Near the opening of her solo exhibition, I caught up with Olivia Bax and gallerist Lily Brooke to discuss ‘Roost’ through the prism of the 1967 classic novel ‘The Third Policeman’, written by Brian O’Nolan under his pseudonym Flann O’Brien.
Author Michael Foley described the gist of Flann O’Brien and Franz Kafka’s works in The Irish Times ... ‘the absurdity of the human condition is that the sensitive few are obliged to search for meaning when in fact there is no meaning and this futile search will be constantly thwarted by insensitive brutes’. So, thinking about your work Olivia, let’s start somewhere really uncomfortable: what does it all mean?!
Olivia Bax: Well, I mostly connected with the portrayals of the bicycles. The author describes the handlebars coming out of body parts and people fusing with bicycles. I liked how at one point there’s no separation between the person and the bicycle. When I make work it’s a physical process and I think a lot about the object being almost human. While my work isn’t figurative, it is a visual exploration of being human.
The new piece I’ve made for ‘Roost’ (the sculpture and the exhibition share the same name) is much more direct than anything else I’ve made in the sense that I always start by thinking about the space I’m exhibiting in. I wanted to acknowledge the domestic nature of Lily Brooke’s gallery. I was thinking about feelings of being at home as well as specific objects.
The unnamed protagonist in ‘The Third Policeman’ also steals the bicycle which then becomes a sexual object, for instance when he talks about “mounting the saddle”.
Lily Brooke: Doesn’t he leave his bike for the person whose bike he took?
Olivia Bax: The narrative doesn’t always make sense but neither does making sculpture. Artists make visual things because it’s hard to speak about them sometimes. It’s something to do with the description, the absurd humour and the ideas Flann O’Brien was trying to tackle which I connect with what I’m trying to do. An obvious and direct link is that I really am obsessed with handles. Both as a motif and also as a form. They appear everywhere - in curves, hooks, lines and holes. For me, handles are the most direct way of bringing in something human; either unconsciously or more deliberately.
Lily Brooke: And we have deliberately in the photographs of your hands holding the sculptures which you can see in your documentation.
Olivia Bax: Yes. I like to plan whole shows, and that includes how things are presented and it’s become a running theme of mine to include myself in the invite image. So for ‘Roost’ I’m in the sculpture. And for my first show at Fold Gallery I’m lifting a component so you can see my feet.
Lily Brooke: There’s human involvement and interaction but it’s very calmly done.
Olivia Bax: There’s also a fine line between not wanting it to be about me specifically and for the work to have wider implications, while acknowledging that my handprints appear on the work’s surface. Hywel Livingstone, who wrote the accompanying text for the show, talks insightfully about the sculpture having an ego but not the sculptor.
They have a silly sensibility about them because they’re quite practical to carry around by their handles. The smaller pieces in the show, colour aside, have me thinking about the woven bags and satchels you’d see in the British Museum and the oddness of them being placed in a museum and therefore not being used. I’m not sure how useful your pieces could potentially be.
Lily Brooke: Well they can’t ever be used because there’s a hole in the bottom of some of them. This pocket has lost its pocketness!
Olivia Bax: These are 2018 pieces from an ongoing series called ‘Airpockets’ which started by trying to capture feelings in an object. With ‘Airpocket (yellow)’ I wanted to make a sculpture about having too much on your plate. Or, literally speaking: when you don’t want to go out with a bag so you’ve got keys and change in your pockets, and you feel bogged down. I feel bogged down when my workload increases or my relationships with people become problematic and I think I can’t cope. You’re full and empty at the same time.
The hole in ‘Airpocket (blue)’ is more optimistic because it offers another way in. The vessel is pulling you in and teasing you out at the same time. A friend of mine said these pieces reminded her of burps. That might seem a bit disgusting, but I really like it because she was talking about being full, so it’s an appreciation of when you’ve had enough!
The ‘Roost’ sculpture is an architectural version of the smaller pieces. Everything is scaled up and so there are more details. Lily and I were in conversation for about a year leading up to this show and the very first thing I said, which I’ve stuck with, was that I wanted there to be one object; a single thing in the middle of the room. I always relish being confronted with something full-on, then being able to delve deeper and discover more. But the first impression is “phwoar!”. I challenged myself to make a sculpture that’s completely confronting, then reveals itself when you walk around it.
