I. Breaking open the mould
I was covered in clay and plaster dust so I kept my video off whilst listening to an online meeting to support people in Ukraine. I was struggling to open a two-part plaster mould that sealed up the clay model inside it. I had a deadline to meet: an exhibition called Altered States
The clay model was loosely based on a figure from one of the Resurrection paintings by Stanley Spencer (1851-1959) who lived near Newbury in Cookham Dean, his 'heavenly village'. Sandham Memorial Chapel, or, as Spencer himself called it, his 'Holy Box', on the outskirts of Newbury in Burghclere, was made to accommodate his paintings of soldiers and their animals from the First World War, rising up, wounds healed, limbs restored, reaching out to help their comrades out of the earth into new being.
I wanted to make a sculpture rising up out of the earth in Newbury which expressed, to use Spencer's words, 'the most sacred quality in the most unexpected places', holiness in 'little intimate ordinary personal happenings'.
I was now in the midst of casting the figure, a process which usually involves the destruction of the original clay model. Water is poured over the seams of the plaster-mould so that the clay inside expands, pushing the pieces of the mould apart. To expedite this, you need to push and pull and prod and poke – using a mixture of gentleness and force to ease it open. This particular mould was made of large heavy pieces and I had to brace my body right up against it to carry the weight as if I was wrestling with a damp and truculent teenager.
I was appreciative of the chance to listen, meanwhile, as people in Ukraine spoke about their experiences and explored imaginative ways to restore and to regenerate the country, a regular ongoing weekly meeting.
Last year, artist Bella Logachova messaged me in the early hours of 24 February that the invasion had begun. The following day she messaged that tanks were near her house in Kharkiv. We had collaborated together in 2017 on Listen If...
, a short film in which Bella spoke of her feelings about the conflict in the Donbas. The film was for an exhibition at the wonderful Yermilov Centre on Freedom Square, which still, despite the war, continues to show exhibitions.
Back in 2017, I had travelled from Glasgow to Kyiv to Kharkiv with a handful of Scottish earth in my rucksack, a symbol of my cultural roots. I mixed this with the chernozem, the fertile black earth of Ukraine, a sign of my Eastern European origins, in a large sculptural painting.
The painting also included bits and pieces I gathered on long walks through the city: dried leaves gathered from the ground of the Kharkiv Synagogue; waste from the streets of Kharkiv; dust from the pathway of Kharkiv Cemetery No 2; holy oil from the Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of Mary; a shiny muddy Starbucks Siren from a disposable coffee cup; plastic shards of gold confetti from Ukrainian Independence Day; soil and a rose from the garden of the Roman Catholic Cathedral; dirt from the edge of Turboatom, the Defence Industry on Muskovsky Avenue; and fine gravel from beneath the pavement of Freedom Square. It was titled Swimming in the black sea: In memory of Hannah telling me her grandmother's story of the Holodomor
(257 x 204cm).
Artist Hannah Shumska was my room-mate in Kharkiv who during our late-night discussions after getting back from the gallery told me stories of how her grandmother had managed to survive the great enforced famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. And Hannah told me her own stories of The Euro Maidan, Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and how being a part of it had changed her life, igniting her political fire.
I often imagine what it would have been like for my great great grandmother who chose in 1938, though Jewish, to stay in Vienna. Initially Flora was able to keep her connections alive by typing letters to family members and friends who had escaped to Britain, America, New Zealand. How invaluable it must have been for her to know her words were reaching out and touching those she loved. But when war was declared in 1939, her lifeline of letters stopped.
And so now that the war had begun – begun again – in Ukraine, I was glad to be a part of a circle of people that provided a space to listen.
II. Cleaning and preparation
Eventually the mould opened and I carried each of the plaster pieces down the hall and put them in the bath, red clay smearing the sides. One part of the mould was relatively easy to clean and prepare. But the other part was tricky as I had modelled the figure to include mosaic, wood, mirror and a brick. I had to grind away bits of the plaster to wiggle the brick out of place.
The brick and other media were because I wanted the sculpted figure to appear not only human but constructed and to seem as if it was breaking the construction apart. Spencer's Resurrection paintings show figures in contemporary clothes who are bursting up through the earth, through the stones and the hefty tombs, the bricks and ordinary mortar of graves in a joyous love-filled orgy of reconnection. Aunties meet their nieces and nephews, housewives natter, sons and mothers fall into one another's arms.
It is an egalitarian theme Spencer returned to often. The idea for the Port Glasgow Resurrection came to him while he was war artist in a Port Glasgow shipyard during the Second World War, a paean of workers, burners, riveters, welders, riggers and plumbers.
Once I'd got the brick out, I painted neat cement into each piece of the mould, followed by laying them up with mortar, a mixture of cement and sand. When that was complete, I covered the moulds in damp cloths and plastic sheet, allowing them time to set and cure. Moisture is essential for the correct curing of cement; the wetter, the better. And so is time; the longer, the stronger.
