Libby Cuffley’s art practice, up until this point, has predominantly been 2D, or moving image. She uses ideas about home and transience to explore how we use space. Usually very specific space, brutalist, high-rise spaces. Though not always.
I only have a very basic knowledge of Libby’s practice, but through talking to her prior to her performance (the first she has showed btw.) it became clear that Libby is interested in the bodies and voices that occupy those spaces and their notions of home and utopia. So I expected to see a largely monochromatic, stark, barren and cold landscape with just the faintest air of nostalgia (much like her photographs) from her residency and I wasn’t disappointed.
Upon venturing into the new failbetter space, I became very aware of my footing as the floor was scattered with broken shards of crockery, specifically cheap and fancy 50’s replica, charity-shop crockery. The kind my Grandma kept in a glass cabinet.
For the next part, I’ll slip into the present tense for ease of explaining the work…
Placed throughout Libby’s broken, crockery wasteland lies three empty plinths of varying width and colour, alongside three chairs sitting at almost equidistance around the walled outskirts. There is a step ladder. In one corner sit a series of neatly gathered teacups, which old fashioned incandescent bulbs have been placed within. Against another wall are a set of mismatched plates of differing shapes and patterns.
Failbetter residency coordinator Alex Billingham introduced us to the culmination of Libby’s two-week residency and then invited some of us to sit in the chairs during the performance, we were also given protective eye wear (which was a pretty big clue as to what was probably going to happen)
Libby calmly entered the space, coolly dragging her feet and shifting some of the remnants as she gazed around the floor. At points she stopped at an object and threw it back and forth in her hands, before precariously placing the object on a corner of one of the three plinths. This was the general format of the performance, Libby stalking various crockery, curating and considering how she would place her now teetering objects. Like a dangerous game of Jenga with Nan’s favourite things.
Libby’s demeanour remained consistent throughout as things fell and smashed, occasionally needing her body to give them more of a reason to. Objects were then balanced on the tops of some of failbetter’s walls, alongside the chaired participants. Increasing the reverberating anxiety and tension created from the shaky crockery.
Toward the end of the 20 minute show, Libby began a cleaning up ritual, using her body to shuffle the broken shards in to a singular mass grave in the middle of the space. Like an apology, the act seemed remorseful and sad. Libby had purged all she needed to and now needed to mother it, by pulling it all back together again.
For a first performance, it was incredibly powerful. The plinths acted like high-rise towers of their own, with the history of the older generations, now on the verge of crashing and falling into despair. Aesthetically, there were points that reminded me of Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, Ai Wei Wei’s Han Dynasty-Urn-dropping and even Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez totemic vases (which were also smashed in a gallery, though not intentionally…)
Libby clearly has a close connection, much like we all do, with the past and a need to both absorb it to keep these stories alive, and apologise for not doing better by it.
The mentoring of Alex Billingham throughout Libby’s residency has made its mark. Libby’s work is tender, destructive and mournful. I truly can’t wait to see what direction she takes her new-found medium.
Both Libby and Alex (as well as myself) are part of Vivid’s 2018 Black Hole Club cohort, with regular shows dotted throughout the year.
Images courtesy of Libby Cuffley, Vickey Roden and Alex Billingham.
Failbetter is a new artist-run space in Ladywood, Birmingham. Viewings by appointment and set times advertised on their facebook and web pages.