About Blunt Blades. In conversation with Fatoş Üstek
Fatos Ustek (FU): What is your quest in art-making?
Arabel Lebrusan (AL): I grew up surrounded by female ancestors – my grandma, great-aunty, and second cousins – and they were always busy transforming things. They converted cooking oil into soap, blood into food, milk into cheese. They harvested the land, washed in the river and created their own clothes. With a holistic approach to life they possessed a transformational fertility; a keen eye on alchemical metamorphoses. They nourished their surroundings with labour intensive engagement and could create anything out of nothing. It’s this learned craftiness that allows me to create and transform within my own practice and, in doing so, to explore the things that matter to me; justice and agency.
Essentially, I see art as a tool for understanding the world. I make art in order to digest what happens on this brutal planet of ours, and I share it with others to distribute agency. For me, art is an opportunity to combine ideas or materials not usually connected and to understand the world differently, not rationally with words and structured thoughts but in a visceral way, with my stomach and my liver.
FU: Come to the Blunt Blades project, there is the material tension that you describe and the shock element. It’s very beautiful, what you said about you being surrounded by processes of transformation by your close relatives, as well as the process of transformation that you introduced to this project. Could you share a bit about that cycle?
AL: Blunt Blades starts with knives. A knife is never a blunt object, not only because it’s sharp in the literal sense, but because of its connotations and its various uses in various domestic and utilitarian contexts. As humans, our individual associations with knives are largely shaped by culture. My grandma always carried a pocket knife in her handbag for day-to-day use. She gifted me that pocket knife one day, with a view of me using it in the same ways. Though a perfectly functional tool for life in Spain at that time, when I tell this story in the UK, people are often horrified… You can’t carry a knife in your handbag!
The knives of Blunt Blades were seized by the police from the streets or domestic disputes. These direct connections with conflict are a contextual layer that now influence our relationships with this knives as objects. In spite of connotations like these – or perhaps, in some cases, because of them – some people are seduced by the knife. To some, there is an aesthetic appeal that makes it worth collecting in its hundreds. To others, the knife is aspirational; a status symbol.
Following an extensive research period and a successful Arts Council project grant I created these works (photographs, audio, a sculpture, a large drawing, a set of rings and a publication) to be exhibited at The Higgins Bedford, each exploring our relationships with knives. Underpinning the objects with new narratives was a fascinating experience.
FU: You are making a reference to the cultural contexts, to assigning value and meaning to objects. But there was also the context of the knives being confiscated from domestic environments with the potential of being used to endanger someone. Although people may have different cultural references to knives, there is a universal recognition of the function of the knife that it is not only used to separate objects into parts, but it can also be used to violate people and living beings.
AL: Yes; that was a fundamental I couldn’t and didn’t want to avoid. My work Knife Murders 275/275 England and Wales sees the confiscated blades transformed into rings equal in number to the people who had died from knife wounds in the previous year. We are constantly bombarded with horrible news, and sadly, knife deaths tend to be quickly forgotten. By creating 275 to represent 275 lives, I exploited the blades’ materiality and physicality to offer the audience a tangible counting tool. Some of the rings are big, some medium and some small, symbolising men, women and children respectively. I want to provoke an ‘in-body’ reaction within the audience; a visceral feeling of shock in the stomach.
FU: Other than an artist, you also own the successful Lebrusan Studio jewellery brand. As you also work as a jeweller when you were thinking about this project, how immediate was the form of the outcome for you? You have also invested craftsmanship in making jewellery, so how immediate was the decision to transform the knives into rings? Was it quite a natural process or did you think through it?
And why rings? Beyond the fact that they’re both used on the hands and so a kind of activation is enhance?
AL: I became a jeweller because I’m fascinated by jewels as physical objects and the craftsmanship, material processes and historical contexts behind them. My decision to transform the knives into rings was an instinctive one. Often offered to another as a gift, I consider the ring a socially engaging piece of jewellery. With its emotive and intimate connotations, the ring felt like a particularly arresting object with which to encourage people to think about knife crime.
The piece is a natural evolution of research, with only a small handful of details conscious decisions on my part. With 10 children, 50 women and 215 men killed with sharp objects in the year 2020, the number and sizes of the rings were already defined. That said, I did reinforce the exceptional vulnerability of the murdered children with a more gentle curvature on the small rings. Aside from this detail, the rings themselves are intentionally simple in order to foreground the conflict embedded within them without distraction; I didn’t feel the need to insert arbitrary symbolism via texture or decoration.
FU: You also did public events (with Blunt Blades), can you talk a little bit about them?
