Sunday, 18 November 2018

Warning! May contain traces of elephant


A conceptually ambiguous blog post title, for a conceptually ambiguous art exhibition! 

In writing about Hestercombe’s latest exhibition, Materiality:Provisional States I felt it would be legitimately wrong to document my thoughts without first addressing the all-important, but seldom overlooked, elephant in the room. That is, I was taught by one of the artists in this exhibition, Sarah Bennett, during my Masters in Fine Art with Plymouth University and have had the pleasure of knowing, another artist in the show, Megan Calver. There is an element of bias, that whilst one would try analyse the work objectively, I cannot to some extent ignore that my opinions are influenced by those relationships. It is a scenario that I had never previously given much heed to in any of my writing, how the possible impact of knowing or not knowing the artist has on my personal interpretation of their work. Where does the writer's responsibility lie, to the integrity of themselves, the artists whose work they write about or that of the reader who possibly deserves the most honest opinion. I think part of the problem is there aren't enough people writing about these sorts of exhibitions so that readers have much choice!

This also relates to a book I have been recently reading, “What it Means to Write About Art” that documents a series of interviews with art writers/critics on the practice of art writing/art criticism. It has been fascinating to learn of different writers’ thoughts on how they address this same scenario,

“It’s hard. When I write about somebody I don’t know. I almost try to imagine them. And when I write about somebody I do know, I try to forget them…When I started out, I didn’t know if nay of it mattered – I couldn’t imagine that I actually had an audience -so felt completely free to say whatever I wanted. When you first start writing, you don’t know if people are reading, and you don’t know if anybody is going to care. And then, after a while, you realise people do care…Basically, I’ve always felt my job as a critic is to try and be me and figure out who I am…It’s those basic, immediate reactions that fuel your thinking and your writing…There’s a danger of over complicating things.” -Jed Pearl in an interview with Jarrett Earnest “What it means to Write About Art”

Philippa Lawrence - Trace (2018)
I have tried to keep some of those sentiments in mind when writing this. It gets even worse if one considers that I was also taught by the curator and know some of the technicians that also helped install the show, but that’s Somerset for you! There is, however, an artist I definitely do not know in the exhibition, Philippa Lawrence and it is her work with which we are first greeted at the top of the stairs in the form of an uprooted tree stump. The top of the stump, where it was sliced, has been polished to an irresistibly tempting-to touch by hand, high-sheen. The contrast between the roughness and brutal-act of sawing presented against the considered care with which the act of polishing wood has associated with craft or objects intended for consideration/keeping. An idea Lawrence continues in a similar piece in the form of a log pile, titled ‘Shift’ also exhibited. Initially we see a pile of logs associated with the practical connotations of being a resource for fuel and on closer inspection their polished spec, where each log has been cut makes them objects of consideration or an implied sense of preciousness. Lawrence has worked alongside the woodland management team, as have each of the artists in this exhibition, engaging with the site of Hestercombe House/Gardens, its history and the different skilled people who manage it today. In ‘Trace’ brightly coloured enamel profiles off the tops of tree stumps from around Hestercombe are displayed together on the (appropriately wooden) floor of one of the gallery spaces. It is visually quite minimal and could not be more clinically detached in its man-made fabrication from the original tree from which it was formed (a statement in itself). Each stump becoming an island or fingerprint-like replica of the original tree and the trace of the action which led to its current form.

Sarah Bennett - Cultivatar (2018) 35mm slides of 21 silverpoint drawings, slide viewers
Another artist who likes capturing traces of human encounters and actions within her work is Sarah Bennett, who for Hestercombe has created a series of responses, the majority of which are linked in using the material of silver. Multiple reflection points inspired by Bampfylde’s pear pond are drawn with photography and silver nitrate, in ‘Cultivatar’ (2018) silverpoint is used to recreate meticulous drawings of seeds presented in viewfinders strategically placed to great effect in the windows overlooking the gardens themselves (so that seed and plant can be seen simultaneously) and again in embellishing a row of handheld garden tools.  Now partially rendered in silver the tools are in affect useless for their original purpose but take on a preserved sense of status that the quality of silver brings elevating the tools from their more humble connotations in being originally used for the maintenance of the estate. The cheeky part of me cannot omit that I take some small nugget of narcissistic delight in that my own tool-related work may have had some influence on the use of tools here?! Whilst I have long accepted that I clearly cannot monopolise the use of tools in anyone’s art, I equally in this instance cannot deny myself a wry smile of amusement. If Hestercombe ever wants a more expressive response to gardening tools then you know where to find me! 

