Made of Clay: Portraits of a different kind

by Sophie Backhausen

To mark the 60th Anniversary the ACF London has, together with the curators at section.a, invited 8 UK & Austria based artists to produce new works for an exhibition entitled ‘Out of the Box’. Each artist was given a different brief – some engaged with the building itself, some with the history, some with projects of the past years. London based Dutch artist Vesta Kroese was commissioned to produce a work involving the staff of the ACF. Nothing shapes an institution like the people who walk through its doors every morning and represent the institution outwardly.

Her perspective was interesting.  Ask yourself this: How would you portray a person you’ve never met or seen?
Vesta’s approach gave the principles of portraiture a new twist. The idea behind the project was simple but intriguing. The artist and a staff member talking without seeing one another – separated through a wall in the middle of the room. Intimate but disconnected.  But the twist continues – every team member selected a name of a colleague from a hat who they would then describe to the artist. The system was easy: A describes B, B describes E, E describes C and so on. Everyone described and was described by someone else. And no one knew who had chosen them. What they described was completely optional – ranging from appearance, special features and voice to character, interests and their role within the ACF.

Damian Griffiths

We all know the technique of personal description from primary school. But there’s hardly ever the need to apply it. Don’t we all just describe other people when we want to highlight particular characteristics that annoy, fascinate or confuse us? When was the last time we described someone in great detail rather than just one side?
Hence the project was quite interesting out of a psychological perspective as well as an artistic. In the process questions arose like: What makes a person? Which features are important? Wearing glasses for example became as important a fact as a passion for cars or languages. 50 minutes time to think of answers. Meanwhile – on the other side of the wall – Vesta worked on clay sculptures and incorporating the information in the individual portraits. She molded, hammered, shaped and formed. She took notes and processed. She asked questions. The situation started to resemble an intimate conversation between artist and describer rather than a one sided monologue. They were solely connected through their voices. Gestures and mimics played no part.

Sophie Backhausen

The outcome was formal. Some sculptures turned out more realistic, for the most part though they were abstract. After two whole days of not seeing each other (which turned out to be a logistical challenge and involved a lot of hiding, peeking around corners and announcements like “the artist has arrived”), Vesta and team members finally laid eyes on each other for the first time. And then the fun part started. Guessing who’s who and recognizing features that could represent one person or another. One sculpture has wheels, another one a shiny tea pot on top of the head.  Why? We can only guess. Vesta asked questions like: what color or which object would she/ he be? This might have led to some inspirations that were more or less visible in the outcome.  To her it wasn’t important to get as close to reality as possible, it had more to do with feelings.

Sophie Backhausen

The finished sculptures themselves didn’t mark the end of the project though. They were then positioned and photographed in different parts of the building. The placement as well was meaningful. One ended up in the kitchen, one on the staircase, one in a rather hidden alcove, one in the entrance and some on the mantelpiece of the pompous fireplace.

with interior_DSC2721LR
Sophie Backhausen

Following the process as an outsider  – I am currently completing an internship at the ACF and supervised the project – was interesting. I got to observe emotions on either side of the wall. From the nervousness of how to fill 50 minutes with describing a person to the relief that it wasn’t so difficult after all. From the nervousness of how to create clay sculptures in just 50 minutes time to the exhaustion afterwards. The project turned into an interesting experiment, and we invite you to come see the finished project as well as the other commissions included in the exhibition “Out of the Box”.

Opening Friday 17 June, 7pm.

 Find out more at


Damian Griffiths



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