Holly Slingsby’s practice centres on performance but also employs drawing, objects and video. Her work investigates imagery from different religious and mythical traditions, exploring the inherited lexicon of symbols and the overlaps in different cultures. She studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University (2003-2006) and the Slade School of Art, London (2008- 2010). Her recent exhibitions include a solo show at SHIFT., London and performances at galleries including the Barbican, Modern Art Oxford and the ICA, London.
Jack Catling: How do you think that memory inhabits space and effects peoples relationship with it?
Holly Slingsby: I think that memory can inhabit space through the imagination; if you go into a space like, thinking of an obvious example, the Wesley memorial chapel in Old Street there is loads of evidence of it having been used, people having lived there and the various events which have taken place, but it is the imagination which activates that when you go into the building. You can see evidence of someone having inhabited the building but memory is something more intangible than that; for a space to contain a memory you have to have a person that’s there to activate it.
Do you think that someone will pick that up subconsciously in a space, those kind of remnants of activity?
Yeah, I think that it can also be present in un-built places such as forests or landscapes, you can have a sense of somewhere being an ancient space or a place that’s steeped in memory in that sense. I remember when I visited Greece for the first time looking down on the islands from the plane and thinking they had a sense of myth…
Like a kind of literary memory?
Yes, that’s a nice idea, literary memory. I suppose for me it’s also a kind of cultural memory. I’m quite interested in the way cultural memory is formed, how it is passed on, and how that relates to space.
How do you investigate that through your work?
For me there is quite a lot of research in the way that I work. There’s a lot of reading and going to museums, collating things and making associations between them. Then in the work itself it’s bringing those things to the fore, so that they’ll be activated in people’s minds by bringing in some associations which I want them to engage with, while allowing them the space to create their own associations.
So do you think it’s important to be aware of how someone will respond to a space your exhibiting in?
Yeah definitely, quite a lot of the works I’ve made have been in very specific places. I’ve not made that many works in white cube-type spaces. Like the things we’ve done in Parlour have been in places like the old operating theatre, and museums and churches.
Tell me a bit more about your work in the Parlour Chirurgie at the Old Operating Theatre…
I think one of the thing that interested me most in the Old Operating Theatre was the idea that everyone in the seats, the audience essentially, had been men and those being dissected and having surgery performed on them were always women. So it felt like a very gendered space, and I guess I wanted to do something with a female protagonist who was more in control of the situation and specifically, in that piece, drawing attention to the scars on the surgery table; the table as a body that had been damaged, displaying evidence of probably traumatic things and the nervous tension which exists in that, with the chattering windup teeth like a kind of nervous laughter.
Do you think that some spaces are almost haunted by these ideas, through their atmosphere?
I don’t know if I’d use the word haunted. I think that sounds like it’s veering off into a different territory, almost like pantomime. The word has too many associations. Perhaps haunted by a presence similar to seeing a step that’s been worn down by lots of people stepping on it. Like a kind of residual physical atmosphere of presence.
When you start researching a work before it’s performed do you begin by going to see the space or researching the history?
If I can, I’ll begin by visiting. There have hardly been any times that I’ve made pieces where I haven’t seen the space. Recently, when I made a piece in Girona, that was really hard because I had to let them know what I would be doing before going there, and I knew that it would take place on the city streets but I didn’t have any concept of what the streets would be like. I think that going to the place is often what triggers the idea even if the idea is not directly associated with the place it puts you in the right mindset, that’s quite important. Sometimes that will often draw in things that I’ve been thinking about and researching previously and with luck they’ll come together (laughs).
Do you ever think about leaving the space in an altered way, having altered the memory of the space through your actions?
I’ve never thought of it that way, it seems really obvious now you’ve said it. It sounds quite ambitious to think that I’ve changed the space. I think more about the effect on the audience, and the process that takes place in them after they’ve left the space, but the space itself is something bigger and better than I am and has more control than I have.
Would it be sometimes the first time that the audience has seen a space, with you performing in it?
That’s probably quite often the case, like in the Old Operating Theatre. In that sense your collaborating with both the space and the audience. I think when I first did the piece in Christ Church Spitalfields a lot of the audience were familiar with the space and had seen it in quite a different way.
Can you tell me a bit about the two works you’ve made for Christ Church Spitalfields?
