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 Guzm├ín, 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 https://www.barbican.org.uk/john-akomfrah-purple

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].