by Mary Paterson
Underneath the floorboards in your house, threading between the joists, jostling with forgotten coins and pieces of paper, is a troupe of classical ballet dancers: snaking limbs of copper pipe, turning elegant ankles and wrists to the beat of the building regulations.
This emerges as a possibility, at least, in conversation with the artist Sovay Berriman, whose latest work-in-progress is a series of sculptures using copper pipes – found objects which are, in this case, literally found in the course of Berriman’s parallel job as a plumber. Her recent plumbing training, the artist says, has brought her into intimate contact with the hidden materials of the everyday. As a result, she has a renewed understanding of “how lucky we are to have fresh drinking water, to have our foul waste taken away.” More than ever, she says, she is aware of the labour of the objects that hide inside our homes and give us our freedoms.
Work in progress | Sovay Berriman | 2020
Sovay Berriman | Photographed by John Hersey | 2020
Work in progress | Sovay Berriman | 2020
“I think of them as dancers,” Berriman says about her latest sculptures, which arrange these household materials into expansive, elegant forms. Dancers are people whose freedom of movement is a function of years of bodily discipline and, likewise, these angular objects are both grounded in the disciplines of their past, and able to stretch beyond those borders. At times greened with age or whitewashed with paint, these limbs of discarded copper display all the layers of work that have brought them to this room. In order to make the pipes, Berriman explains, minerals were first dug up, then cast and extruded or rolled in foundries, transported across oceans, bent, soldered and installed as part of a plumbing system. After that, the “pipe has done its own work, transporting water or gas,” before Berriman cut it out and took it to an art gallery, “to give it another experience.”
This last experience is borne out of all the others, and couldn’t happen without them. Here, the sculptures balance gently on the floor, trained and ready, as if they could leap in any direction. And so, if copper pipes are installed in our homes according to a system as regulated as classical Ballet, Berriman’s work-in-progress is a Matthew Bourne-type experiment to find out what else these dancers can do.
In its generous leaps of the imagination, this piece is also emblematic of Berriman’s art practice in general, which spans sculpture and installation as well as events and community organising. “The everyday,” she says, “is astounding, remarkable, and full of beauty.” There are echoes of Dada in the way she recontextualises objects to deconstruct systems of value. But unlike a Duchamp ready-made, Berriman’s work is not only focused on the ways that art might change the viewer’s perception; it is also fascinated by the lives and experiences of the materials themselves.
Hand hold 3 | Sovay Berriman | 2020
Hand hold 6 | Sovay Berriman | 2020
Many of Berriman’s pieces involve modular elements, so that one fragment of acrylic or ceramic, for example, may be placed in more than one installation. In the case of Entertainment Suite (2010 – ongoing), indeed, the artwork is itself a series of shifting parts made of wood and acrylic, which are recomposed in different locations. This approach focuses attention on distinct objects; one piece might “stretch its arms,” for example, “and enjoy being in the spotlight for a moment.” But objects are always, also brought back into inter-dependent relations with each other. A module will, “behave differently,” Berriman says, “when it comes back into the collective.” In one constellation, for example, a plane of black acrylic shines like a mirror reflecting Entertainment Suite onto itself. In another, it looks more like a dark window, turning its face away from the light.
This interplay between the autonomy of individual objects and the collective of the group as a whole, lies at the radical heart of Berriman’s work. In her practice, sculptures declare their own temporality, materials declare their own histories, and communities declare the sovereignty of their individual parts. Rather than the individual and the group being in competition with each other, they are co-creators of a shared reality. This is what the philosopher Erin Manning calls “response-ability”: a pulsing network of reciprocal relationships in which everything affects – and effects – everything else.
Entertainment Suite | Sovay Berriman | 2015
Crucially, for both Manning and Berriman, these relationships are not limited to human beings, but occur with and between non-humans, too. This is why Berriman’s latest works in progress are both discarded pipes and experimental dancers, why her pieces evolve over years and decades, and why, for her, community organising and sculpture go hand in hand.
Berriman’s practice is, in other words, an approach to knowledge that is rooted in a deeply empathic and collaborative worldview. As she talks about research she undertook with archaeological remains – at the Forum in Rome, as well as at ancient Minoan sites in Crete – Berriman also describes the experience of caring for her grandmother towards the end of her life. Rather than thinking of old age as something that changes the fundamentals of a person – a deterioration, or a deficit – Berriman describes watching the emergence of a new stage in her grandmother’s life: an accumulation of all the other stages she had lived so far. Likewise, the ancient ruins Berriman saw in Italy and Greece “were still alive, still evolving, still enacting what they were. The column was still a column; it was still a rock, but now it was also a collapsed column, an object to be studied.”
Because we live in a society that values productivity, growth, and novelty, paying attention to objects as they change over stretches of time is both a political perspective, and one that is accessed via fiction. When she set off on a research project to deserts in Eurasia and Australia, Berriman created a fictional origin story for her journey:
Through sources that it would be unfair of me to expose here, I have discovered that wizards head to deserts to charge their power and test their affect …
This unnamed voice reverberates with the tones of ancient myth or historical science fiction. Like a Jules Verne story, for instance, it posits a researcher who has to travel far afield in order to discover essential truths. But the sci-fi set up also undercuts its own intentions. “Whatever’s at stake,” Berriman says, about the hero of a typical sci-fi narrative, “it’s going to be wrong. And it’s going to be wrong due to its own arrogance.” Berriman’s research – which was called Molluscs Hunt Wizards – was a way of broadening her horizons, of re-examining her own landscape with reference to a very different one. At the same time, however, it was a trip she undertook in full knowledge of her own – of everyone’s– ignorance, of the expanse of ideas and experiences in the world that can never be ‘discovered’, rationalized or contained.
Memories of the Gobi | Sovay Berriman | 2015
Falling Wizard | Sovay Berriman | 2015
Marker at the Heart of Things | Sovay Berriman | 2015
This balance between the real and the imagined, the incredible and the everyday, is the through line that informs all of Berriman’s practice. It is in this, carefully held space that her work casts a type of spell, able to recognise the fullness of the histories of her materials as well as all the potentials of their futures. In doing so, Berriman does not transform the everyday realm into a special aesthetic experience; rather, she imbues the magic of an aesthetic world view into the realm of the everyday. After all, “if we keep things on pedestals,” she says, “we limit them, and we limit our relationship with wonder.”
Berriman’s work refuses any such limitation. Just as it fizzes with potential and becomes response-able, then (in Manning’s terms), Berriman’s practice also brims with awe, and becomes wonder-full.