Rebecca Ackroyd

Rebecca Ackroyd, Hunter/Gatherer vii, 2018

From fragmented memories to ordinary encounters: Locating the subconscious in the work of Rebecca Ackroyd

Rebecca Ackroyd, 27, 2017

I speak to Rebecca Ackroyd via Zoom from her studio in Berlin in late August, not long before her solo exhibition, Fertile Ground, opens at Peres Projects in Seoul (until 13th October). She will also be exhibiting at this year’s Frieze London and in December at Art Basel Miami Beach. Fertile Ground, like much of Ackroyd’s practice, delves into the surreal whilst being grounded in the monotony of the everyday. In playing alone, for example, a cast of the artist’s hands in a sink is at once familiar and strange; the hands are disconnected from the body, whilst a blade – bloodied? – lies conspicuously in the basin. Those familiar with Ackroyd will know that epoxy resin casts of the body, often in lurid, sometimes grotesque colours, are a central part of her work. And oftentimes, fragments of these casts reappear in different bodies of work. In the Seoul exhibition’s title piece, fertile ground, the artist casts her arms, upper torso and legs wearing a pair of boots that belonged to her mother in the 1960s. The physical fragmentation of the artist’s body in this piece unpick the complexities of time and memory in relation to family history and connection. This can be evidenced by the fact that, as she tells me during our conversation, she has previously cast her mum’s ageing hands as well as her own, ‘and then in 30 years’ time, [mine] will be old and possibly look like my mum’s.’ This, she says, stems from an interest in preservation. But fertile ground also recalls, or reimagines even, an earlier sculpture, Tonguing the fence from her 2021 show,100mph which also features those 1960s boots. The 100pmh exhibition, which as the artist explains below came out of a dream journal she made during the first lockdown in 2020, had a crimson-tinged sleaziness to it. And if Fertile Ground grapples with the subconscious in order to examine how our sense of self is produced and reproduced through the memories we think we recall and stories we tell ourselves, 100mph delved into a very different part of the psyche. There, the works – and in particular Ackroyd’s gouache and pastel pieces – seemed to unlock a Pandora’s Box of what the artist terms ‘bad thoughts’. In pieces like 1,000,000 Eggs, green flesh gleams through fishnet tights, the strangeness of the tinted skin offset by a blood-red hand rested slightly coquettishly on a hip.

In unison with other pastel works on show at the exhibition,100mph recalls the garishness of Otto Dix’s triptych of Berlin nightlife from the early 1920s; in Metropolis (1925), like Ackroyd’s pastel works, there’s an uneasiness that oozes out – as a collective uncertainty seems to seep through the polished cracks (or, in Ackroyd’s case, grazed knees). Even the most exciting of circumstances – for Dix, a bustling club playing jazz music, or for Ackroyd, the experience of catching a flight to go on holiday as her work Singed Lids from the 2019 Lyon Biennale depicts –  can be boring experiences. Resin casts of airplane seats are positioned in the artist’s character disjointed fashion, with the remnant of a leg or a suitcase making the odd appearance. In that work, Ackroyd again recalls a collective encounter, pieced together through the fragmented lens of a distant memory. Of course, the comparisons with Dix are limited – he was attempting to capture a broken society in the aftermath of war and hyperinflation, and the sexual politics are a far cry from Ackroyd’s own handling of sexuality and femininity. But nonetheless, both seem to touch on how we, guided by that inner voice in our head, collectively go about trying to make sense of the world around us. And below, as the artist discusses the importance of ordinariness in her work, it seems that sometimes the most ordinary of circumstances feature in the strangest of dreams.

Rebecca Ackroyd,
Flower form, 2022

Rebecca Ackroyd, Flower form 2, 2022

Something that strikes me about your work, and seeing how it’s installed in exhibition spaces, is the idea of the encounter – and encountering the work in a space. For example, you’ve previously spoken about the use of a pub carpet as a recurring motif since you first used it in previous exhibitions in 2017, which is both part of the exhibition install and the work in a way. How do you think about the work within the space, and how do you visualize the experience and the encounter that the audience will have with your work in situ?

