Conversation with Sophy Rickett

Sophy Rickett, The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows, GOST, 2019

David: At what point did this project become a project?  Was it clear from quite early? Or did there come a moment when you saw there was really something, beyond research, that was in it for you as an artist?

Sophy: The project as something which came into being gradually, over time, describes the work, but also in some way, is the work.

When I start with something new, one of the things I find interesting is the idea that everything I need, all the information, is already there, and that what puts me to work is figuring out how to draw the elements together, what sense to make of them in relation to each other. So making work can feel like a process of configuration, a gradual piecing together, that is punctuated by moments of clarity, the sense of things falling into place.

That happened at the beginning, when I was talking to Jennie, whose presence, for me, breathes life into the whole project. It was Jennie who first introduced me to Thereza, and Penllergare Valley Woods, and so my whole understanding of Thereza was shaped by Jennie, and how she framed her life and work. The first time we met, Jennie and I talked for several hours. She showed me around the estate, we looked at books, and I asked questions. I enjoyed her presence, the way she expressed things, and how she moved, and began to feel that I wanted her as my guide. During that first meeting, I decided I would ask her to be a part of the project, maybe even to perform the role of guide to the camera. Then as we said goodbye, almost by chance, she said that she would be happy to meet again, and talk some more, but that she was not prepared to appear in the project, or to be featured in any way. I responded – oh of course, that’s fine, no problem, but inside I felt stung and rejected, that I had been found out. But strangely I think that was the moment where I felt like I was on to something – something about her refusal felt important. It was so adamant, so inscrutable, but at the same time, it felt like an actual thing, her resistance to me generated a certain kind of energy that has inflected the whole project.

I like that about photography. Its inscrutability. Its failure to fully capture the subject. One of my favourite outtakes is a google earth picture that shows the carpark in Leicester, where Richard 3rd’s remains were discovered. It must have been taken as part of a routine data capture, one of many millions of images, inconsequential at the time of its making, and then subsequently loaded with meaning, significance.  I like how the red circle that indicates the position of the remains is on the surface of the image, not in the space, although there is an R drawn in white paint on the concrete, at least apparently so. I was going to include it the project, because I mention it in relation to layers in the stratigraphic column; a reference to the idea that layers of time, are held physically, forensically, in the earth.

There are lots of carparks mentioned in the text; whole houses flattened under those smooth surfaces, painted white lines.

David: Yes, it seems that as a culture we’ve gone from belief in the truth telling capacity of photography to a faith in the idea that despite itself, despite its inscrutability, despite its evasions and displacements, it cannot avoid being a clue to… something. Perhaps something unconscious or unintended. It might be hiding in plain sight, or buried, or just beyond what’s captured. We’re not able to just walk away from photography as if it had been debunked and called out. I suspect it is often precisely the inscrutability that prompts our desire to know the secrets of the image. (I feel like we’re back with WHF Talbot’s assertion that if photography is evidence, it is “evidence of novel kind”). Of course, all this puts the photograph in a strange relation to art, as something to look at and look beyond. A thing in itself and an unpredictable, winding path to something else.  Does this ring true to you?

Sophy: Yes, for sure – I’m interested in how the frame of the photograph can’t contain, hold or even describe the subject in any substantial way. Photography is an act, and it’s a material form, and together they can be a way of processing the world and its relations, gaining further understanding.

Looking back at this project now, it’s like an investigation that went awry, and that was partly because of photography – both the legacy of the Dillwyn Llewelyn archive and also in my allowing my own use of photography to be a sort of interruption to the integrity of the ‘investigation’, an investigation that was complicated because I didn’t really know what I was looking for, just that I had an urge to look for … as you say … something.

I enjoyed that I was using photography in a very literal way if that makes sense – snapping my way through, gathering visual data that I knew would be pointless in that it wouldn’t reveal anything much about the subject that I was interested in. And in the end, it was that leaning into the process of photography in such a vicarious way, that became interesting. So I wasn’t really thinking about truth or realism, I was thinking more about rhetoric, and how photography can be made to fail, and yet still to seduce.