The one I did by myself was an hour long piece called ‘It Was Gravity That Pulled Us Down’ which used the chandelier, which can be lowered on a chain so the bulbs can be changed. I had the chandelier coming down like a light coming down from heaven effectively; like an incarnational light. Everything about the piece explored the vertical axis of the space; a conduit between humanity and the divine or the seen and the unseen, I suppose, and thinking a lot about gravity and the sculptural quality of the object. So it was made quite specifically for the architecture of the building and its physical qualities, but then drawing together those formal qualities with the metaphysical associations.
What about the second performance you did in the space, for Parlour Praxis…
I suppose you could say the first performance was more vertical and the second performance was more horizontal; it was drawing a line through the space from the entrance of the church to the altar, still really specific to the space in terms of what it’s used for and what it represents. More like an offering of objects, placing them down and them not really being sufficient to speak to the space. It almost felt like anything I could do in the space would be redundant, partly because I’d already made one piece for there but mostly because it’s a challenge. I think about a performance being more like a small gesture rather than an intervention into something, and sometimes you can’t do more than that; it’s just a way of edging toward something and maybe not fully reaching it.
I quite like the idea of the performance reflecting the vertical and the horizontal axis in that space because a church is a space where those two intersect…
With a church also there should be a third axis going outward from the church. There’s quite a lot of discussion in church circles about whether you go outwards from the building or try to draw people into the building. So I think that’s the other axis which the church operates on; a kind of more social or community aspect.
What affect did you plan for those performances to have on those watching?
All I can really hope for from a work is that it makes people look at something in a slightly different way. I think a lot of people who came along to the first piece hadn’t really visited a church before and didn’t really want to but found it quite comfortable. Creating an environment that would be thought of in a different way without preconceptions. I guess just a fresh way of looking at things.
Was it also altering your perception of the space, because I know you are quite familiar with the church; exploring new ground in terms of your relationship with the space?
I was definitely exploring new grounds by exploring a totally different function for the building. Later today I’ll be going to the building to attend church service. It felt like quite a privilege to be able to do that. And it’s quite different to be making something in a space that you’re just in for the duration of the event, for me that space is more kind of lived in; It’s very different from making work in a space which isn’t inhabited. I’m quite interested in the idea that an art work can be a kind of offering a kind of gift I suppose.
So tell me some more about cultural memory within your work..
In my recent work I’ve been really interested in cultural history and the mythological imagery which appears and the overlap between different cultural histories such as cows being sacred animals, or the flood stories which come out of the ancient near east. It’s quite hard to work out what the original source would be then I really like the way they permeate through into contemporary culture like Gillette’s Venus razors referring to a concept of ideal womanhood passed down through centuries. The memory which is not attached to a space but is held in a kind of social space; constructs which have been passed down and developed through generations and held collectively I suppose
Do you think this collective memory is passed through mythology and different kind of social structures that exist?
Partly through religion but also the way that these crop up in consumer products and advertisements I find really interesting…
Like contemporary heroes, pop culture heroes, or the fact that a Mars bar is called a Mars bar and why it’s called that. Employing those things in a performance is a way of activating those ideas.
How do you employ them in your performance work?
In the recent works that I’ve made I’ve been making pieces where I dress up as different gods using really improvised props; some of them are just household items or things I’ve made out of cardboard. And they are all kind of representations of representations. In a piece I might dress up as Eve eating an apple but I might just be eating an apple or I might be eating a Mars bar; so the objects all come into play in a kind of mischievous or playful way. Quite casual, I just want them to be like a palette of things mixed together.
Do people usually understand on a kind of base level what these things mean and then see the structure that you’re building?
Quite often when people have seen these pieces they’ve said they don’t get all the people that I was dressing up as, but they often got some of them. But the fact is, some I’m making up on the spot and some are like the virgin Mary, or some of them are a bit more spurious than that but they look like they could be legitimate. So there’s this idea of activating a memory or hinting at a memory that you might have but you’re not sure.
To draw that memory to the surface?
Or making you aware that you have that memory even if you’re not really conscious of it
Like drawing the consciousness of that memory out?
Yeah that’s a good way of describing it, just thinking about how those memories are formed and how they can be used. And also the confusion about the authenticity of that memory; is there one original source, probably not. A slippery idea of truth
Ideally speaking, what do you want the audience to leave the performance with in terms of memory?
Ideally I suppose they may start noticing things in an advert or hear something in a song, kind of like tuning into a radio station; tuning their ears and eyes to see and hopefully the memory of the work lives on in their way of looking at things…
Is it important for you to construct an atmosphere which allows that kind of transmission to take place?
