Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Outta Time

Works produced by artists as part of the South West Heritage Trust, ‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ is now on show as a group exhibition at The Museum of Somerset features work by Emma Molony, Jess Davis, Jacky Oliver, Sean Harris, Dorcas Casey, Catlin Heffernan, Taja and Andrea Oke who each previously exhibited their work in the museum they worked with for Devon Arts Week or Somerset Art Weeks. The museums, Axminster Museum, Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum, Museum of Dartmoor Life [Okehampton] in Devon; and Axbridge and District Museum, Bruton Museum, Chard and District Museum and Wells and Mendip Museum in Somerset. 

Sean Harris at Wells and Mendip Museum
Prior to hearing and seeing about ‘Muse’ I had little awareness of any of these smaller museums yet alone what any of them may contain; For example, how many people know that the Bruton Museum holds a desk used by the American writer, John Steinbeck? Or that he lived near Bruton in 1959? I speculate that I may not be alone in thinking this. From a PR point of view this exhibition has certainly been a success in highlighting the benefits that the arts can bring at raising awareness and offering new ways of informing the general public to engage with their collections and the stories they have to offer. From Maritime, Bronze Age and Archaeological history to the history of tin mining, quarrying and farming on Dartmoor and carpets in Axminster! There is a rich and slightly daunting amount of material that each of the artists working on this project had at their disposal. I recall my own experiences working with a curator at the Somerset Heritage Centre sourcing old farming agricultural tools to draw from, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the items within the collection was truly inspiring. It also made me realise the challenge faced by each of the artists on this project to somehow take their experiences of these collections, artefacts, stories and produce something from them.

Jess Davis at The Museum of Dartmoor Life
The resulting work made is pleasingly well-crafted and reflects the variety of mediums from its makers. The relationships with each of the museums the artists worked with is demonstrated in the process by which each of them has had to select and edit artefacts, documents, contexts, processes, stories and/or ideas that are relevant to their respective practices. Emma Molony was well selected as an artist who is a printmaker and has made her own wallpaper to be situated working with Axminster Heritage Centre, who are well known for their carpets. The resulting monoprints takes inspiration from patterns of their textiles. Sean Harris uses his practice as an animator and film maker to produce flip-book boxes of bones at the Wells and Mendip Museum. Viewers are given a torch as they propel the handle operating the flip-books housed inside dark wooden boxes evoking the caves from Wookey Hole in which Hyena bones were discovered; the processes of excavation and illumination used as a metaphor for the element of discovery in archaeology. The use of low-technology in response to these artefacts is also an interesting idea as it brings an element of two sets of histories, that of the evolution of animation and the history of the bones it depicts.  The use of technology is present again in Andrea Oke’s intricate and exquisitely hand-made papercut outs that also feature a QR code for viewers to interact with and access an audio recording of text taken from ancient documents at Axbridge and District Museum. The audio is very engaging but its place as a QR code visually within the interior-design pleasing surrounding papercut image feels a little bit superfluous.

Taja at Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum
Jess Davis’ lino prints of the evolving landscape of Dartmoor depict scenes from its past, some appearing almost appear other-worldly. She also has a series of dry-points depicting objects that respond to the landscape.  Jacky Oliver makes wire and enamel studies of boat models from the Teign Heritage Centre that are an interesting cross-over between the illusionary depth of a blueprint and making those lines out of wire that become both a 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional representation of the original. Elsewhere in the exhibition Dorcas Casey’s ‘life-size’primordial crocodile model with scales made from antique jelly moulds is an imaginative addition to the natural history area of the Somerset Museum, creating its own mythology and talking-point and is both funny and unsettling at the same time.

Context plays an important part on viewing these works and some of them I feel may have lost their understanding in being taken from their original corresponding museum and put in this group show, Taja’s paper clay tableware pieces being one example. Beautifully made and seemingly precariously balanced together in a ball reminiscent of a prop from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland; Taja’s pieces were originally shown in hanging on original iron hooks in the context of the Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum’s Victorian kitchen. Its meaning and visual presence look a bit lost without the place or artefacts that inspired them in the vast, non-domestic space of the Museum of Somerset. Catlin Heffernan’s textile installation similarly struggles here to compete with its surroundings rather than work with it.

Dorcas Casey at Bruton Museum
My only other reservation of this exhibition is that it is almost too ‘nice’, everything is made to a high standard but it feels all a bit safe, there is nothing particularly edgy, moving or resonate revealed from what the artists have taken inspiration from. The works presented here offer alternative ways at highlighting the existence of the artefacts/stories in these museums rather than engaging or telling us much of anything new or forming a new opinion of. Maybe the intention of the title of the project being ‘makers in museums’ as opposed to ‘artists’ shifts the role to something more production-based? It is worth noting that since this projects inception the artists involved have kept a blog and also ran workshops; their individual journeys and interactions with staff and the public are very interesting, but these are additional things artists offer rather than possibly being the main event, as they could and perhaps deserve to be?

Emma Molony at Axminster Heritage Museum
Unfairly my expectations are probably too high but I think it is important to always push the limits of bravery and ambition in what museums, audiences and arts organisations select or enable artists to do. What this project importantly does achieve is in opening up the dialogue between the arts and museum collections both very accommodating and respectful of the other and offers an example on how they might work together. For artists it is an informed and rich source material and different context to work within and for museums it is the opportunity to engage in new ways in which their collections can be interpreted and accessed. I would just ask that they continue to do so courageously.

‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ can be seen at The Museum of Somerset until 3rd February 2018

Monday, 13 November 2017

Word Gets Around -Celebrating five years of A Spanner in the Workz

This November marks the fifth anniversary of sticking a Spanner in the Workz of the art world as Natalie Parsley reviews and analyses contemporary art and exhibitions throughout the UK and across the globe!

