Set against the backdrop of the centenary celebrations of the suffragette movement, Castlefield Gallery’s exhibition – which is co-commissioned with the University of Salford Art Collection – is the result of Ruth Barker and Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s year-long research and production residencies. Throughout 2017, the two artists exchanged ideas from their respective locations in Salford and Glasgow; each delving into the long-standing archives of either the University of Salford Art Collection or the Glasgow Women’s Library in order to formulate new visual narratives. Though neither directly reference the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People’s Act – a law that gave the vote to women over 30 who met a minimum property qualification – both bodies of work pay tribute to the women who strove, and continue to strive, to make their voices heard.
Barker hones in on the importance of speech and her own fear of “voicelessness,” particularly in the context of motherhood. On the upper floor, a photographic diptych of the artist breast-feeding her child reflects upon society’s ingrained notion of the “maternal” woman. Entitled ‘Speech’ (2018), the piece places one image alongside its weathered counterpart reflecting upon the fragile and mortal presence of a woman who is increasingly removed from society. Down in the lower gallery, Barker continues to ask “what would you use your voice to say?” with the three-channel audio piece, ‘What sound should we make’ (2018) – an artist monologue which is accompanied by the murmurings of local children attending a sonic meditation workshop. Here, we’re conscious of Barker’s voice being both empowered and submerged by the echoes of humming infants.
Exposed, centre-stage, is Victory (2013) – Her Whole Self (2018) in which a black costume hangs limp over a domestic clothes-pulley and an incomplete paper-torso is left hollow without its corporeal interior. At its feet lies ‘Her face’ (2018) – a tufted rug depicting a child’s drawing of Ishtar, goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war and power. Collectively, these works make fragile the idealistic “façades” which are often applied to women’s bodies. Barker persists in looking beneath this “veneer” by concealing gold leaf substitute with translucent wadding in ‘Thought Forms IV’ (2018). Here, both materials – referring to the artisanal and industrial – appear fragile. As viewers, we are asked to question the vulnerability of the body which masks a multitude of female voices.
In contrast, Leighton-Boyce looks to more elemental matters. She identities salt – a mundane and malleable material – as an agent with which to portray the efforts of women activists. Upstairs, ‘More energy than object, more force than form’ (2018) comprises dozens of saltwater jars all fanning inwards towards a suspended LED light strip – an electrical object subtly powered by the chemical reactions occurring between salt, water, copper and zinc. Amongst the mélange of salt-crystallisation, splatters of blue fluid and tarnished copper plates, a succinct narrative of multiple agencies working together emerges. Salt is fragile, vulnerable – it can dissolve easily – but it is also capable of crystallising or becoming an active “charge.” Salt, which wavers between form and formlessness, can evoke a reaction – a metaphor for the energy produced by women who work collectively – past and present – to power change.
This comparison is also pursued in ‘Affinity’ (2018) in which one zinc and one copper plate are etched with traces of salt. Subtly, the marks on these plates mimic the emotional and physical imprints made by the women whose lives are detailed in the Glasgow Women’s Library. Leighton-Boyce reminds the viewer of the time and energy required in making a mark while also alerting us to the impact of the smallest elemental changes. Somewhat like Barker, Leighton-Boyce draws on mythical references, notably that of the biblical story of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Returning to the lower gallery, the viewer observes 10 salt and ceramic-cast cylinders – personified in their “coupled” arrangement and their apparent pursuit of the concrete floor’s natural fault lines. Cast around steel rods, these cylinders resemble a collapsed column. We begin to question whether these cylinders depict the vulnerability of the body or rather the weakness of statutory powers – either way they signal a reform.
Though both artists draw on disparate aspects of female histories – Barker reflects upon the body’s mortality through her personal experience of motherhood while Leighton-Boyce compares the transient yet powerful memory of women with the elemental changes in salt – they collectively propose new and innovative modes of responding to the women represented in The University of Salford’s Art Collection and the Glasgow Women’s Library archives. Ultimately, both artists question how society views women, the suffragettes and female activists, and how former figures and contemporary forces might incite change today. As with the suffragettes in 1918, women are facing new turning points – in response, Barker and Leighton-Boyce entwine history, science and the arts to empower their audience in the fight against contemporaneous “voicelessness.”