Last week’s visitor to the Visual Arts department at West Dean College was Bristol-based artist Linda Brothwell. During a morning talk to the full-time students, Linda gave an overview of her practice as well as discussing three specific projects that she has been involved with in the last few years. Although the outcomes of and approaches to the different phases of her work are multifaceted – taking in sculptural works, photography, site-specific installations and so on – Linda emphasised the consistent conceptual thread running through what she does, specifically addressed to the notion of a shared history of craft practices, materials and techniques that underlie our relations with technology and with one another. Framing the conversation in relation to a farming background that involved a certain resourcefulness and an ingrained habit of making, Linda discussed the capacity for common objects to assume extremely powerful associative qualities; things become active agents in human relations, as purveyors of associative memories and so on. After apprenticeship training in fine jewelry, a breakthrough moment came when encountering a specific piece by the Swiss jeweler Otto Künzli, a simple bangle composed of a sphere of gold enclosed in a rubber ring. The charged encounter with an object again had a profound effect, and it followed that the kind of subjective experience triggered here was what Linda sought to recreate in her later work.
Discussing an emerging concern for traditional craft practices, Linda then talked about a specific and ongoing interest in principles of repair, which lead into discussions of her three individual projects. The first was nominated for Design of the Year in 2009, and was based on an extended visit to Lisbon, in particular the Museum of Decorative Arts. Responding to the open air culture of the city and the importance of social spaces and civic facilities, Linda staged a series of interventions where public benches were repaired using decoratively inlaid slats. In developing the project, Linda spent time working alongside extremely skilled (and often poorly paid) craftspeople in local workshops, learning how to create inlays in decorative timber. The repairs made use of reinterpreted traditional designs and an accompanying exhibition displayed some of the tools used throughout the project in a custom-made vitrine with its own ‘shadow board’. The incorporation of employed tools into the fabric of a project, as well as its presentation, became a consistent thread in Linda’s work. At the end of the residency, the benches were left in place as a gift to the city.
The second project, ‘Happiness for Daily Life’, which was a collaboration with the British Council in London and South Korea, involved restoring a neglected building in Gongu, transforming it into a functioning cafe and social space. Working alongside groups of highly skilled students from the National University of Cultural Heritage (NUCH), Linda produced many of the accoutrements necessary for the operation of the cafe – from Raku-fired vessels and plates, to other pieces of cutlery – whilst combining design sensibilities and manufacturing methods, both innovative and traditional, associated with both Korea (decorative ceramics and glazes) and Britain (wood-turning techniques).
The third project discussed was ‘Acts of Care’, which had a number of manifestations in different locations, but which was talked about in relation to a former cutlery works in Sheffield. The Portland Works, a community-owned building which currently contains small manufacturing businesses, independent artists and craftsmen, was extremely evocative: a site of stainless steel production, laden with associations for the loss of knowledge and heritage, traces of the past, and the remaining presence of social and industrial history in the fabric of the building. With such a rich range of materials, methods and traditions to be referenced in any artistic intervention, Linda explained that the tool became even more prominent in the work as the agent or figure of so many complex and profound associations. As she explains in a text relating to this project and her work in general: “Tools connect us; to our familial, regional and national heritage and through these links they also help us to locate ourselves, both emotionally and physically.” The intervention itself involved “acts of individualised care within the public landscape”, using handmade tools (designed for a specific and singular purpose) in order to produce steel shims (themselves designed as extensions to existing tools) of various permutations. Using a dangerous file-cutting process involving leather straps and ‘anvil’ plinths, as well as bespoke gauges and measuring devices, the wedges of faceted steel were then inserted into the brickwork of the Works, filling in the gaps and fissures like decorative seams in a rock face, tracing patterns of care into the fabric of the building. Raising questions about boundaries between function and decoration in the design, manufacture and application of objects (tools), Linda’s work is fundamentally concerned with the specificities available to be read into objects, predominantly in relation to use-value in its most expansive and inclusive sense. There is also a stoic melancholy to the projects, focused as they are on the tools that are always at risk of being lost to time, to “become relics of a fetishised past for future generations”.