Clutter and Cardigans

Cornelia Parker - Pornographic Drawings (1996)

De-cluttering before moving house with me can be a painful business. Left to his own devices Pete will quite happily clear a drawer in 30 seconds flat leaving nothing but a couple of paperclips and a teaspoon. The ‘left to his own devices’ here is key because if I’m within a mile-radius of him as he goes to throw away a long-dead lighter, some sixth-sense kicks in and I’ll be at his shoulder before his hand’s out of the drawer.

“You can’t throw that away.”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but look, we bought that in Amsterdam..”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but we bought it that night we got lost in the rain ‘cos all the canals looked the same.”

“But. It’s. A. Dead. Lighter.”

This continues for some time until I get distracted by something shiny and Pete throws the lighter away anyway.

Objects have memories.

Or rather, to be uncharacteristically rational about it, we attach our memories to objects. Relics of our past become mnemonics for whole events, a dead disposable lighter starts a domino-topple of remembered sensations that leads to a hazy giggly night negotiating canals in the rain.

Such associations and leaps of logic seem hard-wired into us, we don’t even need to have direct personal experience of the object to be affected by a real or imagined history that it might have somehow woven into its fabric. In his book Supersense, Psychologist Bruce Hood describes a neat trick that he uses in his lectures to show that even the most rational skeptic can find themselves in the grip of supernatural belief. Holding up a tatty cardigan, Bruce asks the audience how many would, for a fee of £20 be willing to wear the moth-eaten garment. A few of the audience raise their hands. When however Bruce reveals that the cardigan once belonged to the serial killer Fred West, the potential volunteers invariable lower their hands. The cardigan didn’t belong to Fred West of course, but Bruce’s little prank illustrates the way in which we almost subconsciously imbue objects and materials with meaning beyond their intrinsic properties. In the case of the ‘killer’s cardigan’ it’s an example of what James Frazer defined in The Golden Bough as ‘contagious magic’, by contact with evil, the cardigan itself has become contaminated with evil.

Cornelia Parker works with found objects and through display, transformation or destruction she amplifies, distorts or reverses their contagious memories and meanings, anchoring a web of ambiguous ideas to physical properties. Sometimes these works are minimal, abject objects displayed in vitrines whose significances only become apparent when we look at the label to find out what they’re made of – a pair of dusty earplug are made from fluff gathered from the Whispering Gallery of St Pauls Cathedral, a pile of black plastic fingernail clippings entitled ‘The Negative of Sound” turns out to be the cast off lacquer cut at Abbey Road Studio from the grooves of master disc for a vinyl record, a stain on a handkerchief is the tarnish gathered from the inside of one of Henry VIII’s gauntlets and so on. Other works are monumental, for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View the artist filled a garden shed with household objects and toys before getting the British army to blow it up, the resulting debris now hangs orbiting a light bulb casting shadows on the walls of the gallery space, the moment of the explosion frozen in time.

Pornographic Drawings is a favourite of mine, at first glance it seems to be a collection of Rorschach Ink Blot tests, we peer at them looking for images in the abstract splodges, recreating their very purpose. The title leads us to search for erotic imagery and in two it doesn’t take much of a stretch to find phallic and vulval forms. The other two are more perplexing, there’s suggestions of eroticism certainly but but nowhere as obvious as the first two or have we just got one-track minds?

Already the work is questioning the status of the images and our process of looking at them, psychoanalysed by the blobs in front of you, you can’t help wondering if you’re missing something. Given that two of them seem so explicit, are we failing to notice erotic content in the others that the artist has seen, is pornography in the eye of the beholder?

The situation become both clearer and more confused when we discover the materials used to make the images. Working with Customs and Excise, Parker took shredded video tape from confiscated pornographic videos and created an ink from the Ferric Oxide that gave the tape its magnetic and therefore recording properties. The ink was made from the very physical matter of pornography, the images were therefore erotic both by virtue of what we might see in them, but also by virtue of their material. Of course you could argue that the original film images are long gone, if we were to slide the drawings across the head of a VCR we wouldn’t see ‘adult entertainment’ (and we’d probably get chucked out of the Tate) but the point is that’s it’s our memory that’s at work here. Once we know the origin of the ink, we can’t forget it and our view of the images is irrevocably changed. Somewhere in our minds that contagious magic is at work, as if the very molecules of Ferric Oxide are ‘contaminated’ with the images they once carried, in the same way that the work’s title and our knowledge of the use of Rorschach blots contaminated our first encounter.

It’s a cliché that good art should change the way you look at the world. For me Cornelia Parkers’s work does exactly that. After visiting one of her shows the most ordinary of objects become fascinating artefacts bursting with meaning, memories and stories.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Pete rummaging in a drawer, he might be about to throw away one of those stories.

(Note: This is reposted from my old blogspot site, largely since a friend pointed out to me how much Cornelia Parker’s work had influenced my short story The Curator. He was right, and though I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time the bat-fur earplugs mentioned in the story are a clear steal from the Whispering Gallery earplugs mentioned above. It’s funny how influences creep under your radar without you noticing.)

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Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)