Debbie Meniru (DM): I think it would be interesting to start off by talking about something that's been a kind of central preoccupation throughout all your work, which is light. From your very early works right through to today, light is something that is so central to your practice. I wondered if you could share with us a bit about what is it about light that makes you want to play and experiment with it and where that kind of interest evolves from?

Jyll Bradley (JB): we could turn to the very first slide, which is a group of watercolours that I made when I was about 18.

Greenhouse/ Greenhouse by night

They are watercolour, showing the greenhouse in our back garden, kind of disappearing into the darkness. So it's interesting. We're talking about light, but here we're talking about succession into darkness. And for me, this is a really founding sequence of watercolours. In fact, I think if my studio were to catch light, these would probably be the things that I'd grab and run out the door. The greenhouse for me was this place where I first experienced this idea of light and of volume. And there's something about being illuminated being in a kind of threshold space where you could be inside and outside at the same time to be seen but to be able to see out and there was something about the sense of being almost like in a lens, something about a greenhouse, it's like a glass lens. And so I think that for me, there is something about light that's obviously about cultivation. Sitting in the greenhouse is very much a place of cultivation not only of plants, but of a sense of self. And as a young person kind of growing up in it with a kind of queer identity, there was a sense of a threshold place, where I was kind of subsumed by light. And I was starting to really think about how that would help me cultivate going forward.

DM: That's interesting, because it's like you are this kind of static person, and the light’s moving around you. And when you were saying it's about the light fading, it was making me think about how, with your sculptures, it's all about how the light changes. It's about the way that light changes throughout the day, but also throughout the night. And I think it's really interesting as well, that when, for example, with The Hop, with other works, they've been lit artificially, and you'd think that that would kind of take away from the fact that that light moves, but in fact, in view of that different light I wonder if you could you tell us about that, and how you play with light inside, as well as outside?

JB: Yeah. What was quite interesting, actually, with this greenhouse experience was that one of the things I really enjoyed was sitting in the greenhouse and seeing the light changing through the course of a day and then diminishing into darkness. And actually, my dad used to, when it was dinner time, he would flash the light on in the kitchen, on and off. So I'd be sitting there in the dark, and sort of like the sense of your whole body becoming kind of subsumed in darkness. So something about experiencing that change, and also the idea of becoming part of the circular movement of the Sun, which is something that's really key in a lot of my work, as you said. The other thing that I think is important to say about the work is that I'm pretty much always dealing with structures that you build in order to bring light into a place. So the greenhouse would have been like one of the first structures that I was really interested in and The Hop is based on the structure of the hop garden. So these structures that humans build in kind of partnership in a way with plants in order to bring light to a place to grow something. And then that becomes this metaphor for growth of ourselves and community.

DM: In this next slide, we've got this image of your work which is Green Light for MR which was in Folkstone, which is on the south coast of England. And as you said, you kind of have this interest, more than interest, in agricultural technologies and structures and things that help bring the light to plants. But I think it's interesting, because you've spent so many years of your life living in this urban location of London. Why is it that you keep on returning to these agricultural structures? What is it that draws you to them?

Green Light for M.R, Folkestone Triennial, 2014 Photography: Thierry Bal

JB: I grew up in Kent, which is quite a rural place. So my childhood was spent in landscape of rural light and rural structures. And the hop garden in Kent is a really big deal. It's something that’s on every horizon, they are these extraordinary structures, which have been developed over the centuries, who knows by whom, and they're very, very beautiful. They're like matrices of string and wire and poles. And so these were part of my childhood landscape, very much this sense of reaching up. And then when I moved to London, I became this very, very urban person. And a lot of my work was dealing with urban light. I was one of the first people to use light box technology, very early on in my career, and, in fact one of my earliest light box works was shown at the Hayward. But in recent years, I think what happened to me as I've got older is that elements of my life start to come full circle. So, there’s a seaside town in the UK called Folkestone, quite a small town but it has this extraordinary triennial, and I was invited to come back to Folkestone which is actually where I was born, and to make this work Green Light for MR. And the work is very much based on the hop garden structures of my childhood. So the outer structure is an organic herb garden. And then the inner structures are these much more urban works using Plexiglas and mirror, and aluminium. And for me, there is this extraordinary moment in my life where the materialities that have been so important to me all through being an artist finally sort of came together in this one piece. So the other thing to say about that, it's very emotional for me because I was born in Folkestone, but I was also adopted there. So the town had very difficult associations for me. To go back to the place I was born, and to create something in the place where I was created. And then to kind of bring regeneration and light to a place that had been abandoned, the site of an old gasworks. So a sense of personal regeneration, that is also a reflection of the regeneration of a place is quite extraordinary.

