Published  11/08/2016

Alice Channer: ‘The area in between the subject and the object is the area I want to locate in my work’

Alice Channer: ‘The area in between the subject and the object is the area I want to locate in my work’

The artist, who used everything from cigarette ash to microbeads to create her work, talks about cyborgs, beehives, and the problem with solid sculpture


As precise with language as she is with materials, Alice Channer describes herself as “an artist working with sculpture”. Born in Oxford in 1977, she is a long-term London resident, having studied fine art at Goldsmiths and then sculpture at the Royal College of Art. She has exhibited at South London Gallery, Kunstverein Freiburg, and Aspen Art Museum, and she participated in the 55th Venice Biennale.

Channer’s artworks are concerned with the proximities between bodies and objects, using those things that adorn and pass through us. Clothing, cigarettes, and jewellery have featured frequently – she paints with cigarette ash, and her solo show Out of Body (2012), at the South London Gallery, included aluminium casts of skirts – and recent drawings incorporate the tiny plastic microbeads  – known as nurdles – used in cosmetics.

Material processes are key to her work and Channer uses many, from 3D printing, to working with paper, textile and ceramic. Over the past few years, she has turned towards skeletal and geological forms. For the show Early Man  (2016) at the Konrad Fischer Galerie, Berlin, she filled the downstairs gallery with black plastic pellets, a raw material used in the motor industry, on top of which sat four digitally manipulated rocks.

Following Early Man, I meet Channer in her studio on an industrial estate in Bromley-by-Bow, east London, an area of the city undergoing rapid development. Surrounded by lumps of concrete and piles of industrial Polypipes, we discuss cyborgs, beehives and the problem with solid sculpture.

Rosanna McLaughlin: The rock-like formations that you showed as part of the exhibition Early Man at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Berlin (2016) have appeared in your work before, in different sizes and cast in different materials. Can you tell me about their origin?

Alice Channer: I started collecting lumps of concrete from London construction sites a few years ago, when I had a studio in Hackney. As part of the massive changes happening in the city, buildings were constantly being razed to the ground. And they were always knocked down into lumps of concrete. I started picking them up and bringing them back to the studio with me, as a way of asking, what are these lumps of matter? What are these changes that are happening around me? How do these things affect our experience of weight, gravity, materiality? None of the lumps of concrete I collected was bigger than an average human head because I had to be able to carry them to the studio. So they are all objects I would describe as being on a human scale.

Several years ago, I started trying to make a horizontal rockfall. This was part of an ongoing attempt to work with both gravity and anti-gravity. It was also one of a group of sculptural works in which I wanted to work as a human author of what we might perceive as a “natural” event. The first exhibition for which I tried to make a horizontal rockfall was Invertebrates at the Hepworth Wakefield [in West Yorkshire] in 2013. There were two pieces in the middle of the exhibition, and within each of these works there were several pieces of vertical curved, rolled and polished sheet stainless steel, on top of which I had slotted cast aluminium rocks – there were also some rocks on the floor.

RM: For the show at Konrad Fischer, scaled-up versions of the concrete rocks were cast in aluminium bronze, concrete, and COR-TEN steel as part of the work Burial [2016], which filled the downstairs gallery. Those materials, and the title of the work, bring up a history of monumental sculpture. How do these objects relate to that history?

AC: Most large-scale metal casting has a smooth, continent surface – a surface that looks like it will not break apart, can’t be penetrated, which is ironic given that it’s made up of small sections welded together. In monumental bronze casting, for example, in some ways this is practical, because it means the metal cast can be made in small pieces, but it’s also to do with making a sculpture look as if it is solid. I find solid objects very difficult. It was a great moment when I discovered that these kinds of monumental sculptures were actually hollow. My work is to do with objects that are in between, like clothing or like skin, and skin is something which is porous and which is folded.

In order to make the stretched rocks, which became part of Burial, I took one of these lumps of concrete, and made a 3D scan of it. I stretched the scan twice to an awkward degree – far beyond its original scale, to approximately the dimensions of a stretched horizontal human. I then gave the two scans to the programmer of a CNC machine [Computer Numeric Control machine, which is operated by precisely programmed commands, often used within 3D cutters], and asked for the machine to make horizontal tool-lines only when carving the shapes from foam. When the stretched rocks were cast from these CNC-carved shapes, their surfaces were pleated and folded with the horizontal lines. This means that, as I come close, their surfaces begin to multiply, and it looks like they might come apart, in the same way that skin or fabric does, when it folds or wrinkles.

