Museums at Night 2013: Julia Vogl on bottles and social sculpture in Newcastle

By Mark Sheerin | 03 May 2013

Julia Vogl's participatory installation at the Discovery Museum is certain to be one of the highlights of an action-packed Museums at Night in Newcastle. The sculptor tells Mark Sheerin about social sculpture, messages in bottles and taking visitors aback…

A photo of a female artist sitting next to plastic bottles
© Nic Serpell-Rand
Julia Vogl is used to canvassing opinion. In fact, Julia Vogl is used to canvassing votes.

Not so long ago she was in politics, realising on the campaign trail she would rather poll opinion without an agenda. So now she works at social sculpture and is currently building a name in the artworld.

She is soon to become a name on Tyneside, with her forthcoming Museums at Night appearance at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.

She intends to fill the 19th century building with a kaleidoscopic, recycled two-storey chandelier filled with thousands of messages from locals.

So what is social sculpture? Vogl is best placed to answer that question.  “For me, social sculpture is this idea that you involve the public to generate the experience and create an aesthetic work,” says the artist.

“It would not physically happen without people being involved.”

Past projects have already included site-specific colour charts or challenging interventions in public spaces. But her piece in a widely renowned museum of maritime life and engineering should prove one of the most ambitious yet.

Vogl aims to collect some 2,500 bottles to be stuffed with written statements from her visitors. The bottles will be threaded on cables and the chandelier should be seven metres tall and 1.5m wide. The artist describes the appeal of bright colour as “almost like candy”.

It may well look good enough to eat, but all her projects use colour in this way. “I really like colour because it takes on so many different meanings,” she says.

“It can be emotional or we use it all the time to class data.” The artist points out that multi-storey car parks are as likely to give you a colour as a number to indicate your floor.

“Originally I was thinking about football colours, and that was a little bit daft because I think you had to go back over 100 years to when Newcastle played in red,” says Vogl.

Instead, the region has inspired her to map her public subjects using gold, orange, red, purple and neon yellow.

A photo of a multicoloured house
Julia Vogl, HOME. 2012.© Julia Vogl
It might look edible, but this social sculpture will instead provide a guide to the demographic make-up of Tyneside. And the written statements may soon also feature in a show about migration, offering “a more in-depth narrative about who the people are and how they came to be there.”

“You can’t predict what the project will look like, and that’s the crux of the work,” she says.

“People tend to be taken aback…and the most innocent question can be challenging, which is what I really enjoy.

“So just asking somebody where they’re from can be a little more complicated.”

One hopes the warm palette reflects the warm welcome which new arrivals have found in this city, since the artist tells me there have been waves of settlers from places as far afield as Russia, Poland, Ireland, Italy and even the Yemen.

“This region is amazing to me because of the port. It’s just so many different people and I think there are stories of people who came from Europe or Eastern Europe thinking it was America,” she laughs.

“It took them a few months before they realised it wasn’t.”

But geographical origins are a matter of some interest to this Brit with dual US Citizenship and family from both Germany and Czechoslovakia.

“Yeah, I grew up in America. I live here now. I am constantly thinking about my identity,” she says.

Having done work in a supermarket and a former prison, an after-hours museum  should prove little problem.

“My social sculpture is more about how people use that space and deal with that space and what that space stands for. I think the effort here is to get people to reconsider something that’s familiar in a different way,” she says.

“It seems like in Newcastle they take that really seriously with their late openings.”

But before the phonecall winds down, she urges me to pass on that people should donate plastic bottles. So Tynesiders, please do, and prepare to be socially sculpted.

  • Julia Vogl will be at the Discovery Museum on May 18, 7pm-11pm. Visit thelateshows.org.uk for more.

  • The Connect10 competition is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.


Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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