A conversation with British sculptor Holly Hendry

Holly Hendry, You Are What You Eat, (detail) 2020

Hendry’s site-responsive sculptures and installations are concerned with what lives beneath the surface, from hidden underground spaces to the interior workings of the body. Casting is central to the artist’s process in which she uses an array of materials, including steel, jesmonite, silicone, ash, charcoal, lipstick, soap, foam, marble, aluminium and grit.

A solo show of new works and a large-scale outdoor commission by Hendry will be unveiled at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea in 2021. Stephen Friedman Gallery will present a selection of new works by Hendry initially intended for Frieze London in a specially designed space at 30 Old Burlington Street in October 2020.

Orbis recently worked with Hendry and co-founder Hans Thompson caught up with the artist to talk about her work, collaboration and her relationship to conservation.

HT: What is your understanding of the term “conservation”?

HH: I used to think it was about cleaning a lot of the time. Cleaning things up. But from my involvement with you I understand it to be something that keeps the artwork in a moment that gives the most information or says the most. And it can go in quite different ways – I’ve heard stories of conservators removing the artists own conservation work on their own work because the conservation wasn’t done well or properly. So, I think about it a lot in terms of authenticity. Authenticity seems to be a good word. There seems to be a real focus on the hand of the artist so it feels to me like lots of other hands coming in and keeping that artist hand visible – that’s how I think about it.

HT: Do you think about the potential life of the work when you are working on a sculpture and selecting materials?

HH: I really try not to think about longevity when I’m making. If I start making in terms of thinking about “how long will this last” it takes away a lot of what the actual work is about. Especially for me where it’s about working with ‘not knowing’ a lot of the time. Every time I make a work it feels like the unknowns are really important. Testing things and trying things that you don’t expect [the material] to do and you can’t possibly plan, like mixing plastic detritus with silicon, and thinking how will this keep on 50 or 500 years – I can’t worry about what happens decades after in that moment, so methods to make the work stable come afterwards.

HT: To what extent do you work with specialists and other workshops? What is the nature of the collaboration?

HH: I don’t often work with fabricators, but I don’t think any work ever is made from just solely one person’s vision or mindset – you talk to friends, you talk to people you work with, you phone up the Jesmonite company. It’s like a massive contribution from loads of hands and voices.

Concentrating on the image of pressing very hard, 2020

HT: Have you ever worked with conservators before?

HH: No never. Not before we worked together.

HT: I remember when we first had the meeting about your works, and I learnt that you had been cleaning the sculpture periodically over the last few years, my first impression when we were discussing the work was, “here is an artist who really cares about what happens to this work long term.” Was I right?

HH: For sure. Maybe I don’t care about its preservation until it’s done and then I really care. I care about it being seen in the wrong way. The piece we worked on recently is a sort of wobbly work in a lot of ways, but it has to be wobbly in the right way, and not the wrong way! That work has a really fine line between the two so it needs to be wonky and awkwardly fit together but it can’t be dirty. So there are certain things that become heightened or not.

HT: Do you have any plans about how you want your sculptures to be looked after long term? Is there a level of acceptable damage? Do you want people to let you know if and when they need work or do you think “it’s your object now and it’s on its own course”?

HH: I’d love for people to involve me in it. Because I feel like I’m always tied to them because they’re sometimes complex things to install, or they are products of my logic of making which isn’t always necessarily the most logical. Like sometimes you make something because you don’t have the time or money or tools to do it in the way that’s easiest to install, or transport, and that’s also what I think I was trying to say about not thinking about it, because I think there’s some sort of energy in that as well. It’s not realistic really is it to tie myself to it indefinitely? But if anything was happening to it I’d really be interested to be part of it if I could be.

HT: I felt it was really important that you were involved in the recent project, but how did you’re involvement occur – did it just happen or did you ask to be involved?

HH: It just happened totally naturally and I really appreciate that I could be involved. Maybe because also they didn’t know the assembly order otherwise? It’s like there’s always a trick in there that nobody knows how to do if I’m not there!

HT: Not anymore!

HH: Not anymore! Now they do.

HT: Yeah we’ve figured it out!
I think it’s important for conservators like us who work with artworks to know that the artist would like to be included in conservation considerations, especially if the project is tied to material questions and their re-display that you, as the artist, need to be comfortable with long term.

HT: When I went to see the show at Stephen Friedman Gallery recently I was really aware of colours within the works. I was wondering, is the colour crucial to your works or is it more a happy result of the material combinations you use?

HH: The colour is really important and the material and colour is almost inseparable because some of them are pigmented with sand or ash that makes the colour. And I’ve worked with plaster and Jesmonite because you start off with quite vibrant colours where you can be quite bold and then it fades to a pastelly, sort of chalky, finish as it dries. That comes from a visually or aesthetically cartoony idea of it being land or earth or material that goes through a process and becomes image again. It becomes like a fake of the real.

