Monday, 11 December 2017

Seeing is Believing

Writing is a way of making sense of things.
 It is a way to collate, consider and consolidate thoughts.
Writing is my way of making sense of things I see and experience.
 There is a lot of repetition and revisiting of ideas in what I write from which the things that hold the most resonance are visited again and again in new ways as I attempt to find out more.
Painted bronze (1960) Bronze and oil paint
Therefore it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me almost two months to write about the Jasper Johns retrospective exhibition that I saw at the Royal Academy in London. It was the first time I had ever seen so many of Johns’ work in one place in the UK and I was even more excited to see so many of his paintings up close, the tones of his grey paintings and encaustic surfaces only previously imagined from what little information can be photographed of these works in books or art lecture slides. To see the ‘real’ (if that is the correct word for a representation cast in bronze of the real thing) Savarin Coffee can with paintbrushes (pictured left) was a personal artistic highlight of my year! For me that piece encapsulates the on-going dichotomy of the representational versus the real, truth versus illusion, written language against visual language and ways in which it is still so important to consider how we look, generally speaking, and how we perceive the everyday. It is also the reason why it has taken me so long to know how to write about it; I felt a little intimidated by its significance! In the past when I have written about other big retrospectives such as, Robert Rauschenberg or Kurt Schwitters I felt that no matter what I wrote it was unlikely to be anything new and had to some way hold up to the scrutiny of those who know far more about his work than me. What can I write about that hadn’t been echoed or articulated in some way by someone else throughout the thousands of reviews written about their work throughout history? There is so much known about Jasper Johns that the only way I can offer anything different is by writing about my own experience of seeing his work with maybe a few interjections of research along the way...
LEFT; Target (1961) Encaustic and collage on canvas RIGHT; White Target (1958) Encaustic and collage on canvas
The ‘havoc of sameness and difference’ as quoted from an article about the Jasper Johns exhibition, by Paul Keegan in the Times Literary Supplement is at play in both my own anxiety to offer something new or stick to what I know in the writing of this post, and in context here, to the repetition and use of familiar motifs throughout Jasper Johns’ career. From the 50s to the present day, the American artist now in his eighties has prolifically explored the visual and pictorial language of painting and mixed media through reoccurring imagery such as flags, numbers, letters, words, body parts, targets, shapes and colour. There is a progression of themes in the exhibition, aptly titled ‘Something Resembling Truth', each room explores a different obsession that Johns had in which the works are similar but different, a reference to the repetition within Johns’ own work and the play of the real against the representational, abstract and illusionary. An example of which is pictured here in two examples of Johns’ Target paintings. These are paintings as objects and as illusion both at once; the way the paint is applied to the surface is almost 3-dimensional (using wax added to paint), the large scale of some of these paintings only adding to their presence as 'painting as a physical object' in the room and not merely a representation of, in this instance, a target. Similarly, in his flag paintings the work occupies a duality between representation and object, i.e. it is a representation of the American flag but it is also a series of stripes and stars rendered in paint so as to become a new object in itself, “...between seeing and language, between what we see and what we know.” The language of visual art as a way of communicating and the literal nature of written language and symbolism is further layered in the number and alphabet pieces for example in ‘0 through 9’ [1961] the numbers, unsurprisingly from 0 to 9 are layered one on top of another so that they become almost unreadable and obscured into the abstract.
LEFT; Small Numbers in Color (1959) Encaustic on wood RIGHT; 0 through 9 (1961) Oil on canvas
Johns is quoted as once saying, “a picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator”. It may come as no surprise to some of you that I have actually spent some time looking at radiators, or heaters at this side of the pond, and never found them to be quite as interesting as many pictures but the implied sentiment from Johns is a good one, in that the act of looking should be inquisitive and exploratory, as though looking at something [a radiator] with consideration for its familiarity but for the first time due to its invisibleness for the fact it is so often overlooked. This should be the same treatment with which one sees a picture or painting (discuss). Conversely, it can also mean that a picture should be regarded with the same banality as that of a radiator which is amusing and neither a bad thing to remind us not to take the act of looking, too seriously. It is a provocative statement to make and reflects Johns’ philosophy to take what the ‘...mind already knows and make us look again’.
Passage (1962) Encaustic, charcoal and collage on canvas with objects
My personal favourite Johns works are his paintings that combine objects on or into their surfaces. Made during the same time when artists like Rauschenberg were doing a similar thing, these paintings such as ‘Passage’ [1962] combine abstract expressionistic use of gesture and formal qualities with the placing of physical objects such as a fork, a ruler and a letter. For Johns however an extra dimension is added with the inclusion of words such as ‘iron’ and ‘red, yellow, blue’ as signifiers for colour and an object but without really being present creating layers by which the literal, metaphorical and representational are operating all at once in different parts of the painting. Stencilling the word ‘yellow’ in green and partially obscured by grey paint confuses what we read and know yellow to be and makes one think again. It’s playful but as full of intent or meaning as you as the viewer want to bring to it. Chronologically these works Johns explains came as a progression of the flag and target paintings being considered as an object,
 “My use of objects comes out of, originally, thinking of the painting as an object and considering the materialistic aspect of painting......”
Fool’s House (1961-2) Oil on canvas with objects attached
The broom in ‘Fools House’ [1961-62] is both structural protagonist of the painting as well as the means by which the sweep of paint was manipulated across the canvas. The objects in these paintings take on new purpose as formal components of the paintings they reside in; a broom becomes a straight line, a can becomes a cylinder, a neon light becomes a colour to work with that isn’t physically present like paint, a fork becomes a ledge from which a chain can hang from, a ruler is a line of yellow that implies a sense of order and precision that never comes to fruition. I am a huge fan of these works and find their unexpectedness and visual variables a pick and mix-like indulgence or a welcomed disruption to the eyes that jazz music is to the ears. Both make seeing these works now still relevant and exciting!
Going back to the bronze paintbrushes in the Savarin coffee tin, I hope I have explained some of the context as to why I think it is a significant work. In being cast in bronze the brushes and tin are less real because they have been made with the purpose of looking in mind and not use, they have been made to be looked at; the point in time in which they came to be inside that tin captured forever. Whilst they are convincingly painted (right up to their stains of use and wear) and realistically proportioned, they don’t sit in the way that real paintbrushes do when residing inside a pot or can, their bronze-cast rigidity makes them almost too static and they lack the differences in texture of metal versus wood that the eye can distinguish. It is like exposing an imposter and my eyes enjoy the visual conundrum and illusionary trickery it plays. It summarises why I enjoy much of Johns’ work, seesaw of real and unreal, truth and deception; the double-take, counterbalancing visual language with that of written language. It makes you think without being convoluted or too pretentious. The bronze in the exhibition sits alongside two drawings; one in ink and one in graphite of the same display; they are all different versions of the same thing but operate in different ways. The drawings place the paint brushes in full centre becoming the artistic equivalent of a vase of flowers whereas the bronze becomes a fake prop and a new surface on which to apply paint.
From the Exhibition, ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the RA 2017
For me personally, these works symbolise the moments of inactivity within art, when the contemplation happens and the tools reside their work carried out until such time when they are used again. There are two specific lasting memories I have of paintbrushes in cans and they are; a photo of brushes in two used dog-food cans in the window of my grandfather’s tool-barn on his farm and of the paintbrushes of a painter who taught me during my degree who had his brushes in a pot placed on his coffin at his funeral. In both instances it struck me how deeply poignant the reverence I place upon objects has with their association to the people who used them. I remember the way the light was hitting the weather-beaten and algae-coloured corrugated Perspex window of my grandfather’s tool-barn against the silhouette of these two paintbrush cans being something celestial, almost like stained-glass within a church such was its importance to me and how I remember my grandfather. It tied into my research into tools during my degree, but nonetheless is an image, like Johns, I have reproduced and come back to more than once but never fully realised yet. It also brings me back to the discipline of writing and how it offers a way into processing exhibitions that I see. I cannot be sure if I looked at every piece in the Jasper Johns retrospective in the same way that I would look at a radiator but much has made me want to look and look again. 
Jasper Johns ‘Something resembling truth’ ran at the Royal Academy of Arts from September 23rd – December 10th 2017

