Victoria Rance and I met at Newcastle University in 1980. We were studying Fine Art and English Literature respectively and have remained friends ever since. We share an interest in psychology, Jungian ideas and the power of mythology. Victoria Rance’s latest exhibition, The Night Horse and The Holy Baboon, at The Cello Factory Waterloo, was a good opportunity for us to discuss the themes that persist throughout her diverse range of work and how she has moved from monolithic forms to tiny hand-held ones.
In order to view Rance’s titular The Night Horse and the Holy Baboon, (a life-size wooden horse shaped like a nursery toy, demurely facing a towering ape figure with golden hair), the visitors to her exhibition have to pass between the foreboding silhouettes of two towering characters she calls ‘Loki’. It is a striking entrance to her retrospective show. Inside the gallery are more large-scale sculptures including carapace-like garments made of chain mail or feathers amongst other materials, constituting her Sculpture to Wear series, human-scaled sculptures which can be stepped into (her Spaces For… series), alongside Otherworld hand-held pewter animals and mythological creatures, drawings, animations and a film about her innovative I Wish project.
Penny Hancock: Your recent exhibition, The Night Horse and the Holy Baboon, brought together themes and ideas you started working on years ago with some very new pieces. People responded so positively to it. The range and versatility of your work is huge.
At Newcastle University, I remember you going off to draw animal figures in the Hancock Museum, and then making powerful forged steel sculptures that were very pared back versions of these drawings. Your sculpture has a great energy to it. Would you say you were – still are – trying to capture something about the essence of what it means to be alive? Something to do with the soul of the animals you draw?
Victoria Rance: I think I was trying to capture energy, the flowing force through living things, and that can be called spirit. William Blake said, “energy is eternal delight”. The sense of being alive and the joyful ability to feel and run and breathe is what I was trying to depict. My first steel sculpture was of a greyhound. I didn’t only draw in the museum but also went to the races, and kennels, and we had a model with a whippet which I fed bones to and drew.
PH: Since those early steel sculptures, your work has developed, and changed. You’ve made some large public sculptures, pieces for religious spaces including stained glass, Sculpture to Wear – armour-like vests and cloaks that you sometimes photograph being worn. You also make sculptures large enough for adults to walk into, and now these tiny, hand-held pewter pieces. One common thread, however, seems to be an expression of unconscious feelings such as envy, greed, desire, regret, fury, and love. Those energies that Jung would say reside in our shadow side.
VR: I’m glad you put love in there, but it’s also aspects of the inner life and dreams. And making sculpture helps me make sense of the outer world and of people. Thinking hard about a particular subject clarifies things.
For example, looking at the Nazar or the evil eye (or Eye of Medusa), seeing it used still in Istanbul and discussing it with people, helped me understand envy better. In the west, we don’t like to acknowledge envy, but in Istanbul I saw a Nazar placed by the door of an exhibition at a private view. I was told it was the same as when you get married or have a baby: you display your Nazar as if to say, “yes something good has happened to me, you will feel envious, but I’m asking you to leave your envy outside the door and be glad for me”.
I made a huge dark felt cloak covered on both sides with brown and blue pistachio eyes, as though they were all the women in the world. It’s called Nut/Nuit (from the goddess) and the idea is the unification of all women regardless of race, wealth and geography. The power of women uniting instead of being separated by envy.
PH: I love that idea. Would you say many of your sculptures also offer protection or comfort, such as the Spaces for Women, and the Sculpture to Wear?
VR: Yes. I do think it’s hard for sensitive people to survive in the contemporary world. Everything is fast-paced, there’s not enough respect for nature, for slow time, for breathing, imagination, day-dreaming. There is violence and too much information. We are losing the ability to see and respond to and value our inner lives. My sculptures that you can walk into are offering a refuge from this, somewhere to contemplate in, or just be quiet for a bit. The Sculpture to Wear series is again a reminder of that inner world of the imagination, of the different aspects of the self. And protection from that demanding outer world where you have to have such a thick skin if you are going to stay sane.