It really depends on the show and the mood at the time that I’m making the show. The last show I did at Peres Projects Gallery in Berlin, 100mph (2021), took place during lockdown and the basis for the work started from a dream journal I was making in the first lockdown. The works didn’t directly correlate to the journal though I ended up showing drawings from the dream journal in the show on a separate table. [But] it was mainly drawing because I didn’t have any assistance to make sculpture, and I was just working on my own with my boyfriend (he was my assistant!) 

The work was really informed by the idea of dreams, psychological space and something that’s more of a subconscious thought that is buried or hidden.

Rebecca Ackroyd, RAY!, 2018

«There was very much this relationship between a sort of deep internal space and bringing that out. I was really interested in how that could kind of be expressed through sexual desire or ‘bad thoughts’; a sort of internal mechanism of thinking that we don’t express.»

That was the driving force behind a lot of the drawings. 

The way install or approach altering the space really depends on the show, the content and the way I want it to feel. But I am definitely interested in there being familiar elements, like a carpet – the pub carpet, that I’ve used repeatedly, and I used again in 100mph – as a way of signifying a time, or a place, or a culture, and then contrasting that with these out-there drawings or psychological abstract works. I’m really interested in bouncing between places, and I think that’s definitely reflected in how I assemble a show. 

Rebecca Ackroyd, Hear Her, man hole, 2018

For your most recent show, Fertile Ground (2022), reference is made to an encounter you had with a building site in London. But to what extent do you look for an influence or an inspiration when it comes to making a body of work, or does a body of work come out of something more instinctive?

I think it really depends, like with Fertile Ground, you mention the building site – I wouldn’t say that that memory necessarily meant, or influenced, the actual works themselves. I think I’d started making the work already, and it’s almost like I look for anchors that root the work in different ideas.

Rebecca Ackroyd, 1990’s REST, 2018

And that particular memory felt like it grounded the show somehow. In fact, I wanted the building site to be the show image, but then I found the photo of it, and it was such a boring photo. I thought the idea was more interesting than the reality. In my head, I’d built it up as this really overwhelming visual encounter – which I think it was, but it just didn’t translate into an image at all. It just looked like a building site.

«It’s more interesting when the work is layered and bounces between different ideas of abstraction, figuration, personal history, and then more shared ideas of existence or life – or something more ubiquitous, like a shop shutter, or a tool.»

I’m interested in how work can be layered in that way basically; layering content and layering ideas.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Tide Turn 2018 UK, 2018

In Fertile Ground, you’ve got the cast of yourself and you’re wearing your mum’s boots from the ‘60s, which is a very personal connection to your own experience. But, from what you just said, I get the impression that your work is less autobiographical, and the use of personal history is more a vehicle for exploring certain themes at a particular point in time?

Yeah, definitely.I mean it’s difficult, isn’t it? I think the term ‘autobiography’ sounds very literal, and so Idon’t necessarily see it as autobiographical. I see it more as ‘biographical’, in the way that I’m really interested in stories and memory, and how that becomes so fragmented. That informs so much of who we are. With the memory of the building site, I had this vision of something, and then when I actually looked at it, it was really underwhelming! And so, sometimes the thought of something is much more exciting, or inspiring than the reality of it.

Rebecca Ackroyd, RA MULCH, 2018

That also correlates with the creative process for me. I was talking about this to a friend recently, another artist (Sam Windett)– we were saying how when you’re making a show, you’ve got the idea of the show in your head and you’re really driven towards it. And then, you have the reality of being confronted with what you’ve actually done in the space.You’re suddenly in reality and you have to just deal with the fact that you’ve made these works. And that’s what it is – I feel like there’s always a tussle between the idea of the thing, and then the thing itself. 

That’s really interesting because the underwhelming reality of the building site memory also ties into the idea of the mundane that features in your work. In memories and dreams, we pick up on small things and remember them, but the reality is definitely not going to be what you thought it was. In works like Singed Lids (2019), for example, there are these bits of everyday detritus – the suitcase by the side of the seat. Is that mundane, or a way to be able to visualise through small fragments the things we can’t fully recall?  

