Consisting of video, drawing, neon and large-scale sculptural works, Here I Am is an exhibition at the Millennium Gallery of new work by Sheffield-based artists Neil Conroy and Lesley Sanderson marking 20 years of their collaboration as Conroy/Sanderson.
Questioning ideas of fixed cultural identity is a central theme for the artists – he was born in England, she in Malaysia – and their work often explores the relationship between our sense of place and the subjective context we bring to it.
Here I Am presents video elements translated into physical sculptural structures centred around a large 8ft x 10 ft pencil drawing on the gallery’s back wall.
Two people are shown looking out to sea and dimly seen on the horizon is a watchtower.
Are they looking or are they being watched? https://tinyurl.com/y77gu4my
There are different kinds of watchtower, points out Conroy, they can be protective and symbols of safety or they can be there to observe people and so more sinister.
‘It’s very much about control and who is being cared for’Lesley Sanderson
“It’s very much about control,” adds Sanderson, “asking who is being cared for.”
The image is divided into squares by blue neon channels referencing the grid of a map.
Elsewhere two red neon texts proclaim, Here I Am and Am I Here. “It’s called a chiasmus, where a phrase is repeated in reverse order to create a different effect,” explains Sanderson, “in this case a question about location giving a sense of displacement.”
They are mounted on two tall towers fabricated in blackened wood with papier-mache rock heads on top.
The heads also appear in two video works showing the artists wearing them while standing still in an empty landscape, one a semi-industrial setting, the other out on the moors. There are two versions of each, one clear and another blurred.
The urban shot was filmed in Sheffield’s East End during the day and naturally drew a great deal of attention with passing cars beeping.
In the other video they are standing in the sea with their heads covered by a giant origami boat evoking both the playful and the strangely sinister with eyeholes giving the viewer the sense of being watched by someone unseen.
“They are self-portraits but at no point do you see our faces,” they explain. “The whole idea of being looked at is central. The artist is in it but not recognisable.”
The fragile paper boat references migrants making perilous journeys and a sense of being in a space but not really there. “A lot of our work has been about people who are isolated and feel displaced whether through class, race or migration and feel out of kilter to their surroundings,” says Conroy
They have also contributed to the adjoining Hope is Strong exhibition at the Millennium Gallery with a work, No More Tears, consisting of a series of handkerchiefs embroidered with famous images of resistance such as Orgreave and Tiananmen Square,
They were produced by Sanderson while she was in Malaysia nursing her father (whose handkerchiefs they are) Embroidery was a craft new to her and she says the improvement in standard of skill shows between the first and last completed.
The title, No More Tears, is on an otherwise blank white handkerchief and was made using the artist’s own hair. “We decided to use hair because there is a physical connection to the work which points to the idea of the human body being used as a vehicle of protest,” she says.
Here I Am, part of the Making Ways programme, continues until May 20.