I've been marking solid pretty much all week and can't wait until it is done and I can get the balance back with practice, but at the same time, it benefits me hugely and not just in terms of income. I get a sense of what is important to students, which is a kind of privilege. It updates me on contemporary developments I was not aware of - for example, the musical phenomenon that is grime! At times I am reminded of old pathways I trod - questions around deconstruction in relation to graphic design, and those I plan to tread - art that engages with the environment - and finally of pathways I would have done well to tread and should be thinking about - for example, questions of the relationship between the photograph and "the real". It is both graft and a blessing combined. The only thing I am able to do art-wise is to go to Southampton on the weekend to see the exhibition Barthes/Burgin at the wonderful John Hansard Gallery. What follows is a bit rambling and speculative but I am trying to come to terms with what the exhibition teaches me and means to me.
Roland Barthes was a structuralist and post-structuralist theorist who (some may not know) had a drawing practice, and Victor Burgin is an artist/theorist hugely influenced by structuralism who played a major role in the development of conceptual art. This is the first time Barthes' drawings have been exhibited outside France and I know that academic Sunil Manghani has been central to this. Manghani has written extensively and, as far as I am aware, partly forged the field of Image Studies which seeks to promote both theory and practice together in his pedagogy, a combined means to understanding practices of looking, perceiving and producing. He has long been interested in theories of meaning and their relationship to the image. In short, he has written about structuralism and its limitations with respect to understanding practice.
The works on display by Burgin are CGI moving image representations of landscapes, juxtaposed with texts. These are landscapes that for me as a viewer feel slightly vertiginous, perhaps not only because they depict mountainous landscapes ("Belledone", 2016) or a cafe set high on a cliff ("A Place To Read", 2010) but because “real" places are being referred to. But, bar several shots of photographs featured on postcards in "Belledone" (I wonder if there is a lovely silent reference to Derrida's work on the postcard here), the images are all rendered CGI so there is no direct indexical link to the places that seem to be depicted, as there might be in a photograph. There is so much going on here that I know I need to reflect further on it. There is still a kind of "perceptual realism" (Prince) in these works, despite the lack of indexical link. However, I am aware that this generates a strangely melancholy feeling, at least for me. In a sense there is and is not a signified and if I understood my theory better I would be able to draw on it around this question!
The juxtaposition of text and image has always been in operation in Burgin's work, a probing of the relationship between text and image, and different registers. But also this very strong sense of the importance of particular places,. This interest in place can also be found in Barthes' work, the exhibition texts explain, and this interests me. There is an interesting point being made about our relationship to the environment in "A Place to Read", where the text outlines a narrative about a man and woman visiting a virtual café which is in danger of being destroyed. The text suggests that "in a parallel place" the 'original' environment (signified?) has been destroyed,. There is something going on here around how we relate to objects and language and how devastating the repercussions of this might be.
I look at the TateShot of Burgin and am struck by his feeling that there is no point in taking more images, we are saturated with images. He explains that he is focusing on 3D rendering because it is "at the interface of what's outside and what's inside. That psychological object. I think I've always been doing the same thing, just doing it differently. [...] There's something at the centre which is always the same thing." I am unfamiliar with Burgin's theoretical work and note with interest in the JHG reading room that in his book "The End of Art Theory", he suggests we can no longer, in the current environment, see theory as a group of separate interdependent forms, we now require a body of theory with a different aim, "a general theory of representations". To cite the book's blurb:
"'art theory', understood as those interdependent forms of art history, aesthetics and criticism which began in the Enlightenment and culminated in the recent period of high modernism, is now at an end. In our present so-called "postmodern era" the end of art theory now is identical with the goals of a general theory of representations: an understanding of the modes and means of symbolic articulation of our forms of sociality and subjectivity."