Thank you to anyone who reads these posts! The blog has been posting regularly since 2012 and has covered 150 exhibitions and art projects including the Liverpool Biennial and Venice Biennale. A third of those are either national or local with another thirteen being international. I began blogging in 2010 during an internship with Somerset Art Works when the idea was first mentioned that I create a blog that provided an anecdotal reflection but also critical writing platform to report and analyse art events that may be of interest to SAW members and the public. I established and wrote for the SAW blog for two years slowly gaining the confidence and passion for venturing into writing for myself. The SAW blog continues to this day with Davina Jelley posting on SAW related projects and events. 

The purpose for creating a Spanner in the Workz is to provide a context for my writing and link to my visual art practice and artist CV. In it I reflect on visual art exhibitions, talks, projects and events that I have either visited in person or am in some way directly participating in. The writing motivates me to see more exhibitions and the more exhibitions I see, the more I want to write about them!

The blog’s title taken from my Fine art degree critical commentary, is a reference to both my own work which features tools (including spanners) and the process of analysing something by way of unsettling or questioning something. In other words, putting a spanner in the works. I was obsessed then with double-meanings of things, the treachery and illusion of representation; how something can be and not be a pipe all at the same time [Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe]! To some extent I still am, as both an Artist, Blogger and Bookseller (not always necessarily in that order) I, like many people I know, live a life with multiple roles but all of which share common interests. This too is reflected in my writing as I write to both understand something better and (hopefully) make it sound appealing or of interest to others. The bigger ambition that art writing and reading can lead to a greater sense of art appreciation is something I am very passionate in. Perhaps also, but more subtly it also acts to criticise and question the art world and establishment; by being independent I am free to write my thoughts and opinions more unedited so I hope that in some way, if they take the time to read it, my comments may make artists, art venues and organisations think and scrutinise what they are doing. With all that in mind here’s to many more posts in the coming years about art, here’s to throwing more spanners in the workz!

To commemorate my interest in puns, wordplay and double-meanings of things I have collated a list of blog posts whose titles are taken or reference songs, books or films. Not a lot of people know that! Simply click on the title to reveal what each one is about. 



Everything to Everyone – Everclear

Viva Venezia -Viva Las Vegas, Elvis

Everything You’ve Come To Expect – The Last Shadow Puppets

Anything but Ordinary -Ordinary, Train

Can’t You Hear it in the Silence? – Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Bear’s Den

We Can Work It Out – The Beatles

Hollow Talk – Choir of Young Believers

You Could Be Lifted – Lifted, Lighthouse Family

These Streets -Paolo Nutini

I Always Believed in Futures -Futures, Jimmy Eat World

In the Middle -The Middle by Jimmy Eat World

Playing Videogames -Videogames, Lana Del Rey

What’s the Word? – We Are Scientisits

Another Brick in the Bookcase -Another Brick in the Wall, Pink Floyd

Livin’ for the Weekend -Living for the Weekend, Hard-Fi

I’m Lost For Words – Redundant, Green Day

On a Magic Carpet Ride – A Whole New World, Disney’s Aladdin

The answer is blowin’ in the wind -Blowin in the Wind, Bob Dylan

I’m Looking In -Outside, Staind

Can the Can! -Suzi Quatro 


Into the Wild -Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

The Unbelievable Weightiness of Air -The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Of Mutability- Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott

Fantastic Artists and Where to Find Them – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J K Rowling

Dust Interrupted -Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

You’re in For a Big Surprise -The Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Let the Light One In -Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindvqvist

The City and the City -The City and The City by China Mieville

Silver Linings Sketch Book – Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Something(s) Wicked This Way Comes -Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Here are my Bees -The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

Look if you like but you will have to leap -Leap Before you Look by Auden

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad -Animal Farm by George Orwell

Easy Glider – Easy Rider

Jurassic World – Jurassic World

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Deep Purple

It would be both wonderful and daunting at the same time to have access to the amounts of archive footage and hand-directed footage that John Akomfrah has to wield with for creating his multiple screen-based works. Selecting, cutting and editing together their sound and time becomes a collage of multiple moving images and stories that are testament to the role of the director as both artist and editor. The Russian film director, Tarkovsky described filmmaking as ‘sculpting in time’ and every opportunity when I experience seeing Akomfrah’s work, that is almost certainly the impression one gets! A point I have mentioned here on this blog before, click here. I'll never get tired of it, it's a great analogy that highlights the often hidden or unnoticed role of the filmmaker who is responsible for both the physical and metal process of editing with the illusionary concept of time when it is captured on film.

It would be safe to assume that I am a fan of film and Akomfrah’s work, his films are incredibly well crafted technically and hold a conscious and visual resonance that retains attention and holds in your memory long after experiencing them. Even more amazingly, his films are almost always shown in places where they can be experienced for free! On this occasion I discovered his latest work, ‘Purple’ [2017] at The Barbican in London completely by chance. Featuring archive footage, footage shot across ten countries and shown across six screens simultaneously, ‘Purple’ at approx. and hour long and told over six movements is as complex visually, audially and conceptually as it is momentous. ‘Purple’ ambitiously expands upon ideas of global environmental concern touched briefly upon in Akomfrah’s previous work, ‘Vertigo Sea’ [2016] where now ideas of; ‘planetary relationality and rendering our mutual ecological devastation, both recent past and present’ are presented through histories of human progression from birth to death; the steam engine to artificial intelligence, nuclear power, medicine and more. Something I later find out is called the Anthropocene, which loosely refers to the, “proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems”. Armed with that knowledge it is easier to understand, for example why ‘Purple’ includes references to the atom bomb, for example of a human impact on radiation in soil. It isn’t all cheery stuff, nearly every human development features a knock-on negative impact for what it does to the planet, but it is incredibly moving and has moments of great beauty that enforce a message of the cruciality of how we arrived at our current situation and the importance of realising how we will continue to have an impact on the environment unless we change as well as what we possibly stand to lose. It does so without being too preachy in its tone; science and industry are referenced in a way that both highlights how humankind has progressed without commenting on whether for good or bad but calls upon a sense of collective responsibility for how those developments have led to further ways/means (such as war) which in-turn have blighted or poisoned our landscapes. I would go as far to say that one couldn’t after watching it all, leave without feeling something! 

