Figures: a mass-sculptural performance to make visible the human cost of austerity

Artist and activist Liz Crow has made powerful work throughout her career. She describes Figures as a political work, it tackles political issues and disability issues. As a disabled person, Liz knows the impact of austerity and carried out this huge project to reveal its human cost, invite strong connections with difficult facts, and encourage debate.

I was keen to show other disabled artists’ responses to austerity and government policy, so thanks to Liz and Roaring Girl Productions for sharing information about this project, which was carried out earlier this year, straddling the general election.

More information and images at


We-are-Figures-7.4.15-Night-Time-by-Claudio-Ahlers-72 Figures is a mass-sculptural performance that made visible the human cost of austerity and urged action against it.

Using excavated raw river mud and taking up residence on the streets and foreshore of central London, artist-activist Liz Crow sculpted 650 small human figures, each one representing an individual at the sharp end of austerity. Coinciding with tide times on the nearby Thames, at the incoming tide, the newly-sculpted figures were moved to safety. At each low tide, the artist returned to sculpt more figures, in an endurance ritual that spanned 11 consecutive days and nights.

We-are-Figures-7.4.15-Daytime-by-Claudio-Ahlers-20Though made in the same form, each figure differs in its detail, representing both common humanity and the individual. Their number echoes the 650 constituencies throughout which the effects of austerity are felt, as well as the number of MPs whose choices determine the choices of others.

Once dried, the figures were toured en masse in a mobile exhibition that visited locations from London to Bristol over five days, including Trafalgar Square and David Cameron’s constituency office, the figures creating a talking point for members of the public to confront the questions raised by the work.

In Bristol, the figures were returned to foreshore and raised into a cairn. A bonfire burned into the night, firing the figures, while their corresponding stories of austerity were read aloud until the returning tide doused the flames. The figures, fired, burned and broken, were reclaimed, gathered and ground down to dust.

In the final phase of the performance and on the first day of the new government’s tenure, the ground remains of the figures were scattered back to water, taken out to sea as a poignant reminder of the human cost of austerity and a call to the international community to take heed.

Rooted in symbolism, ranging across worldwide ‘mud men’ mythology and the cycle of life, the firing and crushing of human aspiration, the bearing witness of the cairn and the dispersal and forgetting of stories of social injustice, Figures is a work that is multi-layered and uncompromising, yet simple and tender in message.

We-are-Figures-7.4.15-Daytime-by-Claudio-Ahlers-51The 650 stories of people at the sharp end of austerity are drawn from leading-edge research, Parliamentary records and campaigns in the field of social justice. Covering a range of topics, including benefits reform, local authority spending, homelessness, malnutrition, NHS rationing, and so on, they have been selected to represent a spectrum of experience. Volunteer stewards, from campaigning and arts curatorial backgrounds, will attend the performance, drawing on these stories and supporting members of the public in conversation about the issues raised by the work.

Liz Crow says, “Figures sets out to make visible the stark human cost of austerity and to urge action against it. It is avowedly a political artwork, but intentionally not party political. In performing and exhibiting at such a crucial time, I am setting out to involve the widest possible audience in the work and the questions it raises about how we treat each other, what kind of society we want to be, and what role we might each of us have in bringing that about.”




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