Meet the artists: Beth Collar

An interview with Beth Collar, Augusta Scholar, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

The text for your recent show in Munich (Bildhauer*in der Sinne, opened at GiG until 1 January 2021) states: “in Beth Collar’s work, sculpture does not always respond to the image of a closed work, but also of a performative event’s marginalia. For this reason, the artist does not define herself as a sculptor, but as a performer, since sculpture is for her a double-track instrument of investigation”. Can you tell us more about this, particularly in relation to the block of lime wood you are carving in your studio at the BSR?

As a roughly female-identifying person, or, I could say, as someone who has been identified as female, for a long time I’ve struggled with the idea of actually making sculpture. It has always struck me as impossible. Too presumptuous. Absurd. Sticky, in a swamp of pure men, with a peat layer of Man, with a core-sample of Mankind beneath it. I’m being silly, but also, that is to say, it’s just there all your life. Everywhere.

So to make work for me, especially early when I was at art school it always felt like going through the motions – performing some role that wasn’t really for me. Eventually I realised that that was what I was doing when I tried to make something. And that’s where my practice became a performance one. And eventually I found that the only way to have a ‘studio practice’ was to begin to perform the role of the male master craftsman – someone un-identified from a time before the era of the (male) artist genius. I had to become the Master of fill in the blank. That’s where I could find crawl-space.

I’m drawn to objects produced for ritual, from and for devotion. The art from times both in the Christian heritage and the pagan and pre-historic. Because of their pure use; functional art; art that makes a living off the people who need it’s services. I’m drawn to art produced in a time where the art is decoupled from the maker – from long enough ago that it feels decoupled from gender too. It’s a collective endeavour.

This term above – “double-track instrument of investigation” – isn’t mine, but I see what he (the curator Beniamino Foschini) means: making sculpture is both a performance that I make and simultaneously it’s a way to discover and then to scrutinise. 

A tool of intuition – and then later a tool to examine that intuition and work out what the product of that performance says or does. For me, art is a tool to investigate the forces acting upon me that produce the ‘intuition’.

Troccola found by the artist in Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work seems to engage with religious art. What are the qualities you are drawn to?

I’m currently carving sculptures out of a long, thick slice of a Lime tree – AKA Linden wood. The wood has a significance for me as it’s a material I associate with ecclesiastical sculpture from the northern part of Europe. There is an absence of religious sculpture in the UK. I am from Cambridge and Oliver Cromwell was from Ely which is very close by. East Anglia was a centre of the Protestant iconoclasm during the Reformation. I grew up visiting churches (though I come from a long line of agnostics): as a general rule, in my family, if you go on a walk you pop into the parish church that you walk past to see if there is anything in there of interest.

I remember being particularly bored by this when I was little but eventually it wore me down, and I perpetuate it with evangelical zeal. More than 90% of the sculpture in medieval churches in England was destroyed during the Reformation (and almost all of the painting was whitewashed) so England is sort of filled with a blank. Catholicism just covered in Tipex. A blank over the power of sculpture, the power of art – specifically the graven image of course: it’s a slipped-out admission of its awesomeness. A back-handed compliment.

So, this absence or this yearning-for is something that has motivated my work for a very long time. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rome. This place is full. This place is over-saturated, overflowing. This place is the opposite, and in a way it can be a mirror.

In my work, that loss and absence resulting from this quite straightforward historic event stands in for other, more human, personal, micro-level absences and losses: about family, about love, about authenticity, alienation and about presence. I’ve been using these absent substances of the burnt and bashed to think these things through.

Finally, to bring the mistletoe in here, as it turned up erroneously in your original question as well as in my drawings while I’ve been here: I guess with the mistletoe I’ve been looking at Natural History in the same way as I do art history, or material culture/archaeology – it’s a thing – a cultural artefact – that means something now, that meant something then. And therefore holds mysteries of human relation and of loss. It wants something of us, much like the art objects I’m interested in from Catholicism and Paganism.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo by the artist.