Domestic Shrubbery, 1994. Plaster and continuous sound loop, 488 x 457 x 366 cm.

Doubt and Other Serious Matters: A Conversation with Daphne Wright

Daphne Wright’s work maneuvers things into what her biographical statement calls “well-wrought but delicate doubt.” Shifting between “taughtness and mess,” it sets “imagery, materials, and language in constant metaphorical motion.” Using a wide range of materials and techniques—plaster, tin foil, video, printmaking, found objects, and performance—she creates beautiful and rather eerie worlds that feel like the threshold to somewhere new.

Born in Ireland and based in Bristol, England, Wright has exhibited in several solo exhibitions in Ireland and the United Kingdom, at the Limerick City Gallery of Art (2006), the Sligo Art Gallery (2005), Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, and Frith Street Gallery in London (2010, 2003, and 1998). She has also participated in various group exhibitions at venues such as the Hamburger Kunsthalle (2008), the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2000), P.S.1 in New York (1999), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (1997), and Tate Liverpool (1995). Last year, she exhibited Racehorse (2009) at the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow, central Ireland, and a large-scale, video installation, Prayer (2009), at Quad in Derby and Picture This in Bristol. Her most recent show was on view at Frith Street Gallery through February 2010.

Robert PreeceYou have often referred to “doubt,” a notion emphasized by your biographical statement on the Frith Street Gallery Web site. I see doubt in Domestic Shrubbery (1994), in your plaster works, and in tin-foil works like Indeed Indeed (1998) and Where do broken hearts go? (2000). These seem clear to me because sound elements are clearly juxtaposed against an installation, and the sound magnifies and unsettles the visual illusions. But where is doubt in the animal cast works? Have you moved on?
Daphne Wright: This is a good question. First, the animal works are more singular than the installation works, which have a narrative that fluctuates around them. The animal works are clearly sculptures, as opposed to sculpture-installations, and they are more direct. Second, I think that doubt is within the animal-form object itself. I find the objects to be contradictory in terms of what is given and what is taken away. So, doubt is still there as a theme, but it’s shifting.

RPYou could say that the doubt resides in ambiguity about how the animals died and whether the poses in the works are authentic. In Home Ornaments (2002–05), is the doubt hidden? Is it the knick-knack versus artwork element?
DW: A little bit, but here I’ve placed doubt with the owners. There’s a detailed story behind Home Ornaments, but I’ll try to explain in brief: these works are the result of a public art commission related to an inner-city redevelopment project of two apartment blocks in a traditionally rough section of Glasgow. Instead of placing a public sculpture outside the buildings, I proposed bringing the art into people’s apartments. The works were inspired by my interviews with people in the area. For example, I had heard that a number of pet birds had been released in the air when the previous residents moved before the demolition. A number of birds had hung around—and survived.

One edition of one of the objects was placed randomly on specially designed shelving in each flat. The owners were informed about the objects via storytelling when they moved in. We left it to them to do what they would with the objects. Some traded them, some threw them away, some collected them. There was a surge of interest by the owners after editions were shown at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. So, the doubt is about “worth.” Do these objects have a right to carry what’s been given to them?

With the video Sires (2003), you approach it and don’t know the context of the bulls. You just see hoofs in motion. They appear almost choreographed. It’s large scale and placed above you, and your head is physically down at the level of the hoofs. There are questions about whether this is stressed or usual behavior for the animal—that kind of doubt.

Swan, 2007. Marble dust and resin, 137 x 71 x 84 cm.

RPWould you agree that in your earlier works, doubt was explicit, while in the later works like the animal casts, doubt is expressed more within the context of the works?
DW: Yes, I would.

RPYour Frith Street bio also describes your works as “shifting between taughtness and mess.”
DW: “Taughtness” here is “taught out” or “properly, well-made.” Both taughtness and mess apply to the making and thought process. There’s definitely mess with the earlier plaster and tin-foil works in how they were made. A lot of times, people looked at the works and said that they were very well-made. But actually, I’m not a good maker. The response would always surprise me, because I’m quite lazy in how I do things, and there are lots of bad ends. The plaster and tin-foil works are not well-made, but they appear to be—they give the surface of it. So there’s doubt here as well. With Domestic Shrubbery (1994), the craftsmanship on the back of the work is quite rough and messy. With the tin-foil Indeed Indeed (1998), I developed that process as I went along. When you look at the work via a photograph, it looks well-made, but it isn’t.

RPWhat about the “imagery, materials, and language set in constant metaphorical motion?”
DW: Well, with Domestic Shrubbery and Indeed Indeed, a lot of people kept asking what these works were about. In a sense, that’s what made the work function for me—it couldn’t be placed, the interpretation kept shifting, and it wasn’t set in concrete. Domestic Shrubbery is almost like a relief of two-dimensional wallpaper with occasional heart-shaped forms. In structure, there are distinctions between the front and the back, which creates a space that shouldn’t really be there. There are also the cuckoo sounds, alternatively mocking, excluding, including, and suffocating. It’s beautiful and then slightly claustrophobic. I had been reading Henry James and Jane Austen and was interested in how they depicted layers of doubt, falseness, and surfaces. Meanwhile with Indeed Indeed, I referred to film sets in black and white spaghetti westerns. The soundtrack has an actor with a theatrical voice. I think of the piece as an unconscious vegetable state.

