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Artist in Focus: SUSAN ALDWORTH

By Dami Ayo-Vaughan | 31st August 2017

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York

When British artist Susan Aldworth received a call from Professor Miles Whittington, a neuroscientist at University of York’s Hull York Medical School, offering her a grant centred around sleep, she was excited to be exploring a subject matter that had for years piqued her interest. “I’m very curious about what sleep is,” she says with her eyes fixed on mine. “We are vulnerable when we go to sleep, we all trust that we are going to wake up the next day. I think it’s a very, very interesting state.”

Wearing an all-black ensemble, Aldworth is buoyant as she welcomes me into her home, where we are meeting to talk about her latest exhibition, The Dark Self. We are sat in her kitchen as her living room is filled with equipment, from the ongoing construction taking place in her garden. With its rough stone walls, her kitchen is spacious, and feels like a throwback to a different time.

Susan Aldworth in Conversation

Susan Aldworth in Conversation

When she accepted the grant, she had no idea what she would make or how it would turn out – with her getting to use York St. Mary’s to put on an exhibition – seeing her work on a much larger scale than initially thought. “I’d been working on the sleep project in my studio for 2 or 3 years, just doing experimental work. I didn’t hear I got the church until November last year. I knew that if you’re going to put an exhibition in a venue that big you’re going to have put in a lot of work.” She pauses momentarily. “It was very exciting and a complete nightmare. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”

Thinking on how to fill the church space, Aldworth decided to expand the project and explore sleep using different media. The largest and perhaps most eye catching is the pillowcase installation titled 1001 Nights. Loosely based on the Arabian Nights stories, the installation saw different people embroider their interpretation of sleep in words and images using the colour scheme of blue, gold and silver, inspired by W.B. Yeats poem ‘The Cloth Heaven.’ For Aldworth, the installation offered the perfect way to explore sleep: “I wanted [to] use the pillowcases as visual metaphors for sleep. It’s not only the science of sleep I’m interested in, but also sleep as a subjective state. It’s not sleep. It’s your sleep and my sleep.” The eagerness of people to embroider the stories caught Aldworth by surprise: “I approached the Embroidery’s Guild, the Royal School of Needle work and a wonderful prison charity called Find Sell Work. Then some of [the] prisoners sewed and some schools and it went viral on the internet with people asking to join the project,” she says with a huge smile on her face. “I hadn’t realised people were going to take it seriously and do such incredible work. I think there is over 40000 hours of sewing on it, so moving.”

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York

The finished product – put together with assistance from Will Atkins, a young architect – is a stunning installation, filled with stories that exist between the two ends heart-warming and hilarious. Having all the stories from people in York brings a communal feel to the exhibition, creating not just an exhibition made in York, but one made in York by people of York. For Aldworth, that made working on it all the more special: “Although it’s a solo show, I’ve got 414 other artists in the show as well which for me is exciting. People from all walks of life, all tried [to] give me their honest response to sleep. I found that really moving. I think it makes it a show with a real soul.”

The film aspect of the exhibition was a collaboration between Aldworth and composer, Barney Quinton. “Barney and I worked in his shed together on the film. The soundtrack, he recorded his sleeping brain which he then fed into some sort of thing with lots of wires {Euromack Modular synthesis} and that’s how it got composed. It’s lovely to think a sleeping brain composed it.” The film – titled ‘Dormez-Vous?’ – explores the connection between sleep and the laying down of memories across three different people, continuing in line with the subjectivity of sleep. The soundtrack provides a beautiful sound which reverberates on the church walls and engulfs the entire exhibition, adding a feeling of calm to the exhibition.

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York

The sculpture installation was, for Aldworth, the perfect medium to use to capture deep sleep: “I’m hugely interested in deep sleep – this is the sleep where your brain makes you unconscious – your brain is really active in that state and they think it’s because your brain is trying to sort out all your memories and edits your life for you. I find philosophically very, very interesting. Who is in charge? You or your brain? There’s no evidence for sleep at that level because you’re unconscious so the only way of knowing about it to have a brain scan. What I did was make the indent on the pillow the evidence for it as pillows are soft and I wanted to capture that indent. I did so in porcelain and plaster, which are mediums I don’t really work with so I collaborated with a sculptor called Steven Geddy and he helped with them.”