Includes quotes from ‘The only one seeing things’ by Paul Keegan published in the Times Literary Suppliment 24th November 2017.
Images of Jasper Johns work sourced from;  

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Outta Time

Works produced by artists as part of the South West Heritage Trust, ‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ is now on show as a group exhibition at The Museum of Somerset features work by Emma Molony, Jess Davis, Jacky Oliver, Sean Harris, Dorcas Casey, Catlin Heffernan, Taja and Andrea Oke who each previously exhibited their work in the museum they worked with for Devon Arts Week or Somerset Art Weeks. The museums, Axminster Museum, Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum, Museum of Dartmoor Life [Okehampton] in Devon; and Axbridge and District Museum, Bruton Museum, Chard and District Museum and Wells and Mendip Museum in Somerset. 

Sean Harris at Wells and Mendip Museum
Prior to hearing and seeing about ‘Muse’ I had little awareness of any of these smaller museums yet alone what any of them may contain; For example, how many people know that the Bruton Museum holds a desk used by the American writer, John Steinbeck? Or that he lived near Bruton in 1959? I speculate that I may not be alone in thinking this. From a PR point of view this exhibition has certainly been a success in highlighting the benefits that the arts can bring at raising awareness and offering new ways of informing the general public to engage with their collections and the stories they have to offer. From Maritime, Bronze Age and Archaeological history to the history of tin mining, quarrying and farming on Dartmoor and carpets in Axminster! There is a rich and slightly daunting amount of material that each of the artists working on this project had at their disposal. I recall my own experiences working with a curator at the Somerset Heritage Centre sourcing old farming agricultural tools to draw from, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the items within the collection was truly inspiring. It also made me realise the challenge faced by each of the artists on this project to somehow take their experiences of these collections, artefacts, stories and produce something from them.

