Beth Collar (b.1984) is a British artist based in Berlin. In 2020 she completed a residency at the British School at Rome, during which she began a new body of work. There, Collar created a number of sculptures based on haruspicy FIG.1 FIG.2 FIG.3, the ancient Roman practice of divination that allowed humans to determine the will of the gods using the liver or entrails of a sacrificed animal. Collar is known for her wide-ranging practice, which encompasses sculpture, drawing, installation and performance. Her works evoke historical social behaviours and anxieties through the lens of present concerns, exploring the uneasy tensions inscribed in our understanding of ourselves as contemporary subjects. William Kherbek interviewed Collar about the development of her recent sculptures, the role of narrative in her work and the influence of Classical and religious art as well as artistic representations of divinatory objects.
William Kherbek (WK): Your new works reflect your experiences during your recent residency in Rome and, considering where they were made, have a particular dialogue with Ancient Rome. Could you talk us through the ‘haruspex’ based works?
Beth Collar (BC): When I started working on these, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I got really preoccupied with a particular object in the National Etruscan Museum: a ceramic model of a liver used by a haruspex – a priest who reads the livers of sacrificed animals. Unlike the famous bronze example, the palm-sized Liver of Piacenza (around 200 BC–100 AD; Musei di Palazzo Farnese, Piacenza), which has a schematic, annotated surface that is clearly a memory aid for haruspicy, this model is blank. It’s a model of a liver that is more realist and more mysterious in function, used in some way by people who were trying to work out what to do next or what the future will be.
I made moulds in clay from memory, and then cast them in plaster, and then I tried to work out what I was doing with them. One thing I attempted was to bring another form of divination to them. The haruspex is a priest who looks at livers for prophecy whereas augurs divine information from the behaviour of birds, such as flight patterns or the way that they scatter grain when eating. In Rome there’s a huge flock of starlings that moved in about a hundred years ago; there might have been some starlings in Roman times but there certainly weren’t millions of them like there is now. They make an incredible display in early evenings during the winter, and in the early morning you can see them leaving town. They go out and gorge themselves on olives all day, then come home, dance around together and sit in the trees and shit everywhere. The locals hate them, they even employ people to play noises of distressed starlings to get them to stop landing near the roads because it’s slippery for the cars – everything is covered in shit and olive seeds.
I deposited the livers beneath one of the roosts, and I tried my best but I didn’t get any readings after leaving them overnight. So I had this empty future; it was a blank reading. I thought: is that the answer? Is the future null? So, they went in a box, and I didn’t think about them until I was starting to work on exhibitions. I recently showed them as part of the solo exhibition The Unforgiven at Sundy, London.
WK: Your works often express interest in the way people come to know things, and haruspicy is another facet of that epistemological interest. How do you conceptualise art as a way of knowing or learning to know?
BC: Perhaps there’s something in this sequence that is maybe a little more direct – I’m drawing visible parallels between the role of the artist and the role of the augur – whereas in other works that has been more obscured in the process. I’ve made things in some plastic materials like clay, fiddled around with it and thought ‘I need to work out what that one wants’. I have this sort of cannibalistic interaction with my own desire or ideas: the interaction between me as a perceiving subject and the thing that comes out of my hands. There always needs to be some point where I go ‘Oh! That’s what I’m doing! That’s what these are doing’. I have to take a step back and become the intellectual thinker again and look at what I’ve done and interpret the object as if I’m not the person who made it. Then I can come back in to make more or steer it towards something; I’m both the liver and the diviner. I know I’m describing a very normal artistic process, but that’s how there ends up being a conceptual element in the final exhibition for me. It’s not that I have a concept from the beginning. It’s a sort of self-examination – a self-looking, an ‘ego-spexing’, as it were.
At the moment, I’m being really literal about it. I’m looking at my old notebooks from 2017 to 2018 FIG.4, which seems so long ago, and trying to gather some images from them to work out what they could be doing, especially in this new context. I often use my notebooks like that. I know what those drawings were about, but now I see them as a part of a narrative. It’s a way of generating something that I’m not in control of. I’m not interested in being in control of it either. Every time I try to be too in control of something, it’s rubbish.
