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Translating

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’ in Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999, P70. Translated by Harry Zorn.
 

Translated from the German Schriften
Copyright (c) Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1955
English Translation (c) Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1968

Bags in trees

Monday, November 19th, 2012

 

 

 

Copying

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Ideas are repeated blindly and consciously copied all the time, but nobody knows all the ideas. Some people know a lot, but most people know only a few. There are thousands, if not millions, of manifestations of every idea. It doesn‘t matter. Why do we exhibit? To give the appearance of being important, original artists, or to communicate something to people? I could copy an idea from someone else, in my own way, from my own point of view and present it in an exhibition. Of any group who might experience the work, a few might have knowledge of the ‘original’ idea. Many will have no knowledge of it. Clearly, that would be contingent on the idea selected and the nature of the audience. Whether an individual has knowledge of the original or not, they will experience something ‘new’, in the moment of apprehension, in the real space of the exhibition, amongst other people, or alone. Neuroscience tells us that memory is a creative act. Each memory is a re-membering. We do not have a store of memories that remain static and can be accessed like a computer accesses its files.
 
These thoughts (and my research) make me think that I should be concentrating on the connections between my experience of making and the experience of the audience, rather than worrying about the importance of the idea. As I write, I think, ‘this has been written before’. It doesn‘t matter. I am thinking it now, which makes it important to me. A percentage of the people who read it will not have come across these ideas before. One‘s audience is never made up solely of daunting polymaths, though it can be useful to imagine it so.
 
This does not mean that anything goes. But how it means that is difficult to work out. Why might some things be unoriginal in very interesting ways and others not? Perhaps an answer might be sought in that ‘new’. As I discovered, via Boris Groys, Kierkegaard pointed out that hardly anything is really new. The vast majority of things are just very slightly different from what went before, like a car, for instance. If it were truly new, we wouldn‘t recognise it as a car. Christ was new and, of course, he wasn‘t recognised as a god. The example works, whether or not you believe. But, if your interpretation of the old is passionate, complex, engaging, then newness is irrelevant. And it seems important to take a position, so that dialogue might flow, even if that position is liable to change.

Before and after thoughts on the Subversive Ceramics symposium at the Holburne Museum, Bath, Friday 9 November.

Friday, November 16th, 2012

My heart sinks at the very phrase. It brings to mind the Judith Schwartz book of the same name, full of product that is anything but subversive. I suppose some of my own work might conceivably have found its way into that book, but if an invitation had been made, I like to think that I would have turned it down, as I do not consider my work to be subversive (although I try to maintain a sceptical, broadly dissenting position). If the adjective is subversive, the verb is to subvert. To be subversive, we have to be subverting something. Subversion connotes an engagement with some manifestation of power – an establishment, or the institutions that embody establishment. Subversion can undermine, rather than overthrow, it can be sly rather than bold, but its role in that relationship is to be critical, to effect change. What are the institutions that ceramics might subvert? Ceramics itself? The wider art world? The state? Ideas that the state relies on, such as family?

Ceramics is such a frail, uncertain institution that it seems pointless to attempt subversion. There was a time, back in the 50s and 60s, when Peter Voulkos and then Robert Arneson (and others of course), in the States, subverted many of the ideas that cohered around what was then known as Studio Pottery. In the UK in the 70s and 80s, Carol McNicoll, Richard Slee, and others performed an equally effective subversion of pottery mores. Perhaps the most slyly subversive figures of all were Gillian Lowndes and Paul Astbury, who were radical in their mixing of media, with Astbury producing unfired clay works from the early 90s. (Clay has to be fired in order to qualify as Ceramics, according to Garth Clark.) The only thing to subvert is the establishment and that no longer seems dominant or dogmatic enough to require subverting.

On the question of the potential for Ceramics to subvert other institutions, Grayson Perry, inevitably, raises his less than lovely head. There is no doubt in my mind that he was one of a group of artists who effectively challenged art world prejudices against craft, back in the 90s. Of course, the use of craft processes was also a positioning strategy, but even so, you‘d have to say that the work was subtly subversive. ‘Was’, being the operative word. I‘ve never bought the separation of imagery as content and potting as form, or process, that Perry himself espouses. (I have heard him say that the work is Art, rather than Pottery, because of the content of the imagery.) The notion of the two being somehow separate seems dated, but that aside, I‘m sceptical of the Trojan Horse shtick of smuggling transgressive content into polite, middle class interiors under the guise of decoration. Are Middle Englanders accidently stumbling into Victoria Miro and, blinded by the pretty, shimmering surfaces, buying art that will, over time, show them the error of their prejudiced ways? I think not. The work, of course, is bought by wealthy people who want to advertise how fashionable and broadminded they are (as well as to enjoy high quality decorative objects in their homes – two birds with one stone). Is any adult really shocked or educated by arty images of BDSM, transvetitism, masturbation or various forms of fucking in the 21st Century? The fact that Perry is still producing the same product, twenty years on, suggests that he is not a transgressive artist. He is now the establishment, rather than the outsider.

