Lucy Skaer: A Brief History of Time

Back in town after four years in New York, Lucy Skaer gives us a few words on her biggest UK show since the 2009 Turner Prize

Feature by Jac Mantle | 30 Sep 2013

“So, I don’t want to talk much about this show,” says Lucy Skaer, as we sit down to talk about her upcoming show at the Tramway. Having neglected to bring a pack of playing cards with me, I contemplate suggesting we play Twenty Questions. To think in terms of oblique classification would not in fact be a bad starting point for considering Skaer’s work, which mutates and re-purposes objects and materials so that their properties and functions rarely end up as they started out.

Marking her recent return to Glasgow after four years in New York, the show is billed as Skaer’s most ambitious since her Turner Prize nomination in 2009. That exhibition saw her install the huge skull of a sperm whale in Tate Britain, concealed behind a screen so at first you didn’t see it. Tramway’s ‘industrial cathedral’ of a gallery is an apt stage for a homecoming – and could pack a fair few whale carcasses – but conversely, Skaer isn’t planning to take advantage of its volume and is instead thinking on a domestic scale.   

“I’m going to have almost a domestic theme so I think the work’s going to be made uncomfortable by the space, which is something I’m interested in,” she tells me. “I’m not going to have any big objects. There’ll be things that can assert themselves in the space but in more kind of a spartan way.”

The theme of the show is prehistory, a term which Skaer associates with Darwinism and the understanding of geological time. In the past she’s talked about ‘pre-meaning’ to describe the experience of viewing the work that she tries to orchestrate; a slowing-down of one’s interpretation of it. But for Tramway the focus is on ideas of time itself, such as those that preoccupied the British modernists. She mentions Virginia Woolf, whose novels convey a sense of time outside the narrative – where tumbleweeds flourish and characters die mutely in parentheses, but nothing really happens save time going by.

“For me that idea of time relates to sculpture because sculpture is always primarily a first-hand experience, and through sculpture you can drag references that are usually third, fourth, fifth-hand and put them back into first-hand experience, although in a different way,” says Skaer.

This attempt to collapse time in on itself will underpin the show, with various disparate-seeming works characteristically coming together in one installation. Skaer has been producing small-scale lozenge-shaped forms, some of which will be dotted about the space. All of them are titled either ‘You’ or ‘Me’, prompting works with illuminating titles like You, Me, You, You, Me, You. The idea is to overload them with meaning, says Skaer; a kind of distraction to force them out of their schema and change how one reads them.

“Obviously, the ones that say ‘You’ or ‘Me’ are often exactly the same. So I’m interested in overburdening them with meaning and pushing them to almost an absurd level, [so] that they become a kind of conversation in the room a bit like a play.”

The point about the lozenges in this show is that they are ceramic – a material with almost infinite associations stretching through history, from the far past to the present and traversing the realms of utilitarian, rarefied, archaeological and fine art objects. Skaer has been researching early modernist Studio potters such as Bernard Leach, who applied a philosophical position to their pots.

“Leach has written about the philosophy and experience of making pots and I’m interested in how all this meaning starts to adhere to those pots at that time – so the Studio pottery movement makes these steps to conceptualism, I guess, but it never really gels,” says Skaer.

Along with the lozenges Skaer is showing a film she shot for a project in Leeds called Film For An Abandoned Projector. Embedded in resin in one of the lozenges, the original film is now unwatchable, but she is showing a re-edited version of it, having first punched out all of the frames and the negative to leave a white hole with just a margin of footage. Part of it was shot walking along the corridor in her studio, and in a weird mirroring transferral she is going to recreate the corridor in Tramway and install the film at the end of it.

Skaer’s frequent tactic of dismantling or disabling an object’s content but offering up extraneous meaning in its place could be described as contrary. Her explanation for why she does it is clear enough – to intervene in the way the viewer interacts with the work – but it’s harder to work out whether any of the objects and materials is then significant, except as a sign or reference.

“Of course it could have been something else,” is her reply when I ask why she chose her father’s coin collection to embed in the lozenges and whether it could have been something else. She adds that some objects she uses are personal to her, though she uses them in an impersonal way.

The recent past and the present will be referenced in the show within some print works made using plates from the Guardian newspaper. The plates are from the six-week period prior to the show and so record events like the war in Syria. This may or may not be apparent by looking at them, though – with what seems by now almost a comic perversion, Skaer is removing most of the text from them. By transferring the ink from the plates onto a neoprene blanket she can adjust and remove parts before rolling them to paper. Like enough, smudges and the benday dot will be all that remains. 

“Text provides a very quick shortcut because people are more comfortable interpreting text than image,” she explains. “What I’m interested in with prehistory is it being, as well as in the ancient past, something that could be current; that could be a way of understanding the world without narrative or without written language.”

Despite trying to get away from written language within the work, Skaer is pretty precise about the language she uses to describe it in conversation and diligent in correcting my sloppy phrases. Taking in the natural world, cultural history, current affairs and the language of sculpture, it seems as though her serious, brainy study should have a name; something Latinate, ending in -ology. Skaer, no doubt, would disagree – instead she is concerned to pre-empt the work's longevity. 

“Obviously if I re-show the work at a later date it’ll be fundamentally changed by having a distance from now. I’m interested in removing timelessness as a conceit of art, this idea of the exhibition as you see it being the first-hand experience, because as soon as those works age more they change. Usually art’s not thought about quite like that.”

Tramway, 25 Oct-15 Dec, free