A new installation at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park celebrates an extrordinary group of women. Yvette Huddleston reports.
The beautiful, expansive parkland of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has played host to a wide range of innovative artworks over its 40 year history, but a newly commissioned installation unveiled last month is possibly one of the most unusual yet.
The Coffin Jump by Katrina Palmer, which is at the YSP until next June, combines performance, sculpture, soundtrack – and horse riding. Yes, that’s right, horse riding. A co-commission with 14-18 NOW, the arts programme for the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, Palmer’s eye-catching intervention celebrates the work of an extraordinary group of women.
The all-female First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was a mounted division of women who, during the Great War, rode on horseback to the rescue of fallen men on the battlefield. First formed in 1907, the unit still exists today as the Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps and was most recently deployed following the Grenfell Tower fire and the terrorist attacks in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge.
Palmer was invited to submit a proposal for a piece of work about the role of women in the First World War which made specific reference to the FANY. “I hadn’t heard of them before so that meant I had to do a lot of research and I found it really interesting reading about them,” she says.
“I also looked at images, visited archives and listened to lots of audio recordings of women giving personal accounts of their experiences. I took lots of notes, gathered material and started thinking about how the piece might work.” Her initial thoughts were around using words written on a fence inside a trench and horse imagery of some kind. Then she thought of raising the fence which quickly led her to the concept of a horse jump.
It was a fairly short step from there for Palmer to begin thinking about the possibility of using a real horse and rider. She tentatively put forward the idea to the team at YSP.
“I was quite surprised they agreed to it,” she says, laughing. “I thought I would just tell them what I had imagined – and they went for it. They have been brilliantly supportive and their knowledge of the landscape has been so useful. I drew on their knowledge of local people too.” The team knew of a group of women nearby who are involved in cross country eventing and approached them. “The fact that they were interested in the work made all the difference,” says Palmer. They provide a horse and rider for each Coffin Jump intervention.
Practical considerations of how that would work had to be carefully thought through. “The logistics were around the timing of the jumps and around health and safety,” says Palmer. “It is risky but I didn’t want to endanger the women or the horses – or the sheep.” As anyone who has visited the Sculpture Park will know, sheep are as much a part of the landscape as the sculpture and Palmer has made a special ramp within her piece to allow any sheep who might wander in to easily get back out again.
Writing is a core part of Palmer’s work – she uses words as a form of sculpture, and previous installations have included published stories, live readings, audio recordings and constructed environments. Hand-painted on the horse jump are nicely deadpan phrases such as ‘woman saves man’ and ‘nothing special happened’ which serve to highlight the women’s everyday heroism. “The phrase ‘nothing special happened’ was taken from the diary of a woman who was in the FANY during the First World War,” says Palmer. “That phrase was used quite a bit in wartime accounts – I think it was a way of trying to find normality, but also there were long periods where nothing happened, punctuated by violent events.” Other words and sentences were extracted from Palmer’s own notes and responses as she was carrying out her preliminary research.
Physicality, memorialisation and storytelling also feature prominently in much of Palmer’s work. All these elements are present in The Coffin Jump – and the narrative of horse and rider also deliberately references the death of suffragette Emily Davison who famously stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. “I wanted that echo,” says Palmer. “It was all part of the radical shift at that time in the way that women were perceived.” The intervention, which takes place at regular intervals but at no fixed time, is announced by a striking piece of soundtrack.
Across the parkland floats the singing of Clara Butt, a famous contralto at the time of the Great War, performing a song entitled The Enchantress. “She has a very deep voice which is quite weird-sounding to us now,” says Palmer. “One of the books I read for my research mentioned the 1911 Festival of Empire where the FANY had done some demonstrations and Clara Butt had also appeared at the festival; I liked that link.”
The Coffin Jump, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until June 2019.
THE YSP’S LEAP OF FAITH PROJECT
Led by YSP’s Art & Wellbeing Coordinator Rachel Massey, the Leap of Faith project is inspired by Palmer’s artwork and is working with participants from two women’s centres in West and South Yorkshire who have experience of domestic violence, trafficking and/or mental ill health, encouraging them to explore their own creativity through artistic self-expression and with the aid of equine assisted therapy. “We are working with artist Kate Genever to create something together,” says Massey. “It’s been interesting to see the friendships that have formed. I feel lucky that YSP and 14-18 NOW have trusted me to do this and I’m really proud of it.”