Tessa Silva is a British-Brazilian visual artist and designer. Her practice focuses on materials as tools for storytelling, exploring what they can reveal anthropologically.
The aim of Silva’s work is to re-assign value to a discarded and disregarded material; milk, ‘the elixir of life’ Tessa creates unique objects, both functional and sculptural, reforming ancient techniques to produce contemporary artefacts.
Tessa’s research and exploration prompts the inspection of our material culture retrospectively and prospectively, using craft as a tool to explore the relationship between humans and animals.
“Milk is an ur-substance, an originary substance (Cassirer 1994). It is the first substance to enter the mouth, to touch the tongue, to fill the belly. It is the first fluid to be incorporated into the body outside the womb. Pure white milk is an ideal-type or a norm and, as such, it is a product of our fantasy, just as it is a product of industry. Milk possesses various forms and properties. It can be liquid, solid, powder, emulsion. It can be poured, pressed, moulded, cast, extruded. It is formless, but can take on any form. It takes on shapes, the shape of the vessel, or the shapes pressed into it when in solid form. It is indexical.” 1
As an artist and designer, my practise focuses on materials as tools for storytelling, exploring what they can reveal anthropologically. Milk is my medium. For the past six years my work has been consumed by a fascination in milk, both conceptually and practically, with research resulting in the manipulation of milk proteins to produce bespoke sculptural objects. The unique material I spend my days wielding is an evolution of one existing in the 1300’s, originally used to lay flooring in Tudor houses. An example of this is at the Alfriston Clergy House, built in 1350, where the ‘chalk and sour milk’ floor is still in place. Chalk is formed from the skeletal remains of algae that have broken down on the seabed over millions of years. The seabed eventually became exposed, evolving into the landscapes we now know as chalk cliffs – an example being the White Cliffs of Dover. Working predominantly with a unique – but historically originated – formula of surplus milk and chalk, this material is a product of natural systems that have existed for centuries.
Milk products have helped shape cultures and western civilisation as we know it, with some of the earliest human artefacts including vessels containing residues of cow’s milk. As a raw material it is culturally loaded, from being the subject of multiple origin myths (for example, Zeus and Hera and the Origin of the Milky Way) to its symbolic role in social reform. As author and anthropology professor Andrea Wiley points out in her essay on milk consumption in India; “milk became a part of anti-colonial rhetoric starting in the last nineteenth century, as it was intertwined with cow protection efforts that were a rallying cry against British colonial rule.” 2
If milk is such an important and life-giving substance, why has it been so extracted, abstracted and trivialised? Furthermore, how do modern dairy farms manage to generate a surplus of this precious liquid?
In my quest to re-assign value to the material, waste milk is sourced from a raw organic dairy farm in Sussex, UK. Skimmed milk is a bi-product of the butter and cream making process (the fat is separated leaving behind a protein-rich watery substance). This farm completely rejects the factory model of farming – they have a very small herd of under 40 cows that are all organically grass-fed and milked considerably less than the average industrial dairy cow. As the farm is small, the material is finite. This is an aspect of the project I cherish; the research is not intended to commodify milk for batch-production, most obviously due to the cultural sensitivity required and ethical implications of using milk. Author and sociologist Richie Nimmo articulates that “Milk is not simply a natural substance, but is something enmeshed in a deeply heterogeneous assemblage interweaving humans and animals, reproduction and production, bodies and technologies, organisms and commodities, states and markets, ‘culture’ and ‘nature’.” 3
I refer to the project as a whole as ‘Feminised Protein’, a term conceived by author Carol J Adams in the early 1990’s to address the exploitation of non-human reproductive cycles to produce food on a mass scale, and how these female animals disappear from concern. 4 Agriculture is a predominantly male profession, with men tasked with the ultimate care of mothers. By giving this fraught and forgotten liquid a tangible form I produce work that I believe to be an homage to both the contentious and the extraordinary aspects of milk. Vases are produced from the material as a nod to the archetypal human-made object. Each piece is cast into a handmade fabric mould, mirroring the traditional processes used to manufacture cheese in cloths. They exist in our world as contemporary artefacts.