Speaking of walking around it, when the main character in the book comes across the house - which is the police station - it becomes a symbol of endless repetition because it appears early on and then it’s exactly the same text at the end when he chances upon it again. One of the wonderful things about the description of this intimidating house which changes its appearance as he approaches, is that it doesn’t have proper dimensions. A little window concludes the presence of a wall. He can see the back and front of it simultaneously and when you have these openings in your sculpture, that’s of course what we can do. We can see the back of the sculpture and then question maybe that’s not the back of the sculpture. Which is the front, where is the back and does it have an inside?
Olivia Bax: The inside / outside idea is the same as the ‘Airpockets’ series. It’s something I’ve really tried to push in the work. ‘Roost’ is more closed than anything else I’ve made. For instance, the piece I made for Three Works Gallery earlier this year was a giant pocket, where one could see everything there is to see. But ‘Roost’ is being more secretive. The viewer cannot see into every cavity. I’ve shut you out of it.
Lily Brooke: You can’t really get your head in the “window” section because the steel would stick in your eye if you tried to get close enough to properly look down into it.
Olivia Bax: That’s true. Another friend of mine said this piece invited him in and then he got stuck. When he first said that I wondered if it was a problem; now I enjoy it. It’s a different dialogue to what I’ve made before. It’s a bit like the walls in ‘The Third Policeman’. Everything about this work is about getting stuck. It’s too big for the room. The floor is yellow. It’s not quite in the middle of the space. It’s awkward and problematic.
The ‘Airpockets’ seem visually welcoming to look around their form and have my own sense of them. Whereas the hanging pockets on ‘Roost’ seem like “hands off” and I’m not invited into them at all. It’s as if they’re the private possessions of the sculpture.
Olivia Bax: This piece is slightly sinister in some ways. It’s very much about people; getting to know somebody to a point but not being able to get any further. I was very particular about what to allow people access to in this sculpture and what to keep private. I worked really hard on the inside cavity, but nobody can actually see inside.
Yes, it carries the illusion of accessibility. Then nearby, the ceiling piece ‘Eyrie’ 2018 looks like some sort of dysfunctional light form, though when I included that in my notes I wrote “life form” which seems a purposeful accident. It doesn’t really shine any light on ‘Roost’ at all.
Olivia Bax: When ‘Roost’ was almost complete, Lily asked me about the floor which has subsequently become crucial. It allowed everything to become more absurd. Still, I wondered if we needed something else. ‘Roost’ is about looking into, through, in, out and down. The only viewpoint not covered was looking up. ‘Eyrie’ is about looking up and so felt like it completed the interaction. Now I think I could show ‘Eyrie’ independently, though I’m not so sure that ‘Roost’ could exist without ‘Eyrie’.
Going back to the book and the handlebars, along with the meticulous descriptions of bicycle componentry, I find your work has that same sense of really purposeful uselessness. In fact, Sam Cornish, in his review of your show ‘at large’, described how there’s ‘something inherently mismatched, out of sync and funny in our involvement with the things we surround ourselves with, sculpture included’ and that seems to be true in the details of your work as well as overall.
Olivia Bax: Yes, for example, at home, I have countless vessels to keep things in order. More and more things go in there and eventually I don’t know what’s there anymore, but it makes me feel better that they’re in a place. The hanging components in the sculpture reflect this absurd relationship.
Places for various miscellaneous objects.
Olivia Bax: Exactly! It’s not always a vessel. Sometimes it’s a sticky note or a fridge magnet. One side of ‘Roost’ mimics organisation, but it’s ridiculous and there’s a full stop in the sculpture questioning where it all ends.
That has me thinking of the book again and how Inspector Fox exists in the wall cavity. It seems to connect to ideas of spirits living in the walls. Here it’s as if the emotional content and anxiety exist in the walls of the sculpture, though without trying to make such a direct comparison which is too rational.
Olivia Bax: Maybe anxiety is too strong a word. It’s more the idea of compartmentalising things, from making a basic list to planning a week. It’s about structuring one’s life.
I’d relate this to the surface of the work as much as about how it’s formed. There seems to be a rummaging, minimalism made mucky kind of way to practically connect one part to another.
Olivia Bax: It’s about discovery as well. I make a three-dimensional drawing which ends up being a structure, then I cover and work on it. It’s similar to the way I approach two dimensional drawings. I make a line drawing in pen then select lines which I go over and over. I think that’s me figuring out what works in the drawing. Recently I’ve become disciplined about drawing things I’m seeing rather than taking a photograph of them. That way, I’m thinking harder about what I’m seeing and remembering it better.
Can you talk a little more about your drawing? Is it the starting point?
Olivia Bax: Absolutely. It’s the skeleton. They’re nonsensical doodles but they’re always the starting point of something. I’m sketching all the time then I change to the three dimensional and don’t refer to the sketchbook. I consider the armature stage as the next drawing which is not planned. I’m starting again but some things I’ve previously drawn have directly found their way into the sculpture.
It sounds a satisfying negotiation where somehow your hands are catching up with your mind and, in other ways, they’re surpassing it and doing something else that you don’t know about.
Olivia Bax: Exactly. A big breakthrough for me is using steel armatures. When I was an undergrad student all my pieces were in steel. Then I went to work for Anthony Caro and was around steel all the time so I really wanted to fight against that as a material. Everything was so heavy and hard to move around and one needed all this machinery to make work. When I went back to my own studio, it felt like the last material I wanted to use and I didn’t want to have a practice that needed a workshop.
During my masters at the Slade, I made armatures in polystyrene and used paper pulp to make them solid. But then I had a problem with completely covering something so as to not give the underneath an identity. Eventually I realised that I knew how to do metalwork and could use thin material and bend it with my hands. It felt like I’d found drawing again. Now the covering has more purpose because the areas I cover are about going over something to understand it. The exposed parts don’t need to be covered because they function differently: as a line or a hook or a handle.
I’m glad you bought up Caro because his work looks like you could easily pick it up but of course it’s incredibly heavy. Whereas your work looks very heavy though I imagine with those materials it’s not too cumbersome.
Olivia Bax: ‘Roost’ is by far the heaviest piece I’ve made as there’s a lot more steel than normal because I wanted the intricacy in parts.
It’s lighter than you think but it’s stronger than you think. You look at it and assume it will be delicate but it’s really quite robust.
Olivia Bax: This is one of the first times I’ve made a component-based piece which I can’t handle on my own. It’s a new thing for me because I like to be independent.
What about your choice of colour? My associations flip from beachfront and public pools to putty and Blu Tack. They’re very definite and very limited.
Olivia Bax: The pulp I mix means that all the colours I use have the same sort of hue. I use household paint that’s been discarded. That limits my choice and I quite like using colour that’s been mixed wrong.
You can see the variations. The blue of ‘Eyrie’ is a bright turquoise, so it’s readily recognisable. Whereas ‘Roost’ doesn’t feel like a colour you could pinpoint, especially since there’s purple coming through in some areas.
Olivia Bax: When I chose that colour it reminded me of a Farrow & Ball interior colour. I liked the colour being loosely associated with the show being in a domestic space. This is the first time there are three colours because of the floor. You’ll notice I normally only have just one or sometimes two colours. I thought the ‘Roost’ blue was a bit dull so I needed to accompany it with something punchy.
Colourful like Lily’s kitchen.
Lily Brooke: Lily’s mad kitchen!
Olivia Bax: It’s nice how many aspects of my work connect with the book. When we spoke on the phone I wasn’t sure what to suggest, I just knew I read ‘The Third Policeman’ when I was studying and really enjoyed it.
It’s pleasing to remember and forget. Like you were saying before about drawing instead of photographing, then you can start drawing in the studio and enmesh different things you’ve seen but you wouldn’t be conscious of purposely bringing those things together. I’ve done something like that looking out a train window by trying to get a quick line or shape of something that’s not of the natural landscape. You do enough of those and the collective starts to form its own language or image. It becomes something else where you couldn’t track the source of each of those lines.
Olivia Bax: Yes, I enjoy drawing when I’m not in the studio and I’m sure it feeds into different sculptures. At the time I was making this work I’d become preoccupied with balconies. They’re an interesting idea of extending space that’s neither inside or outside. One of the teaser images I put out for the show was a digital drawing of a bamboo structure at the side of somebody’s house in Hong Kong. The idea of hooking extra space onto architecture is brilliant. It belongs and it doesn’t at the same time.