Paul McCarthy is an artist who doesn‘t stand still – his hilarious Painter video of 1995 pokes serious fun at the myth of the artist as heroic individual. A good example of the Triumvirate of Amos Oz: Humour / Imagination  / Curiosity. With a side order of subversion. I‘m not sure of McCarthy‘s target, but it brings to mind the pompous, over-valued painting of Julian Schnabel, in the 1980s.

Yinke Shonibare, unsurprisingly, was not mentioned at the symposium, but is an artist who might be associated with the term subversive, having developed a reputation based on an ‘examination’ of his hybrid, Nigerian/English identity and a critique of colonialism. Shonibare gave a lecture in London a few weeks ago and talked about his interest in power. He showed some of the work with which he came to prominence – work that repeatedly employed the ‘African fabric that is not really African fabric’ as a symbol of, I guess, the disingenuous image, the slipperiness of ‘history’ and the all-round badness of imperial power. Not much to disagree with there. The real problem for me was when he stated his rejection of the ‘socially responsible’ label that he considers to be imposed on the ethnic minority artist, with a facile invocation of the trickster. So, having successfully ridden the post-colonial train to his own position of power, he is now free to do as he pleases, including the recent production of a gruesome ‘ballerina in a glass globe’ sculpture for façade of the Royal Opera House. The latter is just my opinion, so is unimportant, but the point about tricksters and power is important, I think. Artists should be free to make leaps of imagination; they shouldn‘t have to ‘explain’ their work, but they do need to be self-aware and self-critical. If not, they seem to start to believe their own hype. I took the opportunity to ask, from the audience, if Shonibare had gained any insights into the nature of power, having travelled from a position of relative powerlessness to one of considerable influence. He chose to sidestep the question, saying that every artist must take responsibility for him/herself and that (I‘m paraphrasing) successful artists can‘t be held responsible for unsuccessful ones. Well, of course, but an artist of Shonibare‘s stature should have been able to turn the question on himself rather than back onto the questioner.

Hirst and Koons are the only living artists I can think of that come anywhere near approaching trickster status. They exhumed the remains of Duchamp; reanimated them with a jolt of Neoliberal juice and giggled as their monster fucked the desperate rich. Trickster is not nice. Perhaps Shonibare has ambitions to join the Bad Power boys, but I can‘t see it happening.

The early works that Bouke de Vries showed in his talk (back in Bath again) were fresh and exciting – from when he had first made the jump from skilled restorer / conservator to skilled producer. The work had clearly grown out of a deep engagement with a process – a process that was then altered, or enhanced by a leap of imagination. Rather than repair seamlessly, the restoration process was tweaked so that each fragment of the broken object was held apart, but in near proximity with its neighbouring shard, by means of an ingenious, multi-armed armature. Meaning in the work, for me, was open, growing out of an associative process of interpretation that I, as the viewer, engaged in with the maker, the making process and the object: The selection of the object; its past wholeness; its subsequent brokenness; its current broken-whole status; the stasis / movement binary; the unexpected effects of light and shadow; the skill of execution.

As the talk progressed and more and more objects were shown, they began to feel like slick products that looked like art. Facile, vaguely political critiques, or rather juvenile declarations of identity were imposed upon the objects, which seemed increasingly certain to be destined for wealthy interiors, where maker and collector conspire in the pretense that the work has a political purpose, rather than one of decoration and confirmation of status. The large installation in the Holburne gallery seems to be doing the same thing on a larger scale, in a more public location. While the ambition and energy involved are impressive, the sense I was left with was of a mutual exercise in pointless promotion.

It could be argued that the laborious act of making by hand in an age of mass production is political in itself. But if the products of that labour are seamlessly integrated into spaces that embody power, whether they be the Holburne Museum or one of Madonna‘s living rooms, their own power to subvert, to change the structures that these spaces represent seems limited, to say the least.

De Vries informed us that a number of Chinese officials had been spotted at an exhibition showing his Skull Face Mao, a bust of Chairman Mao being engulfed by human skulls. No negative response from the Chinese authorities yet, but perhaps he would encounter some problems on his forthcoming visit to China. This seems to me to be both self-aggrandising and naïve. The Chinese are not going to hassle wealthy Western visitors, especially ones who are less intent on dissent than on trading in expensive and fashionable art products.