In her essay on John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ being shown at The Barbican in London, Professor in Cinema Studies, Kass Banning alludes to the title of the work with lines from Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Purple Haze’. Though the two aren’t deliberately related, it is a fantastically apt observation and conicidence to make the relationship between the lyric in Purple Haze, “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time.” with the sense of urgency versus deferred responsibility. 

At whatever point the viewer enters this work they are at once assaulted with a wealth of visually stunning or arresting images that both accentuates the scale and sense of helplessness or global unity (depending on how you want to interpret it) the deeper references only begin to become more processable after spending some time with the work. Some screens show slow sustained shots of people standing transfixed by some unknown cause gazing or contemplating meditatively outwards into the landscape threatened by an impending man-made ecological disaster; a familiar motif in Akomfrah’s work that helps create a sense of contemplation and stillness to the otherwise emotive imagery being shown on other screens. It is also a reference that the artist states, to the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich who was amongst the first to place the single figure into the landscape giving Man a greater sense of connection or wider sense of totality and the sublime to the environment, “Romantic subject of man with a capital ‘M’ had the ability to access the world in the absence of the Almighty”. In that way aspects of faith, science and humanities relationship with the environment are intrinsically linked in this work.

Elsewhere waves undulate, huskies pull a sleigh, jellyfish float in peaceful green seas like translucent slices of cucumber, dancers perform in films by Ken Russell, a man undergoes hypnosis, bicycles are made in factories and ridden around English industrialised streets of the 1940s, cattle and chickens are farmed, ‘worker-bee-like office workers dash around in frenzied formation’, storms rage and stillness reigns over seas. It is an insane list of imagery that does it no favours describing it all here, but whose juxtaposition curated against quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam AHH’ [1849], shots of people and water flowing (a metaphor for the passing of time and also reference to the melting of polar icecaps) across photographs alludes to the temporary nature and flux of our own lives as individuals on the planet and the bigger picture of us as a species. [Coincidently, the title 'Purple' referring to the purple colouring used to dye the running water, possibly significant of pollution/toxicity, is a reference to the vertigo of his other film, 'Vertigo Sea' and is also a colour present in many of the shots.] The locations of trees, mountain-scapes and vast fields overshadowed by cooling-towers or used tyres or cannisters is both sickeningly overwhelming as it is beautiful. As Akmofrah himself states, “You can’t watch Mirror (1975) by Andrei Tarkovsky without being aware that this is a project trying to deal with really uncomfortable stuff. You find out later that it’s about his father leaving his mother to go fight in the Second World War and people making enormous sacrifices. The difficulty lies precisely at the junction between something that is incredibly beautiful to you and absolutely terrifying at the same time.” In that way it reminds me of the documentary films by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, whose films ‘The Pearl Button’ [2015] and ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ [2010] or ‘Behemoth’ [2015] about the Chinese coal industry who both use literary references, poetic metaphor and visuals to frame the difficult and shocking revelations made in the work as a documentary. It would be impossible not to reference Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ [1982] whose footage of global phenomena focusing on nature, humanity and the relationship between them to which Akmofrah’s work feels like a continuation of or reminder for the current generation that these issues are still relevant if not more so than ever.

John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ is on for FREE at The Curve, Barbican Centre until January 7th 2018 https://www.barbican.org.uk/john-akomfrah-purple

Hidden Depths of Vertigo Sea

*Quotes and text used from the Barbican Publication accompanying this exhibition with essay by Kass Banning and interview with John Akomfrah by Ekow Eshun [2017].

Monday, 16 October 2017

Everything to Everyone

“I’ve renamed it the Most Popular Exhibition Ever except for Banksy.” -Grayson Perry

On a central street in Bristol a group of people are participating in a ceramics class at Potstop Pottery. The time is around 8pm, I am passing by, the glow from the window and movement of activity inside catches my attention. It looks busy, there are lots of pots and ceramics in the window on display, people in the background making were the things I noticed, without lingering other than to take a quick photo of the name of the place on my phone. It looked fun, understated and genuine; for reasons that will soon become clear, it felt poignant given from where I had been a few minutes earlier. A hundred yards away I had just emerged from the crowds of people who were still waiting in a queue that is still four-people deep outside the Arnolfini, all waiting their turn, as I had, to enter the self-prophetically titled, ‘Most Popular Exhibition Ever!’ from artist turned celebrity, Grayson Perry. Only in retrospect, as I now walked past this real-life pottery lesson taking place before my very art weary eyes did I truly appreciate the irony of queueing to see ceramics displaying ‘British-ness’ when the real thing was happening in a slightly different form a matter of metres away.

In the artist’s own words, “Art quickly becomes less attractive when you have to queue to have a glimpse of it.” I thought, “You’re telling me!” I often found myself asking ‘why’ as I amongst the first wave of the public was funnelled on mass into the familiar atrium of the Arnolfini, more thrumming with bodies than I have ever seen before. Queueing does however add to the sense of anticipation and viewing amongst the masses a ‘shared-experience’. The fabled exhibition on its first UK stop tour from The Serpentine in London, is presented at Arnolfini across three floors; featuring ceramics amongst other things tapestries, woodcut prints, bronze sculptures and maybe on the 26th of September, just possibly a glimpse of the man himself!  All of whom probably most people attending had previously seen on various television programmes Perry had hosted on Channel Four. Nonetheless there we all were! Without such publicity that could have ever imagined that we’d be so excited about an exhibition of ceramics at the Arnolfini? Are we there to see ceramics or are we there for the moment? How much of that interest and enthusiasm has since transferred itself back into an interest and engagement with making and the arts? Were the people visiting Perry’s exhibition interested in Potstop Pottery or perhaps vice versa and either way did it matter?...

