Katrina Palmer

This feature on Katrina Palmer appeared in a data-themed issue of Metropolis M in Dutch translation:

imageKatrina Palmer, End Matter, 2015, installation view

Part of Tate Britain’s Art Now series, The Weight of Data (18 May–25 October 2015) styled itself as ‘a sculpture show largely devoid of objects’ bringing together works by four emerging UK-based artists – Eloise Hawser, Katrina Palmer, Charlotte Prodger and Yuri Pattison – whose practice straddles ‘the virtual and physical dimension’. Born in 1967, which makes her the oldest of this new crop of artists, Palmer did not go to art school until her mid-30s. Rooted in language and writing, Palmer’s deeply original approach to sculpture, her chosen medium, reflects her unusual trajectory and way into art making.

Palmer studied literature and philosophy, before working in publishing at Penguin for about a decade. Throughout that time, she took evening classes in sculpture and made small figures and objects out of plasticine. One of her tutors encouraged her to apply to art college, using this body of clay work as a portfolio. She got into Central Saint Martins and went on to do an MA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, followed by a practice-based PhD under the joint supervision of Keith Wilson and filmmaker Elizabeth Price, who selected Palmer for ArtReview’s ‘FutureGreats’ in 2013, shortly after winning the 2012 Turner Prize. This proved prescient: Palmer’s career took off that very year with group and solo exhibitions at, among other, Chisenhale Gallery and MOT International, culminating in her project being one of two chosen from among 1,500 proposals for the prestigious Artangel and BBC Radio 4’s Open commission.

The product of the resulting residency on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, Palmer’s most significant project to date, which came to fruition in 2015, took the threefold form of ‘The Loss Adjusters’, an installation and an audio walk staged on the Isle of Portland, open to the public from 28 April to 30 August; ‘The Quarryman’s Daughters’, a BBC Radio 4 broadcast aired late at night on 5 May; and End Matter, a book of related writing and black-and-white photographs taken during the residency on Portland, which was published by Book Works like Palmer’s two previous works of fiction, The Dark Object (2010) and The Fabricator’s Tale (2014).

Whereas her first two published books are collections of short stories and texts, some of which had been recorded and read live by Palmer, usually in a gallery setting, the artist considers the Artangel/BBC Radio 4 production to be ‘a whole work with one installation, one walk, one book’. Written and spoken word is only a part of it, albeit an important one. The compelling nature of the work owes much to its setting on the Isle of Portland, an eerie landscape carved out and burrowed into by generations of quarrymen; a place of confinement whose prison, a young offenders’ institution, provided labour for the quarries; a land’s end connected to the fossil-rich Jurassic Coast of Dorset by an impassable shingle isthmus, Chesil Beach. Portland’s odd, hollowed out landscape is eminently well-suited to express the artist’s sculptural concerns with voids and holes, negative space, materiality, balance, texture.

The best way to experience the piece was in situ. Those who made it out to Easton on the Isle of Portland were handed out a map of the walk and an MP3 player, along with instructions on where to start playing the three separate tracks, each between ten- and thirteen-minutes long, featuring narrative fragments of the text written by Palmer in the course of her residency in Portland read out by professional actors and the soft-spoken artist herself and accompanied by a composite soundtrack of field recordings, occasional strains of melodramatic music and archival sounds of quarrymen singing as they work. Much of this was lost to the wind and the sheer excitement of the walk, which took visitors from a musty, dimly lit and minimally furnished office space on Easton High Street out into open fields strewn with boulders and down narrow paths going past decommissioned quarries and through a grave yard, all skillfully woven into the narrative.

For Palmer, writing is a form of making. Although she continued to make things in the traditional sense all through her BA and MA, it was at the Royal College of Art that she gradually developed a method of working that made sculpture a language-based enquiry. For her MA thesis, she wrote a story embedded in the dissertation: a violent cartoon featuring Slavoj Žižek, who returns as a character in The Dark Object. Much of it was written in Palmer’s studio at the RCA, which she used chiefly for writing, having furnished it with found objects lying about the college to insulate herself from the surrounding noise and activity. Like Palmer, Addison Cole (whose gender is never specified) – the protagonist of the story and the only student in The School of Sculpture Without Objects – is locked in his or her studio ‘constructing a space to write in, or writing a space to make in’ and pondering ‘the relationship between sculpture and fiction in the work of artists like Kabakov, Elmgreen and Dragset who have built architectonic structures and realized fantastical worlds, deploying objects to elaborate scenarios, narratives and characterizations.’[1]

Palmer’s wider practice, in which stories are presented within complex installations, has affinities not only with that of Ilya Kabakov and the Scandinavian artist duo but also with Mike Nelson’s spatialisation of storytelling. ‘There’s a darkness to his work that I enjoy as well,’ says Palmer. Lawrence Weiner’s use of language as a sculptural medium is a precedent to her own, although it takes the form of gnomic statements, unlike Palmer’s more extended fictional narratives. When it comes to fiction, Paul McCarthy’s Remainder (2006), one of Palmer’s favourite novels, offers the closest parallel to her work. The narrator, who suffers from partial memory loss following a mysterious accident, engages in meticulous reenactments of half-remembered scenes and interiors from his past. To Palmer, these are so many ‘sculptural installations in the form of a novel’.

