Becoming Plant (A hop) (detail), 2023. Ceramic stoneware, 103 x 47 x 30 cm. Photo: © Mark Blower, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

We Have Always Been Here: A Conversation with Jonathan Baldock

Jonathan Baldock recognizes the power of story to stir the imagination. His sculptures, as appealing as they are alien, forage into the past to help make sense of the present. Unlike many contemporary artists, he doesn’t employ the readymade to reference reality; instead, he creates his own outlines for real world, using ordinary but resonant materials that draw us in through their familiarity only to take us further away from what we know.

Baldock’s interests are rooted in the unseen, places where myth manifests itself. “Touch Wood,” his current exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Weston Gallery, draws on beliefs and rituals that have brought people together from time immemorial. Colorful figures and faces, objects and ornaments, create a space of humor, irreverence, freedom, and joy, tracing connections across time while reinforcing our ties to each other and to the natural world.

Installation view of “Touch Wood,” Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2023–24. Photo: © Mark Reeves, Courtesy YSP, the artist, and Stephen Friedman Gallery

Rajesh Punj: Can you explain the ideas behind “Touch Wood?”
Jonathan Baldock:
My intention and hope was to make a sacred space inspired in part by traditional religious places of worship. Using textiles, basketry, ceramic, sound, and scent, I have created an immersive installation that reflects on some of the big questions about our existence, but in hopefully unexpected ways and from a place of joy, humor, and love. The act of people coming together is something very ancient, and I wanted to tap into that.

The idea stemmed from the medieval misericords that I discovered in nearby Wakefield Cathedral during my research for the show. Misericords are wooden carvings found below the hinged folding seats of choir stalls within a cathedral, church, or chapel. When the seat is turned up, it gives support to the person standing. In the Middle Ages, the clergy would have stood for hours of prayers and song, and this would have offered some respite. Because the misericords were positioned on the undersides of seats, and beneath a “bottom,” it would have been sacrilegious to depict scenes from the Christian scriptures, so this presented a unique opportunity for medieval artisans to determine their subjects. In other words, misericords could be viewed as early forms of self-expression. They are frequently humorous and irreverent, and they often stick two fingers up at authority or reference belief systems from folklore and mythology—beliefs, ideas, and superstitions outside of the dominant Christian teachings. I had a deep connection to this idea of things existing quietly, out of sight, and not fully suppressed by authority. To me, there is something very potent to be said about the human experience here from the perspective of a regular working person and not those in authority, which, of course, is the perspective from which most of history is written. Humor can be a tool to question and poke fun at those in charge.

I have tried to create a space that celebrates self-expression and self-determination, that also reflects on nature and our place on this planet. Religious spaces typically make you look at existence, but where do you go if you don’t have a faith? Where do you turn to ponder these essential questions about our place on this earth? I’ve reached an age when I’ve learned more about death, and in experiencing it, I feel my gratitude for life even more deeply. I wanted to see if I could create a space to celebrate life and death, our interconnectivity and dependence on nature, through the seasons. I look at all this through a particular lens of being queer, and so I wanted to create a sacred space of peace, joy, and harmony that says we have always been here and always will be.

Be fruitful and multiply, 2023. Polystyrene, felt, cotton thread, wood, and glass, 150 x 220 cm. Photo: © Mark Reeves, Courtesy YSP, the artist, and Stephen Friedman Gallery

RP: Are the works more fairytale than fantasy?
In truth, I don’t think of them as either. Yes, they reference folklore and mythology, and there is world building, but to call it fairytale or fantasy feels reductive to me. I’m interested in the symbolism, meaning, and history behind these objects and stories, and what they tell us about the world now from the perspective of people in the past. What was their relationship to nature, the world, and each other? As a queer person, it is almost impossible to find much written historically that doesn’t condemn our existence, and even less so within religion. Through folklore and mythology, it is much easier for me to place myself—I can create a place of pride, celebration, and inclusivity for everyone; a place of love and kindness. This may seem trite, but if you have never been allowed that space, it’s empowering to think in these terms.

RP: Becoming Plant (A hop) (2023) appears to combine many different references. What were your influences?
This is one of a series of works in the show inspired by the foliate being or Green Man. The foliate being is a motif found in many churches and cathedrals; there were five misericords in Wakefield Cathedral dedicated to it, as well as two seat ends. It is thought to have very ancient origins, with early examples from ancient Greece and Rome; or perhaps it came to Europe from India, where the foliate being in Hindu mythology is known through the story of Kirtimukha, there to ward evil away from temples. The origins are unclear, but it is often interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of new life in spring, and it is with this reading that I have presented it in the show.

Becoming Plant is a performative work incorporating my face and my mum’s at the top of the vessel, facing different directions as a sort of double-sided Janus figure; my mother’s hand points up to the sky and mine to the ground. It is full of symbolism, representing the physical and the spiritual while connecting past, present, and future. I often weave a very personal narrative into my work, and it goes deeper in this case. The leaves around our heads mimic the hop flower, which is important to me because I descend from farm workers and hop-pickers. Within the work, I want to remember my familial relationship with the land and nature.