I think quite often in performance people create an atmosphere which feels like it’s quite serious and almost mystical, in the last couple of years I’ve really not wanted to do that. I’ve wanted to do something which is quite straightforward and direct in experiential terms.
So people are confronted directly with these ideas when they view the work?
Yeah I suppose in the relation to the kind of things I’m making I’m interested in the artist as a mythological character but I’m cautious of atmosphere overtaking content; creating an atmosphere as a shortcut to making a powerful work I’m a little bit wary of that .
How important are the stories which grow out of your work? The way it’s described by those that viewed the performance?
I think actually the way someone describes the work back to you is really nice, quite private and that quite exciting with performance the difficulty is that you cannot see the work yourself unless you’re directing , which I’ve never done. When you’re in the work you can’t see it, you can’t have an objective distance from it, it’s not like putting something on the wall and stepping back from it so I’m always really excited when people tell me what they think about it because it lets me see things from a different angle. In terms of how people would talk to each other about it maybe my ambition is quite low i just hope that maybe they would talk to each other about it (laughs). I haven’t really though t about what they might say, just that it would be worth talking about (laughs).
So how do you play with time in your performance; because using memory has a strange way of bridging different times?
I think in the recent work there’s a kind of collapsing of time referring to something that’s really ancient and placing it alongside something contemporary collapses those two elements together. And I suppose I’m thinking about things which are quite universal; which can exist in both those times alongside each other.
Kind of like religious ceremony and the way it exists between now and antiquity?
Yes, or dressing up like an angel for a renaissance painting and the idea that the angel exists before its representation. I suppose there’s also the duration of the work the most recent thing I made lasted over three days I’ve never made anything that long before, I usually make things that last around ten minutes.
How did that affect you as the artist?
It was intense I wanted to make something longer I’m not that interested in endurance but it did allow the ideas and associations to grow over 3 days and become more complex.
Did you feel like you were becoming more part of this collapse of time than if you’re doing a short performance?
I think so, it’s also more mentally demanding, if you’re going to make something for three days you have to have the material to make it last that long even if you’re repeating things the mental focus really pushes you.
Do you feel like you conjure a memory space by the collapsing of time, a kind of bubble of timeless space?
The thing I like about performance is that you’re doing something in the same space and time as the viewer, you’re not a representation you’re right there in front of them, but at the same time you’re embodying a kind of cross current to real life, the actions you’re presenting are not the same as those used in everyday life and people viewing the actions are expecting to see a performance. So in that sense it has a framework surrounding it which separates it from reality even though it is real
A kind of liminal space?
A kind of transitional space in relation to ritual and shamanic practice liminal space is really important; a transformational space and entering something that highlights the unseen or that which can’t be described by words. For me that’s one of the key things about art making, it’s a language for describing the invisible.
I heard this brilliant thing the other day when people started writing Socrates was radically against it because he thought it would destroy the act of passing information down through generations
Do you see your work as that kind of passing down of knowledge?
Not so much a passing down, rather a sharing out. I think transmission would be the best way to describe it.
The work I made for shift, which is an ex-council flat in an estate where nearly every other flat is boarded up, and it kind of like a n obscure location and when you get there you think you can’t be in the right place.
So the audience were already lost when they arrived?
The way I described to people how to get there was: ‘when you think that you can’t possibly be in the right place, that means you’re there’
And that was a really different kind of space, one of the rooms was set up as a white cube space but it was still a loaded space because of its location, and the weird journey to get to it, not the kind of place you’d expect to find yourself in or see any art, and liminal in the sense that it was on the brink of being destroyed. It also represented a kind of tragically failed utopian vision of the past.
Has the role of memory in your work changed over the course of your career?
I think if we’d have had this conversation a few years ago we would be speaking a lot more about personal memory rather than cultural memory, and using objects which belonged to a specific person to reactivate memories of that person, and the act of making an object into a relic, on a level of personal past rather than antiquity. The work took on elements of a homage and represented a kind of catharsis.
Do the objects in the current works in fulfil the role as saintly relics?
At the moment they’re like bad fake relics, faux relics, so bad that they become something else. They’re pretending to be relics so badly it’s obvious. Actually I’m thinking of creating shrine-like structures using the objects from the performance; I’m interested in the artist as a kind of demi-god character, with an alchemical power to transcend things, kind of bullshit really, but maybe it isn’t (laughs).
More of Holly Slingsby’s work can be found on her website here: www.hollyslingsby.com