Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Nosing around in Newlyn and Penzance

Tiny wooden tools suspended in salt water inside a bottle! What's not to love or at the very least find incredibly curious about these unusual man-made relics by Cornish sailors. A ship in a bottle, seen plenty, but tools in a bottle?  That's certainly new to me. Their display in the Exchange, Penzance doesn't offer up any additional information either, being deliberately ambiguous and provocative. Alongside this, similarly unique artefacts, on loan from Helston Museum, are on display as part of an exhibition that I'd been intrigued to see for a very long time...

‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing’ is a touring Hayward exhibition inspired by cabinets of curiosities and draws on ideas in contemporary artists’ practices that explore the perils and joys of research, fascination and enquiry within their work. The nature of wonder, knowledge, curiosity and the dark side of secrets is explored in new, sometimes surprising or unsuspecting ways by the featured artists and, as I found out, has both the power to bemuse, delight and inform its audiences.

‘Curiosity confuses attention and distraction, novelty and repetition, interest and boredom, seriousness and triviality.’

As I briefly mentioned, I managed to catch this exhibition whilst it was on at Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange, Penzance back in April. It’s now currently on its last stage of its tour at the excellent (take it from me I’ve been there) Appel Gallery in Amsterdam. However, I had heard of the exhibition long before I saw it, coming across a copy of the exhibition catalogue and after seeing the works it presented I really did want to find out more.

How things work, mechanics and the tools that fix them, mechanical diagrams, Da Vinci’s drawings, Fernand Leger’s mechanical inspired compositions, the Futurists, the deconstruction of the everyday presented in Cubism; are some of the many things that have influenced and inspired my own practice (or at least in the early stages, initially more aesthetically than symbolically). Collections also often appear in my work particularly in my depictions of tools, although I never really came to a resolution as to whether this was because I liked the shapes layered clusters of tools created or whether there was something underlying more psychological or obsessive about the collection/need to draw them all. Either way, the decision to create sets of tools often drew parallels to museum modes of identification, artefacts and cabinets of curiosities. In turn this led to looking in more depth at interpretation, how/what criteria we use to define what a tool is etc. ‘Curiosity’ appeals to that reasoning and is really an exploration into how we interpret things. There isn’t a huge amount of pinpointing to exactly what anything in the exhibition means or often even is which only heightens the sense of intrigue and curiosity. For this reason, and unlike some conceptual art the work operates on two levels;

-“I’m interesting and intriguing enough to look at, experience on my own.”
-“If you read what I’m about you’ll find a different/additional way into understanding the work.”   

‘Curiosity’ brings together the work of 21 artists, that include Susan Hiller and Richard Wentworth alongside specific artefacts based on whatever location it’s currently on display in. It’s a concept that has been explored before in ‘Mythologies’ at Haunch of Venison, 2009 and ‘The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art’ at the Barbican in 2008 both of which also featured a mix of contemporary art works alongside everyday or museum-based artefacts. The exhibited works have been selected well ranging across a wide variety of media and approaches from taxidermy to photography, film, glass and printmaking. Some of the processes are natural such as a collection of agates, alabaster, jasper and quartz stones belonging to writer Roger Caillois’ who reminds us of the tradition of artists and writers ‘seeing things’ in stones whereas others are more playful such as Nina Katchadourian who creates images or recreates Flemish style portraits from in-flight magazines, food, napkins on long haul flights .There is something to satisfy everyone’s level of curiosity, with works that are scientific studies, such as Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka’s  glass anemones and jellyfish (pictured) to Thomas Grunfeld’s taxidermy hybrids (a peacock fused to a penguin) which is more direct in alluding to the Victorian Cabinets of Curiosities/Freak shows that often featured taxidermy hybrids. What these works also demonstrate is the idea of 'making' as a way of understanding. In the same way that drawing allows us to notice the thing we are drawing more closely making or drawing also reveal an understanding of how something is formed/how it works that cannot perhaps be so easily obtained through other means of gaining knowledge.

Aura Satz 'Skyquakes in Ear Trumpets' 2013

The artist Aura Satz attempts to create visual representations of sound using archaic technologies, whereby hearing trumpets emerge from a phonograph horn capture the sounds emitting from the phonograph inwardly mimicking the functioning of the human ear....or something like that...it sounded very unusual.

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka 'Actinia and Sargartia' 1890

'The Centre for Landuse Interpretation' Los Alamos National Laboratory Rolodexes 1965-78

Apparently when it comes to landuse there's a vast archive of material collected by the CLUI in Los Alamos, a research and education organisation whose aim is to 'understand the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth's surface'. What exactly that incudes or rules out is anyone's guess, it could include absolutely everything.The business cards displayed here are from organisations and suppliers of the sort that a national nuclear weapons factory might need to call upon (and there's a lot of them!) Collected at the height of the Cold War arms race they are representative of the sheer numbers and volume of companies involved. Fascinating in its weirdly specific nature but also politically charged in its decision making.

Matt Mullican 'Untitled (New Edinburgh Encyclopaedia Project) 1991

Highlights for me included Matt Mullican’s ‘Untitled (New Edinburgh Encyclopaedia Project)’ (pictured) comprising of hundreds of oilstick rubbings, some hung on the wall others in a large plan chest and are from what I assume were printing plates for an encyclopaedia.  Naturally the information presented alongside doesn’t specify and is fairly vague saying that they are the artists’ ‘signs’ and he sees them as ‘symbols and pictographs that make up an eccentric cosmography that might expand forever’. All I know is that to me this work deals with how things are signified, how we represent knowledge and meaning pictorially which touches upon what I mentioned earlier in being interested in interpretation.

Katie Paterson’s ‘History of Darkness’ is essentially a box of slides containing photographic images of the night sky collected from researchers around the world. Visitors are invited to view the slides and hold them to the light. Each one is dated with its time and location and you are quickly aware that each one appears exactly the same. The interpretation? Darkness is never ending or I prefer to think it’s an enquiry to find when the darkness does end or a kind-of reassuring take on the idea that despite coming out of the age of enlightenment, the age of illumination and so forth that we are still in the dark, in the sense that there is still much we do not know/understand.
All very reassuring in what was a very enjoyable and fascinating exhibition. In some aspects the process of 'finding out', exploration and investigation is what artists already do and have always done; whether it is a 'finding out' that is personal, expressive or a 'finding out' in which to communicate an idea, event, phenomena, persons or place. In stating that, this exhibition doesn't present anything wildly revolutionary but does reaffirm that art is always about enquiry in some form or another which this exhibition successfully shows alongside the work of scientists demonstrating the often tangible links between the two.  Art tends to make the science more accessible and science informs and gives a rationale to the art. It is an exhibition I will continue to talk and think about long after having seen it. 

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