“Popularity”, Perry denotes, “is a serious business.” Whose ambition for the exhibition is to, “Widen audience for art without dumbing it down.” It is a difficult aim to fulfil. When so much of an art gallery’s funding is dependant on visitor numbers there is the temptation to fill these spaces with art that is accessible, fun or as is the case being explored here, ‘popular’. The theory of how galleries are currently justified, as Perry himself explains as,

“There are two metrics that hold weight in the art world. One is auction price: how much in cold cash someone is prepared to pay for a particular piece by a particular artist. The other is visitor figures -how many people go to see certain exhibitions…Visitor numbers are in a way another empirical measure of quality.”

This raises several debates but particularly on how museums and galleries programme their exhibitions and whether measuring success and quality based on popularity is as hard to define as it is potentially troublesome. However, I have never looked at the reasons why people visit or not art galleries and can only assume that those entrusted with the precarious task of filling these spaces programme exhibitions based on a balance and not fall into labels of marketing whereby an exhibition is popular as to another that be deemed challenging. Most exhibitions fall into multiple if not hazy realms of categorisation. I do not have the answers and neither does Grayson Perry it seems, but what I do admire him for is his ability to articulate issues within the arts and put forward questions and issues that we should think about, if not challenge because he seems for an appreciation of art that is not passive even if it is 'popular'.

For an artist that continues to explore both his own and the nation’s identity, Perry has either unwittingly or cleverly almost marketed himself as his transgender alter-ego, Clare; or the man in the dress that makes pots. These identities that were once part of the challenging and exploration of what Grayson Perry’s art is about [identity, perception, surfaces] have since become ‘accepted’ and familiar so it becomes an interesting contrast and dilemma of what happens when the outsider is no longer outside?! My friend gave the analogy of anti-establishment American punk band Green Day becoming so popular that, that they aren’t quite punk anymore. Maybe in being popular, Perry and Green Day can reach a wider audience with the brand of unconformity or rebellion that they are selling, but on the negative side, maybe it also gets diluted and becomes acceptably-edgy rather than maintaining its power to cause affect through shock. This sentiment best echoed in the context of having this exhibition in Bristol as its first place to be shown outside of London is telling of the city’s relationship with graffiti art and the similar dichotomy of the ‘political made popular’ with work made by Banksy whose exhibitions at Weston’s Tropicana and Bristol Museum were arguably, at least in terms of visitor numbers, amongst the most popular exhibitions in the area in the last decade!
'Kenilworth AM1' 2010 Custom-built motorcycle
An exhibition with this amount of hype comes with a huge amount of expectation and we are welcomed on the first floor with works which explore, ‘what makes a man’. A tapestry made in response to the ceremony of the blessing of the banners with Durham Miners as part of a Channel Four programme on different social-class tribes, traditions and how these factors shape a sense of communal identity. It also includes Perry’s custom-made motorcycle in pink and blue with its own Popemobile style box for Alan Measles (his teddy bear). The symbolism of what masculinity is thrown away from perceived stereotypes with the inclusion of words such as, humility, patience and chastity. In the upstairs galleries the theme of identity continues with an exploration of ‘Britishness’ and the ‘tribes’ of Britain exploring the impact of Brexit amongst other social and political issues. I would speculate that one of the reasons that this exhibition and Grayson Perry are so popular is because he makes art that engages and is interested in people and what they have to say. Who doesn’t want to be listened to? A huge positive that both the public and people in power should draw from Perry’s work, is the benefit of integrating arts more into society as a way of engaging discussion and providing a voice on issues in a way that has a high profile but allows people to express their views more openly because it does not conform with the usual systems of government.

'Death of a Working Hero' 2016 Tapestry
'King of Nowhere' 2015 Cast iron and mixed media
I am conscious that I have written little on the actual work and content of this exhibition, as there is a LOT in it, but I feel somewhat fatigued with seeing these works again; their message already written or spoken much about on their corresponding televised documentaries. One pot represents the Brexit voters the other the remainers; both unremarkably similar. I am now more interested in the phenomenon of the show as a whole, why it is popular and what implications, opportunities or indeed threats does that place to art, artists, the public and galleries etc. For example, I would be interested in Grayson Perry using his ‘celebrity’ to empower people as an artist to make their own art/images/pots in response to the issues he raises rather than documenting them as is the formula he has begun to adopt.     

