Is Freedom to Fail Just What We Need to Blossom Creatively?

As the end of the year approaches, [author]Becca Pelly-Fry[/author] reflects on the fast pace of running a brand new exhibition space alongside the annual Elephant Art Prize and artist residency programme. Phew! It hasn’t all been plain sailing, but we’ve learned that experimentation and the space for failure is critical for the development of new ideas.

Illustration by Becca Pelly-Fry

As the festive season approaches, we each find ourselves reflecting on the year gone by and realizing how much we’ve been through. I certainly do. Looking out across the Elephant West space, filled with beautiful and engaging artwork by our Elephant x Griffin Art Prize shortlist, an image comes to mind of the unloved and disused forecourt since transformed into the majestic Elephant West building. With its soaring pillars, high ceilings and fabulous lighting system, our converted petrol station is a curator’s dream.

It comes with its own challenges, of course: there are limitations on power usage and the roof is not structurally tough enough to hold much weight. However, in the same way that an artist will often create the most interesting work when they give themselves tight parameters, restrictions mean we have to seek creative solutions. We are learning, project by project, how to use the space and what it can and cannot do.

The interior of Elephant West with photographic works by Maisie Cousins. Photography: Dirk Lindner
The interior of Elephant West with photographic works by Maisie Cousins. Photo by Dirk Lindner

After the success of Dipping Sauce, Maisie Cousins’s opening installation, the second project to take over the space is our art prize shortlist showcase. As with every art prize, curating the final collection of artists into a coherent whole is an interesting challenge. Our group included several very fragile pieces of sculpture, two small objects emitting low-level sound, a suspended work, an immersive installation and a pair of giant textile eyes with tears spilling out onto the floor.

We also needed to keep the installation flexible enough to be able to accommodate several events, as well as taking the needs of Fuel (our in-house café and bar) into account. Given all these parameters, I am proud of how the whole thing hangs together and confidently occupies the space. Each artist holds their own and is given fair representation, and as a result we see an impressive selection of the very best recent graduate work in the UK right now.

“There is a certain energy about the studio spaces that encourages frenetic, experimental activity”

Our winner, Ramona Zoladek, particularly stood out with her two large scale interventions that inhabit the space in a surprisingly natural way. Zoladek makes organic sculptural objects from plaster embedded with seeds, such as chickpeas and soy beans, which grow out of the sculpture over time, breaking it apart and taking it over. Each time she shows a new piece, it must be created again. The temporal nature of the work makes it heartbreakingly beautiful, and reflective of big issues such as global warming, the fragility of life, manmade destruction and war, all handled with real delicacy. The work is bold, confident and poetic; she was a clear winner for the judges. I look forward to working with her over the next year and seeing her practice develop.

Ramona Zoladek's winning installation in the Elephant x Griffin Art Prize 2018
Ramona Zoladek’s winning installation in the Elephant x Griffin Art Prize 2018

We recently launched our new studio residency programme, Elephant Lab, and our first two artists have moved into the studios. I went to visit them last week and was amazed by how productive they’ve been in such a short space of time; there is a certain energy about the studio spaces that encourages frenetic, experimental activity. The two studios are next door to the Innovation and Development Laboratory of international paint manufacturer, Colart. The proximity of paint scientists to the artists-in-residence creates a unique atmosphere for research, collaboration and experimentation. We also provide all art materials required for the duration of the month-long residency, from brand partners Winsor & Newton, Liquitex and Conté à Paris.

Joe Madeira and Ben Nugent, the two current Elephant Lab artists, have both made similar observations; the opportunity to use materials in a non-precious way leaves room for failure in a way that is not usually afforded to an artist. Failure is critical for the development of ideas and techniques, and I realized during the conversation that there is little room for it in our lives more generally these days. Joe and I reflected that it might be a result of the perfect sheen of virtual reality and mass-produced objects that surround us; the quest for perfection means that we no longer allow for flaws or mistakes. We want everything to look like an Apple product, with no evidence of the human hand in its creation. We want our images to be flawless and digitally rendered. Or do we? It often feels as though there is an underground rebellion taking place against the shiny falsity of modern urban life, and these two artists are definitely flag bearers for the handmade and human.

“Failure is critical for the development of ideas and techniques, but there is little room for it in our lives these days”

Anna Liber Lewis, Rocks Off, 2017
Anna Liber Lewis, Rocks Off, 2017

Looking ahead to 2019, we are busy preparing for the collaborative project between Anna Liber Lewis and electronic musician Four Tet which opens to the public on Saturday 19 January, with an opening party on the Friday night before. It’s shaping up to be a really interesting installation, with lots of new, large paintings from Anna, and original tracks made by Four Tet in response to the paintings. Combining visual and aural sensations, the duo aim to immerse the audience in the visceral qualities of their work; you are encouraged to feel rather than think, experience rather than intellectualize. A perfect start to a new year, after the excesses of the festive period are over; we re-root ourselves in preparation for growth.