What is the Matter?

What is the Matter? is a new Arts Council England funded exhibition being held at Kelham Island Museum until 29 September 2019, and is the first show of new art collective Material Voice. Founded by Gillian Brent and Sarah Villeneau in 2018, this group of seven women artists based at Yorkshire ArtSpace comprises Heliya Badakhshan, Gillian Brent, Mandy Gamsu, Seiko Kinoshita, Kate Langrish-Smith, Clee Claire Lee, and Sarah Villeneau. Although working in various media, coming from different nationalities, and at different stages in their careers, together, they are all interested in the experience of being women makers, of making in Sheffield, and of using different materials.

What is the Matter? is their resulting exhibition, a delightful and thought-provoking exploration of materials, which unpicks stories of Sheffield and the city’s history as a place of manufacture. Sometimes this is through revealing forgotten corners of the steel industries, sometimes it is through making light of the excesses of the cutlery industry, but always it is through challenging the viewer to see and think in new ways. Above all, the exhibition is a wonderful rummage – a creative response to Kelham Island’s fabulous collections and the stories often hidden within its objects. The responses are diverse, yet the exhibition feels cohesive.

Clee Claire Lee

Varying in scale as well as in material, the artists’ work is often placed within existing museum cases, balanced on larger objects, or as an addition to a ‘staged’ room. Finding the work by exploring the museum is engaging in itself, with some pieces that leave you stopping in your tracks, and others that lend a wry smile. Large installations include Clee Claire Lee’s stunning steel wire sculpture ‘Visibilising the Invisible’, crocheted and suspended in Tom Parkin’s workshop to represent the often silent work of Sheffield’s women bearing children, and Gillian Brent’s ‘Work Life Balance’ in which bright human-sized acrylic knife blades are positioned amidst workshop machinery.

Gillian Brent

Experimenting with scale as with materials is particularly noticeable in the work of Seiko Kinoshita whose small, playful and colourful paper sculptures are directly inspired by the shapes of the huge lathe next to which they are found – these are in contrast to her usual work in much larger textiles. Working as a peer group collective on a collaborative museum-based project has clearly been significant, enabling risk-taking with new materials, reimagining familiar objects and inspiring new ways of working. This is also true in the work of Heliya Badakshan, whose use of lubricant oil as the basis for her piece provides a new way of thinking about the Crossley engine, but importantly about the reflective properties and materiality of oil itself.

Heliya Badakshan

I love Gillian Brent’s use of knives from the Hawley Collection (from a box of ‘spares’ and not accessioned ones in case you were wondering) which sprawl through the little kitchen of the 1916 house near the Little Mesters’ street, not least because of the irony that many of those employed within the cutlery industries would not have been able to afford the objects they so painstakingly made.

Mandy Gamsu

This idea comes across brilliantly in the work of Mandy Gamsu, whose garish and toy-like take on that absolute essential of everyone’s kitchen cupboard – the asparagus dish and tongs (!) (from a James Dixon & Sons catalogue of 1880) is both amusing and disturbing – as is the work of Kate Langrish-Smith whose ‘Electric Etiquette – Plastic when Wet’ based on the pestle and mortar tools of snuff-making is a more adult and highly visceral response, calling out be touched. Sarah Villeneau’s delicate and bodily ceramic listening pipes, ‘The Girl that Makes the Part’ are precariously balanced on a vast heavy industry machine, remembering the stories of the ‘Munitionettes’, women recruited for the war effort but paid less than men, and still having to deal with domestic chores while battling with explosions of molten metal on their skin and no health and safety at work.

Sarah Villeneau

This exhibition is only on until 29 September: definitely recommend a visit for anyone who enjoys seeing museum collections and stories being played with from new creative perspectives.

(Originally written as review for Our Favourite Places).