Interview with Jessica Harrison

Jessica Harrison Sculpture

Ethel, 2013, detail, mixed media, 22cm x 13cm x 14cm. Courtesy of the artist.

The pretty young ladies from Jessica Harrison’s porcelain sculptures embody grace, poise and gentility even while cradling their bloodied intestines, figure-skating after being scalped or posing post-disembowelment and post-decapitation. These charming creatures do not seem to mind being mutilated. As lovely zombies, they shouldn’t be upset because Harrison is not doing violence to them. She is actually eviscerating the tradition that they represent. Without their insides exposed, Harrison’s girls can be easily mistaken for the Lladró porcelain figurines Grandmothers and kitsch collectors adore for their saccharine sentimentality. By reimagining these sculptures as zombies, Harrison makes them more human. The Scottish artist, who also creates dollhouse furniture to perfectly resemble human skin, uses humor and horror to transform hard, pretentious, sugary, kitsch into art.

Jessica Harrison Sculpture

Mairi, 2010, mixed media, 19cm x 13cm x 13cm. Courtesy of the artist

AFH: What aspect of porcelain’s history or stereotypical appearance inspired you to expose the insides of your figurines?

JH: Growing up, my mother had a collection of these figurines locked in a glass cabinet that I was forbidden from touching, which of course made them even more tempting and tactile. It was this fundamental desire to handle the material that drew me to working with porcelain and specifically found ceramics, objects that had a bit of history to them already. All of the pieces that I have worked with for the Broken series are second hand objects – sometimes they have needed a really good scrub to get the years of ingrained dirt off the surface! I was interested by this individual history alongside the mass-produced nature of the cast ceramics, so that is why each figurine that I make as part of the series is unique, a one-off amongst thousands of copies. (My mother’s figurines are still locked in the glass cabinet and twenty years later she is more certain than ever that I’m not allowed to touch them.)

AFH: Your mother sounds sensible, although I would prefer yours to hers. How does your work relate to traditional porcelain conventions?

JH: The modifications I make to the figurines are based on the original poses the figures are adopting – I work with these shapes to emphasis the movements so that it appears each figurine is acting out their own opening-out of the body themselves. This self-dissection plays on the gender bias within the male-dominated anatomical history, the female interior only usually exposed to illustrate an especially female part of the anatomy (the reproductive organs). The female interior is a space still laced with taboo in a way that the male interior is not and the Broken sculptures address this imbalance in their unapologetic flaunting of their impossible interiors. In opposition to the idealistic and unrealistic way of living that the unbroken figurines represent – serene, perfectly coiffed feminine perfection (with the anatomically impossible tiny waist), the Broken figurines describe a turning inside out of stereotypical feminine Englishness; a sort of self-destructive ornamentation where object becomes organ, private becomes public and inside becomes outside.

Jessica Harrison Sculpture

Ethel, 2013, mixed media, 22cm x 13cm x 14cm. Courtesy of the artist

AFH: Explain the context for your figurines’ names? Are they specific references?

JH: The figurines are all named after people that I know, usually with some personal reference that made me choose that figurine for that particular person. It was just a fun way of naming the pieces – most of the people that I have referenced aren’t even aware that they have a sculpture named after them…

AFH: What are the physical aspects of silicone that appeal to you? Is it the skin-like quality?

JH: I love silicone – when it is cast it has such a beautiful quality to it that is very skin like without necessarily trying to replicate skin. It sags and folds in a very organic way and you can collect the tiniest of details in its surface. White silicone is my favourite as it looks almost like marble, or cast plaster – you see more of the texture and the shape in silicone when there is no colour to distract you.

AFH: How does silicone age? How will your sculptures morph over time?

JH: I’m not entirely sure how silicone ages – I think its pretty hardy stuff. I use the silicone that is designed especially for casting and making moulds so it is made to withstand a lot of use. If you look after it, it should last forever.

AFH: How does your sculpture lined with teeth function as a self-portrait? I have a long-term obsession with teeth. I have a ring with a human tooth that I often wear and a tooth, which an ex found on the street, in a shrine by my bed.

JH: The ‘Self-portrait’ sculpture was about exploring the hidden cavities of the body and our relationship to these imagined spaces. The inside of our own skull is a place that each of us will most likely never be able to see – Jonathan Sawday compared seeing our own interiors to the Medusa’s gaze that turns the observer to stone. It was this impossibility of knowing a space in the body that I was interested in – the inside of the mouth is at once so familiar (as we explore it with our tongue) yet also alien in that one can never be inside it. The teeth in this sculpture are actually wax casts of my own teeth. I would have used a cast of my own skull for this piece as well but that would have involved some very expensive and complicated 3D scanning! I first cast my teeth when I had one of my wisdom teeth extracted – I cast the whole tooth into bronze and pated it with silver. I wore it as a necklace until I lost it (perhaps someone else is wearing it now?).

Jessica Harrison Sculpture

Armchair, 2009, Mixed Media, 8cm x 7cm x 6cm. Courtesy of the artist

AFH: I envy that person. Why have you decided to present obtainable priced prints of your sculptures online?

JH: As an artist, I am always looking for different ways to share my work with an audience. The prints of the Broken series were my first way of sharing my sculpture in a more affordable way. It seemed like an appropriate series to try out digital prints as although the sculptures themselves are one-off unique works, the found ceramics that they are made from are mass produced in their thousands. In creating a print of the sculpture, I can shift it back into the multiples format, but it retains the feeling of unique hand-made-ness. I wanted to price the prints at a level that wouldn’t be beyond the reach of a normal person – I too like to buy art works for my collection but I know how frustrating it is when most things are way beyond my budget.

AFH: What about the sensual element of porcelain? How does that influence your art?

JH: Our tactile associations with porcelain, a material of which we have a clear and physical tactile impression without the necessity to touch, generates a tension in the Broken sculptures. Here, what should be hard is soft, what should be brittle is flexible, what should be fragile is fleshy, what should be precious is broken. These bodily expectations make ceramics an ideal medium with which to explore our tactile certainties of objects and the relationship between what is considered to be outside the body and what is believed to be inside.

By Ana Finel Honigman

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