Platform 2019 – It’s not just political, it’s personal
Amy Richardson from the University of Reading was our second Platform Graduate Award 2019 artist. Her powerful exhibition There’s nothin’ soft about hard times took place at Modern Art Oxford from 19-29 September. In her piece for our blog, Amy considers her engagement with textiles as a medium, and the challenge of making work that strikes the appropriate balance between themes that are both personal to her and politically universal.
People have frequently asked me, “Why have you decided to make this work, and why now?”. This work really started when I sent a disposable camera in the post to my Uncle Mark in Norfolk over 6 years ago. Our relationship was becoming stronger after I had been able to spend more time with him whilst he was hospitalised nearby the year before. His hair had grown out to an almost unrecognisable length and his skin aged and rough but not enough to overshadow the warmth that radiated from him, the delight of his endless wittiness and the sensitivity with which he would talk about animals (very much our mutual passion). From the disposable camera came back an amazing series of portraits and from these, I sent back the pictures I drew of him. Amongst the chaos of homelessness there was respite in the loving dedication of our exchanges. I say all this because to understand my work is to understand the person behind my work. I found that making art was a way of me connecting with him and him feeling a deservedly powerful sense of self-worth. Four years after his death, three years of technical experimenting with textile embroidery and too many years of seeing the visibly growing prevalence of homelessness, I felt I was in the best place to be fully devoted to creating artwork to represent my Uncle’s human story of homelessness.
When installing my exhibition, one of the biggest considerations was the positioning of the cushions. I wanted it to be a thoughtful arrangement but I also didn’t want the viewer to feel controlled by an oppressively structured narrative. I wanted the viewer to have the freedom to create their own journey as they wove their way through the collection of works, in order to provide opportunity for personal engagement that would promote empathetic judgements. From the paths of movement that were forged between the pieces, the cushions became soft monuments, casting long dark shadows as a subtle reminder of their physical presence on the floor below. Due to the nature of homelessness it made sense for the work to require differentiated but direct physical responses, from a side step out of the way to a pause for reflection. In this way, our own actions on the streets are poignantly echoed in the treatment of these cushions.
Amongst other reasons, this response exemplifies the justification for the predominant use of textiles in this piece. The harsh words and sad depictions were softened by the medium of textiles, and appeared to prevent people from taking a physical and emotional distance from the work in reaction to the uncomfortableness of the subject. In this way, I capitalise on our natural desire to make things comfortable through the use of something as domestic and ordinary as a cushion. Instead of the usual aversion of eyes in response to something so explicitly sad, the intricacy of the designs and the satisfying repetition of the graphic lines held the viewer in the space for longer. Conversely, the contradictory environmental conditions of flat marked concrete, white pillars and brick walls to stage embroidered cushions, created a strange dissociation within the space from a definitive sense of outside or inside. This appropriately jarring feeling of occupying a space that is just as cold as it is warm, raw as it is soft and as exposing as it is private, translates as feelings of statelessness and discomfort for the viewer, evocative of the experience of being homeless.
One of the biggest considerations in making the work was striking the appropriate balance between the relevant themes of political and personal. I didn’t want one to overwhelm the other in a way that the credibility of both approaches became doubted and the work became off-putting. It was also crucial that the scenes I depicted were obviously associable with homelessness without conforming to damaging pre-existent stereotypes. The banner and the cushions, through their competing styles, aim instead to balance the explicit with the subtle, the domestic and the public, just as the floral cardboard tiles blur the boundaries between something of worth and something that is worthless. When my Uncle sent those photographs back to me I was given an invite into his world, and that is a feeling I hoped to replicate. I knew I needed to create work that was exposing enough for the honesty of the work to resonate with people, without ostracising the viewer through overwhelming intimateness, and thereby marginalising the issue further.
However, in reality I was completely taken aback by how the personal nature of the work became the most liberating aspect of the work. From the discussions I have had, people felt free to form different relationships with the artworks, consequently revealing the themes within the work to be of real personal importance in the majority, not just the minority. This consequently opened up conversations on homelessness in a way that created an open-ended fluidity to the work. The social commentary wasn’t artificially preserved within the work but was active in the minds of the viewers. The topic of concern was raised within the words of the banner, but emerged the other side not in the faces I had stitched, but in the experiences of the people within the room. I personally feel this is what is so amazing about social artwork. Since people are inherent to its creation, there is a greater sense of shared ownership of the work. And that is how I felt in the space, that homelessness, mental health and learning difficulties became things we talked about and ultimately took ownership of through sharing opinions, experiences and understanding. In that time, my work was no longer mine but part of someone else’s story, someone else’s experience and this was a huge privilege. This feeling was very appropriate because there are many more voices in this story. There’s nothin’ soft about hard times is a story of a unique human being but it is not a unique story and I know my Uncle would really want you to know that.
About Platform Graduate Award
Celebrating new artistic talent from across the South East, Platform Graduate Award 2019 is a series of three solo exhibitions by selected BFA graduates from Oxford Brookes University, University of Reading and The Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. The initiative supports emerging artistic talent to further their practice, and awards one outstanding artist a £2,500 bursary and mentoring from a professional artist. Read more here.