sep 2023 Introducing Esquina, 2pm, Saturday 9 September 2023, Emmanuel College Cambridge, part of Open Cambridge

On Saturday 9 September Susanna Heron introduced Esquina, (2023) with a 20min talk followed by a 5 minute documentary film by Ross Harrison

Transcript from the talk

I would like to begin with a visit to London in 1965.

I was 15 and I remember seeing Anthony Caro’s scarlet painted sculpture ‘Early One Morning’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Being tall for my age I bent my knees to lower my eye-level and realised that this artist was shorter than I was, and his eye-level lower than mine. How can one tell from a juxtaposition of girders the height of the man who put them together? No matter- I was already using my body as some kind of measure. 

30 years later I started engraving stone almost by accident. Some artist friends, Michael Landy and Abigail Lane, had taken over a derelict club in south London that had a lot of discarded pool tables. As they were keen to raise some money, they offered them to me. I had no idea what I would do with them, and they remained in my studio for a few years before I thought of engraving them with a drawing. 

When I was offered an exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in Cornwall, I thought I could make an installation equivalent to a ‘wall’ and a ‘floor’ from this series of slates. Each panel was similar in scale to that of a doorway, which meant that when it was leant against the wall, I could make a drawing that had some equivalent scale to that of my body. I engraved drawings on seven of the slates which were leant against one of the walls of the gallery and a horizontal slate surface was constructed from six slabs sparely supported to hover above the plane of the floor.

The Horizontal Slate could only be viewed obliquely, in perspective, and from all sides. The engraved image was framed in the way that an incident might be caught in the viewfinder of a moving camera or discovered through the lens of a microscope – a moment later and it might have passed by, unnoticed. The engraving appears to float, on and just beneath the slate surface, drawing in the gaze to the illusory depth of a dark pool. 

Another 30-year jump.

I was approached by David Wright at Commission Projects in the summer of 2020 and invited to make a presentation to Emmanuel College that September. Before the interview I visited the College to try and get a sense of the place and an idea of what I might do there. Being 2020 and during the holidays, the campus was empty, almost deserted. I could not go into any of the buildings and so instead I walked out into the grounds. Almost as an afterthought, the porter told me to look out for a historic tree in the Fellow’s Garden.

On entering the Fellows Garden, I could not see the tree, but I could see a lot of foliage right down to the ground. I headed into what I thought was the flowerbed upon which I realised I was inside the canopy of the most enormous tree which made a huge impression on me. From the outside this tree was unremarkable, but once inside the branches came down to the ground and the foliage made an all-enveloping protective shelter. This is the Oriental Plane of Emmanuel College.

Part of what was so exciting was the surprise, that I had ‘discovered’ it. I was not lead there. It was not obvious from the outset, but upon entering the canopy the tree revealed itself.

Following the presentation, I was one of three artists selected to make a commission, (myself, Lucy Skaer & the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop).

The next step was to identify a site with the architects Stanton Williams. The building had already been designed in brick, and construction work was about to begin. We looked for possible locations where there might be room for a stone intervention. These ideas were proposed to the fellows who visited my studio in 2021. I remember a particularly interesting conversation about archaeology and the debate around how to map a shallow relief in a two-dimensional drawing. The site chosen for relief was the result of these discussions, and although we looked at a number of internal sites too, an exterior corner of the Furness Lodge extension became the most interesting location for a work. It was accessible to the general public and one of a series of recessed details that happened to make a clear container that might frame a work of art. 

The corner faces north-west-by-west and south-west-by-south. This means that sunlight can traverse the work catching both faces. 

This passage of light and time fascinates me. I like the idea of watching it. I like the idea that it is active. You cannot go back. You cannot replay it. You have to wait for another day and it will not be the same again, it will be different.

When I grew up, I spent a lot of time watching the sun setting over the sea. The speed with which the sun sets is very familiar to me, it is persistent. The sun moves across the relief at the same pace as it sets over the sea. Of course it does. It’s the sun, it can’t be anything different.

I have been making drawings carved in stone in negative relief for over 30 years. 

Working with this type of relief enables me to make a light sensitive surface that is continually changing. When you walk past it never looks the same twice which means that your perception and understanding of the work builds up over a period of time. 