DM: I think that's interesting, and we maybe will skip forward and go to the film that you made about that. Because the work is so public, and it's permeable. And yet, you're able to, through that, express something so intimate, and private. It would be interesting talk about how you bring those two things together.

JB: So the work that you saw, the Green Light work, it was only meant to be there for like three months and ended up saying nine years! In fact we’ve only just taken it down.

DM: The people did not want it to go!

JB: It’s an important work because it's a very deprived part of town where it was situated. And it literally brought light and joy to this part of town, and actually helped the regeneration of the area. It's now being redeveloped, which is why my work is sadly going. But through the course of the work being there, I always knew that there was this personal story to that work. And I started to film the sculpture over the course of many years. It was trying to speak to me, it was telling me something. And I thought that one way of learning more about it and in a way, expanding the way that we actually look at sculpture and experience sculpture, would be to make a film that combined a new way of looking at sculpture, and also a new way of looking at me. So the film that I made was called Green Light for MR. We’re going to show you a little tiny extract from it where the sculpture has transformed. I’ve worked very closely with Will, the editor of my films, and he animated it so it becomes transformed into to this other kind of creative creature

DM: As you were saying, Jyll, there’s this very personal aspect to your work. But I feel like it goes beyond the autobiography in the work. Because your work becomes very personal to you in that you spend a lot of time with it, which I think is quite unusual. So, for example with The Hop I know you're local, but Jyll is always at The Hop! [Laughter] Always there! You have a relationship with your work, which I haven't experienced with an artist before, where you really care for it in that you want to spend so much time with it. And I wondered if you could tell us about the kinds of things that you've observed and learned through spending time with your work? And why?

JB: Why do I do that? [laughter]

DM: Yeah, I mean, maybe you can tell me any problems!

JB: I have been able to report some incidents! [Laughter] I think there's this sort of lie in a way that when you make a piece of work, that's it's finished. For me, it's just begun. When you instal a work in a public space, that's when it starts to live. I've been thinking a lot about the connection that we have, between the structures that ancient peoples built in order to gather, to congregate, to make rituals to, you know, bless the sun, the rain, the wind, all these things, and the connection with agricultural structures and the structures that I've predominantly been making over the last while. So I've become extremely curious and interested in how people react to my work. And there's nothing like watching people see something differently in your work. Because the work also has its own private life. It has its own life. And that's partly why I've been making these films that explore, strictly for sculptures, because that's a way of getting to know them. I think it's terribly exciting to get to know sculpture. But I think that you saw in the film of The Hop and all the things that we we did in it, the reason that those things happened was because, one: people were naturally drawn to the work to do those things. But also, I'd learned from previous works, this work and another work that was at Turner Contemporary, through Instagram, actually, I could see that people were reacting with the work in really surprising ways. Like there were some kids who made this football video, a training video through using the sculpture, and other people used the work for fashion shoots. And then I thought, ‘Well, why don't we build on this?’ because quite often you feel the works yearning for interaction and for engagement. So it's, for me, it's quite a natural thing that I would be weaving all these ideas of the ritual nature of why we build sculptures in the first place. It makes sense to me that I would explore that, and I would show up at my work quite a lot and see what's going on and talk to people about it.

