Katrina Palmer is a British artist who uses words as a sculptural form. Her latest work, The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier, is the artist’s first show in Dublin and the installation in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios is extended with a dossier installed on the ‘recently returned’ shelf of a library in Leeds. The subject of the installation, Pablo Fanque (1810–1871), was a famed circus owner in Victorian Britain, during what is considered the golden age of circus. His wife Susannah Darby died in Leeds in 1848 when the building the circus was performing in collapsed, injuring more than 600 people.
I remember reading about your piece The Loss Adjusters (2015), your audio installation on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, in The Guardian in 2015. It was the first time I’d come across your work and the article has stuck in my mind ever since – partly for the idea of an installation taking place across an island, partly for the way the piece dealt with absence/emptiness through words. I liked the way you spoke in the interview about the island being slowly hollowed out beneath its inhabitants, and this precarity informing the narrative you constructed. I’ve read about The Necropolitan Line (2015) since, which also deals with absence in that it deals with death. I like the idea that you’re approaching absence in a constructive way, by indicating the presence of something through words. With The Time-Travelling Circus, several elements of the work are absent from the TBGS installation. The dossier containing the extended narrative and the resurrected-Susannah-in-the-form-of-a-lamp are situated in the Brotherton Library in Leeds. This seems different to your other works where the objects indicated through words do not physically exist elsewhere. What is the thinking behind this particular interplay of absence and presence in The Time-Travelling Circus?
I often write about things that do really exist, but you’re right, this might be the first time that I’ve made use of this particular sense of displacement. I mean, the Necropolitan Line at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, referred to real but distant sites such as the Cross Bones Burial Ground in London, but perhaps for the Dublin show the organisation of elements is different because of the apparent intervention at the Brotherton Library. The Library’s ‘recently returned’ shelf is where that book, the dossier, belongs in the world, but the exhibition can travel – that’s part of the logic of The Time-Travelling Circus – it can move from its home at the Library. I’m also interested in how it’s impossible to encounter the exhibition, plus the dossier and electrolier (lamp) simultaneously. While you are listening to the story and walking across an imaged space in Dublin, you’re expected to suspend your disbelief and hold on to the suggestion that there is actually a dossier in the Library. And something that was also a feature of The Loss Adjusters, and the forthcoming work with 1418NOW, is a dispersal of multiple versions of a narrative across different media, times and spaces. I think this allows me to explore alternative approaches and perspectives on the same story.
So is there actually a dossier at the library? Do the library staff have to be vigilant against it being withdrawn? Is it intended to be picked up and read? Would a reader of the dossier get any inkling of the story’s extension in Dublin?
There might be doubt because the dossier’s existence is conveyed to the viewer in Dublin as part of the storytelling, but it is a real intervention at the Leeds Library. The library staff followed their standard procedure to incorporate the book into the collection, including stamping and tagging. It’s located on the ‘recently returned’ shelf, so it may be completely overlooked, but if someone discovers it, it definitely can be picked up and read. It can’t be taken out of the Library – it’s kept under the same conditions as a reference book. I want the work to have a spectral and intermittent quality; in this sense, it might not be found in the library and a reader would have to investigate online to link it to the Dublin exhibition.
And there’s no hierarchy; I wouldn’t approach the elements of the work like that. Instead they are all part of the overarching project. Incidentally, most of the dossier’s text is in the special edition of the Henry Moore Institute journal no.78, which is widely available. And the TTC have an Instagram account on to which they’ll post a re-formatted version of the dossier which does indicate the show at Temple Bar. Although the visitor to the exhibition in Dublin may not see the dossier or the electrolier, they will have the overwritten floor plan and of course the two layered audio works.
I know you studied sculpture at Central Saint Martins. Do you call what you do now sculpture? Where do you think this interest in the presence/absence tension in your work comes from?
That’s right, I studied sculpture at CSM and at the RCA. I don’t hesitate in calling myself a sculptor, because to my mind sculpture’s a way of thinking. It’s not a name for work in any particular material, like paint is for painting. My work revolves around sculptural preoccupations such as bodies, sensuality, memorial, a questioning of what is real and, as you say, presence /absence. I think this tension between presence and absence is often seen in sculpture whether that’s the attempt to represent death through memorial, or the carving of holes by Barbara Hepworth for example, or in Rachel Whiteread’s casting of spaces. I tend to work with the way words stand in for objects. And in the new work that I’m installing at Temple Bar, this presence/absence tension comes into play in a number of other ways. At first sight, there’s a lot of absence in the space – you could think that there’s almost nothing there! But really I’d like to suggest that the gallery is full to bursting, and eventful, I hope.
There’s audio playing throughout the space and then the floor plan that the viewer can walk across, proposes a vast construction overhead. To a large extent the visitor to the exhibition will be involved in the process of constructing this object and the characters that are apparently absent, with the combined elements in the room, providing the stimuli for this construction. I don’t want to explain the work away, but essentially, at the centre of the narrative, Pablo Fanque joins the Circus in order to find a version of reality in which his wife, Susannah Darby, survives the accident that killed her. When the audience enter the space and listen to and engage with the story, they give her another chance to return.
What was it that drew you to the lives of Pablo and Susannah?
I came across the story of Pablo and Susannah while I was installing The Necropolitan Line in Leeds. I was walking through the campus with Layla Bloom, the curator at the University’s gallery, and she was talking through the history of the graveyard that’s in the middle of the campus, when she pointed out their grave. Pablo’s famous. I should have known his story but I didn’t. I started to do some research and was completely fascinated by his life and well there were quite a few things that interested me.
The sketches and descriptive language that promotes and records the circus he ran and his own equestrian performances, his rise to fame as someone who was identified as a black man in the early 19th century England, his subsequent descent into obscurity and poverty, the obscurity of Susannah’s biography apart from her terrible death, the itinerant nature of circus performers’ lives, the emergence of the circus at a time of rapid change and industrial development and global exchange. And somehow, because of this social context, it seems that they were right there when the physical stability and the substance of things must have started to seem less certain.
And then, as well as all the above, I was preoccupied by the close proximity of their graves to the circular Library, which eventually brought the story together for me as it seemed like it could be a great space to situate a re-imagining of their story.
I’m interested in what you say about them being ‘right there when the physical stability and substance of things must have started to seem less certain.’ Can you expand?
Sure, I just mean that it was the period of industrial revolution, fantastic machinery appeared, rail travel and new textiles were developed and goods were coming from different parts of the globe, people travelling at speed, all these were changes that hadn’t previously been imagined, so I think that the way things were seen had to change, and a kind of more local and stable understanding of what was possible and what the world was made of, must have been unsettled.
Do you know what I mean? In the same way the Impressionists started to portray fractured perceptions of everyday reality.
The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier runs at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios until April 21.
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Katrina Palmer: The Necropolitan Line, 2015 installation view, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones
Katrina Palmer: The Loss Adjusters, 2015 installation view, Photo: Brendan Buesnel