Jess Davis at The Museum of Dartmoor Life
The resulting work made is pleasingly well-crafted and reflects the variety of mediums from its makers. The relationships with each of the museums the artists worked with is demonstrated in the process by which each of them has had to select and edit artefacts, documents, contexts, processes, stories and/or ideas that are relevant to their respective practices. Emma Molony was well selected as an artist who is a printmaker and has made her own wallpaper to be situated working with Axminster Heritage Centre, who are well known for their carpets. The resulting monoprints takes inspiration from patterns of their textiles. Sean Harris uses his practice as an animator and film maker to produce flip-book boxes of bones at the Wells and Mendip Museum. Viewers are given a torch as they propel the handle operating the flip-books housed inside dark wooden boxes evoking the caves from Wookey Hole in which Hyena bones were discovered; the processes of excavation and illumination used as a metaphor for the element of discovery in archaeology. The use of low-technology in response to these artefacts is also an interesting idea as it brings an element of two sets of histories, that of the evolution of animation and the history of the bones it depicts.  The use of technology is present again in Andrea Oke’s intricate and exquisitely hand-made papercut outs that also feature a QR code for viewers to interact with and access an audio recording of text taken from ancient documents at Axbridge and District Museum. The audio is very engaging but its place as a QR code visually within the interior-design pleasing surrounding papercut image feels a little bit superfluous.

Taja at Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum
Jess Davis’ lino prints of the evolving landscape of Dartmoor depict scenes from its past, some appearing almost appear other-worldly. She also has a series of dry-points depicting objects that respond to the landscape.  Jacky Oliver makes wire and enamel studies of boat models from the Teign Heritage Centre that are an interesting cross-over between the illusionary depth of a blueprint and making those lines out of wire that become both a 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional representation of the original. Elsewhere in the exhibition Dorcas Casey’s ‘life-size’primordial crocodile model with scales made from antique jelly moulds is an imaginative addition to the natural history area of the Somerset Museum, creating its own mythology and talking-point and is both funny and unsettling at the same time.

Context plays an important part on viewing these works and some of them I feel may have lost their understanding in being taken from their original corresponding museum and put in this group show, Taja’s paper clay tableware pieces being one example. Beautifully made and seemingly precariously balanced together in a ball reminiscent of a prop from the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland; Taja’s pieces were originally shown in hanging on original iron hooks in the context of the Kingsbridge Cookworthy Museum’s Victorian kitchen. Its meaning and visual presence look a bit lost without the place or artefacts that inspired them in the vast, non-domestic space of the Museum of Somerset. Catlin Heffernan’s textile installation similarly struggles here to compete with its surroundings rather than work with it.

Dorcas Casey at Bruton Museum
My only other reservation of this exhibition is that it is almost too ‘nice’, everything is made to a high standard but it feels all a bit safe, there is nothing particularly edgy, moving or resonate revealed from what the artists have taken inspiration from. The works presented here offer alternative ways at highlighting the existence of the artefacts/stories in these museums rather than engaging or telling us much of anything new or forming a new opinion of. Maybe the intention of the title of the project being ‘makers in museums’ as opposed to ‘artists’ shifts the role to something more production-based? It is worth noting that since this projects inception the artists involved have kept a blog and also ran workshops; their individual journeys and interactions with staff and the public are very interesting, but these are additional things artists offer rather than possibly being the main event, as they could and perhaps deserve to be?

Emma Molony at Axminster Heritage Museum
Unfairly my expectations are probably too high but I think it is important to always push the limits of bravery and ambition in what museums, audiences and arts organisations select or enable artists to do. What this project importantly does achieve is in opening up the dialogue between the arts and museum collections both very accommodating and respectful of the other and offers an example on how they might work together. For artists it is an informed and rich source material and different context to work within and for museums it is the opportunity to engage in new ways in which their collections can be interpreted and accessed. I would just ask that they continue to do so courageously.

‘Muse: Makers in Museums’ can be seen at The Museum of Somerset until 3rd February 2018

Monday, 13 November 2017

Word Gets Around -Celebrating five years of A Spanner in the Workz

This November marks the fifth anniversary of sticking a Spanner in the Workz of the art world as Natalie Parsley reviews and analyses contemporary art and exhibitions throughout the UK and across the globe!

Thank you to anyone who reads these posts! The blog has been posting regularly since 2012 and has covered 150 exhibitions and art projects including the Liverpool Biennial and Venice Biennale. A third of those are either national or local with another thirteen being international. I began blogging in 2010 during an internship with Somerset Art Works when the idea was first mentioned that I create a blog that provided an anecdotal reflection but also critical writing platform to report and analyse art events that may be of interest to SAW members and the public. I established and wrote for the SAW blog for two years slowly gaining the confidence and passion for venturing into writing for myself. The SAW blog continues to this day with Davina Jelley posting on SAW related projects and events. 

The purpose for creating a Spanner in the Workz is to provide a context for my writing and link to my visual art practice and artist CV. In it I reflect on visual art exhibitions, talks, projects and events that I have either visited in person or am in some way directly participating in. The writing motivates me to see more exhibitions and the more exhibitions I see, the more I want to write about them!

The blog’s title taken from my Fine art degree critical commentary, is a reference to both my own work which features tools (including spanners) and the process of analysing something by way of unsettling or questioning something. In other words, putting a spanner in the works. I was obsessed then with double-meanings of things, the treachery and illusion of representation; how something can be and not be a pipe all at the same time [Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe]! To some extent I still am, as both an Artist, Blogger and Bookseller (not always necessarily in that order) I, like many people I know, live a life with multiple roles but all of which share common interests. This too is reflected in my writing as I write to both understand something better and (hopefully) make it sound appealing or of interest to others. The bigger ambition that art writing and reading can lead to a greater sense of art appreciation is something I am very passionate in. Perhaps also, but more subtly it also acts to criticise and question the art world and establishment; by being independent I am free to write my thoughts and opinions more unedited so I hope that in some way, if they take the time to read it, my comments may make artists, art venues and organisations think and scrutinise what they are doing. With all that in mind here’s to many more posts in the coming years about art, here’s to throwing more spanners in the workz!

