Inventions of the Mind: Erasmus Darwin House

By Anneka French 2010

In Inventions of the Mind is an exhibition which attempts to form a bridge between the ideas of contemporary artist Kirsty E. Smith, and the life and work of one of Britain's most important historical thinkers, Erasmus Darwin, linchpin of The Lunar Society. The exhibition focuses on six of Smith's 'otherworldly' sculptures, each of which relates to Darwin's thinking. The pieces are displayed amongst the historical artefacts held within Erasmus Darwin House, in direct relationship with his former possessions. The exhibition attempts to establish both visual and conceptual connections between the two figures and their work. These include shared interests in philosophy, nature and technology which are evident in the objects from the museum's collection in Smith's interventions. 

Like Darwin, Smith is an experimenter and innovator, a creative individual seeking to make sense of the world around her through her work. Also based in Lichfield, she makes work which is an eclectic amalgamation of the organic and the man-made. In the same vein, Darwin's Commonplace Book on display at Erasmus Darwin House includes sketches of strange animal-machine hybrids, including one which has funnel-like wings reminiscent of components Stan, one of the key artworks in the exhibition. Smith is influenced by a startling array of ideas, just as Darwin was, and her three-dimensional abstract works incorporate wood, metal, textiles and a variety of 'found' objects: objects she quite literally ‘finds.' She appropriates forms, textures and colours from advertising, design history, popular music, space exploration, architecture and industry to create ambiguous forms. Her sources include both the familiar and the more obscure. The artist's visual vocabulary contains such diverse items as vintage lampshades, agricultural machinery, tweed, hat netting and new glittery synthetic fabrics, all of which can be found within the exhibition. It is the conjunction of these vastly different inspirations and materials which gives the work its unexpectedly surreal qualities and makes it difficult to categorically define.

Each work is titled with a human name which often arises through the process of making. This personification is important to our understanding of the finished works. Smith sees the sculptures as having their own particular characters, and this reinforces some of the ‘uncanny' and comical aspects of the work. The titles act as signposts towards these personalities, from the stately Madeleine to the more mischievous Ziggy . Several of them contain elements which look like legs, wings or hair, and it is perhaps difficult to separate the human or animal-like qualities from the works in order to see them purely aesthetically. However, more formally, Smith's work incorporates frequently occurring motifs such as stripes, piped lines and protrusions, and she joyfully experiments with colour, texture and pattern, alongside ideas.

The works attempt to question our physical relationship to our surroundings, as well as how our memories and experiences might be affected by these. Smith's work also deals with philosophical notions of what is ‘internal' and what is ‘external,' what is the ‘top' and what is the ‘underneath,' i.e. how our eyes, minds and bodies relate to objects and spaces. Smith's work is made in three-dimensions which means that we respond to them directly, perhaps wanting to reach out and touch the soft fabrics of Cyril, or having to step over legs belonging to Madeleine. Smith made Colin specifically to sit atop a bookcase in the house, placing it as if it had spontaneously grown from the bookcase. The positioning of this and of the other sculptures within the building have been chosen so as to make connections with the other objects and furnishings inside. Smith has described the works as, “taking up residence,” within the rooms of the house, which relates back to the notion of them having their own characters. Appearing both out of place and yet somehow 'at home,' each sculpture appears to be engaged in dialogue with its new context. They are therefore in dialogue with us as well, animated within Erasmus Darwin House. The effect can be a little disarming. For instance, Madeleine seems to gaze longingly out from the hallway window, whilst Ziggy appears to have slithered out from the fireplace. It is the skilful positioning of the works in individual spaces that results in a feeling of unease, like looking at museum mannequins and wondering what they might get up to whilst your back is turned. 

