‘Nonsense upon stilts’ an essay by Dr Joy Sleeman

When I first knew Lisa she was studying on the postgraduate diploma course at the Slade School of Fine Art and I was studying for my BA in the History of Art department at University College London. Although part of the same institution the paths of fine art and history of art students rarely crossed and our meeting was not the result of our studies but of the fact that our then boyfriends had become friends. One work of Richardson’s in particular made an impact on me, Untitled 1991, a film loop showing the artist repeatedly putting her lips to the surface of a balloon. A few years later I returned to UCL, this time to teach at the Slade. I included Richardson’s work in a lecture for a course called The Spaces of Art. The space in question was the body. I used the work to talk about contrasting notions of the gestural and visceral body using theory from Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Lefebvre distinguishes between the evoked or abstract body – the body of gestures, voice and conscious activity – and the visceral or fleshy body. The fleshy body is a body experienced, it has a spatial dimension recognising left and right, symmetries and asymmetries, it is a body of unconscious and involuntary processes – for example digestion, excretion, perspiration, or circulation. 1

Untitled (1991)

When, in 2003, Lisa asked me to write something for a forthcoming show of her work I was staying with her and her family. I was in her living room. We’d been drinking quite a lot of wine as our conversation effortlessly moved from commenting on television, talking about our personal and professional lives to talking about the forthcoming exhibition and the possibility of my writing something about it. We were less than sober when Lisa disappeared from the room, returning with some extraordinary objects: inflatable hairy balls, a pair of large patterned lungs and photographs of her face with eyeballs attached to it. As she lovingly animated and described these objects, her voice and gestures stroked, caressed and narrated them into life.

The film Blow (2003) shares similarities with the early film work I referred to. The artist’s mouth makes contact with an inflatable object and the film focuses on this in close-up. In Untitled the gesture was one of touch and vibration, evoking voice and language. The balloon was taut, shiny, sealed, impenetrable, a medium for the transmission of sound made palpable as movement. Now the artist’s action is to breathe directly into the interior of this form. The ball is hairy, fleshy, a bit repugnant. The ball is open to the world and the artist’s action penetrates its interior. The action is also reversible. In Hands (also 2003) the air is released from the ball, the fingers pressed around the orifice controlling the flow of air, holding or releasing its held breath. In Untitled, language and its acquisition inhabited both the narrative (including the filmic reference to Mandy, a British film from the 1950s, in which a deaf and dumb girl learns to speak through such a method) and the writing-like marks that shared the surface of the image. The language of Blow and Hands is more guttural, more visceral. It fails to ‘translate’ into words. ‘I want the audience to recognise a sensation but not be able to fully describe it in words’. 2

Hands (2003)

I could use Lefebvre again here to distinguish between the evoked or abstract body. But at this point – in trying to account for the work through a theoretical explanation – the analogy starts to falter and fails to account for the work and its being. This is the work’s strength, because if it could be fully explained by a theory one might equally be able to say that the work could serve as an illustration of such an idea. The success of these two films is that they don’t illustrate concepts but embody them and exceed them expressively. Like the storyteller in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there comes a point when however fluent one becomes in speaking ‘words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures, grimaces, glances’. 3

Richardson describes the hairy balls that are less inflated as having ‘a sense of something being past their best and resting’. This is not poetic disintegration, the rhetoric of faded photographs or dusty attics, nor of young life cut short, but the fleshy, all too real effects of time on the body, of sagging breasts and dimply bottoms. Sometimes depressing but at the same time endearing and a bit comical as our bodies register the passing of time but also the sheer everyday miracle of survival: of creating and perpetuating life.

Richardson’s work has embodied her changing roles, sometimes in the apparently insignificant details. I remember a reviewer commenting on the earrings worn by Richardson in the Untitled film loop. In so pared down a presentation such a detail took on an important signifying role. Looking at a still from the film now I’m also very aware of the artist’s hands as she handles the balloon. Her right hand is shown, wearing a ring on her middle finger. In a still from Hands we see the distinctive wedding band on her left hand. In even so inconsequential seeming a detail, the changing role of the artist is communicated through a familiar symbolic language.

Richardson’s work embodies a sense of the wider sphere of women’s sociability, the juggling of personal and professional lives and the constant struggle of keeping a sense of self amidst the myriad roles we play in the lives of others. There are connections that are close and intimate -marriage, friendships, filial bonds, maternal ties – and ones that are less personal but no less important. Relationships with the great continuum of human history, shared collective knowledge and connections to those who share a professional and vocational habit of making art.

