In 2010 Claire Hooper won the prestigious Baloise Art Prize in Art Statements at Basel. The film she showed there, NYX (2010), was a complex narrative, played out by characters moving through Berlin’s charismatic U-Bahn under the sulfurous yellow strip lights of the early hours. NYX (2010) introduced a cast drawn from ancient Greek mythology with a very 21st century hip hop spin, while taking the theme of the subterranean as a metaphor for the subconscious. The film was visually delectable and the themes, treated in this way, seemed intriguingly fresh.
Fast-forward five years and Hooper has been busy: there have been collaborative projects for the ICA’s Fig-2 last year, a solo show at the Bonner Kunstverein and screenings at the Rotterdam and Oberhausen film festivals and a nomination for the Jarman Award. What she is showing at Hollybush Gardens this month is in some senses a real departure however, and may turn out to be one of the most memorable works of the year.
In Hollybush’s lofty main space, Hooper has created a 1:1 scale ‘copy’ of an imagined archaeological site in ancient Mesopotamia. The walls of the gallery are hung with imposing watercolour paintings that invoke the sturdy columns and spliced agate facings of the temple of the goddess Ereshkigal in Kutha, dating from more than 2000 years BCE. Formally, there is a strong coherence between this work and NYX (2010), which made great use of Rainer G. Rümmler’s extraordinary 1970s designs for the U-Bahn that drew heavily from non-western architectural traditions. Conceptually too, there are clear connections: the new work posits a hidden temple to a female goddess of the underground – possibly a subterranean structure rather than a monumental one. The work invokes an inner sanctum, a dark, non-public aspect of female identity, both psychological and physical.
Of course, work with these reference points could not be made in 2016 without a consciousness of the heartbreaking destruction of sites in Nimrud and Palmyra in the past year. Hooper’s watercolour temple rises up above our heads, all lightness and transparency; utterly beautiful and completely vulnerable. Watercolour on paper is itself a medium that recalls the topographical sketches of the “grand tourists” of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the intrepid European bourgeoisie who set out to discover the wonders of the ancient world and bring back their admiration for the sophistication and aesthetics of other civilisations.
The sanctuary of the goddess Ereshkigal is known only from references in cuneiform tablets; it was replaced first by a temple to the god Nergal, and then completely rebuilt again by King Nebuchadnezzar. Excavations in the late 19th century discovered almost nothing from even the most recent of these monuments. Hooper has also produced a number of ravishingly beautiful, smaller scale watercolours that pick up the motifs of the striped agate stone in the temple. Like shards and fragments from the main site, some of these are displayed in the outer spaces, creating antechambers that make the visitor aware of the successive thresholds breached to reach the innermost sanctum.
This show is an example of what galleries do at their very best: offering the opportunity for an artist to experiment in a substantial way, to develop and grow their practice, to take risks. Which in this case, in my humble opinion, have paid off handsomely.
Do try to experience this first hand.
Claire Hooper, Clay for Bread and Wine, Hollybush Gardens, 1–2 Warner Yard, London EC1R 5EY. Open Tuesday – Friday 11.00 – 18.00, Saturday 12.00 – 17.00. Exhibition continues until 12 March 2016. hollybushgardens.co.uk