RM: One of the main functions of monumental sculpture is to provide a permanent memorial to the fleeting. What, if anything, does Burial memorialise?

AC: While I was preparing for that show I looked at a lot of sarcophagi, including some at the Louvre. They are like a hard shell, an exoskeleton that has been made to exist around a soft body, while that soft body changes state. I suppose, because the Egyptians believed in the afterlife, they were protecting the body while it travelled somewhere else. When a body dies, it changes state, and it is fascinating to me that making objects that exist alongside bodies that are mutating, in transitional zones, is an original function of sculpture. Whether or not it is something you are interested in, as an artist, making art and working with materials, you will be brought really, really close to the fact that we are going to die. All art-making might be a way of preparing for that, and I think it’s something particularly closely related to working with sculpture.

A lot of this thinking came about because my father died two years ago. I was with him as his body changed, and it was a deep, cathartic and mysterious thing to experience. To be with a subject when they become an object is very strange and profound. Up until that point, a lot of my work had been interested in the gap between the subject and the object. My fascination with clothing, for example. Clothes are such weird objects because they are objects that have to be embodied: they exist in that gap. In all my work, I’m interested in finding that in-between location.

RM: In the drawings you exhibited at Konrad Fischer, you applied polyethylene microspheres to the paper as part of a polkadot pattern. As a non-degradable material used in cosmetics, they are small enough to pass through our bodies. They also outlive us. As a material, are they another type of memorial?

AC: Yes, absolutely. They are a gravestone, a monument, a way of thinking about different scales of memorial. I had to use the “massive” polyethylene microspheres, which are still sized in microns, at 400-500 microns. Microns are used to measure biological cells and bacteria, but also, interestingly, in plastic manufacturing. I don’t understand size, but I do understand scale, and I started trying to think about objects at an extremely small scale alongside the geological scale of the stretched rocks. The microbeads I used were really big, monumental if you like, because I had to use ones that I could handle, and I could just about handle those, glue them to the surface of drawing. The ones that are used in toothpaste and cosmetics are literally like a powder.

We might think of a memorial sculpture as monumental, but we know that there are plastic fibres in ocean sediments and in the bodies of marine animals that are not going to break down. In the relatively short space of time plastic has existed it has gone from being something that was extremely modern and advanced and full of optimism to something that is ubiquitous and terrifying. There are no bacteria that can break down plastic polymers.

RM: As part of Burial, the floor of the downstairs gallery was entirely covered in black plastic pellets that crunched when you walked over them. What is the industrial use of that material?

AC: It’s a recycled waste product from the automotive industry. Whatever plastic is left over is melted down, extruded, and then turned into these tiny little pellets so that it can be used again. That material interests me because it’s a raw material, regardless of whether it has been recycled. It looks like grain, seeds, pearls, or fish eggs, or gravel: it looks like any other “natural” commodity. If you ordered plastic to make the ribbed construction tubes I have been using in other works, or bin bags or the soles of shoes – the list is endless – this is the raw material that would arrive.

RM: In all your work there seems to be a question of where the human body is, or isn’t. You use the things that surround and shape us: casts of clothing and bangles, mirrored surfaces and snakeskin prints, cosmetic products that gloss and ornament. How does the body figure in your work? How can it be described, or discussed?

AC: I find the phrase “the body” really shocking, and it’s used all the time in art and culture now. Really, it should be “a body”, because “the body” assumes there is a body that is essential and foundational. I’m imagining that “the body” would probably be human, probably be vertical, and most probably be white and male.

I’m interested in what happens at the edges of our bodies, in fingers and skins, how a body might be extended, but also where its limits might be. That’s why in Early Man, in the drawings we were discussing, I wanted to use a plastic that came from a category of material that can pass through cell barriers. I’m not interested in not having a body. I’m interested in being this slab of decaying matter, that’s very weird and deeply ecstatic, but also deeply painful to experience, and that is all I have to go on really, and that’s all I want to go on. This is the way we experience art, but it’s also the way we make art.

