Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Enduring the Misery So You Don't Have To

  To the fabled few Dismaland is an experience worst endured alone and in the rain.

 That’s exactly what I did, except along with several other hundred people who had the same idea earlier this week one particularly miserable rain filled morning as I queued along the sea front at the Somerset seaside town, Weston-Super-Mare.  Dubbed the UK’s ‘most disappointing new visitor attraction’ the exhibition situated in Weston’s dilapidated Tropicana Lido aims to bemuse and turn the whole idea of an ‘amusement park’ on its head, subvert it, fill it with irony and humour mixed with the controversy, political undertones and social commentary that we’ve come to expect from the Bristol originated street artist’s work.  The site features several of Banksy’s works ever pushing the ‘artist’ as we now seem to call him into territory increasingly outside that of just graffiti or street art and into the broader realms of almost Damien Hirst ambitions of being a media savvy entrepreneur. The concept of the park itself and work within it has been curated (we’re told) by Banksy himself and excitingly features the work of over fifty other artists including Jenny Holzer and David Shrigley.

Like cogs in the infernal consumer, social media machine multitudes of us bought into the hype, the speculation and almost feverishness as we either queued for hours in the rain or clambered in vein in an attempt to purchase tickets online. An unprecedented demand for what is essentially, ‘an art exhibition in wolves clothing’ of the likes Charles Saatchi and Nick Serota (Tate Director) can only dream of! Love Banksy or hate him, there is so much to be said for the phenomenon in sheer popularity alone that this attraction has caused. It is possibly one of the most intelligent marketing events in recent years, that has managed to convince thousands of people to stand for hours queuing in the rain, endure a truly incompetent website, miserable staff and terrible customer service based on the promise of having a ‘bad’ or ‘dismal’ time. Our shared frustration and misery only adding to the attractiveness, hype and irony of the whole experience!  Those lacking a sense of humour need not attend!
Is it all a gimmick, a one-liner a joke at society’s expense or is there something more to offer in the thinking, artists and work within Dismaland? If art becomes ‘popular’ it is sometimes dismissed as being a bit naff, vacuous or shallow in appealing to the masses? Think Pop Art in the early 60s America. But what’s wrong with being popular? We now look upon Pop Art as something more crucial and important to art history than perhaps the reception it was met with by critics at the time. I think the mistake that people make is when they associate popular with being ‘good’ or having ‘quality’ to it which is often subjective and very often not the case. The grim reaper on a bumper car, two trucks colliding in on each other, a killer whale jumping from a toilet into a paddling pool and a beach ball suspended above knives may not be ‘good’ art, ‘tasteful’ or even particularly well-made but is popular because it is often deliberately easily accessible.

Is a joke that no one gets funny? Not really unless it’s ironic, you want it to be told in a language, a wit that everyone can understand. Comic book art, advertising in the 60s is a visual language meant to be understood by the masses and so political cartoons, one-liners and non-conformist acts of rebellion are designed to communicate their message across clearly be it in the form of slogans, word-play, use of celebrity, parody or satire. The danger of this so called popularity or ‘wisdom of the crowds’ is exactly that, cliché; and the danger of a lot of work presented at Dismaland is that in all its clever cynicism it soon grows tiresome, repetitive and above all is quite quickly forgotten. It is art that should only be enjoyed as part of a balanced art diet! Even the overtly more practically used political banners by Ed Hall lose some of their power in being statically hung in a tent-based installation; they are only really animated in the context of the people who carry them.
A flat photo-realistic painting of a dystopian landscape, of which there are many in Dismaland doesn’t have the same meaning in its production and intent behind it as a George Shaw painting in my opinion. Nor does the asylum seekers raft boat ‘fairground’ style game have the same lasting resonance that pricks much deeper at your conscience, like an Ai Weiwei  work does, in which the production is as symbolic (if not more so) as the finished work itself. That’s sort of where the art in Dismaland disappoints, that it feels confused as to who its real audience are, if it is disillusioned teenagers, working class, middle class, celebrities, idiots, journalists or all of the above! Guerrilla Island toward the back of the park does offer some earnestness, some radical politics in the form of a museum of cruel design, objects designed to hurt (example, pigeon spikes for the homeless), the Comrades Advice Bureau and a mini library. If you take time to process these amidst the distractions of the fun fair I salute you.  

