Wednesday, 23 July 2014

What's the word?

If there was a message saying, ‘you will write about this exhibition' at 'Barber Kruger', Modern Art Oxford, then it was subliminal.  
 Wandering through one of the text-filled installations that Barbara Kruger is synonymous for, immersed in the overwhelming scale of the black, white and green text that ran floor to ceiling in the main room of MAO I felt worryingly desensitised to the whole experience.  I say worryingly given the fact that a fellow visitor, of more elderly years, was so affected by the floor to ceiling bombardment of text and slogans that he tentatively stumbled, as though unsure of where the floor had gone, disorientated by the whole experience. For myself, perhaps being from a generation that has been more subjected to the bombardment of images, words and communication that are also faster and more readily available than ever before, it is harder for printed text to have impact, a victim of its familiarity. This is not to say that Barbara Kruger’s work has completely lost its impact, as the current exhibition of the artist’s work at Modern Art Oxford aims to prove, but it is possibly in danger in the digital age of news, advertising and social media of becoming more familiar, less hard hitting than what it once was.

Emerging from America in the early 1960’s Kruger made her impression on the art world with her adaptation of advertising language and imagery which she used as a social commentator and political agitator to provoke questions about assumed viewpoints on capitalism or femininity through graphic media of text and image. From a background in graphic design, working for a small independent women’s magazine her art work often favoured the red, white and black (like the tabloids) featuring often classical or iconic imagery that she juxtaposed with contradictory or perception altering text. Her wit and edginess ironically perhaps saw her slogans becoming commoditised into bags (‘I shop therefore I am’) and reproduced as posters turning them into some of the most recognised images from the pop art era.
Certainly the large installation at MAO is almost too much to take in making it so that any message, any meaning that the words may have on the walls/floor are lost in the noise of a hundred other messages all shouting for your attention at the same time. Perhaps this is the point, that there is a loss of anything meaningful and words become mere shapes, formal components in a space when you have too many things competing with each other at once? The most successful use of text in the main installation, as it has the most affect, is the word ‘JOYFUL’ in huge letters filling the wall you enter in. It’s simple and works well in drawing your attention to the height, space and shape of the room, (which is described as ‘cathedral-like’) but if anything is more intimidating in its authority in size, that is more bossy than actually encouraging any genuine feelings of joy. Personally, I think this is quite reflective of how most advertising works in the sense it presents a good-thing and forces you to like it clouding your own judgement as to whether you really need it or not.Well worth watching as well is the impressive and mesmerising feat of how the work was installed in a short time-lapse film.    
For me though, Kruger’s smaller works have more to say and impact than the more superficial room installation. A simple observation of, bigger is not necessarily better is evident in the example, 'Your Misery Loves Company' where the juxtaposition of a dentist’s drill and wording, ‘Your Misery Loves Company’ is much more unnerving, hard-hitting and lasts in memory more than anything in the installation. Some of the messages in these works may have lost their relevance over time but their ability to have impact has not.  Her directness to mass audiences and ability to provoke/challenge using words and strong graphic imagery has influence that makes up some of the fundamentals of street art; one example being Shepard Fairey’s Obey posters and iconic Obama Hope poster. Kruger’s work was one of the significant players in taking the familiar language/media of advertising and newsprint and subverting it to create new meaning. More recently artists such as 2012 Turner Prize winner Elizabeth Price use Kruger influenced text and image in film montage to great success. The interesting question now, is where Kruger’s work sits today, with, as I’ve already alluded to, more modern/digital forms of communication and less use of print?
The answer can be found in Kruger’s most recent pieces where the artist has used film. They also make up the more relevant and interesting pieces of the exhibition. ‘Plenty LA’ from 2008 flashes the word ‘enough’ at the viewer repeatedly amongst still and moving images of sunsets, a handbag, car with a smashed bonnet and ‘bling’ encrusted mobile phone; a direct Kruger-esque comment on consumerism, whilst in ‘Twelve’ faces are projected on the walls argue with one another (about relationships from what I gathered), their real thoughts read across the bottom of the screen like news coverage. This work is more topical in its use of modern technology and its use of a reality TV-style of drama or dialogue that has come full circle from being first intended to present a view of reality to now in fact being completely unreal in its superficial-ness.  The viewer enters awkwardly into the middle of these arguments that feel at once staged and fake but believably real at the same time. It is an observant and is a slightly troubling comment on our current society that we chose to trust the authenticity of the news reel text as to the spoken words of the actors, but this is what Kruger does best. In ‘Twelve’ she takes a familiar mode of presentation used in the media, the news reel and subverts it into manipulating how, in this case we respond to what is a very social/domestic situation. It is far more subtle than her printed work from the sixties and therefore accurately demonstrates the change in media/advertising to becoming more subliminal.
New and fans to Kruger’s work will get the most out of this exhibition that for me, acts more as a retrospective than being completely  fresh or ‘of the moment’. I don’t think this is entirely Kruger’s fault, but more that her message that once protruded so edgily on the walls of modern art galleries or shopping bags now feels too accepted and familiar to remain that provocative. Your modern-day Kruger is now more likely to be found tagging a subversive message on the wall of a public building or generating some of the many political satire games/images that pop-up on blogs, forums and Facebook pages, they’ll be creating flash mobs, guerrilla knitting and attempting to go viral with videos and tweets that raise question to accepted normalities. Such is the plight in the age of uncertainty they probably won’t even call themselves artists.
Barbara Kruger is on at Modern Art Oxford until August 31st 2014.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Kitsch you like...

