Helen Pheby is Senior Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where she has worked for fifteen years. She is widely published and read her PhD at the University of Liverpool on international sculpture in relation to ‘public’, engagement, and the articulation of place.
Pheby is involved in many projects globally, including the construction of a temporary structure in Castleford, knowledge sharing in India, a sculpture festival in Kyiv, a cultural exchange between Kurdistan-Iraq, and most recently she curated the 2016 Winter Sculpture Fair at Nirox in Krugersdorp, entitled ‘A Place in Time’.
I am interested to know about your involvement in South African art, and the link to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. How did the conversation about your involvement get started?
I think that the conversation began around four years ago, when Benji [Liebmann] contacted YSP about our Joan Miró exhibition. The more we found out about the work of Nirox the more we appreciated our parallel concerns and the interesting ways we could collaborate, not only to mutual benefit but for visitors and artists too.
Your personal twitter page still uses a photograph of the Maboneng district as its banner. It leaves me with the impression that, like so many people who visit from Europe, you fell a little bit in love with this city, and perhaps its possibilities. What excited you the most about this city?
I love that skyline and graffiti, and definitely the city. I perhaps haven’t spent long enough to really get a true understanding of the place, yet… But it did seem to me that there’s a great creative energy in Johannesburg, lots of people making great things happen, taking risks and experimenting.
The title of the exhibition, A Place in Time seems a rather ambiguous title. A Place in Time doesn’t necessarily bind this exhibition to its space, or its time. But the art on exhibit renders this title engaging, as does the geographic, historical location the exhibition takes place in. What does the title A Place in Time reveal about the intentions for this exhibition?
In some ways it’s quite a personal title. The first walk I took on my own around Nirox I realised quite how insignificant I was in the scheme of things, but also that I am part of a human story that reaches way back. So it was a simultaneous realisation I suppose of the moment but also of being part of a whole. This began a conversation with Benji [Liebmann] and MJ [Darroll] about inviting artists to respond to the amazing environment of Nirox, not to be prescriptive, but to try and support the realisation of whatever particularly inspired them about the place.
In your 2014 diary you also noted that you visited the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand. Was this the beginning of the idea to curate a display of archaeological artefacts as a part of A Place in Time?
My PhD research tried to tease out, essentially, an understanding of the place of art in our lives – using case studies of controversial public sculpture as this revealed different attitudes. Over the years I realised I needed to keep going further back in time to try and figure it out, and learn more about anthropology and archaeology as well. It’s a really fascinating line of enquiry that seems to keep expanding and the visit to the Origins Centre suggested brilliant opportunities to consider the prehistoric alongside the contemporary. We just don’t have the same tangible history in Britain as it’s not been inhabited by humans for anywhere near as long, so to see tools made by our ancestors over a million years ago was truly inspirational.
It seems like a relevant space to bring these objects into, considering the geographic location of Nirox at the Cradle of Humankind. You are bringing ancient objects into an art space, displayed in relation to artworks. How does this conversation between art and historical artefacts relate to the title of the exhibition?
Hopefully it helps to illustrate that the lives we live now are connected to those that came before us, but also those to come after us and we need to be mindful of our legacy – not just the objects we make that might be discovered but the changes we are making to the world.
Nirox is a fantastic space for the monumental, and for experiencing sculpture in a space that allows each artwork its own moment, or ‘place’ in time. Was there a particular modus operandi employed in the placing of sculpture within the park this year?
I don’t have nearly the same understanding of the Nirox landscape that Benji [Liebmann], MJ [Darroll], the team there and many of the artists do – though I’m learning! The locations are very much down to them but there are definite similarities in approach to the way we site at YSP. I’ve learned from our Founding Director, Peter Murray, that everyone should make their own journey – physically and intellectually – around an exhibition and the role of the curator should, ideally, be invisible. You can make suggestions, the corner of a work intriguingly leading to another place and similarly with information – hopefully encouraging people to read a short text; googling the artist, or dipping into one of their catalogues. It is not a linear experience – it is more sensual, and equally an opportunity to enjoy the works in the natural environment.
Considering that the sculptures on the exhibition were created for this particular show, how involved were you in the artist process? Did you have continued conversations about concept and involvement, from the idea to the final realization?
