Rachel Lowther is an artist who makes sculpture, installations, photography, video, drawings and album covers that question the comfortable position of making art in a world that is anything but comfortable. In a statement on the Glasgow Sculpture Studios website, she says that she wants to make art purely for pleasure, without having to consider how art should respond to 'bodies torn apart, flesh and bone melted by white phosphorus, children tortured or bombed as they play on a beach, families dreaming of drones and letters from grieving parents.' Her vaguely lurid surrealist sculptures embody both a detached hermetic cruelty and the hopeful simplicity of images from a child’s picture book.
For her specially commissioned exhibition held at the Reid Gallery at Glasgow School of Art in early 2016, Rachel Lowther drew on contemporary conflicts and research she was invited to undertake into the World War I holdings of GSA Archives. She used her research to inspire a new body of work exploring the human impulse for fighting and violence. Banners made from floral bed sheets were printed with images from war ravaged cities; a film depicted a little boy at play, acting out a brutal battle with a hoard of action figures; and clay sculptures of the human figure - measured, considered and modelled in clay over weeks - were captured on film being destroyed in minutes with a pickaxe handle. The exhibition title – Nothing compares to the first time getting shot at - was a quote from a British soldier serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
Among the works inspired by letters in the GSA archives were a number of embroideries, all shown on pieces of stone recovered from the Mackintosh Library after the fire. In one particularly poignant piece Rachel traced the handwriting of a young student who had signed up and been sent to the Western front. In a letter home he writes “I am now marked fit… and am once more for the firing line.”
She also curated an exhibition in the Reid Ground Floor Corridor, From the service of Venus to the worship of Mars, that featured some of the original material from GSA Archives & Collections that she found. This ran concurrently, and featured a selection of letters and ephemera from their archives and collections. These told the story of many individuals from the Glasgow School of Art during World War I. They showcased the variety of activities that the School’s students and staff undertook and how their experiences of war impacted on them and the School as a whole.
You can hear Rachel talk about her work and experience of using the archive in this short video.
Joanne Orr, CEO of Museums Galleries Scotland, said
“This project by The Glasgow School of Art exemplifies what Museums Galleries Scotland hoped to support through our WWI Fund. We asked for new ways of commemorating the First World War and the lasting impact it has had on Scotland’s people and cultural landscape and the work by Rachel Lowther forms a lasting and thought provoking legacy for new generations.”