The aim of the project is to give this discarded material new life, to preserve it, but also to challenge the apathy that we’ve developed around materials as a whole. Milk is increasingly abstracted from its source as our food system becomes more and more industrialised. This project comments on the disconnect between us and the materials that surround us. I hope that my pieces unapologetically scream ‘MILK’, asking the viewer to question the female mammal’s role in a patriarchal social and cultural structure, and asking the owner to nurture the immortalised form that embodies this.
1Jackson, Melanie, and Esther Leslie. “Unreliable Matriarchs.” In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, 63–80. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
2 Wiley, Andrea S. “Growing a Nation: Milk Consumption in India Since the Raj.” In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, pg 41. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
3Nimmo, Richie. “The Mechanical Calf: On the Making of a Multispecies Machine.” In Making Milk: The Past, Present, and Future of Our Primary Food, edited by Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, 81–98. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Featured film stills taken from Cheese Making at Home. 1918. [film] United Kingdom: BFI.
Tessa Silva is a British-Brazilian visual artist, with an interest in the impact of materials on society and what they can reveal anthropologically. Her focal body of work is titled ‘Feminised Protein’. The work is a study into the use of milk proteins as a material for the handcrafted production of fine objects. Tessa’s research and exploration prompts the inspection of our material culture retrospectively and prospectively, using craft as a tool to explore the relationship between humans and animals; particularly the female mammals role in a patriarchal social and cultural structure.
Sara Barker (b. 1980, Manchester, England) is a sculptor living and working in Glasgow. her glass and metal works create meaning by shuttling between the mediums of sculpture, painting and drawing.
Her fascination with the physicality of art making is evident in her approach to making work, Barker says “I like to stretch materials to their most poignant state where they can’t stand any longer and take on a kind of humanness”. Her more recent work has been large-scale public work, these sculptures are like a vector between the organic and industrial. The suggested physics are upended, floating above you but contouring like the movement of organic materials in space.
What was it about the club project that interested you? Is this a change of scale/pace/type of commission?
You’re right that to work on a small series does involve quite a different approach and that shift can act as a healthy catalyst. In this case, an opportunity to work in and on my environment with cast materials – and in so doing to commit to a form and undergo a process of hand-building and then the translation from the part made and part readymade thing to somewhere new.
The proposal of a pocket of activity and a chance to speak with a different voice is always exciting. At this particular moment, when shifting between working spaces in various states of finish or undress or reveal, and after the closing in of walls post-pandemic (& still reeling) I wanted to deal with the materials of my own walls, that I suppose are a metaphor for various separations of self, while remaining animate themselves.
Taking them and housing them in small shadow boxes, and then casting them to invoke the remnant, its’ construction, and the layers of natural decomposition held in stasis only partially – because the cast form is acted upon afterwards (with paint and other materials), and continues to relate to other objects vitally, physically, sensually.
Your work often shifts perception of dimension, working on a smaller scale like this – does that become more challenging?
That’s an interesting question. I think of scale/dimension not only in real terms. What can a work offer up when it is a viewfinder or a portal to a world/worlds around itself, via real and imaginative means?
I’m also thinking about the miniature and macro – the shift between something real – the scale of material stuff – a brick, a book, a box, a slate etc, also being able to act as a theatre, and to play with the potentials of existing in that state of ‘prelude’ which is very live – it’s a testing ground. I think the challenge is how to keep this sense of live potential in a series like this…
This relationship between painting and sculpture is often foregrounded in your work? How does this relationship sit with you now, or in what ways has it developed over the past decade? Will it become closer in this project for SPG?
In relation to sculptural precedents there is always an apprehension toward painting, colour and light, ideas I have explored in different landscapes. My recent work for the University of Leeds, The worlds of If, made for the new ICEPS building, used iridescent paint on its surfaces so hiding and revealing itself from different angles.
Beams of light bounce from upper and lower surfaces of the film, changing in relation to the angle you view it, just as in nature it is seen in the wings of beetles, the feathers of starlings and the inside of a shell. So that from different views the work appears to adapt its colour palette, optically to play with space.
For SPG, the work is cast and its nature as an object feels primary. Hung on the wall as a relief, the piece evokes painting and paint is used as matter to alter each cast, to activate its materiality and clash with it too, in a kind of negotiation.
Painting has us suspended in between fact and fiction. It feels natural to evade the specification – perhaps I’m chasing what the work is not.
I wondered if Maquette making is a process that you use in creating all your artworks?