DM: You learn so much by seeing how other people interact with them. One of my favourite things about The Hop is that whenever a child comes near it, for some reason, they just need to run. They have to run through it and weave through and it's all by using their bodies to kind of understand the space. And that's just been really joyful to see. I mean, do you think there's a kind of spiritual element to The Hop ?

JB: Definitely. I mean, I think it's a really important question, because, for me, there is this big connection between some of the Neolithic structures, the structures that ancient peoples made at a time when they were settling the land, and people stopped becoming nomads. And so there's something about saying, ‘I'm going to be here now.’ Whether you're a sculpture or a group of people, ‘I'm here now, this is where I'm going to stay, and this is how I'm going to try and work with other people to make the most of the environment and to grow things and to cultivate a life and a community.’ And for me, that's a really, really spiritual thing. Sculpture needs to be a gathering place, somewhere where we get together. I mean, Sarah mentioned the work giving shelter, and that is something that people experience with my work, which is that you feel when you're in it, you're in it, and even though there's no roof, you feel a sense of shelter. And I think that's also something really human and very moving and that has a spiritual element to it. And there are structures within spiritual practice. If anyone here is Jewish, the Sukkot structure that for me - I am Jewish - and quite often I feel like I'm building giant Sukkots as well. People kind of have this feeling of being protected by almost very little. It's a kind of permeable enclosure, there's a lot of air, and yet there's a sense of protection. And I find that fascinating. And yeah, it's a spiritual feeling.

DM: Yeah, you definitely feel held by it in some ways, but not constrained. It's a bit like the greenhouse again. You’re protected by it. But you're open to the world, and you're hidden away. I think it'd be really nice to talk a little bit about your use of materials. This edge-lit Plexi has become one of your signature materials. It’d be good to hear a little bit about when you started using that. And also, the reasons why. It’s a really beautiful material. It's obviously very industrial, but it has a very soft effect too.

JB: That’s a really interesting way of putting it. Yeah, I've started using this material in about 2014, when I made the work in Folkestone, and there's just something so alive about it, it just kind of like shows up. It's sort of there. It's present. It's yeah, I mean, I kind of feel like I'm a bit of edge-lit plexi! And it has this extraordinary relationship, obviously with the sun which makes it work and change the environment that it's in in terms of colour. And also in terms of the light and movement, the way it tracks through. But I'm what's really important to me is combining that with an organic materiality. So I'm never just using Plexiglas and steel or aluminium, say. There's something about combining materialities that are kind of naturally awkward, together, to make something that that has a sense. For me, it's a kind of a biographical thing of grafting, trying to graft different sides of yourself together. There's always something for me of trying to bring different elements of myself together into one. So that's why it's always in relation to another kind of material.

DM: And you're talking about grafting? These are obviously smaller works, which are more or less domestic scale. So the way that the viewer encounters them is quite different. Could you tell us a little bit about the development of these? I think it's also interesting to hear a little bit about your studio practice, given that most of your work is so monumental.

Currency Dial

JB: Yes. Well, it all starts in the studio. I make a lot of models. So it all starts on a very small scale. And the idea of making things by hand, even if it's going to be monumental, that's the fundamental start of anything, because it really gives you time to think when you're using your hands and you're making something and there's a sense of concentration. And if it works on a small scale, it will work on a large scale. So that's a very important part, it slows the process down. So I don't tend to go to the computer, in fact I don't go to the computer at all. I work with an engineer very closely. And so he understands my process and aesthetic. And then I make smaller works which are able to go back to the other. So these are graft works [slide]. In this case, I'm using my height for the dimensions of this work. And this is again, this idea of how do you graft together these very unlikely materials that shouldn't really go together? And for me, it is about how do you bring different aspects of yourself together? A lot of the materiality that I’m using relates as well to the Light and Space movement in the US. So that's been an important part.

Models, The Studio 2023

DM: Can you say a bit more about that?