The exhibition in its entirety offers an interesting exploration of sleep, which proves to be both thought provoking and heart-warming. It’s an immersive exhibition, in which one is not only drawn into Susan’s Aldworth’s interpretation of sleep but to a variety of people views on sleep.

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York

Aldworth’s interest in sleep ties into her larger fascination in human identity and its relationship with the brain: “For the past twenty years, I’ve been obsessed with what makes a person human and the relationship between the brain and our personality,” she says as her eyes light up, “I think it’s quite extraordinary that we have this piece of jelly in our head that is our personality and consciousness.” Having studied philosophy at university, Aldworth branched out to the world of science in order to answer some of her questions. “I’m quite interested in big ideas of what is, and it seems to me that neuroscientists have taken over from philosophy in trying to describe how we are and what makes us human,” she says. “I’ve been working alongside doctors and neuroscientists in different capacities over the last twenty years, trying to explore some of my questions.”

This interest has characterised much of her work, which has seen her explore human identity and the brain through various mediums and across various subjects. Aldworth’s signature image is of human parts captured through experimental etchings and prints. She creates these works by printing directly from the human body or through scans. A recurring motif in her has seen her use human hair to capture the human identity, something she ties down to her father: “My dad was a lady’s hair dresser and so I was really interested in hair from a young age. I have a friend who’s a hairdresser and he always leaves a parcel in my mailbox filled with hair for me to work with.”

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York

Working alongside neuroscientists has seen much of Aldworth’s work offers a fusion between science and art and for her there are a lot of similarities as much as there are differences between the two. “I think the laboratory is like [a] studio. I love going in them. That’s where their {scientists} creative stuff happens,” she says. “I think this art-science movement is interesting. It’s very big in Britain and Europe. I think it comes from two things – one is, art and science have gone very much away from each other, and if you look back at people like Leonardo {Da Vinci} it was always together. Secondly I think that neuroscience is answering some very big philosophical questions, and the imagery of science, with microscopic photographs and brain scans is just fascinating to artists.”

Does the relationship between art and science make the government’s cutting of art funding all the more confusing? “It’s terrible. It’s bonkers. I mean science is as creative as art, but this lack of funding for the arts is both bad for economy and the soul. Creative output is very good for the soul and is good for business if that is what you care about. If you look at the amount of money art brings through, not to nurture it is completely mad,” she says.” “It’s all about being able to measure stuff I think,” she says. “It drives me mad because it’s very hard to measure art. But, I still think that artists have a special place in society. I’ve managed to get through every door I’ve wanted to. People like artist to come and watch them working. I think they feel we bring a true vision to it. We might be politically motivated, but I think we try and see things for what they are and respond in an honest way.”

Susan Aldworth's Latest Installation at St Mary's, York, What's On York, Art in York, Culture in York

Musings

Carefully, she leans back on her chair and reflects on the exhibition, “I wanted it to be like a journey. The embroidery are little anecdotes; the film is the 3-people journey into the sleep and the sculptural pieces are quieter and more about considering what happens when you sleep. I wanted people to get inside themselves and think about sleep and what it means for them.”

With the exhibition in its final week, Susan is looking forward to her next residency which will see her head up to Newcastle University to explore epilepsy. No matter the change of subject matter, for Susan Aldworth, the human identity remains the most pivotal part of her work. “Whatever I’m doing with the human brain I’m always interested in human experience. So, when I’ve done work about epilepsy or schizophrenia, it’s really important for me to get under the skin, not just assume that I know what it is,” she says. “I think human being are very fragile, and you should never ever think you understand something unless you talk to people about it.”

The Dark Self by Susan Aldworth is on display at York St. Mary’s between Wednesday to Sunday from 11 am and 4pm. Ends on 3 September 2017.

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