In conjunction with Manchester’s Wonder Women Festival 2018, Castlefield Gallery’s exhibition of works by Ruth Barker and Hannah Leighton-Boyce mark a poignant milestone in women’s suffrage in both concept and form in their self-titled exhibition. The public opening of the exhibition landed on 8 March, International Women’s Day, with 2018 also being the year the country celebrates the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United Kingdom.
The exhibition preview included a dynamic performance from Barker, ‘If this is the last thing I say’ (2018) alongside her woven textile pieces and an installation reminiscent of the confounding and fragile human condition. Leighton-Boyce employs salt as a running theme throughout her installations that were also latterly complimented by a reading from Jo Garbutt of excerpts from her own recent works.
Leighton-Boyce’s manipulation of salt is loaded in form and movement and carries the voice of suffrage through a reflective, electrolytic pulse. Her piece, ‘More energy than object, more force than form’ (2018) is a compelling construction of wire, LED lighting and a series of copper and zinc jars filled with salt water. Where the wire clearly connects the jars, it unsuspectingly mobilises the saline electrolytes to travel in a current through the zinc and copper, eventually illuminating the LED strip lighting that hangs suspended from ceiling to floor. The collective movement of the saline particles is an ephemeral reminder of universal women’s struggle, a collective push towards a future that the LED light reminds us has – and is – very much changing, a vision of hope in the face of inequality.
The artist remarked on the importance of the Glasgow Women’s Library as a key aspect of her work. As an establishment dedicated to the lives and achievements of women, Leighton-Boyce used this celebratory institution in both research and form. The compilation of lives contained within the library inspired the process of layering in spirit, form and body, signifying a collective identity of these lives. Leighton-Boyce makes it clear that salt is not dissimilar; it bonds in form, shows a process of transformation and highlights a working system that has the ability to bring light to the most unsuspecting environments.
Barker’s work is juxtaposed with the elemental nature of Leighton-Boyce’s through her intricate commentary on fragility, loss and female nature. The heavy weight of motherhood is greatly implied in Barker’s work ‘Speech’ (2018). Distressed in form after having been left to the devices of the weather, the image shows Barker breastfeeding her child and demands the acceptance of time and memory, producing a painfully honest and self-conscious work. Whilst Barker’s performance ‘If this is the last thing I say’ (2018) stood strong on its own at the preview evening as a dramatic exclamation of loss, time and struggle, her installation ‘Victory’ (2018) beckons unrivalled attention through its forceful recognition of the relationship between identity and form. The installation shows an ambiguous leg-like form constructed from brown paper and tape, positioned in front of a suspended black gown that had been used in Barker’s previous performance, ‘Demeter Song’ (2013). Both of these forms, very much loaded in their own right seem desperate to reconnect with each other and stir the notion of desire and memory, separated by time and accessible only in hindsight.
The exhibition marks an honest retrospect of human nature through suffering, memory, time and the relentlessness of spirit. The situation of Leighton-Boyce and Barker’s work in the context of the present social climate implores viewers to look the uncomfortable realities of the past, present and future directly in the eyes.
Ruth Barker & Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
9 March – 29 April 2018.
The exhibition will subsequently be touring to Glasgow Women’s Library, 01 February – 23 March 2019.
Miles Knapp is a writer based in Manchester with an interest in curation and art direction.