Article by Paul Harper for Good On Paper - Issue 98, July 2023
When I talk to Rhian Harris-Mussi she is in Cumbria, spending a month working with and learning from Charlie Whinney, a leading expert on steam bending wood. Rhian is an artist working across mediums and forms. Her work is essentially conceptual; concerned with ideas, but her current placement as ‘the steam bender’s apprentice’ is part of an on-going practice of acquiring and refining her material skills and knowledge. She has always been interested in design and fine woodworking, and making is central to her fine art practice.
Her most recent work has a kind of cleanness and finesse, and a suggestion of functionality, that evokes European modernist design. Skeip is a series of wedge shaped boxes, constructed out of dark hardwood and faced with frosted acrylic, apparently held in place by finely constructed wooden clips. Set into the acrylic are marquetry panels that use contrasting timber veneers to depict abstracted landscape-like images. They are like exquisitely made, analogue photographs made of wood, laid in careful asymmetry onto a finely crafted lightbox. The juxtaposition of materials, the organic with the synthetic; the clarity of construction; the use of decorative woodworking techniques in a contemporary art object; the sloping surface, all contribute to a certain unsettling but engaging ambiguity – what are these objects? Might they have a function?
They might be controls panels for some advanced technology, and indeed Rhian describes them as time machines. The marquetry panels do show landscapes, imagined as if seen from an aircraft flying above. The aerial photograph is one of the tropes of Modernism, the world seen from a god-like, detached perspective. Rhian says that she was thinking of an essay written by Virginia Woolf when the work was conceived, in which she imagines herself flying over London. Woolf had in-fact never flown in an aeroplane. The essay was a vehicle for her imagination. She dreams of rising over the city and seeing through the man-made surface to the natural landscape beneath, history somehow embedded and revealed in the flattened topography. There is an undercurrent of environmental anxiety in the work, and my first response to the images was to think of the opening sequences from the film Bladerunner 2049, in which the protagonist flies slowly over a future landscape, despoiled and reordered, in which nature is present only as a trace memory.
This environmental concern is more explicit in Refugium, a work made in 2021, consisting of a series of objects that are suggestive of equipment from a futuristic bioscience lab. Here there is a direct filmic reference to Silent Running, a 1972 film in which, following an ecological disaster, the preserved remnants of Earth’s plant life have been collected and are being transported in vast bio-domes to be re-established on another planet – a mission that ends with a single surviving dome, drifting through deep space towards an uncertain future. Again, these are beautifully made, furniture-like pieces. There is something about the careful construction that signals seriousness of intention. It gives the work a kind of gravity – even where they make playful reference to the bio-domes and robot gardeners from the film. The work carries an affecting narrative without being merely illustrative. The bringing together of traditional craft skills, material sensuality and beauty with the uncertainties of Twentieth Century Modernism and dystopian futurism (retro-futurism) contributes to an instability of meaning that is questioning and thought-provoking.
Rhian is reflective and erudite. There is a sense of inquiry in the work that draws on a rich range of technical, literary and filmic sources. Speculative fiction is a key reference point; a broad genre that includes science fiction, and which seems to have become a particularly useful device for our times, inviting an imaginative leap beyond the world ‘as it is’, or as it appears to be. This feeds a vital need when, faced with climate crisis and all that follows from that in terms of environmental destruction, war and migration, inequality and the contradictions inherent in neo-liberalism, there is a pervasive narrative that ‘there is no alternative’ - no alternative to globalised capitalism, no alternative to fossils fuels. Art can help us to overcome this barrier to imagining a better future… and perhaps craft know how, has a part to play in lending a sense of agency, a capacity for shaping the future in material ways.
Having originally studied fine art at Ruskin College Oxford, which has nurtured a rigorous intellectual foundation to her work, Rhian has found a paradoxical freedom in developing an art practice that is underpinned by slowly acquired, rules based, technical and material knowledge. She developed her marquetry skills through a course on the Highgrove Traditional Crafts programme and this led her, through encouragement and a contact from her tutor at Highgrove, to get in touch Charlie Whinney. She feels that a certain generosity of spirit, with the sharing of connections and knowledge, is a characteristic of the craft world that is a contrast to the protectiveness that sometimes surrounds other art practices.
Currently based in London, Rhian grew up in Stroud and will be returning to make new work at SVA as part of their Young Artists Residency programme. Through the residency she will be revisiting Information Superhighway, a shared exhibition in the Line Gallery at SVA with Oliver Offord in 2016, before they took up their undergraduate studies. Here, the detached and remote aerial photograph, in the form of Google Earth satellite imagery, will be mapped onto the landscapes in which she has walked for most of her life. This picks-up another aspect of Woolf’s essay – the traffic between distant abstraction and the familiar, close, physical experience of actually being in a landscape; between past and present, memory and place.