PH: More recently, your I Wish project has been quite a turning point. You have begun to work with other people to produce small, talismanic, hand-held objects based on a confided wish or desire. How did you decide to start working in this more intimate way?
VR: I had wanted to find a way to make works for particular people. Not wealthy people who can commission work, but for anyone who needed it. I wanted a one-to-one interaction, to respond to someone in a way that would generate a new method of working. I Wish started in 2013, perhaps a year after I first had this idea.
PH: The objects you make are very beautiful and feel oddly familiar, as if they link to our collective unconscious. Humans have always made charms, effigies, or attributed certain objects with protective or magical properties. Have you deliberately drawn on any specific cultural traditions?
VR: I draw on certain traditions sometimes. If I feel there is a particular need for a strong talisman that has a history I might use that. I’ve used the Eye of Horus, the Egyptian god of healing and health, a few times because of working with people who are ill, or who are dealing with illness, and recently for a very stressed doctor who made a wish in response to the sickness of the precious NHS itself. But mostly I make something new especially for the person in response to their wish and their personality.
PH: How do you make decisions about the materials, shapes and images that turn the confession, secret or wish into an object?
VR: It’s an intuitive process. Most recently I was working with someone who had a big change ahead. As he spoke an image came to mind. Other times I have to hunt about, or by chance find something on the ground to work on. That happened with one person. I found a piece of metal as I was walking about Deptford while thinking what to use for her. The metal had writing on (ERO) which I used like an anagram too, changing it to EROS was perfect.
PH: Eros, the god of love. A very potent word! I obviously don’t know the wish you were making, but finding that piece of metal must have felt serendipitous. In your I Wish film, you talked about some of the other synchronicities that have alighted during your work. This is something else you and I have often talked about – the way when you’re being creative things often play into this as if there is another energy or power at work.
VR: Coincidences happen all the time, yes. The other day I was drawing and making hyenas and you, not knowing that, mentioned you’d just seen one as you were walking past the zoo.
PH: It was quite bizarre. I was walking along Regent’s Canal, which goes right through the heart of London Zoo, and there was a pack of hyenas, playing on the far side. When I told you, you said you were making and thinking about hyenas that very day.
VR: That does seem strange but I grew up in a household where stories of the magical were common. Maybe being half-Scottish and having Bolivian relations helps it feel almost normal.
PH: Could you say a bit more about your childhood and its influence on your later work?
VR: I grew up near Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic barrow in Oxfordshire. The story was that if you left your horse there at night it would be shod in the morning. I also lived opposite a blacksmith and heard the beating of steel on the anvil, and was taken to see him at work. Blacksmiths had a special place in life, the way they used fire and could control iron and steel, make tools, weapons and horse-shoes.
Blacksmiths had a special place in life, the way they used fire and could control iron and steel… They were believed to have magical qualities too.
Blacksmiths were believed to have magical qualities too. When I began forging steel outside on a coke forge in Newcastle I had such a strong sense of connection to that, I felt an indescribable magic about it. Something really ancient came and visited me, and I loved doing it. I still beat metal and melt it. I think the separation of art and craft is a new development in culture. I don’t know that there were “artists” exactly in ancient cultures, but artisans. And some would’ve made objects that were perceived to have particular powers.
PH: You have taken the I Wish project into a children’s ward in a local hospital and talked about the healing power of hope. Can you tell me a little bit about the children you have worked with and how you feel I Wish has enabled sometimes very poorly children and their parents to rediscover hope?
VR: Being a parent of a child in hospital is overwhelming. Everything feels so medicalised and structured. Parents have welcomed the chance to have time out and talk about and imagine life after this, when things are normal. Or even to be given the space to put the hope of a positive future into words. In the hospital project, the wishers made little medicine bags to put their wishes in and they selected materials and decorations. This was a welcome distraction too.
