The Language of Self
Catalogue Essay for an Exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
There is something of the wild child about Sophie Ryder, with her mass of pre-Raphaelite hair and her passion for running, which she does every day with her dogs. And it is this feral quality that is reflected in her art. It is an art that she has largely invented, for it owes little allegiance to contemporary schools or styles and can be traced in a direct line back to her first taste of jewellery-making as a child at Saturday morning art classes, where she learned to bend and shape little pieces of copper wire. Twisted wire, wet plaster and sawdust, along with old machine parts and bits of scavenged children's toys are her basic materials. Her work is organic. Unconcerned about artistic movements, and disinterested in current theoretical debates, it is a response to the natural world and an expression of her internal one.
As the child of a French mother, Jacqueline Bazin, and an English father, Wilfred Ryder, who owned and edited the Fleet Street Letter, she had a comfortably middle class, if somewhat Bohemian, upbringing. Summers were spent in the south of France at her mother's house, Domaine de la Maurette, where Sophie ran free around the farm and the vineyard, not seeing the necessity of adopting clothes until she was nearly fifteen. Suspected childhood leukaemia disrupted her education. For long stretches in hospital she dreamt and drew obsessively. She knew she always wanted to be an artist and was not particularly interested in anything else. The death of her brother Mark in a car crash in France further disrupted the securities of her early years. Expelled from school, her education was crammed into twelve months when she took five 'O' levels and three 'A' levels at Dixon and Wolfe and Westminster Tutors to allow her to get into art school. Kingston Polytechnic and The Royal Academy Schools followed. Ryder was the youngest student after Turner ever to be admitted.
Now living in a remote corner of England near Cirencester with her photographer husband, Harry Scott, whom she met when she was seventeen, she practices, when not making art, the guitar with the same committed fervour that she applies to everything she does. This includes cooking whole food for her husband and two daughters, one of whom has just been allowed to leave school at sixteen to follow her own passion for music and singing. It is a life of making and doing. She has an aversion to television, to not being busy. Her routine is strict, her approach disciplined. These biographical details are not incidental; for the tone and tenor of Sophie Ryder's life is reflected in her art. The two flow each into the other. Her life is not something separate or apart, but the well-spring from which her art is created.
Blue Eye, 2007
She is known for her hares and her work is often compared to that of Barry Flanagan, but the impetus is completely different, as it is to that of Joseph Beuys, for whom the hare became part of his shamanic mystical vocabulary. In 1989 Ryder was distressed, whilst visiting her mother's house in France, to discover a hot and muggy shed used by the Moroccan farmer to breed rabbits. In the heat some of the rabbits had died; those that were still alive were hopping around among those that had expired. It seemed eerie and surreal and she felt compelled to record the experience in a series of drawings, ultimately resulting in her sculpture Temple to the 200 Rabbits 1999.
The hare, unlike the rabbit, has never really been domesticated but like the rabbit it has often been used as a symbol of fertility or rebirth, as well as of playful sexuality. In the Middle Ages it was thought to have transformative powers and it was believed that witches could turn themselves into hares. Long associated with the spring, the normally shy European Brown Hare changes its behaviour at that time of year when it can be seen 'boxing' in broad daylight or chasing others around meadows. Originally thought to be a competition between males to attain dominance, closer observation has revealed that this practice is usually a female hitting a male, either to show that she is not yet quite ready to mate, or as a test of his determination. It is this behaviour that gives us the term Mad March Hare. Within African folklore the hare is perceived as a trickster, in India and Japan it is the shape of a hare that is seen in the dark patches of the moon, rather than the face of a man, while the constellation Lepus is said to represent a hare. Unlike rabbits, hares do not live socially. They are loners. The young are born with fur and open eyes, while rabbits are naked and blind. Sophie Ryder, though, is not interested in creating replicas. She has said, "I sculpt characters and beings - the dogs, the hares, the Minotaurs are all characters beyond animal form".
Paint Pots, 2003
In fact the hare has provided her with the perfect metaphor to discuss a complex range of human emotions, for the observant will see that the body of her sculptures is female - her body, in fact - whilst only the head is that of a hare. But her sculptures are no mere hybrids. For the heads are masks. And, as in ancient Greek drama, the mask has a potent role.