At a show I did up in Newcastle with works made of plaster and dusty material somebody said it was all the colours of a bruised body which I thought was a really nice way of describing it. And I never did that intentionally, and I’d hate to be an artist that was recognised for doing just pastelly colours, but because of the materials that I use are always those ones that fade slightly I think it becomes inherent. So, it would feel weird if colours changed, and I use these materials because of their ability to fossilise once they dry out and set.
I think also I’m interested in using moulds for my sculpture and I’ve been using silicon quite a lot for that reason – and also for its image making quality. But I like the idea that a mould sometimes can last longer than the sculpture because its got this opportunity for replication. And that’s quite interesting I think in terms of conservation. Of the lines between restoration and replication. Because if you have a mould for a Rodin does it become a Rodin sculpture if you make a bronze from that mould? What is it? And mould-making materials like silicon are a technofossil – they will outlast humankind. So maybe these plastics that make the forms, actually last longer than the natural stones, or plasters or concretes or metals that the object is eventually made from.

Headspace, 2020

HT: So when you’re creating these artworks there are moulds that exist for each of them?

HH: Sometimes, for some parts.

HT: So you’re creating moulds that may inform the work at another date in the future perhaps?

HH: Yes but then I usually sort of Frankenstein-ise the moulds and cut them up and re-join them with other work so it becomes redundant. But I don’t know, I like that idea of a mould being a negative version of that sculpture that is maybe more important in terms of conservation. Like, what makes an original? Is it the first one cast or if I have that original mould, and there was something wrong with that sculpture, could you just use that mould again?

HT: Well yes that’s a massively interesting question and it feeds into wider questions about your material choices as well I think. Of course, the mould could perhaps be reused, and a conservation treatment could recast something, but if that process hadn’t been discussed with you at any point and you couldn’t be asked anymore, for whatever reason, then it wouldn’t necessarily be a very good way of realising the sculpture again.

How do you find your sandstone elements and these biro lids that are in your sculptures? I think it’s equally as important to focus on the means of gathering these things and these objects. And in that respect, you could almost say that “the mould’ is the process of your gathering of these things. Perhaps it would be okay for a conservator in 100 years to go around someone’s studio and find a biro lid on the floor and pop it back in the sculpture instead. Do you know what I mean? I’m being a bit flippant, but using the mould as an idea is really interesting because it’s about permission, and it’s about intent and what the artist is comfortable with and feels should be happening with their art work in the future.
For example, Eva Hesse’s works in latex that she made in the 60’s have become a totally different things to what she created.

HH: Yes but I love that.

HT: Yes, we’ve all developed this relationship with them as these completely different objects to what they once were, and they’ve made replicas of them so that people can understand what they might have looked like at conception, but I don’t feel that anyone’s going to look at that and feel “that’s an Eva Hesse”, I think they’re going to look back to the original.

If you see me weep, 2020

HH: Like a work by Lynda Benglis. Her work was about pouring things out, and about edges and borders of bodily contours, and the ones she did with Polyurethane have aged and wrinkled and gone yellow and I think that’s great – it’s so nice that that’s what they are. That’s what they’re about. That’s exactly what you want from it.

HT: So you enjoy that? So, if things deteriorate in your own works at what point do you feel there should be a decision made that something needs to be conserved?

HH: I feel like that because Benglis' works are about the body, about lifespan and ageing. That’s so intrinsic to the idea of it that it kind of underlines what the works are about. And maybe that’s the cast in some of my sculptures, but the work in my recent show are not so much about that right now and so it would seem weird – they’re made of things that are similar to what machines are made of, so are built to endure.

HT: The damage we deal with as conservators, broadly speaking, is either accidental damage, the work might have fallen over or someone has knocked something off it, or deterioration over time, environmental factors like UV damage and humidity. And I’ve heard you talking in the past about your works being about decay, so is there an acceptable “decay” in your works?

HH: Yes. I mean the sculpture you worked with was made while I was thinking about repairs made visible in ruins and cities. When it’s being dealt with in terms of conservation it feels like a mirroring of these thoughts – what parts we choose to protect and how. Speaking about repair feels fitting because it’s kind of about things being put back together and gaps being visible, and the work is fragile to reflect these ideas too. So it would certainly become a problem if it was damaged. I am interested in conservation where, correct me if I’m wrong, there seems to be a fetishisation of damage.

HT: What do you mean by fetishisation of damage?

HH: Glorifying it. I was in Copenhagen visiting the Glyptotek and they have this corner which houses a collection of plaster noses. All the noses have fallen or be broken off classical figurative sculptures. And they explained that there was a point in conservation history where plaster wasn’t the accepted material for the repair anymore and they replaced them all in marble or more durable material so they’ve just got this collection of noses where nobody knows where they’re from. I think it’s so great that there’s just this collection of noses there. I love the championing of things breaking or changing.


