Penny Goring Makes Art for a World in Turmoil

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Penny World by Penny Goring at ICA London
Penny Goring, I was a Visionary for Boudica, 2015Courtesy of the Artist and Arcadia Missa, London

As her new exhibition opens at the ICA in London, Penny Goring discusses living through hell to create art, and the power of creativity in the face of austerity

“The things I make are retrieved from danger and harm,” says London-based artist and poet Penny Goring. “I’ll get inside the grief I carry and turn what it feels like into a visible object that hangs on a wall.” In Penny World, Goring’s first institutional solo exhibition at the ICA, these objects are on show, sharing the states of grief, fear, loss, panic and powerlessness the artist frequently inhabits. 

Goring’s works are Bourgeois-adjacent in their use of recurrent motifs, subversion of domestic techniques and plundering of pain – and yet she’s as prolific online as she is with a needle and thread. She was active in the web-based alt-lit scene of the 2010s, uploading hundreds of GIFs and digital images to the internet. Working from home, she uses only the materials she has to hand; this show features drawings in ballpoint pen, sculptures from hand-sewn fabric, and paintings in food dye as an alternative to ink. The walls and corridors of the ICA are lined with the meme-style, blown-up images she makes on (the freely downloadable) programme Microsoft Paint. Her own face often appears on these digital collages – works she refers to as ‘image macros’ – which are accompanied by crushingly honest slogans. “Copy-pasting my young face onto other people’s photos felt like magical territorial pissing: if I stick my face on it, it’s mine,” she says.

Owning, understanding and belonging are all themes that connect the works on show in this exhibition. In an uncaring world, Goring shows love in her process. Named after and depicting extreme emotional states, her dolls – plush, hand-sewn sculptures – perform feelings brought on by loss and illness in abstractly figurative forms. ‘Wrong Face’, ‘Wrong Heart’, ‘Wrong Feeling’ and ‘Wrong Leg’ tattoo the stretched coral limbs of one, in a mantra that evokes negative identity issues, as well as the act of healing. And, during a period of desperation due to oppression inflicted by Conservative legislation, Goring intentionally accessed recurring PTSD visions to create the semi-autobiographical series of 50 small drawings entitled ART HELL. In it, the artist’s recurring alter-egos inhabit dystopian landscapes. ‘Severed heads, plague flowers, shit storms, wounded horses and melting trees’ live together here, in harmony and violence.

The extent of Goring’s imaginative abilities seems endless; her work and her process are an absolute necessity for the artist. “If I’m not making I unmake myself,” she says. “I feel like an empty useless husk, there’s no point to being alive. I can’t think clearly, become bored and frustrated, have constant panic attacks and go into self-destruct mode – I reduce myself to a wrecking ball of chaos.”

The show presents not only the full breadth of her extensive practice, but the scope of some 30 years of work created to process mental trauma and physical illness in the face of endless precarity. That said, it’s not a retrospective but rather an expansive exploration of the artist’s various processes. “Although there are some older works in Penny World, to me this show doesn’t look back,” Goring says. “Something I made 30 years ago exists in the same timeless space in my mind as the doll I’m sewing today – it’s all happening at once all the time.”

Penny World has transformed the ICA into a space completely unique to the artist; the exhibition feels like being inside someone’s defenses. It’s furious in there – and rightly so. But one can also feel an acute sense of care. “There’s love in the works I’m showing,” Goring says. “If you are living in hell it means you’re still alive, you’re somehow surviving the hell. And that death of feeling would be worse than death itself. And if we are aware we’re living in hell, that means we know there are better and different ways we could be living. That’s hopeful, isn’t it?” It might be convoluted thinking, but it’s absolutely how Goring survives. In creating Penny World, Goring is able to “live in a less hellish hell.” It’s an important affirmation on the power of creativity in the face of austerity, desperation and inadequate systematic support. On show are works of art made for the sake of the artist, as aid. Penny World is for Penny, first and foremost, but there are lessons here to learn for everyone. 

Penny World by Penny Goring is on at the ICA in London until 18 September 2022.