Sarah Gillett – The flimsy copy

Over a year in the making, Sarah Gillett’s work The flimsy copy, made for The Howse Shal Be Preserved at Rockingham Castle spans layers of myth and history. Here, Assistant Director Jessica Harby writes about Sarah and how the two online works and physical installation combine into a cohesive, epic narrative.

When describing Sarah Gillett’s performance The Case of the Gold Ring, I’ve often referred to the dizzying sense of reorientation an audience experiences as the narrative continues to zoom out. It is not just that Sarah’s narratives make connections, it is that they are hungry to touch and irrevocably alter the world around us. The Case of the Gold Ring begins with a recorded phone call with her mother discussing a family heirloom and goes on to encompass family history, geological history, and ultimately the universe. 

Knowing this about her work, I was not disappointed to witness Sarah’s process of building ever more expanding narrative from the beginning, during the making of The flimsy copy, her multi-platform work commissioned for The Howse Shal Be Preserved at Rockingham Castle.

The flimsy copy, installation view, Sarah Gillett, 2021 – The Howse Shal Be Preserved at Rockingham Castle. Photo Andy Eathorne

Sarah has a rich relationship with archive, not only using research of existing collections as source for ideas but curating her own collection of totemic objects – paperweights, figurines, and natural finds lovingly catalogued and installed “on the windowsill, amongst books, on the mantelpiece, in a jewellery box, on the desk, in a wide flat bowl, in a glass cabinet, hanging in the studio.” The importance of this archive is highlighted on her website, which includes a section on her collecting alongside those on her art and writing. When I scroll through these beautifully photographed curios, I feel like I’ve done when browsing a new friend’s shelves as they’re busying themselves in the kitchen. Sarah understands that the objects we hold dear are an enticing physical imprint of our inner selves. There is magic in a person’s possessions, in what they choose to carry with them in a lifetime and, in the case of historic archives, what outlives them. 

When visiting Rockingham Castle for the first time in 2019, Sarah looked for these resonant clues of the lives of its women occupants throughout the centuries and found them in the gardening, spiritualism, and literary correspondence of the Watson family lineage. 

It began in the realm of gardening, as Sarah showed interest in creating a night-blooming garden in the grounds of the castle. When that was not possible, she decided to create her own Rockingham Castle and gardens where it is always nighttime. Many hands make lightwork is the first layer of Sarah’s work, an interactive environment in Minecraft where we begin to see Rockingham Castle’s history expand beyond its physical boundaries. Explorations and excavations reveal the hidden, archeological remains of previous Rockingham structures as well as an underground maze. The cloud level shining above shows us a future of the castle. On the ground you stand in a circle of meteorites that have fallen in the UK, as more fall from the sky in a constant flow. The pixellated quality of Minecraft is fitting here, as this is the block foundation of further world building. 

Continuing to spiritualism, we enter Not only; but also, a web-based work taking us to the interior that objects only hint at. This world is a breathing dress, the invisible women of history, but specifically inspired by Florence Culme-Seymour who held seances in Rockingham Castle in the early 20th century. We hear a hymn. Here is the stone circle from the night garden, now looking like bones. But here we also see Sarah’s personal collection creep in – a paperweight, a tuning fork, figures of part human (sphinx) and part human (Venus de Milo). The Minecraft layer is visible outside of the dress. We knew it was always night in Many hands make lightwork, but with our new vantage point we can see the it is the night sky itself.

Still from Not only; but also by Sarah Gillett, 2021

The final, in-person The flimsy copy grows from these imagined spaces to stand proudly in the Long Gallery of the castle, amongst the “real” history which it is not a part of but which it now contains. The history and lore of the previous works bolster the final physical installation, sited in the same room as Lavinia Watson’s correspondence with Charles Dickens. Of course the meteorite circle is here, a large ghostly white drawing hung amongst the other important art. The dress from Not only; but also is now floating amongst spirit trumpets, its form combined with the Minecraft night sky to produce a toile de jouy of pixellated scenes and its style based on a 19th century pattern such as Lavinia may have worn. 3D-printed replicas of Sarah’s curio collection sit with Watson family objet, but with evidence of their digital past intact. The Venus de Milo figurine, so smooth in the breathing dress of Not only; but also, bears the rigid, excess plastic of its birth from the Internet. Sarah voices excerpts of Florence Culme-Seymour’s seance transcripts and Lavinia Watson’s letters, taking words from the archive and making them at home in her own mouth.

At the end, we find that Sarah is now positioned as a woman of women of the castle, as the guide who welcomes us. Sarah Gillett has always lived in the castle.

Jessica Harby

The Howse Shal Be Preserved is on view at Rockingham Castle through 28 September 2021 (subject to ongoing government guidance). Rockingham Castle open times and admission prices apply (from £7.50). Admission to both the House and Garden is by pre-booked tickets only via Historic Houses and RHS members can select a free ticket.

Click here to explore Many hands make lightwork.

Click here to explore Not only; but also.