Dark Interlude
Elsa Coustou – Curator, Tate Britain

Since relocating to North East Lincolnshire in 2014, Theo Simpson has been creating works that unearth the invisible forces and traces of histories linked to technological progress that shape this country. He investigates how technological innovation, full of promises and in constant movement, comes hand in hand with decline and obsolescence, provoking economic, social and political shifts. These transformations and dynamic forces are inscribed in Simpson’s landscapes, forming their strata – at once geological, socio-economic, and imaginary. They are also recorded in the archival images he incorporates and carried through the works by the materials and techniques he uses. The resulting works, informed by the tradition of landscape photography, not only push the boundaries of the medium towards the sculptural, but also manifest a constant back and forth between figuration and abstraction. These movements and tensions are integral to Simpson’s practice, as is the rippling of the past into the present. Whereas earlier works depict the decline of the manufacturing sector, Simpson’s new works explore more directly the social dislocations that resulted from these economic changes and speculate on new discoveries that are carving the future.

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In Drift 2019 Simpson has appropriated and manipulated a black and white image of a 1971 protest against Britain joining the then European Economic Community. The six cut-out views of the same image, rotated at various angles, are connected by the intersection of two flags and the architecture of Whitehall in the background. As evoked by the title, the work depicts movement through repetition: the layering of the screen-printing process creates multiple readings of the archival image. In the light of Brexit and topical negotiations around the EU’s single market and more broadly the idea of a transnational project, history seems to repeat itself. Simpson’s use of the archive stems from an interest in the way events are remembered: what is captured of the event, which pictures are kept, what is left to posterity. When it rode upon men 2019 also multiplies cut-out views of a black and white newspaper image, showing the violent confrontations between miners and police during the 1984 Battle of Orgreave. Here too, the printing process – silkscreen on aluminium – has created painterly and brushstroke effects bleeding into the silhouettes, reinforcing the sense of unrest as well as of time washing over events, like the blurring of memory. As often in his work, Simpson combines archival images with photographs he has captured at various sites. In the work a vibrant abstract strip cuts vertically across the black and white image. The gradient blue photograph was taken at the Port of Tyne in Newcastle, one of the major exporters of coal from medieval times to the end of the 1960s. The red photograph was taken in the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University. Graphene, which was discovered in Manchester, is the most conductive man-made material, one atom thick but hundred times stronger than steel. Each locality has a strong history with developments in British industry and technology and, as the abstract red photograph in the work conveys, new technological advancements are less and less visible. This juxtaposition recurs in World of things 2019, in which Simpson pairs a photograph taken in that same graphene laboratory with a photograph depicting the by-product being exhausted at a quarry, both alluding to processes of transformation – enhancing and disturbing nature at the same time – and, with them, the production of energy.

The reference to our insatiable need for energy, drawn from land resources and generated by ever-superseded machines, runs throughout Simpson’s works. Several are inspired by geological drawings of forces beneath the ground, expressed through geometric shapes and characterised by a move towards abstraction and the sculptural. This can be seen in Third Shock 2019 and Fourth Shock 2019, evoking a process of fracturing, a fragile balance and a set of forces in motion. In the former piece, the assembled fragments of painted laser-cut steel allude to geological drawings of rocks and to the azurite crystal which gives the work its colour. In the latter, the assembled fragments recall the fate of British Leyland, an automotive corporation marked by restructuring, mergers, sales and re-branding, all consequences of globalisation, and a prelude to the slow decline of the British car industry, referenced again in another work, Vanden Plas 2016. In Circle, Sphere, Cone 2019 Simpson slots large black waves of laser-cut steel coated with acrylic polyurethane enamel paint – typically used on automobiles – into photographs of black and white lines (details of turbine blades) and forms created by light and shadows, reminiscent of early 20th century experiments in abstract photography. The thickness and glossiness of the waves contrast with the background mat photographs, emphasising an underlying tension. Taken at Siemens in Newcastle, the site where Charles Algernon Parsons invented the compound steam turbine in 1884, the photographic element’s dialogue with the waves represents the engine’s mechanism and energy it produced. Moving away from photography, the floor-based aluminium sculpture Shear 2019 takes the form of two long triangular prisms mirroring each other. In both, a triangular aperture has been cut to hold crushed coal that Simpson has collected over the past year from different sites. If the crushed rock hints at the process of making aluminium, it also symbolises the history of industry’s reliance on coal and natural resources and, more broadly, on manpower – another form of (largely unseen) energy.

Simpson’s use of engineering techniques and materials such as steel and coal anchors his works within the industrial landscapes they depict. It echoes the rapid and relentless mechanical transformations that keep reinventing these materials and landscapes, and asks the underlying question of their social and ecological impact. Behind a certain coolness conveyed by these materials and techniques, with the geometric shapes, curves and lines in man-altered landscapes devoid of human beings, his works are penetrated by the energy of a world in motion. The visual associations, often the result of the combination of images from different sources and times or contrasting materials, create a poetic and speculative re-reading of the landscapes Simpson depicts and the histories attached to them.

‘Dark Interlude’ originally published in 2020 Jerwood / Photoworks award catalalogue

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Notes on shock works
From Dark Interlude

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There can be no statement image, no ‘making sense’ of the world through the formulation of composition and extrapolation of a given moment – the exercise is merely illusion.

Justification is left at the site the material was gathered.

The world of things is an articulation of our ability to shape nature to our will.

Here is a perceptual exercise – material with new spirit. Somewhere in the faults and cracks, perception unfolds into some sort of individual truth and facts about the properties of the adjacent material.

The individual planes have a singular totality – the volume between, delineates truth and judgement – one is never propelled above the other.

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Beginning and Forgetting
Eugenie Shinkle – Reader in Photography, University of Westminster

Where to begin?

Begin with a world experienced as space, site, and structure.

Begin with a world apprehended as history and ideology, memory and myth.

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Begin with a world transformed by networks of forces – social, political, economic, technological, geological. Some of these transformations are barely perceptible, hidden in the tectonic rumble of deep time. Others take place within individual lifetimes, driven by the accelerating pace of global change.

Begin with an inner and outer world of experience – lived topographies and powerful attachments to place, narratives that enfold and shape the self.

Convention tells us that visual representations can accurately describe this world; that marks and motifs on the surface of the earth are capable of revealing the forces that produced them. This power to describe is given form in concepts like ‘landscape’, and in two-dimensional representations – easel painting and latterly, photography, both of which carry within them the geometrical legacy of linear perspective. Pictorial systems such as these record the dimensions and configurations of physical space, offering a fixed position from which to speculate on an image of reality. The rectangular frame is an emblem of rationality, its logic often mistaken for the working of the eye.

More recently, photography has embraced the idea of the topographic as a way of organising and describing space as landscape. A derivation of the Latin topographiatopos meaning place, and graphia, meaning “to represent by lines drawn” – so-called topographic photography reduces the uncertainty and emotional ambivalence of physical encounters with place to a set of visible, measurable quantities freed of sentiment or opinion. But the parameters of the visible world are ephemeral and unreliable; this appearance of order is an illusion.

‘New topographic’ photography emerged into the history of the medium as though without precedent, the supposed index of late twentieth century global transformations – the demise of industries, shifts in capital flows, large-scale movements of goods and money and people. The discourse that has followed on from it treats this history as a smooth continuum punctuated by singular images and events, closing off the notion of ‘topographic landscape’ from further scrutiny. The certainty that it promises has perpetuated divisions such as pre- and post-industrial, North and South, nature and culture, now and then.

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The problem, then, is not just the idea of landscape as a system of representation, but the history into which it has been inscribed. The association of landscape with pictorial system and natural scenery dates back to the sixteenth century. But the term itself emerged much earlier, in Northern Europe, to describe the way that a people organized itself politically. Landscape, or Landschaft, referred not to physical space, but to a polity and the various economic and social activities that constituted it. Such activities were linked to the geography of a place and the affordances it offered – and thus, tangentially, to the visible features of the terrain. But landscape itself was not determined spatially or defined by the way that it appeared to the eye. Rather, it was a social idea, emerging from the dynamics of particular regions and given physical expression in/as a material environment.

Topography provides a limited frame of reference for this complexity. Landscape is more accurately described as a topological system, incorporating the topographic alongside other sets of relations that can’t be expressed as visible parameters fixed in space and time. Topology treats such parameters – and the social, historical, economic and other variables to which they are linked – as nodes in fluid, multiform networks. Some of these variables are materialised in the immutable forms and physical laws of the real world, others take shape in less concrete ways, as political institutions, shared knowledges and beliefs. The difference between topography and topology is not a matter of representation vs. abstraction. It is a matter of restoring to ‘landscape’ some of the richness of the term’s original meaning.

topological schemas

propositions

The work is a response to a changing landscape. The nature of this response is not to create representations of space, but to embody the systems and processes that bring landscapes into being.

Individual pieces can be compared to mechanical or industrial systems in miniature – sites where multiple ideas converge and surface, where materials, actions, and techniques combine in interlocking arrangements.

Specific phenomena act as pathways to broader fields of engagement, opening out into more general propositions (historical, technological, geopolitical, etc.)

principles

i) Homology – similarity of structure, relation or position on account of common ancestry

ii) Affinity – similarity of structure or form on account of shared characteristics

iii) Analogy – correspondence or partial similarity; comparison for the purpose of logical explanation or clarification

These principles inform the structure of individual pieces and their relationship to the practice as a whole. They act as a mechanism for considering, reconfiguring, and dismantling certain ideas and concepts. They surface in/as the repetition and adaptation of specific themes and archetypal forms; in non-linear chronologies; in dialogues between depth and surface, part and whole, the human and the machine.

The following schemas outline some of the ways in which these principles and propositions coincide.

schema i / the frame

The rectangular steel cases that enclose many of the works allude to the formal and conceptual frame of landscape. Analogous to the chassis of an automobile, the frame provides both structural stability and the possibility of radical reconfiguration.

The angular fragments in Steel Strata Mk 1 and Mk 2 hint at the pictorial conventions of classical landscape – a familiar topography of mountainous forms created by the displacement of living rock. This fracturing – embodied in a tension that threatens to escape the confines of the frame – is echoed in the work’s internal organization, and in its intended display as a diptych. It is also present in the work’s low relief structure, which ruptures the integrity of the picture plane, extending two dimensions into three.

In contrast, the suite of Time to Totality pieces uses the protocols of the rectangular frame to bring harmony to an increasingly complex morphology. The internal structure of individual works emulates the stability of mechanical and electronic systems such as circuit boards and internal combustion engines. Here, the frame acts as a machine for producing visual order.

Works such Helical Column reach beyond the logic of the frame and the controlled space of the gallery itself to somewhere unknown.

schema ii / space, time

Although it is centered around certain locations and time periods, the work operates outside the framework of historical narrative, treating history as a constellation of nodes and linkages.

Time to Totality IX, for instance, sets the accelerating pace of global change – a world in which greater connectivity coexists with aggressive competition, increasing insularity and ideological division – alongside the moon’s gradual movement away from the earth. The basis of contemporary landscapes and industries on foundations laid down in prehistory is a recurrent theme.

Spatiotemporal paradoxes such as these persist throughout the work: time as discontinuous and simultaneous; space as proximate and distanced. Progress itself is posed as a broken continuum – less a confident march than a leap of faith, built on the ruins of the past.

schema iii / language

The work treats signifying systems as both opaque and excessively visible, deliberately withholding information in order to make room for new languages and forms of expression.

Works such as New Breed of Power and All the Difference in the World are based on historical advertisements with the image removed. This disruption of the classical marriage of text and image distances language from the system to which it originally belonged, transforming it into something more immediate and colloquial. Historical abstractions – desires and aspirations rooted in another era – are given physical substance and new meaning in the present.

In Steel Strata Mk 1 and Mk 2, each individual segment relates to various stages – the corporate mergers, takeovers and buyouts – that marked the demise of automotive companies like British Leyland and the Rover Group. But this is not stated explicitly. Instead, the work’s internal structure is a formal and gestural expression of this complex, discontinuous history – a play of forces analogous to the violent exercise of power that it represents.

Certain paradigmatic forms, derived from an arc-shaped section of the flywheel in an internal combustion engine, are refined and repeated across multiple pieces, such as Time to Totality XIX, Helical Structure IV, and Helical Column. Crossing over between the mechanical and the symbolic, these works engage with the arc as a mechanical component as well as an expression of aspiration, dignity, and power. Less obviously, they also demonstrate its affinity with the Greek ‘arche’ (ἀρχή) – an origin, first principle or source of action.

schema iv / human and machine

The early years of the industrial age were marked by debates around the relative merits of the hand and the machine. While industrial machinery promised the elimination of inefficiency and human error, hand-made goods expressed a sensibility that was seen as superior.

This historical dialectic takes different forms throughout the practice, in the unsettled relationship between manual and automated processes. Some pieces are created almost entirely by mechanical means while others have a more conspicuous human presence. The appearance of perfection and totality is belied by the small errors that creep in during hand crafting – burnishing, welding, machining, spray painting and polishing – all of which reveal imperfections and traces of the hand that created them.

This dialogue between sensory and machinic engagement is part of the language of the work. It is evident in the role of instinct and intuition in the selection and handling of different components – in allowing certain materials to dictate the way in which they are worked, and in the deliberate choice to process other materials in ways for which they are not intended (for instance, the hand working of elements that would normally be processed by a machine). Variations such as these invite imperfections, inconsistencies and processes of decay that a machine-made piece would not normally undergo.

Human sensibility plays a fundamental part in our engagement with machines. And the machine is a continuously evolving organism – an allegory for progress itself.

curtain of enigmas

… beginning and ending with landscape, and with the misgiving that it’s somehow arbitrary as a point of departure, as a way into this complex topology.

but it’s about where you come from, isn’t it? the place where you began, the way that the contours of that place somehow marry up with your own inner life. the way that the histories and mythologies of this place continue to resonate in the present. watching it change and transform, watching parts of it disappear and new forms emerge, and wanting to know why, and how this whole vast system continues to work, in tension and in harmony.

there’s something sublime about it.

knowing a place, being in a place, is a constant process of trying to figure all of this out. traditionally, fields like engineering and science have tackled these gaps in knowledge – their currency is to discover, to innovate and solve problems.

we think of art, on the other hand, as responsible for representing this reality.

but this separation is simplistic, it’s disingenuous – what was it that Sol Lewitt said? ‘The idea is a machine that makes the art.’ the flip side of this is the notion of art as a creative, animate machine for making ideas and creating knowledge – a complex system made up of individual components. a system that approaches the condition of science or engineering, exploring the complexity of its own roots, revealing the fault lines in its own conceptual foundations.

so it’s not about what the work represents, in the sense of something finished or absolute. it’s more about what it does – the way it sets new relations in motion, gathers and focuses energy, encourages alternate ways of viewing or experiencing. the way it embodies sensibilities that are deeply personal but also capable of being shared. the way it encourages us to embrace what is fundamentally human about our relationships with machines: that sense of wonder and fascination, the means by which an outwardly rational form can also embody emotion and paradox and contradiction.

these sort of affinities reach back at least to Leonardo, and probably even further, but they seem to have been glossed over at a time when we’re more closely involved with machines and complex systems than we’ve ever been. the more they shape our material and emotional lives, the less we seem to know or care about how they do it. making and experiencing art is a way of taking responsibility for the world we’re going to be living in – creating a language that taps into that world and suggests that you need involve yourself to find something out.

emotion and rationality, art and science, past and present, the hand and the machine … they’re all the same side of this weird topological coin, aren’t they? and landscape is an imperfect matrix for reflecting on the way it all works together.

‘Beginning and Forgetting: the work of Theo Simpson’, originally published in North, vol. IV (2018)

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Construct
Mirjam Kooiman – Curator, Foam photography museum

In the work GM180 Flywheel by artist Theo Simpson, the silkscreen image depicts a human hand interacting with a machine. It’s an instructional photograph taken from a workshop manual. Stripped from its original context, however, the question arises of whether the machine serves humans or if the human hand is in service of the machine. Since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has created machines that put people in service of machinery. Our everlasting thirst for technological progress has often required some sort of social decline, while suggesting an improvement of our individual quality of life. Progress and decline have proved to be very negotiable terms in human history.

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Time has taught us by now that by inventing machinery, we somehow seem to become dependent of it. Economies constantly adapt to or even rely on technological advancements that not only support but often determine the market. It’s for that reason that Theo Simpson’s home ground of the northern part of England, the subject of his artistic practice, is marked by its glorious past of the Industrial Revolution that took place there, that has by now been replaced by the Information Age. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, England’s economy heavily relied on heavy industry such as weaving, steelmaking, and mining. International competition caused a disastrous decline in these industries in the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with the collapse of the automotive industry in the area. Simpson ponders: “I don’t think anyone disagrees that certain industries needed to change; it’s rather the speed in which it happened that didn’t give places and people the chance to catch up, which created this sort of lingering displacement”. Yet the purpose of his work is not to merely criticize the past and its consequences. The areas where Simpson lives and works rather form the impetus for the creative imagination with which he reflects upon mythical and ideological themes relating to landscape, industry, technology and the mechanisms and economies we invent to sustain us.

After studying Photography at the Sheffield Institute of Arts, Simpson started to document his surroundings. However, he grew cynical toward using photography as a sole communicator. His photographs seemed to document relics from the industrial past that held a certain melancholy and didn’t so much express the potentials he saw in this environment. This made him adopt a more analytical, process-based methodology, with man-made materials and past and present technological processes at its core. He often combines this with archival material he avidly collects, all of which is from different points of time and origins, such as instructional photography found in workshop manuals and reference books, advertisements, colour charts, data sheets and found imagery. In contrast to the reproductive and 2D qualities of photography, each individual piece is conceived in a sculptural manner as fully integrated objects. The metal casing of each work is not only used structurally to hold the internal arrangement, but becomes an intrinsic part of the dialogue with partnering manipulated surfaces in the work. As such, Simpson creates hypotheses out of multiple referents - he constructs constructs.

What defines a place is in fact a construct of the mind. How we view a place is ultimately about who is looking. Consequently, any meaning assigned to an environment is always in the eye of the beholder. “In terms of my connection to the regions I’ve grown up and lived in, like most people experience of their local environment, once you carve away at the surface - it has a wealth of history and narratives to reveal,” Simpson says. “And this was the starting point for me, trying to understand why these environments had changed in the way they have and how that fed into a larger exchange of ideas.” Colour codes from old colour charts of vanished British car brands, visionary slogans deriving from old advertisements, and archival imagery are thus key to understanding the historical references and optimistic spirits of earlier times and industries referenced in Simpson’s work. His contemplative pieces often visualize time lines, of which Steel strata Mk1 and 2 are the most precise yet most abstract historical reconstructions to date. As if excavating a legacy, several layers of colour and material represent the history of the automotive engineering and manufacturing conglomerate British Leyland. Simpson: “The plates of the strata make reference to the way in which British Leyland and other corporations have been split up, slim lined, rebranded, re-imagined, traded or sold. The painted segments use colours from two contrasting times in the manufacturer’s history: ‘Moonraker Blue’ was a colour used from 1982 for cars built by British Leyland. The ‘Silk green’ colour was introduced in 1987 under Austin Rover.” According to Simpson, the colour lives on through BMW who bought Austin Rover in 1994, but after failing to turn into a success, sold it and it was split up further in 2000. BMW did keep the MINI brand from Austin Rover however, and the silk green colour is still used to this day on BMW cars. The hand-polished finish of the steel layers pays homage to how many of the car models no longer in production still live on through enthusiasts. Together, Steel Strata Mk1 and 2 express the shifts a globalizing economy with international competition has caused to a nationalized brand like British Leyland that provided many jobs, but gradually crumbled through its reformations. But besides this negative effect, the works also visualize a period of motor production in which we see the industry’s adaptation to the full embodiment of choice, the arrival of an emerging service economy in which capitalism is in full effect. Simpson: “The construction of these pieces gestures to the rise of a conscious consumer who wants unique products for individual expression. It has meant a ‘liberation’ of choice and self - choices of course enabled by advancements in technology to economically deliver it at a profit.”

Since the rise of consumer culture in the 19th century, capitalism’s advertisements have expressed extremely optimistic visions for the future. While huge crises such as mass migration, international terrorism, the rise of populism and climate change have steered our collective imagination of the future in increasingly apocalyptic directions, the globalizing economy keeps promoting individualized pleasure for one’s own sake. The ‘world’ such as is being referred to in a slogan such as All the difference in the world.in one of Simpson’s works thus seems to promote a profit for each individual bubble, rather than global solutions. Even though this slogan is appropriated from an old car advertisement, it could just as well have derived from a contemporary commercial of some new device. Maintaining the original typeface, Simpson had the text laser cut from a steel sheet, leaving out the original visuals of the advertisement. Instead, the metal surface is treated with white primer – prepping the stage for new visions to come. The image as such is not provided by the artist, but triggered by the references such slogans recall. It points out how these visions change from past to present even though the communication of commerce tends to stay exactly the same. It expresses our everlasting consumerist desires and thirst for progress, while at the same time reflecting the optimism of new possibilities.

As the title of Theo Simpson’s exhibition, Part and Whole, at Foam 3h suggests, his works could be considered as systems of part-whole relationships to be deciphered. In the exhibition space, sculptural pieces made out of construction materials, usually belonging to internal structures that only rise to the surface when buildings are being destroyed, complement the cased wall pieces. In his artworks, Simpson excavates those material and ideological internal structures inherent to our experience of the world, shaped by our direct environments such as his in England. The combination of historical and nostalgic references to British steel and automotive industries is not so much about expressing a longing for the past, but rather a fascination for the passage of time and its implications for the future. From another perspective, the body of work presented here also constructs a continuous line of thought and material development of Simpson’s artistic practice. Even if this seems to suggest that Simpson is moving away from photography, the photographic medium is an intrinsic part to the whole, as he not only literally applies it but also contemplates its visual power through plays with its appearance (or non-appearance). For Simpson, it’s not so much about the image but about imagination.

– From Part and Whole exhibition catalogue at Foam photography museum, Amsterdam (2018)

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Jury Statement
Outset | Unseen exhibition fund jury

Theo Simpson’s work is an eclectic and constructed portrait of post-industrial heritage in the UK. The environment and landscape he grew up in is the basis of nearly all his work. His multi-layered compositions consist of archival images, landscape photographs, hand - crafted steel frames and sculptures, which form kaleidoscopic objects of a complex subject - matter.

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He triggers a reflection on the intersections between landscape, time and the construction of collective memory. In a knowledge - based digital economy Simpson’s work in an antidote to the swift oblivion of our recent industrial past. Being intrigued by his work at first sight and the physicality of his installations we are looking forward to see how he will respond to the space of Foam3h.

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