Still Life: Things Devouring Time Exhibition at The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery

Four artists have recently finished installing their works at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in the University’s Parkinson building. A free exhibition, it is a transformed space that emphasises the sheer implication of society’s current modes of unsustainability and buoys its message to the fore through intricate, striking imagery and photography. The entire exhibition is incredibly evocative, almost haunting in its prophetic realisation of human waste and degeneration. An undercurrent of tension stems throughout each artist, linking each work together into a seemingly endless narrative of human waste and carelessness. With the University’s recent pledge to cut down its plastic waste by 2023, the Still Life exhibition could not have arrived at a more opportune time for a statement about ecology and environment.  It was a privilege to witness and a pleasure to interview Dr Dawn Woolley, one of the artists on display and a research fellow at the Leeds Arts University.

Dr Woolley’s work is an examination of society’s connections with sustainability, gluttony and the rise of consumer culture. Woolley gathered packaging and recreated museum relics from the waste that most dispose of. “We almost have a compulsiveness to collect things and packaging is only a small part of consumer culture. A lot of this was based on the anthropology material in the Cambridge museum, and it reflects a lot of the issues that we struggle with today. The exhibition, when it’s finished, will be a statement about plastic, waste and sustainability I love the anthropological side of museums, but what remains and what is preserved and why? This relates to our use of plastic. Our society has an inbuilt obsolescence. Our plastic waste is permanent and can be reflected in this sense of preservation found in museums. I wanted them to look rarefied, when in actuality each piece would only last long enough for me to photograph.”

As Dr Woolley explained, some of the work has two faces or sides, like the Greek deity Janus, god of doorways and paths. Simultaneously beautiful and ugly, Woolley’s work requires more than a quick glance to understand the depth of her message. On her other photographic pieces, displayed on sand-filled balloons, Dr Woolley explained that their significance revolves around the concept of memorialisation, yet another facet of society currently.

“The party is over, but the problem still remains,” Woolley quipped. “We tend to imagine something superfluous and complicated, and so by a process of elimination I simplified the objects within.” Woolley’s work harks back somewhat to the work of Dutch artist from the seventeenth-century concept of a still-life painting. “Still life was originally called ‘dead nature’ and it evokes a significance of decay and waste. I included objects like the food and the tombstones, even the chicken foot, because it has this sense of lasting decay and of rot and mould. The pleasure doesn’t last long, but the punishment does.”

Dr Woolley also explained a little about the other artists and their work. It is not difficult to discern the ultimately penetrating and humbling message about human waste and the atrophy of nature. Nicole Keery’s work is almost dreamlike, verging slightly into the realm of the fantastical through her work’s resemblance to the grotesque. The creature is, in fact, polystyrene cups, nylon ropes and water bottles; the emulation of a carcass-like husk suggests the damage being wrought on our oceans and ecology systems. Suspended in water, it is evident that our plastic waste has far more damage than many tend to expect. Poignant to the point of shame, Keery’s work is a disturbing insight into the damage we have wrought and our blindness to it.

Caroline McCarthy’s work, ‘Vanitas’, is an extremely clever working of materials and juxtapositions. The canvas displayed was created from the holes punched plastic bin bag from the corresponding object below. McCarthy’s work reconstructs the famous, eponymous painting of a skill and snuffed candle, symbolising the transience of human life. The paradox, however, is that made of plastic, the material itself will continue, even though its depiction is one of fleeting time. Similarly, the bag is now rendered useless through the holes, and both literally and symbolically represents a fascination with commodification and waste that Woolley’s own work depicts. McCarthy’s other work, ‘Humbrol’ can be encapsulated by Woolley’s witticism: “Ominous, made anonymous.” Mundane items painted with blacks and greys transform the domestic into the pollutant, and the useful containers into an unsustainable luxury.

Woolley described Simon Ward’s work as a simple, raw and humanistic appeal to society. Ward’s use of posters detailing the struggles of homelessness and turn the temporary into the contemporary. “Art is good to speak to people!” Woolley insisted, and with Ward’s work to be displayed in the city early next year, it can only be agreed that art as a medium that can both evoke and provoke, both mimic commercial advertising, but also put it to shame as an excess of consumption.

Still Life: Things Devouring Time is a visceral, transformative paradox of an exhibition, and can only be described as a credit to all of those who contributed, both artists and staff. While we cannot be proud of the pollution and damage of society’s waste, the University can, however, consider this exhibition to be an achievement of the highest standard. ‘Things devouring time’ foregrounds destruction and our gluttonous appetite for luxury as permanent, but simultaneously highlights our own morality and begs the question: what legacy will we leave after we have left this brief mortal coil?


Stephanie Bennett

Image courtesy of University of Leeds Gallery