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I never promised you a rose garden

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No, she certainly did not promise us a rose garden. Nor a picnic: she didn’t promise us anything except a certain discipline. This is all about the MA Fine Art group shows and the process of critical reflection

One of my daughters who had studied Fine Art at the Chelsea School of Art forewarned me that perhaps the very worst part of any Fine Art degree course was the experience of the ‘Group crits.’ Group criticism takes place when one or more artist presents his or her work and the tutors – as well as the peers on the degree course – respond to it. It is intrinsically ‘critical’ because various points of view are stated, questions are asked, suggestions for development are made and the discourse of Fine Art is mobilised; that discourse consists of description, and/or interpretation, and/or evaluation. It also consists of a kind of free-association and an impressive variety of personal responses. (The other profoundly negative feature for my daughter was the lack of any encouragement from the tutorial staff. Apparently, they relentlessly asked the question ‘why?’ of everything she did. After a while she found herself reduced to a sense of pointlessness and nihilism; ultimately she lost her morale and motivation.)

I can, now, begin to understand why the ‘group crits are, at the very least, a testing experience. Throughout the process I am certainly relatively uncomfortable. (And often very uncomfortable). I even have to get myself into a kind of ‘coping’ state in order to face them. I have tried to discover exactly why this is the case. Part of it relates to my usual performance anxiety: I really hate serving up comments in a group setting especially when I am not sure whether whatever I have to say is helpful or particularly appropriate. Nor am I sure whether to relate what I am seeing to the arts generally or to the work of esteemed individual artists (such as Otto Dix or Marlene Dumas) or to cultural theorists (such as Daniel Wickberg or Jonathon Meades). Another major part of the problem is simply that I much prefer a one-to-one discussion with an artist about their work and the experiences that they bring to the making of the work. In the one-to-one setting I can take my time to develop a conversation and gauge from their responses whether or not any real communication is taking place. For example, I had a very good exchange with an artist who is part Afghan and part Pakistani about a curious problem that his art posed for me. I sensed that I could ask him questions about his work in such a way that what I was saying was non-confrontational and pitched in such a way that I could learn more about what he was actually trying to do. But in the large ‘group crit ‘ I would have felt ill-at-ease if I were to ask the identical questions. (And because of my discomfort I would not necessarily end up saying what I really meant to say.)

We had another lengthy group ‘crit’ today. It was framed by the show’s title: ‘If only.’ What a great title! (The possibilities are endless: for example, ‘If only I had realised how best to use my freedom – well, things would be different and better’; or, ‘If only I did not suffer the usual catalogue of human limitations’ …) First, I must salute the tutor for her consistent adherence to rigour and discipline. She leads us through a thorough and tightly-managed process. This, though, does not alter the fact that I have to make a great effort to sit through the whole thing. At one point I even thought of escaping but realised that my rucksack and coat were trapped beneath someone’s chair. So that put the mockers on that!

The four works on show attracted sustained and thoughtful responses. At some point I realised that some of the feedback explored how to take the work forward. I am reluctant even to think like that. (It’s difficult enough to get a piece ready to show let alone start considering how best to move it forward!) But I can see that those MA students who do make such suggestions are potentially doing a great service to the artist. The four works we had to respond to featured: debris, detritus and leaves gathered from walks in the countryside, a ‘poster’ featuring broken-up text allied to skilful mark-making, a cultural study on divisive articles about millennials and their baby-boomer ‘targets’, and, a hanging sculpture featuring disembowelled soft toys.

Each in their own way was an engaging work of art. Since I am so used to seeing contemporary art yet at the same time have no clear idea as to how the cognoscenti of the art world actually apprehend the work I tend to respond in terms of the cultural knowledge I have gradually acquired. I make references to poetry, literature and songs. I think about history or anthropology – and even mathematics and chemistry. For example: I had been on a long walk yesterday through Farnham Park and I passed over the millions of fallen leaves; I was reminded of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s poem – his lament – to the dead in the first World War. When I saw the scattering of leaves in the group show I thought of those dead and I recalled Robin Williamson singing his lovely ‘October song’ in which he tells us that ‘leaves have learned the art of dying.’ So, in the group ‘crit’ I said that the leaves in the work pose a kind of challenge about how we, too, might also learn ‘the art of dying.’ At least that is what I wanted to say but I’m not sure that those were the words I spoke. I made one or two other remarks and really enjoyed quoting from Jonathon Meades about how travel, rather than broadening the mind, can easily do quite the opposite: plainly it can ’narrow the mind!’ (He said this with particular reference to the phenomenon of pilgrims and pilgrimages.) He is a brilliant and acid commentator who noted that pilgrims were, after all, the first tourists. And now, the world has not only gone over to the ‘society of the spectacle’ but to trillions of tourists … gazing and gawping … and looking, hoping, for their garden of roses – their garden of Eden.

The New Materialism and Leonard Cohen

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Amongst his writings, the delightful Michel Foucault identified the hugely expanding market in ‘theory’. Theory, he realised, had become commodified and something traded for some sort of gain. What type of gain? Pierre Bourdieu would quickly reply: For cultural and social capital – and for economic capital too. The proliferation of theory offers us an embarras de choix – an esoteric chatter – a slightly dizzying labyrinth of concept piled on concept – a zone of pure concepts. The purveyors of theory accrue varieties of capital – as well as esteem, importance and a certain ‘authority’. Some even go on to enjoy the benefits of flunky culture and bask in the gaze of their admiring acolytes. (There’s plenty of that, as Gompertz notes, on show in the exclusive locales or the differing fields of the cultural world.)

One of the recent newcomers to the trade in theory is the so-called ‘new materialism’ and its related ‘posthumanism.’ These apparently new departures in theory hoover up an eclectic range of intellectual writings and propose a kind of synthesis of everything that we have learned in relation to social and natural science, technologies and more. They even claim a new conceptualisation of ontology (or ontologies) and a related epistemology. (Goodness!) I find all this very odd. It seems to me that the new materialism isn’t particularly new at all. I think it is perfectly possible to trace the first glimmerings of any such newness to the Pre-Socratic philosophers and more recently to Schopenhauer. I think the ‘new’ materialism is nuanced by Marx and it is almost impossible to read Nietzsche without finding a viscerality in his work – a viscerality that reflects his mind, body, animality, environing culture and technology. It is not possible to ignore the responsiveness of our body/mind complex to the biology, physics, chemistry and metaphysics of our world. And, surely one of the criticisms of deconstructionism is that it simply leaves out something that we all know is ‘there’ – that is, it ignores or overlooks our pre-articulate (pre-linguistic) stream of psycho-emotional being. A serious historian such as Daniel Wickberg (2007) would incline his reader to think more in terms of the development of ‘sensibility’ as a framework for contemporary cultural theorising rather than appealing to a ‘new’ materialism.

