Amy & Oliver Thomas-Irvine
This fifth chapter saw the last year’s growing, sourcing and creation activity brought together in this site-specific public art installation, designed for Coventry Canal Basin and inspired by the surrounding people, place and context. For the duration of this installation, the Canal Basin and all objects, people, activities, were understood as a giant evolving sculptural composition. The Canal Basin became a stage created by scaffold straw drying racks, clay-smeared billboard posters, raw construction materials, paraphernalia and sculptural forms in stages of evolution. The act of creation itself was the art: Artists and public intertwining; hands and feet moving to a shared rhythm; bodies and surfaces coated with clay; the sounds of production; the beat of drums connecting us back to the earth.
A live site of production, throughout the week an open architectural structure was created. Working alongside artists Rachael Champion, Amy & Oliver Thomas-Irvine and Jim Woodall and Pangaea, the public could add to the installation and become part of this unique experience; the first of its kind in Coventry.
We’d like to acknowledge and thank all our supporters, including the National Lottery players.
Anchoring the installation was a triangular-shaped sculpture, resembling a fragmented, monumental gateway. The artists were inspired by Coventry’s iconic Elephant Building and other modernist forms of architecture. The gate represents a place of transition from one state to another. The public were invited to enter this dwelling space, pass through it, see and feel the inside and outside structure, and find respite from the sun’s heat.
Initially constructed from timber, the surface transformed throughout the week. The straw was applied in two ways. In the central triangle on both sides, small handfuls of straw were neatly tied and positioned vertically. In contrast, the outside triangles were stuffed with whole sheaves of straw (as gathered from last year’s summer harvest at Hatton Farm), bound in bright orange sisal twine made from the sisal plant.
The clay was applied roughly, leaving it textured and marked by the hands that made it.
The triangular hooded entrance and exit were adorned with thousands of clay flowers, designed by Kolkata-based collaborating artist Dolon Kundu and made with at least 500 people from the local community in the three months preceding the installation. Many more were made over the course of the week by the general public and specific community groups including Foleshill Creates, Life Path Trust, Crisis and the Positive Youth Foundation. Two of the flowers chosen were woad and indigo, which both produce blue pigment (in Coventry and India).
Over two tonnes of red terracotta clay were used for the installation. The last surviving brickworks in Coventry – Websters and Hemming Bricks based on Stoney Stanton Road – used this same red, iron rich Etruria maarl clay for the last 10 years of their production to make their Coventry bricks.
To mix the clay, first a bucket of sand is poured onto the billboards, then a mound of wet terracotta clay dumped on top. Straw and water are added before these ingredients are mixed by feet. The wet mixture is squeezed between the toes, and the colour from all of this bleeds into the canvas beneath.
Once mixed to a certain point, the billboard is pulled from one side, turning the mixture into a sausage shape. The weight makes this hard and the force of two or three people is needed to pull. The public, artists, tech team and volunteers processed this clay in batches throughout the week to be smeared onto the straw of the architectural structures positioned around the canal basin.
Improvised drumming performances by our collaborating musicians Parmjeet Bamrah, (Indian Classical), Anabell Febles (Latin), Mahandra Patel (Indian Folk and World Fusion) and Luke Weaver (World Fusion) added to the raw organic energy and connection felt to the materials and their cultural histories. These were especially successful when the cob mixes were being made.
An indigo and lime wash was further applied to the clay surface of the gate.
On Sunday afternoon, a finale performance began the erosion of the gate structure and its return to the earth. The last cob mix was made together by artists, volunteers and public alike, dancing with bare feet on wet clay to the rhythm of the drums.
Pushing everyone’s physical limits, the last clay and straw fragment was moved into its final resting place, sealing off the gateway forever.
As the water rained down over the structure, the 1000s of clay flowers adorning the structure melded together and dissolved, as the indigo and lime surface eroded away.
Taking inspiration from the Durga Puja Hindu Festival in Kolkata, the clay was baked in the sun but never fired. This means that water allows the sculpture to erode and materials to be returned to the
earth for reuse and recycling.