Ellie Barrett


Material is a sponge, absorbing information about its historical origins and its social contexts.


Ellie Barrett is a visual artist and practice-based researcher living and working in Lancaster, UK. She is a tutor on the BA Fine Art course at Lancaster University, and she is a co-founder and director of GRAFT, a community arts organisation connecting contemporary art with wider audiences.

Her sculpture examines the ways in which material manifests meaning in contemporary sculpture, observing its physical capabilities and its sociopolitical connotations. Currently, she is completing a PhD at Lancaster University which explores strategies towards ‘material literacy’ in contemporary art, generating an artist-led vocabulary for art theory. This project presents material as a means of democratically engaging with social and political narratives.

Recent exhibitions include Explain Things To Me (solo show, Subsidiary Projects, London) More T’North (Harris Museum and Gallery, Preston), I Know That You Know (Wells Projects, London), General Store (Hewing Wittare, London) and Eminent Domain (ex-Robert Miller Gallery, New York).


I make sculpture by exploring the unexpected physical properties of democratic materials. My work combines recent theories of material agency with sculptural production, exploring ideas about how matter influences behaviour, politics and ethics. Recent work is constructed entirely from salt dough, exploring material’s ability to ‘bring things down in the world’. Bodies, food, art works and tools are awkward, self conscious objects, all made from the same stuff, all part of a complex network of material exchange.

Material carries multiple layers of meaning simultaneously, combining personal experience, social genealogy, physical characteristics and theoretical references. It places the artist into the roles of prospector, engineer and researcher. Material has the capacity to democratise contemporary art, functioning as an access point between artist and viewer.

Explain Things to Me - solo exhibition at Subsidiary Projects, London


Your installed works appear very theatrical, almost like set stages. Can you talk about the

narrative suggested by these collections of objects?

I want my installations to be an image for material reality: all of the objects collected together appear unstable and volatile, like they might topple over or collide with one another at any moment. I want to suggest an ongoing accumulation of stuff that isn’t limited to what’s in the room but extends outside of the gallery to include the objects and materials we encounter all the time. Narrative is important here, because I’m trying to animate the works that are in the space so that the viewer carries that sensation outside of the installation.

All of the objects also have a symbolic function. They’re present first and foremost because they’re familiar to us, but each one also links to a particular idea or approach material. They might be a motif which recurs in a particular text - like the hammer, which occurs in Bruno Latour’s ‘actor-network theory’ - or they might be as simple as a copy of Damien Hirst’s blue tinted glasses. Suggesting a narrative by positioning them theatrically - at different heights and angles - allows me to situate them in a chaotic dialogue. The different ideas about material from artists, theorists or wider social experiences start to rub up against each other, adding to the volatility and instability of the image I’m trying to present. I want the objects to appear alive and active, as if they are all bouncing off one another.

Explain Things to Me - detail - salt, flour & acrylic paint

What, formally and conceptually, can be gained or lost through your representations of


Because all of my work is so focused on exploring material meaning, the challenge here is to try to make sure the material remains evident on the surface of the object and doesn’t become invisible in the finished piece. Representation and subject matter is a difficult relationship to negotiate because as soon as you ‘make something’, the material recedes into the object. This is why I include the salt and flour in the space, so that the formless, raw component is present.

Form and object tend to take precedence over material in sculpture, but I’m working to a formula of material + form = meaning. Both material and form have the capacity to carry different sources of meaning: material does it through its physical capabilities and its social or historical associations, and form does it by symbolically referring to something other. By connecting the two together as a sculpture, material and form can be used to alter the status of one another as a means of calling out pretension. The subjects inherit the qualities of the material. A Barbara Hepworth bronze made from salt dough strips its authority because it looks vulnerable and crude. Making a pair of knees from salt dough makes them more empathetic and self-conscious. Representation allows me to make comparisons between the ways in which bodies, food, art works, tools and materials are produced and consumed.

Explain Things to Me - detail - salt, flour & acrylic paint

Can you elaborate on the ways in which your material environments become social or


My academic research partially looks at the ways material is perceived outside of art. In philosophy, new ideas about ‘material agency’ are emerging, which is the idea that material isn’t passive but active in how it affects us and our surroundings. This concept is important for art, because it means that all materials - not just ‘everyday’ materials, but also traditional ones like marble, stone and bronze - carry political associations. Material is a sponge, absorbing information about its historical origins and its social contexts. When we look at any sculpture, we should be asking questions about what it’s made from and why because we can decode information about the conditions from which it emerged. Selecting any material is a political act.

My sculptural installations are charged by the connotations of flour and salt, which both have long and complicated histories of production in the UK. They have both affected the economy, natural landscape and human geography. Not only this, but they carry associations of domesticity and childhood. All of these sources of meaning are woven into my sculptures.

Explain Things to Me - Four Circles - salt, flour & acrylic paint

Tell us about your material choices. There is an apparent softness suggested by the objects;

how does the malleability of salt dough inform concept?

Salt dough is at the very core of my practice for several reasons. My initial choice to work with it was not very purposeful - I moved to London and wasn’t able to afford a studio or making facilities to carry on working with resin, plaster and concrete as I had been. Not only this, but my housemates weren’t artists and it felt like an intrusion to bring unfamiliar and toxic substances into our shared space. I was looking for a material that was cheap, available and familiar in a domestic environment, yet also allowed me to construct sculpture. Salt dough fits all these criteria.

When I first started working with it, I was limited to what I expected it to be able to do and made miniatures which lacked presence in the space. As I became more familiar with its characteristics, I noticed that it becomes surprisingly resilient when it’s baked in the oven, but it’s also sticky and can be used as an adhesive. From this, I developed a new process of baking component parts solid in the oven and joining them together with raw dough as a mortar. To finish, I apply a layer of raw dough coloured with acrylic paint which dries solid. I’m able to construct surprisingly large work which still looks soft and fleshy but is actually quite robust. To me, its malleability combined with its other qualities makes it an unlikely but perfect substance for making sculpture, which emphasises the hidden constructive potential of all material.

Explain Things to Me - London Knees - salt, flour & acrylic paint

What is the role of humor within your work?

Humour is absolutely crucial in my work because it operates as an access point between artist and audience. Some of the ideas that inform my work are locked up in academic texts and there’s a barrier there: I don’t want to make work that’s only meaningful to a limited few but is relevant and accessible to everyone. Sculpture is a way of translating those ideas by finding images for them, and if those images appear funny then I’m more likely to open a dialogue with the viewer.

Humour also plays a pivotal role in the meaning of the works. As I mentioned before, I’m trying to call out elitism in the art world, and the easiest way to do that is to laugh at it. Referring to particular materials, art works and artists by replicating them in salt dough means that they inherit the material’s clunky, squishy qualities and become figures of mockery. Part of what I’m trying to do is make fun of the snobbery of the art world and invite the viewer in on the joke.

Laughing can be an act of critique or rebellion, but more than that it can build camaraderie and open channels to share ideas. It’s a constructive thing. There’s an amazing quote by artist and academic Katherine Behar in Object-Oriented Feminism that summarises this so well for me: “Humor, too, is a form of making - making ourselves laugh.”