The old machines of Kelham Island Museum thunder and roar as if they’re gearing up for the apocalypse. This industrial racket, so disorientating to modern ears, underscores a new sculptural exhibition by Material Voice, a seven-strong collective of female artists based in Sheffield. As well as surveying the materials and processes that accelerated Sheffield’s growth as a manufacturing centre, the artists question the impact of the physical hazards and unsavoury conditions that governed the lives of its workers over the centuries.
The demands of manual labour took a huge toll on the body, as Sarah Villeneau explores in ‘The Girl that Makes the Part’ (2019). While the museum’s displays celebrate the women who with “clever fingers and a keen eye” helped keep forges and factories afloat during wartime, Villeneau uses large capillary-like structures, chained to a cavernous casting pit, to suggest that the proximity between a worker’s body and the machinery was in fact terrifying. Elsewhere, Clee Claire Lee’s work ‘On Caul: Unpaid Labour’ (2019) comments on women’s hard graft and how this has been overlooked throughout history. Skeins of steel are twisted into delicate orbs overhanging the workshop space. Gossamer-thin as these sculptures appear, they are made of sterner stuff: a testament to the buffer girls and munitionettes whose good-natured grins in the archive photos make their thankless task look like a lark.
Yet workers were not immune to the psychological strain of their profession, as Gillian Brent’s ‘Work Life Balance’ (2019) attests. Through a window you glimpse a room furnished with kitchen table and hearth, its cosiness disrupted by the endless rows of knives crammed onto every surface like some hallucinated production line. The mindless repetition and back-breaking toil does not simply vanish when the worker clocks off at the end of a shift, after all. Brent also uses cutlery, a motif intrinsic to Sheffield’s past, in a sculpture assembled from large-scale knife blanks, which at this scale seem like totems of a forgotten age. Brent is intrigued by the way British society has come to view industrial production at a historical remove, when really it has just been relocated to other countries, its fumes spilling out into other towns and filling the lungs of strangers elsewhere.
This disconnect between production line and consumer also runs through Mandy Gamsu’s piece ‘Your Asparagus Is Served’ (2019). During Victorian times, Gamsu discovered, local manufacturers might have as many as ten different prototypes for an asparagus serving dish, while the appalling conditions of the factory floor remained a secondary concern. Perched on a small dining table are a cornucopia of items: wax-spattered candelabra, gawping fish, fried eggs wantonly splotched onto the tablecloth, and a number of pink columns shouldering silver trays, which in turn bear the weight of several engorged, lime green asparagus stalks. The overall effect is suitably grotesque, a lurid dinner party inviting wealthy patrons to quibble over silverware without a thought for the workers who risked life and limb to produce it.
Other works operate at a more tactile level, amplifying the textures and lines of industrial machinery to produce bold new forms. Seiko Kinoshita’s ‘’Lathe I’, ‘Lathe II’, Lathe III’’ (2019) zero in on features of specialised cutting tools and reproduce them as intricate paper sculptures in vivid hues. These also accentuate the elegant precision demanded of even the most heavy and hulking apparatus. Elsewhere, Heliya Badakhshan’s ‘The Manifestation of Stress in Other Species’ (2019) does not attempt to compete with the noise of the enormous gas engine housed next to it, but offers stillness and reflection, meditating implicitly upon the consistencies and colours to be found in engineering. Lubricant oil, messy and invasive in a factory setting, is reconfigured in the sculpture to become the cool, unblinking onyx surface of a pool.
Finally, Kate Langrish-Smith’s sculpture ‘Electric Etiquette – Plastic When Wet’ (2019) is a study of the equipment used to produce snuff, still made in Sheffield to this day. Grinding tools resembling mortar and pestles are sumptuously displayed in a glass cabinet, making them look as ritualistic as a set of chalices in a sacristy, or somebody’s best make-up brushes. Using hues of silver, apricot and beige, Langrish-Smith restores a dash of glamour to this outmoded habit, lending snuff the kind of props it hasn’t enjoyed since the eighteenth century.
Since the artists were granted access to Kelham Island Museum’s stores for inspiration, it might be expected that the resulting works would feel obsolete, fossils excavated from Sheffield’s vanished past. Instead, they are cues to consider how that past still resonates, catapulting old inequalities into new contexts. By harnessing different elements of Sheffield’s faded legacy, Material Voice have taken on the ghosts of manufacturing to tell stories, which still ring out clearly above the clamour of the machinery.
Material Voice is open till the 29 September at the Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.