I have a problem with the idea of ‘art for everyone’ (said the girl who writes blog posts so that others may be inspired to see or understand art work differently....) Maybe I am ignorant, but I am supposedly part of the ‘art world’ having studied it and there are huge swathes of art past and present, I don’t understand or that makes me feel uncomfortable. If compelled, some of it I attempt to figure out and may be rewarded by my puzzle-solving abilities... And sometimes, for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here, I cannot be bothered! It should be enough not to have to like it all but also to give everything a try before you dismiss it and know why you do not like something. The catalogue for the exhibition states that,
‘He [Perry] thinks art shouldn’t be an exclusive club for people who ‘get’ it, but for everyone…’
The problem with trying to do something that is popular or appeals to everyone is that in trying to be everything to everyone the result ends up ultimately, being about nothing. Who is 'everyone' anyway? I think we are all so different that it is almost impossible (surely) to make work that appeals to all. Art work and curation of galleries should never panda to a market-driven sense of taste or inclusiveness, quite the opposite; they should feel more empowered to create new discussions, trends, topics. As another analogy; I enjoy visiting museums and looking at entomology collections and dinosaur skeletons, it doesn’t mean I know or even need to know much or anything about them in order to appreciate them. My reasons for visiting are driven out of curiosity, something to do and experience, wanting to learn or be challenged. Our relationship with art and art galleries is always so much more confrontational and met with a different set of expectations different but irrespective of everyone’s personal experience. I think that educationally we do need to do more to teach how to read visual language and not just how to make it and galleries need to take their own responsibility at always adapting to get better at inspiring, promoting, enthusing, articulating and creating reasons why people should go and see/experience art. Easier said than done!  
'Battle of Britain' 2017 Tapestry 302.7 x 701cm.
As I leave the crowds I wonder, how memorable individual works in this exhibition will be in twenty, fifty, a hundred years time? In what way will we be talking about them and how does this compare to works that were deemed ‘unpopular’ in their own time and have since become significantly valued or culturally important? The saving feature of Perry’s work is that the production and craft that goes into producing them has a hand-made sense of integrity that will ensure their preservation in stopping these pieces becoming quick one-liners. Though I feel that the increasing appeal is not through what Perry makes but what he says, writes and his interaction with the people who visit galleries (or not) and the institutions of art itself [the gallery, the art school, the museum etc.]. These are good conversations to be happening and I can only hope they act as a spring-board or catalyst for change in people’s aversion to viewing art or going to galleries or galleries/museums to take more risks with what they show, promoting a diversity between the ‘popular’, the ‘outsider’ the new, the old, the controversial, the cerebral, the political, the visual and everything in-between. It is a big ask and comes with high expectations on both sides, but the Arnolfini has the perfect opportunity at the moment as it asks audiences to rewrite its ‘rules’ for its continued ethos going forward [see https://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/new-rules].

In light of the current exhibition the rule I would suggest is; 
You cannot please everyone but everyone wants to be pleased.
Or in other words, do not be afraid to show work that people may not like or understand, that is challenging or uncomfortable but assume that everyone who does visit you is there because they want to engage and to have a meaningful experience, so try and give it to them!

Contribute to the hype and Arnolfini's visitor numbers as your feet can help fund more shows by visiting 'The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!' open TUES-SUN 11.00-18.00 until Christmas Eve! https://www.arnolfini.org.uk/whatson/the-most-popular-art-exhibition-ever-grayson-perry

Sunday, 10 September 2017


“...if mankind was put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think of them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty or-in this case-undiminished wonder.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

A man sweeps the floor. Slowly and carefully he gathers loose bits of debris and confetti from the bar’s  previous festivities into a neat pile. We are witness to this scene for around three maybe four minutes. Unusual and slightly voyeuristic enough to watch this anyway, perhaps even more so when I reveal that this scene takes place during the minutes of a prime-time television show. The character and action are (depending on how much or not you want to read into it) irrelevant to the story that is being told. This is one scene in the new series of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ and is in part the influence in writing this post.

David Lynch. 'Twin Peaks: The Return' Still. 2017
I have always wanted to write about nothing (some may think I already do), but even as I type the word ‘nothing’ in the header for saving this file on my computer I am already committed in deciding to write about something. Nothing, is something I have been interested in for a long time. Please stay with me on this… One of my earliest experiences of school in which I can remember being frustrated was in a maths lesson, presented with the sum of [0 + 4=]. I was four or five at the time and had never seen a 0 before so didn’t know that it stood for nothing. Once told it was nothing, I found it confusing to comprehend that we would invent a symbol for nothing, when in fact it wasn’t really nothing, it was a round circle. Why have a symbol for something that represented nothing? Such began an existential debate in my brain, that nothing is always in fact something. What that something that defines nothing is exactly remains the subject of philosophical mystery, some degree of absurdity and fascination.

Kurt Schwitters 'Opened by Customs' 1937-38
I think I have always associated nothing with the mundane, the everyday and periods of inactivity, stillness or a sense of emptiness. This seems logical and given my art practice of choosing to draw tools and other fairly everyday objects over the years. It soon becomes apparent that these things, whilst often unnoticed, in a ‘oh that’s nothing’ sense of the word, are in fact heavily laden with meaning, significance and a physical presence that makes them anything but nothing. I suppose what I am obsessed with are the ideas, art, writing and thought that can come from ‘nothing’. Whatever nothing is exactly. Semantics aside this post inspired by recent events of seeing the new Twin Peaks and having started reading ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith, who starts this episode of her diary-like biography in stating, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing” as she muses lost in thought in a cafe in New York. The whole book that follows continues from this point of nothing into a series of reminiscing tales and future visits to the same cafe where she writes about writing, television and books. Doing ‘nothing’ becomes a time, a headspace for daydreaming, deep thought or simply noticing things around you and from the recent trend in ‘mindfulness’ literature it seems that there is a need and fashion for creating space/time for doing so more than ever before.

In Georges Perec’s ‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’ the writer sets out on a quest to write down everything that happens, “when nothing happens”. Sitting in a cafe in Saint Sulpice for three days the book reads as a series of lists, or stage directions and descriptions of the people, the buses, the pigeons that walk past and in his words, “...generally take note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance...” The resulting book at times ends up being quite abstract; shapes, colours and numbers; yet visually speaking, the narrative this information conjures still manages to create a story and sense of place that feels very real albeit still very subjective. This same fragmented and subjective sense of time and place is present in the found debris and collected collages in Kurt Schwitters [1887-1948] or in Sophie Calle’s [1953 -] use of photography and narrative of everyday objects to tell stories from her life. To the nature of this post itself as a list of sorts as a reference to a personal favourite of mine, found shopping lists that read like poems (opposite). I could write a whole separate post about the charm and intrigue of the found shopping list and what stories they tell.

