Artist Profile: Adam Clarke - Heartbreak Hill

We met Adam Clarke to talk Bauhaus, Boosbeck, and getting lost in Yorkshire's cultural archives

We met Adam Clarke on a damp Saturday morning in Clapton to talk Bauhaus, Boosbeck, and getting lost in Yorkshire's cultural archives. Just out of his MA at the RCA he had it all going on.


Who is Adam Clarke? Tell us about your background and how it might have influenced your work.

My background and where I’ve come from have heavily influenced my work. I’m from Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire and my dad’s a joiner, so I’ve always been used to thinking through my hands as a way of making, and trying to understand what craft is.


Middlesbrough came from the industrial revolution and I come from a post industrial town. Unemployment levels in Middlesbrough are on a level with what they were in the 1920s-30s. So I feel like we've gone through the same cycles, and now as an artist I ask, what’s my role? How do I situate myself as an artist between this shift towards commodification and the question of what work and labour is? Coming from a post industrial town, it’s kind of funny.


What’s your artistic background and what’s influenced your processes and mediums?

I’m a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art and I studied Printmaking. I graduated originally from Teesside University and spent five years scrobbling around, looking at and trying to work out what it was that I was making. You can spend a lot of time floating about and questioning your practice. I wondered, ‘If I did something, went to somewhere like RCA, would that change my artistic practice?’


Those two years you spend doing a Masters degree, you’re trying to work out what your background is, what it is you make? My process has become a set of processes. Now, at first, I tend to bury myself in archives but everything I do has a base. I think of my work as four concrete pillars where my work situates itself. Sometimes it leads more towards one pillar sometimes another. I think I’ve got the foundation of my practice, and now it’s building upwards.


Can you tell us the story of Heartbreak Hill?

I was on a residency in Paris when somebody told me there was a Bauhaus movement that happened in North Yorkshire and I just couldn’t believe it, you just don’t understand. You know - Bauhaus! That was something I’d learned about in school, it’s a huge thing. So, there was this nostalgia, this longing for something that I didn’t quite understand. But it wasn't a doey eyed nostalgia, it was more, ‘I just don't understand this past’.


You’re so far away, in the cultural layers of Paris and you just want to be in Middlesbrough.


When I got back I was trawling the internet and emailing people, trying to find out as much as possible. I used to work in galleries so I had good connections to local historians, but nobody knew anything about it. It’s the kind of thing that gets under your skin. You want to know whether this is a real thing. So I spent two months digging through the archives, through all the shit, and came out with a few pieces of documentation, a few letters. I went through another archive and found out a few more photographs of the workers and the objects, which I drew from things. You start to see the dots.


The way I see myself now is as a social anthropologist, because this is brand new. It’s undiscovered pieces of social and local history. It’s relevant to my practice in that I’ve always been interested in the role of the craftsman, or the authenticity of the craftsman.


When I was in the RCA in the first year I felt like I was lying a little bit. I knew I was interested in these things but I couldn’t really get it out. I didn't know that the best avenue for this sort of thing would be digging away in an archive to find these images, these Bauhaus objects that were made by these miners. That’s the most interesting thing, that these things, the objects, are lost. So I’ve re-appropriated these images through drawing. It allows me to study them.


I started to re-make the objects too. The parameter I set myself was that: this is the object, you can only work from the photograph of the object. So I had to analyse it.  It was a colour photograph and the object was a yellowy colour.


I knew it was shiny. That’s all I could really work out. I had to then use digital processes to work out what size the object was. I had to rebuild it in Rhino 3D Sketchup to understand its proportions, to work out and know the size of it just by looking at a photograph of the sitting room it was in. It’s quite lo-fi in the end, that you’re re-making a piece of furniture but you have to go through digital processes to start using your hands again.


I also re-made an Oskar Schlemmer dance. Oskar Schlemmer was associated with Bauhaus by his Triadisches Ballett ”Bauhaustänze”, and at the same time, in the town of Heartbreak Hill, there was a folk dance. Both dances are no longer practiced and have been lost as pieces of history. But there are photographs of The North Skelton Dancers, and there is a photograph of Oskar Schlemers Triadisches dance, and for me these dances are on equal planes. I worked with six dancers, a choreographer, and two cameramen to re-create these two pieces of lost documentation, to offer a contemporary discourse.


You become quite sensitive about the subject because you know it well. I’ve been interviewed by the local paper about Bauhaus artists in Middlesbrough, so now I’ve become the author of the image. I reappropriate the imagery, so in a way I own it. I’m now the person they ask about Bauhaus. I’ve become the orchestrator. All I can do is find these facts or these bits of documentation and weave a narrative. Sometimes there’s no fiction in that, but I can twist it so it’s interpreted a different way if I want to.



Is this going to be an ongoing theme, of digging into the archives?

