Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dust, Interrupted

It has been a while since I posted anything about tools on this blog [spanner in the workz] and in keeping with tradition I have decided to focus this week’s post on a painting seen recently at the John Moores Painting Prize in Liverpool. That and occasionally it is satisfying to write about one piece of work in more depth instead of attempting to write about it all!
Whilst primarily a British prize for painting the John Moores Painting Prize  for the past four years has included a partner exhibition, John Moores Painting Prize China and exhibited in Shanghai. The five winners from that prize are also exhibited alongside the British John Moores in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
The question, ‘When is a painting not a painting?’ Would be a good place to start for discussing Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’, created from dust on linen it already breaks convention in being the only ‘painting’ in this year’s John Moores Prize not to actually include any paint! I am unsure if my selecting this work as my favourite in the show reflects well on the state of the Painting Prize as a whole other than raising a trivial point that such categorisation has long been irrelevant and is generally a good thing and proves the Prize isn’t stuck somewhere in the past.
Lang Shuilong 'Fundamental Tool' (2015) Dust on Linen. 128 x168cm.
 In ‘Fundamental Tool’ the trace of  the shovel where Shuilong once laid it flat on the linen creates an almost indecipherable ghostly-void in the centre of this work; you are not sure at first glance that it may even be a tool, it almost looks completely abstract. The shovel’s absence is defined as an outline by the dust that has settled around it from the building-site where it was created. Shilong’s intervention is to then use a paintbrush to wipe the dust back off the linen canvas, “hoping that art will be able to undo nature, and creating a painting that sits between control and chance”. The whole piece is a very subtle and both traces of the artist’s brush and tool are the only structural elements to be seen.

Natalie Parsley 'Pin Hammer Drawing' (2012) Detail.
As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in my own practice using tools the idea of ‘control vs chance’ is one that does not seem to go away. Tools generally, are often depicted as objects of control or power (think communist hammers and sickles) but often when you speak to people that use them on a regular basis the relationship between ‘man and tool’ is more sympathetic in that they extend our reach of what the human-body can do, but as much as we are in control of them, they in-turn control our actions as much as our body form defines their design and purpose. Just as ‘control’ is associated with tools in art therefore so is the human body that wields them; the scale of Shuilong’s painting is body-sized and was it not horizontal would imply that association of an upright human-figure even more. The fact that it is horizontal is a much more submissive state and so highlights the attention to the absence of a human figure  or a figure at rest which is why maybe at first it appears more abstract or alien.
Natalie Parsley 'Hammer Drawings' (2012) Charcoal on Paper.
My own journey from creating fairly large scale representational drawings of tools eventually evolved to using the tools themselves to create the drawing [this took the form of a hammer used to make marks on a surface either through mono-print or hitting a lump of carbon from the centre of a sheet of paper working outwards as it gradually broke into smaller fragments and eventually dust, to create a drawing]. The element of chance in this work, for whatever psychological reasons, was one I was never particularly yielding towards, but none-the-less it was unpreventable in that the drawing had to adapt to where the charcoal dust and fragments scattered and broke off. In ‘Fundamental Tool’ however this juxtaposition between control and chance signifies the opposing factors of man’s perceived sense of being in control against the unstoppable natural forces of dust and time. To elaborate further it is between man’s control over the tool, here as a means of shovelling cement to build a structure and the unpreventable and uncontrollable consequence of the dust that falls or is blown by the wind after time; time which is also inevitable but out of man’s control. In intervening with this process by using a paintbrush, Shuilong, in a part archaeologist, part artist statement is trying to regain back that control.
Man Ray 'Dust Breeding' (1920) Photo.
It is also an active version of Man Ray’s photo, ‘Dust Breeding’ [1920] that came into existence from Duchamp’s ‘Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even’ laid flat and purposefully left so that it developed a thick layer of dust. The hand of the artist within Shuilong’s painting is the crucial difference between the observed dust of Man Ray’s photo and the disturbed dust in ‘Fundamental Tool’ in which the pushed around dust is important at creating a narrative of an implied action that has taken place, the image being seen here is the consequence of the actions of the shovel having been used for its work is then placed down, the resulting dust created from its digging eventually settles around it leaving a trace. Man Ray’s dust was a result of time, waiting and doing nothing whereas Shuilong’s was as consequence of work or an action. In my own work I had the similar rationale to Shuilong, that whilst not physically present in the drawing, the tool was still present in the resulting marks that told of the action which had taken place. Whilst the end image was subject to chance the actions that led to its creation were most certainly more controlled.

Zhao Liang 'Behemoth' (2016) Film. Still.
For me, this painting was also reminiscent of a film documentary I had seen a few days before during my stay in Liverpool; the film, titled ‘Behemoth’ documented the infernal plight of the Chinese mining industry focusing in particular on the lives of the farmers turned miners who work there. It was mesmerising visually however also uncomfortable viewing, the sheer scale of what was happening and relentless futility of the miner’s situation a depressing reality to comprehend. It is hellish in every sense of the word. One of the lasting images from this film was the amount of coal dust, soot, and smoke, earth and stone that left its coating on everything and everyone; so much that it actually results in the deaths of many of those who are exposed to it for long periods of time. The tragic thing about this particularly is that many of these miners have very little other choice other than to embark in this dangerous line of work in order to exist. Understandably the film has caused some controversy in China and without wanting to make unfounded comparisons I could not help but see Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ in relation to this documentary I’d seen the night before, even more relevantly with Shuilong of course being Chinese. We know nothing of the person who laid the shovel down in ‘Fundamental Tool’ but the ghostly impression the trace of it leaves only furthers the feeling of absence of its owner. I suppose I started to wonder if it was the shovel left by one of those coal miners in ‘Behemoth’, its owner also succumb to the dust and soot of its actions. I am amazed at just how bodily work without the human figure present in them can be and ‘Fundamental Tool’ is an excellent example of this. There is the bodily element of the shovel and its association with bodily use, its horizontal positioning on the canvas that echoes a lying-down position or even perhaps a figure being buried; the shovel at once the object of burial and the representing the deceased. There are the physical marks made with the brush of a human-hand and then there is the use of dust which is also synonymous with the earth, stars and the idea that in some ways we are all made of dust. It is pure coincidence that I saw these two things around the same time, it does not however change the fact that these things are happening in China and could still be relevant. Shuilong creates these pieces from construction sites around China noting how the tools from the past are still the tools used today. They both are looking at China's occupation with growth and the consequences that construction has.I prefer the possibilities being kept open and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two together but I was unable to separate the two at the time.

It is however this central importance, signified by the positioning of the tool in the centre of the painting that gives 'Fundamental Tool' its title and in my own art relationship with tools to date, I hope this post has gone some way to proving just how much there is to be thought about and continues to fascinate me from something as seemingly mundane as the tool. Still much digging to be done!
Lang Shuilong’s ‘Fundamental Tool’ can be seen as part of the John Moores Painting Prize at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until November 27th 2016

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