Jenny Wolmark


Joanna Mowbray:
Body, space and form

Joanna Mowbray's sculptures are explorations of the complex interrelations between form and material, body and space. Her work inhabits what can best be described as a series of extended metaphoric environments, constructed through various combinations of sculptural form, dance and sound. Within these environments, the limits of form and material are challenged in order to explore their intellectual and sensual possibilities.

Joanna's work explores the dynamics of metaphor at a formal level by undermining the familiar distinction between the organic and the non-organic, and the animate and the inanimate. The use of hot rolled steel in Beyond and Within (1995), and soft lead in Pockets (2000) results in surprisingly sensual forms, and the viewer is drawn almost unawares into an engagement with this sensuality. The scale of the work also plays a significant part in the unexpectedly intimate encounter between the viewer and the work. Although the work itself exists tantalisingly on the threshold of extremes, from the almost monumental to the almost miniature, the constant against which these forms are measured is always the body.

One might say that the work is, therefore, experienced through the body, and the physical presence of the sculptures is, in some sense, defined by and dependent on this. There is a significant tension between the materials used in the sculptures and the softness and vulnerability of the human form which enables the work to resist closure - it remains open-ended and multi-layered, reiterating its connection to the particularity of the human form.

Body, space and form

In her collaborative involvement with dance, music and performance, Joanna's work has expanded and challenged existing definitions of the relation between body, space and form. In the physical encounter between dance and sculpture in work such as Surface Tension version 1 (1990) and version 2 (1992), the sculpture comes to embody rhythm and movement in a counterpoint to the dance. The potential disorder of the dance, implicit in the controlled movements of the body, is echoed in the sculptural forms. Definitions of form and space become radically 'unfixed' during this encounter, a process which demands alternative ways of thinking about the interaction between the space, the viewer and the work.

The spaces between the sculptural forms are as significant as the forms themselves, and the relationship between them is charged with meaning. Perimeters, edges, borders are all represented in terms of the spaces that exist between them, and which ultimately define them. The actual form of the objects creates the spaces, but at the same time, the spaces are made to contain the forms. The relationship can be compared to the silences in music and the stillness at the heart of dance. They create a dynamic and rhythmical tension within which unexpected meanings are generated.

The subversive element in Joanna's work stems from the way in which the negative connotations of space are reversed, as they become as meaningful as the objects which traditionally occupy the centre of the stage. This returns us to the body, and reminds us of both the way in which women's bodies in particular are defined by the often marginal social and cultural spaces they inhabit, and of the way in which those spaces are capable of radical transformation, especially through collaborative work.

With this in mind, it is clear that the encounters between sculpture and dance have the potential not only to challenge familiar forms of encounter between form and space, but also to generate a new, experiential environment, one that is fluid, full of energy, and open to change. The particular spaces in which the sculptures exist function as both performance and exhibition spaces. The boundaries between them become flexible as the dancers move within the spaces that are made available to them, both in terms of the stage itself and the placement of the sculptures. But the movements of the dancers also redefine the sculptural space itself through the relationship between their bodies and the sculptures. Similarly, the boundaries of sound and/in space are redefined: although sound is contained by the space in which it is heard, the space of the performance is itself is defined by the sounds within it.

Although the pieces are not 'about' the body, as such, they are nevertheless about the way space is experienced through the body. Spatial relations are conceived of by means of the placing of the body. Therefore, in the engagement of dance and sculpture, two forms of expression and exploration come together in reciprocating ways. The work also explores other junctures - inside/outside; within/without; self/other; being/becoming. There is, above all, a stillness at the heart of the work that encourages contemplation, but which also reveals and legitimises the sensuality of expression that the materials might appear to deny. The silence of inner space is expressed through outer forms, and as such the work encourages the discovery and contemplation of paradox, not in order to resolve it, but to bear witness to it.

The work is, finally, about engagement - it does not seek to occupy a transcendent or autonomous space within which meaning is withheld from the viewer, rather it seeks to define the space of possibilities within which meaning occurs.

Jenny Wolmark
June 2000
© Jenny Wolmark

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