Champion’s land of soap and glory

ARTIST Silvia Champion is creating an installation inside the grain warehouse at Victoria Quays.

Visitors can watch her at work carving blocks of soap into shapes to form a pile of grain to evoke the industrial heritage of the building.

“I am curious about the history and the architectural shapes of a place,” she says.” I am interested in making visible what is already there to allow people to experience something of how it was.”

In 2011 she was involved in an artistic residency in Castle Market and created papier-mache shapes reflecting the castle originally on the site.

“There is so much potential in Sheffield buildings – perhaps it takes a foreigner to see that,” says the artist and mother of two from Austria who has lived in Sheffield for the past 10 years.

“The project which has Arts Council funding was originally planned for a former public baths but that didn’t happen and I was looking for a space when I met Deborah Egan from the Port of Sheffield and she showed me the grain warehouse and I fell in love with it.”

The baths had a more direct connection with soap and had secured sponsorship from Lush, the handmade cosmetics company, who agreed to provide two tonnes of soap bars . “They supported me through the difficult times like when the first venue let me down last minute,” says Champion.

The artist began to look into how she could fit her original idea into the grain warehouse.

“I spent hours at the local studies library looking at the history – another piece of Sheffield I learned about. Coal and dried fruit was transported on the canal. It opened in the early 1800s and in 1889 it was extended and then in 1925 it was bought by the mineowners to move their own coal. The last load was transported in 1970.

Transfomation is at the heart of the piece, she says. Grain was transformed into beer and flour, coat became tar. “I am transforming a grain warehouse into an art space and coal tar soap bars into grain.”

“The coal tar smell connects past and present,” she continues.” Coal and grain were brought into the canal basin on keels. The smell of coal tar was ever present in the building. The keels were lifted out and tarred to reseal them. Later the building was turned into a grain warehouse. The laboriously repetitive task of carving soap bars mirrors the manual labour on the site in the 1800s and 1900s.”

The artist went down to Lush headquarters in Poole to see how the soap is made. “They made the soap to order, a specific colour and mould, from the one product in their range which uses coal tar,” she says

And then two tonnes of soap on six pallets were delivered at the beginning of March ready for the Grain project to begin. In the first week she built up to carving 14 pieces each day and hoped to increase that to 20 in the second week in order to reach her final target of 460.

They will form a pile of grain which will be illuminated by a pool of light as the artist is herself as she works..

Another part of the installation is an animated film she has made, drawing the keels (or barges) that came into the grain warehouse which were then put against images of water flowing throw which produced a ghostly effect.

Silvia Champion will be in situ on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10am to 3pm and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 1pm and 3pm to 5pm until March 27 when there will be a closing event between 6pm and 9pm.