Drawing on historical typologies of sculpture, human gesture, readymade objects and cultures around birth and death, Clementine Keith-Roach’s work explores the tension between the archaeological and the contemporary. Her own experience of living in Athens and of being pregnant with her first child opened up new territories of thought and sensation, providing both provocation and inspiration for a turn from set design to fine art. As she discusses in the following conversation, the present moment is a powerful one for a practice rooted in the sense of touch.
Clementine was born in London, in 1984, and now lives and works in Dorset, in the South of England. Alongside her sculptural work, she is an editor of the art journal Effects. She was interviewed by Iona Whittaker, a writer and editor living in New York.
Iona Whittaker: I think we could begin with something topical, and if we tie that to your work it could be the subject of hands. Of course, we all notice them so much more now that we are obsessed with mantras of washing our hands and the things we—or someone else—might have touched. Hands are clearly so important for your work, visually and formally, but also, you have said, politically. Can you talk about what hands mean to you, and how that may have evolved in this strange present moment? Hands, to me, are like an index, and your work feels reciprocal with daily life.
Clementine Keith-Roach: Yes, my work is in a way all about touch, and it’s extremely strange to be making these works at a time when touch is banned—I hope we will return to a tactile world soon! I found it very helpful that you used the word index—an index is about leaving a trace. The urns I use for my sculptures are mainly Mediterranean storage vessels of unknown ages, which have been used to store wine, oil, and dairy products (sometimes they really smell, and that just becomes part of the work). They are objects of labour, and I see them as indexes of the previous labouring hands that made and used them. The plaster casts of my own hands, which I sculpt onto the vessels, are also indexes or documents—of my body, imprinted with the texture of my skin, which is rapidly ageing due to all this handwashing! The other meaning of index is to point to something—and in a way, I see my gesturing, sculptural hands as pointing to the labouring hands that made/used these vessels and by extension to labouring hands in general.
Hands are interesting to me because they are these tools that behave both linguistically and productively, but also seem to have a life of their own because they fidget and often act before we think. Hands function on so many levels: they care, they work, they signal, they manipulate the world, but as the psychoanalyst Darian Leader points out, where they seem on the surface to be symbols of human agency, they are also sites of the unconscious. I suppose that’s why the hands on my vessels are disembodied, crawling things that seem to be acting on their own accord. And why at this time, the urge to reach out and touch and make contact to others is so hard to suppress.
IW: Let’s go back to the beginning. I wondered if you could recall your first aesthetic experience—something that struck you, whatever you understand that to mean, and that you remember?
CKR: That’s such a good question! Maybe when my cousins and I found a human skull in the rocks on a beach in Ireland. I was 5 years old and it was a big moment. We handed it in to the police, who told us that an old graveyard was eroding on the cliff above the sea, and that human remains were frequently washed up. Not the murder mystery we hoped for, but the feeling of holding a weighty, hollowed-out remnant of someone’s existence had quite an impact on me.
IW: Bridget Riley said that the main question for artists is perhaps not so much theoretical, it’s simply What To Do. Your personal artistic practice began quite recently when you were pregnant, living in Athens. Can you talk a little about that turning point, and how you arrived at what you’re doing now?
CKR: Moving to a new city really heightened my sensory experience of the world—particularly as I did not understand a word of Greek; I was living in a soup of hieroglyphic sounds and text, free of the usual background noise that a city has. Athens is such a charged city, particularly at that moment and still now of course. I really felt the rub between the contemporary and the historical, the layers of history feel so lived within the city, and not wholly turned over to spectacle.
Of course, there are such incredible collections of ancient artefacts in Athens—I was particularly drawn to less-visited museums where more everyday domestic objects and tools were on show, including many that were anthropomorphized, with heads, feet, breasts. These highly aestheticized everyday objects seemed to have been both functional and symbolic. Whilst seeing these objects that appeared as bodies, my own pregnant, rapidly-changing body was becoming a productive vessel, a labouring thing. Like these ancient objects, in its transformation, my body also became both functional and symbolic. So as you can imagine, vessels began to really speak to me and I began a much more focused studio practice.
IW: And in thinking about how you got started, I’d like to explore the first thing you made that you really liked and felt happy with—one that seemed fulfilling and to represent what you wanted it to.
CKR: I would say it was less a specific work, and more about finding a particular form to think and work through—one that imposes certain limitations. So far, vessels have provided this, as well as wall reliefs and the fountain. I’m interested in working with typologies of sculpture that provide productive boundaries.
IW: I’d like to hear more about the practical aspect of making these works; there must be a lot of preparation and experiment to make sure, for example, that the hands stay in place and that the weathered surface looks authentic. Can you talk about your sense and use of materials, which I think your background in set design has informed a lot?
CKR: My set design definitely gave me the tools to manifest these artworks, but I also think the work was latent within my set design. Although the sculptures might sometimes appear as these essential forms, there is a fiction to them, and I use trompe l’oeil techniques to camouflage the authentic. I use paint and various modelling pastes to mimic and build up the existing aged textures of the vessels, and in other works I use the material substance of the casts to create a trompe l’oeil effect from within. Although I would say that this process of illusion also becomes quite an organic one, the trompe l’oeil painting technique I use starts to feel like a build-up of sediment and lichen—I push and pull the paint over the casts, but also back over the vessel until a whole new skin is formed.