Scottish psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, quoting Bergson, talks about a perception of time in which 'what is taut becomes relaxed, what is dormant awakens, what is dead comes to life again'. He identifies two aspects of Bergsonian time: temps and durée. Temps is time sliced, a sequence of instants; time objectified. Durée, on the other hand, is psychological time, the time of our inner life, something that is flowing and undivided.
Not to do injustice to McGilchrist's complexity, he associates durée, the experience of time as flow, with the right hemisphere of the brain; temps, with the left.
'Duration' stems from the Latin durare
, 'to harden'; from durus
, 'hard'; from a Proto-Indo-European root: dreu
, suggesting the idea of steadfastness, solidity, firmness. Connected etymologically to trees, dendrites (natural markings on stones; branched receptors on nerve cells) and Druids; truth, tryst and trust.
The virtual weekly space to listen to peoples' experiences in Ukraine continues, and as ever, it surprises me. The subjects of recent meetings range across time, trauma and not wasting strawberries.
One woman cannot watch her host in the UK cut berries in half, chucking away the mouldy bits, without it bringing up generational memories of the Holodomor. Of the trauma of war she talks of 'the edge where I will not be able to renew again'. She talks about the people who are making the decision to stay or to leave. About the difficulties of measuring or quantifying the transition. About the different experience for people in different parts of the world. 'History is on a spiral.' How can there be forgiveness? 'No lessons learned from the Second World War.'
A listener in the UK says: 'Speak all the pain out'.
A young Ukrainian man talks about the therapeutic work to be done on consciousness in order to cope. He describes how, on a material level, his life has changed and he has to start from scratch. How he has to cope with a sudden decrease in his funds and rising inflation. But he says many more people have it harder than him.
A man in Lviv talks about 'slow time and fast time' and of finding congruence. He talks about ways of remembering those who are killed, of memorial. It's 'a generational matter'. He says it's not just about memory, it's about understanding. 'We don't need information and data. We need understanding.' He points out that Ukrainians are looking to the future, to nurture. Like in the upcoming conference in Lviv on the future of education.
A refugee, speaking from Austria, says we need to have new solutions to problems that are not based on old solutions concocted after the Second World War. We need a new dimension – a new angle – we need a change in reality, not in fantasy. Now is a unique time to be together, she says.
A man, speaking from the USA calls Ukraine a 'classroom for the world'.
III. Chipping out
Later, after the cement had set, and the pieces of the mould were attached together, I chipped the plaster off using a mallet and chisel. It took five hours, with parts of the figure emerging bit by bit: her back, her left ear (which I had to reattach), her right elbow. This particular figure, visible from the waist up, is the middle one of a triptych designed to appear as if gradually rising up out of the earth. Another is visible as head and shoulders; another a full figure, striding.
Resurrection or anastasis come, respectively, from the Roman and Greek words for standing up, raising up, rising. The suggestion is of something that is under ascending to somewhere that is upper.
Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and his wife, artist Sarah Sexton Crossan, have spent many years documenting religious iconography around the Mediterranean. They ask: 'Whether you understand Christ's Resurrection as a historical event or theological interpretation; whether you accept it as myth or parable, symbol or metaphor; and whether you accept it religiously or reject it absolutely, what does it claim and what does it mean? How can someone or something that happens once at a certain time and specific place influence or change the whole human race – not just forward to the end of time, but backward to its start?'
They identify two visual traditions of the Resurrection. One, predominant in Western Christianity, is about the individual; the other, predominant in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, is universal. In the former, the individual soul arises; in the latter, Christ leads all of humankind upwards together in a heavenward jamboree. Stanley Spencer's Resurrection paintings are in the tradition of universalism.
'All great religions offer humanity parables bigger than themselves,' say the Crossans. 'Christ, rising from the dead... creates a parable of possibility.'
We travelled to Newbury with the three sculptures in the back of the car, my partner negotiating the exhausting grind of the M25 with, for the most part, admirable grace. Once we had set the sculptures up, fixing them by driving metal pegs into the dry and dusty grounds of Shaw House, parched through a climate-emergency-heatwave reaching 40°, we took the Bath Road on a westerly meridian from Newbury and came to Avebury as the sun set.
The great Neolithic standing stone circles and the avenue of sentinels were rimmed in gold and shadowed blue and violet. It reminded me of Orkney and Maeshowe where the the Earth herself becomes a giant dial for the clock of the sky. A place of burial, sacrifice, offering. A meeting ground. Around about were glowing wheat fields. A conference of crows. Tangled hedgerows. Early blackberries.
I waited for other – human – worshippers to get out of the picture before I took my photographs of the stones, resplendent. I touched a stone with my hand, knowing, whether I physically sensed it or not, the rock vibrated, still, with ancient chiselling.
Kate Robinson is an artist living in Glasgow