Sarah Murphy-Young: An Interview with Sarah Staton

Sarah Staton, artist in residence at Furnace Park, talks of sculpture, Sheffield and the development of her performance-based, open-air metal pour that will take place on the site.

What is your interest in the Furnace Park project?

The logistics of working on a brownfield site, and the contradictions that this embodies are interesting. I’ve been enjoying conversations with Amanda around the notions of the apparent freedom that an open, abandoned space in a city centre presents and the problematic reality… that you’re entering into this minefield of laws, sub-laws, leases and ownership. I think that’s very rich territory.

What are you planning to do for the project?

We are creating a temporary Sculpture Park, and will build the sculpture on the site. An element of this involves an open-air metal pour – a very beautiful process to witness. We will pour a flat expanse of metal out there in amongst all the debris and buddleia and the nettles. We pour the metal, it cools and hardens and becomes an element to combine with other sheet materials to become a sculpture. Creating sculpture and furniture from flat sheet material has been a theme for me in recent years. I’ve been exploring that in a number of different ways, but I didn’t do it as a performance before. I’m interested here in using the low grade material polystyrene as the form that goes into a sandbox and then pouring on to it. You’ll end up with exactly the same shape in metal, with a surface that mimics the appearance of polystyrene but internally at cellular level its structure is transformed and it becomes structurally strong and has potential to last and it becomes an element I can work with in the Furnace Park context.

So, the production of the sculpture will be a performance-based piece?

Yes, which is a very exciting way of going about things, because very often there’s this thing of artists in studios and the presentation is in a separate space or gallery. It’s very nice to break that up and do the whole thing in one go. With the metal pour we plan, there is an element of re-enactment. We are living in the post-industrial time here and although there is still a lot of metal industry within Sheffield, the heyday has certainly long past. So, this performance/production event is a reenactment of an industrial process, and an investment in metal working that is in this city’s DNA, except we’re doing it in a different space, the realm of cultural production.

Is there any social commentary or political commentary to any of your pieces?

Yes, while this particular piece operates formally as pure sculpture, another reading is re-enactment as homage to physical work, to the history of labour and we are doing this at the time when we slip further into the post industrial, politically entrenched situation. At the moment I’m interested in very pure forms and how you realise those in different sorts of material. This has a political element because the stuff of matter becomes more vital the more we move towards inhabiting screen environments. The physicality of material is more fascinating and material make up of the worlds we inhabit is changing. The sea has islands of plastic debris; this breaks down and enters the food chain. Or what about a house where there is hardly any stuff, and there’s a laminate floor that’s plasticised, and then plasticised table surfaces, and it’s very sparse and wipe clean, and the main interaction is with screens. What does it mean for children to grow up in these sterile new environments? Its different from what I was familiar with, having had grandparents who travelled a lot and who’d amassed stuff and old things and dusty spaces, all sorts of different tactile sensations around you as a child, I am interested in this. My instinct is that the grasp of a tactile environment is very important developmentally.

You said earlier that you were interested in quite fast processes, and so is there a long thought process that goes on before the construction of a sculpture or a given piece of work?

Yes, there is. It’s quite slow thinking. It’s slightly unconscious thinking. I think the life I have with the children, and all the other stuff that’s going on, having to earn money and often going out of this city to do that, leaving just occasional pockets of time I have for making work. Because of this I really like fast process so I can fully commit to the moments for making work when they do come up. So, I have huge swathes of time away from making stuff, where things kind of develop in the back of my mind, slowly. Processes that give the opportunity for fast and focused download of ideas work well for me.

What inspires you in this thought process?

Well, I love looking at the world. I do a lot of looking. I’ve enjoyed living in this city because it has such a strange topography and it’s very sculptural. The city centre is this bowl shape, and if you drive around the perimeter you go up and down these hills and see astonishing views. I think that’s very interesting. There’s this thing where you walk around a sculpture, this mid-century thing where sculpture is something that happens in the round, and you can see every angle of it, Sheffield’s centre functions in the same way. You can drive around the entire thing really quickly from a very high vantage point and you get to see the massed buildings from very peculiar viewpoints, and I’ve really enjoyed that. The en mass architecture here has inspired sculptures I have made in recent years. There are many buildings where everything is done on layers using steel frame process, recent buildings that are designed by balance sheet calcs and from the exterior you have no idea of the inhabitants or what they might do – starter flats, university departments, outsourced government services, pensions, high tech industry? Earlier beautiful Sheffield buildings like the James Stirling Arts Tower that’s very Mies van de Rohe unitised, Park Hill Flats and the amazing Castle Market share grid systems. Slightly later buildings like the Moorfoot Ziggurat and the Crucible Theatre from the 1970s have asymmetric energy. There are not many building that are in their own right, particularly beautiful, but the mass of them make juxtapositions that are really exciting.