Sarah Bennett -Siolfur (2018) Silver plating on found tools
Continuing with ideas she first started exploring in 2015’s exhibition, ‘Second Site’ Megan Calver works with notions of taste in particular to, one of Hestercombe’s founding gardeners, Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘exacting attitude towards colour and language’ presented through scans of scorched blooms (flowers grown at Hestercombe, picked and pressed by an image-scanner) viewed on tables from above like botanical specimens. The invigilators of the exhibition having the licence to routinely edit which ones are seen and not but covering them, their own ‘tastes’ becoming a part of the work. The use of language and description of colour, in particular to fire/flame links well to a previous work by Calver about Salvia seeds described on their packaging as ‘Blaze of Fire’ (and incidentally loathed by Jekyll if we are to relate it back to ideas of ‘taste’). Calver’s other interventions such as additions to the light-box signage in the house's former fire brigade control-room and coals in the fireplaces in each of the galleries are subtle enough to go unnoticed by many but are quiet statements in keeping with ideas around fire and the context that Hestercombe House was formally the call-centre to the fire brigade. It is rewarding when one spots them and for want of a better phrase, ‘gets it’ but I am unsure how hard many visitors may be willing to work to reach that point.

For me it really highlights my reservation with the exhibition as a whole, that it feels a bit too cerebral. When one compares it to what one reads about each artist having individually undergone very investigative inquiries in talking to people, looking through archives and working on site around Hestercombe; a process which I imagine as being very 'warm', human, interactive and enriching  to then each produce work which is largely quite detached from the reality of those experiences/engagement and make work that is by comparison cold and sterile to the point of being so considered and laboured in its though processes that something of those original encounters with which we as the audience can identify with is lost. In example, I do not personally get a sense of the encounter of reflections on a pond in Bennett's 'Pear Pond 1' from what appears to be an overly process-engineered oval photograph, for me it does not offer anything different that I would not better obtain from looking at the real thing or offer a different insight that photography can allow. There is a point to be made here perhaps about how close or far does an artist’s relation to their original subject/source matter in how the work is received and understood by their audience? I expect it is subjective. For the purposes of this exhibition however, I would have liked to have seen some more emotive/expressive responses to counterbalance the largely conceptual nature of the show. I am often concerned that as artists we tend to over-think or complicate things, so ideas become so refined and detached from where they originally started that we loose the sense of what it actually is to be a embodied, thinking, feeling human responding to a subject and have yet to see an exhibition by a contemporary artist at Hestercombe that really celebrates that. Addressing the elephant in the room, what it says on the tin -in my opinion stating the obvious isn't always a bad thing.

‘Materiality: provisional states’ is on until 24th February 2019
https://www.hestercombe.com/event/exhibition-materiality-provisional-states/

Friday, 26 October 2018

Do you see what I sea?

In her latest exhibition at Exeter Phoenix, Tania Kovats dives into the socio-political and environmental concerns of mankind’s relationship with the sea. Influenced by her ongoing exploration of water and by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1953 book ‘The Sea Around Us’, the exhibition focuses on themes such as coral reefs, the horizon line and maritime culture exhibited through sculptures, drawings and installed works.

Bleached (2017) mixed media
Carson’s influence is quite literally and immediately present in a series of drawn book covers forensically represented and taken from different versions of ‘The Sea Around Us’, each meticulously rendered and observed so as to capture every wrinkle and fold from their wear and tear. My own personal interests in all things book-related leads me to wonder if these books all belong to Kovats or whether they were loaned, found or borrowed from their original readers? They all look like books which have been read and travelled, where have they been, how many people had read them, had the ideas they contain affected someone’s life? Books like weathered skin show the passing of time and age, a thought that I have never really previously given much contemplation to until I thought about how drawing a book cover must be like drawing a portrait, the book design itself may be mass produced but the wear of the book is individual and something of a pleasing mystery in its uniqueness. I like the idea that the physical object of the book itself can hold a relevance as much as the ideas with which it contains.  For the purposes of this exhibition however, the temporal nature of these book covers perhaps a reminder of the ever-changing sea itself, as Carson’s book reiterates, 
The Sea Around Us (nine spines) 2018, pencil on paper

‘It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.’ -Rachel Carson

Continuing with my book theme, in 2014 Kovats’ produced a book about drawing titled, ‘Drawing Water’ to accompany an exhibition the she had at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I never saw this exhibition but found the book and remember how it reinforced my own feelings about drawing can be a ‘way of thinking’ or a means in which to lose oneself and ponder new ideas.
'I draw to find my way out. Drawing fills the space when I'm not sure what I am doing. It's my mechanism for map-making and my search engine, even when I don't know what I am looking for.'-Tania Kovats
Therefore, one could argue what better way to understand the sea or contemplate it than to draw it? A large installed drawing titled ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ 2018 created via a series of blue watercolour dashes or horizontal pools conjure comparisons to abstract puddles or the shapes of light hitting the surface of the sea going out towards the horizon. It is no coincidence that the medium with which to draw is connected with water and only reinforces its connection to the sea it represents (a similar piece was created in a solo show at Hestercombe in Taunton during 2014-15). Displayed across a series of sheets pinned together on a wall being both a scaling-up process and a compartmentalising of elements that make up the greater whole. It is as if Kovats is saying that the sea is too vast to contemplate or depict in its entirety so it must be broken down into a series of repeated shapes until its scale can be installed rather than preconceived. It also puts the viewer directly into the work, making us contemplate our own situ and scale in relation to 'the sea' or something much bigger than ourselves.

