Soil is at the core of Emily Hesse’s practice. In “The Witches’ Institution (W.I.),” the British artist’s largest exhibition to date, it appears in the form of clay, often unfired. Here, the material becomes an unexpected, potent tool used to build a new worldview through narratives of witchcraft that recognize being in non-human physical substances.
In the Tetley’s monumental atrium, two distinct yet related works (both 2022) set the show’s tone. CLÆG is a walkable, deep, and malleable layer of earth—sourced on site as well as from the rivers Aire and Tees—that covers the entire floor. Alternative Sky is a floor-to-ceiling representation of the universe painted on the wall with mud. Altogether, the installation elicits an emotional response that establishes a metaphysical, ancestral connection to our landscape—understood as both Mother and Nature.
The exhibition unfolds in a succession of densely, sometimes overwhelmingly, packed rooms featuring an eclectic mix of work—photographs, texts, objects, and videos—and contextual information, including a lecture from Hesse’s collaborator, the scholar Andrea Philips, who aptly advances witchcraft as a feminist device. Among this vast array of items, The Old Wife, 2019, has a distinctively haunting presence. This photograph depicts a standing stone in the North York Moors—a region with historic folk associations, particularly allusions to the otherworld—partially wrapped in draped fabric and rope. It recalls imagery commonly related to the public executions of women believed to be witches, directly linking with local mythology, but its mystic quality suggests a more empowering understanding of such women, who were revered and even deified in pre-Christian cultures.
Hesse’s sensitive combination of matter and spirituality enables the exhibition to operate as a place for matriarchal imagination. The “institution” to which its title refers to is a realm where magical materialism emerges as the counterforce to patriarchal power structures.