being taught from early childhood to survey themselves continuously and often with an unforgiving eye.
One of the ways Wood seeks to challenge the objectification of women’s bodies along patriarchal lines, and in turn the self-objectification that occurs, is via a series of non-traditional life drawing classes that she runs called ‘See You Naked Thursday’. Held weekly at Left Bank in Leeds, these sessions are a celebration of beautiful diverse bodies, with classes themed around eroticism, synaesthesia, poetry, trans experiences and disability. Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that bodies recur again and again in Wood’s sculptural practice and throughout the exhibition as a whole. Sometimes these bodies function as stand-ins for the artist’s own body, almost akin to sculptural avatars, or as Wood describes them, ‘extensions of myself’.
One such example is the most striking and dominant work in the exhibition, a life-sized stuffed red leatherette figure, which hangs suspended in a net from the ceiling. Lying horizontal and face down, the figure’s handstitched eyelids cry glistening strands of glass tears. Living with a diagnosis of developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia), Wood is conscious of what it is like to inhabit a body that is sometimes unruly and uncooperative, and this piece gets across the feelings of frustration and awkwardness that she often experiences.
Another way to read this work is via the fairy tale trope of the captured and imprisoned woman. Last year, both Lavorato and Wood found inspiration and spiritual sustenance in the 1992 feminist text Women who run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a psychoanalyst, poet and cantadora (or ‘keeper of old stories’). This treatise on the power of female creativity draws on Jungian archetypes, fairy tales and wildlife observation to build an alternative feminine mythology. Pinkola Estés writes that all women are born in a ‘natural psychic state’ but are at risk of losing their way as they grow up or become ‘captured’ and domesticated; their natural instincts deadened. She continues: ‘[T]here are various lures to which [women] are susceptible: relationships, people, and ventures that are tempting, but inside […] is something sharpened to a point, something that kills our spirit’. Perhaps Wood’s suspended figure has had the misfortune of being caught in one such trap.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, ensnared in a green nylon net, is a sculpted heeled shoe with a Christian Louboutin-style red sole. Sculpted by Lavorato, the shoe’s twisted stiletto heel and pointy toe lend it a ‘witchy’ feel, invoking the cartoonish feet of the Wicked Witch crushed under Dorothy’s house. It has a fetishistic, relic-like feel, as if it might contain a desiccated foot. This piece, like many in the exhibition, evoke a powerful eroticism. Elsewhere, a drawing stretched on what initially looks like animal hide, which turns out to be fleshy, ochre-coloured paper, is pulled taut by four chains, each with a red leatherette hand at its end (this is a collaborative work – the drawing by Lavorato and the sculptural elements by Wood). The drawing depicts what looks like the recesses and concavities of a cave. Whether it is a trick of the light or the illusory effects of pareidolia, I begin to see faces and body forms emerge. In the vein of Eileen Agar and Ithell Colquhoun, artists who also infused geological formations and natural landscapes with a deep eroticism, Lavorato states that the erotic is, for her, not strictly about sexuality, but ‘a powerful energy for curiosity and remaining present in the world… a spiritual and mystical experience of life’.
Lavorato is one of the founding ‘moms’ of the collective Party Mom Society (PMS), who are shaking up the performance party scene in Leeds. PMS nights are inclusive and experimental, joyously embracing the queer, non-conforming and non-binary. This ethos of openness and gender fluidity permeates through Lavorato’s sculptural practice, which seeks to collapse binaries: solid and liquid; hard and soft; masculine and feminine. On one wall of the exhibition, I find a plethora of finger-like clay protrusions covered in spines. They are hollow, with delicate threads emerging from their tips and tied with a dried seed head or burr. They resemble white calcium stalactites or perhaps ‘sea cucumbers’, a species of small, phallic marine creatures who are sometimes protandric (they change sex during their lifetime). Besides their sexual fluidity, I like to think there is a kinship between Lavorato’s artistic processes and the sea cucumber’s recycling impulse, breaking down organic matter and returning it to the ecosystem.
Lavorato and Wood’s use of everyday, often biodegradable materials, collected on walks or scavenged from around their studios, reflects their environmental sensibility. Small mounds of soil placed throughout the exhibition originate from a failed batch of tomato plants native to Calabria that Lavorato attempted to grow during lockdown, ‘as a way to connect [with family] over the distance’. Both view sculpture-making as an iterative and generative process where the materials continue to accumulate associative meanings. This is more than just resourcefulness due to scarcity of means; it is rooted in a deeper ‘ethics of care’ that is at the heart of their thinking. As Lavorato writes in her tender gallery statement, ‘materials are cared for’. Following the exhibition, the sculptures will be deconstructed, with new plans made for their constituent parts.
Experiencing the exhibition feels like being party to an intricately coded, mysterious ceremony. On the floor in the centre of the room stands a low altar made from a pane of glass resting on breeze blocks. Upon it sits a cluster of objects and natural materials: soil gathered from locations sacred to Lavorato, ceramic vessels, and what look like votive offerings of hybrid human/ animal remains covered in a shiny viscous substance. I later learn the material is clay, dusted with the ash taken from fires around which the artist devised her own rituals, and later coated in poured latex. Rather than following any particular belief system, these rituals provided Lavorato with comfort and a means for reflection and healing. As she explains:
‘The lockdown came at a time when I was struggling with an ongoing illness. I spent a lot of time processing my experiences, engaging more with trauma and its effects on the mind and body and generally trying to slow down. I was reworking how I understood my body, how to care for it and approach myself with more kindness. I began to see my practice as not just a space to produce constantly, but really as an approach to living, that my practice was as much about being in the studio and making as it was about going out for walks [and] swims and taking time to rest if my body needed it’.
To sum up, at the heart of A Passing Place is an earnest belief in the sacred and ineffable, the healing power of art and the connection to the life-giving, regenerative forces of the natural world. I found visiting the space a welcome respite from the contemporary technologies that have characterised life over the last eighteen months. More than an invitation to ruminate on forms of collectivity, self-care and ritual, it was also a testament to the pure, haptic joy of making and experiencing sculpture.
A Passing Place was on at Assembly House 30 September – 2 October 2021. A video walkthrough of the exhibition can be viewed here.
Holly Grange is a curator based in Leeds.
The review is supported by Lily Lavorato and Amelia Wood.
 Quote taken from a conversation over email between artists Lily Lavorato, Amelia Frances Wood and reviewer Holly Grange, 19/10/2010