A large inflatable duck fills the gathering space to bursting. Simeon Barclay reminds us of the emptiness of public social architecture; his uncanny reflections of England take the form of ornamental iron railings and the rotating cut-out figure of a voyeuristic, insipid policeman. Barclay’s multi-media sculptural practice is a gotham-esque lament on masculinity and isolation in the big city.
At Home, Everywhere and Nowhere is a solo exhibition shown collaboratively across both Workplace and Gathering gallery. Passing Warwick street, one is confronted with the large backside of an inflatable duck representing, or alluding, to the absurdity of the artist’s own ego. It is ‘an object trapped within its own skin’; both in its iconographic history from animated character to large inflatable parade object, and its role as a trapped and fragile being on the precipice of puncture. Throughout his work, Barclay mimics the unplanned walking direction of the urban drifter through his amalgamation of psychologically charged props, spears, neon-lights and layers of the self. Here, METAL speaks to the artist about his practice.
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Simeon, what did the preparation for the exhibition, which stretches across Workplace and Gathering galleries, look like?
Several months of trying to play; trying to build relationships, trying to work through fear, trying to recall muscle memory, trying to work through mistakes and miscommunication, trying to work with mistakes and miscommunication, trying to build on accumulated knowledge, trying to ride my luck, trying to be fluid.
We are talking about two different scales, two different atmospheres, and two different architectural constructions to maintain a dynamic dialogue through one enveloping concept.
At Workplace, viewers are kept at a distance by a metal fence adorned with the neon script: ‘Farewell sweet innocence’. Why this phrase, and why backwards?
It’s a lament of sorts, to access and loss. In my day-to-day existence, I’m continually made aware of the creeping shift in social spaces from public to private. I wanted to evoke that sensation of suspicion that you get when you recognise your reality is not quite what it seems, a disconnect, where the terms of engagement with space, time and place have changed without your consultation; the neon spelt backwards plus the pulse of the neon going on off is that disorientation. I wanted the time taken to decipher the text, to suggest that slippage.
Upstairs, a leather jacket decorated with the work of Henry Moore hangs from the ceiling. What about the artist made you want to have him emblazoned on the back of a biker jacket, like gang insignia?
A pair of jackets for smug retiring couples who, on Sunday afternoons, like nothing better than blowing off the cobwebs cruising the Yorkshire Dales on their prized long-haul touring trail.
Well, Moore, like Hepworth, which I feature in another jacket at Gathering, are these all-encompassing figures in the world of form and sculptural practice. Both hail from Yorkshire, where I grew up, and their practices draw on the topographical imprint of that particular landscape. Like them, I initially studied in Leeds so there was no escaping their pervasive legacy. There was a double-edged sword of reverence but also of having to dig yourself out of being stifled through the process of making work. The way people claim and personalise their possessions through iconography interests me; it’s brazen and jocular. There is a certain heartfelt honesty in that level of investment that can be anathema to a certain kind of staid, cool detachment. Humour is a supple lubricant for the unmooring of deference or earnestness; it’s also a way of marrying high art concepts and pop cultural influences in an off-kilter way.
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At Gathering, the large inflatable duck forms a centre point for the room; it references a costume worn by Elton John for a New York performance in 1980. What drew you toward this image as a symbol?
I love the idea of the composite; the cobbling together of signs as a way of creating new meaning. As a symbol or construction, the duck is an amalgamation of design processes, costuming, a history of animation, product placement, specific pop cultural moments, surface, painting, sculpture, pathetic monument, and erotic swelling. In combination, it may stand as a metaphor for how we communicate both consciously and inadvertently. It’s my Frankenstein understanding of the world around me, and that’s the beauty of sculpture: the scale allows you to change how the viewer interacts with this thing.
When did you first come into contact with multi-media sculpture as an art form?
