Regenerated Landscapes

Rachael Champion makes site-specific sculptures, which explore the relationship between industry, technology and nature. Champion’s most recent project New Spring Gardens at Arch 147 in Vauxhall, London was commissioned for the 2016 Nine Elms Chelsea Fringe Festival. As well as her usual materials Champion sourced debris from local building sites in the Nine Elms area. The rubble is littered in mounds, integrated among a manufactured landscape the depth of a railway arch.

Ambit: London’s Vauxhall embankment has been transforming for years. Your installation (image in print issue) features rubble from demolished local buildings. Is your work a critique of the city’s perpetual regeneration or are you celebrating change?

Rachael Champion: New Spring Gardens is undeniably a comment on London’s perpetual regeneration but for me it is neither a criticism nor a celebration. Rapid change is an inevitable constant in major cities where capital flows. The title of the piece points to the history of this symptom. New Spring Gardens is the original name of what is now known as the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. From the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century this piece of land was both a garden and a leading venue in public entertainment. It was subsequently sold and built over into residential homes. Nearly a century later, the area was razed and returned back to public parkland.

People who have lived in a city for a length of time often find themselves talking about “how it used to be”. I would barely recognize the street I lived on in Brooklyn eight years ago, and even then my presence in that neighborhood was a sign of gentrification. Despite that I feel overwhelmed by this unprecedented phase of construction in London. It feels that within the blink of an eye, whole swathes of London suddenly look like a CAD file image: a brand new haircut or pair of sneakers that haven’t softened at the edges. What alarms me is that the regenerated buildings being built are primarily only accessible to people in a particular socio-economic bracket. 

Ambit: As in gardening, time is a prerequisite to nurturing. Would you like to tell us more about the idea of cycles in your practice? Are the organic components acting as a clock or marker? 

RC: The role of plants in my installations varies depending on the plant used and the piece itself. For example I think of the wheat grass as having an aesthetic position in the work, like a rendering or texture. The fact that it grows and then dies means it is undoubtedly a marker of time. It is exciting working with a material that is alive as it is always changing.

I’ve used specific plants for their function in society as raw materials, foods or cash crops. I’m also interested in the way in which people incorporate and present plants into their interior and exterior domestic environments. 

The nurturing aspect feels more like maintenance, as it can be challenging to keep the plants alive and healthy especially in galleries. Though there is something rewarding about caring for the artworks when they are installed. Rarely do the plants complete any kind of cycle when they become a part of the artwork. They are doomed to a life as long as the show and then discarded, and sometimes repeatedly through the course of an exhibition. For example when Raze Bloom was exhibited at Hales last December the gallery replaced the turf twice during the show and also had to change the water in the aquatic plant tanks weekly.

The closest any work ever came to a cycle was Economies of Scale (image in print issue) at Bold Tendencies in 2011. The show was on for four months and the crops used in the work were grown from seed on the roof of the car park. Regular visitors were able to experience the plants grow, flower, and then go to seed. The piece ended with the feeling of an Autumnal harvest. 

Ambit: Some of the materials you use have a recurring presence: pebble dash, tiles, water, rubber, plants. Can you tell us what attracts you to them? 

RC: I am interested in using materials that evoke a sense of permanence as my work exists somewhere between architecture and landscape. I am interested in how our built environment relates to the unbuilt one. These terms built and unbuilt are a way around using the word nature, which I really struggle with. These materials, stones, glass tiles, and rubber, all have a mediated relationship to their material source, some closer to their original than others. I am particularly attracted to municipal renderings, specifically ones that are located in a British or European vernacular. Pebbledash is quintessentially British and amusingly resented by most. Mosaic glass tiles are a ubiquitous surface commonly found in many public spaces. Both of these materials are durable, ready-to-be-weathered surfaces. The plants are charged materials that offer both a visual and conceptual juxtaposition to the architectural elements. That relational dichotomy has always been present in my work. I have found making work with these materials more direct in exploring humanity’s relationship to nature through our built environment.

Ambit: Your work is always ambitious in scale. When space is at a premium in London, the storage of each piece must be an issue. Making these works involves planning and a well-executed production. Is it painful discarding what you have labored on, and in your case, literally cultivated? 

RC: I almost never store my works and usually find it satisfying to de-install an installation. I save what materials I can possibly use again and store those in my studio. I love that moment where the space changes again, where something that felt substantial and permanent is gone and hopefully replaced by something else. As I write this it sounds like regeneration! Maybe that is why I feel so sensitive to what is happening in London at the moment. 

I felt pain when Primary Producers was destroyed at Hales Gallery. I think I had some kind of distance from that work, as a whole team was involved in making it. That somehow manifested into a more lamenting emotional response to its destruction. I loved visiting that piece when it was up and missed it very much when it was gone. I’d really like to make it again somewhere permanently.

Ambit: As your work is site-specific, can you tell us your fantasy site and why?

RC: I would love to make an installation in a derelict factory of some sort. Somewhere filled with obsolete apparatus with ambiguous function. A place teeming with obtuse and formidable abstract forms that I could work with and respond to (and grow plants on). I’ve also always loved the look of a derelict green house and thought one would be a great place to make an installation. What correlates with these two examples is the derelict or obsolete. I have an inherent fascination with dystopian narratives. I would also love to have an artist residency on an offshore oil rig. If any Ambit readers can facilitate this, please get in touch.


(See print issue for more images)


Rachael Champion (b. 1982, New York, USA) lives and works in London. She graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 2010. Champion has exhibited in a number of recognized international spaces including Modern Art Oxford (UK), Zabludowicz Collection, London (UK), Socrates Sculpture Park, New York (US) and Bold Tendencies Sculpture Project, London (UK). She has been awarded the Arts Foundation Award for sculpture (2013) and the Red Mansion Art Prize (2010). In 2012, she was the Camden Arts Centre Artist in Residence. Champion is represented by Hales Gallery, London/ New York. www.rachaelchampion.com