Treading softly

PLACE OF REFUGE:  Marketa Luskacovas Children Kissing, Chiswick Womens Aid, London 1977. Picture: MARKETA LUSKACOVA
PLACE OF REFUGE: Marketa Luskacovas Children Kissing, Chiswick Womens Aid, London 1977. Picture: MARKETA LUSKACOVA
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Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s new exhibition Tread Softly explores family, memory and identity. Yvette Huddleston reports.

We have all experienced that moment when suddenly an image, a piece of music, a sound, taste or aroma rushes us back to a time and place in our past. There are many such moments in Tread Softly, the new exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Bothy Gallery.

Exploring childhood, memory, developing identity and family relationships, the show features over thirty works of sculpture, film, photography and sound, selected from the Arts Council Collection, in which the artists revisit and reassess defining moments and people in their lives.

It eloquently addresses issues such as the difficulties of stepping across the boundary between childhood and adulthood and looks squarely and honestly at the notion of family in all its different guises and the intimate setting of the Bothy Gallery, which feels domestic in scale, is the perfect space within which to explore these themes. While there are some uplifting and joyful pieces in the show, there is no lazy cosiness here – the tensions and compromises as well as the more positive aspects of family life are all dealt with head on. It is an incredibly rich, rewarding experience, made all the more so by the specially commissioned poems by acclaimed poet and Scottish Makar, Jackie Kay.

“I wanted the show to reflect a whole range of things and not just suggest that childhood is an easy, idyllic thing,” says curator Sarah Coulson. “Jackie’s work often reflects on her experience as a black child adopted into a white family and is very much about her childhood, revisiting it and showing how those formative experiences come back and affect us as adults over and over again – you don’t just leave them behind – so I thought she would be the perfect person to respond to the works in the exhibition.”

Kay was particularly moved by a set of black and white documentary photographs from the 1970 and 80s which opens the exhibition. Four out of the ten poems she wrote were inspired by powerful images such as photographer Marketa Luskacova’s series The First House for Battered Women and Children which features snapshots of the lives of children living in Chiswick Women’s Aid in London, the first ever women’s refuge for victims of domestic abuse and their families.

“Jackie was really impressed by the photograph Children Kissing and the fact that despite their situation the children were still laughing,” says Coulson. “In her poem there is a sense of salvation as well as an awareness of the violence in the children’s past.”

Another of Kay’s poems was inspired by Educational Outing, a photograph of a group of smiling city schoolchildren on a day out in the countryside, taken from Varley Burke’s series Handsworth from Inside, 1968-82. Burke’s project was a counter to the predominantly negative images of black communities in the media at the time.

One of the themes running through the exhibition is the absence of something or someone and the dialogue, actual or suggested, between parent and child. In Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, the artist explores her relationship with her mother. Hatoum, who was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family, was studying in England when the war in Lebanon broke out and she was unable to go home. “Using letters and photographs, it charts her time in exile and how her relationship with her mother almost became closer because of the distance between them.”

Coulson had a lot of material to look through while preparing the show – there are over 8,000 a pieces in the Arts Council Collection – but once she saw her themes emerging, there were two pieces in particular she sought out. “There were certain artists I wanted to feature who we know had troubled childhoods or who are known for revisiting them.”

She has included Tracy Emin’s first video work, from 1995, Why I Never Became a Dancer which describes an upsetting event from her often difficult teenage years in Margate, desperately seeking a means of escape. “She heard about a national disco dancing competition and that became in her mind a huge opportunity for her to get away,” says Coulson.

The film explores the fragility of youthful dreams when a group of boys turn up at the competition and taunt Emin. “She talks about this being a pivotal moment in her life,” says Coulson. “At the end of the film she is shown dancing joyfully in her studio, on the cusp of becoming one of the most inflential artists of her generation.” As Emin has the last laugh, the film contains the powerful message that tough experiences can sometimes make us stronger. This is also demonstrated in Grayson Perry’s Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall Pot, a reflection on his well-documented abusive childhood at the hands of his stepfather. “Art was his way out,” says Coulson.

Saeed Qureshi’s Measures is one of the show’s two new commissions. It is an incredibly delicate, intricate sculpture, reminiscent of Indonesian shadow play – set in three drawers, each one symbolising a decade in the artist’s life. Qureshi was born in Pakistan, moved to Bradford at the age of ten and later went to Oxford to study. The piece is a kind of mindscape navigating the space between reality and imagination and exploring the tricks that memory can play on us.

Tread Softly is an immensely thoughtful, thought-provoking show, with all its different elements brought beautifully together by Kay’s warm and inclusive poetic voice.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park to September 3. www.ysp.org.uk

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A New sound piece For a new space

Next to the Bothy Gallery is a small courtyard which contains Jordan McKenzie’s Shame Chorus. It is the first time the space has been used and it is the perfect setting for this work which gives voice to the stories of gay men, around the formative experiences of shame and coming out. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach interviewed members of the London Gay Men’s Chorus and their stories were set to music by musicians and composers including Billy Bragg and Jack White. Originally staged as a live performance at the Freud Museum, it was commissioned by the YSP as a sound piece.