The Plinth Project

Marie-Anne McQuay
Curator, Spike Island, Bristol

Within the context of a museum, an empty plinth holds great potential. Since there is only ever enough room for a small percentage of each department's collection to be shown at any one time, a free pedestal provides much sought after display space for an artifact that would otherwise be held in storage.

Yet rather than automatically fill this much prized spare surface, in 2009, the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery decided instead to hand it over to the Stokes Croft based, artist-led project CONTAINER. This gesture was therefore a sacrifice of sorts, as well as a statement of trust and belief: trust in CONTAINER's ability to select exactly the right artists to respond imaginatively to such a formal setting, and belief in the positive effects of bringing in voices from the outside, something the Museum has championed of late.

CONTAINER's commitment to providing spaces for artists in the city to exhibit had seen them previously initiate other highly acclaimed projects, including the 'ONE' series, which focused on intimate encounters with single art works and offered many of the artists involved their first solo exhibition. The Plinth Project therefore brought their expertise in creating memorable encounters between art works and audiences to a new context, one more closely associated with the display of art but still with its own challenges and restrictions.

CONTAINER chose to invite six artists - Ellen Bell, Irena Czapska, Robert Manners, Ian Penna, Ben Rowe and Andrew Southall - to make a year-long series of

temporary commissions, each lasting two months. Each artist followed the same brief: the plinth was the setting and parameter for the work and no other elements in the entrance hall could be changed. Some artists, such as Ellen Bell and Ben Rowe, responded to this challenge by choosing to focus solely on the top of the plinth, bringing in unexpected contemporary forms, whilst others, most notably Robert Manners, incorporated the entire structure into the work of art itself. The artists also responded in their individual ways to the idea of the museum as a repository for knowledge, for ornate forms and historic obsessions. Andrew Southall, for instance, picked up on fantasies of flight from different eras and cultures, attaching a sculpture-as-imaginary-prototype to the corner of the plinth.

Ultimately, the collaboration took place not just between CONTAINER and the invited artists but within the very systems of the museum itself. Each new art work was dealt with on arrival, as a whole or in its constituent parts, by the Registrar, as if on loan from a collection. This involved condition checking and scrutinising the work for organic matter, so that no woodworm or weevils could be accidentally smuggled in to wreak havoc on old furniture and paintings. Thus, each of the transitory art works, which made such productive interventions in Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery's permanent displays and Edwardian Baroque architecture, became official temporary acquisitions, their status invisibly shifted from art work to museum object for the short period of display.

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Robert Manners and Paul Witt, 2009

"It was always our intention to curate 'The Plinth Project' as a series of different works by a group of different artists who would all approach the space in ways that were specifically relevant to their practice. As a result of this we hoped to present an ongoing show to the visiting public that combined each artists' individual and rigorous practices with concepts of how a plinth's function is traditionally viewed."

Robert Manners
2011

Credits

The following companies and organisations sponsored the Plinth Project:

Arts and Business
Corixa Communications
Dirty Design
Taylor Brothers

The following helped build this site

Chesapeake Studio Ltd
Tom Ketteringham

Working with Artists

Philip Walker
Public Programme manager, Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives
June 2011

The exhibition Banksy versus Bristol Museum was the catalyst for our working with CONTAINER. Banksy left the museum his Paint-pot Angel and an interesting conundrum. Do we leave it or relocate it and return the Chinese Incense Burners to the plinths? It wasn't much of a counter argument and the Banksy piece remained; sending a signal out to the artists community and beyond that Bristol Museums' service had changed fundamentally and was open to new projects and making a commitment to working with living contemporary artists. Late in 2009 we engaged with the artist-led organisation CONTAINER ,headed up by Robert Manners, himself a Bristol-based artist with an interest in contemporary practice, and his co-founder of the Stokes Croft Contemporary Arts Project Community Interest Company, Paul Witt.

CONTAINER's philosophy is to offer fellow artists a space and context in which to develop new work. Their paired down approach had produced some interesting results in the ONE series of exhibitions , held in a small unit in Stokes Croft, and in which artists were challenged to present a single piece of new work, on its own. In a separate space this was 'backed up' by other related pieces and factual documentation - all compiled to explain the artist's practice. This rigorous conceptual series captured the imagination of our director at the time, Paul Barnett.

We needed to engage with the local arts community,develop new audiences, and continue to surprise, provoke, enlighten and entertain our visitors. We realised that we'd embarked on a journey of learning about the many different museum contexts and what it has come to mean for the many people who know,use and experience the museum in different ways. We felt that this was an opportunity to learn from working with a small group of artists, would result in some interesting outcomes for the museum, the public and the artists involved. We were not disappointed.