End Matter alludes in passing to another Book Works publication, The Stumbling Block, Its Index (1990) written by Brian Catling, a fellow colleague at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, where Palmer herself teaches. A prose poem attempting to describe an elusive object in a series of definitions, the book exists only as ‘its index’, not unlike End Matter, which is entirely made up of what in editorial jargon tends to be referred to as ‘end matter’: postscripts, afterwords, appendices, addenda, and the like. These marginalia are the bookish equivalent of negative space in sculpture.

Archival matter and bureaucrats people Palmer’s stories, starting with the ‘ideal syllabus’ of books that have shaped her, which she drafted for frieze magazine. The discussion of Nikolay Gogol’s short story ‘The Overcoat’ with its shady protagonist Akakiev Akakievitch Bashmachkin – an insignificant scribe who leads a monk-like existence, copying manuscripts – threads its way through the essay.[2] The Dark Object, reflecting Palmer’s experience of and troubled relationship with academia, comprises chapters given to a ‘Mission Statement’, an ‘Abstract’, an ‘Internal Memorandum’, ‘The Diagram’, three different versions of a ‘Rooms and Furnishings Inspection Report’.

If the Fabricator in The Fabricator’s Tale, also known as the Heart Beast, obsessively gathers information about his prey in order to control her, the character of Reality Flickers, as portrayed in the story that bears her name, is prone to collecting rubbish from skips and compiling ‘multitudinous pages of private notes about these things’.[3] Reality Flickers: Writing of Imagined Objects is, incidentally, the title of Palmer’s doctoral thesis, in which she explores the idea that sculpture moves in and out of everyday reality: an ordinary chair thus becomes an artwork the moment it is pulled into a gallery.

Written during a residency at John Leyton’s Flat Time House in South London, in 2014, ‘Dr Sinclair’s Drawer’, a key short story in The Fabricator’s Tale, inventories in turn the imagined and the actual contents of a desk drawer, objects that belonged to Leyton and form part of his archive. While Palmer is interested in how one produces and sustains objects in the mind, which she considers to be a sculptural activity in its own right, her installations stimulate encounters with real things. For the book launch, which took place in October 2014 at Flat Time House, she built a wall across the exhibition space that hid it from view, apart from a tiny slit through which visitors could see a table and chairs while listening to extracts from the story read out by the author in a recording. This contrived set up was designed to make them feel as intruders in a private space.

Meticulous research informs Palmer’s way of working as an artist: ‘I cast my net really wide and spend a long time looking everywhere until I’m overwhelmed with information, until I find something that’s a catalyst and a springboard to tell a story’. In the case of the Artangel/BBC Radio 4 commission, Palmer hit upon the central conceit of the story when, looking around for somewhere to write on Portland, she found an empty office space looking onto the main street in the village of Easton and was told that it used to house insurance brokers. She moved into the flat above it and started researching the subject. As soon as she thought of loss adjustment, a branch of insurance that investigates complicated damage claims to work out how much clients are owed based on the loss incurred, everything fell into place.

Staged on the drab premises of the former insurance office, above which Palmer lived and where she completed much of her writing for the project, Part I of the audio tour titled ‘The Loss Adjusters’ gives an insight into the collective mores and motivations of this ghostly fraternity, further elaborated on in the introductory section (‘Outro’) of End Matter: ‘The manner in which they interpret loss adjustment is, at the outset, bureaucratic. Crucially, however, the more experienced Adjusters are expected to elaborate on their findings, to expand their frame of reference into a para-academic arena. From there they venture towards quasi-metaphysical speculation.’[4] A team of no less than five dedicated Loss Adjusters, male and female, gathers evidence and attempts to address, conceptually as well as physically, losses suffered through the relentless quarrying of Portland stone, favoured by architects around the country but above all in the capital, whose finest buildings were fashioned out of the grey-white limestone extracted from its quarries.

[1] Katrina Palmer, The Dark Object, London: Book Works (2010), p. 11

[2] Issue 164 (June–August 2014)

[3] Katrina Palmer, The Fabricator’s Tale, London: Book Works (2014), p. 175

[4] Katrina Palmer, End Matter, London: Artangel/Book Works (2015), p. 6

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