But nonetheless, what now matters in our cultural world is the marketing and branding of the ‘new’: it all has to be ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’; journals proliferate, conferences and symposia shine brightly a’go go – and the internet splurges out everything in a great psychedelic melange – a bean feast of ‘sounding off.’ So, inevitably, amongst all this, we find ourselves served up with a deception: It isn’t really a new materialism at all. It’s an elaboration of ways of thinking and of experiential realities that have been going on for a very long time. Sontag said that many things exist without being named. She’s right – but surely we should be very careful with how we choose to deploy this actual ‘naming.’

Decades ago the philosopher Neil Richards once told me that there is far too much noise in the world. “What is the point of all this stuff?” he asked. He advised me not to add any more to the deluge of words by publishing anything, anything at all. (Every once in a while I did publish something – and even then some it was censored!) My family also underlined the fact that I should not take a view on anything until I had first read the Greeks. I agree. So, the rather worrying thing is that by writing – by taking a point of view and disseminating this post (and all the other posts) – I am just adding to the noise.

I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘If it be your will.’ In this song he gives us the line: If it be your will, I should speak no more …  

But, what is one to do? It’s really difficult to remain silent!

Making Black Rose heaven: after the prelude

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First – a moment of history:

Love is something impossible for me to grasp. If I loved my mother then it was not a tender love nor an easy-come love. It was not the kind of sentimental love that I see warmly displayed all over our culture. If I loved my mother at all it is because she had to suffer me and endure the endless disappointments that I caused her to experience. Yet, if anyone said a negative thing about my mother I would feel rage at them. So, it was a strange kind of love – and yet I could not have wished for anything else or anything better. I could never wish for a different mother. Not long ago I heard an esteemed British novelist – a woman who has won literary prizes – announce that she did not know if she could love. I am not sure I can either. I know duty, I know desire, I know infatuation but I do not know if I am capable of whatever this thing, ‘love’ is.

In my middle-age I used to think that my brothers and I had been forged as people in the unsparing fires of hell. Not for us was there any sense of having a kind of warm emotional security from a mother who was ‘there for us’ through thick and thin. She was a remarkable highly-cultured talented woman who treated us with a frankness that was unsparing, scathing and often destructive. Sometimes, when I looked back, I felt as if I had been perpetually dosed in caustic soda.

However, I was wrong. How is it possible that I overlooked the huge and consistent effort she made for my brothers and me? Every Sunday she would prepare the delicious roast; every Sunday she would make and ice a lovely chocolate cake. Throughout her life she did our washing, mended our clothes, put up with the turbulence and the noise and the egoistic inanities of her four sons. I was blinded to this because of school, then university and then the testing realities of my chosen professional work. I was blinded to all this because my world, from my early teens onwards, had become one of ideas and dreams – then ‘policies’ and ‘responsibilities’ and coping with colleagues at work – and trying to limit the damage I might do to my two daughters.

Anyway, now I have to live with the awful truth that I failed my mother. I failed to give back that which she deserved. And there can never be any closure to this. No escape. No illusions.

Second – working with the reality

The ‘Open-cut’ project on the MA Fine Art course immediately surfaced, for me, strange visions and memories of psychiatric disturbance. I kept seeing, in recurring images, the wards of mental hospitals and I kept thinking about my mother’s nervous breakdown and how I had to take her to the psychiatric hospital in Basingstoke for her electro-convulsive therapy. I kept thinking about how awful her life had been because, from 1952 onwards and for so many years she suffered from a kind of deep depression. It was awful for my father, my brothers and myself. My father had to become both mother and father because my mother simply was not there. When she was suffering from her depression (and they lasted for three months on end) she possessed cold disinterested rational powers but they were freighted with nihilistic despair. I knew that my mother could do nothing about her mental state. That’s why I would defend her to the hilt. She could, as my great philosopher friend put it, ‘do no other.’ It’s strange how (even at the age of 4) I realised this. I was brought up as a boy – and ‘you never kick a person when they’re down.’ That would be dishonourable and honour mattered.

At my mother’s funeral I had to decide how to find a few last words to say about her. So I wrote out a version of the poem, ‘Black rose heaven.’ I spoke briefly and gave every one who was there a copy of a photograph of her when she was aged 5 – and her world had yet to be destroyed.

But destroyed it was by the insanities of Nazi Germany. (Nonetheless I still like reading Nietszche and I still like reading Heidegger.)

I was bought up in the idyllic early sunshine of life – and then – the crack -up. Her crack-up. I’ve fended off madness and despair but it has always been a struggle. I once did and even now still think of her bidding: she said: ’Go out and make a difference.’ (‘You must,’ as my colleague Peter said, ‘learn your lines well.’ I did learn my lines.  ‘Be on your guard,’ he said: ‘You are a strange attractor.’)

This is the background to ‘Black rose heaven.’ It is a work that tries to represent the fracture in my mother and me. I hope we are linked together through a network of image, artefact and paint. It is not an attempt at redemption. It is made, as the great Marcuse suggests, in the hope that, as art, it may work to reveal truths that are released from the constraints and propriety of the Freudian reality principle.

The photo above shows one element or rather a part of the beginning of the making of ‘Black rose heaven.’ It has a slightly conceptual graphic-design feel to it. It is a first accumulation of relevant material for the work. I may use it as part of a book that I hope I will make. I just hope I can secure the uninterrupted time to get on with the painting. And this proposed first attempt may only be a first attempt. I have a large white painted cardboard background ready for the action.

 

Black rose heaven

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No more pussyfooting around; no more prevarication: no more caution. I simply have got to get on and produce some decent works of art. But first I must achieve some sort of closure on the ‘Critical Perspectives’ disappointment.

