WHAT HAPPENS ON HARRIS STAYS ON HARRIS
THE TRAGIC NECESSITY OF FAILURE
MY PERSONAL STRUGGLE WITH MY FAILINGS AS AN ARTIST AND HOW THIS HAS LED TO SUCCESS
It is not until the removal from the institution – finally, after years of repeatedly justifying everything that is made until development fixes it so completely that any growth becomes stunted – that the artist discovers the undeniable gaps in their skill-set. What the student often fails to realise is that the workshop environment is almost impossible to access in the post-degree show world. It is a barren wasteland outside of the university colony; the chop-saws and extractor bays which were once part of a creative utopia are now immaculate and unattainable relics of a time when we were smothered by opportunity. A time limit on our output is imposed: we can weld and grind and etch and carve but only until the doors open again and we are forced out. We are Logan and we are running.
I crashed into the reality of life without the guiding hand of the workshop technician after a luxurious four years of institutionalisation and I crashed hard. Not only did I realise that I couldn’t do the things I wanted to because I couldn’t access the equipment but rather that I had no idea how to do it anyway. Yes, I performed the motions of making a silicone mould as the casting technician took me through the steps but no, I couldn’t tell you how to replicate them nor could I even tell you what materials to use. I copied; I didn’t learn and I took it all for granted. I gained a vantage-point from the other side of the fence when I was offered a job as a lecturer; the doors have swung open for me again and now it is my responsibility to ensure students gain and retain technical knowledge before they start running themselves. This is a difficult prospect to face armed with the nasty little truth that this isn’t something I managed during either of my degrees. When I was offered the teaching hours, I revelled in the pleasure and panic of getting the gig and knowing that I had to bring a pool of expertise I didn’t even possess. Self-teaching was the only possible route.
I couldn’t undergo this pivotal learning process in my own studio in Liverpool; they’d all know I had these gaping holes in my skill-set. Worse still they’d know that I know. I ran a bit further.
For reasons that I can’t find it in myself to justify, my parents retired to the Isle of Harris. This is an island that lies just off the west coast of Scotland and offers to visitors a bizarre microclimate that is unpredictable at best, set against a landscape that Stanley Kubrick identified as the closest to the surface of Jupiter it is possible to find whilst still remaining on this planet. I would go there because what it also has – at least for me – is free accommodation and a large outdoor shed I could use as a studio. Here, I would take on the role of both technician and student. More specifically, I would not leave until I had taught myself how to make a two-part silicone mould and cast from it a series of metal-filled resin sculptures. This is something I should know already – which it isn’t – and something I should have already done – which it is. It’s also embarrassing.
You can’t get silicone or resin delivered to the Isle of Harris. It’s not a good idea to put too much flammable material on a commuter ferry and this didn’t occur to me until I’d made the commute myself.
The frustration settled in me immediately but didn’t really rise to the surface until I made the decision to order as much casting plaster as I could afford. Plaster’s cheap and heavy and available in bulk. I think it was a passive aggressive act directed towards myself, I’m not sure. It was definitely an act of violence towards the courier who was hauling my sacks of plaster across the North Sea; just imagine how much easier this would have been for you if you’d just brought me my silicone and resin in the first place. The same drive in me that wanted the plaster also wanted to eat quite a lot; I’m that way inclined to deal with frustration and this started me thinking about what actually does make it to the island from the rest of the world and what makes it back again.
Harris is a place which seems content sitting across the little rift from the UK mainland. It’s a place where couples choose to bring up their children away from the influence of media and technology (which inevitably does present itself to them one way or another) and a place where doctor and missionary is the same occupation. It would like you to think that it doesn’t need the input of the rest of Britain to keep it afloat. It does, though. When the gale-force winds surrounding the island prevent the ferries from making the journey across from Skye, the supermarkets are not re-stocked, the post is not distributed and the waste is not removed. Equally, the land itself is so bruised by grazing and farming that Harris has very little to offer to itself and is looking continually outwards for sustainability. Conversely, it is peppered with storm beaches: little indents of coast positioned in such a way that the tide washes up unexpected objects from all over the world which had no business being there at all. I found a dinosaur figurine.
In my final act of passive aggression – which was possibly directed finally at my surroundings – I filled all of the food containers I had emptied with plaster until I had used all of the plaster I’d managed to get my hands on. I had immortalised all of the food shipped onto the island for my benefit and the domestic waste that would need to be shipped off again. Everything I would be taking back with me had arrived there independently of me. Not only this, but I had documented a span of time which chartered my failure. My month of isolation drew to a close and I boxed the negative plaster shapes and returned to my Liverpool studio to sift through them and work out what had just happened to me.
The plaster totems mimicked the landscape: smooth and worn from the weather and the livestock. I ordered silicone and clay and resin and aluminium powder and I swallowed my pride and I taught myself how to make a two-part mould. I cast the dinosaur figurine in aluminium filled resin and my metal herd populate the plaster mountain range, echoing the movements of the sheep as they spread over the grazing planes, almost unchecked by the shepherds. This work is entitled Aisles of Rust and will exhibit for one week at The Plinth gallery in Glasgow this coming summer. It is a projection of myself upon the landscape which is in turn reflected back at me. It’s critical of the seclusion Harris imposes upon itself and the reliance upon the mainland it would rather you didn’t know about. The dinosaurs allude to the objects it draws towards itself unexpectedly and the treatment of the ambient fauna by the population: they are free to roam but at the risk of extinction. It’s showcasing in Glasgow is a further investigation of this angle. The production of a finished piece of work is not something I particularly wanted to happen: it was not something I was striving for, neither was it something I believed I had the skill set for. This did not prevent it from happening and out of my spree of failure on the island came the ultimate success. Aisles of Rust is quite literally a joining of self-criticism and appraisal: a self-satisfied showcasing of what I am able to produce resting on the waste product of self-shaming.
More poignant was the obvious truth that yes, I failed to achieve what I set out to do on the island but actually if I hadn’t made the journey then my frustration would not have yielded this work and I would not be exhibiting in Glasgow this summer. The tension between artistic obstruction and celebration must be present in a practice and only when the two are confronted with one another do we strive to progress. Wallowing in disappointment is like composting seedlings.
I started work as a lecturer in January of this year, when I returned with a new-found ability to learn when I need to learn. Specialist knowledge is not something concerning the new blood as they near the landing strip of the degree show but I know that it will and when it does I will not be around. What I will do for them is provide a font of knowledge – which I am continually topping up – in technical methods and inspire them with the workshops I have written and when I dry up they will slowly understand that all I have taught them is how very necessary it is to fail.
Ellie Barrett is primarily a visual artist. She defines herself specifically as a sculptor, but often strays outside of this boundary, making video and textile pieces. Creative writing has gradually entered into her sculptural practice as a means of considering new work and evaluating experiences outside of art production. Previously, she has lectured at Lancaster University and is currently a director at The Royal Standard – an artist-led gallery and studio space in Liverpool.