Terence Birch is the recipient of our tenth Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, Shape's flagship art award for disabled artists. As his accompanying residency with Pallant House Gallery draws to a close, Shape's Fiona Slater caught up with the artist to look back over the work and research he has been conducting at the gallery.

FS: Can you describe the pieces you have been working on in the studio?

TB: I’ve been working on one sculpture and five paintings. The sculpture consists of two readymade objects. One object is a plaster foot of Hermes bought from the British Museum and the other is a Raleigh ‘Abstrakt’ children’s bicycle. Together they form two figures. One figure is made from re-assembled parts of the bicycle and the other is presented as a fragment in the form of the foot. The bicycle figure is of my brother who passed away before I was born; the Hermes foot is imagined like the one I had amputated when I was four years old. The work was created in response to Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘As is When’ suite of lithographs and ‘Artificial Sun’ which are inspired by the life of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Accompanying the piece are two printed sheets of text - a letter that I wrote to my brother. The piece looks at how we deal with grief and loss. It looks to re-framing the past and moving on.

Both pieces link to a photograph from my childhood, when I posed for a now-defunct company called ‘Prosthetics International’. In the photograph I’m cycling around my parents in a park in Brighton, so when the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary was held in Sussex it prompted me to return to that photograph and an impulse to see if I could find the bicycle today. It was a Raleigh ‘Extreme’ children’s bicycle and very rare so I couldn’t find one. That’s when it started becoming difficult for me to choose what alternative bicycle to work from - I felt I needed one with the memory of my childhood, however through the search I learnt of a similar, modern bicycle made by Raleigh called an ‘Abstrakt’. Although it was brand new, the idea of the ‘Extreme’ bicycle becoming ‘abstracted’ made sense. I was playing with the logic that it existed in both thought and material.

Abstract sculpture on the floor of a studio space in front of bright windows. It appears to be made of bicycle parts and a plaster foot in the style of a classical sculpture.

Paolozzi titled one of his prints on Wittgenstein ‘Tortured Life’ and makes a reference to the ancient sculpture ‘Laocoön’, where there is a lot of struggle going on; I didn't want to represent that in regard to my own biography. The inner tubes - if you could see them as a visual pun of a snake, and how they are functioning in my sculpture - aren’t causing any pain. There is a peacefulness to it.

FS: Did your interest in Wittgenstein come about through an interest in the Paolozzi prints?

TB: No. I know of Wittgenstein from my time in Ireland and going to the same hospital that he went to when he was in Dublin. Paolozzi was reading Wittgenstein for his own reality and initially I was projecting my own reality onto Wittgenstein in terms of OCD, his rigidity and doubt. It was a nice coincidence to see the exhibition [POP! Art in a Changing Britain at Pallant House Gallery] because I only briefly read the Wittgenstein quotes on Paolozzi’s prints and subconsciously knew they were there but I wasn’t really too familiar with his work. It was really good to look into that and learn more about Paolozzi’s interest in man and the machine. There was a nice parallel with my interest in prosthetics.

FS: I wanted to ask about the way that you use language alongside your work and in the titles. It seems you are often having a conversation with someone through the work. Is it a conscious thing to frame these works as a conversation?

TB: In the past my writing text alongside the work has functioned like a prosthesis to the object - language as prosthesis. It was conceptual and usually described a narrative beyond the work presented. During this residency there was a desire for me to be able to make work and not need to explain what I was doing. In many ways the over-explaining was distracting me from getting to something that I was avoiding: the pain of certain issues. I haven't necessarily described or included every reference point of the work I’m making at the moment; there is something about sitting with the silence or stillness. There are no words to describe certain things and that’s ok. The conversational element I really learnt from therapy and I suppose you could describe it as a kind of compassionate voice that I've learnt to incorporate.

A beige plinth with three white pieces of A4 paper in a line on it, next to 6 pots of red and green paints. On the papers are black and white prints of bicycle parts and other mechanical equipment.

FS: In some previous correspondence you talked about using your body to read Chichester. Can you say more about the use of your body in the work?