Sea Mark (Prussian Blue) 2018, watercolour on paper
Somewhat bias of me, I have so far only focused on the drawings of what will strike many people as a very sculptural exhibition (debatably the work ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ is almost quite sculptural in its installation). A series of vitrines titled, ‘Bleached’ 2017 containing ‘an imagined bleached coral reef’ represent a bleak and sterile view of the impact humans have on the health of such habitats. Like a beautiful, yet fragile petrified forest and a warning told in museum-form, conveys the message that these reefs are a dying and precious ecosystem that must be protected lest they become museum relics of the future. Part of me wonders if it is all too obvious in how it is meant to be read and that this work leaves less to the imagination, but then maybe it is more important that the message is clear? In a second room adjacent to ‘Bleached’ two more sculptural works titled, ‘REEF’ 2018 are more experimental. A bit like the premise of drawing as a way of ‘figuring out’ these hand-maquette sculptures made from concrete and neoprene (ironically the same stuff used to make wetsuits) are prototypes for a ‘functional coral reef restoration structure’. They are less polished and sort-of awkward if a little clumsy looking in comparison to the vitrines but as consequence have more potential in what they could be interpreted as. Potential, that could be believed as being a 'new imagined coral reef' or for those more sceptical, like me, at the very least something that is more multi-faceted in its abstraction than its linear-ness in being representational. 

REEF (2018) concrete, neoprene
The overriding ambition that the work Kovats makes intends to, ‘reflect on our relationship with the sea, and encourage more connection and agency in how we connect to the natural world’ is quite a bold statement. I do not know if I personally feel a greater connection or understanding after seeing the exhibition than I had previously, but discovering more about Rachel Carson is certainly something I am keen to pursue, particularly how what she wrote in the 50s still feeling very relevant today. Having seen other work by Kovats previously at Hestercombe, I am excited by her methods and inventive enquiries into water, the ocean and creative processes as a means of understanding and getting audiences to engage with work. I think ‘Troubled Waters’ is just that, where it achieves is that it is intriguing and unusual enough to want to contemplate but readable enough to be able to take away a sense of meaning from it. Whilst the drawn elements are important, to me at least, in stopping the whole exhibition becoming too ‘cold’ and emotionally bleak, bringing back something of the human-hand and presence to make us connect to the work more. The waters Kovats foretells may be troubled but there is hope too, perhaps, is we do not loose a sense of humanity.
  
Troubled Waters – Tania Kovats is on at the Exeter Phoenix until 11th November 2018

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Bookbinding Anatomy 101

Pass me the scalpel whilst I make an incision across the spine…through which to insert the needle…keep the bone folder on standby to ensure nice clean precision along the joints….

Bookbinding, I have come to appreciate, is a delicate operation. What better place perhaps, to learn about this skill for first time within the context of a medical library in a hospital?!

During two-hour sessions over a period of four consecutive Tuesday evenings, staff at Musgrove Park Hospital participated in making four different books under the tuition of professional bookbinder, Megan Stallworthy. The workshop, programmed by Emma Quick for Art for Life (the Trust’s art and wellbeing initiative), was part of a series of artist-led workshops for NHS staff taking place at Musgrove Park Hospital.

As a member of the Library Service team and a complete novice bookbinder it was my pleasure to help facilitate and attend these evenings! We were keen for the workshop to take place within the library as a way of promoting and encouraging the space as a place for wellbeing-based activities and thinking that learning book-binding in the context of books themselves was an appealingly romanticised place to do so. This was a context that had previously worked well in the bookshop from my prior experiences as a bookseller. By necessity the hospital site is largely a functional, sterilised or clerical-based place, so I would like to think for many staff that there is something contrastingly comforting about being in an environment surrounded by books. 

Despite my art background and years spent stacking, selling, displaying and shelving books, I confess to having never attempted making one. I know very little about the origins of how the physical part of a book is produced; like many perhaps, knowing slightly more about what is involved in writing the words and content. Fortunately for me, I was not alone! The nine of us taking part also had no prior or limited experience and Megan, the ever-patient tutor was highly organised in breaking down the steps needed to make each book so what at first felt like it could be a complicated task became manageably enjoyable.

Over the sessions we managed to make four books:  two variations of an accordion book, a single section case binding and a long stitch binding. All four involved various different techniques, each new skill demonstrated under Megan’s precision and expertise along with being equipped with the proper tools like the bone-fold, bradawl, waxed-thread, grey board, glue and papers that make a significant difference from being shown how to make something and actually producing an object that is something one will keep and is proud of. It was the opportunity to learn the meaning of terms such as ‘creep’ and which direction to cut/fold based on the grain of the paper to how to measure cover paper and spine widths, different techniques to apply glue (who knew?) and how to make a sewing template for stitching pages together. For the second time this year, I the reluctant sewer attempted to thread needles as I stitched the cartridge paper into my pre-measured casing holes. My resulting long stitch binding was rather shaky, but I had still managed to produce something that held itself together. My favourite to make though were the accordion books as these involved no stitching whatsoever and were more involved with gluing and folding techniques. With these books in particular I found myself planning what might go inside them and ideas for things I could write or draw.