RM: Over the past few years, there has been a shift in your work from focusing on material familiar to the high-street – textiles and jewellery, for instance – towards landscapes and geology. What prompted this transition?

AC: It’s partly to do with complexity, with working with different kinds of scale and thinking about how I can do that. It was also to do with making an outdoor work. For my first solo institutional show in America, R o c k f a l l (2015), I was commissioned to make an outdoor piece for Aspen Art Museum. I had to think about the relationship between the material and the processes and the kinds of scale I was using. What does it mean to present a work without walls and a ceiling, to present it on the ground, on the earth and under the sky? At the heart of sculpture is this big question of scale. And my big problem with sculpture, especially outdoor work, is that the scale seems so arbitrary. Why would something be so small or so big? Often there seems no reason for an object to be scaled in a certain way. I also had to think about the relationship to “nature” – whatever that word might mean.

RM: How did you determine the scale for R o c k f a l l?

AC: I used processes that involved stretching, which means the objects are embedded with the potential to change scale. The first outdoor piece I made consisted of seven different parts. It’s a single object – people kept referring to it as an installation because they couldn’t imagine how one thing might be made of several different things, which I found interesting – and I think that also shifts its scale, because while I’m looking at one thing I’m also looking at the relationship between different parts. And because R o c k f a l l uses repetitive, industrial and post-industrial processes, the objects always look as if they might have the potential to repeat themselves.

RM: If I think about artwork in relation to the subject of nature or natural forms, I get this uncomfortable feeling, because of the hackneyed, gender-coded romanticism historically tied up in that history of art-making.

AC: It’s not just nature. Materials are also thought of as pure or virginal, as “other” from us, and this is not a position that is available or desirable for me now when I am making work. Interestingly, the guy that sold me 25kg of white plastic pellets, the same as the black ones in Burial, but not recycled, called them “prime virgin material”.

RM: Would you say you have an anti-essential approach to the natural? For instance, by beginning with concrete or microspheres, human-made materials, and calling them rocks or raw materials, it seems to me that you turn the idea of purity, or the “virgin material”, on its head.

AC: My start point for making sculpture is that there are no natural materials: all materials have been authored by humans. For my generation, this lump of concrete I am holding now is a rock, whereas, for previous generations, a rock would have been a lump of granite, or basalt, or alabaster.

Nature is always seen as an origin. I titled the Berlin show Early Man ironically, referencing another supposedly natural and gendered origin. If this lump of concrete was the origin for Burial, it’s a completely ironic origin. I imagine concrete as human-made stone. How can this ambiguous and shape-shifting material, which is both incredibly sophisticated and at the heart of high-modern architecture, and also a material that allows people in basic living conditions to construct the simplest dwellings, be considered an origin? The way it’s been used in architecture is fascinating, but it’s completely artificial.

RM: In Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto [1985], she writes: “By the late-20th century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machines and organisms; in short, we are cyborgs.” I thought of the cyborg, because your artworks seem to me like hybrids – part industrial, part organic – and in a way a kind of portrait of what it means to be a contemporary subject.

AC: I’ve described my work before as figurative but without a body. I’m trying to expand the category of the figurative, and in previous works, imagining parts of the bodies of animals, but filtered through industrial materials and processes. This is an attempt to try to expand that category. I don’t necessarily experience this as a free-flowing or easygoing process, that “the natural is fused with the synthetic”, because it is often awkward and full of problems.

The piece that was upstairs at Konrad Fischer, First Rebirth [2016], is very explicitly a figurative sculpture. It’s just that it’s extremely low – it’s highest point is 20cm, it’s very long and it’s very stretched; more than six metres long. And it contains a Jesmonite [gypsum-based material in an acrylic resin] cast and a bronze cast that has been chromed, and their origin is a plastic human femur bone. I stretched a 3D scan of the plastic femur twice, so it is way longer than a human bone – the scans were 2.5 and 3 metres long respectively. These scans were then carved from foam using the same CNC process as the stretched rocks we have been talking about. Moulds, and then casts, were taken from the stretched bone CNCs. What has been so liberating for me about using 3D scanning and CNC in this way is that it has enabled me to stretch objects in extreme ways. Bones don’t stretch and curve in this way. This is an awkward thing to do, as well as an ecstatic thing to do, and that’s the feeling I wanted it to have.