For the children, some of whom have long term or even terminal illnesses it has been valuable to have an adult to talk to who isn’t medical or a parent. There is a wonderful play worker there who has helped me a great deal. She decided it would be better if I didn’t know the prognoses or even illnesses of the children so that I could just meet them without dread or sadness. The very first child I spoke to asked, “Am I allowed to wish to get better?” When I said, “Yes of course! How can you help wishing to get better?” it felt like the weight of all she had to hold back being relieved. She couldn’t say it to her parents or the doctors but she was allowed to wish for it anyway and have a place for her undeniable hope.
PH: That is so moving. One of the photos on your website, of a tiny child’s hands holding a little felt shape with a tractor embroidered on it, made me cry – the innocence conveyed in it. And you have said children relate closely to animals. Are there any animals in particular that give them the opportunity to experience say, playfulness, or mischief in their imaginations even when they may not be physically able?
VR: Several of the children in hospital said monkeys were their favourite animals. One wanted me to make a cheeky monkey, another a monkey climbing in trees. Pets or wild animals (a wolf cub, a husky, a dolphin, a pony, and horses both normal and magical) gave them a sense of independence and the ability to identify with a creature healthy and energetic and out in the world in a natural environment. One told me her dream of being a horse; another her desire to swim with dolphins.
PH: Mythical creatures often feature in your work, as well as real animals. I am thinking of Loki, or The Night Horse and the Holy Baboon, in your recent exhibition. Would you say there are some archetypes that speak to all of us, and what do you believe these represent for us?
VR: I think there are some very powerful archetypes that we carry within us. Horses seem to still be so important to humans. And even creatures we’ve never come across speak to us. Wolves for example. I grew up in the countryside by woods and was frightened of wolves and thought I heard them at night, even though I knew there weren’t any there. Fear is primal, like fear of snakes. As we mentioned earlier, I am just now researching hyenas and how they have been a carrier of certain human qualities we want to disown or make “other”.
There are some very powerful archetypes that we carry within us… even creatures we’ve never come across speak to us.
Loki is a creature I have made my own, although his starting point was the Norse god. For me he carries fear, shape-shifting, the immense power of the unconscious. He is also a psychopomp, carrying messages between humans and gods. I have the two giant ones I made for my Night Horse exhibition back in my studio, but I am scared of them and have had to cover them up!
PH: They certainly created a very powerful entrance to your exhibition. It was hard to know whether they were protective or threatening. There are mythical creatures in your Otherworld series, too, as well as realistically rendered and recognisable animals. You have then placed these in tableaux or scenes to create stories. Can you describe a couple of these and the inspiration behind them?
VR: One important group for me is called Creek or Four Sisters. Three of the sisters are upright and watching over a supine bird-seal-fish-selkie woman, who is their sister. I made this after a visit from a seal to Deptford Creek by my studio. The seal made contact with me, getting my attention by splashing right by me as I was looking the other way. He was so friendly and funny, so beautiful. I do have three sisters (and three brothers), but what that has to do with it I’m not sure.
Another group is The Apology, which has a penguin-like character (innocent but the leader) peering down at a hyena who is prostrate in front of him asking for forgiveness. A young monkey watches, just checking perhaps how real the apology is.
PH: And you told me about a real incident that happened when you were making this – another example of synchronicity. Where do you hope to go next with your work after the success of The Night Horse and the Holy Baboon?
VR: In the studio I am working on a life-size or bigger version of The Apology, along the lines of The Night Horse and The Holy Baboon. This is for a group show in April called Good and Bad Government. I have also done a few more wishes made during the exhibition and there is a plan for a further residency at the same hospital.
PH: Is there anything you have learned since beginning the I Wish project that has changed the way you plan to work in the future, either in terms of actual making or in the subjects that interest you?
VR: I learned to work in pewter specifically to make the wishes, and this has fed into my work, giving me another metal to use. But one of the most striking things that I Wish has done is given me the ability to work on a small scale with as much confidence as on bigger work. I realise that small works can have as much power, or even more, than monumental ones. It’s what is brought to it that matters, the imaginative power of the viewer.
The Night Horse and the Holy Baboon was at The Cello Factory London, October 2017. Click here for the online catalogue.