WK: Your works also often evoke narratives without necessarily establishing them. Is narrative something that you seek in your work, is it something that emerges or, even, is it projected onto your work, by critics, for example, counter to your intentions?
BC: This is difficult because these recent works really lend themselves to a sort of cartoon-type sequence, whereas I don’t think you could say this was the case in the drawings I did for “End Quote” FIG.5 at Stadium, Berlin, in 2022, for example, but you could say they were an embodiment of a certain time, which told a story. The word ‘narrative’ makes me think of a storyboard, a cartoon or a movie with characters, and I don’t feel I’m doing that.
WK: There is a certain resonance with the Stations of the Cross in this approach: a story emerges but only certain elements of it are represented, and those elements are strongly bound together. Punctuated narration appears to be a way to talk about your approach, would you agree?
BC: In Seriously FIG.6 FIG.7, the exhibition I did for the Mark Tanner Sculpture Award 2016/17, shown at Standpoint, London, in 2017, I used the space very much with an implied narrative. There was a beginning and an end – a sense of a timeline, but I made sure I didn’t pin it down to one thing. It had the potential to be a swamp; it had the potential to be an archaeological dig; it had the potential, within the objects themselves, to be interpreted as a version of a future evolution of men; but it also had the potential to be a science fiction environment, in which men are marching out of the swamp of a deep future having morphed into bicycle helmets and armoured insects.
I hoped it would transform the whole building into something less like an exhibition space and more like a world. It would be the same with the show Basher Dowsing FIG.8 at van ammon co, Washington, in 2021, where I made a simple intervention in the gallery space: I painted the pillars and window frames black FIG.9. I was trying to turn it into a kind of Tudor building, a Puritan cottage in Cambridgeshire. The work could be coming out of the space, but also pull the space into another time. That’s the type of narrative we’re talking about: another world or time.
WK: Another aspect of your practice that I find interesting is the way in which you use the body, but never the body as a whole. Could you speak about the ways you employ this kind of ‘disembodied embodiment’?
BC: I guess I’m taking these body parts out of the body and giving them other lives. When I look back at my work, they are not connected for me. They were all just answers to different questions. I’m always quite surprised when I realise it’s a body part that I’ve been dealing with, and then I think ‘now we’re cooking with gas!’. Maybe in the moment I was lost in seeing the livers as very beautiful, low-relief modernist sculptures and I completely forgot that they’re guts. But, of course, there’s a lot of meaning about what a liver does inside us and everything I’ve said about divination that goes into this work.
It was the same with the pelvic bone drawings FIG.10 and sculptures. I took that bone for a walk out of the body and built a fantasy that the pelvic bone is a demon or some other being inside your body, which doesn’t have a way out. Somehow you can feel it and you can describe it with your fingers, but you can’t see it. It’s got a head, another head, it’s got eyes, horns and a globe in which you could imagine a brain could sit, it’s got an eeriness to it. This image came from thinking about the medieval world view concerning the apocalypse and the second coming. People are still concerned with the figure of the antichrist and his imminent arrival in our time, but the idea that he might be under the skin or inside your body all along came to me when reading the Book of Revelation and thinking about contemporary online self-help culture.
I don’t think of the whole body as an interesting thing to depict. You wouldn’t catch me dead doing it, because even if I wanted to, I’d stop, which is what happened in Daddy Issues at Dilston Grove, London, 2019 FIG.11. At the beginning, I had ideas of what I wanted to make for the space, but there was something physically stopping me from doing it. I couldn’t see any point. It’s a sort of failure, but it’s a failure that I have to come to realise every time. I always have to acknowledge it and work out how to keep going. When depicting a whole figure, you get thrown so far into the expression of the body, the face, the physical position, that you start to get lost in a process of implicating space that I’m not interested in – one that film and dance do better.
WK: The occult or the eldritch also plays a role in your work and, generally, is becoming a surprisingly pervasive theme in a technologically minded age. Could you speak about the role of the occult in your work – how do you approach it and what do you see as its position in post-internet life?