RM: In First Rebirth, there were lots of different material processes. As well as the cast bones, there were curved planes of mirrored steel, pleated fabric, and a material I haven’t seen in your work before – a piece of ribbed industrial piping made in ceramic.

AC: I have been working in a ceramic workshop in Germany for several years. I went there because I wanted to challenge myself by working with heavy clay, by trying to use it like an industrial sheet material, which is something that clay does not want to do. I realised that a lot of the materials I’d been working with up until then were either liquids, such as resins that I would pour into moulds with a pre-determined shape, because I was controlling the outcome quite precisely, or they were flat, dry materials, such as a fabric, or a flat hard metal that I was curving or folding. But there was nothing in between those things, nothing muddy and heavy.

I had no idea how I would work with a substance like that, but my response was to push it in a really extreme way. I pounded it into flat sheets of standard lengths and widths like an industrial material, and then I rolled into it lengths of black ribbed Polypipe, which I see piles and piles of in construction sites whenever I am on top of a bus riding around London. They are really sexy objects, made for underground drainage, for areas where there is a lot of concrete so the ground can no longer absorb water. It was a way of thinking about geology, but geology as inseparable from human infrastructure – taking this clay, this mud, and rolling into it this ribbed industrial drainage pipe that is meant to go underground, compacted against mud. I was also solving a problem: how do I make a hard surface ribbed, folded or pleated, in order to give it complexity, multiply it?

RM: The idea of taking something that is apparently flat and making it three-dimensional is something that happens a lot in your work. You showed a large, hanging sheet of paper in the exhibition Unto This Last at Raven Row, London, in 2010, in which you had applied water to the surface of the paper so that it became raised and puckered, like seersucker fabric – an early example of making space where there seems to be none.

AC: That happened by expanding and stretching the surface. I return often to Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the “infra-thin”. He describes it as the sound that corduroy trousers make when rubbing together, the warmth that is left when a body leaves the seat, cigarette smoke. So while, in one way, he is describing absent human bodies, I think he is also describing a place, a category, an area. And that, for me, is the area in between the subject and the object, the area I want to locate in my work. This is the place I want to colonise, open up, create room to breathe.

At the beginning of [Italian philosopher] Rosi Braidotti’s book Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (2002), she says: “If the only constant at the dawn of the third millennium is change, then the challenge lies in thinking about processes, rather than concepts.” She goes on to discuss how the entire history of western philosophy is focused on the concept, and that there aren’t many words for process, for change, for what happens in between. And that’s why it might be by making objects that we can articulate these things.

RM: For R o c k f a l l at the Aspen Art Museum, you exhibited a number of large rock-like objects as a single artwork. Burial is also a single artwork, but made up of various components, which took over the entire ground floor of Konrad Fischer Galerie. Do you consider these as single objects, rather than installations?

AC: When I made R o c k f a l l, I thought a lot about bees. Apparently, experts don’t know if the bee, or an entire hive of bees, should be considered a single organism. This is because the hive operates as a single thing – an incredibly sophisticated creature or machine that doesn’t have a brain, that doesn’t have a supposedly central organ. They, or it, work in a different way. When people talked about R o c k f a l l being an installation, I would talk about the bees, that they demonstrate a different way of being, or a different way of a living organism being in the world. What if an encounter with a sculpture could bring us closer to this, physically? This is my hope, that a sculpture could suggest to you, an embodied being walking around it, an alternative state, a way to change, a different way of being.

Often people assume with my work that it is an installation that you can put together in different ways. But this isn’t the case. R o c k f a l l, for instance, is a single object and has dimensions that are fixed – there is a very long document explaining exactly how it should be laid out – it’s just that those dimensions include the gaps between the rocks. If we are talking about the works being hybrids, forming bodies, what I experience when I try to bring together all these different parts is that, although they are brought together into a new thing, something that new thing makes visible is the gap between the parts. So this new thing is never entirely whole. If we are talking about hybrids, I wonder if part of the cyborg is that these parts come together, but they are not unified and continent in the way that we might imagine a solid body to be. And if that was the case, to me that would be quite a relief.

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