As a bookseller it is my sworn duty to from time-to-time inform you of some of the lesser-known marvels/oddities in the world of books...

In that tradition and as a bit of fun following on from last week's Art School related post, I found an old copy of a manga set in an Art School in Japan. Yes it seems that there really is a manga for almost everything making it in some ways unsurprising to find one set around the highs and lows of studying art (because who wants to read about monsters, martial arts or robots when you can go to art school?!)
None-the-less it is still pretty weird in its extremely kitsch, exaggerated and humorous take on what ordinarily should be a fairly mundane topic (although anyone who has studied art will tell you in reality it is anything but  mundane or uneventful). Manga, Anime and Japanese culture has an amazing ability to take almost any profession, lifestyle or activity and make it cute, quirky or interesting (think 'Harvest Moon' for farming). You only need to look at the amount of time/detail given to everyday activities such as preparing food in virtually any anime to realise this. The more mundane it seems the better and a refreshing difference to the attention grabbing pace of a majority of Western animation.

 G.A is sublimely silly, don't expect anything deeply revealing in what is more a comedy of relationships and mannerisms that happens to be set in an art school. Peppered with tips and facts on paints, colour mixing and drawing materials younger readers would probably learn something too, its the sort of book I would have loved as a kid (and in many ways still do!). The whole thing is far sweeter, cuter and innocent than the real thing but that doesn't take away from the occasional amusing, true-to-life observation that makes reading it worthwhile.  

And if you really enjoy it there's a whole series!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Another brick in the bookcase

Ah the perils of working in a bookshop. In between the day to day mishaps and writing my next blog post I came across (actually it sort-of interrupted things) a brilliant book, 'Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century'. Bringing together a collection of essays, interviews and case studies from Arts institutions, arts educators, critics, former students, curators and artists around the world it is the perfect read to dive in and out of and as I have found already, contains some magnificent, inspiring and accurately insightful observations/ideas that extend beyond the thinking that this is a book primarily concerned with 'teaching' or 'education'.
Everywhere you read and virtually everyone you talk to about arts education at the moment has a pretty bleak view on its future. 'Things are most definitely not what as they once were!' Simply the way art is taught (if you are among the few who believe it can be 'taught' at all) seems to require an approach that is more experience driven/unique to the more conventional sides of teaching and perhaps has therefore unjustly suffered (despite a long fought resistance) in the hands of those who don't understand it; often perceived for its being at odds when forced to comply with more institutionalised ways of educating instead of being supported/understood in its own right. Where some open minded institutions may adapt and thrive under the pressure to conform, narrow minded management on top of squandered resources escalated with cuts in arts funding nationally have been met with an increasing anxiety that has seen many arts establishments buckle. The emergence of independent art schools and artist-led art schools in response to these failings, backed by the growing student dissatisfaction spurred by increases in tuition fees is in some ways unsurprising and raises the important debate that there is a considerable, valid and perhaps long overdue need for reviewing how future generations of artists will be nurtured. 
I think these are issues that affect all artists, particularly those considering or beginning their art education but also to those who have been through these experiences already and/or continue to work with these institutions. How the concept of the art school evolves, reinvents itself over the next few years, I speculate will have impact on where our innovative thinkers/makers come from, how we value art (in the broadest sense of the word), where will we cultivate/inspire future generations of artists and how art proliferates to work with other disciplines. Without having read the whole thing yet I think this book goes someway at offering some potential solutions those questions.
Personally, I am still trying to unravel the mysteries of my own art education that continue to have impact on my thinking and decision making in and outside whether I am making art or not, whether I am successful in my art pursuits or not.  It is one of those rare experiences, of the kind that tend to stick with you and influence who you are and how you react to life's situations.
I've had to put posts on Bill Viola and Matisse on hold for now, as it seemed all too important and exciting not to share some of the things I read...