I’d be wary of interfering in an artist’s process, but hope to have been part of really constructive conversations with the artists, Benji [Liebmann] and MJ [Darroll] that have encouraged and supported really ambitious ideas. We were fortunate that generous Edoardo Villa Grants were awarded to a number of local artists to enable them to make works that would otherwise have been beyond their capacity and who benefitted from the oversight of the Villa Trustees.
This exhibition hosted a number of artists that are not traditionally sculptors, how did artists like Mikhael Subotzky and Nandipha Mntambo bring their photographic background into sculptural realizations? Mntambo’s Minotaurus seemed a direct visual extension of her photographic practice, whereas Subotzky moved away from the representational into the decidedly abstract, somehow reminding me of his retinal photography.
I suspect the very nature of Nirox itself, with huge open spaces and skies, but also its open approach to creativity and commitment to supporting that through residencies, is reflected in artists’ ideas. I understand that Sun Boat is something that Moataz Nasr has had in mind for a number of years but was only able to realise at Nirox. Mikhael is increasingly toying with sculpture and installations as you might have seen from his work for the last Venice Biennale. It is a short hop for Nandipha from her ‘skins’ to sculpture ‘in the round’. It’s heartening to think the exhibition has supported artists in any wishes to expand their horizons.
What was the selection process involved in selecting the 38 artists invited to participate in A Place in Time?
We researched and shared ideas and then invited artists to make proposals.
Free public access to Nirox is a great gesture on the part of the owners of this private space, but it still manages to be a space of privilege considering its accessibility. In this space, the art seems like it is intended for those who are already a decidedly art viewing, privileged public, considering restrictions around transport to a remote location or information access. Considering issues related to a ‘public’ and access, who are the intended publics of an exhibition like this? How do you think an exhibition like this could engage with a larger audience, or expand accessibility?
This is something I feel really strongly about and I’m glad you asked. There are definitely barriers other than entry fees to people experiencing art, in Wakefield for example non-visitor research identified a barrier as being ‘an inability to imagine beyond everyday experience.’ One exhibition is of course not going to change that but a hope of A Place in Time is that it helps to share the idea that art has been part of lives and communities for thousands, if not millions, of years. So it’s not just about physical access either, but trying to communicate this message on and off site. We’re continuing to work with Nirox on schools resources and Benji is actively involved in the Columba Leadership programme, which will bring a wider and less privileged young audience. The diverse concert programme will hopefully also bring new audiences with no prior interest in sculpture.
We’ll try to chip away it and hopefully if one person sees the exhibition who wouldn’t normally, maybe even through this great ArtThrob interview opportunity, that might be one life that’s changed for the better on however small a level.
A rather pertinent matter in South Africa currently is the issue around public sculpture and its impact on the people that interact with it daily, especially concerning movements like #rhodesmustfall. Artworks have been burned publicly, attempts at destruction persist, the University of Cape Town is actively moving to hide all their publicly displayed art. “Sculpture in relation to ‘public’, engagement, and the articulation of place” ties back to the research for your doctoral thesis. How do you think A Place in Time relates, challenges or contributes to the current conversations concerning public art in South Africa?
I think it’s really fascinating how statuary becomes a symbol for discontent and is activated by those seeking social change. It happens all over the world, and make for powerful imagery – think of the US troops toppling Saddam Hussain, for example, and more recently protestors in Kyiv, Ukraine, pulling down Soviet era figures. This is one of the reasons I think Thomas J Price’s work is so interesting, because statuary very often tends to be white men, representative of power structures. It’s an interesting question and one a few people are curious about, so although the exhibition hasn’t directly set out to address this subject it can hopefully stimulate further open conversation.
Since your visit in 2014, a few young South African artists have had the opportunity to work at the Yorkshire Sculpture park including Rodan Kane Hart and Serge Alain Nitegeka. Who else has had the opportunity to interact with the space, and are there future plans for regular residencies for South African artists at YSP?
Serge Alain Nitegeka has not yet visited, but has an open invitation! There are so many great artists in South Africa, and the wider continent, so it’s going to be a very long term and constantly evolving engagement that will lead to residencies, exhibitions, and further opportunities through our international network I’m sure, and with reciprocal exchanges to South Africa.
Any final thoughts on your experience and future involvement in South Africa?
Truly it’s been a highlight of my career, if not life, so far! We are all agreed that the conversation doesn’t end with this exhibition and will continue well into the future. Watch this space!