Here goes: In our mal-functioning small group we had to agree on our understanding of Derrida’s theory (or rather philosophy’) of deconstruction, then apply this to works of art – and then develop and give a ‘Powerpoint’ presentation to our fellow students.

It was a highly unsatisfactory experience for me. Some years ago I had become familiar with Derrida – partly through a four-year philosophy course on the major thinkers of our time, partly through understanding Derrida’s debt to Heidegger and partly because I had read Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’ and ‘Writing and difference’. Did I understand exactly what Derrida had to say? No – but I had managed to get the gist of it. (I think he takes a remarkable ‘look’ at many aspects of western Philosophy but his is the kind of writing that requires long and careful engagement. And I never had the time to do this in my professional life.) But it didn’t matter anyway. My knowledge was virtually unusable!

The real problem lay in the fact that we, in our small group, had first to get some clear basic idea  of Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ – and then communicate this in some worthwhile, clear and instructive way to our peers. But at no stage did I have any confidence that our group had, at the group level, a shared understanding. My sense was that the prior knowledge of one person in our group simply interfered with his appreciation of Deconstruction and I could never grasp what the other two knew. (On reflection, I could have tried a few more strategies; I could have said: ‘We cannot move forward as a group unless everyone articulates what they understand Deconstruction to be.’ But I did not do this. There will have been other strategies, too, but I could not think of any at the time.)

Later, I started to prepare the text for a Powerpoint presentation. I thought about the background to Derrida’s ideas and a basic approach to the practice of ‘deconstruction.’ I wrote out two examples of deconstructing a painting and a photo. I sent the whole Powerpoint outline to two of the group members but some of the text was then altered in a way that seemed to me to obscure rather than illuminate.

When the day of the presentation came I had resolved to remain silent. In fact, I wished that I had had the chance to speak – and to speak without notes. But one member of the group was obviously so intent on speaking that I thought I’d let him get on with it. What, after all,  was the purpose of the exercise? It was to allow MA students to grapple with a critical perspective. In consequence the presentation wasn’t so important. But, nonetheless, I hated the prospect of making a poor fist of things.

The presentation did not go at all well. At half-time – once all the other group presentations had taken place – I had become so disenchanted that I left.

However, since then I have been trying to develop something catalysed by my painting of the immediate aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden. That was where some of my mother’s relatives had been living. I am interested in damage and I realised that the damage caused to Dresden was an emblem of the damage done to my mother and then to me. I am interested in the trauma that is (endlessly) visited on individuals, groups and whole populations. So now I am focusing far more explicitly on the personal aspects of damage and being ‘damaged’.

Ideally, in a style that draws from Anselm Kiefer, I am doing my best to relate my mother’s experience to my own. But I need peace and quiet to get on with this. The painting is organised under the heading of ‘Black rose heaven’. (It is a heaven that my mother will have ‘all to herself.’) It is not an idyllic heaven. It is adorned, sparsely, with black-red roses. So far, I have prepared a background and assembled photos, two small paintings (that are self-portraits), some model soldiers and some dried red rose buds. The rose buds will be painted or sprayed black.

Yes: Black-rose heaven.

Post script: The idea of a black-rose heaven is taken from a poem by E E Cummins which begins:

if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of black-red roses …

Open Cut – Twilight of the idols

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Open Cut. The brief was appealing: those of us on the MA Fine Art course were asked to imagine that our person (our body and/or mind) was a surface and a type of mining operation was to take place: We had to consider that this surface would be subject to a rather gentle open-cast type of mining. In the real world this kind of ‘open-cut’ mining unearths things of value that are hidden from view – but not far from the surface. Here though, in a rather poetic and charming piece of text, we were invited to search for whatever it was about us that lay somewhere beneath the surface. The task reminded me of a lovely chapter in Sheila Ernst and Lucy Goodison’s feminist book, ‘In our own hands’: their chapter focused on the ‘buried treasure’ that is ‘there’ within us – in every person – and which is waiting to be accessed and transmuted into a more integrated and flourishing way of being. (In so doing these writers touched on the allure of transpersonal psychology.)

In my case I thought rather less about any rubies or sapphires, of gold and jade, of ’buried treasure’ that might lie concealed within myself. Instead, I focused on something that has been troubling me for many years: if I dig a little below the surface I come face to face with my own psycho-disturbance – or ‘derangement.’ I come up against a kind of dark destructive energy – a kind of psycho-pathology. I am not mad in the obvious sense of being delusional but I certainly am susceptible to a kind of hallucinogenic de-stabilising play of the mind. My moods are volatile. Social interaction, for me, is something that is anxiety-laden. That is why I like some art, plenty of literature and certain kinds of songs. Underneath all this, I am aware of being a damaged person. And, in this regard, one of my long-standing professional work colleagues once flatly described me as ‘damaged goods.’ It’s an unsettling definition but in many respects it is accurate.

So, I began the project by thinking in these rather general terms. We had a week or so before we were due to show a work of art (even if it was incomplete) and this work was to reflect our personal search for that which lay ‘just below the surface’. However, whilst still at this early stage I was very engaged with thinking about my mother and what had happened to her – which inevitably had had a huge impact on me and which contributed to my damaged personality. She was made a refugee in 1939 when Hitler invaded the Sudetenland; when she arrived in the UK she basically had an awful time. Nonetheless during the war she became an officer in the WRNS and in its immediate aftermath found herself as a translator and interpreter in Germany.  A few years later when I was aged 4 and we were living in Singapore she had a catastrophic mental breakdown. It was my life-long response to this that, in truth, lies just below the surface.

I came to realise that she was traumatised by the savage disruption caused by the Second World War. She openly admired many aspects of German culture and I learned that she had close associations with the city of Dresden. By chance, when I visited Dresden in 2009 I came across a small archaeological dig that was uncovering and examining some smoke-blackened cellars in the heart of that city. As I looked at the wretched ruins I thought of my mother and the unspeakable cruelty that had befallen that once beautiful Dresden. I may even have been looking at the ashes of my dead relatives.

