Martina Margetts is the author of International Crafts, (Thames and Hudson), former editor of Crafts magazine, and a lecturer at the Royal College of Art, London.
There is something at once alluring and disconcerting in Emma Woffenden’s works. The forms, monochromatic and truncated, suggest an emphatic presence, yet also an absence. Her works are tactile and animated and yet Woffenden continually explores an intangible condition of nonexistence, a primordial, pre-birth state that immediately connects her work to Jungian psychoanalytical theory and to the Zen Buddhists’ timeless, spaceless state of nothing. Her works are paradoxical and complex within a deceptively simple skin.
Woffenden unfolds her thoughts through the medium of glass, which she began to work on at art school in 1981: “It was a medium in which I felt I could make my way.” After attending the West Surrey College of Art and Design, she worked for others and developed a vocabulary of glass engraving which enabled her to explore “working close to the surface in a two-dimensional.”
Returning to postgraduate study in 1991 at the Royal College of Art in London, Woffenden began to work in three dimensions, using freeblown and mouldblown techniques to begin exploring the nature of being human, using aspects of the body as both form and metaphor.
The potential of glass as a medium of expression excites her. Glass is both sensuous and hard, smooth or textured, like a body and its skin. It can be opaque or clear, as can feelings and ideas.
Woffenden appreciates the freedom implied in freeblown glass, “almost like letting it do its natural things,” but senses her own difficulty in achieving virtuosity: “if I tried to do really good blowing, I wouldn’t have time to really think about anything else.” Making molds offers her the control of a “predetermined” shape with the variations of blowing (“hard, elegant”) into the mold.
“In a mold-blown piece the glass is under incredible compression, as if it has a skin outside and liquid inside. You see the power behind the blowing and the feeling of fullness and inflation, which is very important to me. The feeling of sealed, compressed air, of contraction and expansion is exciting. There is a kind of tension.”
Works such as Pulse and Breath exemplify these thoughts, in which expansion and contraction of the body’s actions parallel feelings about the self in the world and about relationships. Pulse is relaxed, passive, while the bell jar form in Breath, entrapping like a lung, induces a paradoxical sense of active panic and measured calm. There is an allusion to medical and chemical apparatus and conditions, but also a correspondence to poetic expression, such as Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and Marina Abramowicz’s performance work, in which Abramowicz and her lover seal their mouths together for seventeen minutes so that the act of breathing, literally and metaphorically, tests their commitment.
Woffenden tries to convey in her work what it feels like to be alive, living now, in our time. Of a work such as Retortion she says: “It is very important to me that it looks new and is relevant o today. I don’t like things that look ethnic, taken from other cultures but not reinterpreted fully enough.” She is aware that the sources for this form lie in ritual Indian dance, Maori figures, the drawings of Louise Bourgeois, the Pieta and yoga, but she aims to synthesise these images to convey their essence in her own unique form. Her crammed note books show that ancient cultures and contemporary art – the wriggling, living surfaces of the coral in an ancient South Sea island figure sculpture, treasured carpets in Portugal and the Victoria and Albert Museum, gestural lines in Durer drawings and Messerschmidt carvings, the haunting atmosphere of Japanese Butoh dance, Pina Bausch’s contemporary dance and the startling, even frightening, performance and installations of Rebecca Horn and of Abramowicz, which fuse feeling, thought and experience in a physical, sexual, provocative way – are important sources of ideas about form, gesture, movement, mood.
Woffenden recognizes a “connection to feelings about today” in others’ art, and in her own. “I am quite drawn to physicality and humanity, rites and rituals and find their commitment inspiring and interesting.” She surrenders the traditional certainties of art, that it should be about truth and beauty and make sense, in favour of contemporary ambiguity and speculation. Performance art provides a layering of meaning, a sequence of movement through time and space that Woffenden seeks to freeze in her glass forms. “I am interested in things unformed rather than deformed. I am fascinated with pre-birth things; always the beginnings, primordial things, the early essence of things.”
Starting from this impulse (as the mid- century critic Herbert Read concluded: “the will to form is the essence of being”), Woffenden works with elements of the body to achieve an ambiguous, androgynous form. In Pulse, Retortion and Bite, for example, masculine and feminine features are conjoined. Forms fold one into the other to create a formal and metaphorical sense of balance. “I like the work to evoke my excitement. I want it to be engaging. I like to think it has got enough layers to keep changing its mood - maybe something sensual, then funny, and something to step back from, then surprise.”
Thus the works have multiple viewpoints, parts (rump, mouth, hand) looming and receding like a pulsating video.
Sometimes, as in Apparatus, she searches for an unusual site for the ”head” of a work, its point of opening or entry.
