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21st February 2024

In conversation with Jo Lathwood: Art manifestos, the conflicts of making, and the next realm

The Mancunion chats with installation artist Jo Lathwood, about her new exhibition Making Up, a thought-provoking piece exploring journeys, materials and the environment at Salford Quay’s The Lowry
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In conversation with Jo Lathwood: Art manifestos, the conflicts of making, and the next realm
Photo: Paul Blakemore @ The Lowry PR

Most artists dream of leaving behind a rich physical legacy. From dreaming of memorial statues to saving room after room of their life’s work, artists love to hoard it all in the hopes that their work lives long after they’re gone.

Then there is Jo Lathwood.

Although she does not want to be forgotten by any means, she does express to me that she is “trying to be more interested in a leave no trace policy,” in her artwork.  She wonders, “Maybe the more poetic thing for where we are in the world (environmentally speaking) would be not leaving lots and lots of just ‘stuff’ behind’.”

Through turning wooden platforms, recycled crates and her very own manifesto, Lathwood uses her practice to explore how art can be sustainable, the way wood holds stories and the conflict that is making.

Over a Zoom call in which Lathwood was fresh from a rainy walk – her head donned a red hat, a steaming tea in hand – we spoke of her most recent project, Making Up  (named after the ‘makers up’ of the old Salford dock days, who packaged products from the mills and factories). Her love for “learning about quite niche things,” resulted in a four-week residency at the Lowry Gallery, where she has created an interactive, site-responsive exhibition, inviting visitors to get to walk over a handmade platform of recycled wood. “I like that the wood already has stories…I see that I am just adding to that story.”

From January 20 – February 2 2024, viewers were able to watch as Jo built a wooden pathway by hand in the space, all the way up to a turning platform at the end. The pathway then opened to the public on February 3rd, allowing visitors to walk upon curving wood, until the dead end, where the spinning platform slowly turns the person back around.

Photo: Michael Pollard @ The Lowry PR

This installation explores the concept that dead ends don’t have to be a bad thing when travelling through life. They’re a chance to stop for a second and think, before turning around and taking a new direction, being content with making a mistake. The platform also symbolises the idea of travelling backwards, the action of undoing, and turning around to look at what we have done to the planet, our desperation to undo what we’ve done, and begin looking at a more sustainable future.

Sustainability and waste are central to Lathwood’s work. In 2019 she created sculptures from handmade clay, made from sedimentary rock and seawater from the Jurassic coast. However, these sculptures eventually dried out and cracked, so Lathwood put them back into the earth. She threw them into the sea. Right back where they came from. “That started this cycle of ‘is there a way I can make stuff that has minimal impact?’”

One thing led to another and Lathwood published her Manifesto for Making Sustainable Artwork, written for Production Production, a Yellowfields publication. Her manifesto is an eleven-point mantra and “checklist” to herself, ensuring she slows down and thinks carefully about materials and the idea of permanence when creating.

Photo: Michael Pollard @ The Lowry PR

The manifesto generates a language within her creative process that is rooted in sustainability, creating little waste and no trace, allowing Jo to use her art as a way to start discussions on how we live daily in a consumer culture that promotes always buying and buying new. Despite this, in a world so ingrained in capitalist mantras, Jo questioned “Is this a futile task?”

I wondered whether a list of rules for an artistic practice could potentially cause blocks in creativity and ideas. And, if one really wanted to leave zero trace, maybe we should just make nothing at all? “That is my conflict – that I don’t want to not make anything,” she said.

Here lies Jo Lathwood’s problem: “I really like making. I see it the same as eating and sleeping.”

She is an artist. Creating and making is what she does. It is what drives her, how she makes sense of the world, of emotions, of people. She cannot simply stop making; making is in her blood and bones. “In trying to ensure sustainability, I become so hyperaware of all the stuff that I’m making,” overthinking each step in the creation process, from what paper to use and if she uses tape is that cheating? If she transports her work in a diesel van but plants trees, does this cancel out her carbon footprint and make her work more sustainable?

Throughout Making Up, Lathwood has used her practice and this awareness of what she produces to create a circular way of working, rather than linear. She has not simply created an exhibition with an end as, from February 20, she will be disrupting the narrative of permanence by dismantling her walkway completely (which visitors can witness until the March 3, when the exhibition closes). From these planks of recycled wood, Jo will be building roughly 100 boxes for visitors to take with them to various walks of life. “The boxes will be a part of somebody else’s life and I like that cycle in the material’s life span.” By repurposing the already recycled wood, Jo is giving the material a whole new lease of life, she does not know where the boxes may end up or what kind of existence they will have, but they will be reused.

Photo: Paul Blakemore @ The Lowry PR

After putting her physicality and emotions into the exhibit through the planning then the building and finally the dismantling, I was led to wonder whether Lathwood experienced a sense of catharsis at taking apart her work. Or perhaps any emotions seeing this wood be given to strangers after all her care to give it a new material purpose. “Emotionally I am invested in the structure and the boxes but in a way that I am not precious over them. I am really happy for them to go off into their next…realm.”

Just as her Manifesto for Making Sustainable Artwork decrees, Jo has rejected the idea of a disposable society by passing on these materials to others, bestowing upon them a new purpose which disrupts the capitalist system’s love for consuming new items and throwing away the old. I write this a day after buying two new pairs of shoes, so I am now shamefully putting my own life and values jarringly into perspective. But, this is exactly what the exhibition aims to do; make people think about the way they consume, and consume, and consume some more. We should be recycling what the earth has already given us – we should reuse, and reuse, and reuse, what we already have until we can’t any more.

Jo Lathwood is a scavenger. A self-proclaimed waffler, a lover of facts, of making and of the niche. She disrupts permanence, gives back to the earth what she uses and has made me think ever so carefully about how I consume and how I, myself, make and create.

Through Making Up, Jo is “embracing the idea that you can make stuff without a brand-new canvas … in a way, they (the recycled pieces of wood) are far more beautiful because they have a story.”

Although she may not want to leave behind a trace, Jo Lathwood inevitably carves her legacy into all she creates. Her story is now infused in those planks of wood, soon to be dispersed all over the nation. Her emotions, care, and passion are in each and every piece of work she has created and put back where it belongs. Whether this be as a piece of crumbled clay at the bottom of the sea crashing against the Jurassic Coast, or a wooden box at the foot of someone’s bed, Lathwood is in the very spine of her work, and her work is weaving into the very fibres of the earth.

Making Up, curated by Zoe Watson, is on at The Lowry, until the 3rd March 2024.

Anna Marsden

Anna Marsden

Anna spends her time as a student photographer, mostly reading and drinking sparkling water.

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