So, here, for me, was a literal ‘open cut.’ I could relate to it very directly. I therefore decided to paint a picture of the fire-bombing of Dresden. I did not have much time in which to do it. An oil painting in four days is not easy. But the painting did reach the stage of an almost completed first draft. In addition, since I was studying ‘Deconstruction’ I tried to embed some theoretical reference in the work. I drew from Heidegger’s term ‘Destruktion’ as well as the beguilingly evocative writing of Nietzsche and his ‘Twilight of the idols.’ Heidegger and Nietzsche are stunningly brilliant but their thought did play a role in helping Hitler forge his Nazi ideology.

On Monday 28th October the ‘Open cut’ show took place.

The day of this group exhibition featuring the MA students’ responses to the brief was, mercifully, crisp, bright and sunny. I walked along to the University with my first draft of my painting. I was not at all satisfied with having to show my work. It needed a number of additions and the bright light of the open air seemed to amplify its weaknesses. Anyway, since it was a course requirement I had to ‘put up’ and ‘shut up.’

A majority of the MA students contributed a single work to the show. As usual the group criticism began and as usual there was an asymmetry in terms of contributions. The diversity of work on display was very marked. One piece that really struck me was a hanging disembowelled soft toy. It was formerly a Dalmatian but now it was something very sad and something I thought had been metaphorically ‘hung out to dry.’ Another 3D work of strange bowl-shaped forms was elusive, ambiguous and somehow of both earth and culture. The young Chinese woman Meng Zhang, whose company had brought me great delight in the previous two weeks, once again showed her painterly brilliance with a small painting of an eye and a partially obscured face. Her’s is a successful contemporary art. She’s just got it!

By the time it was my turn to speak I was feeling rather gloomy and rather angry. I had seriously contemplated walking out. I did not like the experience of showing an incomplete work. And the reaction to my painting? Well, since I was feeling negative I did not really take much in. Some of my fellow students said that they would not have associated the painting with me. (This unsettled me.) A visiting tutor described my work as ‘destruction porn.’ I actually like this visiting tutor but I wondered if she would have said that if she had known that the smoke-blackened relics in the city of Dresden are a symbol, for me, of my own disturbed personality.

(The next day was really dreadful. It was wall-to-wall purgatory. I had one of the worst group experiences that I have ever had. But that’s another story.)

Post script: The photograph below shows the painting I did for the ‘Open Cut‘ show. It depicts a tiny portion of the wreckage of Dresden after the incendiary bombs had rained down upon it. The painting remains unfinished.

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An MA in Fine Art: There’s something about difference

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Sometimes I find the only way to get over something is to write about it or at least find some way of expressing it. The ‘something’ in this case was a group exercise that took place on a Tuesday afternoon in late October. The sun was shining brightly outside. That had made me feel optimistic about what was in store. We were convened to begin an exercise in establishing how four of us, as a small group of MA students, were going to communicate the essence of the theory of ‘deconstruction’ to our fellow larger group of MA students. Each of the separate smaller groups had been given a theoretical perspective (such as Psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and so on) upon which to focus their attention. The idea was that we would then, when we all came together, be familiarised with a luxurious collection of perspectives through which to view art and works of art. I was looking forward to the process.

One week in advance of the exercise our small group had been given to read a paper on ‘Deconstructive criticism’. The paper was relatively clear and outlined (more or less) what ‘Deconstruction’ was and how to ‘deconstruct’ a piece of literary text. The paper succeeded in showing that Deconstruction was not what ill-informed people think it is: it does not mean breaking a text down into its component parts as if conducting a kind of anatomical study. Part of the goal of Deconstruction is to show that there can never be a once-and-for-all settled meaning of a text. Any text is nested in network of associations and linked meanings in an endless ‘chain of signifiers’. Another central aspect and aim is to reveal the hidden play of ideology in any textual material. This applies to any work of art because works of art are really a type of ‘text’.

When we assembled as a whole class and then formed into our separate small groups the tutor established a set of group-working procedures. She took quite a long time doing this – and I began to feel a little impatient; we needed to get on with the task because we had to determine a number of crucial things before giving our ‘presentation’ in a week’s time. Sadly, the ground rules that we were told to follow caused a kind of paralysis in the group. Here’s why:

Our group originally consisted of five people. But one was missing because she is a mother and it happened to be half-term – so she was obliged to stay away and care for her children. In consequence the group comprised a young man from the sub-continent of India, a young woman who, I discovered, was from Finland, a middle-aged man from the UK and myself. (I am mainly British but ethnically ‘mixed’, male and old.) The ground rules stated that there was to be no leader. We were to be unswervingly democratic even though there are radically different ideas as to what democracy entails. Nonetheless I understood the directive to mean that no one should dominate or exclude others.

When we began our discussion it was immediately plain that we had a problem. A very big problem. In fact, something like an insurmountable problem! Two members of the group had not yet completed reading the paper on ‘Deconstructive criticism.’ In addition, whether by disposition or because of the composition of the group the two who were not entirely familiar with the paper were very unforthcoming. In fact, they were not forthcoming at all. The middle-aged male also told us that he had been upbraided in a previous degree course for his habitual tendency to adopt the role of ‘father’ in group work. (I suppose he was now trying to mind his Ps and Qs! He was trying not to say too much.)  I must confess that I was almost at a loss as to how on earth to abide by the rule of ‘no leaders’, and how to involve the young man and the young woman, let alone how to make at least some progress towards getting the task done. The real problem, as I experienced it, was that if two people remained virtually mute there was no obvious way to secure an equality of contribution and involvement. And, most worryingly, I wondered whether I was perceived as a kind of oppressor – simply by virtue of my age and ‘cultural’ being.

It was terrible really.

In the end I suggested that one way through the thicket in the quagmire was to take the young woman’s painting – any painting by her – and to think of it as an example of her ‘speaking’ through her work; in addition I thought that the same idea could be applied to any one photograph by the young man – and therefore to ‘hear’ him, similarly, speaking. I proposed that we take their work and view it through a ‘deconstructionist lens’. In other words, rather than ‘hear’ them orally we would allow the application of the perspective of deconstruction to result in an enhanced form of communication and a worthwhile bit of analysis.

One problem was that the other man had already acquired a way of analysing art or artistic artefacts and this approach differed from full-blown deconstruction. That too had to be addressed.

But my proposed solution was not necessarily something that either party wanted. I did not know what they wanted. I did my best to try and discover what they might have wanted. However, I was unsuccessful. We then sat in silence. No one spoke.

