Artist-to-Artist Interview Series: Sol Bailey Barker

"Today, the term ‘weird’ means something strange, bizarre, or supernatural. But in its archaic and original sense, it meant that aspect of life which was so deep, so all­ pervasive, and so central to our understanding of ourselves and our world, that it was inexpressible."
– Brian Bates, author of Way Of Wyrd   

Rohan DaCosta and I had the pleasure of interviewing British artist Sol Bailey Barker about his solo show "Wyrd Then : Weird Now" currently on view at the London gallery, The Koppel Project. Due to our cross-Atlantic time difference, it was 2:00 AM Pacific time when we spoke to Sol whilst he ate his breakfast, the warm morning sun lighting up his South London flat. As Rohan and I smiled with sleepy eyes down the Skype portal into another man's morning, it became apparent that this action resonated with the rigorous excavation of time and space at the heart of "Wyrd Then : Weird Now."  

For "Wyrd Then: Weird Now," artist Sol Bailey Barker takes the ancient ritual axe as a starting point to explore notions of sacred objects and rituals of the Neolithic landscapes of Europe. Bailey Barker reflects on the relationship between societies and their enduring power symbols through an investigation into the evolution of sacred forms and materials, reviving shamanic characters to perform ancient object­-based rituals. We spoke to Sol Bailey Barker in detail about the conceptual ideas surrounding his sculpture and film, his spiritual connection to his work, and the process of curating "Wyrd Then : Weird Now." 

Sol Bailey Barker with his work

Sol Bailey Barker with his work

On the Shape and Form Informing the Sculptures

I made dozens of collages, which really demonstrate the idea of the relativity within historical materialism. They consider our long history of alchemy and mysticism and ancient practices. Humans have been on a journey of thousands of years of ideas and trying to figure out the world—bringing us to now. Looking at modern technologies and ancient technologies and this joined-up thread through a universal material history informs the sculptures as their structure is based on Platonic- and even pre­-Platonic solids.

The Platonic Solids discerned by Plato in 350 BC began a recorded history of understanding form from a mathematical perspective but a thousand years before this "discovery," Neolithic people in the UK were using pre-platonic forms to map the stars and measure the solstices and equinoxes; building stone circles to mark this knowledge across landscapes.

They mapped the way the sun and moon travelled across the sky and began to devise an understanding of mathematics, actually the stone circles were made with incredible mathematical precision and the pre-Platonic solids were used to devise these structure by examining mathematical principles on a miniaturized scale. 

Travel further back, 40,000 years ago, and we were making beautiful arrowheads, the forms of which are reflected in the latest American spy jets, yet we went on a journey of 40,000 years to get there. The Native American Indians perfected this form, which today the American Military with all of their technology employ as the ultimate aerodynamic form. 

Decompression room photographs by Tom Hatton and sculpture by Sol Bailey Barker (lacquered mild steel and charred oak) 

Decompression room photographs by Tom Hatton and sculpture by Sol Bailey Barker (lacquered mild steel and charred oak) 

On the Symbolism of Power Through the Sounds That Objects Make  

When you go into the exhibition space, there are little concealed speakers playing these strange resonances, and because the gallery space is an old underground bank vault, the concrete and the sound of the metal resonate off of each other. The sculptures seem to sing to themselves, creating an endless hum in the space. 

There are moments of silence, but the speakers each play different sounds and have their own journey. 

The soundtrack of the film Wyrd Then : Weird Now is made from the sound of beating the sculptures. I created the soundscape collaboratively with Joe Farley. Joe would come to my studio to record me playing the sculptures and then go back to his own studio to edit and enhance the sounds bringing out their full sonic potential. The first piece we made was in this big warehouse in Peckham, London—a huge warehouse you could park buses in. The first sonic sculpture I made for this exhibition "Wyrd" was almost two-meters high and made of mild steel and oak. When I hit "Wyrd," the sound stretched all the way across this vast near empty warehouse, from the other side of the space where Joe recorded the acoustics; it was this insane way of capturing the sound. 

Installation shot of "Wyrd Then : Weird Now" (mixed media and found objects) 

Installation shot of "Wyrd Then : Weird Now" (mixed media and found objects) 

We did more studio recording sessions in another studio in an underground car park in Holborn. Working there, I sometimes felt like a Nordic dwarf or troll living under the ground in this bunker, making these strange mystical objects. 

