IIt’s the morning after Veronica Ryan won the Turner Prize, a moment celebrated by having her name triumphantly projected onto Liverpool’s sprawling Radio City tower, and it still hasn’t sunk in. , which won the Turner Prize,” he says. “There has been a disconnection at this time.”
At 66, Ryan becomes the oldest artist to win the award. In some ways, she also got here the hard way. In her victory speech at Liverpool’s spectacular St George’s Hall on Wednesday night, she thanked and named three lost siblings, Patricia, Josephine and David. When I ask about them, he tells me baldly, “They committed suicide.” The bereaved family had to deal with years of trauma and grief. And other losses too. Ryan’s career got off to a promising start, with plenty of opportunities and performances, when she graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. But that stopped. It was almost as if she was swept up in the influx of young British artists who were a few years her junior. “There was a whole period,” she says, “when people wouldn’t show my work or even respond when I sent them pictures.”
That has now well and truly moved on. She won the Turner Prize for a major exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol, where she lives, dividing her time between there and New York, as well as a public sculpture commission in Hackney, London, commemorating the Windrush generation. But there were years in the wilderness where she did unrecognized work. In her acceptance speech, she spoke of her time “picking up trash.” Those were the days, she explains, when she worked from what she could scavenge or pick up for nothing—sculptures, for example, made from tilting stacks of fruit and vegetable wrappers, those molded trays you see at the avocado market.
He tells a moving story about the Momart fire in 2004 – when an art warehouse in London burned down, taking hundreds of works with it. The fire famously destroyed Tracey Emin’s tent, all the people I’ve ever slept with. This was the work that featured on the front page of the Guardian the morning after. Ryan also lost a huge amount of work, but none of the reports mentioned her. “It coincided with the time I was made invisible,” she says. There was another moment of erasure: in the 1990s, the eruption of the Montserrat volcano completely destroyed Plymouth, the city where she was born. It was a difficult time.
Nevertheless, it continued to produce. Art isn’t just a career choice for Ryan: she’s a “bootstrap artist”, Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, told me at the Turner Prize ceremony. For her, art is a means of expression, a way of exploring, a way to make sense of the world, and also basically what keeps her hands busy. She’s on the move a lot, working on things she might have stashed away in her backpack – like a bit of crocheting. She is also an avid collector and violinist. She pulls out a piece of cellophane from her purse – something that wrapped the sandwich yesterday. She has it knotted just to deal with it, but she’s happy with how it looks and feels. Maybe he will use it in some way in his work. Such modest activities as tying knots or sewing are means of reflection, but also means of getting through the day. “I’m pretty obsessed in different ways,” Ryan says.
Her room at the Tate Liverpool Turner Prize exhibition is quiet, contemplative, full of small and delicate things. Or perhaps they are deceptively delicate, as the objects they make exude power and hard magic despite their modest scale. An old plastic bottle that has become cloudy over time is stored in a mesh container that Ryan may have made or found. The magnolia pods were cast in bronze, then grouped together and hung on a line and hung from a screw.
Plaster casts of what could be shells or seeds are tied tightly with string and sit on a crocheted doily. Dried orange peels—satisfying spirals removed intact—have been sewn back together with dark stitches that look like field stitching around them. There is much that reminds me of the repetitive, traditionally feminine tasks of folding, sewing, knitting, mending, improving. Her objects are held, contained and nested in a way that I find deeply satisfying. But there’s also something uncomfortable about them, like they might be having darker conversations with each other that are half-hidden from me.
There are a lot of seeds and fruits in the work, things that speak to trade and movement and colonial history, as well as her own history as someone who was brought to live in Britain from Montserrat as a young child. But when we talk about work, I can see Ryan resisting the notion that it’s “about” one thing. It’s always about this but also this and this. Take the cocoa pods you can see arranged on a small plaster vessel in the Tate Liverpool show.
“I’m interested in people going straight to the idea of migration,” he says of conversations about such material. “But actually I think about everything—that cacao was originally used by the Aztecs as a kind of ceremonial drink. And then at some point it was used to make soup with salt. And then sugar was added and so on. I’m always a bit nervous if the work is just about trade networks or race.” Crucially, she is drawn to cocoa pods as objects in their own right – “how they grow right out of the trunk of the tree, how their shape is so strange and beautiful”. Whatever the resonances of the materials, her art is always immersed in a formal sculptural language, one that is hyper-aware of how an object can sit in space in relation to others, how it can be seen from above or below; how it can tilt, stand, stack or collapse.
And then there is their incredible power. Ryan tells me that when she was a young graduate student at Soas University of London, she took a trip to Nigeria. “In a village outside Lagos I saw objects, seeds, gourds and different kinds of things wrapped together and hung on trees as some kind of protection. They were small votive objects, things carrying a certain power. Part of her work goes back to that journey, those bundles of, say, seed pods tightly wrapped in yarn. Sometimes they have secrets: Ryan tells me she might hide something fragrant, like sage leaves, under the colorful binding. Her grandmother sent parcels of dried herbs from Montserrat and her mother also grew tea herbs in the garden and dried orange peels for pickles. “I grew up with this expanded knowledge of plants and herbs that come up as I work,” she says.
Ryan talks a lot about his mother, who passed on many skills – especially crocheting and sewing (she made the crochet doilies in Ryan’s Turner prize show). When Ryan was little, her mother and aunt used cotton flour sacks as the family’s pillowcases, washing them until they were soft and embroidering them. “My mother always recycled things, not that she called it that,” he says. “I grew up remaking things when I had no resources. She adds that it took a long time to give myself permission to sew and use patchwork and embroidery in my work. This involved “unlearning the kind of language we learned at art school”.
Seeing Mike Kelley’s early sculptures in New York, which included crocheted mats and small toys, was a revelation. “It was so exciting to move away from a certain kind of gender preoccupation,” she says. “But it takes a long time to unlearn prescriptive concepts. Ryan doesn’t like the idea of this kind of work being characterized as “textile art” because, he says, “it’s all part of the language you can use.”
Not everything he makes is small and handmade. Her Windrush sculpture consists of three large objects made of bronze and marble – a custard apple, a breadfruit tree and a sorrel tree. They are irresistible – scaly, bumpy fruits strange with their scales. People lean and sit on them, climb on them, use them as a reference point. Maybe now, after her Turner Prize win, it will be time for Ryan to hit the ground running. Why not? There’s a certain twinkle in her eye that suggests she might.
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