Imagine therefore my excitement when on this journey into nothing I discovered, ‘The Mezzanine’ by Nicholson Baker a short novel written in 1986 that chronicles the musings of an office employee as they escape their workplace to ponder why one shoelace always runs out before the other and whose genius lies behind the folding spout on the milk carton? It is as absurdly mundane but genuinely pedantically amusing as it sounds. Like a literary version of observational comedy when I read ‘The Mezzanine’ for the first time it struck me, in the way that comedy also can, how uniting these thoughts are. We all think, we all notice the same odd, irritating, impractical or genius bits of design, everyday interactions with people in our daily lives; yet how often do we think that those thoughts and observations can be quite amusing or even interesting.

“And third, the felt crunch, like the chewing of an ice cube, as the twin lines of the staple emerge from the underside of the paper and are bent by the two troughs of the template in the stapler’s base, curing inward in a crab’s embrace of your memo, and finally disengaging from the machine completely,” -Nicholson Baker

If you read this, firstly you will wonder how it is possible that you have spent the best part of five minutes reading two pages about a stapler; secondly you will either find this incredibly sad or as I did amazingly perceptive. Once again, I reiterate, “it is not easy writing about nothing”.

“That was the problem with reading: you always had to pick up again at the very thing that had made you stop reading the day before.” – Nicholson Baker

From great boredom comes great possibility! Nothing and a sense on nihilism is explored in René Daumal’s ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’ in which a narrative beginning with a bout of copious drinking between a Anthographer (whatever that is), a Fabricator of useless objects (otherwise known as an artist) and others soon descends into a very surreal almost William Burroughs style description into the depths of some imagined hell. It is an amazing book whose mention here comes from its mundane origins as a start point into something altogether wonderful and bizarre. ‘Nothing’ also as a meditation, when running, yoga, gardening or another activity become a means to think about nothing, spiritually without consciously being so. It is ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ and Murakami’s ‘What I think about when I think about running’. In Murakami’s words, “What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.”    

Andrei Tarkovsky, 'Solaris'. Still Gif. 1972
Nothing as a precursor or metaphor for something, it is the transience of these everyday or throw-away things that can remind us of our own mortality. I have written mostly of books and art up to now, but the concept of ‘nothing’ in the form of sustained shots in which nothing appears to happen along with shots of incidental objects or things become symbolic in the same way they do in paintings or books. For me it is shots like the teacup filling with rain in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (pictured), the apples falling out of the cart in a dream sequence in Ivan’s Childhood, it is the use of light, wind and elements in Mirror and numerous other examples in Tarkovsky’s films. Whether these things are intended to be symbolic or not can be up for interpretation, they may have no real purpose other than what we bring to it. The writer Geoff Dyer explains what I mean about sustained shots in his book, ‘Zona’ that acts as an essay of his understanding of the Tarkovsky film ‘Stalker’,

“If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.' At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last—and no one can concentrate on anything—for longer than about two seconds.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

Chardin 'The Copper Cistern' Oil on Panel. 1735
Time and nothing seem to be two things that sit hand in hand, that to experience, understand and possibly appreciate nothing we need the time to do so. I have often enjoyed the challenge, though not always succeeded at comfortably watching these scenes in films that seem to take forever or have little baring to the immediate progression of the story, though debatably they are the closest thing to life and are the parts in films that allow you to think or not. It is the incidental conversations about hamburgers, a goldfish or Spider-man in Tarantino’s films. It is long first-person shots travelling in a car on a highway at night so often used by David Lynch or described in Michel Faber’s brilliant novel, ‘Under the Skin’. It is all the stuff that happens when nothing is happening. A lot of Japanese animation does this very well for example the depiction of cooking and food in any one of Studio Ghibli’s animations along with the most highly detailed, hand painted shots of an empty train station or school desk in animations such as ‘5mm per Second’ are notable in their change of pace as well as being more often than not completely unnecessary to anything to do with the plot but show us so much about what Japanese life is like in the same way a painting would. It is the intensity and love of looking in a Chardin still-life, the personal desire to possess of a Jim Dine tool print or drawing. The absurdity of a soft toilet made by Claes Oldenburg that makes us consider the real thing, the Duchamp snow shovel, the readymade and consumerist, glossy, pop-culture noticed in a Warhol or James Rosenquist. It is the things that make us stop and notice. The magic illusionary and seductive powers of surface, form and narrative created in art that make audiences want to look closer.

Studio Ghibli 'When Marnie was There' Still.2014 
In ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ by Michael Foley I first discovered a significant chunk of the books I have written about here. “Nothing is less known than what seems familiar. The ordinary is always the exceptional in disguise. Everything happens when nothing is happening.” In it Foley succeeds where I have neglected to philosophise an argument for ‘the everyday’ whereas I have written more a list of the things that I love. In writing about Proust, Foley also puts forward the viewpoint of the function of art in relation to the everyday,

“One approach is to use the arts to develop a new perception, an imaginative relabelling of the everyday world. It is not what you look at that matters but what you see....it is not so much that we see art as that we see by means of art....appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar....”

A thousand words later and I am still writing about nothing. I may be interested in it for some time to come. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Tale Continues...

September and October are set to be eventful months! I seldom write posts about art and projects that I am involved in so feel that this one is long overdue but falls at a relevant time to share with you some details of exhibitions and events that are happening at an art venue near you this autumn....