That interaction between the scale & play of model (an approximation ) and the idea of exactness, endurance or immensity (in public sculpture or architecture) has been a long-standing interest. This in relation to ideas of temporality or permanence, and a need for me to hold onto provisionality on a scale outdoors.
I think what I could say with certainty is – that I always make a work as if it were a maquette. It might come to be the work itself, or it may need to be made again in more finished ways or on a different scale, or more polished elements may be substituted, held within rough-hewn casings. Work comes about sequentially, lands during the activity rather than at the beginning or end of it, continues to ask questions of itself.
Drawing comparisons with the larger scale works, what’s immediately interesting is the difference in scale, but there’s also an interesting symmetry with the SPG work in the way they relate to ideas of exterior and interior worlds and materials.
I began working on a small scale over the last few years – when concerns over materials, shipping & storing work were fast-tracked by the pandemic, and the new edition echoes the scale of works like ‘hold’ from the Cample line show, and the shift in scale from monumental pieces in a vast landscape of potential, to small pieces that could be held with one hand and look inward.
These small trays – enclosures – I felt could better reflect the converging of environment that happened during lockdown. It feels wild to still be referring to that. Everything was domestic/was made in the domestic. An extreme moment but happening for many in other circumstances – this hemming in, duties of care & making mixed, compromised in an impossibly precarious balancing act, assuming and further separating aspects of identity to fulfil a multitude of roles.
I felt compelled to use those materials readily available, & otherwise wasted, like posted packaging, tin foil and household paints, while working from home. By extension, it was practical to include activity not deemed as artistic. These activities were made impossible to separate in more palpable ways as prior.
Repairing & cleaning, cooking, plastering and painting, making & mothering, scattered and serious conversations. With friends and within families of people, structures blown apart and recast. The reassessment & fracture of selfdom over those years that all had a tangible impact. The work for SPG is made of this stuff…
During the subtle knife show (Baltic) you spoke about the interior as an extension of self, how your work incorporates a more biographical use of space – how our interior spaces represent ourselves. It being about the interior world inside us as much as inside physical spaces. How do you feel this project with SPG connects to this discourse?
When I was 18 I read Woolf’s A room of one’s own which framed the question of women & art within the field of exclusion, of the physical boundaries that confine, the obstructions to thought & action. And the counter, that a ‘containing space’ or physical enclosure could be ultimately enabling, in the example of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom (as described by Diana Fuss) since it allowed freedom from duties, and through the written word she could take part in a larger more sprawling and energising network.
Stein wrote – The 19th century might describe a building or display window in precise detail as if it stood still before them. The modernists perception of the same building gave the impression however of speed, blocks of colour, glimpses of bits and pieces that never cohere. The drag upon the sense, the lag between what we can see or sense. In Melanctha (1905) she developed the continuous present where the narrative moves so slowly or repeats itself so often, as if past, present and future coexisted. This offers a parallel to my relationship to the structural questioning of form in literature and outwith, in relation to time – not only a particular time that works against the obliteration of movement.
Literature has prompted or scaffolded much of my work of the last 2 decades. Every work I have made since that moment with Woolf has been in a sense an estimation of that physical boundary, closed door, a fathoming of inside & out of it – a commitment to understanding the specificity of form – what network is it, what rules govern it? It has engaged me in projects around modernist materialism, the book as talisman of the self, understanding form through materialism, interiority & containment in terms of a construction of subjectivity.
What about writing, what are you reading atm?
I’m rereading Derek Jarman’s Chroma, written a year before Jarman’s death, but for me (and hopefully not to diminish it) it offers up natural remedies to better understand many things – shedding light and shadow on matter & medium – now and through ancient history by describing abstracts, transient nature subordinate to certain subjectivities.
‘Circles of a Stone, and sea defences.
And then I added the rust brown scrap,
A float, a malin and old tank trap.
Dig in your soul with the compost from Lydd,
Cuttings, Division are placed in frames,
Protected from rabbits with neat wood cones’
(Green Fingers, p51, Chroma Vintage Jarman 1994)
And I’ve just read Hello Friend We Missed You, by Richard Owain Roberts. I’m often asking – what can I learn from the language I think – where is the space in writing?
