New 'sculptural sound system' unveiled at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum

New 'sculptural sound system' unveiled at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum supporting image

Gwyneth Herbert (left) and Mel Brimfield (right) at Kelham Island Museum

The innovative exhibition ‘Stand’ will be shown for the first time in Sheffield

More than 100 mental health service users, singers, museum volunteers and members of UK Men’s Sheds and Men’s Sheds Cymru have collaborated with artist Mel Brimfield and composer Gwyneth Herbert to create a large sculptural sound system for a new choral composition, showing for the first time at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum.


Artists Mel Brimfield explains: “The accessibility and value of creativity to the isolated is both the subject and method of ‘Stand’. 


“At a time of disastrous austerity cuts to mental health services, we’re uniting and foregrounding the organisations who provide crucial opportunities for socialising through communal activity. 


“It’s an artwork that’s been made with and for the community, and is hopefully a celebratory testament to the potential of collective action!”


The choral piece at the centre of the work began as a setting for an extraordinary recording of a long-term inpatient at Bethlem Hospital reciting poetry – it was captured by Brimfield as part of a year of research at the National Psychosis Unit and Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. 


The writing process has subsequently been guided by an extensive series of songwriting workshops across the UK lead by the artists, with diverse groups including inmates at HMP Parc, Kings College researchers and the Maudlsey Hospital choir.


The installation itself takes the form of a vast music box. At the centre of an elaborately hand-painted 15-sided platform, Patrick’s recitation emanates from a speaker embedded in a tree, gold leafed and hung with hundreds of polished semi-precious stones.

A circle of 15 chairs is gathered around the sculpture, each one individually designed and built by different chapters of UK Men’s Sheds and Men’s Shed Cymru, and Kelham Island Museum volunteers and technicians in close collaboration with the artists, variously incorporating whittling, marquetry, mosaic, woodturning, patchwork and stained glass making. A speaker is built into each chair, relaying parts of the complex multi-channel composition, performed by members of Harrow-based More Than Just a Choir.


Composer Gwyneth Herbert said: “In our songwriting workshops, we explored emotions and subjects around mental illness such as isolation and connection; loneliness and community; anxiety and healing; the loss, finding and sharing of voice. 


“Common to many shared stories was an exhausting experience of collapse, slow recovery and relapse without appropriate community support; as a central principle, we’ve structured the harmonic sequences and melodies to assume a looping, cyclical form in response, uniting initially tentative individual voices in the circle to slowly build to a euphoric choral swell before repeatedly fragmenting to dissonance.”


Chris Keady, Museum Manager at Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, said: “Kelham Island Museum tells the stories of the people and communities behind Sheffield’s industrial past – the makers and the craftspeople. 


“This newly-commissioned artwork gives a new perspective on the process of making, collaborating and wellbeing, and is very different from anything our visitors will have experienced at Kelham Island Museum before.”


Stephanie Allen, Executive Director of Arts&Heritage said: “Stand was commissioned as part of our Meeting Point programme, which supports artists and venues to create art which responds to a wide variety stories and voices. We want to give people the opportunity to experience contemporary art in new and unexpected places and, by exploring themes that are central to society today, Mel and Gwyneth have made something extraordinary for Kelham Island Museum.”


Stand is on show at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, from 26 January to 8 March 2020. It then tours to Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff; The Tetley, Leeds; and Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester.


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