A little over eight years ago Jeppe Hein, the Danish installation artist, gave a presentation at the Barbican at which he talked about his Modified Social Bench series. His installation of outdoor benches, each of which was playfully altered to impair its functionality (one with exaggeratedly short or long legs, one apparently broken in two, one steeply leaning to one side, and so forth) prompted my long and enduring fascination with park and street benches. I began to notice how these objects, apparently so prosaic and often barely noticed, have rich and textured social and cultural meanings that can reveal so much about ourselves, our values, and our relationship with the space around us. They can be benign sites for individual reflection, social interaction, and physical intimacy (to an often surprising degree of explicitness); they are equally places that highlight exclusion, alienation, emotional unravelling, and ultimately grief, as memorial benches have become an increasingly common sight in our streets and parks. Benches shape our experience of the outdoors; they speak of power and of clandestine attempts to subvert power. As my research continued I found dozens of paintings, sculptures, literary episodes, songs, poems and films in which benches are employed for their metaphorical or symbolic significance. So I was delighted last week when I saw that Tintype in London was to open an exhibition entitled Bench.

Tintype’s curator, Teresa Grimes, began reflecting on the multivalent significance of the bench after commissioning one from Turner Prize-winning group Assemble for the gallery’s Essex Road II screenings. Their bench takes pride of place in the centre of the gallery, a robust, bright yellow steel seat in the form of an RSJ whose function as a site for social gathering is reflected in some of the surrounding artworks.

Benches are places that highlight exclusion, alienation, emotional unravelling, and ultimately grief.

Bench brings together the works of eight artists/practitioners, all of whose work (whether sculptural or two-dimensional) focuses on the humble bench. Of the twenty works included, nine are by Michael Simpson, the only artist who was already on my ‘bench’ radar. It may seem disproportionate that almost fifty percent of the works on show are by him, but given that he has devoted forty works (not to mention twenty years) to his series of bench depictions (which at one time consisted of eighty, before he destroyed half of them) his apparent overrepresentation makes some sense. His series of bench paintings acts as a homage to Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance Italian polymath who was excommunicated and ultimately executed by the Catholic Church.

For Simpson, the bench symbolises absence, waiting and, ultimately, death; his depictions do not feature human sitters and the often weighty, sombre appearance and high sheen of his benches lends them a sepulchral similarity to a coffin. His benches carry the additional association of the meting out of justice (or injustice), which gives them a deeper resonance in relation to Bruno’s ultimate fate. It’s a pity that the Tintype show only features Simpson’s drawings and studies, which pack a less lugubrious punch than some of his paintings (several of which are currently on loan for his solo show at Spike Island).

Assemble bench

The sculptural work by Joby Williamson, my highlight of the exhibition, also harnesses the melancholy symbolism of the bench. His piece Temperance consists of two rusting cast iron bench ends propped up against each other. It prompts visions of a dystopian urban landscape of broken street furniture, while its title and unstable construction bring to mind the way in which outdoor benches can be one of the last refuges for people to drown their sorrows in drink. Williamson’s piece reminds me of one of the best and most poignant cinematic portrayals of alcoholism, Per Fly’s Bænken (The Bench), which also uses the bench’s rich symbolism to underpin his story of social alienation and personal breakdown.

Other works focus on the bench as a symbol for and site of community and cohesion. Adam Clarke’s two prints and flatpack bench are part of his long term Boosebeck industries project, in which he collaborates with members of the public to design and produce furniture. Here the bench as a metaphor of social connection is harnessed in a community craft enterprise. Anna Lucas’s photographic montage (Banc de montage) features a variety of outdoor seats which, though empty, strongly suggest the presence of people coming together in a moment of rest or leisure, whether on hay bales around a recently extinguished camp fire or the equally transitory steps-cum-bench outside an urban home, invitingly decked with colourful rugs for extra comfort.

Tintype’s exhibition will hopefully encourage visitors to see this everyday feature of our landscape with fresh eyes.

Lucas’s photographs show how we leave our mark on our environment when we sit outdoors, however ephemeral our presence may be. Richard Wentworth’s Sward 2016, consisting of straw encased in plastic wrapping, echoes Anna Lucas’s photograph of hay bales , which is displayed nearby. At first the work seemed a surprise inclusion, but it then occurs to me that it too could form a transient form of seating. It reinforces the relationship between the human body and its environment, which is at play whenever we sit outdoors. Meanwhile Helen Barff’s diminutive sculptures explore the weight of materiality when an object is placed on a bench. Her works are derived from casts of bags of plaster, upon which she has leant her own body weight to create a sense of both the personal imprint and the “negative space of the bench”. The concept behind these works is intriguing, but as objects they are very hard to read, and consequently lose meaning and poignancy in the execution.

By zeroing in on this apparently quotidian object Bench touches on some profound themes – community, alienation, death, memorial, and our relationship to our environment. These eight artists join a veritable crowd of practitioners – from Jenny Holzer to Susan Hiller, Tom Phillips to Franz West, Keith Coventry to William Kentridge (not to mention a host of 19th century painters and sculptors) – who have found and expressed meaning in this modest yet instantly recognisable fixture of the urban realm. Tintype’s exhibition will hopefully encourage visitors to see this everyday feature of our landscape with fresh eyes – and perhaps spawn a community of rather obsessed bench aficionados to keep me company.


Bench is at Tintype, London until 13th February 2016.

Image credits (top to bottom):
Joby Williamson, Temperance, 2016, Cast iron bench ends. Photo credit: Cameron Leadbetter.
Assemble, Bench, 2016, Painted mild steel. Photo credit: Cameron Leadbetter.


The Learned Pig

Ruth Garde

Ruth Garde is a freelance curator and writer with a passion for history, architecture, heritage and the visual arts. Over the last 12 years she has collaborated extensively with Wellcome Collection on a variety of exhibition and public engagement projects. Her areas of interests include the intersection of art, science and human health, the politics of public space, and the relationship between site-specific contemporary art and historic sites and collections.