Fabrications of future fossils, pre-human remnants, or abandoned exoskeletons of as-yet-unknown present-day species—Grace Woodcock’s baffling sculptures belong to all times and no time in particular. Anomalies, they represent a culmination of organic objects from across pre-, current and post-human histories, where body morphosis, necessary for environmental adaptation, shapes physical form and determines who and what will survive.
“23.5°,” Woodcock’s current exhibition at Castor Gallery in London, delivers the next chapter in her biology-meets-sci-fi work, which considers what it means to have an intelligent, sensing body. As the title suggests, the work is held together by 23.5 degrees, the axial tilt of the Earth, which regulates seasonal changes. While it’s perfectly normal for this angle to shift slightly, recent research indicates that there was a sudden and major change in the 1990s and that the tilt (as well as the speed at which the Earth spins) is particularly vulnerable to changes in water distribution across the planet. With this in mind, Woodcock’s work considers how organisms grow, evolve, and adapt in response to changes in gravitational and electromagnetic forces, as well as circadian rhythms. The result is a gathering of objects as familiar as they are alien.
Jillian Knipe: What’s your background understanding of the Earth’s axial tilt being 23.5 degrees?
Grace Woodcock: The research is all very recent. NASA’s documentation of gravitational changes on Earth from space, coincidentally called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment or GRACE mission, started in 2002. In a 2010 report, they stated that the axis had shifted outside its normal pattern. They don’t know why this has happened, but there seems to be a connection with the unnatural channeling of groundwater caused by rapidly melting polar ice and the pumping of huge amounts of water into otherwise dry areas, like Los Angeles and areas of China, to support growing communities. Apparently so much has been moved that it’s changed the weight distribution of the entire planet. The result is that Earth shifts in relation to the sun, and this shift affects the speed it is spinning.
JK: Do you think of this shift as some sort of tipping point?
GW: Yes, but then we don’t know what happened in the past when we weren’t tracking movement. I’m not trying to be a scare-monger or specifically blame climate change; I’m more fascinated than shocked. I wonder how changes in Earth’s axis affect the speed at which it’s spinning, which affects our sense of time. Our physiology is connected to the angle of the Earth, and seasonal changes in light affect our circadian rhythms, so as the Earth’s angle changes, I wonder about how the human body needs to recalibrate in response.
JK: Are you asking a series of questions in these works?
GW: Absolutely. I wonder if, at some level, we can sense the pace of our orbit changing or Earth spinning on a new axis. Consider being horizontal while floating in water and how your perception changes because there’s no gravity. Melody Jue’s book Wild Blue Media (2020) uses the example of divers to talk about the disorientation of the human body and how that’s dealt with internally and whether we can sense a slip in time—a bit like how time seemed to change during the pandemic, or how the shifts from ice age to non-ice age are speeding up.
JK: Coming into the gallery, I had an immediate sense of the peculiar. It’s as if the atmospheric pressure had been altered or the ambient noise discreetly manipulated, which is very much like the sensation I experienced in “GUT-BRAIN” (2020), your previous solo show at Castor.
GW: In “GUT-BRAIN,” the particular shade of yellow walls and the sunken floor created that effect. Here, it’s probably because the end wall is tilted away from you at 23.5 degrees.
JK: That would affect how soundwaves interact with the ear canal. Is this sense of disorientation a preferred response for you?
GW: Yes, I’m really interested in how things feel within two specific senses, beyond the normal five. One is interoception, which we largely take for granted. This is our sense of inner bodily processes, like heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and the sense of the body as a sort of machine. The other is proprioception, which is your body’s sense of location and movement in space. I’m much more interested in triggering awareness of those senses rather than the more emotive sensations.
JK: In “GUT-BRAIN,” objects such as probiotic supplements, were hidden within the sculptures. In “23.5°,” a series of shiny pinhole drawings, some of which seem to emanate a glow, offer another take on the micro-detail; but this time, more is revealed to the viewer. They also resemble the drawings that you showed at Alice Black Gallery, which recall osteopathic diagrams that pinpoint joints in the human skeleton.
GW: They’re made by hammering tiny holes into aluminum, almost transcribed from the way I do the drawings on paper. They’re inspired by illustrations in 19th-century treatises on gravity and planetary movements. For instance, an image tracking gravitational force appears nestled within Regrounding 23.5°.
JK: The glinting metal contrasts perfectly with the pastel shades of the surfaces, making them seem almost spongy. When I was in your studio, I touched one, expecting it to feel like stretchy fabric, but it’s quite hard and inflexible. Is it the same as the netted material that you used in Ghost of Itself (2023)?
