Weeks 30 - 36

Week 36 (ending August 7th) - blog images to follow

This week I went to the Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy for the first time, attended a book launch, visited a friend and finally got to the Conceptual Art show at Tate Britain.  A lovely glut of art and friendship!  I am mindful of needing to get to London to see work on at least a bi-monthly basis where I can afford to, this time the National Express coach got me there and back for 15 quid!

I must admit I have never been very interested in the Summer exhibition.  Whenever I have seen the coverage on television it looks like such a hotchpotch.  But perhaps this was a good year to finally make it, because I got a real sense of the value of its diversity, its openness to all artists, and its potential for surprise. Perhaps this was one of its better years?  Certainly there were some ungainly groupings - one lady walked into a room and exclaimed "Crikey, this is a motley crew, isn't it?" I couldn't entirely disagree.  But within the mix there were so many gems and discoveries, artists whose work I had heard about and finally now had the opportunity to see.

I marked a few works that particularly interested me in the catalogue; few were sculptural works.  Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's alluring but anxiety-inducing painting "Emergency Exit Number 4" sat beautifully next to an admittedly impressive but somewhat macho work by Kiefer.  I found Andrew Langley's paintings charming, enjoyed David Mach’s work (which I had heard of but never seen).  More highlights included Andrzej Jackowski's lithograph and chine-collé works, such as "At the Lining - Forest" and the woodcuts of Stephan Balkenhol.  Also more familiar and always stunning were the work of David Nash, the serious critique and humour of Langlands & Bell’s “GCHQ”, and Jane and Louise Wilson’s large-format photographs of post-Chernobyl destruction, the pair, as always, getting the measure of things.  I liked the way rooms were curated by different academicians, with Richard Wilson as principle curator.

After a good look round it was time for the book launch of "Artist Boss", a wonderful new publication about the experience of Anthony Caro's studio assistants and what this brings to notions of production and authorship.  It was really quite exciting, although I felt shy to be there.  Tim Marlowe - who it emerged once worked at Winchester School of Art - spoke of Caro's brevity and openness to others' ideas.  In the circumstances, it was rather reassuring to hear about the sculptor’s sense of irreverence towards the RA as an institution until later years; the message came over loud and clear that it is OK, perhaps even necessary, to question and kick over the traces as an artist.  Senior Bath Spa staff gave cheery talks and thanks to those involved to launch the book. It was really great to see Jenny Dunseath, a Fine Art Lecturer and former studio assistant of Caro's who had orchestrated and produced the book, as well as artist and Fine Art Lecturer Camilla Wilson, and to meet her friend Michael Petry, the installation artist, writer and gallery Director, an utterly friendly, warm man.It was great to catch up with the lovely Ian Dawson and hear his supportive encouragement to find a way of working in an art school context that brings theory and practice into a productive relation.  Although I am not suggesting that this is my position, I think of the Frankfurt School and their concern to revisit Marxism in a new way that does not cause theory to lose its critical edge and practice to illustrate theory.  Potential lessons from history.

The next day I girded up my loins (!) for the exhibition Conceptual Art in Britain 1964 – 1969.  Certainly it was demanding, but I was really glad I went, I felt that finally I could start to put a few jigsaw pieces in place where my knowledge was lacking. While the work seemed intellectually cool it was also red hot; I got a strong sense of anger and impassioned resistance to modernist definitions of art (many conceptual artists were very much critics of figures like Caro!).  I loved John Latham's "Art and Culture", his ritual chewing, with students and other staff, of Clement Greenberg's eponymous book.  It was such a brave work; taking it to its full extent cost him his job.  A more pointed process-led work you could not get.  In the next room, I finally got a sense of what Art + Language were trying to do.  Some of the work infuriated my friend Alex as "in joke" exercises (for example the maps with no discernable sense of location or place depicted on them) but I could also see that what seemed spare and elitist was also using and subverting the language of modernism to critique elitism.  Just as structuralist terms still strike many as inaccessible, they were meant to be tools, available to all, to prise apart dubious notions of the artist as genius.  At the same time, it all seemed part of a general searching for new languages of engagement. 