I enjoyed conversations about the ‘hand of the maker’ involved in each of the individual books that we were making; how our own ‘imperfections’ of how we may have cut the paper or bound the pages together are not necessarily faults but characteristics or quirks of their handmade origins. Something of an anti-perfectionist myself, I like to celebrate those traces of hand and uniqueness that come from the handmade object that can never be recreated in the mass produced. I think there is a Japanese word, ‘wabi sabi’, which succinctly encapsulates what I am referring to here- an ‘acceptance of imperfection’.

Apart from learning a new skill, these sessions were also a chance to talk and meet new people, all of whom have different roles/responsibilities throughout the hospital from nursing to managerial and clerical. It was good to come together for a shared experience at the end of the busy working day as a group of people who were all eager to learn something new. We all had four books to show for our efforts and I for one can now say I’ve made my own book -in a library! Though I do not expect to be something of an expert when it comes to any future book repairs…

More information about Megan Stallworthy's workshops and beautiful handmade books can be found here: http://www.perfectbindings.co.uk/

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Something Beautiful Remains

With less than a month to go, here is the ‘long-awaited’ Spanner in the Workz highlights of the Liverpool Biennial 2018!

The Biennial 2018 celebrates its 10th programme of what is overall twenty years of arts across the city and region. It also personally marks my fifth Biennial from when I first visited Liverpool as an art student in 2008. It has become a tradition to visit and feel quite sentimental about loyally making the pilgrimage to the north every two years via a series of (increasingly unreliable) trains searching for what new contemporary national and international art in some of Liverpool’s most remarkable buildings, galleries and spaces has in store. There is also a case for the Liverpool bar that sells triple gins for £3, but perhaps the less said of that the better....!

(detail) Mae-ling Lokko's installation 'Hack the Root' 2018
In response to the collective theme, ‘Beautiful World Where Are You?’ artists and audiences are invited ‘to reflect on a world in turmoil’. It sounds serious and whilst I do not question that the world, politically, environmentally, socially and economically is in a tumultuous and uncertain period, I found much of what resonated with me in this year’s Biennial to be conscientiously uplifting and more hopeful or engagingly activist in the face of such challenges. Works such as Mae-ling Lokko’s ‘Hack the Root’, presented at RIBA North Architectural Centre deals with the turmoil of food-waste and unsustainability of materials for building by proposing a creative solution whereby agrowaste-fed mycelium (mushroom) have been cultivated into modular biomaterial building panels. Shown is a video that explains this process alongside the tiles themselves, a growing chamber and prototypes of structures which could be built from this material. I had no idea mushrooms could be used in this way and am excited that work artists are still using science to creatively problem solve and generate new ideas. 

 
(still) Madiha Aijaz 'These Silences Are All The Words' 2017-18
 
Equally heartening and possibly my favourite piece from this year’s Biennial is a film at the Open Eye Gallery titled ‘These Silences Are All The Words’ by Madiha Aijaz. Filmed in Karachi, Pakistan, the film documents librarians working in public libraries and their library users as they reflect on the shift of language from Urdu to English. The libraries in this film (and libraries in general) come to symbolise these sort-of barometers for changes in culture, language, need and understanding in our communities and societies; the poetic and literary history of Urdu versus the historical and political complexity of the English language (the legacy of the Raj). Aijaz explains that the books themselves in these libraries, written in Urdu speak of, ‘the struggle for freedom and the formation of Muslim identity in undivided India’ and yet in some ways things have not changed, the library itself is now in conflict with the language of the texts it holds and modernisation of the world and its users today. There is a need to preserve the past whilst making it accessible to those in the future. Though the film itself is not angry in its tone and at only approx. twelve minutes long acts more of a documentary of the reality of these libraries and for the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The shots of the libraries, the light hitting the dusty books are in themselves beautiful! As shelves of books, tomes and texts almost inherently are, surely? I am utterly bias, having worked in a library for the best part of nine months, but am curiously fascinated by the foreign yet-familiarity of the libraries in this film and humbled by the reverence with which they are spoken of, “When I enter the library, I leave my ego and shoes at the door.” It makes me speculate the idea of sacredness in today’s society, what is sacred? Is it important? Is religion sacred anymore, is it knowledge; perhaps a combination of both/neither? Is sacredness subjective and does that led to decline in the value that a shared sense of sacredness brings to uniting people. Where do public places, such as libraries still fit in being custodians of values, freedom of speech and community?

