In early September 2015 I arrived in Versailles having been invited to be the first artist in residence at a new residency created by Galerie Lefebre & Fils in Paris.
My intention from the outset was to make a completely new set of work that described my time in Versailles and which was inspired by the locality.
Having spent the summer absorbed in the writing of Nan Shepherd – specifically her wonderful book “The Living Mountain”, I had some very specific ideas I wanted to explore.
Shepherd spent a lifetime walking the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland and her book is a poetic and philosophical meditation on the physical, sensual and emotional experience of the places where she walked. Her approach to writing about these experiences is the same as that which I’ve tried to portray in my work over the years. Walking for the sake of walking – without a destination or a goal. Entering ‘into’ the mountain rather than trying to scale the peaks and summits.
So I began to walk…
Ove the next four months, I walked the streets of Versailles continually. By day when the streets were full and in the middle of the night when I was the only person awake. I looked, I touched and felt, I poked about, I peeked into the recesses and I began to discover the city.
All in all, I tracked over 1200km of these walks around Versailles, but there was certainly hundreds more untracked kilometres. I wore out the only shoes I had with me, lots dangerous amounts of weight, and began to look like some kind of wandering vagrant.
In Scotland, I’d spent a lot of time walking the paths that John Muir walked in East Lothian as he was growing up. This was before he moved to the US and founded most of the National Parks over there.
It was his famous quote about walking that was foremost in my mind on my own walks.
I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir
As John Muir went ‘in’, and as Nan Shepherd (a self-confessed “peerer into nooks and crannies”) went “into the mountain”, I went ‘into’ Versailles.
My work has always involved printmaking with clay, and more recently I’ve been developing the ideas of ‘clay photography’. I’ve made prints like this all over the world. My clay photography is about the negative space of the image. Rather than register the light, I register the texture. They’re Instagram in clay!
These prints came together in the central piece of my show “For going out, I found, was really going in” which is made up of 202 tiles, each one tagged with the latitude and longitude of where I printed it. Again, like digital photography, the piece is geo-located and mapped on Google maps.
“For going out, I found, was really going in”
This largest piece binds the show together. The prints are purposefully non-hierarchical – whether a sewer cover, a beautiful ornament or a deteriorating wall, they are contained within the same space and have the same value. They’re equal in their treatment. Like a collection of specimens in a museum, you see the difference between them, compare them and classify them.
The rest of my pieces are divided into three separate groups of work. Each group is inspired by what I learnt from discovering the city by walking and they’re all created from prints. The prints are made into moulds, the moulds are assembled into complex structures, and then the moulds are poured and the pieces cast.
IN: “Les racines de Versailles”
With “IN” I was continuing the theme of poking and peeking into the sewers, drains, culverts, grids, grates and vents of Versailles. It is an examination of the underbelly of the city rather than it’s golden past. It’s about contradictions.
SIDE: “Les ponceaux de Versailles”
“SIDE” is about the overpowering formality of the city’s architecture and the gardens. Each piece has sides printed from trees and also from man-made infrastructure. It represents the infrastructure of municipal ‘order’ and discipline, but at night.
OUT: “Les fleurs de Versailles”
“Les fleurs de Versailles” represent the happier “OUT” section of the show and some of my emotional responses to being here during these last four months.
Each group of moulds has been made with a different approach and each piece in the group responds to the process of being cast differently.
It’s like taking the same walk over and over with a different experience on each walk. In the same way, every time I cast in the same mould, it’s a completely different experience. The material enters the mould in a different way to create this different form or texture. It enters the moulds freely and finds it’s own routes or paths within the limitations of the mould. Just like taking the same walks along the same paths at different times of day. In the dead black night, the clay finds a different form than it does in the day.
My show “IN SIDE OUT” is on at Galerie Lefebvre & Fils, 24 rue du Bac, Paris until 21st March.