Then with Where do broken hearts go? (2000), I tried to show metaphorical motion more evidently. And strangely, this work was perceived to be more successful, because it was immediately clearer to the audience. The sound piece consisted of three different narratives that functioned within the work in a very prescribed way. First there was the gun battle, then the broken hearts, and then the child murderer—with prints around the installation adding an emotional layer. These elements, in essence, floated around in the space, and the narratives shifted only three times. But with Domestic Shrubbery and Indeed Indeed, the boundaries weren’t as clearly defined.

RPHow you see motion and/or movement in the animals?
DW: It is still there, but it’s more straightforward, and singular. For example, there’s the Lamb (2006). If you don’t live around them, your perception is probably filtered through the media. Then you see the lamb hung up by its hoofs, which is how a hunter would carry an animal. There is all the weight of this knowledge in the piece, and then the strange quality of the death mask, the corpse, and whether the body is there or not there. Movement and doubt are in there, but in a more sophisticated way.

RPWhy is doubt important to you?
DW: Because I think that is life. Nothing is what it seems. I also think that’s how I prefer things to be. It would be very disappointing if things were singular—how awful.

RPYou’ve gone from plaster to tin foil, with something underneath.
DW: The early tin-foil works are coiled, like ceramic pots. There was nothing inside them, and that was really important—that these large objects be lightweight things. But with the cacti, I coiled the tin foil first and then covered them with fiberglass resin to get stability with the height.

RPWere you experimenting with different shapes?
DW: I had a notion in my head. I started with smaller cacti, just what was needed to make the piece work. Then there were cacti that I got rid of. Also, I sawed off some of the arms because the work needed that. I’d make all these strips of tin foil—it’s very labor-intensive—then I’d start building like I was making a clay pot. I’d build up maybe one to two feet, then I’d mix up the liquid resin, dip the fiberglass mesh into it, and then put that inside the coiled form.

RPWhy did you choose tin foil?
DW: I had been working with plaster for about five years. The whole issue about plaster is its beauty and language—historical, beautiful, muffled. That was the context, and then I started looking at tin foil. Tin foil has a deviousness to it, a falseness about it, that I really liked. And it’s such an unlikely material to use to make a monumental sculpture. I found it transfixing.

RPIt appears that you abruptly stopped using plaster.
DW: I did. It was a very bad thing to do career-wise. People get to know you for one particular kind of language. And there can be expectations of that language going on and getting more sophisticated. But I found that the language I was using was almost getting pre-empted by the material. So there was no point in doing it. Changing to tin foil became almost painful. I’d think of plaster pieces, and it was quite painful not to do them. It was really, really hard to make the tin-foil pieces work.

RPAnd was there also an abrupt shift from the tin-foil to the chalk and marble dust pieces?
DW: Definitely. This was shortly after the Irish Museum of Modern Art bought Where do broken hearts go?. By this time with the tin foil, I felt that I was making the same work, with the same strategic elements in it—and it could be decoded. For you, yourself, there always has to be an element of investigation, an element of discovery.

Indeed Indeed, 1998. Tin foil, glue, and continuous sound loop, 366 cm. high.

RPThen we should not expect the resin and marble dust to continue?
DW: Absolutely not. I’m already moving on. I think that I’ve begun to understand what the marble dust pieces are about for me. And because of that, I’m on the verge of soon going into another process of new work, maybe in two years.

RPSo you don’t like people coming to your studio to see you work.
DW: When I was making the previous works, that’s right, I didn’t like studio visits at all. Very, very few people have seen the new stuff that’s in process. It’s really awkward and embarrassing at the moment. It’s terrible, it’s just bad.

RPWhat has kept you interested in the death objects?
DW: It’s some kind of total integration at the moment. It’s the same thing as with the cacti; at that time, I was completed fascinated with country and western. So, I’ve been fascinated with everything around the body of a dead horse. Before I made it, I had really strong notions of what it would look like.

RPHow soon after their deaths did you cast the animals?
DW: With Swan (2007), it had just died. And then I positioned it. I pose them.

RPDoes the choice of material memorialize them?
DW: I wouldn’t say that. I started off using plaster, but that wasn’t satisfactory. I then chose chalk and then marble and resin. It seems to make my idea for the work almost complete in that the material has all of these references, immediately—to classical sculpture, to funereal furniture. The language that it speaks is apt for a death mask.

RPWere there any challenges in arranging the casting of a racehorse—or with the other animals?
DW: Probably one of the most difficult was the swan, because there’s an urban myth that all swans belong to the Queen of England. But that’s not true, it’s just the ones along parts of the Thames. There are certainly a series of arrangements that need to be made. People ask a lot of questions, which I think is very good. People have been concerned about ethics and also the threat of negative media coverage. This is, after all, how the U.K. and Ireland are now. In the end, after people learn what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, then I find people who will support the process because the animals are treated with complete respect.

RPWhat are your future plans?
DW: I’m looking at taking the animal works further in a couple of interesting ways. And I’ve already found my next material. But right now that’s a secret.