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Image of Rockswarm by Bill Woodrow
Bill Woodrow, Rockswarm. Photo © Dr Jim Roseblade

Bill Woodrow

Works exhibited: Rockswarm, Endeavour: Cannon Dredged from the First Wreck of the Ship of Fools.

Three of the four sculptures by Bill Woodrow in this exhibition feature representations of books, an apt choice for display in an institution dedicated to research and learning. But Woodrow’s books have troubling associations: one is sewn shut, another is tethered with a ball and chain, while in the third instance books seem to provide a means of inefficient traction.

Each one of these sculptures has a titular connection with the idea of history, suggesting that history as embodied in traditions of knowledge is opaque, locked away, recalcitrant, requiring a more active and imaginative engagement than we might assume, especially in situations where we might take for granted its practical and semantic accessibility. The meaning of Woodrow’s book like objects is itself elusive and hermetic, although the decisive choice of imagery and portentous associations hint at the existence somewhere of a key that might unlock the puzzle.

The combination of elements is reminiscent of a pre modern aesthetic reliant on an allegorical reading to make complete sense of the work. The effort of translation required to perform this task is no less than the effort required to translate the concerns of past history into terms that communicate with our present needs and desires.

The large sculpture Endeavour: Cannon Dredged from the First Wreck of the Ship of Fools provides a multifaceted emphasis on this conundrum of interpretation, reminding us of how meanings unpredictably get lost in the course of history, only to be recovered in ways that are fundamentally transforming. The overall form of the sculpture locates its meaning in relation to a military discourse, and yet close inspection translates the various parts of the cannon into several competing frames of reference: natural history, music, prison architecture, the culinary arts.

Whatever thread of interpretation we follow, it peters out in illegibility; the viewer’s negotiation with the whole ensemble depends on a reversal of the usual process by which we read a public sculpture. We expect the familiar shape to inaugurate an inspection of detail that will confirm a dominant meaning, but Woodrow forces us to turn this experience inside out, in a recognition of the extent to which different branches of knowledge have become subsumed to the totalising power of military thinking: a process that is presented here as absurd and unreasonable. The global reach of this ‘folly’ is implied by the design of the pile of cannonballs, each one a representation of Earth.

Woodrow’s fourth sculpture, Rockswarm, stems from a different preoccupation in his recent work with bees and beekeeping. It is the social organisation of bees that is at the centre of attention, a mode of coexistence defined proverbially by the value it seems to place on industry, cooperation, and loyalty. This traditional set of virtues was given an overtly political dimension in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in satirical writing and art, with the bee community represented as a utopian ideal which human society fell far short of.

Woodrow’s sculptures dwell on a moment of great turbulence in this vision, the formation of a swarm, which occurs only at the point of migration; the utopian ideal is rendered vulnerable in states of transition, with the swarm either leaving or arriving at a surface of bare rock, a sterile and unpromising environment.

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