What other projects are you working on? I read something about ‘Steve’?

‘Steve’ is a sculpture in the form of an asymmetric pavilion that people can go into and that incorporates sustainable elements, with a garden growing inside. Steve is a contemporary folly. Folly history is that a rich person wants to make a little building and they have a vast amount of land to place that building in. Steve’s park is within, so he can go into any town and reframe it as the new picturesque. Steve is a personified sculpture, formed in a combination of corten steel a traditional sculptural material with heavy masculine association and photovoltaic’s embedded in glass, which is a new material. I am following an idea of having a partially rusted hulk within this very beautiful light glass, as a way to express future hopes and historic limitations.

What are your thoughts about Furnace Park as a project?

I think it’s an amazing project. I’m enjoying the way it’s slightly out of control, and that a lot of people are jumping in there with different interpretations and I think that is quite brilliant and contemporary. Amanda began with the reading group as its evolved into this site of multiple interpretations. I love the way the architecture students have created visuals that confuse people, and no one really knows if there have been farmers markets or whatever. There has hardly been any activity at all on the physical space, but it’s generated all sorts of projects and I am thrilled to also be involved.

Sarah Staton and Sarah Murphy-Young, 2013.

Sarah Staton project at Furnace Park

We’re delighted to announce a new collaboration with the artist Sarah Staton at Furnace Park. More information will follow shortly.

About Sarah Staton:

The idea that sculpture is completed by living presence is central to my practice.  I am fascinated by how sculpture becomes animated by living organisms, people, plant matter, technology.  Recent public art commissions have provided contexts for developing my practice around this core idea.

Within the remit of interaction between the lived and the inert, I make sculpture that is gloriously tactile & reveals the full potential of materials to invite tactile & physical response. I work with materials that provoke a tangible engagement with the physicality of stuff.  I see this as a valuable counter to the pixel screen based, body with out organs type environments that we now inhabit.

My practice delivers a broad debate around how sculpture connects with audience, with power structures, & with durational elements.  The work explores experimental & groundbreaking ways to combine traditional materials with new & sustainable technologies.  I want to harness this scope by reconfiguring new technology with more traditional sculptural material and sculptural process to create a sculptural object with ground-breaking juxtapositions.

Recent technological advances produce great scope, not only for environmentalists, scientists and engineers but also for artists.  Artistic practice will be pushed by creative exploration of new construction materials, this is an area where practice can pioneer thinking about the material world.

Earlier example of working with inert matter and new technologies is  ‘XYZ’ an Augmented Reality, partnership commissioned by Site Gallery in 2011.  Ostensibly a formal and dry gallery exhibition of big sculptural stuff, cubes of concrete, stone, & wood, with sheets of metal and glass arranged formally in the gallery.  When viewed through a smart phone,  virtual objects, created as render, augmented this heavy sculptural stuff, making clouds of playful and fugitive digitized simulacra.   eg, in one of these works, two large chainsaw carved wooden blocks placed 2 meters apart with a confetti QR code fixed to the top of one block.   The code is read by smart phone/AR technology & reveals a rainbow of coloured stone cubes that stretching block to block – virtual marble rainbow.

In 2010 a commission to celebrate the refurbishment of the Crucible Theatre included materially rich giant furniture elements designed to provide meeting places, play spaces as well as focus within the building & aesthetic pleasure.  The highly crafted special objects that I designed for this civic context respond to the Crucible’s exceptionally high quality civic architecture.

In 2012 a commission to bring an unused terrace at New Art Gallery Walsall, produced a mix of sculpture, planting & furniture, fabricated in materials & forms that evoke industrial legacy, judiciously placed to transform unused space into a functional beautiful micro environment.

An ongoing work with the title  ‘Steve’  is a sculptural pavilion, an off grid sculpture, an urban folly which audience occupy. It is a transformative place, free from commercial or denominational imperatives, Steve is transportable thinking-reflection space. ‘Steve’  is a travelling village hall, a focus around which a number of strategies for engagement can be programmed,  an aesthetic object, created from a series of asymmetric planes that lock together like a giant uncut quartz crystal.  These complex asymmetric geometries are designed to arrest the eye & contrast strongly with the regimented convention of our fast build city centres.  Early R&D for ‘Steve’  was progressed in partnership with University of Sheffield.  The ongoing project has input from Scabal Architects, Site Gallery, South London Gallery and Folkestone Triennial.

Sarah Staton, 2013