One of the best things to come out of the months of Covid-19 lockdown has been some extraordinary digital offerings from art galleries and museums, especially films of artists at work. They provide an illuminating counterpoint to the many life questions that the virus has thrown into relief and that we’ve found ourselves grappling with. One of the best of is “Phyllida*”, about the English sculptor Phyllia Barlow. (The trailer above gives the 1-minute gist; illuminating detail can be found in the 23-minute film below.)

We found it heartening to watch a 70-something women working a sculpture with a power drill in a mammoth workshop built out of rough plywood, defying the usual stereotypes of an older woman. Her thinking is shot through with fearlessness:

My relationship with making sculpture has to be adventurous, almost on the edge of being beyond my control.

I like to use chance to allow accidents or mistakes that become part of what I am doing.

Phyllida Barlow, Photo: Alex Delfanne via Hauser & Wirth

We were amazed to see Barlow push a sculpture off a worktable and let it crash onto the floor. She spent several minutes quietly mulling the work she had transformed by chance, positioning a broken-off piece, trying things, feeling her way. (You can watch the process starting at 14:40 in the film until about 17:55.)

The action that seems so bold is really about vulnerability.

It’s a work at its most vulnerable and therefore I am at my most vulnerable.

To consciously subject yourself to chance IS to be vulnerable.

It got us thinking about how few people embrace chance, and the accidents and mistakes it can bring, as a dynamic and transformative energy in their lives. It’s something we wish we did more of.

We realize too that Barlow’s bold, vulnerable action is part of a personal exploration that she has undertaken for over 50 years, with its theme of the regeneration and decay of everyday materials, “how things collapse and deteriorate and become repaired”.

How I’m reacting to the world around, I think, is often to do with emotively charged things. I don’t think I have a ready made subject that I can proclaim.

The subject is hard won through the processes of making.

That to us is one of the most inspiring aspects of the film: to watch Barlow in the intensive process of making without necessarily knowing where she was going, and through that, discovery.

Images of Barlow’s work via Hauser & Wirth. View more here.

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