Nine years ago in her Brooklyn studio, the sculptor Paige Bradley took a wax sculpture she had been working on for months – a 6 foot figure of a womanseated in meditation – and deliberately smashed it against the floor. It took Paige weeks to slowly piece it back together but the resulting sculpture, Expansion, is now one of her most inspiring and admired works. Paige has embraced rather than concealed the seeming flaws in the bronze. An electric light radiates out through the cracks that run deep through the legs, belly and chest of the figure, a piercing reminder of the violent act that could have destroyed the sculpture, and yet has become intrinsic to its beauty; a symbol of both ruin, and the opportunity it gives for renewal.
“Immediately after I dropped the sculpture, I was horrified. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. But it turned out to be the best thing for my art. Letting go of my obsession with perfection, of the need to always be in complete control – that is how I learnt to expand as an artist,” Paige says.
The last available edition of Expansion (out of 6) resides in London, Paige’s new home town, a powerful symbol of the opportunity to rebuild and restructure the City based on a better understanding of its imperfections, after its own, devastating crash.
“There is a need in London, as in cities across the world, to rebuild, to reform, to be better than we were. But when we put the pieces back together we can’t expect to be where we were before we fell apart. It’s about embracing changing, adapting to your surroundings, about finding strength in what could have broken you,” she says.
The way Expansion responds to its environment is essential to the beauty of sculpture. The bronze radiates its own light, and reflects the light around it. In a new series of photographs, the sculpture is set high above a hazy London skyline, shaded yet shining in the rays of a setting sun. The meditating figure looks incongruous against the backdrop of skyscrapers and office buildings, and yet at the same time strangely in harmony with its concrete surroundings; a lone figure finding calm, offering tranquillity, from the chaos of the city. “That is what Expansion is about,” says Paige. “It is about taking strength from your surroundings, and also giving it back.”
Within the chaos of the city, the power of Expansion for me is in its calm, its serenity,” says Paige. “Renewal is not just about rapid growth or chasing ambition. It’s about finding a unity with your environment. And that works on an individual level, a city level, a global level. It’s about finding a balance, an internal power and basing growth on that,” says Paige.
“We live in a masculine world measured by competition and productiveness. Living in a busy international city, we are all attached to this lifestyle. But we need to make room for the feminine energy of being present instead of planning, listening instead of doing and accepting instead of judging. Expansion is about being still and alive to the moment. Only by real awareness of our environment can we live in a way in which we thrive, but that is also sustainable.”
Nowhere is the dominance of the masculine energy more obvious than in the city’s financial district, which is why it forms the perfect backdrop to photograph her powerful female nude.
But Paige is herself not immune to the charms of the City – she lives in Canary Wharf, her husband works in finance. “I understand the success of the City is central to the success of the country. It has its own energy, its buzz. Today financial infrastructure has shattered in many ways and for a city very dependant upon a healthy finance district, the banks are having to redefine themselves and find a new sense of balance. Growth is not about getting bigger anymore. Its about becoming wiser. It is not a weakness. Expansion embodies, above all else, the power of the human psyche.”
The sculpture resonates deeply with both men and women on a personal level. Paige has received hundreds of emails from people who have seen her work and felt it reflects their own feelings of damage and loss and renewal in their own lives. “People who have been through cancer, or lost someone close to them, many different people have told me how they identify with the sculpture. To feel broken and still be able to draw yourself back together, that is the strength and beauty of Expansion, and of life. We need to acknowledge these cracks, appreciate that they are part of what makes us who we are, what makes us unique,” she says.
“That’s ultimately why I do this work: to see how people to respond. Ideally I would put all my sculptures in public spaces. For me, the art becomes more meaningful when I see how it impacts people, how they interact with it, how it can enter and be part of their lives in an everyday way.”
Yet Expansion is also a transcendence from the everyday; the figure’s nakedness, the light streaming from her core, her head leant back in blissful meditation, all point to an escape from the chaos and anxiety of urban life. In Expansion, nudity, often a sign of vulnerability, becomes a symbol of strength.
“To feel vulnerable is human,” Paige said. “But we often don’t let ourselves feel vulnerable because of the need to defend our space, even if we don’t really know how to defend it, or who we are defending it from. But freedom comes through embracing vulnerability, as well as our strengths.
“I suppose what Expansion comes to is the feeling of a soul. We all have a sense of soul, even if we can’t quite put a finger on what it is. There are no words for it, no real way to identify the feeling. But that image of light streaming out from the cracks in Expansion is the closest I’ve come to portraying it – that for me is our uniqueness, our shine.”