TB: Using my body to read Chichester came from two things happening at once - both were connected to Stephane Mallarmé’s ‘The Book’. I had been researching Joe Tilson and came across a reference there, and I also performed at a reading of his work where a séance was staged on a life-size board game.

In regard to the five paintings I mentioned earlier, in Chichester they have a shop called Susie Watson Designs. You can see the tester pots there. It’s a very chalky, expensive interior paint and has names like ‘Bloomsbury Olive’ and ‘Lytton Green’.

I’m interested in the use of interior paint to talk about interior states of mind. Using that as a language for the pictures that we paint onto reality. So again, I guess we have an idea of who we are in the world.

The paintings are of the right pedal from the Raleigh ‘Abstrakt’ children’s bicycle. I painted these while hopping around each canvas using a paintbrush strapped to my amputated leg with the inner tube from the bicycle. The way I was moving above the canvas made me think about Paul Nash’s ‘Aerial Flowers’ series where he has painted flowers floating over a landscape. Nash was interested in his flowers as precursors of death so it tied in with my approaching of grief and loss. Wittgenstein, Nash and Paolozzi: there is a thread there that I was interested in.

Wittgenstein was interested in logic - what we can and cannot know, Nash was interested in states of the known world that were unknown, and Paolozzi was using unconventional ideas and materials. They all link to my interest in facts and imagination. I think in a performative sense strapping a paintbrush to my amputated leg and painting a pedal that I can’t necessarily feel - what is it that I am trying to do? I think it comes down to exploring these things: what we can and cannot know, and states of the known world that are 'unknown'.

A small sculpture of clay and wood on a tile floor leaning against the light grey wall, next to a large, light green abstract painting on a canvas.

FS: Earlier you were talking about that silence and what you leave out of the work - how you go about creating the imagery and the performative elements are part of the process but they are not public. They remain silent. Unless you see it as something you want to make more public...

TB: Well I want the paintings to work of their own accord but I think acknowledging that silence or invisibility might be a good thing. What I was trying to do was to find a language and find a way of painting. It was also about confidence - not knowing how to make a painting and being quite direct. It made sense to do it this way rather than having to rely on certain traditions of painting, so it’s truthful to what I am trying to do and what I’m trying to express.

I think I mentioned to you that I ended up embracing or hugging the disassembled bicycle frame while I was becoming familiar with the material. It was like I was performing a pietà with my brother and the sculpture suggests him cradling my amputated foot so there’s a complicated exchange there, but I was trying to get to a point within the materials, and being physically within the work helps. It scared me that I didn’t know what form the work was going to take; I was just trying to be present with the facts. It felt to me like I was breaking out from previous ways of working.

FS: Initially you were thinking about incorporating a typewriter in this piece and now you have a printer.

TB: I wanted to have a dialogue between the objects I brought into the studio. I had bought the typewriter to write on but its paper roller didn’t work so I thought 'OK, change of plan'. Meanwhile I was thinking about past and present technologies; their perceptibility and imperceptibility in our lives. So the bicycle became the more perceptible, machine-like object and I thought 'how else can I write? How can I get the material out there?'. A wireless printer seemed like a modern equivalent. When I was in the shop buying it I noticed the different brands and one of the brands was ‘Brother’ - it reminded me of Paolozzi’s print ‘The Spirit of the Snake’ where Wittgenstein was assigning human spirit to animals and proposing the term ‘psycho-physical parallelism’. I associated a direct correlation between the printer and the ‘spirit’ of my brother; it was like receiving messages from him from the afterlife. It became a way of thinking which went into the creation of the sculpture. Again that was one of those chance things. It became a better replacement than the initial idea.

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All images: Various works in progress by Terence Birch at his studio at Pallant House Gallery. Photos by Becky Dann
Video: Terence Birch - Abstrakt Pedal, 2018, work to camera, 36 mins. Edited by Selina Bonelli 

Abstrakt Pedal, 2018, work to camera, 36 mins. Edit: Selina Bonelli