 
Francis Alys, 'Outskirts of Mosul' 2016 - part of 'Age Piece' 2018
 
One of the best venues for art has to be the Victoria Gallery & Museum where Francis Alӱs’ small but beautiful postcard paintings from 1980s to the present are exhibited under the title ‘Age Piece’. They have an immediate painterly quality but are compositionally highly cinematic, painted in plein air in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq whilst looking for new locations for his film projects. Apart from the John Moores Painting Prize, which is also on during the Biennial at the Walker Gallery, there is a famine of painting throughout the Biennial as a whole. These little works really shine as being amongst the most honest, intimate and captivating paintings throughout. The gallery itself is also an eclectically stunning location to house these paintings amongst dentistry tools, plastic botanical plant models, fossils and taxidermy all housed in a spectacularly tiled Victorian red brick building. Other Biennial highlights here include Taus Makhacheva’s fun, mesmerizing and death-defying film, ‘Tightrope’ which I first came across last year at the Venice Biennial; http://spannerintheworkz.blogspot.com/2017/07/viva-venezia.html 

 
Botanical Plant models at the Victoria Gallery & Museum
 
If viewing art in unusual spaces and contexts is for you then the Biennial almost always delivers in showing art in a host of disused and/or period buildings (many of them over the years have since been developed, for better or worse). For 2018 St George’s Hall situated directly outside Liverpool Lime Street Station is a Grade 1 listed building dated back to 1854 and is used for concert halls and law courts; inside several films are shown within the underground spaces, prison cells and courtroom. The context for these films by Joyce Wieland, Inci Eviner, Aslan Gaisumov, Lamia Joreige, Brian Jungen & Dunane Linklater and Naeem Mohaiemen creates a heightened sense of awareness that is different to the more familiar context of the gallery and leads me to pay more attention than I perhaps normally would. It is not everyday you see a three-screened film in a courtroom or boat sailing across a prison cell wall....! Across the Biennial there are more films being shown than there are hours in the day, which is a bit disappointing if you are limited in time. The Playhouse Theatre in the heart of the city centre features yet more films, Reetu Sattar’s ‘Harano Sur’ (Lost Tune) documents a performance in Bangladesh in which people played one of seven sustained notes on the harmonium. It is worth hearing as much (if not more) as it is worth seeing.

 
St George's Hall Steps from the Courtroom down to the prison cells
Possibly the most talked about piece from this year’s Biennial is Banu Cennetoğlu’s list tracing the information of more than 34,000 refugees and migrants who have lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993; displayed in the Biennial on billboards along Great George Street. A work that has been vandalised, restored and eventually left in its now semi-vandalised appearance (as a statement of the political unease that this work generated). The list compiled by UNITED for Intercultural Action has been facilitated by Banu who translated the list and placed it in public spaces such as billboards and newspapers. It is a powerful, if depressing (made slightly even more depressing work for being sabotaged) graphic reminder of the scale of lives lost. Ironically for those who sought to destroy this work it has actually gained more poignancy in the traces of marks made by the glue that once held these posters the billboard than in the physical presence of the names themselves. The glue marks becoming a tally of the violent act in attempting to remove them, the resilience of human endurance and consequence that these names, these people cannot be forgotten; that actions and history have consequence.

Glue residue left from the 'destruction' of  Banu Cennetoglu's list of Refugee names
There is far more to see besides what I have mentioned here and these are my own personal highlights. I feel that out of all the apparent doom and gloom of cuts within art education, austerity, Brexit and Trump that the Biennial has continued to look outwards to what is happening within the arts globally, showing work at a time when it is all too easy to be pessimistic, that there is more that unites us than divides us. Art that calls for more action, more participation through questioning, thinking, speaking/listening, engaging, creating, building, planting and maybe even blogging! Nothing is not an option.

Liverpool Biennial 2018, can be seen at selected venues across the city until October 28th. For more information visit: http://www.biennial.com/2018

Sunday, 2 September 2018

I have often walked down this street before...





Ho illustrious passers-by and greetings from the windward side of town! A veritable map of discovery was last week found amongst the library shelves, who knows for how long it had been there? Never before has an A1 folded sheet of paper probably brought more unexpected joy to a normal working day in providing a treasure map of sorts offering an insight into the architectural history of Taunton, Somerset.
Printed in 1975, Taunton: A look around the centre is an illustrated and annotated map designed by Richard Guise with historical advice from Mick Aston and John Hunt produced for the European Architectural Heritage Year. It was amazing to see just what has changed in the last 43 years (this map was made prior to The Brewhouse Theatre being built, being one such example) and what has largely remained the same. Particularly when it comes to some of Guise’s opinions about the potential uses for space in the town, development of the river and ambition/opportunities present which he has annotated on this map. I wonder how many of them were his own opinions or those gathered from his experiences working with the Civic Society (which now doesn’t even exist!)? Some of them are a little cynical, which makes it even more interesting that it was printed at all when one thinks of similar ‘historical’ maps for the public that are almost lacking in personality for fear of unsettling things. For me, this is interesting as many of the ideas he presented over forty years ago echo the sort of comments collected during a public art consultation project I worked on with Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset Art Works in 2010 called, ‘Routes, river, rail’. 

