Our new exhibition Sea is comprised of three new striking installations by Jodie Carey, made especially for the Museum.
Commissioned by the Museum, these works take their inspiration from the eighteenth-century fabric tokens left by mothers with their babies at the Foundling Hospital, and reflect on the stories of love, loss and survival at the heart of the Hospital story. The sculptures include Sea, a striking work made up of over 5,000 fragile, ceramic fragments which cover the gallery floor. We spoke to Jodie Carey about the inspiration for and making of her work.
What was the inspiration behind this exhibition?
I was immediately drawn to the textile tokens left by mothers as a means to identify their child. This idea of such small throwaway objects being the only concrete connection left between a mother and her child deeply affected me. These objects remain so emotionally charged even today.
The overriding idea behind all of the works in the exhibition is one of emotion. The Foundling Museum is home to so many amazing stories of hope, love, loss, generosity and resilience. The works I have made are testimony to maternal love, loss and separation.
Can you describe the three works?
Each body of work takes as its starting point the significant role cloth has played in the history of the Foundling Hospital. They consider ideas surrounding memory, forgetting and remembering, permanence and absence, and maternal love, loss and separation.
The large-scale work Sea seeks to make visible that that is no longer accessible. Much like each scrap of fabric stands for the life of a single infant child and their absent mother, the small immaterial memorials that make up the work capture a moment of remembering. Overall it is a monument to absence.
By choosing to cast rolls of fabric Found references the role of cloth in the Foundling Hospital story. Each cast poses a relationship with the human body, oscillating between the form of a human figure and the original roll of fabric. Their vertical stance is suggestive of sentinels, and their protective upright forms arouse the timelessness of standing stones.
Cord connects floor to ceiling and references the bond not only between mother and child, but also between Foundling and institution. Despite being materially strong, it has a very brittle and fragile appearance. It seeks to make visible the fragility of relationships that are so fundamental to human existence and questions whether such bonds can ever be broken.
Can you describe the materials you’ve used and the importance of these for the works?
I’ve never worked with bronze before and the commission afforded me the opportunity to try to work with this material. Plaster is very much part of my sculptural vocabulary and I often use plaster as a material to work with. It was nice to use a different material for each work. When I was first shown around the space I immediately visualised some really rough plaster sculptures standing in the actual museum and I also visualised a very elegant piece.
Cord is a bronze cast of rope that has been buried in the earth. We buried a length of rope in the earth and then when it was taken out it left a very rudimentary mould into which we poured molten metal. There was still moisture in the soil so when the very hot metal touched the soil it caused the soil to contract and crack, and the metal ran and spilled over creating almost arteries and veins. A four metre high plaster sculpture would never have been possible, it just would have been too fragile, but the bronze allowed me to go from floor to ceiling.
For Sea, roughly cut swatches of fabric were painted with very thin layers of liquid slip. The fabric burns away in the kiln leaving only a trace of its weave and pattern in the final cast. This material transformation from fabric to ceramic results in extremely fragile and delicate pieces that peel and curl like leaves or pages torn from a book. I knew I wanted a work that explored the absence of the mothers in the story of the Foundling Hospital, and using ceramic allowed me to make a cast where the fabric disappeared.
For Found the plaster sculptures were cast from rolls of fabric which were buried in the earth and excavated to form a rudimentary mould. By choosing to cast directly in the earth, the poured plaster takes on all the traces of land in which it was made: centuries of stones, soil, plant roots are all absorbed in the process. The unearthed sculptures quietly avow to memory because they are memorials of their own making, much like archaeological objects once buried and now found.
Where did you make the works?
All of the work was made outside in the land. Because we needed so much land and so much space we temporarily moved the studio from London to outside into the country. This extra space enabled us to work on all three works at the same time.
You made a kiln to produce the large-scale work Sea. How did you approach this?
I never intended to make a kiln for the project, but the nature of the work meant that we weren’t able to borrow electric kilns because the fabric burning away causes a lot of smoke so it would have set off indoor smoke alarms and heat sensors, and it also would have damaged the elements of an electric kiln. So I looked into the possibility of outdoor kilns, in particular wood-burning kilns where there isn’t anything you can damage. I did negotiate using somebody else’s outdoor kiln, but unfortunately they let us down quite far into the project so we decided to build our own. We thought how hard could building a wood-burning kiln actually be? We bought a book and it turned out it is very hard building a wood-burning kiln!
Did you find it challenging to build the kiln?
The challenge isn’t necessarily just building the kiln itself, it’s all of the work you don’t see: building the concrete foundations and building the barn to house the kiln. All of the work was very physical and the time of year meant that we were working through the winter months, so we were casting and digging in snow, rain and wind. I’d never even fired a wood-burning kiln, so it was a very steep learning curve to build my own and fire it with no experience.
Firing takes between 8 and 12 hours. It’s a very physical job maintaining the fire and it’s also a very fine balance controlling the temperature. There are lots of things out of your control like the weather – if it’s raining on one of your days for firing or if the wind is too strong it really affects the draw of the chimney. It’s also very important that you control the temperature as it rises in the kiln so that you don’t crack any of the very delicate ceramic pieces.
Finally, how does this exhibition fit with your overall artistic practice?
As an artist there are themes that thread throughout my work. I’m very interested in ideas surrounding memory, the passing of time and that shadowy boundary between forgetting and remembering. As an artist and a mother I found the Museum a very emotional space to make work for.
Sea runs until 2 September and is free with Museum admission. Join Jodie Carey in conversation with exhibition curator Kathleen Palmer on Friday 8 June. Find out more here