Yes, because I’ve got a link. It first happened in Middlesbrough, but now I’ve got emails saying a workshop happened in South Wales, so I’ll go through their archives too. I've also been approached by The Useful Arts Association, which is Grizedale. They’ve seen my work as a good project. It fits their bill, taken from this Ruskin idea to make art more accessible to everyone in today’s society. They now want to re-make the furniture with unemployed people of middlesbrough today. There’s an 'interpretation of the past, but with a focus towards the future.’


Do you think the role of a contemporary artist must now always be multi or interdisciplinary, working across disciplines and sectors, like anthropology, technology and science?

That’s how I find I work in order to question the authenticity of the craftsman. You have to work with what you want your work to do. For me, I chose a course that was multi disciplined that didn’t have a set outcome. If you wanted to make etchings, animation or sculptures, you can do it. In many ways I have a problem with a print department that is trying to gain an identity of pure traditional craft. It becomes a crisis point to me, because that’s when you lose all these splinter points of where you might want to go and what you want your work to do.


I’ve sat on a discussion panel about what is printmaking today, and you look at Mark Leckey or Nigel Rolfe; they’re working digitally and anything we see as digital media now is a print. That’s why I chose a discipline where I could choose any direction. If you want to make something you have to go to the farthest reaches to do it. You’re the orchestrator.


I spent ten hours in a dance studio, one wet morning in a field, and 12 hours with a composer. I spent two months making this object and it kind of looks just like Ikea furniture. You go into the Bauhaus building and it's full of Ikea looking furniture - and on the flip side, Ikea make Bauhaus furniture to go into the Bauhaus motel.


In terms of drawing, It’s quite a personal thing to do. There’s no smoke or mirrors, but with the other things, you’re completely opening your practice up and relying on others to produce it for you. You also become a salesman, trying to get people to work with you on a small budget, to put time in. I see art and design as very different things though. I made an object, it had a function and I took it’s function away from it. Then it became art.


Is there enough help available now for underprivileged creatives?

I don’t believe that there’s upward mobility, you have to fight tooth and claw to get where you want. I’ve not come from a tin mine but there’s no way that I’m privileged. I’ve had to work. You work hard at what you do and try to explain to your parents, ‘It’s alright, I’m drawing now’. It’s just something that you do. And now education's not a cheap experience either. It's dangerous. If you didn't have people from all backgrounds becoming designers and architects you wouldn’t have had things like the Bauhaus.


Creativity in schools has been cut, so we’re looking at people who are not going to have a clue about craft or art, which has always had an identity problem. But without art you don’t get culture.


Why is art important for everyone?

I don’t know whether it’s art for everyone, or if it’s the relevance of art. What is the relevance of art today? It’s crucial. It’s everywhere. You can’t help but see it everywhere. You know that the technologies you use will find there way into your practice. For me it’s a way of engaging in a process. Without creativity we’d have nothing. You forget how much this feeds into other things, and the way of trying to disseminate that into a wider audience... I always think, what would my dad think when he comes to see my work. He’d look at it and say 'that’s good that’, but I think he thinks it’s good because he can measure it, you can measure the drawings, but you can’t measure the process behind it and you can never measure art… artists see things differently.


Do you read about art, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors have inspired you?

I don’t subscribe to heavy theory, I’m not going to say I know anything. Writing my dissertation I dropped in a bit of Marxism, about the alienation of the worker. There’s Hal Foster too. He wrote Artist as Ethnographer.


If you could collaborate with any artist of any discipline who would it be and why?

I like Elizabeth Price. The filmmaker Clio Barnard. I always get linked with Jeremy Deller, the problem with that is he can now helicopter in. He’s now the ‘other’ looking in. What I try and do is be inside that circle from the beginning.


What's new? What's next?

I’ve got a solo show in Manchester with Untitled gallery in February, so I’m working towards that. I’m talking with Grizedale Arts and I’ll have a show with MiMa in 2015. They’ve all got very different identities. Just out of my MA I’m struggling to comprehend.


Recent and upcoming exhibitions and events:

TinType - London - 'Screaming Hornets' - 5th-27th September 2014
Van Abbe Museum - Eidenhoven, Netherlands (Useful art Association - Grizedale Arts) - 'Confessions of the Imperfect' - 22nd Nov 2014 22nd Feb 2015
-  Untitled Gallery - Manchester - February 2015


Adam Clarke investigates forgotten histories and social narratives. He is intrigued by the interface between work in the sense of labour, and work in the sense of artistic practice. Clarke has been researching a moment in time when William Franks, a student at the Bauhaus in the late 20s, returned to England and worked at a miners’ camp at Boosbeck, North Yorkshire, training the men to make Bauhaus style furniture. “By laying out a series of historical facts and interweaving them with fiction, or simply with modern interpretations, I am asking what is work and what is art?”

Visit Adam's website or his Tumblr to find out more.