The aim of ‘Routes, river, rail’ was broadly speaking to come up with creative ways of consulting different groups of people in the community and put forward ideas and proposals for how the routes between the train station, river and public spaces such as Firepool, Goodlands Gardens and Tangier within the town could be connected. It was to look at things such as lighting, surfaces, pathways, land-markers, signage, bridges and how different groups have different needs or aspirations of these spaces. Artistic practice was a way of collecting those ideas and proposing ones that could be made reality, it included things from gorilla gardening, painting bridges and creating literally easier to navigate pathways through urban areas (this led to the removal of a part of fencing where Goodlands Gardens meets the bridge on North Street). The ‘could be made’ and ‘proposed’ being the two difficult parts of that sentence. I do not like to dwell too much on past projects, but this one probably had the most significant impact on my understanding of art outside of the academic world, I had graduated a few months before, and into the politics and reality of what art means to people outside that protective art bubble I was so used to. It was when I first discovered blogging and it was a big eye-opener, not all for the better or for worse but made me aware of the attitudes and values that different groups had towards art; some resistant, some open, some hesitant, some confused. I think I was confused too, that suddenly art wasn’t about me, ‘the artist’ and something I was actively making/doing but could be something that we as groups were doing, through walks, talking, making maps, postcards and listening. It put me in touch with some amazing people, Transition Town (who still do a lot of Green activities that included Gorilla gardening), Stefan Jennings (who was commissioned to build the Willow Cathedral in Longrun Meadows) and furthered my links with The Brewhouse Theatre and working with people like Tim Hill on projects such as ‘Sounding out Somerset’ during the Olympics in 2012. 
And though this is all long over the affects of it remain and I am still interested because I still read and see and am party to the impact of developments and changes happening within the town I live in. Finding this map is like finding a missing piece of the puzzle and could have only helped what we were trying to do then and undoubtedly what other groups of people are still trying to do now. It seems to take a lot of repetition before any progress can be made or in order to be listened to. A list of statements from this 1975 map that still hold relevance as follows,
“It’s sad that we so often turn our backs onto rivers in towns.”
“Important skyline”
“Views out over the town to the Quantocks.”
“Two important trees form an effective end to the view down middle street.”
“Blank expanse of wall…ideal for a mural.”
“Why does the highest point in the old town strangely lack drama or a significant building?”
“If we’ve got to have Gasometers why not paint them in good strong colours and designs …they won’t go away because we paint them sky blue.”
“Goodland Gardens -an attempt to attract people back to the neglected river.”
I wish we had had this map in 2010! The politics of this aside the discovery of this map still presents an inspiring example of creative map-making as a way of understanding and learning about place. Maps put facts into context and present snippets of information without overloading people. I learnt several new things such as;
St Johns Church on Park Street was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
In Victorian times there used to be a workhouse somewhere behind the hospital on East Street.
Musgrove, Galmington, Trull Road and Sherford were sites for the ‘Well-to-do villas built on the windward side of town away from factory smells and fall-out.
In Medieval Taunton the Bishop’s Vivarium later to became Vivary Park.
Taunton was one of the first towns to have street lighting in 1886

I am interested in ways people process information and ways we learn a sense of place, why (for example) this map was more appealing and interesting to me than reading a book on the history of Taunton or visiting the museum? How many other people think the same? This is a very visual way of communicating information and offers locations or vantage points where people might go to see these things first-hand. There were little bits of personal history within this map in particular that appealed to me, from the fact it was printed by Barnicotts of Taunton (where two members of my family worked) to its statement of Crown Walk as being a ‘Potential for events, kiosks, exhibitions -at present a bit sad, wide and empty’ which was before the in-shops were built and my family had a fruit business based there (ironically, I feel it is in danger of becoming a ‘bit sad’ again) and the reference to Taunton having the largest Industry for shirts and Collars in 1896 being the collar factory, where Fine Art students at Somerset College (where I studied) had an art exhibition in 2012. I appreciate this will be irrelevant to most people but I mention because it highlights a more universal truth about how places have resonance, you unfold a map out of a place people know and recognise and automatically they are looking for connections, things they recognise, where they live, where their grandparents lived, where they went to school. It is an opener to a host of other conversations. 


In 1975 the purpose of this map was made as a way of presenting current thoughts of the time, ideas for the future as well as illustrating the evolution of the town throughout history.  Forty-three years later and it is still a presentation of the history of the town but has also become a form of social-history in itself. It is not just a map of architectural history, it is a map of the thoughts and values of the people (the civic society) who made it at the time. Attitudes will have changed, things listed on this map as ‘Taunton’s Top 10’ may no longer be the same. The history is still there but to someone like me in their early thirties or younger this map is now also history in itself. I like the idea that one-day maybe an updated map could be made, an unvetted one that did not have to conform to a council-led directive, but one that reflects the current values, opinions, stories and aspirations of people living in Taunton today.
Maybe? It is something to think on. If anyone has any thoughts on this or knows more about this map then please do get in touch via my contact page. I would be interested in hearing from you.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Divine