JB: Yeah. So it's a sense of the materiality and de-materiality, that sense of being almost inside a material. Feeling the material, you almost become one with the material. In fact there was a quite a good slide a bit earlier on where that shows pretty well. Here we go.

So there's an image there that I took from Instagram of somebody who's photographing. I particularly used a two way mirror, in this piece. And there's something about, especially with the Light and Space movement, of feeling a sense of being in the present, but seeing what's ahead of you, and also seeing what's behind you at the same time. So it’s an extraordinary sense of feeling that you're both past, present, and future. And your reflection becomes part of the work, and besides, the work sees you. I think that's one of the important things of my work and work from that genre, as well, is that the work sees you. You become part of the experience of that work.

DM: And equally, it's quite elusive. The work sees you, and you see it, but not always. And not from every angle, and you can't quite work out what's happening with the different planes. Your work does that really well.

JB: That's something I really think of in my work. It is incredibly bold in many ways, but it's also quite elusive. And sometimes it feels like it's almost not there. There's a lot of it and yet, sometimes there's this view through it, where I purposely made the work incredibly translucent and almost floating in one way. And when you look at it from the front, it looks very solid.

DM: That's my favourite view, because when there’s really bright sunshine, it casts these gorgeous patterns on the floor. And it's amazing. But when there's not much sun, that's almost when it surprises you more, which is good in London. You get these kind of hazy translucencies, and you can't quite work out if it's material or not.

A huge part of your practice, as we've mentioned, is about collaborating with other people, with other art forms. And you're a great bringer- together of people, which is wonderful. And we have an example of this here, which is this film Woman Holding a Balance with music by Anna Clyne, which was commissioned and performed by the Orchestra of St Luke’s. It would be great if you give us a little introduction, then we'll watch a short extract from it.

JB: As I was saying, over the last eight years, since I've been making these quite large outdoor works, I started filming them. And I've also started commissioning and curating my own events in them. So with this piece, which was at Turner Contemporary, I invited a fellow artist who was a tutor of mine at Goldsmiths College, to create a performance within this work, the Dutch Light work.

Dutch Light. Turner Contemporary, Margate, 2017. Photography: Stephen White

And so I decided that we had to film it. I didn't know really why, but I just thought, no, we need to film this performance. For two years, nothing happened. And then, by wonderful chance, I ended up collaborating with this amazing composer Anna Clyne. And then she invited me to be part of a wonderful event that the Orchestra of St. Luke's were doing during COVID. And the idea was to create this evening event online that was really linking music and visual arts, through film, through animation. And so the Orchestra of St. Luke's very generously commissioned Anna to write the score for this film. It was just the most extraordinary opportunity and we showed the film as part of that evening. So we’ll just show you a little tiny clip, but you can see it all on Thursday.

DM: I'm really interested, Jyll, because when you collaborate with people, I think you're quite good at letting people respond to the work in their own way. You don't intervene that much. Do you find it quite easy just to let go and just see what other people do? It’s very generous, the way that you approach collaboration.

JB: I just think that I learn so much from how other people respond to the work, why would I tell people how to react or act in my sculpture? You know, the films are very much about me trying to expand the way that I see my sculpture and how I want other people to see sculpture, to see sculpture as a kind of portraiture. But I think not enough is made of the things that we make. Certainly my work, it seems to energise people, and it makes people want to do things. I’m just so excited when I see people creating, I think it makes sense, because it's a generative sculpture. That’s the work of the piece, it’s about growth. Of course, all works are about growing things. So I like the idea that you create something and then creation happens within that creation, because creation is ongoing. We're just dropping our creations into creation. I think it's really fascinating what people make of what I do.

Audience: Thank you so much. I'm really curious. The inspirations for your projects are so narrative, they are about history, and so grounded in material. I'm curious how you think about abstraction, and repetition. And now I'm going to merge two questions, because also public art is often like a singular object. And so how you were saying how sculpture needs to be a place where people are, how you find that abstraction, and repetition and also relationship to architecture?