Blunt Blades Exchange was a social engagement project developed before Blunt Blades, the exhibition. It centred on a group of women whose lives had each been affected in some way by the knife, from being stabbed to having self-harmed. I offered each woman a plain ring created from the metal of police-confiscated knives and with no preemptions, was curious to observe the feelings evoked by such emotionally charged objects. The women were enabled the freedom to do as they wished with their rings; be that altering them or destroying them. As it happened, all women decided to transform their rings, then wear them as a reminder of how far they’d come; a symbolism of their own strength and capacity for transformation. Most engraved their jewels with words that held significance. This exchange has helped me to realise that art has the potential to heal; to transform negative thoughts into positive ones. That’s very powerful.
FU: Let’s talk about the nature of these materials that you’ve used. Stainless steel is not like gold where it equates with one’s body temperature. Was this a conscious choice of material?
AL: “At the beginning the ring feels quite cold, but as I wear it, it gets warmer.” This was indeed an observation made by one of the participants of the exchange. In this marriage of energies, the wearer and the ring become one.
Simple in concept, a ring is physically nothing more than a metal band with a soldered joint. The symbolism of the ring, however, is fascinating. Often passed from hand to hand – from generation to generation – the ring’s endless circle is emblematic of eternity. Meanwhile, the metal from which it’s crafted can be melted down again and again to create something new each time.
The malleability of metals is well known, but unlike silver or gold, which can be manipulated from the jeweller’s bench, stainless steel isn’t so ductile. This can make it difficult to work with. To obtain the stainless steel, I began by having the knives melted down into metal bars at high temperatures. Following this step the metal was highly porous and a newly formed crust needed to be removed via a process called milling in order to reach the pure stainless steel inside the bars. It took me years to find workshops who could successfully facilitate each step of this complex procedure. Working with stainless steel was something of a perseverance challenge, but it was thought-provoking too, with each oddity becoming a new layer to my thinking. The dirty outer crust versus the pure, desirable core led me to associations with cycles and eternal renewal. This impelled me to try and destroy the metal – to make it disappear and eradicate its painful narrative altogether – but that was really hard. Organically, even this process gave way to something new, with the stainless steel dust produced by my endeavors becoming Residue, the large drawing also featured in the exhibition.
FU: That’s very interesting. I think it’s very interesting in the sense that it is also about going back to the psyche of objects, their levels of resistance and levels of cooperation. So in the aftermath of the project, what resonates with you? What has this project brought you?
AL: I received the knives from the police in 2013 but it wasn’t until November 2022 that the project was finally culminated. A process that spanned almost a decade, it taught me to be resilient and open in equal measures, using the extensive research period to explore many different avenues and subsequently broaden the scope of the work as I went. I had time to experiment with materials (“What would happen if I burned this, ground this, used magnets…?”) and to nurture relationships, creating works like Friendship Fear Fate, which features three audio interviews with women discussing their relationships with knives. Time also enabled me to develop Tales of Blunt Blades, a 50-page publication which invited creative writers to pen short stories for a selection of knives from The Higgins Bedford’s social history collection. After so many years it was hugely satisfying to release the ideas from my head and deliver works that each offer the audience a unique experience of art. There was a sense of warmth within the responses; the feedback I’ve received has been fantastic. These words have spurred me to think about how else I could spotlight difficult topics in ways that enable engagement without fear.
FU: Finally, I am curious to know what you think on this – how can art play a role in these large and big scale subjects or issues of urgencies?
AL: I believe that art has the potential to shift cultural consciousness; to create justice, offer a voice to the silenced and imagine new futures. Like the trees, rocks and animals around us, humans are an entrenched aspect of planet Earth. Preoccupied by the need to consume it, we appear to have forgotten our oneness with it. Although it has the potential to regenerate, we are taking from it and exhausting it. Now, our collective priority should be returning it to its regenerative capacity.
Maybe I’m optimistic, but I feel that art can bring people together in a way that no other discipline can, uniting thinkers from disparate fields and encouraging them to create under one roof. I personally am fascinated by the combination of science and art, having spent last year working alongside social science professors as a research fellow at the University of Brighton, exploring themes of extractivism and ecofeminism, soil and care. Intersectional research can be nurturing and incredibly productive.
I started creating site-specific installations whilst studying for my BA back in 2000. I didn’t want to place things in a gallery space; I wanted my work to be out in the world, relating to the stories and histories of the spaces around me. I’m still intrigued by the idea that the public space can change the way one sees art. Of course, cultural consciousness can be shifted within the gallery space, but it can also be shifted on the street or through social engagement projects.
Interviewed by Fatoş Üstek, independent curator and writer. Blunt Blades exhibition at The Higgins Bedford. www.bluntblades.com