Clare Mitten

Colour the World

Existing in a space between imaginary and real, natural and artificial, youth and adulthood, Clare Mitten’s structures grow and degenerate. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2006 and has been stacking, wrapping, threading and shredding all the way to Dhaka and back again since.

Cosmic Hoover, Colour the World, Eye Chamber. What’s going on in that head of yours?

‘Colour the World’ was a key work made in my first year at the RCA, where my studio space became a 2d/3d sketchbook page. It was a kind of playground of ideas where 2d and 3d started flipping back and forth – sparking new forms. Being in the painting department was a bit intimidating – all that history that goes before you. I needed to find a strategy for making that liberated me from my own expectations of being there, which was to trick myself into keeping a playfulness by making small-scale component paintings and drawings, cutting them out and collaging them together. I liked what happened in the blurring of boundaries between 2d and 3d, especially when photographed, which flattened the 3d objects into the same plane as the drawing and paintings.

Installation view

‘Eye Chamber’ was a small-scale work that was the starting point for a solo exhibition at the Blyth Gallery, Imperial College. I wanted to work with the scientific context and was thinking about a kind of extreme difference of scale between an existing functional object and something non-functional, made in response to it. The bigger the gap, the greater the absurdity of the work. Making ‘Eye Chamber’, I was thinking about the geometry of fusion reactors, the scale of them in comparison to the particles they examine, the precision of the experiment – all borne out of it’s function – the colour coding of wires, tubes, cables; the public’s perception of it’s ‘danger’…..and now, that ultimately it didn’t work! In ‘Eye Chamber’, an alternative, homespun viewing chamber was created that might pull your eyelashes out.

‘Cosmic Hoover’ was made very quickly in the gallery space from leftovers of other works – I had made the exhibition in the space over a period of about 4 weeks, so the remnants of making were everywhere. I had was making what turned out to be an ongoing piece, ‘Cosmicomicology’, which was an amorphous installation that the viewer walked through, of coloured tape balls which alluded to atoms or to planets and of course were all the time reminding you that they were just balls of sticky tape which were getting fluff and dust stuck to them … I wanted it to look like ‘Cosmic Hoover’ was about to tidy up, sucking all of this ‘matter’ up (swallowing it into a black-hole) or had stopped working and spat it all back out.

Eye chamber

Your sculptural forms have an organic quality to them, evolving from what precedes them, coming together and falling apart. Can you talk us through your artistic process?

I typically start by making a 3d sketch – quickly, intuitively. I need a model to work from for the 2d work, so this is a means of making something, usually abstracted – to make drawings and paintings from…..these in turn spark new ideas or changes in the original model – a repetition that (usually through embraced failure) will shift along the way.

Through a process of adding and editing forms, whether 2d or 3d, they are often worked to a point of fragility where they are in danger of imploding, collapsing, falling apart, but at the same time suggesting the reverse – a kind of popping out, accumulation, growth – a kind of play-back or interference.

In my most recent installation, Bitmap (The Nunnery, 2009), I think it begins to work in a way that creates a kind of feedback or looping. Objects appear, and then reappear in the form of a painted representation, which then reappears again somewhere else, painted or actually physically present. It’s difficult to explain, but it feels a bit as though they function more accurately as coloured shadows than illusory representations, but that when the eye scans the installation, it has to make these dimensional jumps.

Cosmic hoover

You state that failure is a catalyst? For change? For inspiration?

Predominantly for change – if I have an idea of what I want to make , (for example for Canary Wharf, I want to include a series of paper mobile phones), I’m not sure how to start making something, and in the process of trying, it usually fails to become like the image I had in my head at the start, but builds into something other, and along the way, it’s in this part of the making process that I feel a flurry of further ideas and possibilities of where this original idea might fracture into new but related things… kind of opens it out… when it works best, it suggests the thing I was thinking of in the first place, but it also suggests several other things which are sometimes nameable, but sometimes more abstracted – like a feeling for something that you can’t quite identify.

Installation view

In Feb 08 you slinked off to Bangladesh to complete an Artist Residency, where you worked on the exhibition ‘Transformer: Extraordinary Worlds from Everyday Materials’ with students of Dhaka University. Tell us all about that.

Bangladesh was like no-where I’ve ever been – it was like being in a time-warp that was simultaneously the future and the past – total extremes all chaotically crammed together – old, new, rich, poor. It was such an exciting and overwhelming place to be. The residency was for 6 weeks and was designed to run alongside an exhibition of sculpture from the British Council Collection, which started with work by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and then included pieces by Richard Long, Simon Patterson, Richard Wentworth, Michael Craig Martin, Jim Lambie and more. Much of the contemporary art in Bangladesh seemed very firmly rooted in a kind of 50’s abstraction. They have great awe and respect for Henry Moore…and the exhibition was about introducing them to other, more contemporary ways of thinking about sculpture.

The residency was about sharing different ways of working and thinking with the Fine Art students at Dhaka University, challenging the notion that sculpture had to be permanent, and so on. I ran a series of workshops that were about transformation – making temporary work that was changed in each workshop. Art education in Bangladesh is very focused on technical accomplishment (each student could make a life-drawing from memory!), and while they could draw and model beautifully, they seemed to be discouraged from developing their own ideas, to the point where you couldn’t really tell one person’s drawing from someone else’s.


I saw what they were making for cultural celebrations and festivals and I was absolutely blown away by the freshness, vividness of these cultural works of art. They were incredible, but the idea that this was more interesting and relevant than the 1950’s, rather Westernised work I could see them emulating, was met with a mixture of curiosity, bemusement, and complete bafflement!

The students really embraced the opportunity to experiment and discover through a more playful approach, and we installed their work as a collaborative installation at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Art, together with a re-make of something I had seen them construct for a festival, which I was keen for them to re-evaluate in a gallery context.

The mix of their technical expertise and the clunky, non-permanent materials was really interesting, but the reaction to the exhibition was very mixed and I think the older generations of artists working in Dhaka, found it more of a challenge!

Bitmap Detail

Can you give us a tasty tit-bit of information about your future exhibition at Canary Wharf?

1980’s-style pink and green marbling, papier mache marbles/planets, marble madness, marble mazes, roller coasters and scaffolding structures, mobile phones, retro game-boys and gaming design………are all things I’m thinking about while making component parts!

Clare Mitten on Bow Arts Trust