I think it’s both. In Fertile Ground, there’s a cast of a sink with my hands. I’m really interested in ordinariness, especially with the sculptures. I like the idea of just capturing something that is quite unspectacular, you know – like doing the dishes. I’m more interested in that than I am a performative gesture or something. It took me quite a long time to realise that there’s something really special about living with ordinariness; appreciating normal, day-to-day experiences.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Carpet burn, 2022

And then the fragmentation within the casting is very much about referencing something incomplete, which again links back to the idea of a memory, or, with the Singed Lids piece, a remnant of something. Casting is a very direct way of being able to do that, and I see it as being related to photography in terms of capturing a particular moment. 

I think that’s really interesting because it’s almost like a reliable, true record of something. Whereas, with other mediums such as drawing, that’s always going to be more of an interpretation. And so, I wanted to ask you about the process of making work, and the contrast between having these sculptural works using materials like resin and wire, versus pastels, for example. How do you balance using these different approaches of making, and how do they then work together to create a wider body of work?

I came from making only sculpture to making these small drawings between bodies of work. And then, gradually, the drawings became the pastels, and now they’re as important. I don’t really see a distinction between the processes now.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Hunter/Gatherer viii, 2018

But with sculpture, the thing I struggle with is how full on it is physically. It’s something I have to plan a lot more and think about more in terms of practicality and how things are going to work.But quite often, when I make a cast, we make them in pieces in the studio, and then they’ll just kind of sit around the studio for months. Then eventually, they get incorporated into a work.

«So, in a weird way, my studio is a bit like a sort of graveyard! And then, they get brought to life.»

Rebecca Ackroyd, World view, 2020

I use the drawing and the sculpture in different ways. With the casting, it’s about bringing an element of reality into the work – using myself or a friend or family member, and then grounding that in a particular moment.

With the drawing, there’s definitely a greater freedom in terms of making, which is why I started them. I pretty much make every single one in a small version before I make them big, so I can work on a lot at the same time. I often have numerous ideas that I want to get out, then I can look at them and it gets translated onto a bigger scale. Or they just stay small, or I never show them.

«Making work is about finding ways in which I can have as much freedom as possible.»

It’s really important not to be precious, because once the drawings are on a bigger scale, there’s more pressure there to make it work. I think it’s really important to have the freedom to fail all the time. And I feel like with sculpture, it is this battle to not fail because it’s much harder to articulate. It’s a very different approach, but I feel like in a lot of ways, they inform each other.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Half moon or empty, 2020

You mentioned that you might cast something and then use it at a later date in a body of work. Do you see different bodies of work as a progression, or as a response to a previous body of work? 

I think it really depends. With the sink piece in Fertile Ground, I never thought I would show it because it was just on the floor of my studio for years and then it just seemed to make sense suddenly. So then it gets used in a completely different context.I think it’s probably a bit of both because, when I’m conceiving a show, and especially when it’s in a particular space that I’ve been to, I will be mulling it over and figuring out what I want it to be. I’ll imagine how I will enter that space and then that will inform certain elements – like what I might do to that space. But in terms of the individual works, I think quite often I just have an idea for work, and then I’ll make that piece. But sometimes, it’s less formed than that; it’ll just be a fragment of something, and maybe I’ll make a metal stand for it.

Rebecca Ackroyd, Tonguing the fence, 2020

It really snowballs when I’m making work for a show. I’m not a very good planner; I think that’s just the way I work, though. I have to be able to change and shift things.But then it’s funny, because earlier today, I was thinking of a show that I don’t even have planned, it’s just an idea for a show of work.

«I like to have that openness, and I also like to not necessarily know exactly what a show might be because it’s much more interesting and exciting, and it means that the work can turn into something unexpected.»

With Singed Lids, I don’t think any of the curators even knew what I was doing because it was just like, “here’s a cast of an airplane seat”, or “here’s this cast of a leg”. You couldn’t see the whole thing. I didn’t even see the whole thing until I was in the space; I had no idea if it was going to work or be any good. It’s quite terrifying to do that to yourself, but I do think that that can be one of the best ways to work, it allows the work to unfold. 


