A white woman with her hair tied up, wearing a dark jacket, sits in front of an artwork in a gallery.

Ways of Making:
Mir Jansen and Penny Withers

Mir Jansen with At Your Service. Photgraphy: Helena Dolby

Against increasingly fraught conversations in the UK about belonging and identity, the Ways of Making programme at Yorkshire Artspace continues to create space for artists in the city whose modes of practice bring conversation, evolution and interdependence into the gallery. Loosely bound together by this rethinking of when, where and how making occurs in the exhibition process, the work shown so far has followed several parallel trains of thought. Catherine Dee looked at the way garden and landscape can be used to make and remake spaces of intersection for a local Heeley community. Painter Andrew Hunt asked questions concerning ‘the real’ by painting portraits of a cross-section of Sheffield people, brought into extreme focus by his large-scale, intricately realised images. Both Dee and Hunt employed open models of working to create evolving shows that had a certain generosity at their centres.

For the second half of the programme, Mir Jansen and Penny Withers explore their own mediums and processes to answer the Making Ways challenge. Currently on show (until 4 November), Jansen’s At Your Service observes aspects of so-called Britishness through the lens of our most iconic institution – the NHS – and the European migrants whom it employs. As an arts coordinator for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, Jansen works with artists and musicians ‘who come to our wards to engage patients in their art or music making’. As a result, she has an everyday relationship with what she sees as a social microcosm: ‘In lots of ways every NHS hospital environment is a small version of our cities and regions’.

Small circles if wood, painted with patterns, objects and portraits. In the one most visible, a black woman is depicted smiling in a black dress, holding a book, sitting in a blue armchair.

Mir Jansen, At Your Service, detail. Photography: Helena Dolby

Her work responds to this with varying levels of abstraction. One piece attempts to humanise causes of death, another is a fragmented group portrait of NHS workers, and another is a deconstructed look at some of the values set out in the NHS Constitution. There’s a dual timeliness to the project, inspired by both the 70th anniversary of the NHS and the (near) 70th anniversaries of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. Jansen is fascinated by the benevolent spirit of these social contracts, observing:

At the time the NHS came into existence, not surprisingly of course, there must have been a real attempt to make things better for every person affected by the war and social ills of the time… If you think about it, these initiatives, this way of thinking around what makes a good society, it was a paradigm shift at that time. And a lifetime later, I worry that we forget why we this happened.

More recently, the EU and NHS have been pitted against each other ideologically, in a way Jansen finds reductive and irrevocably damaging.

Her personal politics – that of inclusivity and openness – are central to the work, though the artist is careful not to be dogmatic. She sees the work as a tribute, leaving it to the people who see it to make up their own minds, although she does hope that it makes people think more positively about the NHS and its staff.

At Your Service asks some complicated questions about service, duty, belonging and who exactly serves who. One section of the show is called ‘I Have The Right’, which takes childlike visual conventions (think end-of-the-pier cut-outs or the brightly coloured murals of a children’s ward) to depict figures from different stages of life. These playful figures are accompanied by the leading causes of death at each age depicted, making no apologies or concessions for what the messy, everyday business of the NHS is really about.

Another work, ‘You Have The Right’ is a fragmented mural made up of 60 oval-shaped panels. Together, they form a portrait of European staff members from across Sheffield Teaching Hospitals – informed by Mir’s encounters and conversations in her arts coordinator role. She used this as an opportunity to disrupt the conventional framing of portraits, so instead of painting 11 portraits of 11 individuals, she created a patchwork of interwoven experiences, a process through which she became aware that ‘stories had patterns’.

The intersection of EU and NHS is most overt in ‘We Have The Right’. A series of text-base piece take fragments of the NHS Constitution verbatim, highlighting a corresponding lack within the UK constitution. One – ‘You have the right to be given information’ – is particularly loaded. Information on what, from whom, to what end? It is impossible to not read it in light of a landscape of political misinformation. Grounded in lived experience, the work asks who has the right to give, and the right to take.

A series of collages using text and elements of the union jack flag. The central piece reads 'you have the right / to be given information.'

Mir Jansen, At Your Service, detail. Photgraphy: Helena Dolby

Jansen says she often forgets she’s an immigrant – having lived in the UK far longer than her native Netherlands – making her perspective an interesting one. She observes UK institutions and processes as both an insider and an outsider, as European and soon to be ‘not European’. Is she interested in ideas of Britishness?: ‘I am interested in any ‘ishness’ that people invent in order to create this sense of belonging’. And whilst her exhibition may not involve ‘live’ collaboration or grow organically like her fellow Ways of Making contributors, evolving process is at the forefront of At Your Service. In Jansen’s words:

Someone told me that the best way to learn something new is when you know what you want to make and this pushes you to learn. I think that is true. And you learn also by doing it wrong because it pushes you to find the right way of doing it next time.

Looking ahead to Spring 2019, Penny Withers’ work has already undergone the shifting and rethinking inherent to a Ways of Making project. Faced with difficulties when experimenting with slip-casting, Withers has returned to a process she is familiar with – throwing clay on a wheel – in order to make pieces which respond to the textures, colours and cycles of Sheffield’s geological surroundings. She describes this as an intimate experience involving ‘manipulative skills and muscle memory’. Through conversations with Peak District climbers, her installation and its ‘related variations on form’ is tied up with tactile associations with the rock face and the body.

A series of clay pots in glazes ranging from white and brown to beige.

Penny Withers, Mirage

Identifying a strange beauty in the discarded leftovers of her making, Withers will also allow the ‘blanks’ to form part of her show. These will dissolve in a tank of water over the duration of the exhibition, invoking slow geological decay, although her use of the words ‘energy’, ‘velocity’ and ‘flung’ to describe her work, suggests a much more dynamic take on these gradual, almost static processes. Elaborating on this sense of movement, she plans to use the exhibition to illustrate the cycle of a clay particle, ‘which is part of daily life in a pottery but affects everyone, as it is the very earth that we walk on’. Living in close proximity to the extraordinary geological landscapes of the Peak District, these works will have special resonance for Sheffield residents.

Through different modes of practice, the Ways of Making programme is rooted in the local whilst looking outward. For Withers, ceramics are a way to connect us to our environment and to celebrate so-called ‘failure’. While Jansen may not consider her work to be optimistic, there’s a strong humanism at play as the political is expressed through the deeply personal. Through looking at ways of making on an individual, practice-based level, we can see how the world might be made better, if only momentarily.

Mir Jansen: At Your Service is on at Yorkshire Artspace, Persistence Works, until 4 November 2018; Penny Withers will take over the gallery in Spring 2019.

Published 30.10.2018 by Lara Eggleton in Features

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