Returning From Exile

‘Where have you been?’ interrupted Arthur, now that his head had finished working out.

‘Around,’ said Ford, ‘around and about.’ He grinned in what he accurately judged to be an infuriating manner. ‘I just took my mind off the hook for a bit. I reckoned that if the world wanted me badly enough it would call back. It did!’

Life, The Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams

So I’m back after taking a three year break from online life (due to numerous reasons which I won’t go into as, if I do, this post will turn into a foaming swivel-eyed rant and most likely lead to me dissolving into a puddle of bile) and art practice (due to an apocalyptic collapse in confidence.)

The world didn’t exactly call me back, but circumstances conspired to make it pretty much impossible to ignore it in the hope that it would just kindly go away and stop bothering me until it had grown up.

Well, a quick glance at 2016 shows that last bit probably isn’t going to happen and if we’re all on a rollercoaster ride to disaster (as seems likely), perhaps it’s better to be in one of the carriages enjoying the ride and waving out of the windows than sitting at the side of the tracks muttering “You’re all doomed.”

That all sounds a bit gloomy, but actually I’m quite chipper. Just had a few pieces in an exhibition in Berlin (courtesy of the rather wonderful Something Dark magazine) resulting in a new found confidence and as a result am shortly to move into a shared studio (with the equally wonderful Heather Power) where I’ll be creating the strange things that have been living in my head since I took my hiatus from art practice, and hopefully I’ll be able and inclined to report on progress here. I may even return to social media (once I’ve worked out a way of putting up a massive wall between my private and public life – hope springs eternal.)

So that’s that. I’m back.

How have you been?

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The Joy Of Bricks

Carl Andre – Equivalent VIII

When I was eight, my mum took me to the National Gallery, stood me in front of Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano and asked me what I thought. Apparently I stood there for a second before announcing that it looked like painting by numbers. The memory is long lost to me now, but I can imagine the stifled sniggers of other gallery goers and my mum’s embarrassment at having raised a mini-philistine (to be fair to her ,in reality, she probably sniggered too.)

Of course these days when I look at the painting, I’m thinking of far higher things – of the techniques and commissioning practices of Medieval Tuscan panel painting, of the politics of 15th century Florence and Siena, of all ranges of viewing positions and theoretical mumbo jumbo, and yet right at the back of my head somewhere, nagging away is the voice of an eight year old boy saying “painting-by-numbers”

The things is though, now when I look at it I can see what I meant, there’s a consistency and precision to the great big flat patches of colour that make up the figures and landscape that do almost suggest to the facetious and fanciful part of my mind that Ucello and his workshop apprentices were slaving away matching paint to numbers:

“Oi! Paolo – what colour’s number 7?”

“Ultramarine Giorgio – and make sure you stay inside the lines”.

With hindsight I don’t think my eight year old self was denigrating the painting, in fact I think it was a compliment, I knew how hard it was to stay inside the lines. (Come to think of it I still do, as the sometimes wobbly outlining in my own work will attest.)

Years later when I was beginning my studies of art history, and was crowing at the high grade that my first essay had achieved, Mum sent me a postcard of that painting with the story of my first attempt at art criticism written on the back. I think the maternal intention here was twofold – first to remind me never to get too big for my boots, and second, and more relevant to today’s little artblurt, to remind me not to forget one of my first encounters with a work of art.

So what’s all this got to do with a pile of bricks – or more specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII? Stay with me – all will become clear…

There are some pieces of work which I wish I could somehow induce a state of temporary amnesia about so I could relive the innocence and excitement of that first encounter, especially those encounters that occurred when I was a child One of those works is Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (more commonly known as ‘the pile of bricks’).

Andre was one of a loose group of artists, writers and curators that emerged in the USA in the 1960s, who have come to be classed together by art historians as the Minimalists. The art was simple, but to make up for it the theory wasn’t – a lengthy and heated correspondence was entered into, battle lines were formed and a debate raged back and forth in the pages of high minded art journals. Now I love the game of Minimalist art theory – it’s the kind of navel gazing mental gymnastics I’ve talked about before. A few years back I was at a session on Minimalism at a summer school and the tutor was asking us all to talk about a particular work to show how much we knew. When it came to my turn I was asked to talk about Equivalent VIII and I was overjoyed. I babbled garrulously about form and function, about objects and phenomenology, about modernism and postmodernism until, when I finally stopped to draw breath, the tutor said “Good grief Howard, if you can talk so much about so very little you’re already an art historian”.