To commemorate my interest in puns, wordplay and double-meanings of things I have collated a list of blog posts whose titles are taken or reference songs, books or films. Not a lot of people know that! Simply click on the title to reveal what each one is about. 



Everything to Everyone – Everclear

Viva Venezia -Viva Las Vegas, Elvis

Everything You’ve Come To Expect – The Last Shadow Puppets

Anything but Ordinary -Ordinary, Train

Can’t You Hear it in the Silence? – Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Bear’s Den

We Can Work It Out – The Beatles

Hollow Talk – Choir of Young Believers

You Could Be Lifted – Lifted, Lighthouse Family

These Streets -Paolo Nutini

I Always Believed in Futures -Futures, Jimmy Eat World

In the Middle -The Middle by Jimmy Eat World

Playing Videogames -Videogames, Lana Del Rey

What’s the Word? – We Are Scientisits

Another Brick in the Bookcase -Another Brick in the Wall, Pink Floyd

Livin’ for the Weekend -Living for the Weekend, Hard-Fi

I’m Lost For Words – Redundant, Green Day

On a Magic Carpet Ride – A Whole New World, Disney’s Aladdin

The answer is blowin’ in the wind -Blowin in the Wind, Bob Dylan

I’m Looking In -Outside, Staind

Can the Can! -Suzi Quatro 


Into the Wild -Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

The Unbelievable Weightiness of Air -The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Of Mutability- Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott

Fantastic Artists and Where to Find Them – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J K Rowling

Dust Interrupted -Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

You’re in For a Big Surprise -The Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Let the Light One In -Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindvqvist

The City and the City -The City and The City by China Mieville

Silver Linings Sketch Book – Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Something(s) Wicked This Way Comes -Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Here are my Bees -The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

Look if you like but you will have to leap -Leap Before you Look by Auden

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad -Animal Farm by George Orwell

Easy Glider – Easy Rider

Jurassic World – Jurassic World

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Deep Purple

It would be both wonderful and daunting at the same time to have access to the amounts of archive footage and hand-directed footage that John Akomfrah has to wield with for creating his multiple screen-based works. Selecting, cutting and editing together their sound and time becomes a collage of multiple moving images and stories that are testament to the role of the director as both artist and editor. The Russian film director, Tarkovsky described filmmaking as ‘sculpting in time’ and every opportunity when I experience seeing Akomfrah’s work, that is almost certainly the impression one gets! A point I have mentioned here on this blog before, click here. I'll never get tired of it, it's a great analogy that highlights the often hidden or unnoticed role of the filmmaker who is responsible for both the physical and metal process of editing with the illusionary concept of time when it is captured on film.

It would be safe to assume that I am a fan of film and Akomfrah’s work, his films are incredibly well crafted technically and hold a conscious and visual resonance that retains attention and holds in your memory long after experiencing them. Even more amazingly, his films are almost always shown in places where they can be experienced for free! On this occasion I discovered his latest work, ‘Purple’ [2017] at The Barbican in London completely by chance. Featuring archive footage, footage shot across ten countries and shown across six screens simultaneously, ‘Purple’ at approx. and hour long and told over six movements is as complex visually, audially and conceptually as it is momentous. ‘Purple’ ambitiously expands upon ideas of global environmental concern touched briefly upon in Akomfrah’s previous work, ‘Vertigo Sea’ [2016] where now ideas of; ‘planetary relationality and rendering our mutual ecological devastation, both recent past and present’ are presented through histories of human progression from birth to death; the steam engine to artificial intelligence, nuclear power, medicine and more. Something I later find out is called the Anthropocene, which loosely refers to the, “proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems”. Armed with that knowledge it is easier to understand, for example why ‘Purple’ includes references to the atom bomb, for example of a human impact on radiation in soil. It isn’t all cheery stuff, nearly every human development features a knock-on negative impact for what it does to the planet, but it is incredibly moving and has moments of great beauty that enforce a message of the cruciality of how we arrived at our current situation and the importance of realising how we will continue to have an impact on the environment unless we change as well as what we possibly stand to lose. It does so without being too preachy in its tone; science and industry are referenced in a way that both highlights how humankind has progressed without commenting on whether for good or bad but calls upon a sense of collective responsibility for how those developments have led to further ways/means (such as war) which in-turn have blighted or poisoned our landscapes. I would go as far to say that one couldn’t after watching it all, leave without feeling something! 

In her essay on John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ being shown at The Barbican in London, Professor in Cinema Studies, Kass Banning alludes to the title of the work with lines from Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Purple Haze’. Though the two aren’t deliberately related, it is a fantastically apt observation and conicidence to make the relationship between the lyric in Purple Haze, “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time.” with the sense of urgency versus deferred responsibility. 

At whatever point the viewer enters this work they are at once assaulted with a wealth of visually stunning or arresting images that both accentuates the scale and sense of helplessness or global unity (depending on how you want to interpret it) the deeper references only begin to become more processable after spending some time with the work. Some screens show slow sustained shots of people standing transfixed by some unknown cause gazing or contemplating meditatively outwards into the landscape threatened by an impending man-made ecological disaster; a familiar motif in Akomfrah’s work that helps create a sense of contemplation and stillness to the otherwise emotive imagery being shown on other screens. It is also a reference that the artist states, to the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich who was amongst the first to place the single figure into the landscape giving Man a greater sense of connection or wider sense of totality and the sublime to the environment, “Romantic subject of man with a capital ‘M’ had the ability to access the world in the absence of the Almighty”. In that way aspects of faith, science and humanities relationship with the environment are intrinsically linked in this work.