GW: That was Lycra mesh, which couldn’t be dyed, so it appeared precisely as it arrived from the manufacturer. For these pieces, I used stretch Lycra. It’s similar in appearance, but you can solidify it, which I’ve done with oil paint. I wanted to have control over the color and spend more time with the objects. They’re created in computer software, which requires meticulous precision when specifying curve measurements and creating minute differences within each piece and across multiples. They’re then cut into flat components, and I spend a lot of time carving all the edges and putting together the individual elements like a complex jigsaw puzzle.
JK: How much does the software govern what you can do?
GW: Any limitations to absolute freedom are more to do with funding than the software. I need to rely on my own ability to make them, calculating how to minimize the internal wooden structures and finding efficient ways to limit their size. These are all constraints that frustrate my process.
JK: The wooden interiors remind me of skeletal models in natural history museums. It must be a huge task to configure a flatpack for a three-dimensional object.
GW: Definitely, every single curve is unique and extended to a different point. I need to project the design into how they’ll exist in three-dimensional space. When I made the seating for “GUT-BRAIN,” I miscalculated the size and had to start over.
JK: In “23.5°,” you purposely altered the sizes of the mollusk-like wall objects, which makes them look generational or like a study of a lifespan.
GW: That’s the effect, though I created them that way as a take on perspective. At certain angles, they’re clearly different sizes; at others, they appear the same. The largest is equivalent to my outstretched arm span, though I only discovered that when I was moving it around the room. That sort of thing happens all the time, where something’s coincidentally related to a part of my body.
JK: That connects with traditional ways of measuring, like in feet, for instance. The titles are also about measure, aren’t they?
GW: Aphelion and Perihelion refer to the extremes in orbital distance from the sun. Insolation is a measure of solar energy at the Earth’s surface. The process of making them is quite mathematically technical, so it’s a relief when they come out and resemble something organic, like weird horse or dog spines. I wanted them to feel like they were increasing in rotational speed, so there’s a contraction and expansion of space between the so-called spinal disks. There’s also an essential part that’s unknown and generative from the process itself, where the discovery and ability to do one new thing leads to being able to do something else.
JK: Could you explain the strange boot-like objects in Regrounding 23.5°?
GW: They hold the feet and therefore the body at 23.5 degrees from the floor. I wanted all of the sculptures to be potentially wearable at my personal size and to suggest an object you could put on your body to change your orientation in space. Making wearable sculptures is really good fun.
JK: Transformation may be very important in future human times; it’s also a factor in retro-future imagination.
GW: All of that plays into it. Surprisingly, it’s a lot more difficult to make things that fit the human body than to make shapes that don’t. I made about 10 different versions of the shoes, but they didn’t work because of the fabric tension or they were too pointy, or they simply didn’t have the sense I was after.
Another example is Interstice (pelecypod helmet), a clam-like object that fits around my head. I was thinking about how seashells open and close in relation to the moon cycle and came across Bill Cunningham’s giant clamshell hat, which he made before he was a photographer. Interstice is something of a take on that. At the same time, I wanted to create a sense that the whole room is slipping by 23.5 degrees.
JK: Barometer i and Barometer ii, though, are flat to the wall and straightforwardly vertical, like long, thin bones.
GW: They behave as a structural counterpoint, accentuating the 23.5-degree angle of the rest of the work. As measuring tools, they somehow keep the installation in check. Everything in the gallery is very bony. It’s definitely a more anxious, more tentative show than the previous one.
JK: Recalibrate 23.5°, which makes it difficult to trust your eyes, is a good example. There is a series of what appear to be repetitions of the same object placed at equal distances up the wall. The wall is angled, however, so each object appears marginally different in size.
GW: I wanted to play on how the Earth is accelerating and how we feel in relation to different distances. Because of the double angling of the objects and the wall at 23.5 degrees, it’s hard to tell whether the change in size is because each individual object is physically different or if it’s a visual misconception based on where you’re standing in the room.
JK: Why is that necessary lack of uniformity important?
GW: There was no part of me that wanted them all to be the same. Each object is unique in both its individual curves and overall curvature. The subtlety of irregularity in what’s expected to be symmetrical makes them seem more organic, but in a way that’s quite hard to perceive visually.
JK: It also prevents them from appearing like mechanical components. They are more like forms and patterns in the natural world—zebras or tigers, for instance, seem at first to have the same markings, but every individual is essentially different. The closely related pieces that make up Recalibrate 23.5° are reminiscent of beaks, fins, or tongues with side seams. Did you have a particular reference?
