June Mostra 2016 / Meet the artists … Deborah Prior

Over the next few days we will be introducing you in turn to our seven resident artists who will be exhibiting in the June Mostra on Friday 17 June. With the mostra opening in three days we met with Deborah Prior to learn about how she has spent her three-month residency and what her influences have been for the upcoming show.

Deborah Prior (Helpmann Academy Resident)


Deborah Prior uses textiles to create ‘slipped anatomies’, sculptures that explore the physical and psychological realities of being and inhabiting a body – of our materiality with all its attending weight and anxiety.  Informed by the politics of the corporeal female body, and the status of domestic craftwork, this recent work considers the notion of sacred and profane relics.

You have spent a lot of your residency here travelling round Italy looking at churches and relics within churches, is that what you were planning on doing when you applied for your award here?

I had an exhibition about six months prior to applying for the residency where I was starting to get quite interested in Christianity within the context of my art practice, where I was very much engaged in the social and cultural implications of the corporeal (female) body. Previous research into the medical and scientific representations of the body – where it is quite often displayed in a fragmented state – led to an interest in relics and incorruptible saints. So my plan for Rome was to consider how the body has been used in both religious and secular spaces.

I had a rather sensible and dour Protestant upbringing, so I became really fascinated with Catholicism, particularly with the really rich and vibrant sensory offerings within Catholic churches. And since being in Rome, although I have been utterly overwhelmed with the architectural spaces (the Baroque in particular!) of the churches I have visited and might know a little more about Catholicism than when I started, I have been really taken with Catholic devotional practices such as the veneration of particular saints, and the private ex voto offerings or flowers that I have observed people bringing into these spaces.

Your work for the upcoming mostra is a textile sculpture. Where did your idea for this this piece come from and how have you progressed with it over the last few months?

Several weeks before I arrived in Rome I started looking at representations of the she-wolf. And of course the Lupa Capitolina is this ubiquitous piece of Roman iconography that you cannot help but see when you are walking about the city. During my PhD I wrote at length about theories of the monstrous and grotesque feminine: they have not always had the negative connotations ascribed to them as in recent history, and are really rather potent sites for disruption or subversion. I’d also read about the grotteschi discovered in the Domus Aurea during the 15th century so having looked at all this imagery of a beastly, almost monstrous feminine figure of the lupa, I felt compelled to engage with her and I think I’ve created a quasi-shrine to the she-wolf.

It’s quite a disjointed sculpture in some regards, because it isn’t solely about the she-wolf. It is also influenced from my visits around the churches of Rome: how you’ll have a Renaissance chapel next to a Baroque one, sometimes this is a rather jarring effect, and this is very present in my work. There are aspects of the reliquary too, with an embroidered stain.

The main shape of your work is very resemblant of a cushion, is there a particular meaning to this as well?

I have been using pillows and blankets in my work a lot recently. Within the context of Rome, I have been particularly interested in ‘sleeping’ saints: either effigies or the incorruptibles that are almost presented as though they are sleeping …. not to mention all the tombstones inlaid into floors. Sometimes they are so well-worn you can only just discern the outline of a (blank) face and the trace of crossed arms, but they are also resting on pillows. It is a different kind of wear, but I also use salvaged textiles and linens in my sculptures a lot because I see them as traces of the body, or sort of profane relics.

Pillows and blankets are also very specifically domestic materials. In contrast to the instances of “High Art” within churches such as painting and sculpture I have observed a theme of domestic care and maintenance within these buildings: from caretakers washing marble floors to the restocking of candles or the presence of potted and cut flowers. For some of my time in Rome I have been working on a piece of embroidery worked directly onto a BSR blanket. It has been such a privilege to have so much time to devote to the studio here at the BSR and a lot of this is due to the efforts of the domestic staff here: it is with their care that the artists and scholars here are able to get on with our research unheeded.

Your mostra piece has this large embellished stain on the top side, were you intending to have this juxtaposition between the decoration and the stain?

Definitely. Some of the larger relics – that are recognisably human-  that I have seen in Roman churches are quite confronting in themselves, but then they are housed in these elaborate reliquaries which are then variously decorated with very fine metal work, jewels, and expensive textiles like silks and velvets. I suppose this material inspiration that I have used is both for visual effect, but it also might be a way of dealing with our sort of leaky, corporeal existences.

There appears to be a two-layered element to your piece. The way you have designed it to hang resembles the chains of a thurible, whereas the underside is very recognisable as being influenced by the Capitoline Wolf statue. Did you want these things to be separate?

I work fairly intuitively, so I was heading towards particular type of hanging and then in hindsight realised it was influenced by the liturgical objects I had seen. Its distinct layers are also a reflection on the historical or architectural layers of the city. Like Rome, it is a sculpture of lots of different fragments. And the fragments I’ve used, when considering the body…well it’s become a composite or monstrous creature of its own right.

Finally from living at the BSR, have you found it a stimulating environment to work in, and what have you enjoyed most?

In terms of working here the best thing has really been the other people I have met and the fascinating connections you discover between your separate projects, be they artists or archaeologists or classicists. It has really expanded how I think about my practice and how I might take a multidisciplinary approach to future projects. I have had a lot of really fruitful dinner table conversations with fellow residents. I think the intellectual curiosity and generosity of all the staff and residents here makes the BSR a very unique place to live and work.

Deborah’s work will be exhibited alongside the other six resident artists in the June Mostra opening on Friday 17 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours: 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 June until Saturday 25 June 2016, closed Sundays.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri, interview conducted by Katherine Paines.