Gesture she regards as a vital part of communication, recognizing that a hand, for example, can be aggressive and violent like a claw, or gentle and benign. She mentions Bill Viola’s video The Greeting, in which the artist filmed three figures approaching each other in salutation. However, in stretching the original 35mm film to 12 times its original length, Viola revealed and questioned every nuance of this everyday occurrence, the layers of experience intensified by a background of crashing sound. In The Sleep of Reason, Viola explores the monstrous wakefulness of our visions as we sleep. The daily moments of life tracked in Viola’s work, hovering between stillness and violence, resonate in Woffenden’s glass forms. Bite suggests intense communication between two “mouths,” people. Alert, Woffenden says, “is full, about being awake, a perky upward growth, while Pulse is very much about being asleep.” It is as if the rational and irrational, the mind and the body, constantly attempt unity and reconciliation.
In mapping the boundaries of the self in relation to the world and other people, Woffenden cites touch as a crucial sense. She discusses sensus communis, a faculty in humans that penetrates and unites all the senses as, for example, when we see colours while listening to music. The Japanese philosopher Yujiro Nakamura says: “Sensus communis existed at the contact point of sensitivity and reason, and is in phase with imagination. It was ranked as almost the equivalent of reason before modern times.” Woffenden is absorbed by the idea that an object can activate a sensory memory, bypassing the inhibiting faculty of rationality in the manner that, for example, Tarkovsky’s films, Mirror, Nostalgia and Stalker can. Woffenden seeks to embody in tangible form the synasthesia, this unity of all the senses achieved by intuitive, not rational means. This alchemical process, by which an object elicits revelations about the self, suggests that a powerful energy can be located in them. The contained energy in Woffenden’s work leaves the impression that important experiences have been captured in them, echoing the artists response to sculpture by Anselm Kiefer, ‘Women of the Revolution, which incorporated a lead bed and pools of water. “It had a physical impact. The objects were still, but gave the impression that something had happened.”
Physicality, stillness, abstraction, gesture and communication are key elements in Woffenden’s work. She has used the phrase “loaded simplicity” to describe her approach to form, material and technique. I n their distilled form, her works also provoke debate, alluding to several interpretations: “the gesture of bending over backward, the attitude to please, the meaning of retortion, a reply or an answer, a speech bubble, a bent bubble, a phallic form.”
The sexuality inherent in Woffenden’s forms seems to me initially more sensuous and positive than abject, the territory of influential discourses by George Bataille and Julia Kristeva, and the art of Louise Bourgeois, for example, whom this artist admires. If Woffenden is searching for a kind of completion and wholeness through her forms, and if love is a binding and reconciling quality, it is evident in the works. And yet, there is a vulnerability in her work, a protective skin, an innocent fetal form, that provokes inquiry.
I ask her about her life and the influence of her family, to which she replies, “It’s everything, isn’t it.” Later, she tells me that her beloved father was killed in a car crash when she was seven years old, and that this loss has been a presence all her life. I suggest that the resulting unresolved pain may account for her aim to return to a prebirth state, the cutoff forms being symbolic of a transitional, transgressive, even transcendtal state. She demurs: it may be a subconscious catalyst, but she views her subject matter as universal, her forms archetypal.
Something of Woffenden’s attraction to Bourgeois’ art must lie in the powerful, often fetishtic ways in which she expresses the human condition.
Bourgeois has said: “For me, sculpture is the body, my body is my sculpture.”
With her extraordinary admixtures of forms and materials and images, Bourgeois conjures a debate about what is normal/abnormal, beautiful/ugly, rational/irrational, serene/agitated; her juxtapositions of pleasure and pain and an ecstatic state are diluted into Woffenden’s works. “Sometimes I think I have a memory of being born,” Woffenden says. “Was it nice?” I ask. “No. Dreadful. Horrible,” she exclaims. A breech birth, feet first, her neck was damaged. For years she was in and out of the hospital and wore a neck harness to prevent her head from leaning to one side. “I do have a feeling of something dreadful round my neck.”
Woffenden is aware of her body. Making art can be a way out of confusion, even fear, for both artist and spectator – as Joseph Beuys and Abramowicz, among many, have claimed.
Woffenden’s work may be an analog of bodily experience whereby the solid mold is charged with the fluidity, liveliness and energy of the blown glass coursing through it. If the work is cathartic, the artist also hopes that it is symbiotic, harmonizing the outer façade with the inner reality and speaking to its audience, drawing us into the dialogue, as in dance, film, video and performance art. There is aggression and gentleness, sex and sensibility: “I’m not happy if something’s too beautiful,” she says. “It doesn’t explain the whole story. So everything is about balance.”
I ask if the work is feminist. “I do think a lot about feminist issues. I think a lot about the portrayal of women, but a lot of other themes become quite mixed together in the work.”
In a posthuman world of virtual reality, it will become more complex still to un ravel our relationships to our bodies, ourselves and to others; already the three minute culture has speeded up audiovisual communication beyond the normal rate of human perception and understanding. Woffenden’s works persuade us to take time to explore their multifaceted forms and contemplate the mystery of human origins, thought and feeling.