Telling Tales – A Creative Pathways Artists Exhibition

Five years ago, I and four other artists received a bursary and professional development support as part of the Creative Pathways programme created by Somerset Art Works. I have to confess that I didn’t realise that our year, 2011 was the first time that the programme had run and was none-the-less grateful for the opportunity it provided; for myself it put me in contact with the Somerset Heritage Centre and staff who worked there so I could access a wealth of historical farming implements and tools as research and source material for making new work. Without making this sound too much like a testimonial, more than it already is, I was two years out of graduating with my degree and having a support network of other artists and some financial support that it provided were both incredibly useful and confidence enhancing. That year I exhibited work I had made based on that research in an exhibition titled ‘Tool Tales’. Now, five years later I am delighted to be exhibiting and assisting in curating ‘Telling Tales’ (the name of which is a fab coincidence) an exhibition featuring 22 artists that have since 2011 all also participated in the Creative Pathways programme. I like that synchronicity and it is very exciting to be exhibiting with and helping put together this exhibition of artists who have shared the same opportunity. Work-wise there will still be everything you’ve come to expect from my tool-based creations but for now I will leave what that is exactly an incentive (hopefully) for you to come and see the exhibition in person! Telling Tales opens for Somerset Art Weeks on the 23rd September and will feature a variety of disciplines from film, printmaking, sculpture, participatory projects, drawing and more. It is open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm, Saturday 12noon -4pm until October 7th.

The Brewhouse Theatre & Arts Centre Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1JL
Saturday 23 September 2017 – Saturday 07 October 2017
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat 12noon-4pm
STARRING: Laura AISH / Bronwen BRADSHAW / Elizabeth CAIRES / Simon Lee DICKER / Jon ENGLAND / Veronia GAYLE / Adam GROSE / Kitty HILLIER / Leah HISLOP / Sarah HITCHENS / Sandra JAMES / Chris JELLEY / Mayumi KANEKO / Lucy LEAN / Joy MERRON / Jennifer NEWBURY / Andrea OKE / Natalie PARSLEY / Lucy PENDRICK / Dale PERRETT / Beckie UPTON / Gillian WIDDEN


Earlier this year I was invited with six other artists in the South West to participate in a Somerset Art Works project titled, ‘Prospectus’. The purpose, as I understood it, was to explore ways of creating an ‘alternative art school’ for the dispersed community of Somerset. Through workshops, discussion, sharing learning and working together we embarked upon a five day ‘takeover’ of Huish Episcopi School’s Art Department over the Easter holidays, (without the students!) during this time we created things, made mistakes, shared elements of our own practices and learnt from invited artists and one another. This is one example of how we hope future groups of artists could access these facilities and provide a form of peer-led professional development.

With the aim of opening the project out to the wider community, in the second phase of Prospectus we have each individually programmed a series of talks/workshops to take place this autumn. Details of which can be found, here; http://prospectus.somersetartworks.org.uk/events/ 

It seemed both logical and important to have at least one speaker, in a project about ‘art schools’, to actually talk about the subject we were exploring.... I have also been interested in the conversations that we have had (often whilst making) as a group of artists across different generations, on how artists continue to ‘learn’, our own experiences of art schools (what are they?) and the place that art schools serve in our communities, towns and wider art world context.

‘Art School’, as a term, carries a significance greater than the institution it actually describes: a sense of possibility or world view, what they call ‘commitment to working a practice, to a mode of learning which assumes the status of a lifestyle.” 1

Details of where that quote came from and the talk I have arranged can be seen below:

Professor Matthew Cornford is an artist, researcher and course leader for the BA(Hons) Fine Art Critical Practice course at Brighton University. In association with Professor John Beck, Cornford undertook a research project to find and document the sites of former British Art Schools. Their photographs and findings documented in the 2014 publication ‘The Art School and the Culture Shed’. Cornford will be sharing elements of his practice and research into former Art Schools at the location of Taunton’s original art school, the Victorian, Hunts Court.

Hope you can join us there!

 1 FRITH, S; HORNE, H (1987) Art into Pop. Methuen, London. p28

Artist Talk: Matthew Cornford - The Art School and the Culture Shed
‘The Den’ at The Cosy Club, Hunts Court, Corporation St, Taunton TA1 4AJ
Thursday 12th October
Time: 18.00 – 20.00
Fee: £3 suggested donation on door /Free to SAW Members & students

Young ProspectUs

In a slightly indulgent collision of names I have also been assisting in a learning and education project coordinated by Somerset Art Works called Young ProspectUs in which I have been participating as a blogger, documenter and assistant.

During the months this project ran I have learnt so much from both the participating artists and relevantly for me, the students themselves. From April until May six workshops took place [one a week] at Northfield and Taunton Centre Pupil Referral Units in Taunton. Artists, Jacky Oliver, Karina Thompson, Megan Players, Rick Crane and Jane Mowat ran sessions corresponding to their practices of; metalwork, sewing, sculpting, graphics and wood carving/printmaking. It has been immensely rewarding for me to participate in these and I feel that I have not only learnt new techniques but have also experienced how they are taught and how the artists have adapted to working with the students. To read more about this project and see what the students made please click on the link below.



Meanwhile, subversively somewhere in space and time the independent visual arts zine-machine that is HIVE ventures forth with Chris Dart at the helm toward its fifth outing.... Coming soon #March18  

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Unbelievable Weightiness of Air

Helen Jones 'Formation' 2016 Black pigment & pastel on tracing paper.
The puns pretty much write themselves, it’s a gas, walking on air, breath of fresh air, lofty ambitions; whatever the opinion on the current exhibition about Air at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, one thing you won’t hopefully be calling it is a load of hot air. Celebrating everything aerological from the air we breathe to clouds, the wind and sky that has inspired countless poets, artists, philosophers, writers and musicians. It is the space where hearts have been won, battles have been fought, our relationship to the ground mapped and explored, music and sound reverberates, meteorological events unfold and questions on the very nature of existence asked. Therefore it is not to be taken lightly! It is no coincidence that in the central weeks of this exhibition opening that it should coincide with the Bristol Balloon Fiesta (and for fans of that there are several hot-air balloon works in the show)!