JB: Because I'm working with growth structures, structures that you build in order to grow something, normally that's a multiple thing. It's about a geometry of the landscape. So that sort of repetition is something. But I think it's very personal as well. I nearly always make either pairs or threes or multiples, it's something about looking at different relationships, different sort of family groups, seeing the work of sculpture as a kind of community or kind of gathering. So yes, I'm very seldom making one thing. I suppose the other thing is that, more importantly, I'm making a space. And then therefore, if I'm making a space, then it stands to reason that people will want to be in that space and want to react to that space in some way. And yes, it has a connection to architecture, which a lot of growth structures do anyway. So those three things are very much intertwined. And I think there's something about the way that the works make you look at architecture and the surroundings very differently. As multiples they become framing devices as well. Certainly at the Hayward, there's so many different views through the sculpture that makes you see the Hayward differently.

DM: Absolutely, I mean, this space here where The Hop is. Before, there were some advertising posts, and that's about it and there was a dead space even though there's a lot of footfall. I was saying to someone earlier that it felt a little bit scary, sometimes at night, walking through there. And this is almost like a friendly presence, it's completely transformed the experience of the space. It encourages people to spend time, which is really nice.

Audience: You’ve talked about this before, which I found really interesting, about minimalism and the importance of minimalism to queer artists as well. So I wonder if you could talk about that again.

JB: So when I started off in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a group of us queer artists who were really interested in minimalism, and how minimalism creates a space for exploring ideas of identity. It's normally the idea of minimalism that it's sort of stripped back of all of those questions. So there was this really interesting period in British art, where a number of artists like Mona Hatoum, Hamid XX?? whom you may or may not have heard, myself and others who were really looking at that question. And then of course, going on in the States as well, by many more artists, people like Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez Torres. So the idea that minimalism could be a space for bringing a narrative, that is what I'm still doing today. My works are abstract, but they are always rooted in a story or of a place, they're rooted in people. That’s a really important connection, that's a through route, through all of my work, back from the very beginning. And as I said, there's a show to be done.

Audience: I’d like to see that show!

Audience: How long will the sculpture be up for?

DM: it's coming down in April, but then it's going to a new venue in East London.

JB: I'm really delighted. Again, thanks to the support of Dave, of David McLean, we've managed to rehome The Hop, which is brilliant, because I think it’s terribly sad that sculptures are commissioned, and then quite often, they end up in storage, or they get recycled. And this work has had a lot of love for it. And it's also the whole story of people from London, migrating down to the countryside. To pick hops is not just the South London story, it's an East London story. So it turns out, there's this really amazing community organisation in East London who fell in love with The Hop. And they're like, ‘we want this in our community, because it's a really important part of our story.’ So the great thing, because it's modular, it's like a giant flat pack. What we can do is take The Hop, and we're going to reconfigure it in different ways in this borough. So there'll be one big hop field in one part of the borough and then there will be elements of it that I will reconfigure elsewhere. And there's the local youth organisation who are very involved in this as well. So it's very exciting to see that The Hop will have a new life and it will mean different things in different places.

Audience: That period of the hop. When did that sort of start and end? I mean, I assume that's not ongoing?

JB: Yeah, that's not ongoing. So starting with the railways about 1850, from that part of London to Kent, and it ended in the 1960s. But it was very much a working holiday, that was most people's only holiday was going to pick hops.

DM: Yes, that was a surprise, because I hadn't heard about this history. But since working on the project with Jyll, I’ve met so many people who say ‘oh, I used to go hopping!’ In fact, on the day when The Hop opened, there were two women who were just walking past and they're like, oh, yeah, we went hopping. And it’s really a history that isn't really spoken about, but it has been such an important part of so many people's lives, and especially in London.

Audience: Was the geometric structure of the area about maximising light? Is that why it has that strange lattice?

