When I meet video artist Stephen Sutcliffe at the Hepworth Wakefield, it is the day after the EU referendum and somehow it seems entirely appropriate to be discussing an abstract film installation where nothing is quite what it seems and which features the themes of transition and fragmentation.
The award-winning contemporary artist’s first solo show in his native Yorkshire, Twixt Cup and Lip, combines speeded up archive footage of the workings of a TV studio floor and interviews with artists and writers about their creative processes with still images from the original 1969 Royal Court production of The Contractor by Wakefield-born writer David Storey.
Sutcliffe is delighted that his work, which is presented in The Calder, the Hepworth’s contemporary art space housed in a Victorian mill in the gallery gardens, will be running at the same time as Storey’s exhibition A Tender Tumult, which showcases for the first time 400 small-scale works by the playwright, novelist and artist. “I’ve been an admirer of David Storey’s work and attitude for many years,” says Sutcliffe. “I remember an enlightened teacher at my comprehensive school introducing us to This Sporting Life, something which had a profound effect on me.”
The film is around 20-25 minutes’ long and contains fascinating archive TV footage including outtakes, retakes, sound checks and rehearsals and striking photographic imagery laid over frequently unconnected sound clips and dialogue to create a compelling yet discombobulating (in a good way) whole.
“I see myself as a collage artist really and once I have an idea of what I would like to do I work around that,” says Sutcliffe. “I will collect together things that reference the central idea. I have a large archive of illustrations, books, photographs and sound clips, sometimes voices that I record from the radio, and broadcast material that I have been recording since I was about 14. I have lots of old video tapes and DVDs and things I have taken from YouTube. Then I collect them together and after that it is very much a collage approach – it’s about bumping things up against each other and layering things.
“It is not a montage as some of the material goes on top of each other and interferes with it. Sometimes one piece questions another and that’s the essence of collage – disparate things that are put next to each other to make new forms.”
It took Sutcliffe eight months in all to create the work which, as with all his films, requires a lot of research and a great deal of effort to make it seem effortless. “I never want my films to look laboured in any way,” he says. “The amount of work that goes into them is hidden from view, but there is a huge amount of looking and thinking, exploring and experimenting – and surprising myself with things, which keeps things alive.” At the heart of the piece is Storey’s play – the title Twixt Cup and Lip is taken from a line in the text – which was considered ground-breaking when it first appeared, as an entire marquee is erected for a wedding party and then dismantled on stage during the course of the running time. “The whole structure of the play is really simple but brilliant,” says Sutcliffe. “In the first third the tent is put up and then there is a mid-section where the contractors come back to see how people have treated the tent and then the last part of the play is the dismantling. It is a very interesting idea and I reference that by using some found footage of a TV production of the play. I’m really interested in theatre and I love all the trappings – the gauzes, the lights and I really love flats.”
There are flats – simple wooden boards that are typically used in theatre productions and TV studios – surrounding the installation in The Calder and their use suggests a space of production, underlining the idea of a transition between ‘on-stage’ and ‘backstage’. “I wanted to get across the idea of the work becoming something, that nothing is ever finished,” says Sutcliffe. “So you have all these bits in it of people in the making process – in between being interviewed and getting interviewed or fluffing something.” There is one lovely sequence from several decades ago in which the broadcaster Richard Baker gets a frog in his throat, asks for another take and then spends several minutes coughing, finally prompting the question from an unseen production team member ‘do you need a glass of water, Richard?’
Storey’s voice appears on the soundtrack in conversation with fellow writer David Mercer, also born in Wakefield, discussing their northern roots. Sutcliffe, who grew up in the city feels a connection with Storey, a professional rugby league player and son of a miner who never quite fitted in to the artistic milieu in which he eventually found himself. “I read an anecdote from David where he talked about when he was playing rugby for Leeds while at the same time studying at the Slade School of Art in London,” says Sutcliffe. “He said that the rugby players thought he was a fey artist while at the Slade he was considered a Northern thug and the only place he felt comfortable writing was in between, on the train. I am interested in that feeling of not really belonging anywhere and always being slightly on the outside, observing.”
And, in a way, being on the periphery as an onlooker is the perfect place for an artist to be.
Stephen Sutcliffe: Twixt Cup and Lip is at The Hepworth Wakefield until October 2. A Tender Tumult: the Art of David Storey runs until October 5. www.hepworthwakefield.org