1) The following is one of the best quotes I have found about how I felt in the transition between my formal art education and 'being an artist' in the real world, so to speak:
‘Artists undertake to transform themselves continuously through their practices and throughout their working lives. For an artist there can be no separation from being someone and learning to become someone. The reason to continue to be an artist lies in an everyday rediscovery of what remains to be said or done. Being an artist is no different from learning to become an artist. The process of rediscovery of what it is that he or she needs to do transforms the artist on an everyday basis. The horizons of the artist’s self continuously expand to take in the incremental unravelling of what the artist still desires to inscribe on his or her consciousness and the attention of the world.
The day that an artist realizes that his or her stock of things left to think about and to do has depleted to a point where it measures less than what has been done already , the artist might as well stop practicing. This means that in order to continue working, the artist learns to constantly prepare for the unknown, for what remains to be done. An artist’s education is never finished. School is never out. ‘ –Raqs Media Collective ‘How to be an artist by night’

The whole essay is excellent too and can be read via the following link:

2) It is worth reading this piece in its entirety created by students as Columbia University and reads as a list of creative, observational, political, environmental, social, architectural, strategic proposals for an imaginary potential art school. Factors such as historical context, geography, funding, power relationships, infrastructure, facilities and institutional relationships were considered as terms for generating ideas. I certainly found several things to be very reflective of my own experiences and many others which I thought would be welcome/beneficial additions to current art school programmes.  Extremely thought provoking, self contradictory, silly, entertaining, serious, imaginative, honest and poignant...come to think of it a lot like art! This is the sort of reading that should be compulsory for anyone within the institution of art education; managers, tutors and students alike and for those artists, like myself who still look back in wonder as they continue to make sense of it all.

Nobody asked you to do nothing /a potential school
Report prepared in November 2007
At Columbia University, School of the Arts, Graduate studio program.
Liam Gillick

 NB: This isn't the entire version. I edited it out to include the main points, but stress its worth reading it all. Alternatively highlighted in orange are the few points I particularly enjoyed, if you don't have the time!