Bells also feature heavily in the soundtrack—these big, old bells. During my research for this exhibition, I spent a lot of time visiting the British Museum looking at bells from different time periods and cultures: pre-Christian bells, ringing bells, Buddhist bells; all holding this idea of awakening the spirit (in its different manifestations). It’s really interesting how the resonance and pitch of a ringing bell triggers something inexplicable in our brains. 

On His Film, Wyrd Then Weird Now, Installed within the Exhibition

In the film, I was playing with timelines of reality. Is the past the forest, or is the present the forest? Is the cityscape the future? Is the cityscape the present? And is it the same place as the forest and the forest is the past?

Video Still from Wyrd Then : Weird Now

Video Still from Wyrd Then : Weird Now

The title of the film chapter is in old English, the first chapter "Awacean" meaning "awaken." These titles also related to the sculptures, which bare the same names. The film is about these ancient Wilderman characters that are the spirit of the land. They awake to wake up the spring and scare away the winter. The same characters appear in different landscapes embodying the landscape. The chapter titles are very simple but they relate to archetypes found in folk culture throughout the world.

I have been fascinated by indigenous cultures and traditions since I was a child; in the masks of fertility, life, death, and birth; in the rituals that we perform. The language might change but the gestures and the fundamental energy beneath ritual remains the same, just as the shape of the objects used within archetypal ritual often remains the same.

I have been researching the Wilderman traditions of Europe, which began possibly thousands of years ago and are still practiced to this day in remote rural places (for example in Bulgaria and Estonia). The tradition of dressing as a half-man, half-beast and scaring away the winter has been passed down through generations, the same costumes being used, repaired and embellished by families over time.

I started making the costumes for this film five years ago and have been changing, using, and almost battling with them to bring them into their current manifestation. So time has once again has been significant, and the masks have been on a journey, put together from scraps of fur and bones that I have collected. It was interesting: whoever put on the costumes and masks would start to move like them (the archetypal characters they were based on). There is something about a mask that affects the wearer’s physicality.

The Wasteland-Scape in the film is in London in a place where buildings were knocked down during the building of the Olympic stadiums. The content of houses, peoples’ abandoned possessions, their whole lives were just left there in piles—their clothes, their windows, their books, and their shoes. It’s a very apocalyptic place. It feels like a dystopian future, or perhaps it’s just the hidden reality of the present. 

In my study of ancient cultures, the axe was very important. Archaeologists found huge axes too big for functional use buried in the ground near the edges of waterways, which were the boundaries of territories. Ritual axe heads were kept in trust by the tribe chief or shaman who were believed to posses transformative powers in being able to turn a stone into a tool that could transform the land, clear the forests, build houses, and create other tools. 

There is a history of object-based rituals that begins with the axe. It was often being hidden then revealed in a cloth, people often thought that the axes were living creatures, and that the makers had to be magicians in order to create them. The object unearthed at the end of the film is a symbol of these objects through time that have been ritually worshipped. 

On Curation 

I have made installations for many years, and I did study devised theatre and performance art, so there is an element of the exhibition being a journey where a performance exists between the people and the work. 

Detail of installation: remnants and dust of metal sculptures in a jar

Detail of installation: remnants and dust of metal sculptures in a jar

As you enter the space, you see Tom Hatton’s photographs depicting slate mountains, which were once the largest slate mines in the world but are now abandoned. His series projects forward in time and dislocates the landscape so that it becomes mythic and otherworldly. This landscape is near Blaenau Ffestiniog where I spent my early childhood. One of my earliest memories is of exploring a mine with my dad; we were walking out of the mine through a deep, deep tunnel underground when the lights went out. I remember feeling the sense of void, total deep emptiness of the space and being swallowed by the stone. My dad was a smoker, so luckily he had a lighter, which he lit. I remember following the tiny light as we made our way out of the bowels of the earth. 

The thing about slate is that is smashes really easily, and it breaks into long pointy shards, playing with slate as a child sparked my interest in geometry and making physical forms. 