GW: I wanted to borrow from vertebrates and create the sense of a tail or spine with bones of different sizes. I found it funny to make the difference between each one so minimal—it’s only three millimeters. And, of course, almost every sculptor has to make a stacked piece at some point.
JK: Oddly, all six elements have a small metal ball balanced on top.
GW: Each piece has a solid, stainless-steel ball bearing held in place by gravity. I wanted to see if they could contain something, like a nest. The sense of balance is much more palpable when it’s not glued in, when it’s real.
JK: These pieces are bluish, like the boots, while the rest of the works are variations on delicate, dusty hues. What was behind these color choices?
GW: In the natural light of my studio, I worked to white them out a lot, but under the gallery lights, their earlier shades of color come through. I did a lot of layering to warm them up and cool them down, intending to arrive at a surface that seemed neither hot nor cold.
JK: They’ve retained a very subtle mottled pattern, almost as if they’re sun-bleached in parts.
GW: The original palette of the surfaces was quite irregular, almost lunar. I spray-painted them in the beginning, and, because of the shapes, the color adhered inconsistently, responding to different angles of the surface. I wanted the form to determine the color rather than the color to impose itself on the form. It was also important that the colors had some movement in them rather than being flat, even though the subtleness strongly connects them to the white-walled gallery environment.
JK: The aesthetic in “GUT-BRAIN” was very much about retro-futurism, whereas these objects appear more like a scientific study of forms. Was this an intentional shift? Or did the concept of 23.5 degrees naturally lead toward something different?
GW: I was ready for the aesthetic to move on. The way that the internal structures are made makes the new objects less curvaceous than those in “GUT-BRAIN,” which were rounded and bulbous, giving them a retro vibe. They hint at both futuristic and prehistoric, as if collapsing time between the two. “GUT-BRAIN” was also thinking about the origin of the human body and the gut as the original brain when we were a floating digestive system. Since then, I’ve done a lot of research into the deep sea, which also informed Ghost of Itself, and it comes through in this work. In the deep sea, you have creatures that are much like those in prehistory, though they exist with us right now.
JK: You trained as a painter. Was it a gradual or sudden leap to sculpture?
GW: I studied painting at Edinburgh and then at the Royal College of Art, though my work was always quite sculptural. I was making stacked and multipart, generally rectangular paintings; then, at RCA, I began to upholster shapes to paint on. I made a set of very simple, almost massage-like paintings with different balls underneath the surface. At the time, I was interested in mirror-touch synaesthesia, which happens when a person experiences a physical sensation of touch simply through observation, so I was thinking of these paintings as eye massages.
The strange thing about making objects in a painting degree is that they become categorized as “expanded paintings,” but I don’t find that useful. I’m much more interested in how the object behaves. Does it give you some sort of sensation when I put it together and present it in this light and in this space and with this tilted wall? I’m trying to evoke a sense of suspension that’s somewhat similar to “GUT-BRAIN.” And that suspension is the tangible element of these forces that are in flux—like the Earth’s axis changing, which affects the gravitational field and the magnetic field, even if only slightly. It’s interesting to explore whether we have some kind of internal sense of that, like an internal compass. Think of the lunar cycle, which affects the behavioral patterns of all living things—surely there’s something tidal in multi-cellular bodies when you consider how much water they contain. This reminds me of Daisy Hildyard’s book The Second Body (2017), which refers to her body as the first body and the planet as the second body; when her house flooded, it was as if the second body came into her first body. And that connects with one of the reasons why the planet is shifting in the first place—because the Earth’s water has been redistributed, which is knocking its balance off-kilter.
JK: I’m interested in the idea of intellect in the works. There’s obviously a lot of research that has gone into them, in addition to the extensive knowledge required to make an object, but I’m referring to the independent intelligence of the objects themselves.
GW: I find that really interesting and would go back to the concepts of interoception and proprioception and the question of whether they carry their own body intelligence. That’s what I’ve been aiming for since I started making sculpture: Can I make something that gives you a tactile sensation?
JK: I’m also thinking about how certain creatures, like mollusks or sea squirts, exist more or less ignorant of humans. We’re irrelevant to them unless we interfere with them directly, and, even then, it’s a nervous system response. For me, your work is in the same category. If we left the room, the objects wouldn’t care. This is markedly different from sculpture that’s only complete with our presence.
GW: I guess that connects with our single-cell origins, the ancient element of the work, and the fact that we still rely on a “gut feel” sense of our own existence. In that way, they don’t need us, though hopefully, they give us a sensation when we look at them.
“Grace Woodcock: 23.5°” is on view at Castor in London through November 18, 2023.