Here is another out take; Jennie, who I mentioned earlier, in the carpark at Penllergare, showing me the position and – importantly – orientation of the original house.

David: Ha, yes. Failure has its seductions, and seduction is bound to fail. There’s often a strange conundrum when one first approaches an archive in an open-ended way. The archivist asks (or we ask of ourselves): “What are you looking for?” “Umm, what do you have?”  “Well, it depends what you’re looking for. I can’t show you everything.”  In a way I think that making photographs is a bit like this. One knows there is an image to be taken, but it’s not clear how or why or what it should be. One is waiting for something to reveal itself as having possibility. And perhaps looking at photographs is like this too. We look with intent but we often don’t know what we are intending or what we want. It can all feel like fumbling around until something happens. 

Sophy: … so much dogma builds up around heritage and art historical contexts, well maybe it does around everything (including photography, and its written history), so yes, I agree, it feels important to stay open to the affective dimension of even the driest of situations. I like the process of finding my own angle, looking askance, muscling my way in.

This time, as I circled around the subject – the archives, the places Thereza mentions in her diaries – certain mantras were repeated to me many times. None of them were neutral, they all seemed to come from an ideological position; new housing developments spoil the countryside, the presence of the M4 motorway has no place in the otherwise picturesque tranquillity of Penllergare and so on. I became interested in creating my own access points, ones where misunderstanding, disagreement and chance were as productive and meaningful as the officially accepted version of events. I let myself be distracted, meander through, using photography to notionally record my journey, but also at the same time, knowing I was getting it ‘wrong’.

One idea I had was to conduct detailed research into the construction of the M4, in relation to the concrete, where it had come from, and how it was constituted materially. I also wrote about the drainage pipes that ran under the motorway, directing the River Lan, a trickle that far from the sea, into the Penllergare estate. It made me think of the concave wave breaks on the beach in Teignmouth, near where I grew up, and for a while I thought about writing about when I was a kid and trying to get into a comfortable position but my body never really fitted.

David: I often find myself in a similar position in relation to archival research. Archives are sites not of meaning but of potential meaning, and it always depends who is doing the asking and what they think they want. But we often feel there’s some kind of hidden truth to an archive, if only we could grasp it, or make the ‘correct’ approach. In other words, it’s as if the archive wants to throw our own ignorance in our faces. I wonder if it is this that leads us to make our approaches playful rather than dutiful, emancipated rather than trapped. 

Sophy: he! Even if I think I have found a way in to an archive, that is different to any I have taken in the past, I often find that I have been, (inevitably I suppose), circling and revisiting the same themes, over and again. There’s something reassuring about that; the sense of a negotiation between me and the world that is alive, ongoing, unresolved. And art – or this work that I do – is a form of navigation. It’s not so much about having an interest or concern that motivates me; it’s more like a preoccupation – something sticky that puts me to work. I choose a direction, but I also feel pulled.

This project took longer than most to settle, it kept pulling in different directions. And at some point that seemed right as well; its resistance to closure.

David: I’m interested in what you say about the persistence of certain preoccupations, and that the finding of, or stumbling into projects has something to do with finding an outlet for them. That’s different from a photographer who is interested in a specific kind of subject matter, for example. Your subject matter has varied greatly over the years and yet, as you say, the preoccupations have remained consistent. I guess at a certain point one looks back and sees that despite the variety, one’s work has consistency, even a fateful consistency. However far one wanders, something in the method reveals itself. Is there something about photography that permits this for you?

Thinking about it now, photography is a preoccupation that has sustained my interest for many years – not as a process, but as a theme, a subject in itself. I do experience strong resistances to it; it can feel so claustrophobic, its emphasis on subject. But there’s something about photography that works for me; its slipperiness, its plasticity. I think I can be impatient and restless, a little bit jumpy, and that’s consistent with my understanding of photography, and also something I like about it; its fragmented, non-chronological-ness, its flattening out, and the way the subject of a photograph is so often outside of the frame.