Time was pressing so I simply initiated a deconstructionist analysis of the painting and the photograph. It was weird because it was as if their work had been taken out of their hands. (But, in fact, something like a basic deconstructionist reading actually took place.)

Then the tutor appeared. She, as far as I could tell, did her best to discover what was going on in the group. When she asked the young woman, for example, whether or not she was ‘happy’ with the ‘deconstruction’ of her painting there was no obvious answer nor a definite response.  I did not know what she thought. I looked at her trying to get some idea but she remained relatively inscrutable. This though, is not necessarily uncommon in the field of Fine Art. Moreover, if we really value ‘difference’ then it simply means that ‘everyone has their story to tell’ and has their own ‘style’ of social interaction. That’s the way it is.

I was extremely glad when our session was over. The other man had committed himself to make some Powerpoint presentation (which I think is a ghastly way of transmitting really challenging material) and I was to type out my deconstructive readings of the painting and the photos. This I did later that evening. Since then I have sent copies to him and placed a copy in the young woman’s studio space.

My sense was that it would have been much better to focus on what is really necessary i.e. that everyone in our group actually knows what ‘Deconstruction’ is and, once this is achieved, then to move on to working out how best to communicate this learning to a wider community.

The overall MA course tutor, who is impressively rigorous, has underlined how we must make the course ‘work for ourselves.’ In a way the kind of extremely negative experience I had does help. It obliges me to ask: How could I have done things differently? It makes me wonder how best the other people in our group can derive value from the experience. And, underneath it all, I’m concerned that older people, like me, may be perceived in ways that make positive communication and engagement with us very difficult. Quite simply we may be seen as dogmatic or ‘past it’. Which is all rather sad.

An MA in Fine Art: It’s certainly not easy

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We had our first project group show on 14 October 2019. The group in question comprised four MA student artists and their work was organised under the heading, ‘Very little.’

As usual, it’s a great title. Everyone in the world can connect at some time or other with the idea of ‘very little.’ For example, once upon a time we were very little. Some of us have had very little on our plates. All of us have seen pictures of people who have very little …

Before the exhibition I had thought about the appeal of miniaturisation. Roland Barthes in his book ‘Mythologies’ wrote an essay about the seduction of creating a little world. He thought it gave us a sense of being in control – perhaps being in absolute control. I understand that. So, what, though, would the artists have made for us to see?

The first artist, J. had made what immediately struck me as appealing – something that was nice to look at. It featured a kind of light box upon which were placed little transparent lego figues. Below them were enlargements of blood cells, whilst above them, floated a helium-filled ballon in a heart shape. It was a neat and seemingly resolved work and succeeded very well for me at an aesthetic level. (Is this enough?) However, I had to get beyond the pleasure of the senses to try and ‘work out what it might be seeking to communicate. (The photograph at the end of this text gives some idea of the artist’s work.)

The next piece of work by M. was a relatively simple painting executed in a contemporary rough-edged style. It featured a lego figure floating or semi-standing on the surface of the sea. Where was the location? Well, the lego-figure obscured most of the landmass of the UK and showed some of the western edges of the continent of Europe. The figure had a rather despondent expression and was wearing a jacket that was made up of half the Union flag and half the flag of the European Union. What was it about? it seemed to be saying, obviously, that we are split as a nation roughly half way down the middle but there was something far more disturbing than this. It suggested powerlessness – as if one were rendered immobile and immobilised. I thought it was a good bleak relatively crude image. I suggested it might be extended into an art-as-documentary.

The third piece by L. was exactly the kind of thing anyone (my wife and I) would see in a contemporary museum of art. it featured the top portion of a woman – with a strangely obscured face – a face almost melting away (but not.) The figure inhaled and exhaled and continued this kind of breathing. We coud hear her in-breath and out-breath. There seemed to be a rhythm to the breathing that was going on – but I wondered if a kind of shudder was also occurring. If I were to see such a work in an art museum I would want to sit down in front of it and take it in. I thought the work had something to do with the whole future of being human.

The final piece by L. was an eye-level line – or rather a collection – of fragments from the past. They included photo-booth photos, pieces from a diary, missing pieces – with only the old sellotape surrounds showing. There were several scraps of paper and other ‘small’ pieces. I liked the work. It was like pages from an old notebook. I thought it was very well-conceived. Strangely enough the horizontal display of the items looked rather like the skyline of a city in the distance.

But the really tough thing about the fascinating small group show was that each one of us in the class was invited to respond, in turn, to the work. I found this hugely testing and nerve-wracking.

How on earth does one sum up complex responses to works of art when the artist is actually present in the same room? There is absolutely no point in upsetting the artist. Somehow the ‘feedback’ or response has to be enabling and at the same time, authentic. And yet, we are thrown into a situation that implicitly contains at least some element of evaluation. (Our basic primal response is always something faintly binary like: ’Oh, I like this’ or ‘Oh, I’m put off by this,’ or worse!)

I really do not mind responding to the work I see. But I have no clear idea as to the conventions of the art world. Although it may claim that it has no rules this is certainly not the case. Bourdieu’s ‘sketch of a theory of practice’ dispels any such myth. On the MA programme we have to identity at least some of these rules of the art game and acquire some of the cultural etiquette. We have to be anthropologically sensitive and, ultimately, more than participant observers.

Overall I much prefer ‘taking in’ a work and taking time before responding. I also have quite complex responses to art and these are at different levels of abstraction and certainly reflect different modes of being; for example, sometimes I’m in the personal-emotional mode and this is contrasted with the cool-analytical etc.

It was a rigorous and gruelling experience. The MA group show was good and some of the ‘feedback’ was remarkably sensitive.

My show will take place on October 21. God knows how it will go. My partner in the show is a beautiful young Chinese woman. She’s a brilliant painter. It’s been delightful to have had her company for the last 2 weeks. However, I must get myself in the mood to be shot down in those proverbial flames! And, we’ve even rehearsed being severely criticised. We don’t quite know what will, happen – but I will post the result once we’ve recovered from the ordeal.

 

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An MA in Fine Art: Kitsch ‘n sink

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We’ve started our MA in Fine Art. Our first set piece of work was on ‘Generations and Nations’.