The domestic space of Richardson’s life finds its way into her work through the direct use of its materials and activities. But it also structures the ways in which she orchestrates our encounters with them as viewers – now pushed up close to a face, too close to see the head in its entirety; now finding ourselves witnessing a private moment of awakening; now finding ourselves inhabiting a space filled with inflatable hairy balls. . . Through such strategies we intuit something of the spaces and the experiences that prompted the work.

Richardson’s work is playful and humorous, qualities much of the pioneering work of women artists to whom this work is indebted, tended to avoid. There is not the analytic, anthropological seriousness of Mary Kelly or Susan Hiller, nor quite the ‘eccentric abstraction’ still wedded to grid and repetitive structures in the work of Eva Hesse. Much of this work comments on, shares space with, or has features in common with the stereotypically macho world of Minimalism and mathematical logic. Even the structuring logic of language and words (even illegible ones) -prominent in Richardson’s earlier work as well as in the work of Hiller and Kelly – is now virtually absent. There is far more a sense of daring to risk not being taken seriously and indeed of that possibility not being construed as failure.

I still teach history and theory of art. I don’t write my lectures in the same way that I did to begin with. I rarely write them down at all now, and sometimes find silences creep in to my lectures in ways that at first frightened and then intrigued me. Gesturing my way out of such situations, like Marco Polo in Calvino’s story, I’ve learned that sometimes one can’t find words to describe something accurately, or that a great deal can be lost if one limits one’s description by defining things too exactly. In moments when we fail to communicate we resort to touching, gesturing, holding, showing each other things. When Lisa showed me her work it was enhanced for me in much the same way as Polo’s tales of his travels were for the emperor by ‘the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words’. 4

In making art work we find ourselves trying to describe, furnish and equip a space. Creating a void rather than filling it, we allow someone else’s being, thoughts and dreams to enter, share and animate it.

I wrote the preceding paragraphs three years ago. Three years on it was relatively easy to pick up the story where we left off. Some of the familiar objects were still there, the hairy balls, the gesturing hands, the domestic spaces and familial relationships-now literally knitted together in a family portrait reconnecting mother and children by means of woollen bonnets and umbilical cords.

The artist’s personal and professional roles and the precarious balance to be maintained between them still features in the work. This is one interpretation of the act of knitting on stilts performed at Maiden Castle. But it is only one facet of that particular work’s set of allusions. A closer consideration of this work demonstrates the way in which the ambition of Richardson’s work has grown.

While still rooted in (what Hannah Arendt termed) the ‘greatest forces of intimate life’, the work has taken on a new reality – a new social realism. It has become a more wholly ‘social’ art, assuming a tangible shape for public appearance.

In some of the most recent photographic pieces our position relative to the work has changed. We are confronted with a family portrait, addressed full-length and upright, standing eye meeting eye rather than being regarded in intimate proximity almost as child, parent or lover. Though the photographs are stills and not film, there is a cinematic quality to the images from Maiden Castle. Richardson has mastered the art of distance – the long shot – as well as the close-up.

With greater confidence and humour, the work challenges the fathers of land art with a motherly performance on their home turf. Maiden Castle featured on the postcard announcing Richard Long’s  first one person exhibition in the US, at John Gibson, New York in 1969. But where Long’s use of the site was straightforward, Richardson’s is anything but. Rather than Long’s gestures of walking, placing stones and taking photographs, Richardson’s activities are almost ludicrously overblown and perverse. Bystanders wondered if she was engaged in some kind of extreme sport and in one of the photographs the supportive action of her husband kneeling to hold the bottom of the stilts resembles a supplicant donor kneeling at the foot of a crucifix. Whilst recognising this involuntary gesture towards overtly religious iconography, she is more explicit about the references to Thomas Hardy and particularly to John Schlesinger’s 1967 film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, some scenes of which were shot at this very location. A blonde female figure in the landscape, one might easily draw parallels between Richardson and Julie Christie, darling of 1960s cinema, a modern icon, somewhat incongruent in the painstakingly realist Victorian setting of Schlesinger’s 1967 film. Where Christie’s Bathsheba Everdene rides on horseback through the pastoral landscape, Richardson, holds her stilts, like some Oldenburg-esque knitting needles, Shepherdess’s crook, or maybe the staves held by the Long Man of Wilmington that according to one interpretation are tools for measuring and surveying the land. 5

Through the process represented in Maiden Castle – Knitting on stilts, nature is transfigured – the wool is transformed from sheep’s fleece to bonnet – and the activity that finalises that transformation is re-enacted back in the pastoral landscape complete with grazing sheep. Whilst representing this natural circularity, Richardson doesn’t merge with nature, becoming one with it as in the art of many of the women who made work in the landscape in the 1970s. She doesn’t attempt to reconnect bodily with the earth, as in the Silueta works of Ana Mendieta for example, but maintains her aloof, literally lofty, cultural distance, dressed in black, with lacquer painted on her fingernails rather than dirt under them.