The perception of time is important. If the sun is out then you can stand and watch the work change and you can see the light moving across it highlighting the edges of relief. The drawings for the relief take account of the direction of light, at times fading and the appearance changes. 

Working with permanently sited works is quite different to working with a temporary exhibition. In a gallery the installation may vary. This affects the perception of the work. When the work is permanently sited, people have time to live with it, it becomes part of their environment, and it might introduce something to them that they would not have gone to an art gallery to see.

When I first started working with stone, I did all of the carvings by hand but 

once I started working with architects, in addition to an increase in scale, the type of stone specified also contributed to a change in my working process. Smaller random-sized blocks, thicker, heavier, crumblier (stone is soft when it is first quarried), meant that it was no longer practical to carve it myself in the studio. How could I specify a work of art bigger than I could make myself and it remain true? 

The specification was the answer.

I am occupied by the idea of ‘proof’, the unambiguous set of instructions that form the specification for the relief. Perhaps it can be compared to the notation for a dance that has yet to be performed.

A dance exists in the mind of the choreographer in an abstract place just as music may lie in the ear of the composer, but that is where the similarity with the specification ends. Once written, a specification is, by definition, not creative. Furthermore, it must not be creative. There can be no room for improvisation, the hand and emotion of the craftsman is not to be expressed and the end result has not yet been realised.

Even so, the specification is not the end product. To carry it out there are new choices to be made and there are variables, it is not simply to be handed over to a machine. Amongst these decisions are the choice of each block of stone, its structural stability and suitability for the relief to be carved, its markings; and then there is the type of cutting tool to be used and how long its cutting edge will last to be considered; the surfaces of the stone, the arris, how deep to cut in one go, how fast without chipping the edge, the direction of a cut near an edge, the tightness of a curve, and so on. This tight process makes other things clearer. The three-dimensional work is a surprise. It is unpredictable. It is an unambiguous act of discovery.

Proof is a sort of truth. 

The site for this work being a corner, presented an interesting sculptural proposition. I liked the idea of the work being a corner, which, in my mind, made it a free-standing object, an object capable of standing on its own. When it was completed, it appeared as an imaginary cube set into the building. I like the way it retains a horizontal level while the paths at the base of the building are ramped.  

I was particularly interested in the sculptural challenge of turning a relief around the corner and indeed itproved quite a challenge for both myself and the stone cutters. 

The question was in making and working with a drawing that allowed for a continuous line and yet accounted for a corner that had been cut away on both planes. The stone, being set into the building establishes it as its own entity. It retains its integrity as a sculptural object but is set into the architecture. I see these as distinct. 

The title, Esquina emerged from this investigation. Esquina is both the Spanish and the Portuguese word for an outside projecting corner, as opposed to ‘rincon’ the interior of a corner. It is a turning point, where one can change direction, a point where two lines, walls or paths meet. As far as I know there is no such equivalent in the English language.

The work came about from the desire to make a light sensitive drawing. I find that if you bring a drawing to a place the drawing appears to morph into that place and take on its characteristics. The work is changed by the site and what you know about the site. Both the immediate and the broader context affects how you see it. The initial encounter with the Oriental Plane has somehow filtered through.

Some thanks are in order.

I’d like to say how wonderful it is to have had the opportunity to work at Emmanuel College and contribute to such a historic site. I’d also like to say how generous Stanton Williams have been to allow me to make an intervention into their architecture.

I would like to thank David Wright and Grace Thorne of Commission Projects for introducing me to this project and their invaluable assistance along the way.

At Emmanuel, The master, Doug Chalmers, and his predecessor Dame Fiona Reynolds. The bursar Catherine Webb and her predecessor Mike Gross, and fellows Dr Sarah Bendall, Professor Barry Windeatt and Dr Kate Spence.

The architects & team at Stanton Williams, particularly Alex Buckland, Gavin Henderson, and Sean Monroe.

I love working with Stanton Williams (who I have worked with before). I like their attitude to architecture and their understanding of the artists practice – they give the artist space.

Steve van Hinsburgh and Barry Woodley of StoneCIRCLE for carving the relief to my specification.

John Pearson of Bidwells as well as Gilbert Ash, the contractors for the site.

Ross Harrison for his insightful film.

And last but not least my studio team, Mary Hogben, Ashley Mottram and Pauline Woodrow.