Artworks · Courtesy of Rebecca Ackroyd and Peres Projects, Berlin

Erwin Wurm

«Absurdity helps me to clarify, to make the view clear»

Have you ever seen a fat car? Maybe a thin house? It sounds like the start of a joke but for Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, who has spent much of his career exploring sculpture, space and the human form, it is a way to gain a new perspective or understanding of the world around us. While Wurm uses humour as a tool to get peoples attention, ultimately his work is intended to prompt people to look at things more carefully.

With one of his most well-known works, One Minute Sculptures, viewers are invited to take part in and become the artwork themselves. Wurm provides handwritten instructions accompanied by cartoon-like drawings so that viewers can pose with everyday objects, often in absurd and humorous ways.

Wurm states that “I am interested in the everyday life. All the materials that surrounded me could be useful, as well as the objects, topics involved in contemporary society. My work speaks about the whole entity of a human being: the physical, the spiritual, the psychological and the political.” NR Magazine joined the artist in conversation.

Much of your work revolves around the concept of consumerist excess and gluttony. Does your work critique the people who are manipulated to consume in such an excessive way or the capitalist society that entices and forces them to do so? 

It doesn’t critique the people, it critiques the system and the idea of the system. But on the other side, it wasn’t only a critique. I was working on the notion of sculpture and what does it mean to make a sculpture. Then I came to some basic questions, when I make something I add volume and take volume away. When we gain and lose weight we do the same, so you could say gaining and losing weight is a sculptural thing. I found this strange absurd relation interesting. The sculptural issue was always combined with the social issue. Sometimes it’s more a critique of consumerism, sometimes it’s addressing questions about our entire life, and psychology, and all these things.

One of your most well-known series of works is One Minute Sculptures in which viewers pose with objects to become ephemeral sculptures. As these ‘sculptures’ are then captured with photography what separates them from say, an image on social media with someone posing in a similar way? What makes one a ‘sculpture’ and the other simply a funny image? 

Well first, I started doing them in 1992 far before social media existed. At the time I invited people to follow my instructions and I made little drawings so people could realise the sculpture. It was an attempt to democratise the concept, so everybody can be a part of the art piece. So I invited the public to follow these instructions and at that time we offered mainly, at the exhibitions, Polaroid photographs. So they would have a Polaroid taken of them and then they would go home with it.

This was far before social media existed, but then social media came and now everyone comes into my shows with mobile phones and takes selfies. But it’s cool, it’s great, and they transport them out into the world. And many people know my work. I was surprised that this became a success because as an artist you always have doubts. I was very surprised that it became so successful.

You consider the physical act of gaining and losing weight as a sculptural gesture. Is the intention for your work simply to explore the sculptural form of gaining and losing mass or is it a greater commentary of the danger and damage diet culture causes? 

I was playing with this diet culture because I remember when I was younger, it started in the 70s, there were these photographs about gaining weight. These double portraits with one slim one fat. I turned it around and made a portrait of one slim one fat, so I was playing with the important questions of daily life. Important questions which everybody and all these magazines were dealing with.

You are known for using humour to explore serious topics in your art. Do you think that people these days, particularly the younger generation, see using humour as a coping mechanism as part of their collective identity? If so how do you think that affects how they approach the creative sphere?

My humour comes from the idea of the absurd. I’m very influenced by the absurd like Beckett, Ionesco, and all the others. Also, the idea of paradox, looking from the paradox and the absurd angle to view our world and maybe see something else, something different. This is necessary because our world is fucked up, and in a very bad condition, and it gets worse and worse.

«I think we have to start making steps back and look at what we are doing.»

Where we have brought the world and how we will treat our world in the future. Absurdity helps me to clarify, to make the view clear in a way. And humour is a part of absurdity, yes. Sometimes humour is a good thing to use, but not always because I’m not a joke teller. I don’t want to become someone who is just telling jokes. I want to be taken seriously, even though sometimes I use humour as a certain method.