Over the next 12 months CONTAINER commissioned 6 artists to produce works for the Plinth which were installed for 2 month periods from March 2010 - March 2011. Apart from the initial contractual discussions, much of the remaining discussions related to the practicalities of installing proposed artists works. Our only parameters were that the work should respond to the context and site of the plinth. The museum deliberately stood back from taking a very dominant role in the conceptual development of the work, leaving this mainly up to Robert Manners and Paul Witt. This was because we accepted the authority of CONTAINER and had confidence in their practice and belief that they'd challenge and push the artists to produce work that would respond to the space and produce interesting results. Working and installing temporary artworks in a listed building is not always straightforward, so the museum had to place a few practical restrictions on the artists. This led to many discussions over the

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The plinth, circa 1902

materials and method of installation in order to minimise risks to the building, the public and the other collections in the museum.

CONTAINER explored the notion of the plinth in a fairly conceptual way, and the most challenging for the museum was probably Ian Penna's installation that bled from the plinth across the front hall of the museum, literally spilling off the plinth and infiltrating the public space. The complications here were health and safety concerns rather than conceptual issues. Overall we were extremely happy with the result of this way of commissioning, which

helped us to develop a relationship with a wider group of artists through a project which was sustained over a period of 18 months. We are looking now to the future and how we can learn from this approach. What next for the plinth? Watch this space!

Ben Rowe

Mar-Apr 2010

Catalogue No.9906753
2010

During my visit to the museum the item that really caught my eye was a painting called The Israelites passing through the wilderness, proceeded by the pillar of light by William West. It shows people carrying the Ark of the Covenant across a mountainous landscape. This immediately made me think of the film ‘Indiana Jones- and the Raiders of the lost Ark’.

I see parallels between Archaeology and my work. I spend a lot of time researching these props exploring many different avenues to find the information I require-film stills, fan sites, online auction sites, licensed replicas and toys as well as word of mouth and hear say. In researching in this manner I feel as if i am hunting for the truth behind these objects. Something that I imagine happens in archaeology. The painstaking and time consuming process of looking through ancient texts and artifacts in order to cast light on myths and legends.

The title for this piece (catalogue number: 9906753) is also taken from the film. It comes from the final scene when the ark is crated up and hidden away in an archive somewhere, but who knows where?

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Ian Penna

May-Jun 2010

Comfort Zone

Having worked in many care homes and hospitals replacing all types of floor coverings I have become inspired and moved by those who care for the elderly and mentally ill. In some cases people come to occupy a very limited space from which they live their entire life; reliving their past as well as the present.

The installation ‘Comfort Zone’ is an exact replica of a specific room from a care home. The area has been stripped of all the comforts associated to it but on closer inspection the work reveals evidence of the occupiers presence, routine and wellbeing.

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Ellen Bell

Jul-Aug 2010

Story
2010

I have always responded to the physicality of old books: their musty smell, the yellowed grainy texture of the paper, the inconsistent heaviness of the type and the often dated graphics of the cover all play their part in seducing me into working with them. Books are containers of language, information and stories. For me, discarded books symbolise forgotten endeavours and lost narratives. Love them or hate them, we all have some sort of relationship with books and the tales they hold.

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Photo Peter Stone

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Andrew Southall

Sep-Oct 2010

The possibility of winged flight
2010

The possibility of winged flight 2010 is a daydream. It combines ideas of flight from the early days of aviation with the wing forms of Pteranodons (prehistoric reptiles). Its materials are taken from the present as well as those available at the beginning of human flight.

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Robert Manners

Nov-Dec 2010

Under Construction Forever
2010

The paintings I make are assembled from any number of differently constructed panels each of which have been built and perhaps painted.
This approach has emerged from my interest in the material, the surface and the three dimensional qualities of ships, navigational buoys and other paraphernalia from boat yards and dock yards.

Whilst conceived as paintings they seem to exist in the peripheries between painting and sculpture.

I saw the making of a new work for the plinth as an opportunity to explore these ideas and to investigate the three dimensional characteristics of these paintings.

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Irena Czapska

Jan-Feb 2011

Even if, Even When, I Would
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Over the last few years my work has been progressively and unconsciously escaping the boundaries of how a printed image is traditionally displayed. In making a work for the Plinth Project I have reinterpreted a series of prints to form an installation. The work on display touches on the classical tradition of sculpture and how women are presented as muses or as representations of culturally idealised beauty.

The installation comprises a female form surrounded by a stainless steel mesh on which an image has been printed. The enclosed papier-mache figure is made from recycled stencils that were used in the interim stages of an earlier series of prints – a series that inspired this installation.

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