In this case, perhaps it’s something about what happens in the repetition of speech and language between characters Hill and Trudy and Hill’s terminally ill father (Roger) – sculpturally and in terms of adding noise, slippage or subtext, trace – quite an interesting notion in relation to making multiples in this project through sculptural editioning.
The sparsity of the narrative asks what is essential to the work? How does that gesture translate to spatial sparsity or density and what kinds of language & speech play companion to any situation, reduced to the point of abstraction?
From the time she moved to France in 1903 until her death in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1946, American writer Gertrude Stein was a central figure in the Parisian art world. An advocate of the avant garde, Stein helped shape an artistic movement that demanded a novel form of expression and a conscious break with the past. The Paris salon at 27 rue de Fleurus that she shared with Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong companion and secretary, became a gathering place for the “new moderns,” as the talented young artists supporting this movement came to be called. Among those whose careers she helped launch were painters Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso. What these creators achieved in the visual arts, Stein attempted in her writing. A bold experimenter and self-proclaimed genius, she rejected the linear, time-oriented writing characteristic of the 19th century for a spatial, process-oriented, specifically 20th-century literature. The results were dense poems and fictions, often devoid of plot or dialogue, which yielded memorable phrases (“Rose is a rose is a rose”) but were not commercially successful books. In fact, her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of Stein’s life written in the person of Toklas, was a standard narrative, conventionally composed.
In 1976 he made his first feature film, the blissfully homoerotic Sebastiane. This was followed by the irreverent Jubilee (1977), one of the first and only punk films, firmly establishing Jarman as an underground hero. An unconventional and controversial adaptation of The Tempest in 1979 cemented this reputation. Jarman’s best known and most accessible work is 1986’s Caravaggio, a fictionalised account of the life of the Baroque artist, and the first time Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton.
Jarman couldn’t help but react to the society he was living in, the country that was becoming Thatcher’s Britain. His answer to the iron lady was to produce iconoclastic art – art that looked at history but was located in the here and now.Alongside his feature films he worked with key musicians and artists of the day, including The Smiths, Bryan Ferry, The Sex Pistols, punk band Throbbing Gristle, The Pet Shop Boys, Suede and dancer Michael Clark, producing music videos and film installations for live shows.
Richard Owain Roberts
Richard Owain Roberts was born and raised on Ynys Môn, the isle of Anglesey, and now lives in Cardiff. A native Welsh speaker, Richard read English at Manchester University, and graduated with Distinction from a Masters in Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked delivering leaflets and as a teacher in Cardiff Prison, and has published short stories and non-fiction in VICE, The Quietus, 3:AM Magazine, For Every Year, Word Riot, the Guardian and the New Welsh Review. He has published 2 works of fiction, All The Places We Lives (Parthian Books: 2015) and The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize winner for 2020.
Check out his 2020 novel Hello Friend We Missed You.
Joseph Buckley (b. 1990, Ellesmere Port, England) is black British artist of Irish and Caribbean extraction who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
His work is informed by grief and postcolonialism, manifesting in a range of forms including sculpture, video, and writing. Using a myriad of techniques, these themes are alternately reified or obfuscated–mobilised to rhyme or repel each other.
In this exclusive podcast interview for SPG Club, Joseph talks about the artwork he’s making for you all.
We talk about the materials he uses, commenting on the everyday experience of plastic, and how it represents a mystified industrialism that holds a foreboding layer of climatological disaster – but also its capability of unlocking the wonderful and insane stuff that Joseph explores with his practice.
Reoccurrence, the space/time axis, and critical whiteness are congruent themes in this podcast as he describes his artworks as more like 4D hypercubes than buckets. So fill your boots (or buckets!) and enjoy the conversation.
Grant Morrison – The Invisibles
Recently Joseph has been rereading this classic work by Scottish writer Grant Morrison. Widely considered one of the most influential comic book writers of their time, Morrison has worked primarily with D.C. and their offshoot publishers Vertigo.
Thematically The Invisibles is about psychic and physical oppression, tapping into the turn of the millennium paranoia, listlessness and hedonism. This psyop element seems somewhat poignant in more recent times in the way nation states control and subvert information to control the imagination – explored extensively in the documentaries of David Curtis.
