Some thoughts on exhibiting

The final show for RCA students graduating in 2014 will open on 17/18 June. I will be showing with this cohort (though won’t be submitting my PhD until the end of the first term of the following academic year). We will start the installation process in the first week of June, so there’s a little more than a month to go.

I’ve been trying to adopt a different approach to exhibiting for a few years now, with limited success. It is very difficult not to be invaded by the anxiety connected to completion and judgement. This worry seems to be common, if not universal, and makers tend to combat it by putting all their energy into making very well (and often in great quantity), at any cost. You can see it played out in the immense pressure on working space, materials and kiln space in the Ceramics & Glass department.

The intimate engagement with materials that is making is so involving that it can be difficult to see the space for the objects (though it should be said that the intense focus engendered by an exhibition can sometimes lead to startling advances). The other pole, where I am currently shivering, is that the exhibition must stand for a coherent and fully realised practice – that it should reflect an approach to production and display that sits within a well considered socio-political framework. This can lead to semi-paralysis.

Having allowed myself the time and space to be experimental, to be uncertain, I now find myself uncertain about the value of this approach. Over the years, as a Ceramics lecturer, I have often been taken by the bravery of Fine Art students, who, rather than stuffing a space with the best things they have made, present something – something that might seem quite slight – that represents a way of working, a way of thinking. Although I still see very strong exhibits from time to time, I’m generally less impressed these days. It sometimes seems more like style than substance, like the method of display has become what distinguishes art from non-art, as the methods of production don’t really change that much.

Returning to anxieties, they come from two directions. The first, perhaps inevitable and, hopefully, productive, stems from the fact that I don’t know exactly what I will be showing. I have a working plan, based on research methods that have developed out of my project, but I don’t want to close down possibilities – I want to keep things open and fresh, allow the process to dictate where things go. To think, perhaps, of the exhibition as a collection of poems, as opposed to a well-polished and plotted story.

The second is more worrying and relates to that socio-political context. I’m reading the Chuang Tzu, amongst other things, and, while its wisdom, ambiguity and humour are still fresh and inspiring, I’m nagged by a sense that we have well and truly entered a ‘new’ paradigm of global warming and environmental destruction. Our power to understand collectively and to take action at the individual level is limited, but I can’t help thinking that all our energies should be directed towards developing ways of producing and consuming that constitute solutions.

“Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

— Chuang Tzu XXIII

This translation comes from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven. She doesn’t say where she got it from.

Burton Watson, in the introduction to his translation of the seven ‘inner chapters’, three ‘outer chapters’ and one ‘miscellaneous chapter’, published as Basic Writings, writes, “I have rendered T’ien as “Heaven,” or “heavenly” in nearly all cases. Chuang Tzu uses the word to mean Nature, what pertains to the natural as opposed to the artificial, or as a synonym for the Way.”

And later, as a footnote on P32, “Heaven is not something distinct from earth and man, but a name applied to the natural and spontaneous functioning of the two.”

Chapter XXIII is the first of the ‘miscellaneous chapters’ (known as “Gengsang Chu”) and does not feature in Basic Writings.

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