Rebecca Halliwell-Sutton creates sculptural forms and documents that trace emotional responses to our lived experience. In previous works formal qualities reference the body, invoking a certain psychological state through dichotomous elements existing in harmony and conflict. Binaries become fluid and interchangeable and objects attempt to embody feeling. Halliwell-Sutton’s practice is influenced by the idea of non-linear time, existing at the centre of circles rather than points on a line. From this vantage, conversations across generations and messages from the universe become tangible.
Halliwell-Sutton was announced as the fourth recipient of the prestigious Woon Foundation Painting and Sculpture Art Prize in 2016. The annual prize offers an exceptional opportunity to students in their final year of undergraduate study in the United Kingdom, and is jointly awarded by Northumbria University and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art as part of their successful strategic partnership. Winners of the prize receive a £20,000 fellowship and a twelve-month studio space, whilst there are also very generous runner-up prizes of £9,000 and £6,000.
Helena Whittingham spoke to Rebecca Halliwell-Sutton about her Woon Fellowship and her recent Field Studies of Touch exhibition (28 September – 21 October 2017, Gallery North), which was a culmination of the artist’s year-long fellowship at Northumbria University in the Woon Tai Jee Studio at BALTIC 39.
[Helen Whittingham]: How did you find the Woon Fellowship, can you provide an overview of what winning the prize meant to you?
[Rebecca Halliwell-Sutton]: It’s been invaluable; it would have been hard to continue making the sculptural work I wanted after art school without much money or space. This year I’ve just been left to my own devices; with a beautiful studio, workshop access, money to support myself and my practice, so I’ve just got stuck into making in the studio – which has been the biggest privilege. I have found it challenging too, questioning my right to be given the opportunity and working out how to be an artist almost, before at university I just couldn’t see it happening. Even just having the time and space to think about this stuff has been great.
[HW]: The Woon Prize appears to be very beneficial to your practice. Previous winners such as Holly Hendry have quite a strong a conversation with your work. Did any of the past recipients influence your practice? Or perhaps did winning the prize influence your practice?
[RHS]: As the year went on I became more aware of the conversations between the different fellows’ works and ended up organising a studio show with them, but I don’t think there has been a direct influence pre-Woon. I wasn’t really familiar with many of the other fellows’ work until I applied for the Woon Foundation Prize towards the end of university, most of my interests from then are still within my practice. I got in touch with the other previous Woon winners/fellows to put together a sort of handbook for the year, like I said, you’re sort of left to your own devices with the fellowship, which is fantastic, but can also be quite overwhelming when you’ve just graduated and have moved away from your existing support networks. It was the first time chatting to all the artists together, and I noticed our similarities and how beneficial our conversations were, so I proposed a small show in the Woon studio of the four of us: me, Kayt Hughes, Holly Hendry and Ramona Zoladek. It was basically just about our studio practices and how we had all occupied that space at different times. But it was really nice to see each other’s studio ephemera mingle together along with works in progress, just a nice way of bringing the four of us together after having these shared but isolated experiences. So yes maybe through that I’ve become more influenced by them, it’s hard to tell.
[HW]: Can you talk about the work at the beginning of the Woon Prize. How do you feel your work has progressed within the duration of the fellowship?
[RHS]: So Woon fellowship started October 2016 and I think I’m still processing how my work has progressed. It’s been a busy year; I think I did three solo shows and five group shows. I was quite anxious about having a stretch of time with no goals or structure so I just filled my time with that, which may or may not have been the best idea! But I started thinking through making, and being impulsive rather than overthinking and planning a lot like I had done in the past. I think the main thing has been becoming a studio based artist, getting to know materials, trying a lot of stuff out and trying not to worry about things that didn’t work. I think that’s been the biggest freedom of the prize: having the money to make work that might cost a bit and might not work, – you can take the risk when you have a safety net. I think I’ve become slightly looser and less angry about the outcome of making/trying things. So the show at the end was a product of experimenting with new ways of making and thinking over the summer.
I come from a photography background where I would plan each shoot and have a certain amount of control over the outcome, what I do now there’s a lot left to chance or just winging it. It’s also been a good chance to reflect on what my practice has been/is in terms of why I make the work. I’m still working it all out but I talked through a lot of my ideas in the School of The Damned (SOTD) ‘rooster in residence’ Instagram takeover in the summer.
[HW]: I see a lot of autobiographical content in your work. Can you talk about the themes found in the SOTD rooster in residence Instagram in comparison to Field Studies of Touch?
