Artist of the Month

June 2019


For June's Artist of the Month we've selected Yoke, a collaboration between artists Annie Nelson and Chris Woodward.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your practice area - how did the collaboration Yoke come about?

We met in 2007 at Leeds Metropolitan University whilst studying BA Fine Art, and put together a show with another student in our first year. After that we collaborated on and off throughout the course, including setting up a collective of around twelve students to exhibit outside of the university environment. After university many of our peers left the city and only a small group of the collective, Woolgather, remained. We decided to respond to the challenging environment we found ourselves in with positive action so we began to initiate events and projects, this included house exhibitions, small crits in pubs and more notably a number of large scale projects that seeked to bring artists at different points in their careers together on one platform. We set up an art prize in which the public had entire autonomy over the winner with both years of this prize being hosted in Leeds city centre temporary spaces. We then spent a number of years commissioning artists to make small artist multiples which were sold from art vending machines across the city, I think by the end we had commissioned and sold around 12,000 artworks for £1.

During this time we had both been pursuing a number of practical skills-based courses, training in joinery, doing short courses in printmaking and generally trying to invest in our skills base. In 2015 we both decided we desperately needed to return to physical making again having not done so seriously for five years. Having over the years been continuously drawn to collaborative ways of working and having developed a very strong working mechanism together running projects and developing approaches and ideas we thought it might be interesting to delve into collaboratively developing artworks. We were lucky enough to be given an opportunity to do this through a residency exchange program between East Street Arts and Bilbao Arte. We spent an intensive month working in Bilbao, Spain with access to some brilliant facilities and this became a huge turning point in our careers.


Yoke, Market Mandala, 2018. Part of 'We Can Only See Today' at Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham.

We found that having left behind making physical work for a number of years whilst focusing on project managing we had in the process also left behind any preconceived ideas of what our own individual approach and aesthetic was to making work, this enabled us to embrace working in a truly collaborative way. It enabled us to form a new aesthetic, rather than simply combining two existing ones, and we discovered that working together pushed our thought processes and aesthetics in directions we couldn’t have conceived alone. Since then we have constructed a very low key lifestyle together that enables us to invest as much time as possible into exploring our work and developing our skills.

The way in which we challenge each other can often be quite brutal, we are both I will say blessed with many traits of the perfectionists and neither of us are ever willing to compromise when it comes to the work, so there are never any pleasantries when one of us is unsure about something. This can create some heated arguments but ultimately results in the work progressing much further than it ever would have alone. You may say we are not the natural candidates for a collaborative working practice, yet we are continuously drawn to exploring multiple perspectives and bringing people together. Our desire to push ourselves is heightened by pushing each other and this drives the work forward. The life of an artist can often be quite isolated so sharing in this with others is important.

What's the starting point for a piece of work or project?

Neither of us are artists who turn up to the studio and just start making like the idealised view of an artist in their studio may be. Historical research and audience engagement inform our practice, and starting points tend to be things that we want to respond to or react against, this may be personal experiences or situations we perceive around us. We have a shared passion for investigating and delving into the stories that shape our physical and social surroundings. Lines of enquiry we may investigate often start with a physical object that we are drawn to such as the Stanley Ferry aqueduct that was a central point of our recent ‘Akkyduck’ project or the Ruabon red bricks produced in Wrexham that were a major influence in our solo exhibition at Tŷ Pawb, these physical objects within the industrial landscape spin us off into navigating associated stories.

As artists we have the privilege of going down tracks of investigation that often others don’t. We don’t have to piece things together to make sense chronologically as a historian might, we can take fiction as fact and fact as fiction. Stories don’t have to have a beginning, middle and an end. This way of exploring histories, places and people enables us to piece things together in new ways, draw different conclusions, delve into small nuances and step back and create a new picture.


Yoke, Salvaged Stories I, 2018. Part of 'Undercurrent', The Art House, Wakefield.

You've recently undertaken two major projects/exhibitions - 'Akkyduck' and 'You Can Only See Today' - tell us a little bit about each one and the work you produced.

It's like they always say you wait for ages for a bus and then two come at once. 2018 was a very hectic year for us with two major solo exhibitions both opening in January 2019.

‘Akkyduck’ was a project that began when we moored our narrow-boat at Stanley Ferry, just on the outskirts of Wakefield. We had just had a pretty terrifying experience on the tidal River Ouse where we nearly sunk our boat and was still feeling shaken by it when we arrived a couple of weeks later. We soon became bowled over by the industrial history of the waterways in the area and this along with our recent experience formed the two themes of ‘Akkyduck’ - old boating dialect for aqueduct. We were interested in the areas of tension that lay under the surface of both the waterways transforming from industry to leisure and boater’s simultaneous love and fear of the water.

There is a real sense of unease in wider society at the moment and I think this fed into our sykie, exploring the thin line between between exhilarating and terrifying felt unnervingly apt. Technology makes life so faced paced, colourful and exciting yet our future becomes increasingly unknown.