Beuys featured briefly as he was involved in "7 Exhibitions" at Tate.  Reflecting on the artist’s particular brand of conceptualism was interesting in its material warmth, but it appeared very influential on British conceptual art, even on more cerebral works, although without the deeper methodological undertones so connected with a German history of ideas and particular contemporary context.  Pierre and Gilles' faces, painted gold in Underneath the Arches, suddenly recalled Beuys' "How To Explain Picture to a Dead Hare".  I watched the unfurling canvas role of Latham's "Time Base Roller" and thought of Beuys’ concept of time and warmth in sculpture, and his concern about hyper specialisation, although this time I wondered whether it had been Latham that influenced Beuys.  To quote from the exhibition catalogue, "Latham believed that the concept of Time-Base would liberate the mind, language and pedagogy from specialisation and division, which he feared would lead to a kind of entropy and the eventual disintegration of society as a whole."  This made me reflect on entropy at the current moment.  

While I walked around I noticed work by Terry Atkinson and suddenly recognised that it must be this artist who had so lambasted the "deep Celticism" and "vanity" of Beuys' position.  It was certainly interesting to reflect on Beuys' notion of language as shaping substance alongside the engagement with language of British conceptual art.  I wondered if it is even helpful to talk about "British" conceptualism, since I found that what I had thought of as being a famous London exhibition, "Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form.  Works - Concepts - Processes - Situations -Information", was initially curated by Harold Szeeman and had been shown at the Kunsthalle Bern and in Krefeld before it showed at the ICA in London.  I was struck by the way in which so much of the conceptual art activity in the UK came out of Central St Martins, although work and teaching at Coventry and Leicester University was also important and that much of this art work fed into Tate’s collections.

I laughed out loud at Michael Craig Martin's "An Oak Tree" (1973) which I first saw at IMMA, a glass of water, resting on a high shelf, which the artist insists is an oak tree, drawing attention to issues of perception, the influence of the artist in defining what is seen and the question of whether "the facts of material appearance can ever constitute the work of art".  I love Craig-Martin’s response to the question, "Have you always been able to do this?"  "Yes, but it is only in the last year that I have realised I am able to do it."

I met a friend, artist Victoria Bone for a drink and we talked about the show, as she had also seen it.  She was so much more engaged with how the work was shown than I had been, just as a writer might pay attention to how a novelist writes, something we were encouraged to do at art school.  I really have to remember that I am looking out for what work can teach me in terms of my own practice.  So I thought again about the installation pieces on display, for example Roelof Louw's “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)” of 1967, situated pointedly in the first room of the show and beckoning the audience to connect and alter it by taking an orange, bringing art and everyday life closer together.  In the same room, the wonderful Barry Flanagan's ringn' 66 1966.  I am a big fan of Flanagan's work, and love his early use of everyday materials, such as sacking and rope and whimsical but serious interest in Jarry’s pataphysics and the despot Pere Ubu.  I am also sympathtetic with Flanagan’s love of concrete poetry, which makes me wonder whether my interest in text as image was always an artistic one.  Quoting from the catalogue:

"For students at St Martin's, language was one way to rethink sculptural definition.  Barry Flangan used language to name something previously unknown; he suggested that 'at best sculpture is unnameable / at least a sculpture may name. / the name betrays the sculpture, even if it could have no other name.'  The title of rings '66 1966 refers to the cone of sand as a two-dimensional plan diagram - a ring 0 that can extend into a three-dimensional figure.  The ring is a noun, a thing, as much as an action or process; a visual poem."

I look  at Flangan’s obituary in the Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/sep/01/barry-flanagan-obituary] and love this famous reflection on sculpture, “"One merely causes things/to reveal themselves to the sculptural awareness. It is the/awareness that develops, not the agents of the sculptural phenomena." I reflect on what a massive opening up of ideas about what art conceptual art initiated.  What it made possible. Victoria and I talked about Burgin's practice and she wondered whether artists working in relation to conceptual practice would use text in the same way today.  I suggested she look at Burgin's recent CGI practice because I think it may be of interest in that regard.  I ponder again on what this movement points me towards in terms of forging my own theory-practice path, my own position with respect to language.  Certainly Beuys’ work was so interesting to me because it did not deal binaries, where language was concerned.  But on the other hand conceptual art works with philosophical ideas in particular ways; these are still experiments in art.