All in all, for me this is a rather wonderful exhibition in terms of what it suggests, what it opens up, what it puts forward and allows you to enter. I am struck by what has brought me here. Some kind of seeking for help or an indication or pointing with respect to my own work and situation, if perhaps not at this advanced a level as yet. Here is Barthes, a man probing signification through his whole life, from structuralism to post-structuralism and exploring issues at the boundaries of text and image, where the written trace becomes something gestural - a conversation with Derrida perhaps? In the early 70s? - and developing a sense of a kind of ethics of structure. The labelling says that in his drawings he seems less concerned with the relationship between the marks than the space itself, a kind of democracy of space.
I wonder what it means for me, in terms of my practice. Perhaps a recognition that the work of the theorist does need not have to be wholly separate from the work of the artist, that at a certain level it can be an extension of the same concerns, but tested in a different way. This must seem obvious to any contemporary artist of note, it is the history of conceptual art! In short, that if I continue to work on my thinking, that may guide me more fully towards works that might even take us somewhere. Where my work as an academic might conceivably dovetail with my work as an artist. An interior place, somehow of both peace and tumult. The work on groundswell has been a feeling thing, a desire to move an interest in states of emergency into a kind of call to action I suppose, if I try to think about where it came from, although it was also an expression of my own precarity. But what I used to have in my 20s and 30s was a formal site of interrogation, an interest in language which in fact, brought me to Beuys’ expanded language. Burgin’s practice moves from the site of language out. Having that formal grounding somehow opens up the possibility of a space of dissent.
This week essay marking continues, and graduation, which is lovely. Dexter Dalwood gives a fantastic talk about his experience of developing through art, and of the importance of not seeking comfort over what you love, not taking the easy road. After the ceremony, I go to an exhibition of work by the 8 graduating MA students at Walcott Chapel and it is lovely to catch up with people. The work is interesting, a painting I had not seen by Tom Mence interests me in particular. As always, I enjoy Steve Joyce’s work, it occurs to me that the seeds of what he is exploring now, around accidents and representation, are there in one of the earliest pieces he made on the course, a wonderful cardboard railing observed and translated from life. There simply isn’t time to do much practice this week, and I am working on marking into the weekend. I feel a little art starved. I need to commit and get over to the studio as soon as I can to start working in the space.
This week I finally get to Plymouth to flat search and attend Martin Brook's drawing class. Conceptually, I have been interested in looking at a drawing where the ground moves and shifts. But I feel I need to understand the fundamentals of drawing to decide how best to address this and am also all too aware that the ground beneath my feet is shaky at the moment! I know I also have to be mindful of how drawing might feed into the project I have chosen, perhaps look at drawing practices that work with movement. Martin suggests that I look at drawing machines (I remember liking John Beattie’s work with drawing machines). I ask Martin about drawing for installation and he reminds me that I can take a photograph of the space, photocopy it and draw onto that. It is great to meet other students in the class, one is a Chinese student, who is trying to gain more "Western" skills. He sees his work as "too Chinese" and wants to use less line and more tonal approaches, which I find interesting although I am equally struck by his "Chinese" skills!
I am very rusty and I don't think there should be any hiding this, just because I am an AA2A artist we are always learning! Martin shows me how to create a sense of volume with the side of the charcoal and then carefully mark out where parts of the body sit in relation to each other, looking across the body from side to side. Once marked out, I can then feel confident about placement I don't risk getting so quickly tied into detail that the figure does not work together as a whole. I love his suggestion about holding the charcoal sideways, more flat to the paper, so that the marks are soft and when I work into the drawing with line this is much more sympathetic to the composition, which appears to emerge from the page rather than being 'plonked' on it. By the end of the morning I have not managed to integrate all that he has so generously shared, but I have made a start and see that I must practice.
A propros of nothing, perhaps, but I particularly enjoy taking photographs this week. Some are still lives, others images of travelling to Plymouth. This makes me far more aware of working with light; perhaps in a way, I can start to think more tonally with photography. A friend likes the work and suggests that I look at Mat Collishaw’s work. I am utterly spellbound; how did I not know of this artist? Again, though, I need to reflect on how photography is going to relate to the project in a more formal way. I am looking forward to more time and space after marking essays is over.