Dismaland does well at addressing a bigger political message about Art, its purpose and value, particularly in how Councils need to reassess how they value the arts/culture in their towns and cities to create more provision for them providing easier access to disused spaces; as Dismaland demonstrates how much prosperity culture can provide to a seaside resort in the rainy summer holiday months. I enjoyed being part of the spectacle, the experience; Bill Barminski’s fake security gate made of cardboard was one good example at using performance within an art experience and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun exploring the remnants of Tropicana, riding inside the Astronaut’s Caravan as it spun around you and attempting to knock over anvils with ping-pong balls. We shouldn’t be afraid to not take art seriously some times and if you are walking around expecting it all to be art you're severely missing the point; its as much of a fair ground as it is an art exhibition as it is a bar and music venue. Make of each what you will! It pokes fun at our familiarity of how we expect to view art in museums and galleries and maybe an amusement park could be a fun place to see art?!

 Its downfall for me however is given its huge opportunity and press coverage it could had a rare chance to be so much more than a cheap laugh or a ‘place to be seen’. I think it plays to the audience as being  a consuming, disillusioned society that isn’t so much looking for answers or solutions as it is for someone to blame. Jaded by political and capitalist systems in a world increasingly under threat of environmental self-oblivion; there isn’t much optimism or, if Dismaland was anything to go by, much in the way of what we can actually do about it. Its most dismal trait is its portrayal of a troubling acceptance or apathy that the world may irreconcilably be doomed so why bother. It had the opportunity to be much more of an activator to promote and encourage positive change but does so very shallowly or more often choosing to ignore it all together. I am sceptical whether this Disneyland parody set in a very British stereotypical seaside town could provide the political awakening that has been somewhat lacking but much needed in those of my generation and younger? And that really is quite dismal.

But hey, on the plus side makes for some great photo opportunities though!

If you insist on fulfilling the dismalness for yourself then I suggest you arrive at Weston early and queue! For those of you further afield you may want to try booking a ticket online:
Good Luck!

