03 August 2018 Contained in the billet books of London’s Foundling Hospital is an extraordinary archive of emotion. The Hospital was founded in 1739 by the philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram for 'exposed and deserted young children'. Those who passed through its doors had all traces of their former lives removed: they were given new names, new clothing, a new future. In the eighteenth century, the only remaining connection between the family who could no longer afford to care for their child and the infant they left at the hospital was a simple scrap of cloth.
These thousands of intimate tokens - flower-stamped cotton perhaps, or hearts, birds and acorns printed on a cheap frock - would be roughly cut out from either the mother’s or the baby’s clothes. One piece was taken away by the mother, and the other reserved out of sight in the Hospital’s record, offering the hope that parent and child might some day be reunited. When the artist Jodie Carey began to research the collection of the Foundling Museum - built on the site of the former Hospital in Bloomsbury - she found these poignant everyday fragments. Each piece, its marks and patterns, are descriptions of loss. And in Carey’s series of instillations at the Foundling Museum, the artist pays tribute to this history of absence and separation.
In the museum’s lower gallery, a phantom seascape comes into view. For 'Sea' (2018), Carey collected thousands of pieces of fabric, cut and torn out of clothes from charity shops, donated by friends (at the last minute, her mother contributed a pair of jeans). Carey coated each in stoneware slip, a liquid clay, and as they dried, watched as they began to curl into leaf-like forms. In a giant wood-fired kiln, built by the artist, the fabric burnt off, leaving only a ghostly trace of its pattern on white ceramic, lightly coloured by ash. What emerges is the clothing’s negative - the hint of hem, stitching, a button piercing the surface - spread like shard across the gallery.
For her exhibition Stand at Edel Assanti last year, Carey turned the Fitzrovia gallery into a spooky woodland. Salvaging timber from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s cast courts, she buried the planks in earth, and then dug them up, pouring plaster into the impressions they had left in the ground. 'Earth-casting' uses the soil as a mould, and the results are often blistered, undefined, primordial-looking sculptures. At Edel Assanti, these knotted 'earth-cast' became both a birch forest and the uncanny remnants of an industrial past.
Wandering through the picture galleries of the Foundling Museum, filled with work by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Hogarth (who was one of the Hospital’s artist-benefactors), I come across another of Carey’s earth-casts. In the writhing, fragile 'Cord' (2018), she laid a length of cord in the earth, and then poured molten bronze into the imprint. Casting in bronze would normally take place in a foundry, with sand as the mould material. But when Carrey poured the liquid metal into the raw earth, the soil cracked instantly, the bronze spitting viciously wherever it met moisture. 'Cord' memorializes the life of the soil, its sharp tendrils bearing witness to the ways in which the metal has spurted through the ground, like a biological substance.
Over the years, Carey has withdrawn from the Baroque-on-acid impulse that fuelled her early sculptures: heavy, macabre chandeliers made up of thousand of milky plaster bones, or flower petal cloaked in blood and fat. Without moving away from working with materials and pigments that are still deeply symbolic of life cycles and organic matter, she has pared her monuments down to a more primal form.
Her work 'Untitled (Blood Dust)' (2010), shown at London’s Pump House Gallery in 2011, entailed a very different approach to space: quieter, and more sensual, a powder of dried blood flowed through the space in an intense carpet. In 'Shroud' (2013), Carey filled the entirety of the eighteenth-century Anatomical Theatre at Berlin’s Humboldt University with a fine white dust, ground by the artist’s own hand from animal bones; 250 kilograms of the powder sifted their way from the library to the auditorium populated with old dissecting tables, the different bone colours forming strange contours across the floor.
In her telling, Carey has been reconsidering what a monument might be, challenging the cold, marble language of traditional monumentality. “Even though they’re designed to inspire a sense of reverence, glory and fame, we actually build public monuments as a way of putting things aside and moving on”, she has said. “They never actually look like the feelings we have when we lose someone.” Carey’s counter-monuments take shape on the Foundling Museum’s upper gallery floor, where she has populated an anteroom with a host of pagan forms, each carrying the suggestion of an expression behind their roughly hewn skin.
For 'Found' (2018), she submerged giant rolls of hessian fabric in the ground, and then poured liquid plaster into the imprints. Carey accentuates the play of light in the room by leaving small brushmarks of coloured chalk across each figure. The sculptures all bear the marks of their time in the soil, carrying the texture of the hessian as well as clumps of rock and even shoots of grass, from when they were first pulled from the earth. In asking how a material might convey memory, Carey shows us how present and past are never fixed: they loop back on themselves. The last fleeting moment between a mother and child enters a second life as a scrap of printed cotton, cut out and filed in a museum archive, and then is discovered, resurrected as a crowd of totems, flickering under the sunlight.