When Don't Panic came across the artist Jessica Harrison, we found ourselves intrigued. Ceramic ladies in traditional poses demurely reveal their insides. Some dance, happily holding their eyeballs aloft. Others clasp baskets, which on closer inspection turn out to be their removed brain. With Harrison's earlier work including domes seemingly made of teeth, and furniture of human skin, we wanted to find out more about her visceral fascination.
Much of your work is based around the body, particularly body parts. Do you think you see the body differently to most people?
I don’t think I see it differently as such, but am maybe just looking a bit further into its layers and spaces, going beyond that initial visual impression into more tactile layers. I think if I had a very different view of the body than most then people wouldn’t find a connection with the things that I make – it is the body as a shared and pretty much inescapable way of experiencing everything around us that my work is about, so I am really looking for connections between us all. The things I make are about the way we experience the body, not as a figure, but as a filter. I think the most interesting art creates environments or conditions for a viewer to think more openly and creatively and that is essentially what I am trying to do around the subject of the body.
Your work is subtly confrontational, yet with elements of humour - would you agree with this?
The work isn’t intended to be confrontational, but work dealing directly with the body is often interpreted in this way precisely because of this shared experience of the body, as people can see it as a kind of attack on themselves, as a body is something we all have and recognise. The humour that appears in the work is often my way of balancing this feeling of confrontation, aggression, or what people might see as grotesque. Sometimes people are more open to looking at something that appears humorous, and hopefully if they look for a little bit longer then maybe they will find other meanings in the work.
Your work is often subtle, requiring a closer look to see what is really happening. How do you expect or want people to react?
The things I make are quite often very time consuming, fiddly, detailed things, and one of the reasons for this is looking for a methodology of making that coaxes a closer look from the observer, as it is a natural instinct to be drawn in to detail and pattern. I hope that in this intimacy of looking that the observer could be drawn into the body beyond the visual, to start thinking about more tactile qualities; how everything from a blood cell to the pattern on our skin constitutes perception, that consciousness is corporeal, not just imaginary.
What goes into the selection of the ceramic figurines you use?
They are mass produced ceramics that I select and modify. I usually buy them at auctions or online, always second hand and usually already damaged. My selection of the ceramic usually depends on the pose and the facial expression of the figure – I want to work with the original shape and style of the piece, to work from that element that made it stand out to me. I usually know within less than a minute of looking at and handling a figure what I would like to do to it, and if not, I am usually not interested, put it down and hunt for the next one.
These types of figurines portray an old-fashioned view of femininity, and you’ve chosen to use only female figures. Are you making an observation specifically about women’s bodies?
The work isn’t directly about the female body, but it is true, I am drawn more to the female ceramics than the males. It is probably to do with the poses, the female figures are usually more extravagant and over the top. The juxtaposition of this flamboyant-ness with the exhibition of their insides makes for a more interesting and alluring object. It is also a little bit of rebellion against the traditional anatomical figures you would find in wax museums and illustrations over the last few centuries. It is traditionally and consistently the male figure that has been used to describe the anatomy of the human body. In my sculptures the female insides are as visceral and intestinal and as real and gory as their male counterparts.
Your Facebook fanpage demonstrates their popularity - lots of people are keen to have one. What do you feel about the commercial potential of your work?
It's not something I have worked out yet and it is difficult to know which path to take when a series of work suddenly become quite popular like the figurines have. It’s great to have so many people enjoying the work and to have that connection with it even through it is only through images online as I have not yet exhibited the figures in the flesh. I am looking into options at the moment of making prints available of the works or possibly putting together a book as the ceramics themselves will be one-offs or perhaps editions of two or three at the most.
What are your plans for the future? Will you create a figurine for the royal wedding?
This year I hope to finish my PhD in Sculpture that I have been working on and hold an exhibition of my stone pieces that I have not yet shown anywhere. I will also be exhibiting my sculpture in LA and New York for the first time which is very exciting.
I have no plans as of yet to make a figure for the royal wedding, and I doubt I will be receiving a commission from the Royal Family any time soon…
See more of Jessica's work at her website www.jessicaharrison.co.uk