'the diviner' 2018
In every sense of the word (and for reasons that will also hopefully become clear) Helen Sear’s exhibition which opened last Friday at Hestercombe Gallery, is divine. Least alone because the show opens with her most recent photographic work, titled ‘The Diviner’ (2018) spectacularly displayed on the gallery’s nineteenth century staircase [pictured]. An epically-sized series of three prints of willow trees taken over two years chronicled as their roots grew and dried with the rising and falling of the water where they grew. Their roots adorned by the artist, with flowers to denote their likeness to skirts; a fitting tribute, in the absence of any actual period-dressed skirted ladies, to the grandeur of Hestercombe’s ballroom-like setting. Many proms, in-fact my own having taken place here some years ago (though I never recall myself or anyone else wearing anything that quite matches the scale that Sear’s tree-skirts convey)! The trees divine water through their roots and mirror-image both their workings above as below, intentionally or not, allude an interesting insight into the dual-nature of Sear’s work depicting her subject matter through multiple viewpoints,  the known and the unknown, both here rendered visible. Its subject matter, scale and situ within the gallery, along with its use of colour and play of illusion through mirror-imagery really set the tone for the other visually intriguing and intellectually beguiling works exhibited. 

“Sear has always, it seems, been interested in looking with, looking round and looking through as she is in looking at.”

'stack' 2015
Sitting on the periphery between photography and fine art the works on show in ‘prospect refuge’ are united in being influenced by Sear’s interest in nature and our 'human/animal relationships within it'. The title of the show influenced by a concept from natural history writer, Jay Appleton whose concept of ‘prospect refuge’ states, ‘the perceived beauty of a landscape is directly linked to human survival’. Personally speaking, I am unsure if the images I see consciously trigger thoughts of survival, though I do find many of the stills from Sear’s film-based pieces, with their strong use of colour and focus on textures (a curtain, a net, light through trees) to be beautiful in an aesthetic sense. Maybe much of what we know of 'survival' in relation to the natural landscape has been lost or is now only ingrained in our subconscious? I am unsure, but this psychological-edge to the work creates a double-take in how it is perceived by the viewer. The film/sound piece ‘wahaha biota’ (2018) made for The Forestry Commission England that shows the planting and processing of trees is an example of how Sear’s work creates a sense of intrigue and beauty through green-filtered scenes of meadows and dappled forests in contrast to the isolation and strange sounds that also give these places an edge of being dark, primal and slightly foreboding. Though the overall impression I get is that for what is mostly an exhibition using photography it is surprising just how painterly, immersive and in some cases sculptural the images are. 

The exhibition features photographic and film-based works from 2015 onwards with the implied cross-over between sculpture and photography being an idea that the artist herself acknowledges within one of the first pieces you encounter in the gallery. Titled ‘Stack’, [pictured above] a pile of stacked logs is displayed on a large scale, which in-turn is also physically sliced and stacked vertically as an image along the gallery wall forming a visual blockade that is physically felt as well as seen,

‘a meeting of photography and sculpture, or treating the photographic image as sculptural,...’

In a visual-sense these logs are a series of cylinders piled onto one another, but it also raises feelings of deforestation, man's relationship with the forest, ideas of the homestead and stacking logs used for fires and so on. The doubling-up of the captured-moment of an image of stacked logs versus the stacking of the physical image itself calls into question the visual play between illusion and perception.  A theme explored across a number of Sear’s works from when she exhibited in the Welsh pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2015. 

'...caetera fumus' 2015  
One of several pieces from the Venice Biennale exhibited at Hestercombe, titled ‘...caetera fumus’ reads almost like a transcription of the original painting of St Sebastian [1490] it was inspired from by Andrea Mantegna.  Instead of a figure the landscape becomes the protagonist, a bright yellow field in contrast to red twigs become symbols for blooded arrows and a light-box becomes a modern-day interpretation of creating a glaze in paint and almost celestial-like luminosity associated with religious imagery. In the same room, the curation of the quote, ‘Nihil nisi divinum stabile est. Caetera fumus’ [which translates as ‘Nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke’] displayed, in my mind rather wittily, above the fireplace and refers to the impermanence of all things. I am fortunate to have seen these works before in Venice where the context of this work was closely tied to the building it was shown in, however, I feel that the work has more autonomy in the context of Hestercombe away from the heat and saturation of art in Venice where it can be contemplated quietly and more fully than I allowed time for previously. 

Colour and the reference to painting (as we have already had with sculpture) are also present in another series of photographs called ‘brand 1’ and ‘brand 2’. You could almost take these images on first glance to be paintings, stains or rubbings. 

“My use of colour is also to do with a convergence of the synthetic and the natural, using heightened colour to explore relationships between light and pigment, painting and photography.”

I think they are a photograph of a marking on a tree, but for me the uncertainty and place it fits between being photo and non-photo, is it a documentation of a moment in time or is it merely an image? Are these colours natural or manmade, real or unreal? Are questions what make these and many of Sear’s images worth revisiting.

“Her process of production often suggest a series of veils or membranes that may be alternately piled up and peeled away...Rather than merely giving us the world, or giving us to it, the photographic act is an overlayering , of times and places, signs and sensations.”

