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The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk

Barbican Meets: Sophie Clements

We spoke to artist Sophie Clements to learn more about our latest foyer commission, Shall I This Time Hold You?, currently bringing a moment of calm to our foyers…

What are the inspirations behind Shall I This Time Hold You?

Shall I This Time Hold You? is essentially about trying to hold on to a moment in time, and the impossibility of doing so. It’s part of a body of work that I have been developing for some time, which has all been concerned with looking at a point of change – a moment of transformation from one state to another. I have been interested in the idea of finding ways to stop the transformation mid-way and to be able to observe it as a solid or static object – to observe something that by its very nature is a fleeting moment, something we are never really allowed or able to grasp or see. And through this somehow it feels like something is revealed – a sense of transcendence perhaps, in the observation of an element in an unusual state of being.

What drew you to making this kind of work?

I am interested in what it is on the surface, and what it suggests metaphorically – what it is hinting at underneath. And both these sides can be summed up in the idea of our natural tendency to yearn for things that are impossible. On the surface, these are very beautiful objects. I’ve been looking at them constantly for months now, and I still find I can watch them for ages – they’re seductive – they make me want to pick them up, touch them. They set up a kind of confusion – about scale, weight, solidity and so on. They’re so nearly tangible but not quite. I find it’s somehow like the feeling of looking at the clouds and wishing you could, just once, explore them – walk around them, hold a bit in your hand.

These things are ephemeral – we can’t hold them, we can’t contain them, we can only observe. And this links with the idea of the impossible in relation to our experience of time and memory – how we can, though we know it impossible, allow ourselves to wish to go back, or to wish we could hold onto something we know will change. It’s the eternal dilemma of man, that we can’t control change and the passing of time, and I suppose for me the action of freezing these moments in time is a kind of symbolic attempt to discuss this.

Shall I This Time Hold You? is essentially about trying to hold on to a moment in time, and the impossibility of doing so

Can you explain more about the process of making this piece?

It is always very important that my work is made ‘for real’ i.e. what you see is a real material in real space – a real moment in time, rather than a digital rendering. This work was created using a circular rig of 96 cameras, which all take a picture at the same time, capturing one moment in 360 degrees. It’s a technique that was made famous in The Matrix, called ‘bullet time’ (but actually that technique was originally conceived in an experimental film, a while back). It’s a big and fun setup, and I’m really lucky to be able to work with New World Designs who are responsible for the camera setup – this kind of work is usually only done on much higher-end commercial and cinematic projects, and it’s amazing they were up for doing something like this with me. I worked with pyrotechnics experts to find the right kind of explosion, which ended up being very simple – just gunpowder, which gave a really beautiful ‘bulb’ or ‘lantern’.

The element of chance is really important in my work – that we set up a filming system that is planned meticulously but embraces unforeseen results and ‘happy accidents’. It’s important that the work still retains a feeling of being real and handmade, so I have purposely not gone all the way to perfect the images in post-production – so for example there are little wobbles, fluctuations in colour and brightness that seem to keep the images alive. To be too perfect would make them less real.

The title of the work is a line from Goethe’s Faust – can you explain what makes this poem such an inspiration?

I was searching for a way to articulate my feelings about what the work was trying to get at, when I came across the dedication at the beginning of Goethe’s Faust, in which he speaks of memory and the futile yearning to return and hold on to that moment which is passed. It’s a very beautiful and emotional piece of text, and I feel it is very fitting for the piece. However, it’s important that people are able to take their own meanings from the work – I love that almost everyone’s first reaction to the images is to say what shapes they see in them, like we’ve all done when looking up at clouds.

Again you show yourselves, you wavering Forms,

Revealed, as you once were, to clouded vision.

And shall I this time hold you?

Heart’s willing still to suffer that illusion?

You crowd so near! Well then, you shall endure,

 

And rouse me, from your mist and cloud’s confusion:

My spirit feels so young again: it’s shaken

By magic breezes that your breathings waken

The element of chance is really important in my work

Your work is often influenced by ideas in science – can you expand on how science and art meet in your work?

I came to filmmaking via science and music, and I feel it’s the combination of these three disciplines that characterises my work and approach. My first degree was Biochemistry, and although I left that before finishing as I realised I needed an environment and career that would allow me to work across disciplines, elements of scientific thinking and approach remain an important ingredient in what I do now. I think there’s an element of scientific process that naturally carried through into my work – the planning and testing of an idea – the designing of systems and experiments that set out and test a hypothesis. I have always been interested in systems that allow me to create work that is somehow beyond my control, that let’s me feel like the initiator of a set of circumstances rather than the sole author. I am very interested in the way we can use video as a tool, part of a ‘scientific’ apparatus, to observe something that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye.

Is there a particular area of science that is most pertinent in your work?

There’s a fascination with physical materials, light, time and our perception of reality that definitely is underpinned by ideas in science – the fundamental questions about the nature of reality that are thrown up in theoretical/quantum physics. This was always the area of science that inspired me most – those big ideas about the elusive nature of matter and the ambiguity of time and material really stayed with me, and I think have been quite influential in forming my approach to working with time-based material. For me the bigger more ambiguous questions in Science are more translatable into artistic ideas, because they are so close to that already anyway. I think what I try to do in my work is combine those scientific ideas with an experimental process, that somehow allows the work to speak about other things, more poetically – so the work is never really’ about’ scientific ideas, just somehow inspired by that kind of thinking.

What role does music play for your work?

A big turning moment for me during my studies was when I was introduced to the world of experimental composition and sound art – composers and artists who were using sound as  a medium to convey ideas. I would say that this was way more influential to me than any visual art form. In my own work, I see sound and image as being characteristics of the same object – when I am making the images I am always thinking about how they will sound, and it’s the moment sound is added that it really feels like they come to life.

I spend my time either putting sound to my own images, or putting images to another person’s sound. Often this is a collaborative process, which I cherish. The sound for Shall I This Time Hold You?  was created with the composer Jo Wills, with whom I’ve worked on quite a few projects over the years. What started as quite a pure approach to sound design ended up being a discussion about the ‘soul’ of an object and what the piece really means to us on a conceptual level. This distilling down of an idea, to what is really at the root, so we understand how we can sculpt our respective mediums together to create something that is somehow bigger than the sum of its parts, is an integral part of the process and something I really love.

What other projects are currently you working on?

Thanks to receiving a grant from the Arts Council, I am now in the pre-production for a shoot for a second part of the work, which will hopefully be shown at the Barbican in April. We are going up to Manchester soon, to film at Islington Mill where we filmed the explosions last year. This time we will be using the same technique to film cement. It’s a progression of a film I made for a site-specific project at the Barbican in 2012 – using cement in reference to the concrete of the Barbican – so I thought it fitting to try to take this idea on a stage, in response to the Foyer commission. We’ll be filming a lot of dust – not easy and very messy!

After that we begin our yearly MAPmaking (Music Arts and Performance) project for the Curious Festival which is the Guildhall School of Music Leadership program’s annual showcase. The MAPmaking project is a collaboration with musicians from the Guildhall and artists from Central St Martins. It’s a project I’ve been involved in for a long time now, and I’m really passionate about. It’s always great when this time of year comes round again!

 

Commissioned by the Barbican. Supported by the Arts Council England.

Creative team: Sound by Jo Wills and Sophie Clements; Bullet time photography setup by New World Designs. Thanks to Islington Mill Manchester, Paolo Catalano and Dolby

Shall I This Time Hold You? is displayed until 1 May.

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