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ARTISTS IN CONVERSATION: Interview with Polly Bates

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds

@iamajreynolds








Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Hand Boulder’ 2022. Crank ceramic sculpture, approximately 20cm x 30cm x 20cm. © Polly Bates


I have always had a personal understanding that humans are no different to nature, but I still find a deep calling to question and understand in what way we connect with our home world. Many artists and activists like to draw examples from history or redirect the need to understand with fear-inducing revelations caused by humanity's disconnect. I, too, could go down the scary route and mention how we are currently witnessing Earth’s declining viability due to the still present disregard for its finite resources. Or I could introduce Manchester-based artist Polly Bates, who not only acknowledges this dreadful scenario but channels it through a humorous and gentle approach. The latter, I feel, would be a better read.

Polly Bates uses an information-based approach to create bodily geological objects, with some mimicking or including human-like features to communicate what connections humans have with Earth on a biological level. Throughout Bates’ exploration, she has discovered that our bodies share minerals with the ecosystems that surround us. An example of this mineral relationship is that gallstones and kidney stones formed within the human body are composed of a mineral known as Calcium Carbonate, which helps to form sedimentary rocks, fossils and coral reefs.



Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Bird’s Eye’ 2023. Gypsum plaster relief, plasterboard, wooden frame. © Polly Bates


What makes Bates’ work stand out is her ability to lighten up an already terrifying topic. It was hard for me to listen to David Attenborough in his documentary ‘A Life on Our Planet’; I spent much of the documentary sitting on the edge of my seat feeling a deep panic set in. Whereas with Bates’ work, I am learning about the fascinating biology we share with nature whilst being eased into understanding the importance of respecting and nurturing the planet's health.


Both ‘Hand Boulder’ (2022) and ‘Handsy Boulder’ (2022) express Bates’ feelings and intentions. The way the hands caress the boulders fills me with a sense of intense fear, an almost smothering gesture on their porous counterparts which demonstrates Bates’ eco-anxiety. The stone-like sculpture reciprocates the hand gesture as it leans into them. There is an overwhelming feeling of love and fear.


‘Rock and Roll’ (2022) boasts a crumpled arm-like base, collapsing in on itself with a hand softly reaching out. The stem of the piece has become deflated, carrying this heavy open hand. This makes me question what this hand could be reaching out for. It could be another hand to hold, to pull it out of its slump. Reaching out to its neighbour in warning of the uninhabitable environment they belong. Or reaching as a flower positions itself best to drink in the sun’s rays. All would be symbiotic interactions.


I spoke to Polly Bates, and we delve more into her exhibition Symbiotic and her artistic practice.


Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Hand Boulder’ 2022. Crank ceramic sculpture, approximately 20cm x 30cm x 20cm. © Polly Bates


AJR: Congratulations on your solo exhibition ‘Symbiotic’ at AIR Gallery in Manchester. Could you tell us a bit about the exhibition and the works involved?


PB: I would love to! ‘Symbiotic’ is an exhibition which features various works I have created over the past 2 years. It is a compilation of my exploration into the experience of living in a geological era shaped by humanity.

I have created this series of works in response to my reading into social, cultural, and biological connections to non-human nature, but more specifically the myriad of relationships between humans and rocks. One example of social connection is through the marital rings worn on our fingers which become a symbol of love and partnership, a cultural example is through rocks and crystals used in spiritual healing practices, and biological through mineral relations within our own bodies.


Hints to these relationships are scattered throughout the exhibition. I have used Gypsum, a mineral structure found in sedimentary rocks, in various ways, from the plinths to the sculptures themselves. Gypsum is an unrecognised material which is essential to our everyday life. Gypsum hides in the walls of our homes, the cement roads we walk on and the toothpaste we brush our teeth with.


Most works exhibited are both fired and unfired clay sculptures, with clay representing a natural, raw, earth material. I have manipulated this natural material just as humans distort and transform landscapes, which become tools in our economy with little concern for degradation and exploitation.


I also hope that these relationships can be seen in visual ways too, not just through materiality, creating a subtle narrative for human connection to land. For example, ‘Hand Boulder’ features 2 hands which blend into the sculptural rock's surface. The positioning of the hands are both resting and grasping, which speaks to our integral reliance on land, yet we are contorting and reshaping it to suit our needs or preferences.


Not only does the use of clay feed into the materiality of rocks in my research, but it also has its own vibrancy, energy and agency. I have started to explore sculpting in a collaborative way, welcoming a mutual discussion as the material reacts and begins to determine its own form. This unpredictable nature of clay progresses into the firing process, where air pockets can cause cracks and breakages. The sculptures begin to evolve and alter their appearance without my influence.



Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Handsy Boulder’ 2022. Crank ceramic sculpture, approximately 25cm x 20cm x 20cm. © Polly Bates


AJR: Where has your inspiration for seeing spiritual connections between human biology and geology stemmed from?


PB: I have always had a deep interest and passion for the environment and am in complete awe of all its habitants. We can so easily get caught up in daily pressures and contemporary life that we forget how remarkable, even magical in a sense, it is to even exist. These feelings have spilled over into my sculptural practice, amongst other feelings of anxiety for the health of this precious life source.


My sculptures tend to stem from research essays and readings, and since 2017 my practice has been a response to the Anthropocene. My eco-anxiety has since rocketed as the more I was learning about the damage, destruction, and deaths we are, and will, cause, the more it was keeping me up at night. I felt completely helpless and hopeless.


But since 2022 I have been learning about Mycology, Gaia Theory and Animism, all of which recognise a sense of spirit and energy in ecosystems. The fact that plants and trees communicate warnings of soil degradation, amongst many other things, via their root system below our feet blows my mind. Indigenous cultures are practising animists by nature and still have a symbiotic relationship with the non-human world, supporting and participating in ecosystems instead of monetising and destroying them. If everyone was to understand and admire the complex inner workings of unappreciated elements in nature, I believe the world we know, and love, would be in much better health.



Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Handsy Boulder’ 2022. Crank ceramic sculpture, approximately 25cm x 20cm x 20cm. © Polly Bates


AJR: Your work aims to identify and showcase human and non-human relationships using examples like Calcium Carbonate, which your practice reveals to be a mineral found in human gallstones as well as in rocks. Why do you feel it is important to highlight the relationship between humans and non-human nature through your art?


PB: The fact that human biology can mirror that of volcanic rock and coral reefs shows how intrinsically connected we are to nature. Often humans are described as being separate from nature or other animals, which dates back to colonialism and the era of colonization. This destructive and power-hungry attitude towards land and its local communities has led to the self-proclaimed hierarchy against nature, of which humans sit at the top. Capitalist culture and our obsession with consumerism has only encouraged and exaggerated this division. But we are not separate from nature, and our biology reflects this.



Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Rock and Roll’ 2022. Ceramic sculpture, approximately 28cm x 34cm x 16cm. © Polly Bates


AJR: It is evident through your artistic practice and award-winning platform Artists Responding To… that the current state of the environment and world is a critical topic for you. What makes art an ideal conduit for delivering a commentary on the current environmental status, and how do you feel your exhibition ‘Symbiotic’ contributes to this?


PB: Art is an incredible tool to subtly address sociocultural contexts. It provides a safe space for reflection and most importantly, conversation. Art notoriously inspires debate, whether that is of taste, materiality, or context. An artwork can speak to one person in a completely different way to another. So, what better way is there than to channel this into topics which might otherwise be difficult to discuss? The viewer doesn’t have to agree, but at least it will reveal their opinion and spark conversation.


I hope that ‘Symbiotic’ raises important conversations about our role and responsibility in nature. I previously used my artworks to deliver a sense of warning in a more aggressive way, but the message is now written between the lines. This evolution of working has developed from a realisation that we must confess our love and reliance on nature before anyone will be inspired to save it.



Polly Bates: Symbiotic. ‘Rock and Roll’ 2022. Ceramic sculpture, approximately 28cm x 34cm x 16cm. © Polly Bates


AJR: Your work has been described as “weird” and “odd”, and throughout the exhibition, there are displaced human features such as fingers, rolls of flesh and nipples on your ambiguous, organic structures. Why have you chosen these specific human features and what do you hope visitors will take from them?


PB: I playfully experiment with a sense of the uncanny within my practice. I feel this triggers an emotional or physical response from my viewers, such as squeals of discomfort or laughter amongst smiles, which I enjoy sparking. This also helps when discussing such heavy topics, as it almost disarms people’s defences and catches them off guard. My choice of human features echoes this, as I typically incorporate the more unusual and lesser acknowledged or appreciated human body parts.


Thumbs are a uniquely human feature, and hands are instantly recognisable as belonging to humans, so I tend to sculpt hands or fingers quite a lot. I also find the process of my hands sculpting hands amusing.


Rolls of flesh are a more socially unaccepted and ‘grotesque’ feature of the human body, the creases and folds become the cracks and crevices we see in rocks and landscapes.

As for nipples, they become a symbol of life. Nipples are universally animalistic and are essential when transferring nutrients from a mother to a new-born.


I hope they gross visitors out, make them smile, and make them appreciate the magic that is the natural world.





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