Work from a twelve-month long residency in rural Northumberland 2013-2014 with Visual Arts in Rural Communities.
‘Resonant Matter’ essay to accompany the exhibition catalogue by Carol Mckay
“Visiting Helen Pailing in her temporary studio on the Highgreen Estate in Tarset, Northumberland, I find myself enthralled by the inventive chaos of her working environment, where almost every corner and surface is packed with so much stuff. Stuff that most of us would throw away or relegate to the back of the cupboard or shed but which, in Helen’s imaginative hands, becomes the spark for new creative explorations. There are materials in various processes and stages of transformation, some finally crafted, others with their potential still to be tapped.
Black plastic drainage pipes coil in one corner. Cadged from the firm that supplies the surrounding agricultural industry, she weaves them into new formations that are motivated in part by creative curiosity and in part by her sophisticated understanding of the latent potential of all materials. Metal fencing becomes the foil in one experiment. Documented on her blog, she tries somehow to thread the drainage pipe through the fencing: the landcoil isn’t very flexible and almost asks to be twisted, she notes in a typically matter-of-fact way. In another iteration, the pipe is balanced with sticks and thread and suspended from the studio ceiling. Draped, wound and poised overhead in the neighbouring barn space, the same inanimate pipe acquires an unexpected visual vibrancy in yet another version of the experiment.
Humour and playfulness lighten this and other sculptural installations. We’re not meant to take them too seriously. They occupy space in a provisional way, as temporary reorganisations of matter and spaces rather than monumental statements. Intriguing photographic traces survive of ‘Planted’, a temporary hillside outcrop of imaginary growth made from bale wrap and wire loop end ties: new specimens infiltrating the remote Northumberland landscape. It shouldn’t work but does. So too for the current exhibition the Dutch barn at Highgreen is temporarily transformed into an inticingly intricate space, criss-crossed by translucent mesh woven from monofilament. ‘Warp’ invites us to wander through, enjoying the way light and dust motes mingle at times with the glint of the filament lines. The effect is fragile, fleeting and yet surprisingly dynamic; we weave in and through the space as we walk, perhaps performing a personal dance on our way through the threads and hay bales.
When exploring and enjoying Helen’s work it is almost impossible to avoid associations with weaving, threading, lacing, spooling. With a background in contemporary embroidery, she actively embraces such associations, stretching materials into unexpected configurations as she goes. Sometimes the associations are literal, involving process and shared activity (knitting with community groups) or incorporating material residue from the textile industries: metal tenterhooks formerly used in the drying and stretching of newly woven cloth are repurposed into different objects, for instance. As are teasels collected from the local hedgerows and fields: they too once had use-value in textile processing, for raising or combing the nap in fabrics. Other associations, though,
are more metaphoric, as in the loom-like space of ‘warp’ or the beautiful contradiction of threading remaindered glass through hessian cloth in yet another piece.
Such playful absurdity is deceptive and belies the thoughtfulness and contextual significance of the work. Made during a year long residency with VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities) all of Helen’s artwork responds to the isolated Northumberland environment in unusual, sometimes subversive ways. The material underpinnings of the rural economy are often unseen by temporary visitors. Captivated by the splendour of the setting in all its seasonal variety, we may unconsciously avert our eyes from the drainage pipe or fencing; crucial to the land’s functioning, such incursions don’t fit comfortably with our aesthetic apprehensions of the rural. Helen has no such qualms. Visual disturbances, functional objects we may prefer to hide away, become instead the material substance of her creative re-workings. As materials, they are no more and no less contextually resonant than others.
Scale and process are important aspects of all her work, whether in ambitious installations or the more diminutive experiments of her ‘object a day’ series. Setting herself the challenge of making every day an object from scratch, Helen has amassed over the year an intriguing collection that occupies another corner of her studio. Temporarily arranged on makeshift display shelves on the day I visited, these miniature objects are utterly enticing. The temptation is to pick them up, even though we shouldn’t. They demand to be held, felt, weighed, their various surfaces and textures explored. Associations spin off: cabinet of curiosities, specimen collection or architectural models. Unlikely transformations again: the yellow plastic ear tags for cattle or sheep become an amoeba-like thing. Even without touching it, I know that it moves (and some of them sound).
The process of making is key here and points to the underlying rigour of Helen’s practice. Despite the playfulness, the whimsy even, the creative intent is complex and the work demanding. The systematic nature of the activity – making one a day for the duration of the residency – imposes a creative order, one in which inquisitiveness is mixed with imaginative exploration of everyday materials and contexts. The approach to materials is equally challenging, based as it is on a principal of ‘make do and mend’. The materials for the daily objects all have previous lives and nothing is bought new: everything is in some way found, scavenged, borrowed, purloined or recycled.
The whole is also far more than the sum of its individual parts. As a material-based diary of a year spent making, the collection possesses it own rich tapestry of meanings and possible narratives. Each object can elicit particular memories. There are the stories Helen can tell of their making: who gave her the spent bullet cartridges, where she gathered the speedwell flowers, what the weather was like the day the light bulb fused. This object archive is made to be talked-over, conversed about and wondered at. Sharing the stories is important to how the work works, to its social as well as its personal meanings. The farmer who provided her with the now defunct metal identity tags, just because he couldn’t
bear to throw them away and just because she wanted them: this exchange has its own conversations, its own interpersonal dynamic. Exploring the collection with Helen, I want to know what happened to the missing earrings from Object 247 and who their wearer might have been, what about the broken heel and the leftover wheel bearings?
The sociability of Helen’s object collection is typical of her approach, where materials and their uses become a form of shared encounter and interaction. Advertising in the community newsletter was a fruitful means of crowd sourcing materials for her daily objects, making new friends along the way. Through the same newsletter she discovered willing co-creators, participants and advisors to share in the making of other projects, from knitting and crocheting stars, to advising on the motorising of a musical light-box for the beautifully evocative ‘Stars of Tarset’ in the current exhibition. Based on invented star constellations described by the residents of Tarset, it typically began in a simple, rather old-fashioned way. Each household in the parish received a letter from Helen inviting residents to look up into the extraordinary night skies in this part of Northumberland, to imagine their own star constellation, to draw it on a postcard and give it a name. The returned designs in turn were punched out on the cards that play through the adapted musical-light boxes. First premiered at the extraordinary ‘Dark Skies Day…with a Woolly Twist’ in the local community hall in March this year, ‘Stars of Tarset’ is simple, yet resonant, a literal playing of the constellations that echoes with multiple imaginary voices, transforming the dark space at the back of the Dutch barn into something newly reverberant.
Just finishing off, and I can’t help returning once again to Helen’s visual blog. The marvellous absurdity of the objects shared there is captured in their online descriptions: #263 -sheep id tag, plasticine; #264 -fishing line, hair curler, acrylic; # 265 -bull dog clip, cotton wool pads. Repurposing indeed. But even these sublime little objects can’t match the very real absurdity of the glass container she showed me in her studio, filled with micro-shredded, redundant ten and twenty pound notes donated by a national bank.”
Carol McKay, June 14