The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites which date back to at least 1200 BCE. The Cult of Dionysus practised ritual celebrations which may have included alcoholic intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and perhaps even hysterical rampages by women called maenads. Uninhibited dancing and emotional displays created an altered mental state known as 'ecstasis1, from which the word ecstasy is derived. Dionysian, hysteria and catharsis also derive from Greek words for emotional release or purification. Ecstasy was an important religious concept to the Greeks, who came to see theatre as a way of expressing powerful emotions through ritual. The mask was central to this process, as well as a means of showing exaggerated emotion, while covering the actor's individuality and protecting his identity. It is not too far-fetched to assume that the freeing of emotions and an element of ritual are involved in the making of these sculptures, along with the need to 'mask' or hide the self in some way.
In post-Freudian thinking the mask has other resonances. Freud developed his dream interpretation theory based on his model of the psyche. Dreams, he argued, are expressions of wishes originating in the id which the superego attempts to censor. In order to get its wishes across to the conscious mind and avoid censorship by the superego, the subconscious uses what Freud called 'transformations.' These transformations package the forbidden dream in what otherwise appears to the dreamer as innocent imagery in an attempt to resolve some inner conflict. Transformations are tools that the subconscious uses to mask what Freud called latent content' by changing its appearance to manifest content; that is, what the dreamer literally sees in his dream.
Upside down Kneeling, 2008
Through her use of hares Ryder has created an idiosyncratic iconography to talk about female desire, without having directly to reveal herself or make her work autobiographical. Whilst speaking of deep-seated drives, her figures, with the adoption of the hare mask, become universalised. Creating work on an heroic and often theatrical scale she has established a pantheon of Lady-Hares who are able to express not only intrinsic grief as in Introspective 2003, which was made as a response to 9/11, but also a vital and overt sexuality as in the receptive Kneeling 2006 and the prone Upside Down Kneeling 2008. By adopting a mask her figures can play out their transgressive impulses and explore their animal natures, as well as investigate that which is taboo. The hare can also be seen as a response to her earlier male figure of the Minotaur, himself half-bull and half-man, an image frequently used by Picasso to talk of male sexual prowess.
The dialectics of outside and inside, as expressed in Bachelard's Poetics of Space,1 are explored along with ideas of being and non-being. Alienation and inclusion are also played out in these new large scale works where the viewer can literally climb inside the giant edifices, like a child re-entering the mother's womb. The Minotaur and the Lady-Hare, therefore, suggest not only images of idealised lovers or mythic pairings but binary and warring opposites; the dark and light and the ying and yang within us all.
Minotaur and Lady Hare Torsos, 2000
In her excellent book From the Beast to the Blonde,2 Marina Warner talks of the symbolic importance of transformation within myths and fairy tales. "Whereas male beasts are cursed by some malignant force, the heroines of fairy tales are willingly bound by a spell; they frequently agree with alacrity to the change of outward form, in order to run away from the sexual advances of a father or other would-be seducer." She adds,"this phenomenon of metamorphosis as liberty saturates the imagery of the tales and language in which they are conveyed; the animal disguise of the heroine equips her to enter a new territory of choice and speech; the apparent degradation works for her, not against her. Being a beast - a she-bear - can be preferable as a temporary measure to the constrictions of a woman's shape. Animal form marks a threshold she passes over, before she can take control of her own identity." Warner continues: "as an outcast, spurning the sexual demand made upon her, her disguises - donkey, cat, or bear - reproduce the traditional iconography of the very passion she is fleeing". Animal hairiness, therefore, transmutes to become identified with both freedom and lust.
The shift from the figure of the fugitive girl, protecting her maidenhood dressed in animal disguise, becomes transformed into an image of sexuality. Hair, such as the long tresses of Mary Magdalen, becomes a veil to cover the shameful female form. Body hair becomes an image of lascivious intent and desire, reminding the viewer of our closeness to dumb animals and our innately chthonic natures. It can also be induced, along with the cessation of menses, by the denial of sexuality as in the case of young anorexics. From Rapunzel to Cinderella, with her glass slipper that was, in Perrault's version, originally made of vair, fur or ermine, hair has become a symbol for unfettered female lust.