Things will be out of sync. There will be a large sauna. The edge will be perceived from the inside and outside simultaneously. The idea of boundary pushing will remain. There will be lots more bicycles. Some surprising things will be free. There will be more difference. There will still be a studio problem. There will be big sheds. There will still be a sense that one is forced to find an activity. Delusion will remain. The question will remain, what kind of space are we in? ...There will remain a focus upon the idea of students choice. This will remain an incomplete project. There will be many places to sleep. There will be showers on demand. There will be the possibility of collective action. There may well be citizen artists. There will be a free, or progressive tuition scale (increasing expense with duration of attendance). There will definitely be massages from trusted people.... There will be a sense that there is less structure. ...Some things will be more mobile. Some people will be more migratory. Some effects will remain local... Some structures will be disintegrated. There will be fewer clear representations of power within the hierarchy of the place. There will be no possibility of an architecture that clearly expresses relationships. ... There will still have to be a building. ...In the manner of pre-schools there will be reading lofts and soft places to rest. ...Incomprehensible wealth will circle the school. There will be no equilibrium...Who is them will remain a reasonable question...There will be a reduction of appropriateness. There will be an increase in duration. Some will explore the potential of every possible resource. There will be large scale 3-dimensional printers, and scanners. Full time computer programmers will be available at all times. Student status will remain unclear. There will be even more examination of the idea of the university as a concept. An increasing attempt will be made to ensure an infection of disciplines by those who attend the school. Concrete, wood and water will be combined in most of the buildings and structures. Large terraces will be covered in plants. The structure will be located near the ocean. Composting will be used as a method of production. ..There will be a permanent thesis show. A cumulative thesis shows will continue forever with work being added every year. There will be a frustrated desire for consistent knowledge from the beginning of the year. There will be an encouragement of non-directed energy. Attempts will be made to create lots of seemingly arbitrary rules. There will be internal openness combined with public reticence. Friendly qualities will endure. Viewing ports will be suggested but the idea that they are cut into studio walls will be rejected. There will be a well loved swimming pool. There will be an abandoned climbing wall. Water will become the most popular meeting place. ...The studio will be a location of desire but some people will fight against this. Some people will dream of the creation of an honest nostalgia. There will be many spaces that produce incomprehension. Role playing will be discouraged. Repetition will be impossible. Someone will always doing something every day. There will be designated moments when you are there on your own, and you know it. Clear times when you alone are allowed in the building. There will develop the option of manual labour, students can clean the windows, dig drainage ditches and package chewing gum. A big experimental Greenhouse will be donated to the place by an anonymous benefactor. Animals will roam free and cause problems from time to time...Confrontation with past desires will be accepted as a normal part of life. New relationships with service will produce a new understanding of obligations. There will be places to jump around and wrestle. 4-dimensional studies will become a well-loved fable from the past. Personal relationships will multiply. Claustrophobia will not exist. Gaps in between shallowness and repetition will expand and fill the world with a whole new kind of artistic production. Teachers working alongside the students will forget to teach. Ghost towns will proliferate. Students choosing staff choosing students choosing staff will replace each other in perpetuity. Lectures in foreign languages with no translation will become the most popular event of the week. The institution will declare its politics and people will wait for the statements with eager anticipation. Statements of position in the society will be greeted with warm condescension. Collectivity as an assumption will no longer need to be questioned. Social status and hierarchy within the culture will no longer have any effect on what is produced but will still be understood. No mission statements will exist outside the ancient archives of the place. A description of whatʼs what will start each morning. Starting again every two years will mean that there is no them and us. No overlaps will be accepted. Keep asking what is collectivity even if nobody cares and you will be thrown out. Once accepted, you will stay, for a long time, but the faculty will change every year. Beta-testing rights for all things will become the norm. A strong graphic sensibility for all outside communication will become standard practice. Who is responsible will be the question of the day. Set something in motion will never be just for its own sake. The observation deck will be broad and wide and show a vast panorama. Planning will be a necessity. Populism will be excused. Good cases and bad cases will create a new language. Cultural importation will increase. Dispersal will endure. Open access will be the cause of many arguments... There will be no institutional furniture. Custom built databases and permanent data managers will be as common as their absence today. Drinks trolleys will be everywhere and regularly get restocked. Leakage will remain a problem. Speed of production will cause arguments. Suspended judgement will no longer be a defence. Interest from others will be the source of contentment. Continuing regardless will be viewed as a crime...Democracy and non-democracy of space will considered at the start of each year. Abuse of space will be encouraged. Uniforms will be optional. It will feel as if unicorns are about to return. There will be lots of different buildings...Orchards will bloom. The potential for growth will be suspended. The department of rhetoric and announcements will hold people at bay. No-one will feel qualified to develop a curriculum. Secondary production techniques will be encouraged. Large roaring fires will frame places of thought. An infinite number of departments will be established to represent the diverse interests of the place. A place to play music will be maintained and well loved. No painting will take place, but not because anyone prevents it....Instant mythology will flourish. The question of when should things finish will become a distant memory? An extensive program of field trips and events will take place before anyone gets up. Traces of these journeys will remain in the stories of the drivers.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An end to the tale...

A quick bit of important news that I neglected to mention until now. On Tuesday 20th of May 2014 I was one of 86 artists who donated an A5 artwork to be auctioned for Musgrove Park Hospital's, Art for Life, 'Art on the Block' fundraising event.
In total, the combined artworks raised £7350!
My block (pictured here) of 'Herman' the chameleon sold for £80.
The money will go towards, 'enhancing the patient environment at Musgrove Park Hospital which might be through workshops with patients, improving a neglected area or an artwork that brings a smile to someone’s face.'
Those of you following my blog will also know that in addition to our block, Orchard Shopping Centre donated the pigs myself and Michael Fairfax rescued from rotting to be auctioned at the same event. Full details found here:
The good news is that instead of being left to rot another day, the pigs made £560. My Pigsaw going for £210 and Michael's Polden Pig going for £340.
Thank you to everyone who made a bid and/or bought an art work at the event.
A big THANK YOU is also long over due to Marika Sterry Marketing and Events Coordinator of The Orchard Shopping Centre, Tim Martin,  Candice Dean and those who worked at making the project happen in its origins. Thanks as well go to Emma Quick from Art for Life who allowed us to 'Piggy back' onto their event which has ended in the pigs going to good homes and raise money for a fantastic local arts cause!
And that, brings an end to our tale.