As you enter the space, you enter the mine. Then you walk through the door along the first wall to find a collection of objects, which have come directly from my studios and collections that I have been amassing through years of exploring landscapes. 

Going through a doorway toward the vault, there is a poem by Joseph Minden (written for the exhibition), which brings together everything we have talked about: old English, mining, Blaenau, the mountains where I grew up, about space and leaving to an alternate world. 

When you enter the vault, there is a central chamber, where the film is playing and wrapping around that chamber is the main gallery space, which feels like an old Barrow (Burial ground). The space has this strangely sacred feeling, almost like a stone circle. The sculptures occupy the outer vault space and are placed in a way that implies a pilgrimage, ascension through the work. 

Installation shot of "Wyrd Then : Weird Now" (mixed media and found objects) 

Installation shot of "Wyrd Then : Weird Now" (mixed media and found objects) 

The base of these sculptures are all charred oak, which is very heavy, people don't realize how heavy it is. When making and curating my work I always think about the fact that whilst most of the shovels, spades and swords of Medieval times have rotted away there are buildings built with the timbers of oak trees that grew nearly two thousand years ago, which are still standing. 

This series of sculptures are hard to understand from photographs. In photographs the metal work may look refined and very clean, but when you get close to them there is a real impression of the artist’s hand, you can see where the metal is cut and ground away; like the texture of a painting. The scale of the work is imposing, when you stand next to some of the sculptures there is a real sense of weight and depth, the metal and wood have varying tones and across the face of the wood and metal there are entire landscapes.  

On Making the Film Wyrd Then: Weird Now  

Making the film was not like making something fictional. The performers really became the Wildermen; they embodied their characteristics, and when they performed the rituals, it was not an impression of a performance, it was the real thing. I made everyone wake up at 5:30 in the morning to wake up the spring. We had driven into the forest in a huge tractor pulling a trailer with all the gear, and everyone slept in a huge tent. 

The performers were buried in the ground in the dark. Nothing in the film was faked; they were covered in earth or climbing through an almost toxic wasteland, there were moments where I was really scared that one of them might get trapped in the ground. The process of making the film really informed and affected the work. It was an amazing experience.

"Dancen," stainless steel and charred oak 

"Dancen," stainless steel and charred oak 

On the Material Process and the Handmade

I definitely make a decision to have the artist's touch present and have imperfections in the sculptures. In close ups of some of the stainless steel sculptures, you can see I haven't polished along the edges, leaving this oil-slick color. Down the edges of the corners in "Dancen" and "Awacean," there is a beautiful purple petrol color, where the heat has reacted to the metal. That is very intentional. 

"Findan," brass and charred oak 

"Findan," brass and charred oak 

Most people get rid of it because it is an imperfection. In the studio in Peckham, I shared the space with a mechanic who was fixing up his bike. He kept telling me, “Oh no, you have to finish it like this!” trying to get me to remove imperfections. But I’m not making a bike; these are artworks, and I want strange lines and imperfections. If I didn't, I would get a fabricator to make it, but I am having this really deep conversation with material. 

There was this interesting contrast in how the work was made. The bases were made in the forest. I would drive out of the city to this big oak tree in Sussex. I would carve, burn in a fire, and then bring back to the city these oak pieces. As I mentioned, in the city I worked in an underground carpark next to an enormous construction site, and over the past year, I have watched the ripping out of foundations, removing of concrete and rebar, and the use of enormous machines to the lay the structure of the new building going up. 

My studio in London is extremely noisy; it’s like being in the heart of the construction site, and there I was welding and working with the materials of the city. Bringing the work from the forest to the city was a peculiar marriage between two worlds that felt like they existed in two different timelines, Wyrd Then : Weird Now.

Harriet Poznansky
Nomadic Press
Poznansky is a British artist currently based between Oakland and London. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art London and School of the Arts Institute Chicago. She currently works from her studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, making paintings, music and writing short stories. www.harrietpoznansky.com

Rohan DaCosta
Nomadic Press
DaCosta is an international artist of multiple disciplines (Photography : Literature : Music Production : Curation : Clothing) born in Chicago, Illinois, and based in Oakland, California. He studied at Columbia College Chicago of Liberal Arts. He is the founder of and curator for GRACEGOD The Collective. www.rohandacosta.com