Janet Hodgson obituary

Artist who undertook complex explorations of time, history and language

Janet Hodgson, who has died aged 56 of cancer, explored ideas of time, history, archaeology and language through sculpture, film, public art – accessible to all, usually outdoors – and installations. Curiosity and close investigation gave rise to complex ideas that left questions open. As the magazine British Archaeology noted in connection with a number of projects focusing on Stonehenge in 2008, her installations and films “generate the sensation of being lost in time”.

Piltdown Bungalow (1993) in Uppermill, Greater Manchester, was a hoax excavation, revealing a modern bungalow in the ground in a nature reserve that contained the ruins of woollen mills. By burying just the sort of building that surrounds the reserve, it challenged the romanticism associated with history and age.

Hodgson’s sculptural piece White Cube: Black Square (1995), commissioned for the exhibition Making It at Tate Liverpool, consisted of a 7ft cube of white sugar placed next to a square pool of black molasses. This work referred directly to the sugar magnate Henry Tate, founder of Tate Gallery, and to the slave trade, on which his and Liverpool’s earlier wealth had been built. Installed in perfect condition, the white cube disintegrated over the course of the exhibition.

Three commissions drew on the history of the Blue Coat school, Liverpool, whose former building is now the thriving Bluecoat arts centre. In I Must Learn to Know My Place (1994), Hodgson projected this pointed sentence repeatedly across the building’s facade; History Lesson (1999) recreated an imagined Victorian school day through eight films projected into the galleries where they had been filmed; and Re-run (2008) restaged classic cinema film sequences while the building was vacant during refurbishment, using Bluecoat staff as the cast. As in some other of her later works, film was used as a time machine; here reality and fiction collided, the past recreated in the present.

Pupils in old-fashioned uniforms in classroom, camera in background
Filming Janet Hodgson’s History Lesson (1999). Photograph: Bluecoat, Liverpool

One of Liverpool’s contributions to the extended exhibition of Artranspennine98, in locations that ranged as far east as Hull, was The Text Garden: A Composition in Time (1998), developed by Hodgson with Anna Douglas. Fascinated by the history of the city’s municipal gardens, they created a horticultural installation for the Old Systematic Garden at Calderstones Park, with box and yew hedges spelling out the names of wild flowers that had once grown on the site.

For the York Curiouser festival, Hodgson devised The Workshop of Historical Correction (2014). She used a medieval tower to present a short film that brought together Georgian dancers from the 18th century and the dadaist expressive (and non-balletic) dancing championed by the choreographer Mary Wigman in the 20th century.

Born in Bolton, Lancashire, Janet was the daughter of Dorothy (nee Lambert), a teacher, and Harold, a journalist. After the death of her mother in 1969, the family moved to Lincolnshire. Janet went to Kesteven and Grantham girls’ school, as – to her chagrin – had Margaret Thatcher. A year-long foundation course at Lincoln School of Art was followed by theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art.

She began her career in community theatre, working on spectacular outdoor performances with the radical collective known as Welfare State International. In 1984 she moved to Liverpool, to pursue community education work at The Blackie, the former church now known as the Black-E cultural centre, and at Tate.

Janet Hodgson
Janet Hodgson taught at art schools including Birmingham City University, Wimbledon and the University of Kent Photograph: None

Hodgson taught at numerous art schools around the UK, most recently at Birmingham City University, Wimbledon and the University of Kent. In her teaching, gallery education work and creative work she sought to bring people together and encourage exchanges about contemporary art for diverse audiences. In partnership with local communities she made a number of public artworks, including projects in Cardiff, Chester and Glasgow.

At the Whitefriars excavation in Canterbury, she collaborated with archaeologists, architects and developers to produce a new public artwork, The Pits (2005). Drawings mapping the archaeological finds of ancient rubbish, mainly cesspits, from the site before it was redeveloped into a shopping centre were sandblasted into the York stone paving. Memory of the site was preserved by bringing a usually glossed-over aspect of its history into the present.

Hodgson also developed a number of collaborations with the Art+Archaeology group, including a film about the pioneering early-20th-century Welsh archaeologist Maud Cunnington and Stonehenge. The subject was explored in a 15-minute work, My Passage Through a Brief Unity in Time (2010).

Passionate about all kinds of music, particularly jazz and soul, Hodgson taught herself the saxophone. She played in two bands – the Brasshoppers and Clippity Clop.

She is survived by her sister, Lou.

• Janet Ann Hodgson, artist, born 29 January 1960; died 16 March 2016


Victoria Pomery

The GuardianTramp

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