Elsewhere waves undulate, huskies pull a sleigh, jellyfish float in peaceful green seas like translucent slices of cucumber, dancers perform in films by Ken Russell, a man undergoes hypnosis, bicycles are made in factories and ridden around English industrialised streets of the 1940s, cattle and chickens are farmed, ‘worker-bee-like office workers dash around in frenzied formation’, storms rage and stillness reigns over seas. It is an insane list of imagery that does it no favours describing it all here, but whose juxtaposition curated against quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam AHH’ [1849], shots of people and water flowing (a metaphor for the passing of time and also reference to the melting of polar icecaps) across photographs alludes to the temporary nature and flux of our own lives as individuals on the planet and the bigger picture of us as a species. [Coincidently, the title 'Purple' referring to the purple colouring used to dye the running water, possibly significant of pollution/toxicity, is a reference to the vertigo of his other film, 'Vertigo Sea' and is also a colour present in many of the shots.] The locations of trees, mountain-scapes and vast fields overshadowed by cooling-towers or used tyres or cannisters is both sickeningly overwhelming as it is beautiful. As Akmofrah himself states, “You can’t watch Mirror (1975) by Andrei Tarkovsky without being aware that this is a project trying to deal with really uncomfortable stuff. You find out later that it’s about his father leaving his mother to go fight in the Second World War and people making enormous sacrifices. The difficulty lies precisely at the junction between something that is incredibly beautiful to you and absolutely terrifying at the same time.” In that way it reminds me of the documentary films by Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, whose films ‘The Pearl Button’ [2015] and ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ [2010] or ‘Behemoth’ [2015] about the Chinese coal industry who both use literary references, poetic metaphor and visuals to frame the difficult and shocking revelations made in the work as a documentary. It would be impossible not to reference Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ [1982] whose footage of global phenomena focusing on nature, humanity and the relationship between them to which Akmofrah’s work feels like a continuation of or reminder for the current generation that these issues are still relevant if not more so than ever.

John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ is on for FREE at The Curve, Barbican Centre until January 7th 2018

Hidden Depths of Vertigo Sea

*Quotes and text used from the Barbican Publication accompanying this exhibition with essay by Kass Banning and interview with John Akomfrah by Ekow Eshun [2017].

Monday, 16 October 2017

Everything to Everyone

“I’ve renamed it the Most Popular Exhibition Ever except for Banksy.” -Grayson Perry

On a central street in Bristol a group of people are participating in a ceramics class at Potstop Pottery. The time is around 8pm, I am passing by, the glow from the window and movement of activity inside catches my attention. It looks busy, there are lots of pots and ceramics in the window on display, people in the background making were the things I noticed, without lingering other than to take a quick photo of the name of the place on my phone. It looked fun, understated and genuine; for reasons that will soon become clear, it felt poignant given from where I had been a few minutes earlier. A hundred yards away I had just emerged from the crowds of people who were still waiting in a queue that is still four-people deep outside the Arnolfini, all waiting their turn, as I had, to enter the self-prophetically titled, ‘Most Popular Exhibition Ever!’ from artist turned celebrity, Grayson Perry. Only in retrospect, as I now walked past this real-life pottery lesson taking place before my very art weary eyes did I truly appreciate the irony of queueing to see ceramics displaying ‘British-ness’ when the real thing was happening in a slightly different form a matter of metres away.

In the artist’s own words, “Art quickly becomes less attractive when you have to queue to have a glimpse of it.” I thought, “You’re telling me!” I often found myself asking ‘why’ as I amongst the first wave of the public was funnelled on mass into the familiar atrium of the Arnolfini, more thrumming with bodies than I have ever seen before. Queueing does however add to the sense of anticipation and viewing amongst the masses a ‘shared-experience’. The fabled exhibition on its first UK stop tour from The Serpentine in London, is presented at Arnolfini across three floors; featuring ceramics amongst other things tapestries, woodcut prints, bronze sculptures and maybe on the 26th of September, just possibly a glimpse of the man himself!  All of whom probably most people attending had previously seen on various television programmes Perry had hosted on Channel Four. Nonetheless there we all were! Without such publicity that could have ever imagined that we’d be so excited about an exhibition of ceramics at the Arnolfini? Are we there to see ceramics or are we there for the moment? How much of that interest and enthusiasm has since transferred itself back into an interest and engagement with making and the arts? Were the people visiting Perry’s exhibition interested in Potstop Pottery or perhaps vice versa and either way did it matter?...

“Popularity”, Perry denotes, “is a serious business.” Whose ambition for the exhibition is to, “Widen audience for art without dumbing it down.” It is a difficult aim to fulfil. When so much of an art gallery’s funding is dependant on visitor numbers there is the temptation to fill these spaces with art that is accessible, fun or as is the case being explored here, ‘popular’. The theory of how galleries are currently justified, as Perry himself explains as,

“There are two metrics that hold weight in the art world. One is auction price: how much in cold cash someone is prepared to pay for a particular piece by a particular artist. The other is visitor figures -how many people go to see certain exhibitions…Visitor numbers are in a way another empirical measure of quality.”

