Patricia Niemann – Where the Bones of the Earth Show Through

2 Oct 2009 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Timespan, Helmsdale, until 25 October 2009

Achavanich Standing Stone Pins (© Giles Sutherland)

Achavanich Standing Stone Pins (© Giles Sutherland)

PATRICIA NIEMANN originally trained and worked as a goldsmith and ran her own free-lance design studio in Vilshofen, Bavaria, before relocating to Scotland where she became ‘hooked’ on glass, firstly as a post-graduate student at Edinburgh College of Art and later at North Lands Creative Glass in Lybster, Caithness.

Her present show, which takes its title from the author Neil Gaiman’s description of the north of Scotland, brings together a number of Niemann’s artistic concerns and presents them in an eclectic range of media. However, for all their apparent diversity, these works coalesce around the core themes of sarcophagal ritual (including the artefacts and architecture of human burial); the human body itself; and the idea of decay, not as a degenerative process, but rather as a regenerative, cyclical one.

Central to Niemann’s practice and training is life drawing and here this discipline finds expression in a number of vigorously worked, expressive studies of the male and female figure. While the female figure appears fully fleshed and somewhat passive, the male figure is angular, taut and wiry – with a clearly defined bone structure.

These life drawings can be read as a metaphor for Niemann’s wider concerns – in particular, archaeology, and how this can reveal what lies underneath the ‘skin’ of the landscape, especially in Caithness, where she lives and works.

A number of the works here relate to the Achavanich stone setting, a horseshoe-shaped, Neolithic site adjacent to the Loch of Stemster. As well as the carefully constructed arrangement of stones, the site also contains a burial chamber which predates these by around 1000 years.

Achavanich itself clearly held a religious significance for the early Gaels, who named it (millennia after it had been built) ‘field of the monk’. Archaeological evidence has included charred bone fragments suggesting that the site was linked with the rituals of death, cremation and burial.

Niemann created a number of conical, brightly-coloured glass ‘flames’ which she placed alongside these remarkable stones, thus evoking the fire and ritual which are associated with the site. A number of these elegant, spiky sculptural forms can be seen here, as well photographs of them in situ.

Niemann has clearly developed a strong connection with Caithness and professes a fascination with its elemental geology and climate. The sparsity of population and the preponderance of archaeological sites have allowed her to foster a relationship to a distinct past which she views not as a separation but as a continuity. The ancient rituals surrounding death in the north of Scotland, Niemann seems to suggest, form relationships which cross time and space and allow us to understand our common humanity.

Such ideas extend across Niemann’s diverse media – stone and glass sculpture, jewellery, drawing and textiles. In her series of jewellery-cum-sculpture ‘Achavanich Standing Stone Pins’, Niemann shows her deftness as both metalsmith and artist. On each felted ‘stone’ she has attached a minutely detailed, bone-shaped piece of jewellery such as a broach or earring.

This motif extends to other larger scale works such as an installation of life-size, but stylised, femurs made from coloured glass and Caithness stone. The conceit is replicated elsewhere in a series of dramatic, over-the-top jewellery fashioned from chunky, silver, bone-shaped hoops, which form a chain from which hang, in turn, large glass ‘bones’.

Although many of these objects are bold and striking, they are also, nevertheless, delicate and finely made emphasising the careful craftsmanship which underpins all of Niemann’s work.

© Giles Sutherland, 2009