All text & Images Copyright of Natalie Parsley©

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Bones Don't Lie

Parsley’s Guide to Gallery Survival (for dummies) rule no 3; If you’re going to accidently knock, touch or move the art work then try to do so in the most ironically named gallery space you can find and above all NEVER ever, ever return to the scene of the crime...
That’s right, my friend’s rogue art-altering scarf decided to go awol and fractionally move one of the tiniest bones on the table of installed work by Jenny Holzer in the ‘Pigsty’ gallery of Hauser and Wirth, Somerset during our visit early last week. Oh calamity! A complete accident of course but had said scarf knocked one of those bones onto the floor the gallery assistants ‘may have had to close the gallery’. Queue lots of walkie-talkie communication, man wearing white gloves to move bone two millimetres back inline....and breathe. Crisis adverted! There is a LOT of one eyebrow-raising to be had; this is a level of Art attention to a standard seldom seen! 
I’m fascinated by the elite spectrum of the art world. When a urinal, a fence, a glass of water, a bone becomes so precious that we react to its place within the work it resides with such caution and reverence. I would be curious to know if the reaction to our moving of the bone wasn’t as much out of respect that it was a human bone and more that it was a component in a highly expensive piece of art work? Perhaps a bit of both, the ethics of that question and indeed the politics of it are highly sensitive baring in mind this piece of work does contain human bones used to signify (note they aren’t the actual bones) bones of victims murdered for sexual pleasure (hence its name ‘Lustmord’) in the war in Bosnia. It is a tenuous line for discussion indeed but I am more belligerent to challenge the issue of how we 'treat' art works in gallery spaces. Broadly speaking, to the commendable gallery assistant charged with the art works ‘protection’ it is part of the job to treat art as though it were sacred, as precious as gold or as hazardous as a radio-active substance such is the halo of security that surrounds artwork when it reaches the level of being financially a cultural asset. And whilst my opening anecdote quite cheekily mocks the absurdity of this behaviour I am very seriously interested in just how powerful, how reverend and important art can become to infect our behaviour in this way. To the extent that we as the audience also partake in the acceptance of the ‘bones’ becoming or being considered as art so that we either partake or not in our attention for those few minutes. This opinion is not formed out of immaturity, naivety or lack of respect as no matter how much art I have seen, I am ever conscious of how the art world is perceived from those who may experience it for the first time. Perhaps I never want to feel too comfortable, familiar or settled with any of what the art world has to offer and that my appreciation of it comes from that we must still question, still scrutinize what every artwork brings balancing our own interpretations with that of the art institution within which it resides; never buying into one completely irrespective of the other.
One should celebrate that there is a respect for art in this way albeit to an extreme zealousness but I think that there is a balance to be had with respect, common-sense and an unpretentious humbleness that grounds artwork into not loosing sight of the reality and intention for which is was made and that is very often to be seen/experienced irrespective of the monetary value it accrues under its ‘art’ status.
American born artist Jenny Holzer’s offering to Hauser and Wirth is mixed and showcases the breadth of the artist’s work the likes I had not previously known about. There are the familiar LED text-based works known as the ‘Truisms’ from the 80s and many new works including paintings, drawings and benches in bronze and stone. Titled ‘Softer Targets’ the work is based upon her ongoing examination of the ‘war on terror’ and is the title of a redaction painting from a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation report, ‘The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland’ in which the former classified text was made public although heavily redacted so not all details were disclosed.
Censorship and/or the lack of it is a reoccurring theme and in the hand-painted works which aesthetically have a look of an early abstract expressionism about them (early Jasper Johns?) but feature the text from those reports, soldiers accounts, autopsy reports, torture diaries. It is a quietly unnerving read with our attention drawn to what is concealed within these texts often more poignant and unsettling than what is revealed.
The Truisms presented on flashing LEDs laid on the floor or curving-up the wall robotically reel out programmed messages such as, ‘Your oldest fears are the worst ones’ and ‘Everyone’s work is equally important’. They inform us in the language of train-station monitors and signage that we are familiar with but also ironically now feel almost retro from the 70s/80s when the works were first created. The newly commissioned LED work titled ‘Move’ in the opening gallery takes the familiar technology synonymous with Holzer’s work but adds a new level of surveillance as the mechanised LED bar suspended vertically moves and follows the viewer in response to their movements. If the affect in Holzer’s original Truisms was confrontational than this was even more so.
In the 70s Holzer began her Truism body of work by posting them as flyers around New York, today maybe she’d be tweeting them? How artists today, like Ai Wei Wei have used online media as a political tool for ‘the truth’, freedom of speech and liberation. It does beg the question whether we have all become too media-savvy, too self aware to respond to the original Holzer 'Trusims'; the older technology creating new challenges for the viewer to engage in the same way as previous audiences may have? If the ‘medium is the message’ then I think it is going to be harder to digest Holzer’s messages in this exhibition as personally I found the amount of text to read too much to digest, looking more at the power of the lighting, its colour, its movement or physical qualities of the carved out of stone words rather than actually reading them. The messages within the text of what Holzer is communicating is however still incredibly relevant, they are sort-of universal slogans, statements that continue to prompt engaging thought and discussion about consumerism, feminine identity and our relationships with one another but I personally feel the way we assimilate this information has changed and I find myself listening more and thinking more deeply about these messages in her work reading them in my own time, on paper or online after the initial experience of seeing them in the gallery. I think I question whether Holzer’s work is a bit superfluous in a gallery context and actually works better out in the world, in isolation so we read it for what it is saying and not read it as ‘art’. Hmmm...
There is something of a duality that is formed in discussing Holzer’s work. On one hand I find her reserved aesthetic a bit cold and a bit tedious but this is often counterbalanced by passionate political reasoning. The ideas are very emotive and in some of the work even quite poetic. There is a contrast in the hardness/mechanical-ness of the stone benches or LEDs with the softness of what are often very revealing, humanly relatable texts. Or as I found in one review online, the ‘Hardness of material meant to endure what humans cannot.’  
The truth can be confrontational, ‘hard to swallow’ or it can ‘set you free’ and there is something in the directness of Holzer’s work which cuts out the metaphor and trompe l’oiel and presents a clear narrative and way in to quite literally reading her work. Here is the message, now what do you think? I tend to be more reflective and enjoy the smoke and mirrors of in arts ability to lie, to mimic, to play with reality it allows for more imaginative, deeper, perhaps more subconscious types of ‘truths’ to be revealed that I just do not think can be manifest with the forcefulness of Holzer’s work. In the true language of advertising, I think about it in that moment and then I’m gone. I am yet to experience any subliminal after affects!  The Truisms on the stone seats and LEDs don’t last with me as long as perhaps the paintings or indeed, room with the bones in do.
 It will take a while to forget the bones! Though in truth probably not for the reasons intended.
Jenny Holzer’s ‘Softer Targets’ is on at Hauser and Wirth Somerset until November 1st.
With thanks to friends for supplying some of the images. Image marked with * sourced from:
Text copyright of Spannerintheworkz, Natalie Parsley ©

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Tales From The Tool Shed

Is Facebook supposed to be educational? 'Bored Panda' anything other than amusing procrastination?! Imagine my delight logging on to my Facebook account to find amidst the usual shower of cat photos, political garbage and relentless invitations to play candy crush saga (NOTE: I’m still not interested!) something that was actually, amazingly, inspiringly and, somewhat vainly, relevant posted on my wall! THANK YOU!!

 I was so excited to learn about the work of artist, Lee John Phillips and his ‘Tool Shed Project' that I felt compelled to spread-the-word further here on the blog.     

