Brick by Brick: Emma Smith’s Coralent – by George Vasey

25th October 2022

George Vasey, freelance curator & writer based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, visited the Brickworks Museum, Southampton to view Coralent, a Meeting Point commission by artist Emma Smith.

For more information on Coralent, please click here.

Emma Smith at the Brickworks Museum, Southampton.

I’m looking out the window of my home office onto the back ally. A cat eyes up an unsuspecting bird for breakfast. The bins are overflowing. A neighbour has put up some bunting to brighten the place up. My attention drifts towards the walls and houses: the colour of the bricks are custard yellow, chocolate brown, terracotta red and milk white.

The Victorian town of Saltburn, where I live, was the brainchild of the industrialist Henry Pease who — among other things — owned a local brick factory. The idea for the town came to Pease in a vision walking on the cliff top and he used his bricks — stamped with his own name, of course — to build it in a short space of time.

While the houses are made of Pease bricks, many of the streets are made from scoria bricks, which take their name from the Greek word for excrement. Locally referred to as shit bricks, they’re made from the waste product of blast furnaces used in iron production. Saltburn was created as a fantasy of industrial escapism, yet visitors walk on streets made from the industrial rubbish. Like many everyday objects, if you look close enough, bricks have a story to tell.

While Pease has a statue and his surname emblazoned on every brick in Saltburn, who are the people that built the town? What is their story?

Emma Smith’s Coralent (2022) — a new commission for Brickworks Museum, Southampton with Arts & Heritage — tells a story of bricks and their makers. Installed in the drying room at the museum, Smith has created over 2,000 bricks stamped with the initials of previous brickmakers at the factory, local area and across the UK. These are made with clay local to each maker. They hang from the ceiling in a circular chamber recalling the brickwork’s Quaker history, a religion known for holding meetings in the round to foreground equity and non-hierarchical congregation.

Bursledon Brickworks was established in the late 19th century and ceased production in 1974. It is now run as a museum by a dedicated team of volunteers and part-time staff. At its height the site employed hundreds of men, women and children who dug the clay, maintained the kilns and moulded the bricks. It was back breaking work in a hot and polluted environment. Like much of our industrial past, the factory owners piled their money into legacy projects while the workers were written out of history. When we look at bricks we’re reminded of who gets to build and who gets to maintain, who gets to be seen and what is left unsaid.

The history of brick production started around 7,000 BC. Initially made from mud dried in the sun, the discovery of firing techniques and kilns accelerated their use in colder climates. They were brought to England by the Romans and their departure coincided with a sharp decline in brick’s fortunes. Flemish migrants in the 13th century brought them back and their use grew exponentially in the 14th century as artisans become more adept at making bricks on-site with local clay. This would have been arduous work with the heat of the kilns amplifying the discomfort of the heavy labour.

As this growing industry was regulated, guilds emerged standardising their production. Great pains were made by artisans to remove their hand from the process removing all authorial gesture from the final product. Brick production further exploded after The Great Fire of London swiftly put an end to flammable wooden homes. The late 19th century saw rapid industrialisation speeding up production that eventually led to a monoculture of brick production throughout the 20th century. Where once there was thousands of kilns and artisans there are now only a handful. David Cufley, a member of the British Brick Society, has spent the last few years compiling a list of over 78,000 brickmakers that operated across the UK. This extraordinary index, which accompanies the installation, provides a sense of the vast scale of production that once took place.

Bricks are one of the great human inventions: they’re cheap, long-lasting, recyclable and made from low cost, abundant and accessible materials. The humble brick deserves its moment in the sun, unveiled from beneath the pebble dash and plaster. Bricks are unshowy objects that are elements of other things rather than items of persistent focus. A brick is like a shy yet benevolent friend shouting about their best mate while keeping schtum about their own accomplishments. While the architects and philanthropists have their plaques and statues, the technicians and artisans who built (and maintain) our towns and cities remain anonymous.

While curiously undervalued, bricks have persistently been the focus of artists’ scrutiny. Harun Farocki was obsessed with bricks and made the film In Comparison (2009) documenting their diverse production around the world. For Farocki, the brick is a “long playing record” that records and stores knowledge as well as structuring social relations. Artists such as Carl Andre, Assemble, New Linthorpe and Emily Hesse, Per Kirkeby, David Mach, Doris Salcedo, and Judith Hopf have mined the symbolic and material potential of bricks. Tamas St. Auby’s Czechoslovak Radio (1968), consisting of a brick with a piece of paper around it, recalls satirical protests by Czechoslovakian civilians who, after their radios were confiscated by occupying Soviet troops, turned bricks into rudimentary mock-radios. The Russians confiscated those too. Because of their ubiquity, bricks have become shorthand for a multitude of metaphors including, in this instance, insurrection.

Smith’s work reminds us that bricks are a nexus for thinking about themes of labour, class, and value. The title of the work Coralent is the name given to an interlocking pattern used in masonry. The prefix co means together (as in collaboration and cooperation) and Smith uses the metaphor of the interlocking system to foreground the workers’ invisible labour. Smith has developed a practice over the last 15 years that involves models of co-production with communities that attends to the overlooked and undervalued. Previous projects have involved choirs exploring the history of whistling at work and recipe books that remedy relationships. She’s worked with neuroscientists, bell ringers, wine makers and toddlers. Her collaborative work connects across distance, disciplines and generations. Coralent and its prefix co is metaphor and process, extending and amplifying the logic of Smith’s work.

Bricks, as Farocki understood, have much to tell us about social relations. By stamping the initials of brickmakers rather than industrialists into the bricks, Smith reclaims a workers’ history, putting value in the many. No city would have been built without the arms that dug the coal and the hands that worked the clay. These countless, and often nameless, bodies serviced the machines that made the bricks that built our homes. Coralent is a temporary statue to these makers and maintainers.

– by George Vasey, 2022

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