Morrison was influenced by Chaos Magic, a form of magic that emerged in the 1970s neo-pagan movement and was adopted into popular culture (largely because of Morrison and The Invisibles) in the late 1990s. Chaos magicians believe that our perceptions are conditioned by our beliefs, that we can change the world as we perceive it by deliberately changing those beliefs, and that this is the essence of magic. Chaos magicians subsequently treat belief as a tool, often creating their own idiosyncratic magical systems and frequently borrowing from other magical traditions, religious movements, popular culture and various strands of philosophy.
The Invisibles was described by Morrison as a “hypersigil”: “a dynamic miniature model of the magician’s universe, a hologram, microcosm which can be manipulated in real time to produce changes in the macrocosmic environment of ‘real’ life.”
Broadly, we could understand Buckley’s sculptures as sigils, the “4th dimensional objects” that Buckley describes his works as, don’t seem far off this. Nor do the allusions to iterations and recurrence, where moments echo or touch each other through time and space. Connecting the human experience, and its struggles. Could his artworks fire the imagination to understand or reshape our understandings of other times and places and reconfigure how we understand the present?
TROUBLE IN OUTER HEAVEN: PORTABLE OPS PLUS
The group show ‘Trouble In Outer Heaven: Portable Ops Plus’ focuses on the influence and fan cultures of ‘Metal Gear Solid’, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. Joseph was part of this show, invited by the curator Jamie Sutcliffe.
The show explored the unnerving possibilities of biogenetic cloning and military espionage, off-shore para-states and the formation of private task forces charged with seizing power from the world’s collapsing democracies, ‘Metal Gear’s’ once bizarre mythos feels disturbingly appropriate to the world we inhabit in 2021.
Stapledon is perhaps best known today as one of the fathers of visionary science fiction, heir to H. G. Wells (with whom he corresponded) and a major influence upon writers such as Doris Lessing and Brian Aldiss, each of whom discovered copies of that same novel and (like Clarke) were changed utterly. But he was also – perhaps predominantly – a philosopher, educationalist and social reformer, linked to pacifist movements in 1930s and (until his death in 1950) a tireless campaigner against the prospect of a Third World War between the USA and the USSR.
<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/HfXmpJRZPYI” title=”YouTube video player” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share” allowfullscreen></iframe>
Tony Benn was a pivotal figure in British leftwing politics in the second half of the 20th century. A national institution, instantly recognisable from his distinctive voice, intense self-belief and fondness for a mug of tea and a pipe, he was held in sufficient regard that even his critics usually found some aspect of his life or career to praise. His compassion and perspective is something that when placed in the context of the current political climate feels very urgent.
War Hammer 40,000
This miniature war game is the most popular of its kind, its orientated around a cohort of private armies and security forces. Set in the future of its titular demarcation, the game itself could be seen to represent the narco-politics of the present day, revealing technologies relationship to capital and state governance, in developing ever more catastrophic ways of destroying each other and the planet.
During the interview, Joseph talks about the reasoning behind the choices he makes in terms of the colour of his works. He makes a few references to the role of physics, the artefact and the lense of art history, as well as a pop cultural interpretation of minimalism.
Holly Hendry (b. 1990, London, England)
Hendry’s work looks at what lies beneath the surface, often embedding waste products that don’t break down and can be rediscovered during excavation processes. Casting is central to her large site responsive sculptures. She works with a range of materials from classical sculptural materials like jesmonite and silicone, to the everyday like lipstick and soap.
Franz West: was an Austrian artist with a playful and collaborative approach to sculpture.
Rem Koolhaas: is a Dutch architect and theorist who is seen as one of the most important architectural thinkers of his age. His paper Junk Space has been a particular influence on Holly’s practice.
Maggie Kilgour: is a Molson professor of English Language and Literature at McGill University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Holly is particularly interested in her theory of ‘incorporation’ in her publication ‘From Communion to Cannibalism’.
Andy Holden (b. 1982, Bedfordshire, England)
Andy’s practice involves sculpture, installation, painting, pop music, performance, animation and multi-screen-video. He also makes music with his band the Brubby Mitts and runs his own gallery, Ex-Baldesarre in Bedford. His work has been shown at Kettles Yard, Tate Britain, the Venice Biennale and Spike Island.
For SPG Club, Andy riffed on his animated avatar popularised in his Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape film and Structure of Feeling. The avatar has become a digital and physical composite, a vehicle to explore how we perceive and interpret the world.