A symbol of sacred geometry can be found on the body of the vessel, mirroring those found on the four textile wall hangings that frame the central space within a circle. Sacred geometry is an ancient science that draws comparisons and connections between patterns found in nature and the universe. Strangely, these symbols can be found etched into the walls of churches in the U.K. as a kind of graffiti. They were likely carved by the congregation, but the reason or intention has been lost to history. Some theories suggest that they were intended as a kind of evil eye to ward off malevolent spirits. I was particularly drawn to them as a bridge to the lost beliefs of people at that time, something very ancient.

Becoming Plant (A hop), 2023. Ceramic stoneware, 103 x 47 x 30 cm. Photo: © Mark Blower, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

RP: Do you consider “beauty” to be a significant element in these works?
Beauty has always been present in religious works of art and architecture. They were made to inspire feelings of connection to the divine and evoke a bodily experience, so it was important for me to think about this. Of course, my installation is very humble in comparison and uses more modest modes of expression. Most of the works are made by my hand, and I think that this allows me to engage with the viewer in a different way. Although I invest a lot of time and love in the works, there is still a slight element of lumpen irregularity about them—and therein lies some charm. These are not factory-made creations; they are handmade and speak to what it is to be human. They also use very ancient crafts—ceramic, embroidery, and basketry—which lie at the heart of human evolution.

RP: There is something theatrical about the works, as if they are laughing at us, as much as we laugh at them. What do you want from the encounter between art and viewer?
There is a performative aspect to my work, for sure. The objects are not passive, and I hope they engage with viewers. When making a work or exhibition, I give a lot of consideration to the viewer. Being an artist allows me to make a connection with other humans. We live in a world where it can sometimes seem that everything is doomed, considering all the damage we do to the planet and each other. It can make you feel hopeless and powerless, but I believe in the good in people, and in the idea of coming together and finding connections. I think that is what an art gallery can do. The world is very different now from what it was in the Middle Ages, but we still need places where people from different walks of life can come together. There is a magic in that.

No one had paid them any particular attention, 2023. Polystyrene, felt, cotton thread, and ceramic, 190 x 58 x 108 cm. Photo: © Mark Reeves, Courtesy YSP, the artist, and Stephen Friedman Gallery

RP: As much as the works look “tongue-in-cheek,” I imagine that there is a lot of labor behind them. Do you want that to be recognized?
Yes, my work involves many hours of labor. I love process-based work—there is something wonderful about seeing it manifest slowly before you. I also think that these methods of making can engage the viewer, because we all have a basic understanding of how something might be made, even if we’ve never done it ourselves. So, for someone who might not be comfortable in a contemporary art gallery around more austere work, this familiarity can be a powerful tool through which to engage. The materials and the process create bodily connections to the work. I always say that my work is “by the body and about the body.” Even if you’re not so interested in the ideas, you can connect with this element, and I hope that if I have your attention for this aspect then there is a chance you will stick around for more.

RP: When I saw the show, I thought of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), which is also known as The Topsy Turvy World. It’s a large painting with scenes of chaos and confusion intended to explore the pleasures and perversities behind Dutch proverbs. Am I right to imagine that the idea of an overview of life is important to your practice?
I am so happy you mention that. I went to Vienna recently, and a highlight of my visit was the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its collection of 12 paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (the world’s largest). I was familiar with these works from pictures in books, but nothing prepared me for seeing them in the flesh. They are incredible. Each one is filled with details illustrating the daily life and traditions of peasants (regular folk like us) in a non-condescending manner—visualizing a history that could otherwise have been forgotten. Children’s Games (1560), for instance, gives a bird’s eye view of a crowd of figures in a town square, where more than 230 children are occupied with playing 83 different games. It is a veritable encyclopedia of games from the period, full of humor and joy; it even shows a little girl poking a turd with a stick, which made me laugh because I remembered doing the same thing as a child. History is largely documented for and by the rich; when regular people are mentioned, it’s often with a moralizing undertone. Bruegel avoids this, which is why I find his work so powerful. In its essence, it connects us to our past in a very human way and says that despite these people living in a very different time with different problems, we are all still human and find joy in similar things.

Kiss from a Rose, 2023. Ceramic and metal, 87 x 38 x 28 cm. overall. Photo: © Mark Blower, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

RP: Kiss from a Rose (2023) again offers us something imaginative but absurd, its meaning as important as it is immaterial. Is that the case?
Yes, and I believe it can work equally on both levels. It is irreverent and funny, but it also has a deeper symbolic meaning. It is a reminder of our connection to nature. We produce earth (shit), and that earth creates life (the rose). It also refers to the scatological humor of the misericords and pokes fun at the notion of bending over and bowing down to authority. And then it has the sculptural concerns of an object on a plinth—part architecture, part body—how, as human beings, we have come to rely on the infrastructure of the built environment.

RP: Overall, there appears to be a playfulness that camouflages purpose. Do you see it that way?
I’m not sure that I would use the word “camouflage,” but I question why big subjects need to be dealt with in a cold, serious, and unemotive way in contemporary art. I want to create spaces and works that don’t speak down to viewers, that treat them as equals. It’s not the role of the artist to have answers, but to present ideas, experiences, and feelings that the viewer may connect with or respond to. They say children learn better through play—because it’s fun. Why can’t it be the same for adults? To be clear, I’m not trying to minimize or belittle these subjects—I hope to give them some humanity.

“Jonathan Baldock: Touch Wood” is on view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, U.K., through July 7, 2024.