Barnaby Barford: Broken China Dolls

Showing in Dovercot this month, artist Barnaby Barford sculpts onto porcelain figurines to tell bittersweet tales of the modern world

Feature by Rosamund West | 04 Jul 2014
  • Barnaby Barford

“What I’ve done, and what I continue to do, is reappropriation. Take something, change its context, and make it relevant to us, so that we relate to it.” Barnaby Barford works with ceramics, with the found objects of porcelain figurines, intervening with them through the gift of a Dremel Multi Tool and then painstakingly twisting and reconstructing them to form narratives of contemporary life. From happy slapping to the three graces as played by Amy Winehouse, he uses these loaded sources to hold up a mirror to society, a wry tone concealing a serious core.

“The fact that they’re figurines – we’ve all seen them, we know the stories we expect them to tell. These sweet, saccharine stories and their representations of life. By putting them together and changing something I’m giving them a new context and new life,” he explains. 

The figurine itself is just another material, one to be manipulated into the desired form and meaning. “One of the reasons I use the figurines is they’re all made by different people from different ages and places. Some are really expensive, some are classical, some are contemporary, and I like that mix. If I made them they’d all look the same; I like playing with different styles.” He now mainly sources them from eBay, although when he first started working in this mode a decade ago he was shopping locally. “I put the price of figurines up in Hammersmith when I first started. You’d go in to begin with and they’d be 50p, then four years later I’d go in and it’d be like ‘£5?!’”

Barford’s interventions use this source material and undermine it, playfully skewing our preconceptions to deliver grander messages about our society. In Come On You Lightweight – Down It! two blue and white Delft-ish porcelain ladies interact atop a plate, one seated and one standing with her hand on the other’s shoulder. Their table is covered in empty booze bottles, some half drunk pints of beer and discarded cartons of fags, the leftover detritus of a contemporary bender suddenly scandalous when put in the context of the fancy ladies.

Psycho Bunny, his earliest piece in this exhibition, is relatively simple in comparison to later works, in many ways indicative of an artist just beginning to realise the potentials of his newfound media. A Peter Rabbit plate, a remnant of childhood, is embedded vertically into another dish, an homage to the plate stand of chintzy 80s living rooms. Added brutality is provided by the blood trail leading round the back of the plate, where we discover a white china bunny with a barrow full of severed porcelain heads. The inverted bunny boiler is minimal in the context of the later works, yet supremely effective in setting out Barford’s tone of humorous recontextualisation.

Film work Damaged Goods, created on commission from Animate Projects, takes the old classic story of forbidden love between a poor boy and a rich girl, told with the social strata literally represented by shelves of porcelain. She’s from the top shelf, he’s from the bottom, he goes up to court her and she falls to the ground where she’s smashed and then gloriously resurrected in shiny porcelain glory. “Whereas usually the poor person ends up living the happy ending, in this one there’s a twisted ending and she ends up on the floor,” says Barford. Created using stop motion animation, it’s been a smash (aharhar) hit at film festivals around the world.

How Else Am I Gonna Learn, from 2011, questions how we deal with the proliferation of pornography through the juxtaposition of the innocent and the jazz mag. It shows a red hooded child figurine sitting wide-eyed amid a sea of miniaturised porn titles. Say Barford, “It’s looking at young people’s access to porn on the internet, and how there’s the potential of young people learning about love and sex and relationships from looking at this explicit material. It’s about creating a debate about how it affects people.”

The latest piece in this show, Paradiso, shows Pope John Paul II and Jesus playing beachball on a paradisical beach. Says Barford, “Again it plays on the preconceptions. I spoke to my in-laws, who’re Catholic, about it and they were like, ‘Oh yes well you know Pope John Paul was really sporty.’ That’s confidence with your religion, isn’t it.” Which makes perfect sense, once you think about it. 

Barnaby Barford, Dovecot, until 19 Jul, free http://dovecotstudios.com