You often extend and alter reality in intriguing, humorous and disturbing ways. Do you think viewers connect with your work because there is a common desire for escapism in a post-capitalist society?

Maybe? But frankly, I never thought about this very seriously because I’m more intrigued by my work. I feed into my own work and my own universe. I try to get the best out of it and then I show it to the public and they discuss it. They love it or they hate it or whatever but I am more focused on my work and not so much the reaction of my work.

So you say you dive into your universe, how would you describe that?

I create certain issues in my work and certain quality criteria. I always try to get better and it’s getting worse and then it’s getting better and then not. So it’s a constant fight. It’s a daily fight with my work and the rules inside my work, the different components and the quality aspects that I’m fighting for. Sometimes it goes very easy and very smooth and sometimes it’s very edgy and complicated. Sometimes I don’t get to the point and I don’t even know where the point is. The point is disappearing and I have no idea what I’m doing. Then desperation is following and then it’s releasing again and it’s constant up and down. But I think every artist can give you this same answer. Because an artists life is not like you know what you are doing and you just do it. It’s full of doubts and shortcuts in a way. That makes it exciting, but also exhausting sometimes.

Do you have a specific way you approach your work, say from coming up with an idea to seeing it to fruition?

Yeah so when you work a lot, you get more and more ideas. I never run out of ideas, but it’s whether they are good or not. I write them down and make little notes and little drawings in little booklets. I look at them after a certain time and when I find something interesting I make a mark of it. Then I go on with it and I come back and forwards and backwards. In one moment I think “Oh that’s a good idea I could do something out of this”, and then I have to decide “What do I do?” Do I make a photograph, or a video, or a 3D sculpture, or a drawing, or a painting, or whatever? So that’s a second process and this lasts sometimes a long time, sometimes a year or more, and others times it goes very quick. It depends on my mood or my idea.

Your work deals with philosophy drawing inspiration from philosophers from the early twentieth century. Is there a philosopher or philosophy that stands out particularly when it comes to your work as a whole?

Well yes, because I’m Austrian there were always two guys who were very influential on me. One isn’t actually a philosopher but a psychologist, Sigmund Freud of course. The inventor of psychoanalysis, he’s Viennese.  The other is Liechtenstein, who was a linguist describing and trying to make order of the world through language. Just the opposite of Sigmund Freud which is very interesting too.

For other people, if you go back to Montaigne who was a philosopher from the Renaissance. By writing about the world, just by writing about himself and his family, and his needs and necessities, and his desires and his longings, that made him write about the world. It’s so interesting because that’s what artists are doing.

«When we make work about us, in a way we mean the world.»

When it’s functioning well, it’s accessible for many people. if it’s just a story about your grandmother nobodies interested, but if you’re able to lift up a story that is accessible to many people, then it’s interesting.

How do you find that then comes out in your work?

That’s a good question. How do I know? Sometimes I have the feeling it works well, and then not. It’s a constant doubt, yes. That’s the fight that I was talking about before.

What advice do you have for young creatives?

Oh my God, go on! Don’t believe anybody! Because so many people gave me advice and much of it was good but also much of it was not good. So be critical with what you hear and what drives you. Be critical with yourself, and be critical with the world, and try to make it better every single day, and don’t give up. Don’t give up, go on. People will tell you “Oh there are so many artists in the world we don’t need another one” or “You will never make a living out of this.” I heard this always. Just go on. Just trust yourself. You really want to do it then do it. If you have doubts then stop and try to have a better life somewhere else. And I mean having doubts in the general idea of becoming an artist, not having doubts about the work you are doing.

Are you working on any projects at the moment and what plans do you have for the future? 

Oh, I have several shows coming up. I’m not able to go, but we made a show with augmented reality. They scan sculptures and then they transform them. You can go there and there is a QR code on the floor, and you see this sculpture pop up. Sometimes it’s very large and you can walk around them. I will be there on a flying carpet as an augmented reality also. It’s an experiment we did this recently and it was quite successful. In the fall I will do some other shows, so it’s going well, it’s going good! I have a lot to do, it’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to being able to have exhibitions and openings which I can go to.

