The Body of Law, an exhibition of drawings by Isobel Williams, has been on display in Senate House University of London over the past two months. I organised the exhibition with Isobel and with Dr Judith Townend of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies as part of the year-round programme of public engagement that I curate at the School of Advanced Study.
The exhibition ran from June-August. It has been down for a couple of weeks after attracting a lot of interest around the building. Now that the dust has settled, it seems like a good moment to jot down a few thoughts on exhibition and the unofficial ‘artist residency’ that it initiated. All images are used with kind permission of the artist.
Drawing from an uncomfortable position
On her own blog, Isobel Williams describes her practice as one of ‘drawing from an uncomfortable position’. As I understand it, she specialises in observation, documenting of the actions of people at work, in the street, in personal or professional moments of stress, frailty or, more simply, of lassitude and boredom.
In this capacity she has gained permission to sketch in the Supreme Court, recording human moments that emerge amidst what Isobel has described as the ‘coded theatre’ of this space. In the pictures on display in The Body of Law you saw the results of this: the fist of a barrister clenched behind his back, out of sight of the main court, the ‘mangled stances’ (Isobel’s description) of the performers in the court as they go about their business.
Importantly, Isobel’s approach emphasises discomfort – the connection between her own status as an outsider in the legal setting, and the physical strain of the courtroom ‘performance’.
In residence (undercover)
This productive discomfort carried over in an interesting way into the Senate House exhibition. Senate House is not a gallery and is an awkward space for hanging artwork. It’s capacity as a gallery space is limited by the very things that make it an interesting building: its listed status and mixed use as a public space.
The arrangement that Isobel settled on for her work emphasised these tensions subtly but effectively.
Her pictures were hung carefully and formally on the travertine walls. However this formal arrangement was offset by a rope installation (hung by Fred Hatt and Anna Bones of Anatomie Studio) that stretched across one wall: both protective and tense.
This exhibition was on display in Senate House for two months. During that time Isobel herself took on a sort of unofficial ‘artist-in-residence’ role – keeping an eye on the exhibition, but also documenting the rhythms and rituals of Senate House itself.
This unofficial residency became, for me, a crucial part of the exhibition.
A mysterious machine
Isobel has described Senate House as ‘a mysterious machine’. Over the course of her exhibition Isobel became a welcome, but unofficial and slightly trangressive presence within that machine, bringing her productively uncomfortable perspective to bear on the workings of the building.
She highlighted several points of connection and tension in Senate House. She sketched a fellow artist, Hannah Thompson, at work during her residency in Senate House, and during her extraordinary performance in the Senate House library. And she sketched and wrote about others at work around the building, too. In doing so she captured points of frisson, collaboration and occasional discomfort playing out in this space that connects researchers, artists, cleaners, security guards and many others going about their work.
Part of the success of the exhibition lay in the productive tensions that it created and highlighted. It underlined the capacity of projects to go in unexpected directions, and to develop in unexpected ways. Above all though it demonstrated to me the value of introducing an ‘uncomfortable’ outside perspective into a familiar space: uncomfortably perceptive, productively disruptive, artistically questioning.
The mysterious machine continues to function as before. But its mystery was illumined briefly by a new perspective.
It will never be quite the same again.