Exhibited as part of V22 Presents: The Sculpture Show, V22, Bermondsey, London, UK.
Amateur philosophy by Joanne Lee
I’m an avowed believer in sheds - not the so-called ‘Big Sheds’ built for distribution and logistics that sprawl the dull flatlands beside UK motorways, but those of a more intimate and personal variety. My own shed, inherited as part of an allotment tenancy, may be a ramshackle affair constructed from the wonky mix of old wardrobe panels and cannibalised UPVC windows, topped off with ill-fitting corrugated sheeting, but it is very definitely more than the sum of its parts: once inside, I’m mentally transported as I potter, toil or daydream, my mind untethered from its familiar daily circuits. Sheds are powerful places: perhaps evocative of our propensity for den-making in childhood - a time when our imaginations were less constrained - they offer a portal into a different way doing and thinking, an alternative kind of reality. They are places of transformation – from the everyday consciousness shifts of teenagers drunk on cheap cider in otherwise empty allotments, to the reveries of shed-as-retreat for grown men, a space to let go after work is over with for the day. In certain sheds you might discover inventors (crackpot or otherwise) fettling curious things with soldering irons and hacksaws, or amateur scientists performing experiments with unexpectedly sophisticated kit. Elsewhere, they are a place in which to work hard at doing nothing, to be determinedly unproductive: feet up, radio on, cigarette in hand… Though some might seek reputation or fortune, others simply want to find a little time.
Richard Bartle is fascinated by the shed’s potential for providing imaginative escape, and by the diverse species of creative amateurism to be discovered there. He is interested in the complexities of this latter definition, being well aware that the very obsession of amateurs, along with a life devoted to a single pursuit, can transcend the achievements of the workaday professional. For media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the amateur was usefully ‘anti-environmental’, because professionals tend to remain trapped within a prevailing purview, unable to easily see beyond the currently accepted norms of their field. The amateur can afford to fail, as after all, their ‘career’ isn’t on the line: they can take a risk to do things differently and to think in alternative ways to the acceptable mainstream. Perhaps Bartle could be right to fear that the ambitious anti-matter tinkering of an amateur scientist could bring about something pretty catastrophic…
Back on safer creative ground, should you ever feel stuck for what might be possible with a shed, you could turn to one of the many books available on the subject, where you’d discover how one had been transformed into a mock-Tudor pigeon loft, whilst another was reconstructed as an Iron Age roundhouse… But these books, with their uneasy mix of regard and condescension, have nothing to teach Richard Bartle, who has already built a host of far stranger structures. His sheds may adopt an archetypical form, each having a neat apex roof and a finish of proper larch-lap cladding, but their oddity begins with their scale, for these are buildings in miniature and you could in fact hold these sheds in your outstretched arms. Although they are reduced in size, this doesn’t weaken their effect; indeed, I’ve come to think of their scale as reminiscent of homeopathic medicine in which greater dilution is said to increase the strength and efficacy of the remedy. Given that we are unable to physically enter these spaces, we must instead set our imaginations to work, and there are surely few things more powerful than that.
These little sheds sit atop contoured islands of carpet, the carpet signifying an everywhere-nowhere world, as it does in so many children’s games. Inside Bartle’s modest spaces, a variety of odd activities are being pursued: in one, rows of small folding chairs are set out facing a tiny screen, on which plays a looped sequence of someone practicing CPR. On its soundtrack we can hear breath being blown into the lifeless dummy: approaching the work, it seems strangely as if the shed itself is gently exhaling. Knowing as I do that Bartle was once a professional diver, someone trained in advanced resuscitation techniques, there is something terribly poignant about this Lilliputian structure and its video playing endlessly to an empty room: no one is present to learn the vital life-saving lesson. The work chosen for the current show is, however, a little less melancholy: the shed here is a hermit’s cave of sorts – a simple stool and miniature book suggesting a space for conceptual retreat. It evokes at once the determined philosophical autodidact down at the bottom of their garden and struggling with the meaning of life. Ultimately, this work leaves me feeling rather positive, for in a society where ‘experts’ (commentators, pundits, therapists and the like…) are consistently on hand to tell us what we ought to be thinking or how we should act, it’s refreshing to think that across the country there are countless solitary members of an amateur awkward squad, committed to doing things their own way, and I for one am glad that Richard Bartle has tuned in to their distinctive wavelength.
Joanne Lee is an artist and writer based in Brighton. She is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University.