Freya Gabie 'Wind Break' 2014 Shredded plastic and glass.
With such a wide breadth of concepts to cover this exhibition features over seventy works from the 1700s to the present. At its centre is Joseph Wright’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ painted in 1768 and on-loan from The National Gallery; it presents the otherwise darker but essential relationship the living has with air and scientists first attempts to understand this all too important invisible matter. It is a treat to see this painting in Bristol that demonstrates the Caravaggio-like use of lights and darks (chiaroscuro) so well, my only slight reservation is that the gallery spaces of the RWA are not dark enough to quite do the work justice. The ideas within the work do however set the thematic concept behind the show successfully, of how artists have attempted to depict this invisible element that cannot be seen but whose affects clearly can. 

Joseph Wright of Derby 1768 'An Experiement on a Bird in the Air Pump'*
The galleries displaying older works feature some of what you may expect; the romantic cloud studies by Constable, weathered sunlit sky studies by Turner as well as paintings such as Millais’ ‘Bubbles’ in addition to some of the more unexpected but equally engaging paintings such as ‘Balloons’ [1920] by Ernest Townsend that cinematically composes the scene of an elderly man and woman blowing up balloons intended for children. No two depictions the same, this is perhaps best illustrated in the battle-fought ‘sky’ paintings during WW2 in which the almost abstract power and dynamism of Nevinson’s air view of mostly sky as a representation of the battle grounds of Britain is in good company with two watercolours by (commercial reproductions favourite) Eric Ravilious who takes a more earthy and grounded view to capturing his more gently stylised almost uncanny viewpoints of planes and blimps from the ground looking up. Other highlights, to which this show would not be complete without, include an air glider abstract painting from Peter Lanyon and a Lowry with his factory-lined cityscapes of chimneys pouring out smoke; in the context of this exhibition it is a reminder of the darker relationship and responsibility we have to our atmosphere and the effects of pollution.  
Ernest Townsend 1920 'Balloons'
 The contemporary half of the exhibition has even more approaches to offer and visitors are greeted by a work which is amongst the only piece that actually demonstrates the protagonist of this show in action! The breeze that wafts through the central gallery space can delicately be noticed as it passes through colourful plastic fibres intentionally shredded. Deconstructed from a familiar beachside wind break, its wooden poles replaced by glass ones instead of shielding the wind, now allows it to pass through. This piece, titled ‘Wind Break’ also alluding to the pun of its now broken and delicate state, is the work of Freya Gabie and is a living contrast to her otherwise static but incredibly accomplished  series of fine drawings of dust clouds and explosions. The ability to capture air through drawing or capture some of its ‘lightness’ is explored again in pigment drawings on tracing paper by Helen Jones and in photographic collages by Ian McKeever, whose images have an immensely drawn quality to them hovering somewhere between representing the sky or sea; an idea, interestingly for a book fan like me, McKeever states as having precipitated from reading Stanislaw Lem’s Sci-fi classic Solaris. Elsewhere Annie Cattrell, Mat Chivers and Jessica Lloyd-Jones use glass-blowing and 3D printing techniques to capture physical manifestations of breath whilst Neville Gabie bottles-up the breath of 1,111 people and asks them where they would like to have it released. One of the best is Dryden Goodwin’s animation of his son’s breathing created through an exquisite series of tiny pencil drawings.

Eric Ravilious 1940 Barrage Balloon
There are a couple of works that feel have been forced into the exhibition, Janette Kerr has a seascape, arctic-based painting whose subject matter dominated by mostly sea and thick layering of paint feels too heavy in the context of this show as does a series of heavy hand-made paper woodcuts by Peter Ford. In contrast the Peter Randall-Page, marble piece titled ‘Solid Air III’ is literally heavy but has been made with a lightness of touch and the surface of the marble has a sky-like pattern to it that counterbalances its otherwise weightiness. Mariele Neudecker has a body of work in the exhibition from ‘The Air Itself is one Vast Library’ series. A film, ‘The Land of the Dead’ offers a hot-air balloon perspective looking downwards toward the land in Egypt. The work is projected horizontally, its aerial views of roads, farmland and burial sites capture the shapes and surfaces of our relationship with land making it visually one of the more intriguing works exhibited. It puts the viewer into a state of uneasy artificial weightlessness reminiscent (as observed my discerning exhibition accomplice) of Simon Faithfull’s ‘30km’ (2003) film of a camera attached to a weather balloon as it spirals upwards giving a dizzyingly aerial perspective of the land.

Alex Wood 'Discovery'
Bringing a lighter tone to the show is Berndnaut Smilde’s photograph of a cloud which was atmospherically created to briefly occupy the central hallway of the RWA and is a fleeting moment in time that reminds us of the impermanence and ever changing state of air and climate. Alex Wood’s maquette-style part ready-made models or prototypes of exploratory aeronautical vessels are playful and imaginative bringing a sense of uplifting joy to what otherwise at times feels a rather brooding exhibition. I think a bit more humour would not have gone amiss, whilst referring to breathing there was no mention of any other bodily windy attributes (perhaps thankfully!?). Not entirely content with painted representations of balloons and bubbles I would have liked to see some more child-like air inspired wonders such as pinwheels, a whoopee-cushion, a desktop fan or a Martin Creed balloon room or Tom Friedman’s empty plinth, ‘Untitled (a curse)’ which perhaps challenged or poked-fun at the concept of air and nothingness in a much dryer way. Apart from a piece by Gabie there was also a missed opportunity for more environmental pieces or works which explored the theme of the destruction of our atmosphere and/or cotangents within it, there are several artists for example who draw into polluted surfaces or how bacteria in the air creates mould and led to discoveries such as penicillin. There is almost another whole exhibition which could have been created in addition; Air II!

I do feel that sometimes the RWA doesn’t quite search as widely away from the South West, London or the academicians it is loyal to when curating shows but then maybe I shouldn’t expect it to? Nonetheless it is an ambitious exhibition to produce and there is a lot of work to be seen and comprised together in one location that makes it highly worthy of anyone’s time one breezy summer’s afternoon.

Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017 on at Bristol’s RWA until September 3rd

Images marked with * sourced from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump; https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/balloons-61093