This raises several debates but particularly on how museums and galleries programme their exhibitions and whether measuring success and quality based on popularity is as hard to define as it is potentially troublesome. However, I have never looked at the reasons why people visit or not art galleries and can only assume that those entrusted with the precarious task of filling these spaces programme exhibitions based on a balance and not fall into labels of marketing whereby an exhibition is popular as to another that be deemed challenging. Most exhibitions fall into multiple if not hazy realms of categorisation. I do not have the answers and neither does Grayson Perry it seems, but what I do admire him for is his ability to articulate issues within the arts and put forward questions and issues that we should think about, if not challenge because he seems for an appreciation of art that is not passive even if it is 'popular'.

For an artist that continues to explore both his own and the nation’s identity, Perry has either unwittingly or cleverly almost marketed himself as his transgender alter-ego, Clare; or the man in the dress that makes pots. These identities that were once part of the challenging and exploration of what Grayson Perry’s art is about [identity, perception, surfaces] have since become ‘accepted’ and familiar so it becomes an interesting contrast and dilemma of what happens when the outsider is no longer outside?! My friend gave the analogy of anti-establishment American punk band Green Day becoming so popular that, that they aren’t quite punk anymore. Maybe in being popular, Perry and Green Day can reach a wider audience with the brand of unconformity or rebellion that they are selling, but on the negative side, maybe it also gets diluted and becomes acceptably-edgy rather than maintaining its power to cause affect through shock. This sentiment best echoed in the context of having this exhibition in Bristol as its first place to be shown outside of London is telling of the city’s relationship with graffiti art and the similar dichotomy of the ‘political made popular’ with work made by Banksy whose exhibitions at Weston’s Tropicana and Bristol Museum were arguably, at least in terms of visitor numbers, amongst the most popular exhibitions in the area in the last decade!
'Kenilworth AM1' 2010 Custom-built motorcycle
An exhibition with this amount of hype comes with a huge amount of expectation and we are welcomed on the first floor with works which explore, ‘what makes a man’. A tapestry made in response to the ceremony of the blessing of the banners with Durham Miners as part of a Channel Four programme on different social-class tribes, traditions and how these factors shape a sense of communal identity. It also includes Perry’s custom-made motorcycle in pink and blue with its own Popemobile style box for Alan Measles (his teddy bear). The symbolism of what masculinity is thrown away from perceived stereotypes with the inclusion of words such as, humility, patience and chastity. In the upstairs galleries the theme of identity continues with an exploration of ‘Britishness’ and the ‘tribes’ of Britain exploring the impact of Brexit amongst other social and political issues. I would speculate that one of the reasons that this exhibition and Grayson Perry are so popular is because he makes art that engages and is interested in people and what they have to say. Who doesn’t want to be listened to? A huge positive that both the public and people in power should draw from Perry’s work, is the benefit of integrating arts more into society as a way of engaging discussion and providing a voice on issues in a way that has a high profile but allows people to express their views more openly because it does not conform with the usual systems of government.

'Death of a Working Hero' 2016 Tapestry
'King of Nowhere' 2015 Cast iron and mixed media
I am conscious that I have written little on the actual work and content of this exhibition, as there is a LOT in it, but I feel somewhat fatigued with seeing these works again; their message already written or spoken much about on their corresponding televised documentaries. One pot represents the Brexit voters the other the remainers; both unremarkably similar. I am now more interested in the phenomenon of the show as a whole, why it is popular and what implications, opportunities or indeed threats does that place to art, artists, the public and galleries etc. For example, I would be interested in Grayson Perry using his ‘celebrity’ to empower people as an artist to make their own art/images/pots in response to the issues he raises rather than documenting them as is the formula he has begun to adopt.     

I have a problem with the idea of ‘art for everyone’ (said the girl who writes blog posts so that others may be inspired to see or understand art work differently....) Maybe I am ignorant, but I am supposedly part of the ‘art world’ having studied it and there are huge swathes of art past and present, I don’t understand or that makes me feel uncomfortable. If compelled, some of it I attempt to figure out and may be rewarded by my puzzle-solving abilities... And sometimes, for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here, I cannot be bothered! It should be enough not to have to like it all but also to give everything a try before you dismiss it and know why you do not like something. The catalogue for the exhibition states that,
‘He [Perry] thinks art shouldn’t be an exclusive club for people who ‘get’ it, but for everyone…’
The problem with trying to do something that is popular or appeals to everyone is that in trying to be everything to everyone the result ends up ultimately, being about nothing. Who is 'everyone' anyway? I think we are all so different that it is almost impossible (surely) to make work that appeals to all. Art work and curation of galleries should never panda to a market-driven sense of taste or inclusiveness, quite the opposite; they should feel more empowered to create new discussions, trends, topics. As another analogy; I enjoy visiting museums and looking at entomology collections and dinosaur skeletons, it doesn’t mean I know or even need to know much or anything about them in order to appreciate them. My reasons for visiting are driven out of curiosity, something to do and experience, wanting to learn or be challenged. Our relationship with art and art galleries is always so much more confrontational and met with a different set of expectations different but irrespective of everyone’s personal experience. I think that educationally we do need to do more to teach how to read visual language and not just how to make it and galleries need to take their own responsibility at always adapting to get better at inspiring, promoting, enthusing, articulating and creating reasons why people should go and see/experience art. Easier said than done!  
'Battle of Britain' 2017 Tapestry 302.7 x 701cm.
As I leave the crowds I wonder, how memorable individual works in this exhibition will be in twenty, fifty, a hundred years time? In what way will we be talking about them and how does this compare to works that were deemed ‘unpopular’ in their own time and have since become significantly valued or culturally important? The saving feature of Perry’s work is that the production and craft that goes into producing them has a hand-made sense of integrity that will ensure their preservation in stopping these pieces becoming quick one-liners. Though I feel that the increasing appeal is not through what Perry makes but what he says, writes and his interaction with the people who visit galleries (or not) and the institutions of art itself [the gallery, the art school, the museum etc.]. These are good conversations to be happening and I can only hope they act as a spring-board or catalyst for change in people’s aversion to viewing art or going to galleries or galleries/museums to take more risks with what they show, promoting a diversity between the ‘popular’, the ‘outsider’ the new, the old, the controversial, the cerebral, the political, the visual and everything in-between. It is a big ask and comes with high expectations on both sides, but the Arnolfini has the perfect opportunity at the moment as it asks audiences to rewrite its ‘rules’ for its continued ethos going forward [see].