JB: Yes, exactly. It's a genius thing, really, the hop garden, because it's this invention that's geometric, and it's designed to bring in the maximum amount of light to the hops. So I've taken that geometry, and I've rendered it into a sculptural form. In a way, what I've done, is to show the potential of that form through the plexiglass. Normally these bits would be the string. The Plexiglas shows the potential of that geometry to gather light, and to create something.

DM: It’s interesting about growth, not just being this kind of vertical movement, but something that kind of reaches out and makes connections, and to think about other forms of growth.

Audience: My first question is, when you reconfigure the piece in different places, is it the same piece to you? Or is it a different iteration of a piece whose meaning inherently changes? And the second question is, because you mentioned earlier that oftentimes, sculptures will get recycled, or put in storage, because your work is made of I'm assuming some sort of steel with wood and Plexi, which is material that you can't really recycle the same way. And what is your long term plan? In a sustainability way? For these works? Especially because they're so related to environment?

JB: So, the long term, particularly with with The Hop is that the durability of the material is quite long. It’s 30 years that this material will last. So I feel in terms of the sustainability issue, that there's something sustainable about just the fact that I managed to save it and relocate it. But long term one of my aims is to create solar fields, to redesign the whole idea of a solar field, which is something that most people loathe and think of as very ugly, why not make sculptures into solar generating or solar capture energy generating energy capturing structures? Because the structures that I'm making are always based on plant growth. So these are good for growing plants. If this geometry is good for growing plants, then that also tells me that it's good for growing, capturing light for other things. So that's the long term. That's the next thing I'm working on is to create solar sculptures. So you can have you can have sculptures in city centres that are powering different things. There's no reason why not. Or you could have them in rural areas where at the moment there are quite ugly solar fields. You could have a field of beautiful sculptural installations that also happens to be captured on the grid. We're going to be working on it.

Audience: I think I've been mining my memory of the work, in the 90s and 2000s. I think the last thing I saw, and forgive me, I've got this wrong was Andrew Mummery’s space? Yeah. So coming here tonight, or receiving the invitation, I did have two completely different artists in my head. In terms of what I remembered of you, of what I see here today, at some point, there was clearly this moment of evolution. You’ve pointed to Folkstone as being possibly some of that. But that didn't suddenly happen. So I'm kind of interested to understand where this shift and the kind of urban poetic as I remember that work being spoken about at that time, to where we are now, happened.

JB: I mean, that really did happen in Folkestone. It was such a profound kind of emotional moment. I think it's something that happens when you plant the artist back where they were created. I think it did something quite extraordinary to me that I think only happens maybe once or twice in an artist's life, where you make something that just suddenly, everything you've done before makes sense. Because you know, it's a journey of making art. It's a journey. And my work has taken lots of different forms. And as I've got older I can now see how all of those connect those different threads. Something about the non binary nature of who I am as an artist is something I've never worked in just one dimension. I'm working in many directions, because I think that the artistic journey is one of yearning, to know yourself to find out who you are. And looking back, and that can take a lot of different forms.

Jyll Bradley In Conversation with Debbie Meniru took place in a private residence, New York, March 2023. Generously hosted by Laura Taft. With special thanks to David McLean for supporting the event.

Jyll Bradley’s (b 1966) installations, drawings and sculptures draw upon aspects of minimalism to express a personal engagement with identity and place. Her interest in site and the creation of new spaces has led to public commissions including most recently 'The Hop', The Hayward, London (2022-23), Pardes, (2021) The Warehouse, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block) (2017) for Turner Contemporary, Margate, and Opening the Air (2018) for Sculpture in the City, London. Bradley studied at Goldsmiths College and The Slade, London. Bradley lives and works in London and has exhibited in the UK and internationally, including The Drawing Room, London (2015 and 2017) and New Art Centre, Roche Court (2017).

Debbie Meniru is a London-based writer and curator who has supported arts events and exhibitions across the UK, USA, France and Italy. She is a contributing author to two books on ceramics, 'Strange Clay' co-published by Hatje Cantz and Hayward Gallery Publishing, and 'Clay Pop' by Rizzoli.