In choosing these capacious areas the course leader had made it rather easy to come up with virtually anything under the sun. Whatever we chose to do – well, each individual’s work would culminate in a group exhibition. Plainly it wasn’t going to be any old exhibition because the actual consummatory event was billed as ‘curatorial play.’ What did that entail? Never-mind – we’d find out soon enough.

The tutor, A. knows exactly how to make helpful interventions and kick-start the process: she formed us into small groups, asked us to write down ‘one of two thoughts’ that came to mind in relation to the ‘generations and nations’ theme and then, having ‘shared’ these thoughts we were told to go into town and find or buy an object or artefact that had something to do with those first thoughts.

And this we did.

I found a Minnie Mouse stuffed toy in a charity shop, duly photographed it, printed my photo off over lunch and then we all reconvened as a group. We were invited to say something, anything, about our choice of object – and then we were off: ‘OK,‘ said A. ‘Well back to your studio space and I’ll be coming around to see how you’re doing.’

I thought Minnie Mouse was a cross-generational cross-national figure so there was a lot going for her. I decided that since Minnie had been rather in the shadow of Mickey Mouse she was an ideological figure and I would explore toys as ideological figures. I found a large square-shaped piece of wood that could be used to support a canvas and duly got to work thinking about what each quadrant in my canvas could represent. Polemics, Play, Excess and Lack, and finally ‘Blankness’ came to mind.

Then, out of the blue, the tutor convened the group and everyone piled down to my studio space and I was asked to describe what I was up to. This was not a moment I had expected nor something I welcomed. So, noblesse oblige, I chatted away about what was going on – and the tutor A. obviously felt the thing was overly complex and advised me to simplify the whole thing.

So, I reduced my focus to toys-as-kitsch – reflecting our absurd world of excess, surplus and super-saturation.

And I made my first piece the next day. It looked good. But it troubled me. I did not think it was conceptually strong enough. So, over the next two days I made a conceptually stronger piece that was entitled ‘a brief and very selective history of toys and playthings up until 1989.’ (It was Jonathon Meades’ style that I was reflecting in my work. Except, of course, he is brilliant and I am not.)

I created the idea of three eras in the life and times of the toy; The first I condensed as ‘Do it yourself.’ The second was when the toy began to play a far more psychological role as toys took on a social engineering function (toys are to educate, toys are to manifest societal ideals (Barbie, Action man – along with the soft toy as ‘transitional object’ etc.) and finally I thought that our contemporary times are suffused with excess, surplus and an awful lot of kitsch. Well, this might have sounded good but my attempt to make a work of art out of these ideas was not successful. So, whilst it was conceptually quite strong, artistically it was mediocre at best, woeful at worst.

My third ‘iteration’ of the piece was to zoom in on the idea of a ‘Kiddorama’ – a kind of fantasy place where toy figures looked at toy figures. Mickey Mouse was ‘underneath it all; he had displaced Minnie. Batman flew around in the skies above. In principle it all went quite well. It looked very strange – and ultimately a bit alienated. Anyway, I did not really mind what anyone thought of it because it was simply a work-in-progress. It was going somewhere but it was a long way away from being resolved, conceptually strong, clear and artistic – or at least worthy of being called ‘art’.

Over the weekend, with ‘toys as excess, throwaway and kitsch’ in mind I created a small tight installation that featured found objects – including an awful card pointing out that the Gods had invented the kebab. The whole thing was entitled ‘You’re kidding’ and featured a stupid piece of writing that declared, ‘if you buy a ticket you get in free’ (which was essentially a piece of Orwellian double think). In fact, making the work was really funny and I spent ages dreaming up absurd marketing slogans: Funeral parlours could announce that ‘when we die we’ll be dead’; retirement homes could advertise the fact that ‘you will die smoothly and in the best possible taste’ or self-improvement tripe could tell us that ‘the heart is a many-chambered piece of music.’ What???? And, that’s where Kitsch ’n sink came in.

My installation was beginning to make sense! By conceiving it as ‘Kitsch ’n sink’ I was reflecting the fact that there really is a lot of toy-laden rubbish in the world and much of it needs to be flushed away (hopefully for re-cycling.)

The really demanding bit, though, was next to come: We all assembled on a Monday morning in what looked, at first glance, like a hopelessly small exhibition space. I know this was all part of the learning process but it was all hugely nerve-wracking. Some people got really cheesed off because their pieces were being walked over or dislodged yet as a whole the group did amazingly well. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, of patient jostling and cart-loads of anxiety a wide variety of work found itself on display And some of the art works were excellent. The three I liked most were things that I could easily see on show in edgy London or Berlin galleries.

C. had a large print alluding to male and female stereotypes – and featuring the ongoing and unfair pressures on both women and girls to manage their appearance in very strict and ultimately entirely arational ways. It was a great image – in pink and blue; it was confronting, challenging, brave and effective.

J. had built a strange lego-based transparent wall containing hair and blood. I thought of the walls that separate us – then, the Berlin wall – and then the wrecked and dying bodies of so many escapees. It was really good work. J and I get on well. She’s hugely cultured but somehow does not know anything about Pink Floyd. (Oh well: Shine on you crazy diamond.)

S. had created an apparently everyday soft-toy that was placed centrally on a make-shift canvas. It was beguiling in its simplicity and poignancy. I liked the contrast between her work which was very human and mine which was verging on the inhuman. I had a brief conversation with S.; she’s a generous person and somehow she radiates graciousness.

And then we all had to re-arrange our work – and comment on why we had re-positioned it and then we had to say what we thought of our next manifestation. Well, my piece now resembled, as one person, M. put it, something ‘sterile’ that you’d find ‘labelled and fenced-off’ from the world – and somewhere in a museum. Actually, I thought it looked worse and was now something horribly alienated. But there you go: Context is everything. Shift the context and change the meaning. But if I were to take close-up photos of my juxtaposed objects – well, they would look quite something!

It’s a good course: I hadn’t really made an installation before nor had I exhibited anything in a show. So this was a first, and I felt unexpectedly ‘OK’ about doing something that was more a work-in-progress and not an all-singing all-dancing finished piece. I learned, too, that making an installation is not dissimilar to composing a painting. However, the psychology of making an installation is rather different from that accompanying my usual figurative studies: in an instillation it is less clear about ‘where one is going.’

