Untitled (Possil, At Last) 2013 is a multi-part installation by the Northern Irish artist Cathy Wilkes, first exhibited in The Encyclopedic Palace at the Venice Biennale in 2013. It incorporates five handmade mannequin-type figures dressed in nineteenth-century fabrics, positioned alongside other historic materials arranged on the ground. These include assorted items of furniture, textiles and comics, as well as artefacts drawn from Possil Pottery in North Glasgow, excavated in 2010 – bits of jugs, old kilns, bottles and other fragments. The mannequins include four child-like figures of indeterminate gender, standing around an adult male who crouches over a bottle. Of the four younger figures, two are infants wearing simple cloth who stand behind the adult; of the two larger children, one wears a bonnet and purple-striped cloth reminiscent of a shepherd, and the other wears a spotted brown dress made of a finer material and reads a comic that is lying on the floor. Although the figures are largely blank and expressionless, they carry subtle character in their poses and the irregularities of the surface of their ‘skin’, which has been moulded by hand. ‘Possil’ is written in black ink on the side of an open cardboard parcel covered in tape; the plaintive words ‘At Last’ can be found carved in a childlike script onto an old wooden tray and are also repeated on a scrap of fabric that lies on the floor among the other objects arranged there. The space is delineated by two lengths of hanging fabric.
Possil Pottery, from which the work takes part of its title, was one of the few industries established in Possilpark, a long-deprived area in the north of Glasgow known for its high crime rates and tenement housing. The installation’s imaginary environment, with its broken fragments and eerie white figures, recalls a poetic vision, but the historical content of the work makes it a place of loss and of death. The presence of an apparently downcast adult along with children of varying ages perhaps implies the extension of this loss over multiple generations, in cyclical continuation. In an accompanying text, Wilkes suggests her installation evokes a nearness to death, a proximity that can be recognised by the viewer through what she explains as ‘a mystical relationship to objects’ (Wilkes 2013, accessed 29 August 2018). In the same text, Wilkes writes that ‘the work is a process of open concentration and waiting, and an attention to every part of a totality. The figures show frailty, compassion, emotion, their sensations. They also show the difficulty and pain of conceiving something outside my body and mind, the pain of formalism.’ (Wilkes 2013, accessed 29 August 2018.)
Cathy Wilkes has developed a sculptural vocabulary in which commonplace objects and materials are combined in minimal yet highly charged assemblages that often touch on issues of femininity and sexuality. While each element is chosen by her for its subjective significance, the work characteristically appears as a constellation of objects, as fragments in a complex web of relationships. Wilkes’s installations resist easy reading or breaking down into decipherable parts. Rather they function as suggestive thought provocations, in which personal experience is inseparable from the process of construction. Often the readymade materials for her installations are drawn from her own life, and so the archaeological finds and historical fragments included in Untitled (Possil, At Last) represent something of an exception in her practice.
Cathy Wilkes, exhibition catalogue, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh 2011.
Cathy Wilkes, ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’, The Modern Institute, 2013, https://www.themoderninstitute.com/artists/cathy-wilkes/exhibitions/the-encyclopedic-palace-venice-biennale-venice-2013-06-01/4653, accessed 29 August 2018.
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