The sculptures on display frequently unite opposing ideas, for instance a combination of both the soft and the organic, the hard and the sharp. Sumptuous textiles like velvet and merino wool are used in conjunction with objects of little monetary value: the reclaimed and recycled. These are often things Smith has discovered in scrap-yards and junk shops, sometimes scratched or worn, as well as new items bought in markets. Through the process of making, objects and materials are removed from their original context and given a new function and a new identity, mounted, bent and shaped, or used in multiples so as to be almost unrecognisable. This is particularly true of Russell, as its form incorporates long brushes used to clean behind radiators, twisted into features like planetary rings. The way the artist manipulates her chosen materials determines our response to the work. For example, the floppy tactile 'tentacles' of Ziggy are made from sparkly dance costume fabric, and so the piece is attractive in terms of its form and its material. However, it also features a belt of spiked plastic ‘bear paws,' which are more usually used to handle large joints of meat whilst cooking. Within this context, these components are threatening and strange. Colin , Smith's most recent work made for this exhibition, brings together discarded and unwanted objects with those associated with power and wealth. The work is adorned with feathers designed for ceremonial military uniform, whilst the form of the work is built around a scrap piece of piping. 

For both Darwin and Smith, sources of inspiration can be found in everyday places and connections can occur between things unexpectedly. Sometimes a sculpture can be inspired by another image or object, or a chance encounter with a place or a person. Smith delights in describing these stories and the significance each one holds for her personally. She has noted that, “We live in a constant dialogue between memory and our experiences of the present.” The vintage wool bouclé fabric used in Cyril was inherited from the artist's late Aunty Betty in Fife. The downpipe hopper used at the core of Stanwas acquired from the guttering of a disused bus station in the West Midlands and relates in form to Darwin's horizontal windmill design, albeit unintentionally. Like many of Smith's works, Madeleine incorporates a number of references to manufacturing and technology. Its fluted ‘petal' shape was derived from a ‘ Paul' paraffin heater from the 1950s that the artist saw in a museum. The new black webbed heat-spacer fabric used in the piece was made by Baltex who specialise in developing cutting edge materials for industry, although they were originally founded closer to the era of Darwin than to the present day. Interestingly, the soft black tubing on the top of Madeleine was influenced by electric cables Smith saw when visiting the factory. These stories highlight the visual and conceptual significance of inter-connectedness and of tiny details within the artist's practice.

Smith's conjunction of the old and new, the ordinary and luxurious, the cheap and expensive, all contribute to a rich and complex body of work. Her sculptures are vessels which hold and suggest many ideas simultaneously. They are saturated with history and with narrative, in both a personal and more general sense. Smith's use of the obscure and familiar in equal measure serves to create a feeling of the uncanny, reinforced by their unexpected location and comical titles. Like the mannequins positioned in Erasmus Darwin House, it is quite possible to believe that Smith's sculptures have an unseen life of their own. The works display an empathy with and understanding of the spirit of Erasmus Darwin, whilst retaining their own individualism and character, and it is this that makes them so engaging within and appropriate for this setting.

Anneka French is a contemporary art writer, editor and curator based in Birmingham, UK.

She is editorial manager at contemporary art magazine this is tomorrow and reviews for other publications including Photomonitor, Apollo Magazine and a-n. Anneka was recently project co-ordinator at New Art WM, was writer in residence at In Between Time festival 2015 and was selected for a-n’s inaugural writer development programme 2015-16.

She has worked at galleries including Tate Modern, Ikon Gallery, New Art Gallery Walsall, Vivid Projects and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Anneka was formerly co-director of Lincoln Art Programme, an Arts Council funded nomadic live art commissioning organisation based in the city of Lincoln.

Notable independent curatorial projects include a recent residency and upcoming exhibition with artist Mitra Saboury at Grand Union, Birmingham, and an exhibition of ten newly commissioned sculptural works at National Trust property, Croome, Worcestershire, on display until August 2017.

Public talks lectures have been given at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, and The Commandery and the Hive in Worcester. She regularly delivers seminars and lectures to undergraduate and postgraduate students at Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham.