Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
It’s the morning after Veronica Ryan won the Turner Prize, a moment celebrated with her name projected triumphantly on Liverpool’s huge Radio City skyscraper, and it’s still not understood. “There seems to be this separate person, which could be me, who won the Turner Award,” she says. “At the moment, there is a disconnect.”
At 66, Ryan becomes the oldest artist to ever win the award. In a way, he’s also had the hardest road to get here. In her laureate speech at Liverpool’s grandiose St George’s Hall on Wednesday evening, she thanked and named three lost siblings, Patricia, Josephine and David. When I ask her about them, she openly tells me: “They committed suicide.” There have been years of trauma and heartbreak for the grieving family to deal with. And other losses too. Ryan’s career got off to a promising start, with many opportunities and performances when she graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. But that ground stalled. It was almost as if she had been swept up in the incoming tide of Young British Artists, who were a few years younger than her. “There was a whole period,” she says, “where people didn’t show my work and didn’t even respond when I sent them pictures.”
That has really changed now. He has won the Turner Prize for a major exhibition on Spike Island, Bristol, where he lives between there and New York, as well as a public sculpture commission in Hackney, London, commemorating the Windrush generation. But there were years in the wilderness, where she worked without recognition. In her acceptance speech she spoke of his time “picking up trash.” He explains that it was around the time he worked with what she could pick up or scrape together for nothing: sculptures, for example, made from slanted stacks of fruit and vegetable packaging, the sort of molded trays you see holding avocados at the market .
She speaks movingly of the 2004 Momart fire, when an art storage warehouse in London caught fire taking hundreds of works with it. Famously, the fire destroyed Tracey Emin’s tent, everyone I’ve ever slept with. This was the job that was pictured on the front page of the Guardian the next morning. Ryan also lost a huge amount of work, but none of her reports mentioned it. “She coincided with the moment I was made invisible,” she says. There was another moment of cancellation: In the 1990s, a volcanic eruption at Montserrat completely destroyed Plymouth, the city where she was born. It was a difficult time.
However, he continued to do. Art isn’t simply a career choice for Ryan: she’s an artist “through and through,” as Tate Modern director Frances Morris told me at the Turner Award ceremony. Art for her is a means of expression, a mode of investigation, a way of making sense of the world and also, in a basic way, what occupies the hands. She is very on the go and works on things she can keep hidden in her backpack, such as some crochet. She is also an inveterate gatherer and violinist. She takes a piece of cellophane out of her purse, something that wrapped a sandwich yesterday, perhaps. She knotted it up, just to face it, but she’s satisfied with the way she looks and feels. Maybe you will use it in your work in some way. Modest activities like knotting or sewing are vehicles for thinking, but also a means to get through the day. “I’m quite obsessive in various ways,” says Ryan.
Her room in Tate Liverpool’s Turner Prize exhibition is quiet, contemplative, filled with small, delicate things. Or perhaps they are deceptively delicate, since the objects he makes, despite their modest size, seem to exude power and harsh magic. An old plastic bottle, made creamy by time, is kept in a mesh container that may have been made by Ryan, or perhaps found. The magnolia pods were cast in bronze, then bundled together and dangled with fishing line and hung from a vine.
Plaster casts of something that might be seashells or seeds are tied tightly with string, sitting on a crochet doily. The dried orange peels—satisfactory spirals removed intact—have been stitched back together, with dark stitches that have the appearance of a surgical field suture. There’s a lot here that reminds me of the repetitive, traditionally feminine tasks of folding, sewing, knitting, mending, mending. Her objects are held, contained and nested in a way that I find deeply satisfying. But there’s also something uncomfortable about them, like they might have darker conversations with each other that are half-hidden from me.
There are many seeds and fruits to the work, things that speak to trade, movement and colonial history, as well as her own story as someone who was brought to Britain from Montserrat as a child. But when we talk about the work, I can see Ryan resisting the notion that it’s “anything.” It always comes this but also this And this. Take the cocoa beans you see arranged on a small container of cast plaster in the exhibition at the Tate Liverpool.
“I was interested in people coming straight to the idea of migration,” she says of the conversations on such materials. “But really, I’m thinking about everything – that cocoa was initially used by the Aztecs as a kind of ceremonial drink. And then, at one point, it was used to make soup with salt. And then sugar was added and so on. I’m always a little anxious if the job is just about trade networks or race.” Basically, cocoa pods appeal to her as objects in themselves – “the way they grow directly from the trunk of the tree, like their shape it is so distinctive and beautiful.” Whatever the resonances of his materials, his art is always imbued with a formal sculptural language, hyperaware of how an object might fit in a space in relation to others, how it might be seen from above or from below; how it may tilt, stand, stack, or collapse.
And then there’s their uncanny power. Ryan tells me that when she was a young postgraduate student at Soas University in London, she took a trip to Nigeria. “In a village outside Lagos, I saw objects, seeds, gourds and different kinds of things wrapped together and hung from trees, as a sort of protection.” They were small votive objects, things that carried a certain power. Some of her work dates back to that trip, those bundles of, shall we say, pods tightly wrapped with string. Sometimes they hide secrets: Ryan tells me that under the colored binding she may have hidden something fragrant, like sage leaves. Her grandmother sent parcels of dried herbs from Montserrat, and her mother also grew herbs for tea in her garden and dried orange peels for infusions. “I grew up with this extensive knowledge of plants and herbs that comes out in the work,” she says.
Ryan talks a lot about her mother, who passed down many skills to her, especially crochet and sewing (the crochet doilies in Ryan’s Turner awards show were made by her). When Ryan was little, her mother and her aunt used cotton flour sacks as family pillowcases, washing them until they were soft and embroidering them. “My mom was always recycling things, not that she called it that,” she says. “I grew up repurposing things when I didn’t have the resources.” It took some time, she adds, “to give me permission to sew and use patchwork and embroidery in my work.” This involved “unlearning the kind of language we learned in art school”.
Seeing Mike Kelley’s first sculptures in New York, incorporating crocheted mats and small toys, was a revelation. “It was so exciting to get away from sort of a gender concern,” he says. “But it takes a long time to unlearn the first few things prescribed.” Ryan doesn’t like the idea of that kind of work being characterized as ‘textile art’ because, he says, ‘it’s all part of the language you can use’.
Not everything it does is tiny and portable. His sculpture Windrush is composed of three large objects made of bronze and marble: a cinnamon apple, a breadfruit tree and a soursop. They’re irresistible: the scaly, gnarled fruit made strange by their size. People lean and sit on them, climb on them, use them as a reference point. Maybe now, after winning the Turner award, it will be time for Ryan to go big. Why not? There’s a certain glint in his eyes that suggests he might do it.