I‘ve always thought that it is pretty pointless for gentle folk with no direct experience of war (like me) to make anti-war, ‘protest’ work. Just more preaching to the converted. Ehren Tool, on the other hand, is an ex-US marine who served in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, he trained as a potter and began to make mugs, which he uses as vehicles to carry imagery addressing his feelings about what soldiers are tasked to do and the gulf between civilian and military cultures. He has now made about 14,000 of these and given most of them away. This seems to me like a small, but powerful act of subversion against the military industrial complex. In an article in the LA Times, Leah Ollman writes,

‘Tool’s enterprise is a gentle form of activism, an intimate transmission of ideas and questions from his hand to another. Giving the cups away makes it clear that one thing Tool is not motivated by is profit. “I would sell them, I guess,” he laughs, “but it feels better tying the stories together.
“It makes all the cups more interesting to know Obama has a cup and some homeless vet in L.A. has a cup,” said Tool, who sent one to the president. “Seeing 1,100 cups on the wall is cool, but thinking of 14,000 cups out in the world, making conversations, is a lot more interesting to me.”‘

I had a brief chat with James Beighton of MIMA after the symposium, expressing my frustration with the over-use of Ideas. He stood up for the importance of the idea and I failed to make my point, which is this: Ideas, of course, will always influence art and design practice, to a greater or lesser degree. My problem is when artists go down the route of embodying an idea in an individual object – these objects can start to feel like illustrations of language-based ideas. Ideas are vital in creating the structures within which we work, the parameters within which we play. We should be talking about the conditions in which work is produced and displayed, rather than what the individual work is ‘about’. Is it ‘work’ or is it ‘product’? And all the ideas are already out there – the studio, the gallery, the group, the individual, the institution, the state. This, of course, is a recycled idea and, moreover, I have been guilty in the past of over-burdening objects with ‘meaning’ myself…

Perhaps I am also in danger of wearing out my hair shirt. Artists need to make a living and their work is usually bought by the relatively wealthy (shock horror!), but I am routinely surprised at how credulous people can be.

Jerwood / Louis Thompson / Hive

Friday, November 16th, 2012

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

Jerwood Makers

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Jerwood Makers
Jerwood Space, London. July 2012

(Louis Thompson. Hive)

Don’t read the label. Just look. Just feel. Seven wobbly glass turds, each big enough to embrace. Solidified flow. Light benders, light reflectors. As you move, everything changes. I gather to myselves the floor (brownblack brick), the white table on which we sit, white walls, skylights, roof beams and spots. Things known as sculpture. The other in my space. I ingest and regurgitate you, steal your waves and fuck them up, all for the delight of my acolytes. And where might they be? I trace a delicate frill, a ruff, a hem… Not lace, but Miyake folds, the finest pastry, lusciously transparent. Light and shade folded into each other – not kneaded, but joined, conjoined, precisely_in_love. I suck the dark up off the floor and wrap it around rings of white, penumbrated, yellow, orange, blue. Everything changes as you move. I spy coils of intestine at the bottom of the fattest – a long, fat, tape-worm, nestling next to a rainbow. It must be a reflection of the top the tip the a_nus blip, (1) where still-soft, warm glass disengaged from steel rod that

mirrors my hot lips, the o of my mouth

a tube with a space hanging off either end. A transferral of life from one to other. Soft valve releasing space into the wild. Transformation, transubstantiation. The changing of one into another. Mmm, a temporary animation that cools and fixes and lives again, between water and light. A wall that gives a glimpse through the veil; this world and that world. They work so well because they are so simple in conception and so complex in actuality. Springing from a way of making. You sense that they could only be made by someone with skill developed through long experience, though there is freedom, risk, in the execution. Bold. Embodied knowledge couples with energy and ambition, the maker passes agency to the materials, which become the true transubstantiators. Floor, ceiling, walls transform into molten, multi-coloured glass, fixed flow. Limpid, livid. Streaming, static, at the speed of light. There is only me. And the other objects, of course – captured, defeated and sacrificed. On the altar of the Idea. You almost expect those in adjacent rooms to be sucked into the white hole of Hive… But they are not and, unfortunately, are the weaker for it, struggling under the burden of that cumbersome concept. Well executed, but not buzzing.

(1) Are these things solid? Or just very thick? Thirsty for answers, accursed answers, I read the label and knowledge dilutes metaphysical magic. Answer: glass + water.



(This is an experimental review, containing a mix of points of view from maker, object and viewer)