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Beginning an MA in Fine Art

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I was about to begin my MA in Fine Art.

I had prepared for the induction week which was about to take place at the local university. I had been asked, by the course tutor, to bring along, on the first day, a pice of art that I had made that had to be presented in the form of an A4 digital print. I had duly identified such a piece of art which I was looking forward to showing and to discussing if the need arose. My piece featured a kind of ‘case study’ relating to the issue of culture and identity. (It consisted of a black-and-white copy of an original birth certificate of someone born in 1956 in Paris, a carved inscription from a church (also in black-and-white), and, a display of devotional candles that I had seen in Notre Dame Cathedral prior to its roof catching fire – so there was plenty of information about culture and the individual.)

Of course I was a bit nervous about the first meeting that was to begin the MA programme. Things like, what to wear and how most sensibly to present myself had occupied me. I had decided to be understated and quiet.

On setting off, on foot, for the University I was caught in a downpour. (I had not fore-seen this and, although I had an umbrella, the wind was ferocious; in consequence my umbrella was only moderately successful – and my jacket and trousers were soon soaked. I also forgot to bring my piece of art with me so I had to dash back home to get it!) Not a good start.

The group met below a sign in a quadrangle. The lead tutor for the course – a woman I liked – recognised me. I thanked her for giving me a place on the course and, as I did, she introduced me to two women who were also about to start the MA process. The woman may have been aged about 50. They were pleasant and I rather enjoyed meeting them.

Episode 1
We then set off for a particular room and the course leader began to brief us on what to expect and what was in store. The seating arrangement was rather like being  stuffed into the fuselage of a plane. I could not see the faces of most of the new students. I could vaguely see the woman next to me. Actually she seemed rather cryptic and spiky and responsive and good fun.

Anyway, the course leader’s briefing began by emphasising three things at the heart of the programme. They were: friendship, ambition and community.

On top of this she aimed for us each to be ‘a sustainable artist’ and added: ‘It’s about being confident as a sustainable artist.’ This meant accessing and becoming part of the Fine Art community. We were then told about the forthcoming and various formal educational experiences (tutorials, seminars, lectures and symposia – as well as group criticisms). Research, too, was named as a ‘really important’ part of our work output. Trips to galleries were emphasised and the need to collaborate was important because we would soon be showing our work in galleries.

At this point the course leader turned to focus upon the final degree shows of previous students. As far as I could tell the huge majority of the work was in the form of installations. I had seen a number of them because I had visited the MA degree shows in previous years. I saw, again, as one example, an ironic take on the whole trend of telling people to ‘be themselves’ and perhaps ‘go beyond their limits’ and to ‘believe that if they believed enough they could do anything’ (which, of course, is empty, bogus and ludicrous.) This installation also exhorted people to ‘follow the course’. Obviously, I thought, it all depends on which course one follows: Perdition awaits the unwise. Lots of other installations were shown. But, if the truth be told, I am slightly dubious about the fashion for this form of art. There is a simple reason for this: I think most installations are too abstruse, obscure and abstracted to help the viewer grasp what the thing is about. They do not provide sufficient clues as to how to read the work. This means that the viewer has to work hard at ‘getting’ the work. There is nothing wrong with having to work hard to ‘get’ something but sometimes it’s just like hearing a Martian speak something unintelligible.

In the course of looking at the presentation on the slides of these installations I wrote down: ‘I am feeling a bit like an alien.’

The person sitting next to me (who, I realised, had strangely-coloured hair) asked me if I was a ‘traditional type’ of artist.

Not really,” I replied, “It’s just that I do not want to be blackmailed by fashion.

That’s great,” she said.

I liked her easy-going responsiveness. She seemed straightforward, natural and unaffected.

Episode 2
The second episode unfolded in a lecture theatre. The whole of the new intake of students in both Fine Art, Photography and something else (possibly Digital Screen Art?)  was to convene in the lecture theatre. Various of the groups arrived in dribs and drabs. I found myself separated from the relatively small number of MA Fine Art students and, on entering the theatre, I noticed an empty row quite near to the  front. Then a few members of my same group began to fill up the same row – but did not place themselves next to me. I wondered if they simply thought I was irrelevant because I was old – or whatever.

Once everyone was now in the lecture theatre the Head of Department – a sprightly-looking man, bald and perky and obviously quite animated – began his address. I did not particularly like his address. (I think this is because it was mainly pitched to an audience much younger than me!)

He began by emphasising that this was now our ‘new community’ and then requested us, group by group, to say ‘Hello’. It was an odd sort of ‘Hello’ experience. He made some light-hearted comments after each ‘Hello’. The ‘Hello’ was a kind of non-directional event that was not like any usual ‘Hello’, and when our group dutifully said ‘Hello’ he commented on the fact that we were the ‘rich’ ones. (This was a rather injudicious thing to say because some people in the MA group are not at all rich.)

His address consisted of him showing a) how to get to his office and b) the fact that he had an open-door policy and that a draw in his desk contained tea, coffee and biscuits – and perhaps some tissues. After this he repeatedly made reference to the fact that everything was going to be ‘exciting’ or ‘amazing’ for us – and that we would all have or be guaranteed ‘exciting and amazing experiences.’ I had a vague sense that we were being infantilised. We heard about a trip that most of us could make to the Venice Biennale which was ‘the world cup’ of the art world. I suppose his approach had some ‘chummy’ value but, as a form of communication, it did seem overly ‘pop’ (and surely we are better than this.) But the most uncomfortable thing for me was when he looked at us all – and recognised that some amongst us would be shy or reticent or withdrawn or an introverted type of person and he underlined the fact that we need, instead, to be ‘loud’ and ‘shouty’. (In fact, he may not have said ‘shouty’ but he did say something about the need to make a noise about our work.) As I sat in the lecture theatre I realised that I was on the edges of the art-world culture. BUT I did not want to be ‘loud’ or have to ‘shout’ about my work. There is enough noise in the world as it is. Actually, I left the lecture theatre with a number of misgivings.

It all seemed such a shame. I had made many preparations for the programme. I had begun to clarify my ideas about the role of sensibilities in art. And more: I had grappled with the brilliant text, ‘Painting as model’ by Bois and begun to understand painting and the place of thinking in painting. I coud see how ‘models’ and how we deploy them in and over time are central to our art.