In light of the current exhibition the rule I would suggest is; 
You cannot please everyone but everyone wants to be pleased.
Or in other words, do not be afraid to show work that people may not like or understand, that is challenging or uncomfortable but assume that everyone who does visit you is there because they want to engage and to have a meaningful experience, so try and give it to them!

Contribute to the hype and Arnolfini's visitor numbers as your feet can help fund more shows by visiting 'The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!' open TUES-SUN 11.00-18.00 until Christmas Eve!

Sunday, 10 September 2017


“...if mankind was put on earth to create works of art, then other people were put on earth to comment on those works, to say what they think of them. Not to judge objectively or critically assess these works but to articulate their feelings about them with as much precision as possible, without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences, even if those feelings are of confusion, uncertainty or-in this case-undiminished wonder.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

A man sweeps the floor. Slowly and carefully he gathers loose bits of debris and confetti from the bar’s  previous festivities into a neat pile. We are witness to this scene for around three maybe four minutes. Unusual and slightly voyeuristic enough to watch this anyway, perhaps even more so when I reveal that this scene takes place during the minutes of a prime-time television show. The character and action are (depending on how much or not you want to read into it) irrelevant to the story that is being told. This is one scene in the new series of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ and is in part the influence in writing this post.

David Lynch. 'Twin Peaks: The Return' Still. 2017
I have always wanted to write about nothing (some may think I already do), but even as I type the word ‘nothing’ in the header for saving this file on my computer I am already committed in deciding to write about something. Nothing, is something I have been interested in for a long time. Please stay with me on this… One of my earliest experiences of school in which I can remember being frustrated was in a maths lesson, presented with the sum of [0 + 4=]. I was four or five at the time and had never seen a 0 before so didn’t know that it stood for nothing. Once told it was nothing, I found it confusing to comprehend that we would invent a symbol for nothing, when in fact it wasn’t really nothing, it was a round circle. Why have a symbol for something that represented nothing? Such began an existential debate in my brain, that nothing is always in fact something. What that something that defines nothing is exactly remains the subject of philosophical mystery, some degree of absurdity and fascination.

Kurt Schwitters 'Opened by Customs' 1937-38
I think I have always associated nothing with the mundane, the everyday and periods of inactivity, stillness or a sense of emptiness. This seems logical and given my art practice of choosing to draw tools and other fairly everyday objects over the years. It soon becomes apparent that these things, whilst often unnoticed, in a ‘oh that’s nothing’ sense of the word, are in fact heavily laden with meaning, significance and a physical presence that makes them anything but nothing. I suppose what I am obsessed with are the ideas, art, writing and thought that can come from ‘nothing’. Whatever nothing is exactly. Semantics aside this post inspired by recent events of seeing the new Twin Peaks and having started reading ‘M Train’ by Patti Smith, who starts this episode of her diary-like biography in stating, “It’s not so easy writing about nothing” as she muses lost in thought in a cafe in New York. The whole book that follows continues from this point of nothing into a series of reminiscing tales and future visits to the same cafe where she writes about writing, television and books. Doing ‘nothing’ becomes a time, a headspace for daydreaming, deep thought or simply noticing things around you and from the recent trend in ‘mindfulness’ literature it seems that there is a need and fashion for creating space/time for doing so more than ever before.

In Georges Perec’s ‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’ the writer sets out on a quest to write down everything that happens, “when nothing happens”. Sitting in a cafe in Saint Sulpice for three days the book reads as a series of lists, or stage directions and descriptions of the people, the buses, the pigeons that walk past and in his words, “...generally take note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance...” The resulting book at times ends up being quite abstract; shapes, colours and numbers; yet visually speaking, the narrative this information conjures still manages to create a story and sense of place that feels very real albeit still very subjective. This same fragmented and subjective sense of time and place is present in the found debris and collected collages in Kurt Schwitters [1887-1948] or in Sophie Calle’s [1953 -] use of photography and narrative of everyday objects to tell stories from her life. To the nature of this post itself as a list of sorts as a reference to a personal favourite of mine, found shopping lists that read like poems (opposite). I could write a whole separate post about the charm and intrigue of the found shopping list and what stories they tell.

