Interview: Polly Bates
Luca Curci talks with Polly Bates during the 11th Edition of CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2022, at Palazzo Bembo.
Polly Bates’ sculptural practice explores the experience of living in a geological era shaped by humanity. She creates unnerving, odd pieces which typically have an underlying sadness to them. Bates is influenced by her research into the Anthropocene, Mycology, Animism and Gaia theory, as she explores human impact on the non-human world through the typical Western society’s self-proclaimed hierarchy against nature. Bates encourages the uncanny to create an uncomfortable yet humorous response, which she utilises to subtly address sociocultural contexts and personal environmental anxieties. She has discovered a myriad of relationships between humans and rocks, for example, kidney and gall stones within the human body are made of geology, calcium carbonate, which is a mineral also found in the Earth’s crust, limestone, coral, and fossils. Bates uses both fired and unfired clay sculptures to reflect on human relationships to land, with clay representing a natural, raw, earth material. She manipulates this natural material just as humans distort and transform landscapes, which become tools in our economy with little concern for degradation and exploitation. Recognising the vibrancy, energy and agency of her materials, Bates has begun to explore sculpting as a collaboration between herself and the clay. During the process of creation, she welcomes a mutual discussion as the material reacts and begins to determine its own form. The unpredictable nature and agency of clay progresses into the firing process, where air pockets can cause cracks and breakages. The sculpture begins to evolve and alter its appearance without her influence. Bates is currently completing an MFA in Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK and has exhibited across the UK since 2017, including at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, Rogue Artists’ Studio in Manchester and Mayfair, London. She has a permanent public artwork at Staffordshire University and was commissioned by Extinction Rebellion in 2019. Bates had a solo exhibition in 2019 at AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, and is currently working towards a solo exhibition at AIR Gallery in Altrincham for 2023. As well as a practising artist, Bates is also the founder of ARTISTS RESPONDING TO…, where she curates artist-led projects and a quarterly magazine which combines contemporary art, culture and activism. She creates accessible opportunities and a powerful platform for international artists and writers responding to environmental, political, and social issues.
LUCA CURCI – What is art for you?
POLLY BATES – I find art to be a powerful tool which can allow for what otherwise would be difficult topics to be discussed in an open, safe environment. It can provide us with the opportunity for thinking ‘outside of the box’ and can encourage a new outlook for audiences. As an artist, one of my greatest passions is combining personal and shared social, environmental, and political anxieties within my practice. Artistic expression can help us to realise and reveal flaws in our society, whilst also allowing us to reinvent ways of living and imagine a future without those flaws.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
PB – I have always been environmentally conscious and have had a love for all types of animals and organic beings. Even as a 10-year-old I was adamant that I wanted to become a vegetarian, and 14 years later I still am! This passion for nature only grew, as did my awareness of just how much we as a species impact the environment and fellow co- habitants. But what has really shaped my current practice has been researching the Anthropocene, Mycology, Animism and Material Engagement Theory. Investigating our deeply rooted relationship with all organic matter beyond the animals we encounter, and into the air that we breathe, the bacteria in our stomachs and the millions of hidden mycorrhizal networks we walk across each day. We have been selfish in thinking that there is a hierarchy in nature that we sit at the top of. We rely on nature, yet we see ourselves as separate from it. Every species plays a part in creating a balanced, safe ecosystem, yet we are short-sighted enough to triumph our comfort over the health of our fellow organisms. Indigenous cultures have a much lesser divide between humans, animals, and other organic beings. They believe in the animation of all nature, a sense of spirituality which inhabits trees and rocks, amongst many other beings. Studies in genetic and developmental psychology have revealed that animism is a natural predisposition in humans, unlearned through a long process of socialisation. Our fast-paced reliance on convenience and comfort has led us down a capitalist-obsessed path which has been the downfall of countless species. From deforestation to mass consumption, inequalities in income, and even impacting our mental health crisis. At times I feel helpless, but my artistic practice provides me with a platform to voice my concerns and encourage important conversations.
LC – Where do you find your inspiration?
PB – Inspiration can come from anywhere, whether it is a documentary about mushrooms, rocks and pebbles found on a beach or memories from my past, but typically my best ideas come to me at 3am when I am lying awake at night. These ideas are then transformed into sketches, but I will often just start sculpting and see where the clay takes me. I have recently been experimenting with letting go of artistic intentions and allowing the clay to guide me in more of a collaborative conversation. Meaning, as the clay twists and turns instead of repositioning it, I allow it to settle into itself. This has been difficult at times, as I am a self-confessed control freak and perfectionist at times, but also incredibly freeing and exciting.
LC – How is being an artist nowadays?
PB – Committing to being an artist in today’s climate can be quite scary. The UK’s government in recent years seem to be making even more funding cuts to the culture sector, even encouraging creatives to re-train in different industries. However, I think I can speak for most artists when I say we are not choosing our role in society for the pay cheque. For me, it is almost a compulsion to create, an unavoidable passion to express myself and my anxieties with hopes to impact others and let them know that they are not alone in feeling how they do. As an artist, you have to juggle a multitude of professional roles, such as a website designer, marketing manager, public relations, building a brand, photographer, curator, writer, and the list goes on. I love the challenge of learning new skills and being an artist definitely keeps you on your toes.
LC – How do you feel when you see your work completed?
PB – I get a great sense of achievement when I create an artwork that I am proud of, and then seeing that work exhibited is such a rush. My favourite part of an exhibition is standing in a corner and watching visitors interact with my sculptures. Nothing is more validating than someone taking a photograph of your work.
LC – Do you agree with our vision of art and what do you think about the theme of the exhibition?
PB – The theme ‘FUTURE LANDSCAPES’ is very timely, and an exploration of borders can conceptually link to many enquiries. Whether it is of land or identity, borders represent a restriction of space and people. Due to the current environmental emergency, our future will return to a nomadic existence, forced upon us by global erratic weather. The less we obsess with borders and accept people as one, the better, otherwise suffering will continue. It is our responsibility, especially as the Western World, to welcome displaced people who are seeking asylum, as our histories and current impact on environmental degradation hold us, in part, accountable.
LC – In which way the artwork presented in our exhibition is connected with the exhibition’s theme?
PB – ‘Handsy Boulder’ is part of a sculptural series which explores our biological, cultural, and geological connection to land. These relationships include the mineral of body stones, such as gall and kidney stones, which are made of the same material as coral, calcium carbonate. A less biological connection of rocks to humans is through culture and rituals. Rocks capture our histories, both human and non-human, through fossils, are iconised as the ultimate union of love through the rings on our fingers and can be seen to hold healing powers and energies. This deep-rooted relationship and animist belief has become lost within contemporary times. I believe we must recognise our relationships with all organic life in order to reduce our personal and shared contribution to the degradation of our environment.
LC – What do you think about ITSLIQUID Platform?
PB – ITSLIQUID provides a great opportunity for international artists to come together and exhibit their varying responses to one theme. This draws in eclectic artworks which have been created through implementing so many cultures, experiences, and passions.
LC – Do you think ITSLIQUID GROUP can represent an opportunity for artists?
PB – As a UK-based artist, the opportunity to exhibit within an exhibition in Venice, Italy is incredibly exciting and one of the highlights of my career so far.
LC – Would you suggest a collaboration with us? What do you think about our services?
PB – I have been incredibly well supported throughout my experience with ITSLIQUID, and Project Coordinator Maria Vittoria Furlan has played a massive part in that. I can’t thank her enough. I really look forward to visiting CONTEMPORARY VENICE 2022 – 11th Edition in November, as the work exhibited, venue and location all looks very impressive. Thank you for the opportunity!