The ears of Sophie Ryder's hares might, then, be read as a metonym for tresses of hair (her own Pre-Raphaelite locks, perhaps). The hare mutates into an alter ego. Its hair-covered body becomes a visual symbol of the female desire hidden within, which equates with the figure of the viewer lurking hidden inside the centre of one of her huge sculptures. The sexual, bacchanalian dynamic of her work is, perhaps, most apparent in her drawings, where mask and human female body are clearly delineated. Her Girl Behaving Like a Dog 2008 or the figure in Upside Down Kneeling 2008 (who openly exposes her genitals) both display an abandoned sexuality.
Over the years the size, scale and ambition of Sophie Ryder's works has increased with her technical prowess. She begins with an armature, which is the basic structure around which the sculpture is built. For the large pieces she welds thick steel rods to add extra strength. After that a layer of chicken wire is added onto which she starts to build up the shape with different thicknesses of twisted wire. When I visited her during the installation of this show, 'pancakes' of wire in different lengths and densities, some of them for 'filling in', some for creating large flowing areas, lay strewn around the gallery floor. Physically demanding, she treads on and at times throws herself against the wire to bend it to her will. It is only in the last few years that she has started working with assistants after finding that she was spending too much creative time doing what others could do.
In other of her modelled forms she works with plaster, slapping on great handfuls and then drawing her fingers through the wet mess, so that the plaster oozes between them and the surface texture is defined by the pulled lines. These rough surfaces and grooves remain even when cast in bronze. Now with her recent large scale Upside Down Kneeling 2008 she has broken new visual ground. The wire 'skin' of the hare is much less dense, leaving the supporting armature visible in the manner that pencil lines might be left to indicate an artist's thinking in a drawing. The work has a new monumentality. It is no longer simply a hare but something architectural; a dwelling that can be entered and walked through.
For the YSP exhibition she has also made a number of new wire drawings, a technique she devised some fifteen years ago that has its genesis in those far off Saturday morning jewellery-making classes. Her earlier wire drawings from the mid '90s, such as her Mother and Child, 1995, were comparatively simple affairs, where one twist of wire created the drawing's outline. Those she makes now are dependent on a greater degree of technical skill and are stylistically much more complex. Bending, twisting and compressing wire, which is anchored against the vertical surface of the wall, she uses wire like graphite or charcoal, both to create a fluid line, as well as to build up dark areas of density. Using untreated, annealed wire she has, for this exhibition, largely focused on body parts; her daughter's eye or her own hands where the fingers of one hand emerge through the centre of a clenched fist like the sepals from the middle of a flower. Her huge Dog Feet, 2005 show every detail; the claws embedded in their soft leathery pads, as well as the fringe of bristles that protect them.
Whilst there is, by definition, something deeply anthropomorphic about Sophie Ryder's figures onto which both she and the viewer can project human emotions such as desire, love, dejection and tenderness, when placed in the generous landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park her work is suddenly freed from the constraints of the white cube. Sited outside, her figures become feral and are returned to their bestial selves. Untamed by the constraints of the gallery they assume a wild dignity.
Dog Feet, 2005
Sophie Ryder's hares, therefore, are shape-shifters, hairy anarchic creatures able to express all that is free and forbidden by the conditions of socialised behaviour. Their transformations suggest powerful magic, their coats something profane. Hair becomes a barometer of freedom; for when it is controlled, tied back and groomed, it is a hallmark of cultural restraint and the mores of civilisation. Liberty, on the other hand, wears her hair loose, in wild tresses.
Hair has become a potent metaphor for many contemporary women artists. In the work of the surrealist Meret Oppenheim a fur tea cup stood as a statement about the expression of female sexuality, while in the late Helen Chadwick's Loop My Loop 1991, the dual aspects of sexuality - the Madonna and the whore - which are at the core of so many fairy tales and traditional images of women, were rendered as a disturbing oxymoron when locks of blond hair were entwined within a knot of glistening pink pig gut. In the tales of the surrealist Leonora Carrington or those by Angela Carter, the beast represents not only female desire, but nascent creativity and self-expression. Sophie Ryder, with her exuberant and anarchic hares rejects the groomed beauty and easy stereotypes of modern femininity; the lovely girl, the sex pot, the good wife and mother, for the wild, playful and untameable animal she affirms and recognises within herself.
Sophie Ryder at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 24 May 2008 to 2 November 2008
1 Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space, Beacon Books Massachusetts, 1969
2 Marina Warner: From the Beast to the Blonde, Chatto & Windus London, 1994
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Sophie Ryder 1999-2008