Poignancy and unsettling beauty abound in a new exhibition dedicated to the influential Bristol-based artist Daphne Wright

Daphne Wright’s unwavering fascination with humanity has resulted in a body of powerful artwork which is at once arresting and thought-provoking, and includes short films, sculptures, installations and prints. Carefully manipulating her materials, she strikes the balance between the beautiful and sinister, the other-worldly and the recognisable, and the fruits of her career – spanning 25 years – are now to be showcased as part of a collaboration between Arnolfini and Tyntesfield National Trust estate.

“I like the associations with archaeologists who take a section of land and strip it back layer after layer to excavate lost fragments”

‘Emotional Archaeology’

daphne wright stallion

Stallion (2009)

The Arnolfini exhibition, titled ‘Emotional Archaeology’, presents some of Daphne’s most iconic pieces. From the eerily contemplative Kitchen Table (2014) and unrestrained Stallion (2009), to the enigmatic film If You Broke Me (2014), her work focuses on the inevitable factors which drive humanity: life, death, ageing, and our relationships with animals. “It’s about the universal,” explains Daphne. “The curator of the exhibition, Josephine Lanyon, used the term ‘emotional archaeology’ when we began the project. I like the associations with archaeologists who take a section of land and strip it back layer after layer to excavate lost fragments.”

The muted, neutral colour palettes and subtle, earthen texture of Daphne’s chosen media are mirrored in the title of the exhibition. Working with resin, clay, wool, wire, found objects and film, Daphne describes her choices of medium as “the result of a relentless curiosity into the way in which materials can create an involvement with often unspoken human preoccupations.”

“I work with all kinds of materials – sometimes they are fragile and vulnerable”

Daphne Wright shrub

Domestic Shrubbery (1994)

“By removing colour there is a shift in its context. It’s a kind of subtle slippage,” she explains. “I work with all kinds of materials – sometimes they are fragile and vulnerable.”

Born in Ireland, Daphne is now based in both Dublin and Bristol, working from the home studio which has birthed her art for over two decades. Throughout this time she has enjoyed a range of commissions, from those including Ham House, Trust New Art and Hanbury House, as well as exhibitions across the UK and a permanent base at Frith Street Gallery, London.

The hustle and bustle of city life often finds its way into her work, which fuses the suburban and domestic with influences as diverse as poetry, literature, film, and country and western music. Family life, including Daphne’s two sons, also form an integral part of her creative process – Kitchen Table began life as casts of each child, lending the calm boredom surrounding the lifeless sculptures a sense of comic authenticity.

Daphne Wight at Tyntesfield

In partnership with Arnolfini, the Victorian Gothic splendour of Tyntesfield will be home to the second half of her exhibition. Situated in the family chapel, Prayer Project (2009) will feature a series of moving image installations depicting the intensely private nature of worship across different faiths.

Daphne Wright table

Kitchen Table (2014)

“We felt that the chapel was exactly the right place to show Prayer Project,” said Tyntesfield curator, Susan Hayward. “It was built as the ultimate expression of its founder William Gibbs’ religious beliefs. Books in the Tyntesfield library show the family’s spiritual journey, reflecting deeply on faith and different religious beliefs.”

Juxtaposed with the serenity of Prayer Project in the chapel, the main house will present a selection of portraits and casts of bulls and stillborn calves. Challenging our understanding of concepts including farming, breeding, patriarchy and family, Bulls (2002) provides an alternative link to the estate’s long associations with dairy farming.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of events at Arnolfini, including private tours, a select screening of films to complement Daphne’s work (13 November) and a conversation between the artist and the equally influential Phyllida Barlow (3 December) – the latter also known for her ambitious installations.

Across the two sites, Emotional Archaeology promises an enthralling insight into the inner workings of our culture, be it the seemingly innocuous ornaments on the mantlepiece or the greater moral dilemmas we face every day. After gazing at the frozen figures and becoming immersed within films and striking photographs, one question reverberates: what does it mean to be human?

Daphne Wright: Emotional Archaeology runs until 20 November at Tyntesfield and at Arnolfini until 31 December; nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield; arnolfini.org.uk