Dr. Elly Thomas (Artist and independent scholar)

Shuffled Landscapes: Game Playing Sculpture

At the 2017 symposium, Elly Thomas discussed some of her latest work that explores childhood play and creativity, with a particular interest in building blocks. Her practice takes influence from the work of Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) through modulatory and potential infinite variability.

Thomas visited Eduardo Paolozzi’s Krazy Kat Arkive (personal archive of 20th century popular culture) at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It holds many toys, models and action figures, but the kits are not assembled as the interest is within the component parts. His late work has been described as Meccano work as individual elements are organised in multiple ways. Paolozzi supports this description as his writings contain repeated references to building blocks of childhood play and Meccano, a toy that he played with as a child. His methods have also been described as collage with play influences (repetition, variation, rules and rhythms).

Paolozzi’s work includes sculptures that use pre-existing elements (machine mass produced elements), newly created elements, repetition and configuration. He often reused elements and this is described as a ‘floating process’ because the work is always temporary and reconfigured with other reused or new elements. This ‘floating process’ is also evident in his print work; a periodic table is used in many of his prints and it is always changing (e.g. position and colour). Paolozzi seems reluctant to let it settle and the process of the work is just as important as the sculpture.

Paolozzi’s 1967 Print Suite pushes these ideas further with audience interaction and chance elements used for an endlessly shuffled pack of cards. Like his sculptures, the shuffling game has no finalisation; there is a spatial approach to duration, with an infinitely evolving narrative. In museums, the Print Suite is often framed and cannot be used which undermines what Paolozzi tried to achieve.

Thomas has reflected on Paolozzi’s processes and expanded on his ideas in her own work:

  1. She used a sketch of a kit which she then cut up and used with an OHP to explore the different outcomes possible through audience interaction.
  2. Within sculpture, she has used an infinite piling process to produce artwork that is never finished. Her work often starts with an action, e.g. piling, and she asks “how many things can come out of that?”. She moves the sculptures into different states to experiment through the idea of a kit and using random offcuts.
  3. In her project of subsculpture, with the idea of early form, she used building blocks in the biological sense, e.g. simple single cell organisms. The project involved putting the work in different states, misusing elements, and taking elements and misunderstanding their use within her work. Thomas described how galleries can be unsuitable spaces for works that are never ending and use such large elements. Thomas changed the building blocks of this project several times, treating the sculpture like toys, and it was displayed in the window of a gallery which allowed it to be a public sculpture.
  4. In Thomas’ building blocks project she allowed audience interaction. She found that other people were freer to play with the work than herself. The public had a different logic or thinking, without the sense of failure that she often feels when rearranging her sculptures.
  5. During a residency, Thomas created sculptures that were reactions to found objects and incorporated them.
  6. She collaborated with Jennifer Taylor to create sculptures using found objects. She found that collaboration was competitive and a one-up-man-ship. Unlike other collaborations, they both worked at different times (day and evening) rather than together. Thomas described how this worked well and the competitiveness was like a game itself.
  7. Thomas’ solo show involved an improvisation using found objects. She collected objects in the street such as furniture, but she soon discovered practical restrictions; the items that she collected had to be held outside and when she started organising her sculpture in the gallery, she found that she hadn’t collected enough objects. Midway through the exhibition she reorganised the elements and this process was captured on video. Thomas did not plan the changes as it was improvised and the video shows her decision changes which are part of the narrative. There is no end to the sculpture due to the shuffling and reshuffling, and there is an aspect of performance.

To view Elly Thomas’ work, click here.