Emotional Archaeology at Arnolfini

Daphne Wright, Stallion, 2009. Marble dust, resin

Coming face-to-face with a large, white, dead stallion it is almost comical to see his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. It is only when you take in the rest of the object- the straining muscles, the contorted body, the writhing legs- that a feeling of remorse and horror settles on you. Why is this animal lying here? What has been done to him? What have we done to him? The exhibition of Daphne Wright’s work, is of course, not supposed to be comical but rather makes you think about your place in society and your interactions with others.

This was my first visit to the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. Located in a waterfront warehouse, Arnolfini exhibits ‘innovative, experimental work in the visual arts.’ In the 1970s, it was important in attracting visitors to the then-neglected harbourside, thereby playing a key role in Bristol cultural history. Entering from the quayside, I had first encountered the Stephen Joyce statue of John Cabot (1985). Cabot’s voyage to North America left from Bristol in 1497. This theme of Bristol heritage continued in the gallery. Arnolfini aims to present artists and issues relevant to the Bristol public. Although originally from Ireland, Wright has been based in Bristol for nearly twenty years.

Arnolfini, Bristol 

The stallion’s tale seems to be a tortured one. He is a magnificent, strong beast, brought to the ground, but not without a fight. His body doesn’t lie flat on the floor, but appears to have just fallen. His head doesn’t rest back, his neck is still straining to keep him upright. This is a moment frozen in time.

Much of Wright’s works seem to revolve around this idea of freezing time. I found one of the most shocking parts of the exhibition to be the clay sculptures of Wright’s own children. She described the horse’s body as a ‘death mask,’ so what does that make these sculpted portraits of her children? One child sits at the family table and one sits cross-legged on top of it. This is a moment of their young lives captured. Wright said of this “you’re travelling in both directions and in each direction something is lost. By the time you cast an ear, the rest of the body has grown.” It struck me as a strange, poignant way to view one’s children: their youth constantly diminishing. The draining of life is conveyed with small hints of colour such as light touches of pink on the mouths of the boys.

Daphne Wright, Kitchen Table, 2014. Unfired clay

Some areas of the exhibition were less emotive. Domestic Shrubbery (1994) consists of a room lined with intricate plaster flowers. Here and there are tiny shrunken hearts. Although it was powerful, I was not immediately struck as I had been by her Stallion (2009) or Kitchen Table (2014). However, it did continue with the theme of the delicacy of life and nature. The hearts seem so small and shrivelled, just as fragile as the plaster petals, just as easily broken.

Daphne Wright, Domestic Shrubbery, 1994. Plaster. 

There were many more complex works here too, including videos of her sons telling jokes to no one, and an elderly woman discussing the experience of breastfeeding. The CEO of Arnolfini, Kate Brindley, described the issues here as relating to ‘class, aspiration, faith, parenthood, aging and care.’

Although I didn’t feel some of these issues were conveyed as well as others, I definitely experienced the theme of age, life, and care. Mainly because of the utilising of the most powerful tool here: colour, or rather the lack of it. Almost monochromatic, a feeling of drained life was a constant.

How do we look after others? How do we relate to animals, to children, to the elderly? How fleeting is youth?

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