Week 35 (ending 31st July)

This week I went to see a wonderful exhibition called “Jamaican Pulse”at the Royal West of England Academy.  In many ways the curator's approach reminded me  reminded me of the Thames & Hudson Book Caribbean Art, in including modernist work and more free, self-trained, spiritually inspired work, alongside cutting edge contemporary practice.  I found the whole exhibition very moving, in sensitively framing the artistic expression of a relatively young independent nation, but also a very old one with traditions that were so violently suppressed and affected by colonialism.  At the same time, a nation that has seen great poverty and certain manifestations of evangelical American church traditions, for example homophobia which some of the artists seek to confront and challenge.  Also a nation where many have questioned the histories they are learning about, Bob Marley famously did this but I loved a number of works here by Matthew McCarthy, from his body of work “School Nah Teach Us” (2013).

And what was there for me as an installation artist?  I was particularly interested in the installation on show by Deborah Anzinger, entitled "Watershed".  This was part sculptural, part wall-based and I liked that tension.  The wall-based part included sections of mirror, through which you could see the upturned legs of a kind of styro-foam torso, Jamaica perhaps, exploited and shafted.  But the colours were soft and encouraged you to consider yourself as part of the relationship between the painted image, the sculptural piece and the mirrors.  There was a relationship with landscape as well as history, and an engagement with the history of installation practices too.  I would like to know more about this woman's work.

Looking at a quite disturbing piece about a gang member, I was reminded of the refuge and threat of the gang groupings that can replace family groupings when they break down.  One room was full of such painful work about the legacies of colonialism that when I looked at another woman visiting, who seemed very affected by the work and I think may have been British Jamaican, I felt ashamed to look her in the eye.  I thought again about this book I have bought by Monique Allewaert and what seems to me initially to be its rather dubious argument about slavery engendering an "ecological personhood".  I should read it I suppose, but what "Jamaican Pulse" brought home to me was the degree to which ecologies bear witness to and respond/speak back to colonialising practices.  It makes me think about how these artists engage with place, moving between a tenderness and romanticism and a critique of an overly romantic position in relation to Jamaica.

Andrea very kindly offered me some studio time in her Bath Artists Studio space while she is unable to use it.  I am so very grateful.   I think of Paul Desborough again, and his preparation to go large when he could.  That is what I have to do, plan to use that space, get the materials together to make the very most of it I can.  If I am going to really try to make groundswell, that would be advisable.  But I am concerned that I still don't have a structure to work with, that I am no engineer and that my efforts may fall flat.  I wish I could talk to an engineer or somebody more experienced.

Week 34 (ending 24th July)

This week Pat Jamieson and Carol Laidler from Alldaybreakfast mentioned that there would be a meeting at Spike Island about the “Time Machine” project and I am pleased, as I feel it would valuable to reflect on this project more and wonder how durational my piece really was.  If  I am going to recreate the piece I made at FAB for Plymouth Art Weekender then I would like to at least vary something, modify something to see how it affects the piece.  What about this notion of "a more vascularised collective" as expressed by Bruno Latour?  I could certainly reflect on this more.  

On Thursday, Mum and I go to see Shakespeare's Richard III broadcast live from the Almeida to the Little Theatre Cinema in Bath and to many other cinemas around the UK.  Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderful performance as Shakespeare’s terrifying depiction of the King, whose ambition seeks to crush anything and anyone in its path, no matter whether that is a stranger or a family member.  The play raises critical questions of history and power that are so resonant in the context of the political ferment of the present, this is the power of Shakespeare I suppose to speak to the bigger issues in all societies and individuals.  The Director starts by setting the scene with the discovery of Richard's skull in a Leicester car park, which brings to my mind a warning: "be careful what you dig up!"  But the play is also about the darker side of everyone.  It makes me think, are there parts of me that are that dark?   Shakespeare - and the Director - are trying to make us confront the dangers of unfettered desire and ambition in ourselves, and not just in a historical character.