I’m repeating myself… but that brings me back in a circle … is it a habit or a theme?

David: This raises interesting questions, or challenges about how a project resolves, not simply how it takes shape, but the moment where some kind of closure, however provisional it is, seems possible. I get the impression that very often artists engagements with archives end provisionally, not quite with abandonment but with a feeling that no clear ending is possible, concluding that maybe there is nothing to conclude. The meaning of the work lies in something other than resolution. 

Sophy: My story begins and ends with Jennie, the trustee at Penllergare who said when we first met, that she was not prepared to be featured in my work, or to appear in it in any way.

The ending – as I came to understand it – happened on about the fourth or fifth time we’d met, by which time I’d begun to feel I was badgering her, circling around the topic, asking questions in the hope that something other than what I had thought to ask would accidentally be revealed.

So we were walking along the river Lan one afternoon and she was in front, being my guide. I was trying to figure out how to convince her to appear in the film and was only half listening when she began to say how the bends and folds in the river would have been much the same in Thereza’s time as they are now; a similar structure, with a slightly different configuration. She talked about the compression of the mud, and how it would break off intermittently in heavy clods and the silt would build up and the flow of water would, over time, gently alter. It was an expression of continuity that seemed to capture how I’d been thinking, and I decided to ask her whether we could meet up again, to talk about that further! And then we were standing still, on the compressed mud, the river-brook at our feet, and she looked at me and said, “Sophy, I think you have it all”, and I felt myself being gently admonished.

“I think you have it all”; it’s such a strong phrase; an affirmation, but also on some level, a rebuke. It opened something out for me, the sense of already having everything I needed and the work I had to do was figuring out how to make it make sense. And at the same time, there was something in her look, that said she wanted to close down, that she was asking me to stop. “Sophy, you have it all”. She didn’t mean it like that but on some level it landed and in that moment I felt a little bit ashamed.

My written story starts and finishes with Jennie; her generosity, knowledge and open-ness and also her resistance. We met again recently, a few years since our first encounter, once the story had settled and I’d started making plans for the exhibition. I asked her if she would be filmed for the project, and she agreed, but later I decided that I couldn’t make a film after all, it didn’t seem right. I’d started developing an idea for the exhibition, working with a painting of a cherub which had suffered serious smoke damage and has never been exhibited in public. And the name of the conservator I’m working with… Jenny.

David: People are often like the institutions they work for, or run. They have some of the same qualities. That’s inevitable, I imagine, because people feel some kind of affinity with the institution to even decide to work for it, and because of the way people grow into their jobs. Not completely, but substantially. This relationship between institutions and personnel seems more emphatic and indivisible to an outsider. Plus of course the objects in an institution like an archive also seem to take on the same qualities as the institution and the people who run it. Welcoming, but never quite able to give you what you want, or even help you figure out what you want, because you don’t know quite what you want until you find it. So everything surrounding one’s open curiosity can feel inscrutable. “You have it all”  – maybe not the words, but the way a searching person receives them – is bound to feel like a foreclosure.  

And it’s something photographs ‘say’ to us all the time. “Here you are. This is all I have to offer. It should be enough for you. If it isn’t…I don’t know what more I can do.”

Sophy: … yes, as if it doesn’t hold the subject down very firmly… The last picture I took for The Curious Moaning of Kenfig Burrows, just a couple of days ago, was of a pair of hearing aids. I wan’t expecting a picture of hearing aids themselves to say anything much about hearing loss, but what I was interested in was the hearing aid’s very strange visual presence. The ones I bought off Ebay look like embryos, with little starey eyes created by the audio output transmitter. They fit, perfectly, into the ear canal, and transmit sound deep into the brain. I found something in those unseeing eyes, something mechanical and cold, yet also weirdly sentient. Humanoid boneless structures with eyes but no mouth, silent and a little bit scary. Mute, indestructible. And on some level that reminds me of the condition of hearing loss; the distance, the isolation, the sense of something completely unknown. Photography performs what we bring to it.