BC: I was working mainly in performance and wanted to produce exhibitions, but it was a hard nut to crack. If no one has seen your work in an exhibition, then no one offers you one. So I was stuck in London, in this circuit of staging performances for people’s events, and I wanted to make objects that performed on my behalf. I was interested in how in Catholicism the sculptural object does just that. It’s doing something beyond just being an object that you buy and sell, or put on your wall. It’s doing this other thing. Maybe Protestantism cuts that out, but the objects left behind are still doing it. I think the complement of iconoclasm is that it admits that the icons were too powerful to be left to keep doing whatever they are doing. I’ve always been jealous of objects in the Church, and the objects in the past from other pre-Christian cultures too, because of what they’re getting to, how they’re manipulating people, how they’re requiring behaviour, how they’re sucking attention, what they’re giving and how they’re treated.
Later, I was working on a research project in Bristol with Ronald Hutton, the witchcraft and occult historian. Hutton was writing The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (2017), and he let me come along to the colloquia; he was delighted to have an artist tagging along. Every month there were four or five wide-ranging lectures. I learned about how, in some Mesopotamian cultures, people plundered previous civilisations to take their idols and gods for their own purposes to bolster their power. I guess my work is always about trying to arrive at something beyond the context of contemporary art, beyond the market, a career trajectory or the gallery, because it’s the only way I can justify working: being involved with myself sustainably.
WK: On the topic of disembodied embodiment, the relic is also an important component of religion, particularly Catholicism. The body parts of saints are required to consecrate cathedrals. I expect this mix of religion and embodiment had a strong presence in the way you experienced art in Rome?
BC: I suppose you could consider the relic as the original ready-made. I’m more interested in what those fragments do to people than the fragments themselves. I’m drawn to man-made objects and infrastructure. In Roman temples the doors were huge because they were designed to be large enough to accommodate the gods without them having to stoop. In 353 AD the Roman emperor Constantius II shut down some of these temples and forbade access to them. At that point, Christianity was winning, but all the gods were stuck inside their temples twiddling their thumbs. Julian reopened them nine years later and issued a number of edicts against Christianity, but his successor restored it as the primary religion.
All this reminded me of the messy period with Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I – an opening and closing of what was allowed in the religious world. In Rome, there is a church called Santa Pudenziana, which has a depiction of Jesus on the throne with his apostles around him and beasts in the sky – what we now refer to as representations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but who at the time were animal-angel hybrids. Jesus and his apostles are wearing senator’s togas – white robes with purple stripes. So, in this building, there’s this juicy mixture of politics and religion with a decommissioning of old gods in the background. These are my favourite things to look for – when it allows you to imagine the exact moment the church subsumes a new aesthetic trait.
WK: Your most recent venture is a space in Berlin called Cittipunkt FIG.12. Could you tell us a bit about the project?
BC: Cittipunkt is a democratic space. It doesn’t have a hierarchical structure so we’re struggling with implementing a curatorial structure. If we open it, anyone and everyone can apply or send in a request, and how much energy do we have to facilitate things? Even if it’s something that’s very low maintenance, we still have to provide the key or look after our assets. We’re very much in the beginning stages. But the idea is that it’s a space and we have it for three or four years. We’ve been going since January; it has a little library – a little reading room, a potential place for people to use practically and for reading groups, a little kitchen, a bar and a project space. So far, we’ve got various regular screenings, a cafe on Sundays and the library on Fridays. It’s our second exhibition at the moment. The idea is that the bar and cafe make this place where people feel they can always turn up and there would be someone or something there. Over the next few years, I’m hoping to work on a ceramic project with them where I produce a sort of built-kiln system – or at least work with artists or local people – to produce a practical solution to certain problems in Berlin with regard to the lack of accessibility to facilities for ceramic firing.
I’m interested in how our ways of talking about prehistory involve talking about drinking vessels, such as the Bell Beaker culture, named after the inverted-bell-shaped drinking vessel used at the beginning of the European Bronze Age, and the Corded Ware pottery culture that preceded it. Their cup design becomes a way of talking about the appearance of a whole culture, even a way to talk about linguistics in prehistory. I’m excited to think about ways of firing ceramics that don’t involve temporary solutions, such as just digging a hole and moving on, or the electric kilns that have always felt so alienated to me – something more community based, sustainable and has more of a connection to the history of ceramics in a generative way.