HT: That sounds to me like a championing of archivism rather than damage perhaps?

HH: Maybe. But then there’s the other end of conservation where it’s almost the Disney-fying of a ruin – trying to preserve it in this really specific time and those two things are the end of the spectrum where it’s like on one side, “Brilliant. its broken in the most fragile part, of course it’s going to break and let’s acknowledge that,’ and the other, “It can’t ever change because this is a really important record of something in the past.” And conservation is somewhere in the middle of that trying to balance the two.

HT: That’s why we have these discussions about where to position treatments, because it’s a totally subjective approach for each artist. There have been historical examples of conservation where people may have been fetishising this ruin or sculpture to be exactly as it was, but we have to be aware we’re viewing these things through a prescribed set of rules that are fashionable at this time. And there are infinite ways of approaching this particular object’s conservation, but it’s about finding out what is important – how it could be preserved, who are you preserving it for?

I think it's widely understood that the notion of preserving any object 'frozen' in its initial state is unrealistic. The object has to exist and in existing it’s going to break down – it’s just about how quickly you allow this to happen and how honest you want that break down to be. There are a multitude of options for ongoing treatment, some more conceptual than material, and it’s interesting applying that to contemporary practice. That’s why it’s good to be able to have these sorts of discussions and get a range of ideas about what your approaches to preservation might be - establishing when something is distressing for you, and if it gets to that point of being distressing, what sort of options would you want to investigate to make that better? For example, when you said earlier that some slight accidental damage might be acceptable as long as it didn’t expose the armatures within your work, could you apply that logic to all your works?

HH: I can’t give an answer to that because it’s so specific to each.

HT: Exactly, I don’t think there is any answer. It’s so interesting you saying that one sentence because it expresses the quandary of works deteriorating, the realm of possibilities even within your own works. But I think you can break that down and make things slightly more simple - broadly speaking, what would compromise your works?

HH: A missing element. Something that makes it physically not work or reveals a part of the work that isn’t integral to its aesthetic approach.

HT: So, is the materiality and aesthetic of the exterior, the viewed surface, the most important thing?

HH: Yes. I love seeing the insides of how things work and a lot of the sculpture I make is about undoing or seeing the innards. Some recent works I have made that are on show at Stephen Friedman Gallery at the moment are based on the idea of head dioramas - material versions of emotions of a head. So one’s a rock polisher that is a kind of stand in for a brain rotating things, one is tears and one’s meant to be licking the inside of the sculpture. I think the metaphor of the diorama is almost an image or a version of the real. If you see a diorama in a museum it’s the idealised image of that thing – a bear in its natural habitat. But that bear may have died in a zoo but they’ve painted the scenery of of its natural habitat behind it to show what the perfect situation is. Maybe that can be said of the artwork as well – you make to a standard or to a way that kind of conveys your ideas, or tries to, but how do you get there? There may be a sort of hypocritically to it – like bits of foam I don’t want people to see, and ways of faking it. Something that’s fragile and plaster has actually got a wooden core to be able to make it hang on the wall. So there’s a kind if fakery.

You are what you eat, 2020

HT: So are you saying the important thing in your work is what you’re viewing? You feel one is tricked into thinking that it is a solid? And it’s important that that aesthetic trick is retained?

HH: I don’t like the word trick, but there is trickery. But I try not to be too good at that trickery, or have a sort of honesty in it, so you can usually work out how things are put together too. Maybe just an initial trickery that allows you to then think about the making process too.

HT: So with the ones that you’ve got up now, if that colour deteriorated drastically, would you be happy with inpainting for example to rejuvenate the colour?

HH: Inpainting no. That covers the surface of the materials and its colour variations and qualities.

HT: So you’re comfortable with them having this ‘life’ where they change and you’re comfortable with that so long as the from isn’t compromised?

HH: Yes, I definitely think there’s a truth to material.

HT: So you don’t want metal work to get rusty for example and you…

HH: Well I wanted it to look slightly rusty on the You Are What You Eat work. I left it slightly rusty and then Renaissance waxed it to pause it in time.

HT: Ah wow! Those sorts of things are really crucial to understand because you intend it to be rusty, but only on that particular artwork, so might easily overlook that detail, or not have your input, and end up over-cleaning perhaps? So it might it be helpful to have very simple explanations of what exactly your intention was materially and aesthetically with each sculpture, in which things like that example would be interesting and important to describe, and they travel with the sculptures after they leave you studio?

HH: Yes it could also incorporate the thinking behind it as well as the making. I guess it’s that really difficult question of deciding when something is ‘finished’, so an act like waxing it acknowledges that and finishes it in some way. But actually in conservation or exhibition terms it is only the beginning of an artworks life span, as there is work in keeping it at a certain point if that is important, or accepting that it may change long after I am gone and allowing it to change too.

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