- Emma Smith
- The Brickworks Museum
- Arts Council
Coralent – the name given to a pattern made of bricks – is a new artwork by visual artist, Emma Smith. The project presents an installation of suspended bricks hung from the ceiling of the drying room at The Brickworks Museum, with each one representing an individual worker from the industry. Each brick carries the initials of the person it commemorates. The project is part of Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point programme and marks The Brickworks Museum’s 125th year.
“Bricks are so ubiquitous that we don’t often think about them or how they are made, but each individual brick has passed through many different hands.
It was the original brick making process that inspired me to think about the thousands of forgotten and invisible workers from the industry, many of whom were women and children. Historically, the number of people who have made bricks is astounding, and while we often don’t tend to give bricks much thought, we are all in some way connected through this inanimate object that exists all around us.
While company stamps are a fascinating part of brick history, because of the way bricks are handled using the palm of the hands, there are typically no marks or imprints by the people that make them. This installation is designed to remember all the women, men and children that made the bricks that created the homes we live in, the offices we work in, and the built environment all around us.
It’s also a celebration of the passion, skill and talent that exists in brick making; whose invisible labour results in a product so visible it is rarely seen.” – Emma Smith
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to add to the installation by creating their own brick in memory of people connected to the brick making industry, allowing it to build over time. On August 14th, the Museum will hold a Build a Brick workshop, inviting the public to meet Emma Smith and make a mini brick to represent a brickmaker from history, which will become part of the artwork.
The installation is hung to create a circular chamber, marking the Quaker history of The Brickworks Museum site, and the Quaker practice of coming together in the round as a space of equality.
Carolyne Haynes, Project Director at The Brickworks Museum, said:
“Because it’s something we see everyday, we don’t think about our love affair with bricks and how deep they are in the British psyche. They really are an important part of our history. Brick making has a real human connection, I think that’s why it’s so fascinating. So many different people are part of the brick making process and each one has a story to tell.
Emma’s artwork is about remembering the people behind each brick and honoring their role in an industry that is still essential to our lives today. When people visit the museum they’ll feel immersed in its history and the significance of the site.”
A&H commissioned the filmmaker Pascal Vossen to work with Emma Smith on a ‘making of film’ for Coralent, capturing the artist’s process.
The Brickworks Museum is located in the Victorian brickworks founded by the Ashby family in 1897. At its peak, the factory was producing in excess of 20 million bricks a year, making it one of the main producers of bricks in the region. Bursledon Brickworks closed in 1974, and after being saved from demolition, reopened as a museum in 2014.
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.
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
Emma Smith has a social practice and creates installations, performances, temporary and permanent works. She is based in the UK and works internationally. Previous commissions include for Tate Modern, Barbican, Whitechapel Gallery, Arnolfini, Bluecoat, HOME Manchester, MAAS Sydney, Kunstmuseum Luzern and Matadero Madrid among many others. Awards include The Bryan Robertson Trust Award, Andy Warhol Foundation Award, and Wellcome Trust Large Arts Award. Her book ‘Practice of Place’ is published by Bedford Press/ Architecture Association.
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