It’s not often you enter an art gallery and find the artist present, still involved in the messy business of creating. Even rarer to be able to chat with them, or play a part in their process. But visit The Lowry’s new exhibition, Edit 01: Paddy Hartley, and you’ll find just this. Not because Hartley is running behind schedule, but because he is the first in a series of artists and performers who have been invited to take up residency there and make new work.
Perhaps as a test to any boundaries, Hartley has installed a large clay trench right in the middle of the space. Here – up to his arms in the wet, cloggy stuff – he has been moulding ‘temporary artworks’ inspired by the inherited WWI stories and artefacts which local people bring to him. Once photographed, each sculpture is then returned to the moisture of the trench to disintegrate. Hartley’s work has, for the last few years, revolved around the theme of personal and collective remembrance; asking whether society has become overly fixated upon the act of memorialisation, and if the natural process of forgetting can in fact have a healing role to play.
As well as a trench and glass-box studio, the exhibition also features a mini-retrospective, including Hartley’s beautiful Papaver Rhoeas (2015) series. This consists of eight botanically accurate poppies made of lambs’ heart tissue, suspended in glass vessels that echo specimen jars and artillery shell cases. The artist’s intention behind the piece was to restore the Remembrance poppy’s diluted status by re-presenting this international symbol of wartime sacrifice more viscerally. Unlike with preserved scientific specimens however, the natural process of decay has been allowed to take hold; each flower slowly disintegrating at various rates, mirroring how some memories last longer than others, yet all eventually fade.
Hartley’s connection to the war emerged out of his earlier work as a wearable sculpture designer, using fashion materials to naturally alter the shape and structure of the face (his clients including Lady Gaga and Rihanna). From this came an interest in the origins of facial reconstructive surgery, pioneered by surgeon Sir Harold Gillies during WWI. Looking into the lives of the servicemen Gillies treated, Hartley grew fascinated by the details that medical records leave out: stories of hope, endurance and tragedy which he worked with the patients’ traced families to uncover. This led to Project Façade (2004-7): a series of vintage wartime uniforms that Hartley delicately embroidered with anecdotal snippets from original newspaper clippings, letters, drawings and photographs.
Embroidery – a practice used as rehabilitation for WWI patients – also features in another work within the exhibition: The Yeo Crossword (2014). This consists of a series of worn scraps of vintage naval signalling flags, which Hartley has sewn together to create a giant crossword on the gallery wall. Visitors are invited to decode each flag to reveal small details from the life of avid crossword complier and Gillies patient, Walter Yeo; slowly building a touching, unique portrait of the man himself.
However, like clay or bodily tissue, threads are a temporary material that loosen and unravel over time. All the works within the exhibition have a tender fragility to them that destabilises the often urgent sense of needing to hold on to the World War accounts beyond living memory – ‘lest we forget’. Hartley is not suggesting we should forget about the huge sacrifices that were made by those who fought for their country, but to be less precious in how we remember. To return these people to just that – people – rather than national symbols to be stood behind forevermore.