Imagine therefore my excitement when on this journey into nothing I discovered, ‘The Mezzanine’ by Nicholson Baker a short novel written in 1986 that chronicles the musings of an office employee as they escape their workplace to ponder why one shoelace always runs out before the other and whose genius lies behind the folding spout on the milk carton? It is as absurdly mundane but genuinely pedantically amusing as it sounds. Like a literary version of observational comedy when I read ‘The Mezzanine’ for the first time it struck me, in the way that comedy also can, how uniting these thoughts are. We all think, we all notice the same odd, irritating, impractical or genius bits of design, everyday interactions with people in our daily lives; yet how often do we think that those thoughts and observations can be quite amusing or even interesting.

“And third, the felt crunch, like the chewing of an ice cube, as the twin lines of the staple emerge from the underside of the paper and are bent by the two troughs of the template in the stapler’s base, curing inward in a crab’s embrace of your memo, and finally disengaging from the machine completely,” -Nicholson Baker

If you read this, firstly you will wonder how it is possible that you have spent the best part of five minutes reading two pages about a stapler; secondly you will either find this incredibly sad or as I did amazingly perceptive. Once again, I reiterate, “it is not easy writing about nothing”.

“That was the problem with reading: you always had to pick up again at the very thing that had made you stop reading the day before.” – Nicholson Baker

From great boredom comes great possibility! Nothing and a sense on nihilism is explored in René Daumal’s ‘A Night of Serious Drinking’ in which a narrative beginning with a bout of copious drinking between a Anthographer (whatever that is), a Fabricator of useless objects (otherwise known as an artist) and others soon descends into a very surreal almost William Burroughs style description into the depths of some imagined hell. It is an amazing book whose mention here comes from its mundane origins as a start point into something altogether wonderful and bizarre. ‘Nothing’ also as a meditation, when running, yoga, gardening or another activity become a means to think about nothing, spiritually without consciously being so. It is ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ and Murakami’s ‘What I think about when I think about running’. In Murakami’s words, “What exactly do I think about when I'm running? I don't have a clue.”    

Andrei Tarkovsky, 'Solaris'. Still Gif. 1972
Nothing as a precursor or metaphor for something, it is the transience of these everyday or throw-away things that can remind us of our own mortality. I have written mostly of books and art up to now, but the concept of ‘nothing’ in the form of sustained shots in which nothing appears to happen along with shots of incidental objects or things become symbolic in the same way they do in paintings or books. For me it is shots like the teacup filling with rain in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (pictured), the apples falling out of the cart in a dream sequence in Ivan’s Childhood, it is the use of light, wind and elements in Mirror and numerous other examples in Tarkovsky’s films. Whether these things are intended to be symbolic or not can be up for interpretation, they may have no real purpose other than what we bring to it. The writer Geoff Dyer explains what I mean about sustained shots in his book, ‘Zona’ that acts as an essay of his understanding of the Tarkovsky film ‘Stalker’,

“If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.' At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last—and no one can concentrate on anything—for longer than about two seconds.” -Geoff Dyer in ‘Zona’

Chardin 'The Copper Cistern' Oil on Panel. 1735
Time and nothing seem to be two things that sit hand in hand, that to experience, understand and possibly appreciate nothing we need the time to do so. I have often enjoyed the challenge, though not always succeeded at comfortably watching these scenes in films that seem to take forever or have little baring to the immediate progression of the story, though debatably they are the closest thing to life and are the parts in films that allow you to think or not. It is the incidental conversations about hamburgers, a goldfish or Spider-man in Tarantino’s films. It is long first-person shots travelling in a car on a highway at night so often used by David Lynch or described in Michel Faber’s brilliant novel, ‘Under the Skin’. It is all the stuff that happens when nothing is happening. A lot of Japanese animation does this very well for example the depiction of cooking and food in any one of Studio Ghibli’s animations along with the most highly detailed, hand painted shots of an empty train station or school desk in animations such as ‘5mm per Second’ are notable in their change of pace as well as being more often than not completely unnecessary to anything to do with the plot but show us so much about what Japanese life is like in the same way a painting would. It is the intensity and love of looking in a Chardin still-life, the personal desire to possess of a Jim Dine tool print or drawing. The absurdity of a soft toilet made by Claes Oldenburg that makes us consider the real thing, the Duchamp snow shovel, the readymade and consumerist, glossy, pop-culture noticed in a Warhol or James Rosenquist. It is the things that make us stop and notice. The magic illusionary and seductive powers of surface, form and narrative created in art that make audiences want to look closer.

Studio Ghibli 'When Marnie was There' Still.2014 
In ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ by Michael Foley I first discovered a significant chunk of the books I have written about here. “Nothing is less known than what seems familiar. The ordinary is always the exceptional in disguise. Everything happens when nothing is happening.” In it Foley succeeds where I have neglected to philosophise an argument for ‘the everyday’ whereas I have written more a list of the things that I love. In writing about Proust, Foley also puts forward the viewpoint of the function of art in relation to the everyday,

“One approach is to use the arts to develop a new perception, an imaginative relabelling of the everyday world. It is not what you look at that matters but what you is not so much that we see art as that we see by means of art....appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar....”

A thousand words later and I am still writing about nothing. I may be interested in it for some time to come.