This was all very well and good, and I got a kick out of the gold star from teacher – even if it was a fairly double-edged compliment. But something nagged at me, I remembered loving Minimalism from a quite early age before I knew any of that theory or history and no amount of Artforum articles could explain what it was that attracted me to that kind of work in the first place. I wrestled with this problem for a while – this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night, well that and a few other odd little things (Chaos theory, why my aubergines have stopped growing, the next episode of Doctor Who) that prompt Pete to say “For God’s sake stop it – I can hear you thinking. Some of us need to get some sleep.”

Then one day I hit on the solution – to head to the Minimalism room at the Tate Modern on a Saturday afternoon and watch children react to the art.

It wasn’t particularly busy in the gallery that day, but I stationed myself near the bricks and waited. Soon a boy, of about a similar age to me in front of the Ucello all those years previously walked in accompanied by a frazzled and cynical looking Dad. The boy made a beeline for the bricks and studied them with the intense seriousness that only and eight year old can muster.

“See Toby,” huffed the dad “Told you there was a load of old rubbish in here – look at that. A pile of bricks!”(Okay I’m not sure if the boy was called Toby, but it just fits)

“I like that.” said Toby seriously.

“Don’t be daft” replied dad “You could have done that.”

“And that’s why I like it.”

Game, set and match Toby.

Exit wannabe art historian stage left stifling giggles.

It’s a cute anecdote, but the point is this – Toby got it! Without recourse to piles of textbooks, without hours spent in seminars, without a working knowledge of the ideological debates around art in the sixties, this eight year old had instinctively recognised something so central to Carl Andre’s project ‘art that anyone could make’.

Art is a wonderful thing and of course a head full of knowledge and experience can make us appreciate it all the more, but sometimes we just need to chuck the books out of the window and look at work like we did when we were children, sometimes our childlike instincts can prove to be just as insightful as our jaded adult eyes and minds.

It’s me being fanciful again, but I’d love to think that in a couple of decades time somewhere a yawning art history student will turn over a postcard of a pile of bricks to read..”Do you remember when you were eight and I took you to Tate Modern…”

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.)

Testing…testing….

Well you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve waffled on about art. Uncharacteristically this isn’t due to my customary retreat from any form of communication with sentient beings during the winter months, but rather because my attention has be diverted into writing art related stuff for other people. (Look out for an article I’ve got coming up in the next edition of the rather wonderful Something Dark Magazine)

Other than that I’ve been flexing my creative writing muscles, my NaNoWriMo experience turned out quite well in the end.In fact, far from being the sanity destroying disaster I had pessimistically anticipated I found myself at the end of November with fifty thousand odd words of a sprawling, somewhat psychedelic toned novel. On top of that I appear to have made a bunch of rather fab new friends, a shadowy cabal known as the Watershed Writers’ Block. The down side is that I now have peer pressure to produce a piece of creative writing once a month.

As the fruits of this task are likely to have very little to do with Art, (although obliquely there are thematic collisions) this doesn’t seem the right place to put them. So just to make my life even more complicated that it already is I’m pleased to unleash upon the world Test Signals from the Never which is where the blurts from the more twisted and fevered corners of my imagination will appear. Go and have a look.

Normal whimsical art wittering will resume in the Spring.

Bittersweets

Felix Gonzales Torres Untitled (Rossmore II) 1991

I’ve got a confession – I love Conceptual Art, and without getting into the tricky business of definitions (one draft of this blog has already been consigned to the recycle bin after becoming utterly bloated with art theory), I mean real Conceptual Art, not just ‘stuff that’s a bit weird and isn’t a proper painting’. I mean work that’s so minimal and physically inconsequential that you have to do a series of mental gymnastics to understand why it’s there. To me, true conceptual art works like a good crossword, it takes time, it stretches parts of your brain that other activities don’t as you wrestle to understand why, for example, a glass of water is an oak tree. Of course, you don’t necessarily come out of the encounter with a definite answer – more often you come out with a lot of indefinite questions, and, perhaps, more often in a state of utter befuddlement. But that’s good, I like being befuddled.

In those terms Conceptual Art, for me at least, is quite a cerebral activity, quite cool and detached, it’s art for the head and for the intellect, a mental workout if you like.

So imagine my surprise when I burst into tears in front of a pile of sweets in The Serpentine Gallery on a warm July day in 2000.