Fabian Oefner

«discoveries in science and technology have always been a catalyst for the arts»

Destruction and creation go hand in hand in Swiss artist’s Fabian Oefner’s work. Everyday objects are sliced up and then reconstructed in resin or placed between the pages of a book, allowing the viewer to see the secret inner workings of a Nike shoe, a voice recorder, a camera and so on. Sports cars appear to have been caught mid-explosion, with cogs, gears and screws floating in chaotic unison, but are instead the combined product of hours of individual photographs. Drones map out the changes to a glacier over the last hundred years in eerie long exposure photographs. Oefner’s work straddles the so-called divide between art and science highlighting the interconnectivity of the two subjects.

You are most well known for combining science and art in your work, but do you not think that all art requires an element of science and vice versa? 

Absolutely. To be quite honest, I always found it strange to be identified by combining art and science. To me that’s the most natural thing. If you look at the history of art, the combination of art and science has always been there. Da Vinci and Michelangelo’s close studies on the anatomy of the human body allowed them to create their masterful paintings and sculptures, Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura resulted in these marvellous compositions of his, etc. The list goes on and on.

«I believe that discoveries in science and technology have always been a catalyst for the arts.»

How did you decide on the objects you used in Heisenberg, you mentioned that they were all connected to memory but was there any other criteria you used to select them? 

Memory definitely has been the most important deciding factor. But I also have to add that the series is not done yet, those are just the six initial objects. I would love to expand the series to about 12 sculptures. Objects that might be included are typewriters, a violin, the first Mac computer and a Moog synthesizer.

Much of your work requires hours and hours of time to complete. Do you consider the lengthy process part of the work, a kind of performance art as it were? 

That’s an interesting thought…one of my favourite quotes about art is one by Yves Klein who said: “My works are only the ashes of my art” I can relate to that. To me, the art is hidden somewhere in the process. But

«I think to a certain degree that process is manifested in the final sculpture.»

With your exploded car series you had the opportunity to work on a real life-sized car, have you ever considered working with something even bigger? 

I have, yes. I would love to create a Disintegrating image of a Blackbird SR-71, the fastest plane ever created. Since this plane is more than 30 feet long and the few surviving examples are all in museums. So the challenges to create the image are tremendous. But I guess that’s one of the reasons I want to and eventually will create this image.

What’s the most challenging project you have worked on and why? How did you overcome those challenges?

“Timelines”, my work on the changing landscapes in the Alps has been very complex. The technology to create these images is still in very early stages, so you have to be very flexible in adapting to what’s possible and what is not. Also, the environment in which these images were created was a challenge, high up in the mountains, during the night, with wind gusts at 100 km/h and snowfall. At this point, you sometimes question yourself why not choosing something simpler to do.

But in the end, those projects are always the most rewarding, the ones, where it’s just one obstacle after the next. But

«if you persevere and keep that vision of yours in front of you, then eventually you will succeed.»

What advice would you give to young creatives who have an interest in both art and science? 

To believe in their work. That it means something to the world, that you are creating it. And to not look left or right, worrying about whether their work is Instagramable or not. Sooner or later, you will find the right people, that will appreciate what you do.

You consider your practice as a form of modern archaeology and you mentioned finding a note in one of the cameras you deconstructed. Have you ever found anything else like this? 

I cannot think of something tangible right now like the note, but I often wonder about what the story of all those objects is, for example, the cockpit voice recorder. How many parts of the world has it flown over, what conversations between pilots it has recorded. It would be fascinating to know the answer to these questions.

Much of your work involves deconstructing and examining man-made objects, have you ever considered doing the same with forms found in nature? 

No, this is something I haven’t considered for my work. I use a different iconography than objects from nature to convey my ideas.

What was the artwork that you felt the most connection to and excited you the most? Why that one in particular? 

It’s the series of sculptures I am working on now, which are called “Momentum”. The objects will be published later this year. 6 sculptures that depict a moment in time in three dimensions. I loved them so much because they are taking everything I learned so far to the next level. I cannot wait to share them with you.



Subscribe to our