Perhaps Utility rather than Nature is the model here. She is a mother, a provider, a professional, an artist, a creator as well as procreator. Her work makes reference to Jeremy Bentham, who characterised the French Revolutionaries’ attempts to model society on immutable Natural rights a ‘nonsense upon stilts’.

‘What is the true source of these imprescriptible rights, these unrepealable laws?-Power turned blind by looking from its own height: self-conceit and tyranny exalted into insanity. No man was to have any other man for a servant: yet all men were for ever to be their slaves. 

Making laws on pretence of declaring them: giving for laws, any thing that came uppermost and those unrepealable ones, on pretence of finding them ready made.-Made by what?-Not by a God, they allow of none: but by their Goddess, Nature.6

If a goddess, Richardson’s is a distinctly modern and ambivalent Nature Goddess.

Back at home, Lisa shows me other objects that will be part of the exhibition, Paraphernalia. We re-enact, wine glass in hand, the living room scenario of three years ago. In a sense nothing has changed, and yet we cannot help but acknowledge the unpleasant resonances of some of these objects – the plaster leg-cast from her husband’s recent road traffic accident for example – that so rightly takes its place amongst the symbolic objects in a modern take on a still life allegory or vanitas: the wig, mirrors and disco ball and the cycling helmets that form a kind of exoskeletal skull.

We are perhaps a little older, wiser and more resourceful – we use a foot-pump to inflate one of the hairy balls and Lisa is concerned at the loss of the breath that animated them in their ‘original’ incarnation. The making of the work generally has required assistance: from her immediate family but also in Umbilical cord, the skills of an older generation. Despite the new fashionable image of knitting, such skills are not acquired overnight and the more elaborate bonnets were made by someone whose skills belong to a past era when knitting was a skill passed on from mother to daughter. Richardson is concerned about appearances. She uses a photograph of Rack II to make sure that all of the items are correctly placed. The intimate has been transformed, it has assumed a worldly monumentality, become a more ‘social’ art.

‘For us, appearance-something that appears in public can be seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves-constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life-the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses-lead an uncertain shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experiences.’ 7

In 2003 I wrote about the storytelling, the first stage in this transformation of an intimate life into a public reality. The transposition into art object means that the resultant shape needs to be capable of performing the twin acts Arendt believed essential to any work of art – remembrance and reification. Art needs to be in the world and it needs to aspire to stay in the world longer than the objects we make for our everyday utility. Even if the objects are feather dusters and devices for unblocking drains, or the activity is knitting, they need to be transformed into a reality that can be comprehended, remembered, retained, and form part of the social reality of a ‘public’.

This is a process fraught with difficulty and to enter into it means risking incomprehension. Now if words fail, like Polo and we have to go back to relying on grimaces, gestures and glances we do so cognizant of the social reality those stories inhabit now unleashed from our intimate realm and let loose in the world. There is still the storytelling with wine and the inevitable silences and laughter, but there is also a sense of the greater transposition of intimate experiences into a public, socially realistic, form. The test of that transformation will be its ability to survive in the world, to achieve the aspiration to reification and remembrance that brought it into being, to stay with viewers after they have left the exhibition and closed the pages of the exhibition catalogue.

1 – Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991

2 – Lisa Richardson, from some ‘thoughts’ about the work sent to the author, November 2003

3 – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, London: Picador, 1979, first published (in Italian) 1972, first published in English translation 1974, p. 32

4 – Calvino, Invisible Cities, ibid.

5 – See Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, London: Garnstone Press, 1970 (first published 1925), p. 86

6 – Jeremy Bentham, ‘Nonsense Upon Stilts, or Pandora’s Box Opened’, Rights, Representation and Reform: Nonsense Upon Stilts and Other Writings on the French Revolution, eds. Philip Schofield, Catherine Pease-Watkins and Cyprian Blamires, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 331

7 – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 (originally published 1958), p. 50