Perhaps I should point out that me turning into a blubbering mess in front of works of art and architecture isn’t a particularly rare occurrence, my long suffering partner has frequently had to nonchalantly walk off and take photographs or read a wall text while I howl at, say, a Barnet Newman painting, the view from the forum in Pompeii or the Temple of Karnak. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, in a way I find it comforting that after all these years of studying art some things still have the capacity to bypass my analytical detachment, catch me off guard and deliver a great big emotional gut-punch.

But where was I? Oh yes, in front of a pile of sweets blubbing.

These ‘candy spills’ were a staple of the Cuban artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s practice, at the beginning of the exhibition a quantity of sweets would be arranged, the artist specifying the colour of the sweets, their arrangement (either as a ’pavement’ laid out on the gallery floor or as a pile in the corner) and the total weight of sweets to be displayed. Once installed, the gallery visitors were free to help themselves to the sweets so that over the course of the exhibition the pile or pavement would slowly disappear, eroded by the visitors.

At first the whole idea made me chuckle, it seemed fun and mischievous. We were being given carte blanche by the artist to break two of the cardinal rules of the gallery – ‘no eating’ and ‘don’t touch the artworks’. Children visiting the exhibition gleefully filled their pockets and adults, a little more reticent at breaking the standard patterns of correct behaviour, turned into children, giggling as they wandered the exhibition happily munching on lime sherbets and chocolate caramels. It felt warm and generous, coupled with the ‘paper stacks’ (piles of prints by the artist that we were invited to help ourselves to), here was an exhibition which allowed us not only sugary treats but something to take home with us at the end, all we need was a balloon and a slice of cake and it would have been like a conceptual art birthday party.

The other works in the exhibition were equally playful, a silver platform stood empty in the middle of one room, at random times during the day a go-go dancer in silver hotpants would perform on it listening to a walkman, in another two more walkmans (walkmen?) hung on the wall in a room festooned with strings of light bulbs – the wall text informed us that couples were invited to plug themselves into the walkmans and waltz around the room under the lights (this being an exhibition in England, no-one did of course, but we all got the joke).

As I stood in front of Untitled (Rossmore II), mouth fizzing with sherbet, I turned to the gallery guide to read up on the work and learnt a piece of information that started the torrent. The weight of the sweets in front of me at the start of the exhibition had been the weight of the artists’ lover, Ross on the day that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Like Ross, the pile of sweets was destined to lose weight, to diminish and eventually disappear. Suddenly this playroom of dancing and sweet-scoffing became a place of loss, the go-go platform and unused walkmen hanging in the dancing room became memento moris, as much symbols of absence as they had been sites of potential entertainment and play. I tried to compose myself, but the tears started streaming down my face.

As I stood there, desperately trying not to completely lose my composure and slip into all-out howling, a small boy approached the sweet pile. “You can eat the sweets you know.” said a gallery attendant.

”Really?” said the boy, his eyes widening.

“Yep, help yourself.”

He grabbed a handful and scuttled back to his parents “Mum, Dad. You can eat the sweets!” he yelled joyfully.

I looked up at the gallery attendant who was now grinning as broadly as the boy with his handful of lime sherbets and it hit me. The work was about loss, about the cruelty and stupidity of AIDS, about the death of a partner and the gaping hole that it leaves in people’s lives, but it was also about those tiny moments of shared joy in any relationship, how loss and such moments act on each other to make us feel both more keenly. When Pete’s away from home, it’s not just his presence I miss, it’s the tiny moments – his daft jokes, his inability to remember to take a lighter with him when he goes for a bath, his ‘coffee symphony’ (a ritual involving making as much noise as is humanly possible with teaspoons, coffee jar and sugar bowl just so I know that he is making coffee, the implication being that it’ll be my turn next).

But more than that – the work was about carrying on, in another location the sweets would be replenished, in an hour or so, the go-go dancer would be back and in another place couples would waltz to a private soundtrack under the lights. Loss is always with us, it’s part of life, it’s part of being human, but so are the little moments, the ones that remind of those we love and those we’ve lost and we can keep replaying them over and over again.

We left the gallery and walked across Hyde Park to Kensington where we dropped my mum off at her hotel and then headed for the tube. On the platform, as part of a public art project the gallery were running associated with the exhibition was another of Gonzalez-Torrez’s works, a billboard size print of a photograph of an empty bed – the bed that he and Ross shared.

As the tourists bustled around us I grabbed Pete’s hand and held on, lost in the moment.