Fold and Stretch
by Sara Cluggish
Before you are three fleshy, plump, pliable bodies, each weighing approximately 60 kilograms. The faceless, anti-form figures are sexually indeterminate and lack rigidity or strength. They are like lumps of chewy fat, organs without skeletal support, nerves separated from communicative sinews and muscles uncontained by fascia. Theirs is a dense, dead weight that spills outward, continuously disciplined by gravity as their gooey mass - composed of live, multiplying bacteria – expands steadily and imperceptibly.
Fold and Stretch is a tactile, tangible encounter with dough - a living, growing and ancient material with a long socio-economic history. From Asia, where wheat was domesticated, cultivation spread to North Africa and Western Europe enabling humans to form sophisticated agricultural societies, as opposed to nomadic lifestyles. While this historical lineage is of great interest to Wilson (and her collaborators, choreographer Lucy Suggate and baker Martha Brown), her artistic vocabulary remains inherently sculptural and grounded in the process-based aspects of texture, form and fluidity. Wilson’s investigation of substances such as asphalt and brick can take years to complete, and Fold and Stretch is in the nascent stages of such inquisition. She often focuses on the various stages of alchemical transition - molten granite is poured and clay fired – but this performance offers up a laborious manipulation of dough as a pliable material that is not yet fixed and indeed will not become fixed. The three performers wrestle, sever, shape and play with its sticky viscosity on workstations-cum-operating tables, but ultimately the material is stored away and the dough ends in the same place where it began.
Last March, when embarking on the first iteration of this performance at Site Gallery, Sheffield, Wilson instinctually turned to an abundance of sculptural references. She spoke of the bulbous, disturbing anatomy of Hans Bellmer’s life-sized, pubescent dolls in which he often inserted ball bearings that allowed his erotic, monstrous constructions a full range of movements. One can imagine him twisting and turning their limbs in the privacy of his workspace like the performers bent over tables in Fold and Stretch. More recently, the milky, fleshy consistency of Wilson’s dough might remind one of the anthropomorphised, intestine-like NUD forms of Sarah Lucas, whose veiny, netted skin sit globular and contorted on industrial cinderblock surfaces. The curvilinear NUD sculptures have a flesh on flesh quality that is distinctly autoerotic, and, like the dough in Wilson’s performance, provoke a half-liquid, half-solid state simultaneously associated with skin, body organs and excreted fluid.
No practice seems more apt than that of Lynda Benglis who in the 1960s developed a reputation for the process-centered materiality of her encaustic, latex and polyurethane foam works. Like the thick, malleable mixtures of Fold and Stretch Benglis’ performative material investigations are dependent on the pull of gravity and tend to descend towards the ground. During rehearsal’s for Wilson’s performance at Site Gallery an oozing mixture with an overabundance of yeast made its way - completely unaided by performers - from closed container to concrete gallery floor. Poured, layered and embellished, Benglis’ works have a similar appearance of gushing liquid frozen mid-spill, a quality curator Helen Molesworth has referred to as “a radical slippage of coordinates’’ .
Wilson speaks regularly of an interest in bodily form and how one’s hand might intuitively manipulate dough. In Benglis’ early paintings, while the shape varied, the size of each was loosely derived from bodily dimensions such as the artist’s height or the width of her arm. For Benglis and her post minimalist contemporaries this was read as a reaction to the machine aesthetic and cool, reductive work of minimalism, whereas Wilson refers to her work as “a counterpoint to the increasing pace, mechanical production and virtual technologies used today”. The titles of Benglis’ sculptures such as Cocoon (1971) and Embryo I (1967-76), suggest corporeal projections of nascent life forms. The waxy, fluorescent translucence of other works turn towards food-types as in Night Sherbert A (1968) and Night Sherbert B (1968), which allude to melting scopes of ice cream. Benglis used to imprudently refer to her sparkle knots as ‘Nausea Balls’ and the hot wax of her encaustic pieces conjure childhood memories. The artist recalls her fascination with smelling, touching and tasting wax candies at Halloween and birthday parties, giving weight to the ritualistic characterisation of these occasions, while Wilson’s recent experiments have led her to the dark brown, malted Veda Bread of her own Northern Irish upbringing. Both sculptors ground their work in personal, experiential forms of knowledge and deep observation of material transformation. Memory is transferred through substance. Work, labor and pleasure are intimately conflated through processes of kneading, layering, pouring, pressing, folding and stretching.