Week 33 (ending 17th July)

I meet up with Karen Wallis this week, an artist who has long been a friend.  She has been funded by the Arts Council to do some work in the Ness of Brogar and I want to wish her well before she leaves.   Talking to Karen about the relationship between art and theory, I realise she had a very playful process set up with Gary Peters, her PhD Supervisor.  There was no binary for her between practice and theory, they both had useful synergies.  She mentions that I might look at the discussion of disaster in Blanchot's philosophical writings.  I note this with interest and observe that talking to her about theory I feel almost as though I am climbing, each idea is a kind of niche in the mountain I am climbing to get to a view.  I try to manoeuvre up on each concept.

Going to interview for a Lectureship in Fine Art at Lincoln was rather a lovely experience.  The staff were warm and friendly and I did the best I could.  I really like their plans for the undergraduate Fine Art, which they are orienting towards live art, performance and socially engaged practice.  I did however, rather regret not having had time to join the online drop in session at the Guardian website the previous day on interview technique, perhaps I do not sell myself as well as I could.  After the interview I took time to visit Lincoln, I was not sure whether I would be back or not.  I was bowled over by the Cathedral, which surely rivals Chartres in its magnificence.  I reflect on the Magna Carta – its facsimile thoughtfully displayed next to discussion of bills of rights and a photograph of Martin Luther King - and the development of a separate Forest Charter with its own updates.  I wonder what would a contemporary update to that charter look like?  Or perhaps a Magna Carta of today should connect both – surely a contemporary Bill of Rights should connect all together?  For a moment I had to ask myself whether I really knew much of England and its history at all.  I took some photographs and stored these things as issues to ponder.

Week 32 (ending 10th July)

I went to see a lovely film this week called "Adult Lifeskills", a story about a young woman in her 30s, struggling to find her way independently in the recession, and dealing with personal issues, particularly grief.  It felt terribly poignant, I have now been living with my mother for nearly a year.  I have thought of my situation as being one that reflects my particular career predicament, but perhaps there is a psychological element, a part of me that is stuck and needs to move on.  Perhaps I need to change my perspective on things.

Week 31 (ending 3rd July)

This week I go up to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design to work with Mary Modeen on a funding bid and offer students tutorials.  It is great to see their work coming on and to talk to them about their plans for the final exhibition.  Mary and I work on a funding bid to do some work with delicate bog sites in Scotland.  My only concern is not to too readily re-entrench the notion of the professional artist as having privileged access, although I can understand that such sites can only sustain a certain degree of footfall and close observation.  But there could be group elements; I find a piece on Richard Demarco's work taking groups to the moorland and I like the democracy of the work.

Week 30 (ending 26th June)

This is the week the slim majority of the UK voting public decides in its wisdom to leave the European Union.  I can safely say I felt devastated by the decision, disbelieving, gutted, crushed.  I had done some pro-Remain leafleting for the Green party and Mum and I were happy to have the remain sign in our front garden.  But I feel I could have done more to put forward the benefits of remaining part of the EU.  I feel dispirited about this country and started to see it as a backwater of Billy no mates and the dumping ground in Europe for everything that can bypass important and safeguarding regulations, from radiation to gm food.

To cheer myself up a bit I went to Artbar at the Raven and ate pie and mash with friends, and listened to Paul Desborough talk about his work as a Resident Artist at Hauser & Wirth, introduced by Education Officer (and former head of Contextual Studies)  Debbie Hillyerd. I was taken by his experimental approach and its play at the boundaries of painting and sculpture – he insists, however, that his work is painting and there is a heated debate about where the boundaries lie which reminds me of Greenbergian notions of the flatness of the canvas as being integral to painting as a medium.  Such debates are clearly still live! I was particularly interested in Desborough’s predicament as an artist; despite a good training he had spent years making small models in cardboard boxes, waiting for a larger space to use.  I could see that this residency was a godsend for him.

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