Funded by Arts Council England and The Art House ‘Akkyduck’ was a period of historical research, series of workshops, walks, and talks to collect knowledge and stories of the waterways and a resulting exhibition ‘Undercurrent’ that toured to London, Dublin, Harrogate, and Wakefield.


Yoke, Keep Boat Forward of Cill Marker, 2018. Part of 'Undercurrent', The Art House, Wakefield.

Our exhibition ‘We Can Only See Today’ came following an invitation from the director and curator of Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham’s new contemporary art gallery, indoor market and multi story car park! They invited us to develop a project to culminate in an exhibition with a selection of artworks to remain on permanent display within the market area after the exhibition. It was a huge undertaking and with the new space having only opened in April 2018 there had been a large amount of controversy within the town regarding its opening, controversy that we decided to use as a starting point for our research, branching out to look at the controversy that surrounded changes affecting the markets in the town’s history.

Using local archives and conversations with current stall holders and shoppers we developed an exhibition which played with time and space, showcasing the process of our development through digital drawings alongside the artworks and live casting ‘red bricks’ of soap in the gallery space during the exhibition. Visitors to the exhibition and shoppers at the market were then given the opportunity to pick one of these soaps up for free at the exhibition closing ceremony by collecting a stamp from both market trader and exhibition. A number of artworks including a new market bell and fabric banners are on permanent display in Tŷ Pawb’s market area.

Although it was a hectic 14 months with the two projects running side by side it has been a tremendous opportunity to forward the way we embrace our desire to bring people together, share stories and collect information to inform a more engaged practice.


Yoke, Bricks of Soap, 2019. Part of 'We Can Only See Today' at Tŷ Pawb, Wrexham.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

The audience experience for us is very important, not to leave having been offered a static point of view but to feel welcome, engaged, and with an understanding that they are invited to be an active participant in the work. By attempting to create this environment and offering multiple avenues into the artworks we hope people will spend more time with the work and have a more in depth response to it.

We often feel when visiting exhibitions that the gallery environment can be unwelcoming and by experiencing the exhibition you are taking something away for free that the institution has provided for you. However we like to think of it the other way round whereby audiences are giving their time for free and so we feel a responsibility to respect the time and attention they give. This can sometimes create tension when working with galleries who aren’t expecting the artists to be concerned with the cleanliness of the toilets, the approach of invigilators, or handouts being stocked up but these things can speak volumes to a visitor. It’s about respecting the audience as much as you respect the work.

The audience is playing an increasing part in the way we produce work, from inspiring new ideas, informing research and engagement, through to the way they might interact with the outcomes this all feeds into a two way creative process. For those who encounter our practice and ‘don’t like’ it we would hope that the experience itself is still a positive one. What an audience takes away it is up to them, we all bring our own perspectives to things, which means we all have our own individual experience. We hope that we offer people the opportunity of a new experience and maybe even the chance to see something in a way they haven’t seen it before. As the western world quickly becomes more polarised a little more compassion could go a long way and gaining new perspectives becomes increasingly essential.


Yoke, Out of The Mud 1000 - 1836, 2018

Which artists working at the moment do you admire?

We were recently blown away by Magdalen Oduno’s exhibition ‘The Journey of Things’ at the Hepworth, Wakefield. It was the first time we had experienced her work first hand and we were not disappointed. Alongside her own artworks she had selected a large number of contemporary and historic objects that have influenced her work over the years, this opportunity to see these things side by side was tremendous for us and in a space that was bravely designed by architect Farshid Moussavi whilst still being sensitive to the work.

Often it’s the curation of a whole show that will stick with us, over individual artworks, this is very much true of our visit to Manifesta 9. The show took place in a defunct mine in Waterschei in Genk, in the heart of the former coal-mining region of Belgium Limburg. The show was curated as three parts; new commissions, art historical works selected from the 19th and 20th centuries and objects and artifacts surrounding the legacy that the Limburg mining industry had left behind. This approach highlights how relational narrative can be presented alongside contemporary artworks to great effect and has influenced our own approach since.

We are super into the video works of Rachel Maclean after first seeing her work in the British Art Show back in 2015 and her residency at Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre was hilarious to watch on 4od as the guardian’s of consumerism and the artist tried to find common ground.

And finally old time favourites for both of us are James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, we are looking forward to Eliasson’s exhibition ‘In Real Life’ at the tate modern this summer although it will mean a venture down to that there London.

What projects have you got coming up?

We are trying not to think too much about exhibitions or projects at the moment, we are easing our foot off the accelerator so we can develop some ideas without external expectation. We are aware that the past year has taken its toll and we don’t want to burn out. We want to take time for reflection and skill development and as part of this we are very excited to be spending August on a residency at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, trying our hands at some metal casting and getting stuck back into ceramics.

Having said this as any artists knows there is always the continuous application writing and keeping our eyes open to future opportunities, a break is only a break if you have something to come back to. We always have starting points and lines of enquiry in our minds but its a question of when to dive in.

More information

Yoke on Axisweb >