 “Talented artist Lee John Phillips has undertaken a project of epic proportions to celebrate the memory of his late grandfather. Phillips estimates that it will take him about 4-5 years to draw all 100,000+ items left behind in the shed by his grandfather, who passed away roughly 20 years ago. Everything from large tools to jars full of nails, nuts and bolts will be covered!”
Lee John Phillips 'Tool Shed Project' *

Lee John Phillips 'Tool Shed Project' *

Meanwhile, elsewhere, “Not so talented but passionately curious” artist, Natalie Parsley (that’s me) has also been drawing her late Grandfather’s tools estimating it may take between four and five hours to draw the chosen few, picked seemingly at random, but actually via a highly discerning process of aesthetic elimination (in other words I draw what I like the look of)! Saws, hammers, clamps, bill hooks, pliers , keys, spanners and even the occasional nail or bolt. I jest, but on a serious note there is something uncannily brilliant about the discovery of another artist working with drawing tools in a similarly obsessive manner to myself as I have previously done and most recently on the ‘Drawing a Day’ projects from 2013 and 2014.

It is also interesting to analyse what motivates other people to take on these sorts of projects and how there is a reoccurring theme of cataloguing tools of which the aesthetic is of huge appeal to me. I speculate my love/appreciation for order, systems and archiving comes largely influenced from working in a bookshop, but I think that psychologically there is something bordering on compulsive versus the meditative and reflectively endearing about painstakingly ordering, sifting through the items left in Phillip’s Grandfather’s tool shed that is both cathartic and a touching tribute.

“Phillips has been numbering each object in his meticulous project, and has drawn nearly 4,000 at this point. He has spent so much time drawing recently that it has taken a toll on him; “I already have to have physio for the toll it’s taking on my body. About 5% done so far!” he writes on his Instagram."

Experiments with Tool catalogues, labels etc. during my MA.  
Detail from 'Kaye's Tool Kaleidoscope' (2011) Natalie Parsley 

I’m in pretty good health, or at least can honestly say that my art has never physically damaged me (mentally, more likely!) in some way other than fatigue, the odd paper-cut  and I  wouldn’t yet speculate the untold damage years of graphite, turps and varnish inhalation may have caused on my system. Ahem, none-the-less this doesn’t pay dividend to my commitment to drawing and particularly my history of drawing tools. In recent years the tools in my own practice have taken more of a backseat but their influence has been present in other ways either in; drawing similar hard-edged/sculptural objects OR drawing something completely different/opposite to tools i.e. softer/more organic things such as plants, animals, insects. In this way, I had something of a revelation when I realised that my ‘long time art hero’ Jim Dine has explored plants and tools as well as plants with tools in the same image. This is an important distinction as I feel that Dine’s intention in doing this is in order to provide a contrast and a greater understanding of the properties and formal qualities of tools and plants respective. For example, you cannot appreciate, or comprehend the solidness and weightiness of a tool until you know how to capture the lightness and delicateness of a plant. That sounding more Buddhist than it perhaps should, but I am beginning to think that there is possibly, to my mind nothing more enlightening, more revealing than drawing both in terms of perception and personal solace. Recently I have been drawing a lot of plants, but then conversely almost craving to go back to drawing tools with a renewed fascination and attention.

From the 'Drawing a Day Project 2014-2015' Natalie Parsley

From the 'Drawing a Day Project 2014-2015' Natalie Parsley

I will post more of my recent work soon, but want to give it an opportunity to be first seen away from the internet before I reflect and document it on here. Watch this space...! 
Going back to Phillip’s project however, I admire the detail in which he draws each object individually ever perhaps slightly daunted it is part of a much bigger body of work. It has taken me years to appreciate noticing the unique patina each tool bears, the sign or trace of the person who wielded or possessed it. This makes Phillip’s project very much unique, in the same way a portrait is. This project is very much a portrait/tribute to his Grandfather and gives the project more meaning than just becoming pleasing wallpaper. Looking back on my early work, mono prints of tools I missed the opportunity to capture some of that uniqueness that is present in each individual tool. Rather than being an illustration or documentation of tools, I am almost reluctant to admit in the early days my tools had always been more about me, the tools almost a redundant shape on which to hang expressive mark making and intensity. I say 'reluctant' because I do not see myself as an ego driven artist so it feels difficult to contextualise my work within a personal viewpoint. The last few years have been about looking more closely and I’ve grown slightly more patient and with that has come a more conservative and conceptual treatment of tools. There is a slickness and clarity of purposefulness to Phillip's project that I sometimes lack in giving my work a truly professional or contemporary edge. Ultimately my aim is to find a middle ground between the early tool work and my new sense of intention and focus. In recent years my outreach to the art world and public place within it has wavered but my commitment and curiosity have remained.  The fight against the darkness is truly never ending?!

Natalie Parsley (2015) Mono print and ink on paper.

More of Lee John Phillip's Work and further details of the 'Tool Shed Project' can be found at: