'The mood of a space is an ongoing interest. It's a physical thing, how we make sense of the world through materials, how sophisticated that can be, and how it can trigger our emotions. Together, they create infinite possibilities for exploring, and I don't seem to tire of that.'
Claire Barclay is speaking from her home studio in Glasgow just a few days after completing the installation of 'Thrum', a major new solo exhibition at the MAC in Belfast, showing until July 2022. Across all three floors, Barclay has stretched, threaded, draped and hung a series of sculptural installations that incorporate a characteristic range of materials and techniques, including textiles, screenprints and machined metal.
I'm only viewing the exhibition from afar so I have to imagine the bodily, sensory experience of spending time with the works in the space, walking around them, gazing upwards at beautifully made quilts (richly hued in crimson, ochre and cobalt blue) ripped and suspended from the ceiling on crude bits of bent wire, or kneeling down low where metal blades slice with elegant aggression through a wide expanse of fabric.
Bundles of loose-twisted linen thread hang down from steel wall brackets, part of an industrial textile process perhaps or the grey tresses of a Rapunzel waiting a life away. Among these huge works are many smaller moments: embroidered patterns, lines of quilt stitching, dangling hooks and triangles. Polished metal disks create unexpected reflections.
In some ways, 'Thrum' is typical of the way Barclay has been working since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1993 with a BA in Environmental Art and a Master of Fine Art. She has always been interested in the kinds of objects that we so often ignore in our day-to-day lives.
'I love focusing on the mundane details, the things we overlook because they're so functional,' she says. One early sculptural piece, Untitled (Turned Pole) (1996), for example, recalls a spindle from a bannister, with no repetition in the pattern. It is also a little like a spurtle, a Scottish implement for porridge-stirring. Presented leaning against the wall, it is as though it has just been set there for a moment – a tool not currently in use.
Over the years, Barclay has had significant solo exhibitions at Dundee Contemporary Arts (2003), Tate Britain (2004), Stephen Friedman Gallery (2005, 2010, 2015 and 2021), Camden Art Centre (2008) and Tramway (2017).
She is back at Tramway in Glasgow the day after we speak in order to contribute to Human Threads, a group project in collaboration with artist Laura Spring, part of a partnership involving Artlink and Cherry Road Learning Centre, informed by individuals with profound and multiple learning disabilities. This is a long-term relationship for Barclay, who has previously worked with Artlink on works responding to the way mental illness has historically been defined, treated, institutionally controlled and isolated.
Barclay's research process often begins with objects. While her work is responsive to specific places and contexts, she does not claim detailed local knowledge or experience. Instead, her focus is on connections across time and place, or from one community to another. Museums are one starting point, where she finds herself drawn towards the kinds of simple objects repeated across cultures and how these repetitions form typologies of similarities and differences.
'I love when you come across an object with ambiguity, where even the museum doesn't know what it is so you project your experiences onto the object in order to make sense of it.' Combs, bowls and mirrors are recurring motifs throughout 'Thrum'. 'Once revered now overlooked, but still important parts of our everyday lives, these are objects with connections right back to neolithic times,' says Barclay.
Another important motif in the exhibition is Ayrshire whitework, a form of fine white embroidery especially popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The technique interests Barclay not only as craft heritage but as an example of Scottish influence on the colonisation of Northern Ireland and the increasingly industrial scale of linen production that had previously been made as piece work in domestic spaces.
The exhibition includes huge swathes of linen, produced by Ferguson's/John England, the last manufacturer of Irish linen in the region. Through the galleries, comb-like forms repeat across a range of media and scales: small and black on a series of screenprints; looming, metallic and suspended from the ceiling as they cut across the main top-floor gallery.
At the MAC, for the first time, Barclay has been working with film-maker Marissa Keating as part of an artists' archiving programme supported by The Art360 Foundation. Keating spent a week at the MAC shadowing the install process and, while the final edit is not yet complete, Barclay's early glimpses of the footage have already encouraged her to view her work through fresh eyes.
'When you see yourself making work in the gallery, you realise how physical it is,' she says. 'There's the repetition, the weird gestures, the different physical positions, on the floor or up a ladder, all the eccentric processes you develop as an artist in order to do something.'
Barclay often describes the installation process as akin to turning the gallery into a studio. Instead of a repository for already completed works, the gallery becomes a living place, where Barclay continues to make work and to make decisions about how that work might continue to inhabit the space. Although she plans meticulously – working at this scale just wouldn't be possible otherwise – Barclay also ensures that every project remains open to spontaneity.
Sometimes this means bringing in a certain playfulness (the reflection of a hanging pillow-like form cheekily reminiscent of a bum); at other times it means taking playfulness to much darker places, roughing up or cutting into pieces if they start to feel too conventionally attractive. 'I work instinctively, accidentally,' she explains. 'There is a constant push and pull between arbitrary and conscious decision-making.'
Keating's film promises to provide new perspectives on Barclay's work, both for audiences and for the artist herself. All artists have difficulty attempting to view their work from the outside but Barclay's approach means that she invariably feels 'enveloped' by each project ('you are so involved in the making,' she explains).
On the other side, although Barclay is always keen to emphasise the provisional nature of her installations, the conventions of gallery display and our preconceptions as visitors often mean that we can't help but see the exhibition as somehow finished and final. Filming the install process emphasises both the sheer physicality of the processes and the importance of contingency, the work's ongoing openness to chance and change.
This openness is a significant aspect of Barclay's work throughout her career. Barclay works in series, through which certain forms remain semi-legible even as they are subjected to processes of abstraction, simplification, repetition and translation across multiple scales, materials and contexts.
This means there is always something familiar even when the work feels most strange, something comforting when it feels threatening or, equally, something troubling, even triggering, just as all seems billowingly soft. 'The work is not making statements,' Barclay says.' It's very open-ended, allowing people to bring their own experiences, imaginations and memories to what they encounter.'
Barclay's work is full of bodies and borders, hair and skin, controlled softness, overflow constrained. Leather, textiles, machined brass – unquestionably seductive but darkly so. I'm reminded of this by the hooks she uses to suspend swathes of fabric – reminiscent of the carcasses hung in a butcher's shop or abattoir.
Barclay brings materials uncannily to life – lengths of linen thread-like hair in 'Thrum' or machined brass in the form of a uterus (Gatherer, 2018), but she also shows once-living bodies as materials – literally in the case of supple leather (Anodyne, 1994) or vellum (Enfolds, 2018).
Just as words slide from literal to metaphorical, so Barclay's installations slip from material to symbolic, figurative to abstract. The comb is a tool of beauty but also bodily control. Hair can be brushed violently or with love and sometimes both at once. In such moments, care and control become indistinguishable. There is aggression and restriction, contamination and mess. Things spill and leak.
'I want the work to be poised on one leg,' Barclay says, rather perfectly. Her work is familiar but physical, requiring a degree of bodily effort, and precarious, always just about to overbalance. The result is a constantly developing language read with the body: heart and gut as much as eyes and mind.
Tom Jeffreys, freelance writer
This content was supported by Creative Scotland