Reach inside your deep insides and imagine your telepathic powers enable you not only to see another’s thoughts, but to feel their feels: the exquisite pain of a road accident injury or a child’s terror during a beating by a monstrous parent. Now accompany that with a sleep suppressant. One that does not inhibit your judgement or motor skills. Of course, you can actually slide into lullaby land, so long as you can afford the equipment to do so.
If you’ve managed to envisage telepathy and sleeplessness, then you’re some way to grasping the substance of my recent conversation with Grace Woodcock. We discussed her retro futuristic solo exhibition at Castor gallery in London, through the lens of Octavia Butler’s equally fascinating and terrifying sci-fi novel ‘Mind of My Mind’ (1977). The book tracks a young, poor and mixed race woman called Mary who goes through a dramatic transition from “latent” to “active”. She supplants her trans-racial, trans-gender breeder Doro by creating a super-race of telepaths, all connected through a universal pattern.
Grace Woodcock: I think there’s something amazing in the idea of retro futurism. In the 1960s you could be so excited about the future and now, that future has been taken away from my generation. In ‘Barbarella’ (1968), for instance, there’s a naïve happiness and the film set is full of curvaceous forms that nod to the body. In my show ‘GUT-BRAIN’, I wanted ‘Device in the Service of Life’ (2020) to be designed around the buttocks; though, because not everyone is the same size, the seat is made up of different layers, so your body can take up as much or as little space as possible.
Jillian Knipe: Most of the objects in the exhibition are padded in suedette and contain a mix of TPU, upholstery foam, power mesh, cord, neodymium magnets, copper acupuncture needles, silicone, stainless steel bolts, pro and prebiotic powder and zinc oxide. Can you tell us about the materials hidden within the sculpture?
The show is about the gut as the original brain before we were conscious creatures, and the gut as a thinking entity which influences our brain. So ‘Cnidaria I & II’ (2020) is named after a type of life form that is a floating, brainless digestive system, like a jellyfish. The gut is responsible for a lot more than we give it credit for and the materials I use are something of an ode to Wilhelm Reich’s pseudo-scientific orgone crystals and their esoteric energy claims. In this show I’ve cast pro and prebiotic capsules, spirulina and zinc oxide, into drips of silicone, as a way of fossilising. I’ve then inserted them between layers of the sculptures.
I want my body to react to the work I make, so it feels right, rather than necessarily looks right. The gut is like the deep sea: there’s not much known about it. Almost half the cells in our body with a nucleus are not human, they’re microbial or bacterial, and most of these are found in the gut. The gut microbiome has its own DNA and some of the DNA strands influence our personality more than our human DNA. When I was having allergy treatment, they couldn’t take out the gut bacteria and study them because they changed in character as soon as they were airborne.
I think of the wall mounted ‘SPH1’ and ‘SPH2’ (2020) as ears-meet-conch shells-meet-furnishings. They’re on opposite walls and seem like outer limits of the body. Can you say what they’re about and what SPH stands for?
SPH stands for sphincter, but I didn’t want it to be too literal. Within the body there are three pairs of sphincters - in the mouth, the stomach and in your bum. Of the pairs, one is conscious, the other is unconscious, and there’s a kind of testing ground between them. I wanted these three aspects to govern the whole show.
The yellow colour of the room creates a weird, glowing haze, where it’s quite hard to focus. I picked it because it has an acidic undertone, like the idea of stomach acid, and it’s jarring without being disgusting. I was after a slightly unsettled, tactile and internal bodily response to being in the gallery space. I also created a 1960s sunken living room framework for the show because it echoes my work with its stepped level design and it compliments the gut’s nature as a surveillance system for the body.
On entering the gallery, I’m really not sure where I am: a laboratory, a space craft or a safe room. Did you pre-empt the exhibition with a sense of location or did you want people to feel they were dislocated?
I like the idea of dislocation or a space you can relate to outside of context. All the sculptural shapes are softly curved and the paint colour becomes hazy within the right-angled corners of the room, so one feels lost in space. I like treading the line between something that is comfortable and something that is clinical, bodily without being anatomical. Ear-like comparisons are often made, though in reality the sculptures are not similar at all to an actual ear. Actually my works before this exhibition were all wearable and I wanted you to think of the body when you looked at them; they were both for the body and of the body.
What are you reading now?
‘The Future of Nostalgia’ (2001) by Svetlana Boym, which deals with the idea that you can be nostalgic for something that you never had in the first place. Plus, I think I’ll go back to two very dystopian novels, which got a bit heavy during lockdown. ‘Parable of the Sewer’ (1993) by Octavia Butler, where the main character experiences other people’s emotions as if they’re her own. And ’24/7’ (2013) by Jonathan Crary about the capitalist take on sleep and the notion of not being able to sleep without support, which relates to my work before ‘GUT-BRAIN’. Needing apparatus to sleep is a terrifying idea. It’s not a great future.
The full discussion of ‘Art Fictions’ GRACE WOODCOCK Episode 13 is available via Apple, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you access your podcasts on iPhone or android.