IW: You must also be assembling your own kind of reliquary with these works, like your own little museum or collection of fragments...
CKR: Yeah, I feel very responsible for the collection of other people’s body parts that I have accumulated over the years! I have an archive of my friends' changing breasts and hands (I have to remember to write names of the back of the casts) which become more and more significant as time moves on.
IW: Speaking of materials leads us to time and history. To me, your work as a whole has an uncanny quality; it’s there in the mixture of subject and object—hands (implied subject) and pot—and it’s there also, I think, in the works’ anachronism. The pots and their surfaces are old, for example, or made to look antique, whereas you also sometimes use cell phones.
CKR: I like thinking about my work as anachronic a term used by art historians (Nagel and Wood) to describe the way an artwork exists against the grain of linear time, its ability to temporally move and shift. I hope my sculptures feel both old and new, ruined and carefully made, authentic and fictitious. Going back to hands, I think about the long history of objects that have been made for the hand, sometimes to occupy their habitual fidget or to facilitate certain gestures. Prayer beads, knitting needles, gloves, tobacco pouches, exchanged coins, and now the cell phone. I like using contemporary objects which have a timeless quality to their form (Apple has done this eerily well) within my sculptures because they again disrupt time and accentuate this sense of the anachronic.
IW: It’s also nice to think of ourselves that way. When I look at your pots, they make me think of the theatre of human life and action. I think that as much as these are compelling objects for their historic feel, which implies narrative and mystery, they are also timeless because they feature gestures—the movement of the hands in a sense is ahistorical. I wonder if this is also partly what gives the works an uncanny quality, this mixture of apparent antiquity and movements that are basically without an era...
CKR: People have long tried to decode gestures and understand the ‘grammar of the hands’ but, although it points to a universal language, I think it’s context-specific, deeply cultural and historical. I collect images of hand gestures from art history, Fra Angelico paintings, statues of the multi-handed Kali, but also from contemporary media and personal photographs. I enjoy thinking through the isolated meanings of particular hand movements, but recognizing that this interpretation comes from my own experience and time, that there is a mystery, a fuzziness to gestural language which makes the process of restaging particular gestures within my work interesting. It goes back to what I said about the unconscious hand—the body liberated from intention.
You also make me think about the future of the hand, particularly in this non-tactile moment in time! In a future world of automation, what will the role of hands be? As we are experiencing right now with increased audiovisual communication and work and the rise of voice-activated technologies, will the hand lose its function as the main organ of labour and become purely gestural? A defunct technology?! These are also thoughts that come into my work.
IW: I feel there’s a lot of empathy contained in the pots, and it’s something you’ve also implied. You’ve made casts of your own and of other women’s breasts. I think now, perhaps more than ever, people occupy their bodies as if they were simply machines, with punishing routines or, at the other end of the spectrum, a kind of spiritualism that can seem very artificial. Your work makes me curious about how, growing up and growing into your body and then having a child and growing up with them, you have come to know yourself and perhaps gain a greater sense of empathy for your own form and those of others. Not all art is like this, of course—I think yours is quite unusual for it, and for having real warmth, even if it is sometimes also surreal.
CKR: Spiritualism and exercise can both be about exerting control over the body; if my work does contain empathy it is for the unconscious aspects of bodies that can never fully be controlled by ourselves or others. Pregnancy was a moment when I was able to see my body from the outside, to other it and to experience something that felt shared on a more universal level.
IW: Does your work have a relationship to death, and perhaps to the culture of death and its rituals through art, as well as birth and life?
CKR: It does; actually being reminded about that skull on the beach really helps me understand some things about my work! Despite the fact that my practice emerged from pregnancy, the sculpture I am most interested in is funerary, particularly the kind which involves the practice of replicating domestic objects to furnish the tombs of the dead for the afterlife—interiors of functional objects turned symbolic. Etruscan necropoli are fascinating examples of this.
IW: How does your son Rainer—who after all is the cause of some much of this—react to your work? I imagine his developing interaction with it as with everything else, is a source of great curiosity and also perhaps inspiration for new things to make.
CKR: He is strangely at home with the endless reproductions of his mother’s body and the blank mirrors that Christopher Page (my partner) paints. A friend of mine told me that Mallarmé’s poetry was greatly inspired by witnessing his little daughter navigate the beginnings of language, I think this is such a beautiful connection and one which I relate to. It’s extraordinary to watch a self form, to behold a relationship to language and the physical world develop. The slippages and associations that come with this bring out the uncanniness of our assumed position in the world.
IW: Lastly, are there future projects you are working on that you could introduce? Your partner Christopher Page is also an artist, and you mentioned you might be working on something together.
CKR: Christopher and I share a studio and are deeply involved in each other’s work; although what we make is formally different, it shares many of the same concerns. Christopher paints trompe l’oeil paintings of empty picture frames, blank mirrors and screens at a 1:1 scale. Aside from the aesthetic of trompe l’oeil, we both think about the origins of the artwork. For me, the vessel is an ‘essential’ primary object, said by some to be the first symbolic and practical object made by humans. Chris paints things that touch on the origin and essence of painting—mirrors, screens, windows, frames are all metaphors for painting itself. We are using this time of isolation to plot a show together, it’s time to become even more entwined!