I have always had an interest in the production of space, actors and the props within it.  I understand sculpture not only as this contained entity, but also through its autonomy. It is anchored in the same space as the viewer, but also as a kind of grammar or punctuation within an installation. Sculpture can be a means of breaking up the space, a prompt for introducing ideas, fragmentation and contingency as a way to redefine the architectural language. The church, the factory, and the (night)club are all spaces that were formative for me. The constant juxtaposition, key objects imbued with meaning, shifting perceptions, postures and pose, associated costuming, altered ambiences and sonic resonances.  I guess like those spaces I’ve attempted to elicit a particular awareness of the viewers own body within a space.
Your work has previously been described as blending both personal and shared cultural histories, does this ring true for you?
I believe the personal should be the starting point for any interrogation that attempts to unpick the robustness of received cultural history. Working through my practice, I try to employ tools such as remixing, sampling, biting, encoding, deviance, myth-making, mocking, and decoys. These are agitations or strategies to reimagine the past whilst projecting trajectories for possible futures.
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The inflatable is a self-portrait. Does this piece reference the absurdity of ego?
It is an object that is trapped in its skin. It is held in tension between this imposing, overwhelming presence within the gallery whilst simultaneously being contained, awkward and vulnerable; this is the precipice that the ego negotiates. As an object, it examines optics and exploitative capital.
In the exhibition, there's a contrast between the cool unapproachability of Celine’s 2023 runway show and the sartorial elements of Britain’s 1980s punk scene. What is the political significance of fashion and its subcultures for you?
There was a time when, if you were inclined, if you were alienated, if you had nothing else, there was a lot at stake in a look.  There was a possibility to meld your identity into the threads that you wore in a political way. For me, it was critical that you harnessed form, material, cut, visuals, music and postures as a complex negotiation of signs and codes that signalled your allegiance, your attitude or your difference from the mainstream. I like to think about Stuart Hall’s idea of canvases of representation. Not only could you play with and destabilise conceptions of identity, but the language was highly refined; it was coded in a way that resisted the uninitiated whilst creating its value and systems of recognition outside mainstream trends.
The viewer is made claustrophobic by the scale of the inflatable duck, and to walk through the installation, one has to dodge javelins. What is the significance for the viewer in negotiating these barriers?
The urban environment I grew up in put me front and centre within a dynamic social environment, where buoyancy and inquisitiveness exposed me to different cultures, income brackets, classes, and a cross-section of other age groups and peers of different subcultural affiliations. All this experience has been processed and has now become a kind of technology for navigating the world, but occasionally as you wander around day to day, there are glitches and resets. I would put these malfunctions down to the proximity in those same formative years, to profiling, the potential threat of violence and an ever-present shadow of surveillance. There was a constant necessity to adopt armour, whether physical or psychological, to get by.
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Can you discuss the collaboration with photographer and activist Ajamu X, for this show?
Ajamu, as an artist and friend, never fails to confound my perception. Most importantly, like me, he’s originally from Huddersfield - so what’s not to like?  I’ve always admired the way that he’s been able to meld activism with all the complexity of black queer life whilst grounding his practice and the form of his work within conversations of process, beauty, craft making and aesthetics. Ajamu puts images into the discourse that allow black men to inhabit nuance. From the unapologetic to the beautiful.
As a counterpoint to the spectacle of the inflatable,  I wanted to be in a place where, creatively, I felt vulnerable and at risk; this I think, is important for my growth both personally and as an artist. Ajamu was able to bestow that physical and emotional space where, through a collaborative approach, something of that trust, intimacy, fragility and tenderness might begin to be interpreted from the work.
There is an element of fantasy in this show. It feels like a dreamlike trip into the artist’s psyche. Did you intend for the exhibition to create an uncanny feeling?
In the mind's eye, distortion is a necessary tool to placate reality. It sounds pretentious, but yeah.
Is there a piece of media, a book, a film, or a poem that you interacted with that contributed to the construction of this show?
There are a couple of things that I’ve been in and out of that are beyond my control and may or may not have seeped into the exhibition;  Various issues of 2000AD ft. Judge Dredd from the early 1990s, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt by John Cooper Clarke, Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes by  Shahidha Bari, The Melancholia of Class Cynthia Cruz, Kienholz: Hope | Berlin exhibition catalogue, The Accidental Footballer by Pat Nevin (thanks, George).
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