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Review: Fleece: Flow, by Sian Hughes at Bridewell Studios

I’ve had the same conversation a lot recently. It’s about whether the idea, the product, or the process of getting from one to the other is more valuable. That value needs to be assessed from the perspective of the artist, the gallery and the viewer, but also in terms of longevity and overall impact. Before this starts to sound like an assessment, rather than a review, I’ll get into it.

Sian Hughes, an artist with roots dug into every corner of the country, through residencies, workshops and a well-established exhibition practice, shared her most recent iteration of a project that normally falls under the title of Fragments in Time, as part of this year’s Independents Biennial.

The physical exhibition was a collection of fleeces, serendipitously gained while exploring the Bridewell’s many potential exhibition spaces – from former prison cells, to purpose built galleries and outdoor event spaces. The fleece was far from what you might expect. Not pristine by any measure. In fact, it was largely untouched since it was shorn from the woolly back of its previous host.

Those fleeces were distributed carefully, with consideration, to form what Sian Hughes has described (through several similar iterations of this exhibition) as streams or rivers, but always as a body of water.

Accompanying them was the intended centrepiece of the exhibition (and the cover of this newspaper), a handcrafted coracle – the vessels traditionally used in agricultural landscapes to navigate moving water and, very specifically, to herd sheep through streams in order to clean their fleeces before shearing.

The coracle, lined with canvas and waterproofed with layer upon layer of bitumen, was about as traditional as you can be in 2023. Built by Sian Hughes in a workshop with James Carpenter (nominative determinism at its best), the coracle has stayed with her, and references her porcelain bowls from the same connected series of work.

Last year, they all formed their rivers and streams, in Oriel Brondanw, Gwynedd, in north-west Wales, accompanied by proclaim boats. But the fleece, as accidental as its presence here may have been, draws the history of this whole series together, despite only being present as left-overs from a performance that saw piles of wasted fleece from the wool industry burned last year in an exhibition at Bridewell by Irene Rogan.

The coracle, the rivers, the fragments in time. They all connect to one central idea, and are all presented through finished work that seems to understand and celebrate its materials down to the final fibre.

I had had that same conversation about value again, the afternoon of this exhibition launch, and felt an unshakable judgement, that I shouldn’t see this exhibition without assessing it from the perspective of artist, gallery and viewer. So I did. And I found it joyous. I felt a connection to the fleeces’ history. I felt a connection to the history of the coracle as a vessel. I felt a connection to the rivers, implied by the folds in the unwashed and filthy fleeces.

That connection has nothing to do with any of my own personal history. It’s much more to do with the connection between artist, viewer and space, because the installation was an offering of not just one idea, but a flowing stream of ideas, pulled together by materials that showed how they had worked and manipulated.

Sadly, by the time this goes to print, it will be over, but I’m certain it will repeat at some point, so keep an eye out for Coracles near you.

Fleece: Flow is finished at Bridewell, but you can follow Sian’s work at www.sianhughes.net

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

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