'the beginning and the end of things' 2015
The projection piece, shown on the floor ‘the beginning and the end of things’ (2015) is another example where our sense of perception is skewed and how Sear adapts her medium of film and photography to create something that (like ‘Stack’) her audience almost 'physically' encounters rather than merely 'looks-at', as one tries to work out what this unfamiliar amoeba-like changing coloured thing is. Her work has been linked to ideas within Surrealism and I can see why within this work particularly as it conveys an ever-changing puddle within which the trees and sky are reflected but at the same time are an illusion of the real-thing, an Alice in Wonderland-like portal to another world... It is real and unreal at the same time, uncanny, slightly trippy and strange but oddly also more engaging because of those things than had it been static or on the wall. Once again there is also something very painterly/impressionistic in its fluidity. It is not the only piece in the exhibition either where Sear combines new technology along with nature/natural images drones are used in the film piece, 'moments of capture' (2016).

There is more to be seen in this exhibition than I have referred to here in what is also worth noting is Sear's first solo show but second time exhibiting at Hestercombe, having shown work in 2015's 'Double Take'. Then as now, I feel that her use of colour, modes of display and references to painting/fine art is more exciting, inventive and engaging than I have felt about a lot of photography as a medium previously. It is great to have that perception challenged as it is also worth reiterating how great it is to see these works on my doorstep and I would encourage others to do the same. 

Helen Sear’s 'prospect refuge hazard 2' is on at Hestercombe Gallery until October 28th

Quotes sourced from: Drake, D (2015) Helen Sear: ...the rest is smoke, Ffotogallery Wales Limited: Cardiff 

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Not so shocking pink, but still relevant!


This less than conspicuous fluorescent pink book, titled, ‘Creativity: Why it matters’ from chief executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley was published last week on the 28th June and is the sort of book that, if I still worked in a bookshop, I would most definitely have on display till-side. It’s small enough to read quickly and gives a convincing polemic for why creativity in all its forms generates a significant impact on the economy, in our communities, in our lives and education that leaves a lasting impression long after reading. 

Somewhat bias of me but much of what Henley’s book covers will ring true with what those already in the art world know/believe about the labours and  importance of their undertaking already, but is heartening nonetheless to have the message, along with some impressive stats and examples (such as Hull’s experiences being capital of culture) to demonstrate how creativity drives innovation, boosts our economy and enables individuals and communities to shape and define their futures. 

“The creative industries contributed £91.8 billion to the UK economy in 2016 –that’s 5.3 percent of the UK economy (bigger than the combined totals of the automotive, life sciences, aerospace and oil and gas industries).”

This is exactly the sort of manifesto that one would want to come out from someone at the helm of Arts Council England and though he states that it is ‘his’ words rather than an official publication of the organisation, it is still reinforcing much of what must be some of the values and ambitions of Arts Council England? I assume! Henley also talks about the value of creativity (broadly speaking) rather than being pigeon-holed as being something only relevant to the arts and how its capacity for inducing curiosity, problem solving and analytical skills are essential in many industries as well as helping tackle rising problems of loneliness and issues surrounding mental-health. One such example cited by Professor Roger Kneebone is to use arts within sciences to teach medical staff,

“The expertise of the scientists and medics informs the creativity of the artists; and the expertise of the artists helps the scientists and medics to think and act more creatively.”

Of course, again my own personal bias is coming across here (having quite recently started working in a medical library) but in an era when arts are being increasingly cut in education and undervalued in the academic jobs market this little book is an important voice in the need to remind, inspire and nurture the provision of creativity. It isn’t simply a call for more money to be thrown at it, but a sort of recognition and investment that must first come from time and understanding. Some of the most successful musicians, artists and performers etc. often come out of places with little or no opportunity because there is a need or desire for expression and the arts in these areas of our communities. It also highlights the diversity of places and means by which people are ‘creative’ from cooking, to gardening, walking, writing and even fishing! However, the argument of when and where people learn and retain their creativity is something of contention but must still be encouraged. One such example cited that was of personal interest, being libraries, 

“Libraries consistently emerge from surveys as being especially trusted institutions, safe spaces and resources of integrity. They are also making an evolutionary journey towards being communal, creative hubs, where you would be likely to access a 3D printer as a novel. Maybe we should develop these trusted community resources so that they become miniature local universities –centres for life-long learning and bases for new kinds of co-operative creative work. Centres of citizenship.” 

Interesting and I haven’t really given too much thought into the practicalities of such a proposition, but I know that from working in a bookshop retail environment that what bookshops offer goes farther than being merely ‘just a place to shop’ yet, it seems, they are seldom by government or otherwise supported as being anything other. Yet they, libraries and other places people go to learn, socialise, have fun, connect and discover could continue and even be much more than they already offer. A thread that continues into Henley’s final chapter which addresses creativity and education and is critical of how it is being cut-back at the peril of failing to invest in human progress.

“Art education is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Though its not all doom and gloom, he makes several resonate observations of why creativity is important in the development of a person's sense of self and potential to make positive change, in-fact the overriding feeling is one that this book is small and punchy enough to have an impact that could instigate long-lasting change, as long as the right people are (reading) listening. I hope so.