A dead vine blocks the gallery window, its withered limbs frozen in a moment of entangled writhing. The arrangement foreshadows a journey of portals and barriers that culminates in a wall inscribed with a list of plastic possessions, presumably once owned by, and now part of, what appears to be a shrouded corpse—washed up by the waves, shells and marine detritus clinging to shaggy threads. In “Thirst of the Tide” (on view at Alice Black in London through July 1, 2022), Rachael Louise Bailey presents a story of documentation, which easily flips to become a documentation of storytelling. A recent winner of the Fondation François Schneider, Contemporary Talents International Art Award, Bailey pushes the boundaries of art’s engagement with ecology while revealing her fascination with found materials—scrutinizing them, researching how they came to be in their current form, and demonstrating their capacities in the hands of a sculptor trained in stone and wood carving.
Jillian Knipe: Rest (2019) takes the shape of a human body covered in strips of black rubber. Seeing it in your studio, wrapped in a sheet, I was reminded of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of parents tenderly wrapping their dead children in cloth. Regardless of how complicated exposing those intimate moments may be, they remain a testament to the importance of ritual. Could you explain how Rest came about?
Rachael Louise Bailey: Rest is also Michael, my mother’s cousin. I saw him briefly in hospital, wrapped in a sheet, when he was dying. It was shocking for such a big, proud character to be there in a public ward, with staff rushing around him, so I wanted to show Rest in a more secluded context. After Michael died, we were left with clearing his house. After most things were given away, I was struck by the number of everyday items that were left, like pill packets, ketchup bottles, and the washing-up brush on the sink. I thought about the French saying “tout [ce] qui reste” (“all that remains”), and so Rest became the name of the sculpture.
I wandered around Michael’s house, filming and photographing my full sense of emptiness, while collecting plastic items to create a piece of work. The making is quite fast compared to my slow looking and pondering, and I don’t make something as a final piece. There’s always the possibility that it or part of it can be used for something else. I often think about how I can justify what I’m doing when I’m anxious about putting more objects into the world, so reconfiguring and reusing is some sort of compromise.
JK: Did you start with a particular intention?
RLB: Not at all. I was loosely composing the items when, suddenly, the coat hanger became shoulders, and it became quite natural to make a body with all of these things—his headphones, mobile phone, electric toothbrush, a ridiculous number of smoke alarms, and his bike helmet, which became part of the chest. Once I’d created a skeleton, I “mummified” the body of contents with his bedsheet, dressed it in his clothes, pushed it inside an inflatable bed that I’d cut open, and then wrapped it in layers of black rubber stuff I found on the beach.
JK: I understand that the black material you used to cover Rest—a marine pollutant—is itself a reuse of something already recycled.
RLB: Yes, I refer to it as “the Black Stuff.” It consists of rubber bands made from discarded tire tubes, used in oyster farming to fasten plastic mesh oyster bags to a metal frame. Sometimes the bags dislodge, especially in choppy seas, so the bands come loose, some drifting to shore. I was out on a coastal walk near where I live, where there’s a lot of oyster farming, and I found some among the seaweed. That’s the thing—you notice one, and then you start noticing them everywhere. I collected several kilometers of it, but I had to stop after about three years because it became depressing. When you think about this material being used since the ’90s, you can only imagine how much has floated out to the ocean.
JK: I wonder how much penetrates into your skin when you’re manipulating it. What is it like to work with?
RLB: It’s probably toxic, especially since I’m breaking the surface—pulling it and knotting it, giving myself a sense of fixing something. I joined them together to create huge balls. Having worked with stone and wood, I’m used to the resistance of materials. You can have a dialogue with them, battle against them. But I didn’t know what to do with the rubber, so creating a knot was a way of creating a kind of physical interplay.
JK: Rubber is very pliable. It’s almost a dumb material; it doesn’t have much to say.
RLB: Yes, exactly. Wood is difficult to work with because it’s got its own mind.
JK: Though not necessarily its own power. I’m thinking of your exhibition “Resurrect Quercus Robur, 1810–2019” (2019), in collaboration with Johnny Woodford, in which you gathered the limbs of a dead English oak and resurrected it in the gallery. Plugged together with protruding bolts, it was like a beautiful, vulnerable Frankenstein’s monster and a commemoration of the death of something magnificent.
RLB: Between the Black Stuff, Resurrect, and Michael’s death, as well as the experience of Covid, I was struggling with the weight of despair. I went on a residency in the Outer Hebrides, which seemed like a departure point. That’s when I started looking at wool. At the time, it felt like an antidote—something hopeful and about life.
JK: What was the residency like?
RLB: It was in St Kilda, an archipelago off the coast of Scotland. My submission was around the concept of stratum—geological, environmental, sociological, and psychological—from the volcanic rock, which forms the Outer Hebrides, to the unique machair habitat on its surface and the plastic strata of today’s anthropocentric era.
St Kilda is a brutal place in terms of ecology and weather. When people were living there, they built a series of cleits, which look a bit like stone igloos. They were once used to dry and store food, but now they’re full of wild sheep detritus—bones and plastic ear tags.
JK: You returned from your residency with bags of found objects, including wool, which mirrors your collection of the Black Stuff.
RLB: The black Hebridean wool became the new, natural Black Stuff. I visited a local shepherd when I returned home, who told me that they were going to burn wool stocks because of drastic price drops caused by Covid. I was shocked that this amazing raw material, with all its insulating, antibacterial, and fire-retardant qualities, was going to waste, and I realized that I was exploring yet another material with a dark element, even though, initially, it seemed so far away from the Black Stuff.
I also learned about how the wool industry has changed over the last 30 years. After inheriting my grandmother’s spinning wheel, I found a woman who could fix it, and she was mystified by how different things are now. She once went to wool fairs and hosted interactive workshops with children, but then wool began to be thought of as dirty and too expensive, so it all stopped. Even though sheep can live to be 10 or 12 years old, they are now killed when they’re six because they’re of no use to us. I’m not trying to say the past was better, just that things have changed dramatically over one person’s lifetime and that there is terrible waste, including the waste of life.
JK: It reminds me of the supposed need for women to wean their babies onto preservative-rich formula or another animal’s milk. I’d never thought much about it, but when an experience is personal, things start changing their meaning.
RLB: Yes, like shifting objects from the place where they originate to an artist’s studio, to a gallery space. Since the residency, I began sourcing both Hebridean and local Romney Marsh wool, felting it together. Then, I fastened the wool to naturally dyed wadding, almost like a rug. I was trying to restore it in some way, to keep it as a body.
JK: Like the oak tree and Michael’s collection of plastics.
RLB: Exactly. Though, again, I started out with no particular intention of what I was going to make. I was just trying to understand how to handle the material.
JK: This is becoming like a modern-day folk story, with the spinning wheel, the vines, the Black Stuff, and the different ways of wrapping and creating bodies. You seem to be describing a world, from evidence of industry to individual experience and shared conversations.
RLB: When I was invited to exhibit at Alice Black, I considered the gallery as a space to house the layering of all those spaces I’d experienced over the past few years—from seaside walks in the southeast of England where I found the Black Stuff to Rest, and to what I’d discovered in the Outer Hebrides and researched since.
I keep thinking about how we feel quite helpless in the face of environmental pollution. Take Michael for instance. He was not at all materialistic, so he didn’t have a lot of belongings, yet there was still enough to have many plastic items destined for landfill. The question is, how do we remove ourselves from what’s taken for granted? How do we control our consumption? We can think about blame, about industry and about the individual, but it’s like we’re swimming through it and trying to make sense of how we get out with very little power to do so.