(selected by Freddie Robins)
Rattles, 2003 - 2005
Sarah Sabin's work is borne out of a playful dialogue between art and archaeology, involving fake relics, false digs and fictitious places. 'At once warmly intriguing yet uncannily alien and stubbornly impenetrable' (1), her hand-made pseudo artefacts, fashioned to appear as though recently unearthed, toy with sober notions of truth and authenticity. Inspired by locations (both real and imagined) and history (ancient and recent) she works across a wide range of media and forms - ceramics, drawing, photography, plaster casting, watercolour painting - fusing both familiar and highly personal signs and symbols, often to recreate her own 'histories'. In their play with narrative, history and fantasy, combined with their small scale and museological theatricality, the works recall the obsessive miniature box-works of American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), whom Sabin cites as an influence. Artist Freddie Robins writes, 'I have seen her work develop over the past three years through her exhibitions and interactions with Firstsite in Colchester. I really enjoy her interests and references, and the very 'human' approach that she takes in her practice.'
An early work, 'Unknown Relations' (2001), is a set of miniature portraits of a fictitious geneaology painted in the style of a faux naive theatrical symbolism. This eccentric cast of characters - including a sailor, a sinister witch-like figure and a clown - is based on passport photos of Sabin herself over the years. Each of the paintings is carefully executed on a cast tablet of plaster that has been stained and lightly distressed to 'age' it. Here, notes curator Matthew Poole, 'Sabin employs a theatrical, sometimes comedic nostalgia that tempers any overt sentimentalism that might be hinted at in the search for information about herself that Sabin might be seeking through this pursuit'. (2)
A long time fascination with archaeology - of what is hidden beneath the surface - led to a period researching with the Colchester Archaeological Trust, observing methods of excavation, archiving and mapping. There are formal similarities between the production and reception of art and archaeology - the object's potency as cipher for the imaginative reconstruction of past lives, and a shared interest in layers and their removal. Poole writes, 'At first glance, one might assume that artistic practices work on a register that operates at odds with the supposedly more sober methodologies of scientific practice such as archaeology. It is precisely this project of reconciling the perceived differences between these two areas that Sabin has taken up through her work. What is it about the ways in which we interpret and decipher objects' meanings that leads us to fix theories and believe in truths about objects and their history? Sabin's work postulates that there are no certainties about the objects that she creates. The works have multiple readings and they are borne out of and issue a complex array of multiple narratives. It is through this that Sabin's work is able to circumscribe, as well as initiate, questions of truth and authenticity.' (3)
In a kind of 'reverse archaeology' Sabin strips the found object of its physical and metaphorical layers then rebuilds them, working back into the object to re-imbue it with 'history': 'Rattles' (2003-2005) combines found objects (rusting forks) with slip cast and decorated babies' rattles; 'Unexploded Bombs' (2005) is a series of ceramic casts of mortar bombs fused with samples of 1960s and 1970s game box images. The installation 'Dig' (2002) presented casts of a 1970s toy Edwardian-esque wardrobe, distorted to appear in a state of decay, as if recently unearthed from some lengthy storage or burial. 'Excavation Series' (2002) is a group of exotic staged photographs documenting a 'false dig' from an aerial perspective: monochrome sepia prints of a model-scale excavation, sited on the cliffs along the Essex coast, reveal partially-hidden artefacts. As before, the artist created then buried the objects, performing an excavation in reverse. A suite of watercolour sketches accompanies this series, again depicting fantasy digs though with a touch of the surreal: familiar contemporary objects - a space hopper, amorphous plastic containers, bombs, a chequer board - are incorporated into each repeated image of the dig.
During November and December 2005 Sabin was the resident artist in the Artists' Space, Firstsite, Colchester. Together with showing recent works the artist chose to use the space to experiment with new materials and methods of presentation. Inspired by the minutiae of architectural motifs sited on building facades, out of sight to the passer by, Sabin took silicon putty moulds of these forms and other immovable objects hidden around the town. Cast in white metal, this collection of part-objects were treated as fragments unearthed an archaeological find. The objects - both beautiful and mundane, relics of a hidden town - were variously pinned to the wall, laid across the floor, placed on regal red velvet cushions, documenting a work in progress.
'Outside' (2006) was a intervention in a disused room at Cuckoo Farm Studios, Colchester, which, as Cuckoo Farm, for many years employed patients from the Severalls Psychiatric Hospital, Essex. Approaching the piece as a 'room excavation', the installation referenced the prejudicial attitudes and the fear and ridicule surrounding mental illness. Casts of toys and objects which bore a relationship to euphemisms such as 'barking', were buried in the wall, sculpting nests or growths onto the surfaces of this disused room; others were revealed in drawers. 'The intervention is subtle: the space is abandoned and left as it 'was' (or rather, was not)'. (4)
Sabin, who trained at Sunderland Polytechnic, Tyne and Wear (BA Hons Fine Art, 1989) also has a strong community strand to her practice, often collaborating with organisations and other artists to make artworks with the public. She has made works for various hospitals and schools, and facilitated many community projects, such as 'Rec-create' (2004), a collaboration with a multi media artist, involving reminiscence workshops with older persons and children to create a series of artworks associated with the town of Wivenhoe. Solo exhibitions include Mapping the Boundaries, University of Essex (2001) and Underground, Firstsite, Colchester (2002). Sabin has been awarded a variety of commissions since the late 1990s, including Essex Rivers Trust (Colchester and Clacton Hospitals, 1997), Children's Ward Art Project (Colchester General Hospital, 1998-9), Harlow to Harwich, Mapping the Boundaries (Firstsite, Colchester, 2000-2001), Rec-create Wivenhoe (Colchester Borough Council, 2004), and most recently a commission for Broomfield Hospital (2005).
Sabin has also been selected to take part in the prestigious Commissions East 'Escalator' Scheme for 2006, an opportunity for artists to benefit from financial investment, career development support, access to new networks and opportunities to show their work to new audiences. She lives and works in Colchester.
1 Matthew Poole, Preconceiving Histories: The Work of Sarah Sabin, Firstsite, Colchester 2002
4 Sarah Sabin, 2006.
Escalator, Commissions East