[RHS]: In the rooster in residence I chatted about some of the personal stuff that informed my work, as I felt like Instagram was the right platform to be open. I talked about the conflicts in sharing the autobiographical as it could limit readings of the work, but it can also be an accessible entry point. I still find it problematic to refer to the work as autobiographical (maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder that male artists’ work is rarely referred to as such, despite similarities) because when I start work it is usually with wider themes in mind, but of course it is made by me, in a specific body, with specific privileges and disadvantages that can be read and there’s usually a narrative that I can trace back to my myself. It’s usually in hindsight that I recognise it, which was why the Instagram takeover was cathartic; looking back over the past year and a half, from the Woon Prize shortlist exhibition to now.
[HW]: Tell me about your process for Field Studies of Touch? Does it feel like a conclusion to your Woon year?
[RHS]: The show marked the end of my Woon fellowship but wasn’t a conclusion at all. It was a new thread of making with similar ideas that I’d been thinking about over the year. Looking at the similarities between land and body, and our relationship between them. My body is present only in the making of this work via traces, whereas previously it was more visceral, using imagery of inside the body etc. The sculptures in Field Studies of Touch were made by lying in moulds filled with concrete, a bit like taking a cement bath, their scale based on my own proportions, they set into crevice-like landscape things.
There are three of varying sizes and the last one, once set, I took apart with a hammer and chisel: I liked the making and unmaking, constructing and deconstructing, of this quite laborious work.
Although looking at the subject of land and body – and our relationship between them is super broad – I’m specifically thinking about bodies perceived as female by science or culture*, and even more specifically between this potentially tenuous link between the ownership of land and the ownership of bodies, how our modern day society has been formed through restrictions of female autonomy; through land regulation and property ownership that made way for patriarchal practices. Field Studies of Touch is an indirect reaction to this, or at least was just on my mind a lot while I messed around in the studio. Drawing parallels between changes in the earth and ourselves as if our past is mirrored in it.
The three sculptures in Field Studies of Touch resemble empty lake beds or basins, but also have a domestic quality to their shape. It is interesting how that language – basin/bed – is also domestic. At the time I was looking at topographical maps and documentation of endorheic lakes, ‘endor’ means ‘to flow within’, because these lakes are self sufficient, they don’t have any rivers that run into it. ‘To flow within’ feels calming, especially when thinking of lakes and large bodies of water. Endo, though, is also an abbreviation of a health condition I have where menstrual blood is trapped inside of the body and ‘flows within’, causing pain and inflammation. I thought this was a funny coincidence, once again drawing parallels between bodies and earth, or maybe to how language shapes these connotations, and reminds me of how historically language has associated women with nature in a problematic binary way; by dividing women/nature and men/science. My interest in body and land isn’t to be confused with women as nature, or maybe it is but not in the reductive way it once was.
These ideas seem to be reflected and explored in the process of making, rather than the work itself. My body acts upon the material, marking and moulding concrete – which solidifies into faux rock, in a kind of reversing or undoing of the land’s regulation on our bodies or vice versa.
The faux is important too; I’m using human-made imitations, to hopefully prompt questions of what is real or natural, like the inherited knowledge we receive. Sometimes we are lead to believe certain qualities are innate and for me, this work goes against that, we’re all controlled and moulded, history is slippery.
*The reason I mention ‘female’ body is it is those bodies that have been contained and ordered historically in terms of gender and sexuality, from a history that adheres to a gender binary. But my work itself does not. It’s about how we continue to transgress these boundaries that have been set. (I’m still trying to figure out the language).
[HW]: It seems there are a lot of avenues still left for you to explore in relation to your work, but this year has definitely been beneficial in regards to thinking. What’s next after the Woon Prize?
[RHS]:At the moment I’m working on organising a series of shows taking place at Caustic Coastal in Salford from December – April 2018. The broader themes of the programme intersect with my own practice – intergenerational and circular time, how we inhabit our bodies and navigate that time, and how we communicate our lived experiences.
The first show opens 14 December and will be work by Maria Gondek, Mary Hurrell, Jesse Darling and Rebecca Ackroyd, which come together as a collection of beacons, transmitting signals and signs, by way of billboards and dreams, recollections, fictions and facts, channelled through the inferred body.
More information on Halliwell-Sutton’s upcoming project can be found here.
To learn more about the Woon Foundation Painting and Sculpture Art Prize visit the BALTIC 39 website.
Helena Kate Whittingham is a writer and assistant curator at VITRINE gallery based in London.