But would I be able to adjust to the wider art world culture and would I be enhanced as a practitioner or would I end up being corralled into making work in order to conform? I wanted to make a special case for myself: I wanted to say, ‘ I will meet all the criteria necessary to obtain a Masters in Fine Art. But I cannot guarantee that I will always have something constructive to say about the abstruse production of installations and their obscure, elusive and unreadable content.’

That night I felt most unwell. In the morning I decided that I might have to withdraw from the course.

However, I decided against this. With a bit of luck things will go well.

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The interview

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I had been invited for an interview.

The purpose of the interview was to discover whether I was suitable for a higher degree programme. The institution to which I was applying has achieved a very high status both in the UK and internationally. In consequence a Master’s degree from such a university is an esteemed qualification. I had completed an application and made an attempt to suggest that I was ‘good enough’ for a place. I had written a personal statement that was very short and, prior to my interview, my daughters had conducted two trial interviews with me.

These trial interviews had been very helpful because – as it turned out – I had not been used to answering questions about art in general or my art in particular. Just giving answers was a bit of a novelty and caused me to think more clearly about what I did and why I did it. In addition, one daughter had told me that nowadays art institutions are interested in a person’s experience and that I should draw attention to some of the places in which I had worked – such as Wormwood Scrubs maximum security prison in London as well as in an international high-tech IT company. The other daughter had told me that I should be as concrete as possible and not give vague or abstract answers. She also told me that I should bring along one or two of my past and present sketchbooks and any other ‘thing’ that might reveal something interesting about myself.

In preparation for the interview I had placed four rather small canvasses that I had painted in a bag, and, in another, three sketchbooks, three copies of a ‘zine that I used to produce and two rather weird books that I had made. (However, crazy as it seems, I never did manage to show my interviewer the books.) Three of the canvasses featured people and one represented a semi-apocalyptic landscape.

On the day of the interview I felt reasonably calm but just before setting off to the University I reached into an under-the-stairs cupboard to get a large plastic bag for my sketch books and virtually knocked myself out. I had bashed my head against a wooden box the edge of which left a deep wound to my head. This was not a good start. Anyway, I patched myself up but I did not really feel ‘all there’. However, I arrived on time and the woman at reception told me to fill in a form by ‘following the line’. Unfortunately I followed the wrong line on the form that she gave me and therefore I incurred her displeasure. This was not good.

I was given an identity card which I was told to hang around my neck. Then, after a few minutes the person who was to interview me appeared. I liked her immediately. I liked her voice. It was melodic and she smiled at me. ‘How do you do,’ I said. (This was something I rather regretted: one of my daughters had said that modern people do not say this any more.)

The interview took place in a surprisingly bare and rather large office. It reminded me of rooms in which psychological experiments take place: it was pared down, stripped back, minimal and functional. Some sort of air-conditioning apparatus seemed to be operating. I sat on one side of a table and A. the interviewer sat on the opposite side. I took my four canvasses out of the tissue paper in which they were wrapped and arranged them so A. could see them. They consisted of a Rohingya refugee, the blasted landscape, a Syrian refugee and the singer Jorja Smith. (People had told me that they were good paintings.)

The interview took on an almost conversational course. This meant that even if I thought we would end up somewhere we did not. It was as if we were in a labyrinth with no actual exit but which time alone would declare as the end point.

I was asked about the role art had played in my life and we spent quite a lot of time talking about my mother’s rather tragic life experiences – and the fact that I had begun to use art most explicitly in some of my lectures and presentations. We touched upon a number of artists and I mentioned how Marlene Dumas’ work and observations had had a very good effect upon me. (She had said something like ‘If you like an image, paint it.’) I reflected on the fact that I was deeply impressed by Rembrandt and his ‘presence’ as well as Jacques-Louis David and his ‘Oath of the Horatii’; in fact, I realised that I had forgotten the names of a number of artists that had intrigued me. The interviewer A. was not that impressed with my painting of the Syrian refugee (which was a bit disappointing) but she did react positively to the preliminary charcoal sketches that I had made of the same refugee and she said that she would have liked to see a wall filled with these drawings.

We touched upon some of my experiences during my two-year foundation course in art and then I surfaced a troubling fact: I told A. that a photography tutor had told me that I should not speak about my work in the manner in which I was so speaking. But the same tutor neither told me what was wrong with my type of speech nor how I ‘should’ speak about my art. As a result I was not confident about what to say about my work. A part of my response had been to ‘shut up.’ A. said that this was ‘a shame’ and that I might simply have had a bad experience but that it was important to move on and not ‘shut down.’

The best part of the interview occurred when I fished the ‘zine out of a small bag. ‘Ooh,’ she said; ‘What have you got for me? A fanzine!

Well, I’m not sure that it’s exactly a fanzine – it’s some sort of publication.‘ And then I told her that it was based on something brilliant that the people who produced ‘Go’ for Sheffield did some years ago.

I passed her a copy and said: ‘This is for you.’

This is when things became funny. She thumbed through the thing (it was about 32 pages long) and then I reached over towards her and tried to find the page which happened to include a random autobiography of myself. The autobiography began with a photo of me when I was a few months old. I was not an attractive looking boy and I was clothed in something resembling a dress.

Then I heard her say: ‘You were born in 1940.’

This struck me as very funny. It would have made me nearly 80. ‘Oh No! I’m not that old,’ I said whilst looking behind me and behaving as if I was on my last legs. In fact, because I have imperfect hearing she may have said that I was born in the 1940s (which I was).

This exchange left me with the feeling that the mood of the interview had changed. It was light-hearted, insouciant and completely free of pretension.

We covered more ground about my values and perceptions concerning some of the fundamentals of life (love, art, morals and power) but by then the air-conditioning was winning. I was frozen. In the last five minutes of the interview I was given an overview of the course requirements and its specific emphases. The trouble was that my body had decided to respond to the chill with involuntary jerks. I did my best to stop it doing this – but without success. I must have looked very odd. I was increasingly convinced that A. would wonder what sort of lunatic was sitting opposite her.

We shook hands at the end of the interview and she escorted me along a long corridor to the exit. Happily the sun was shining and I began to warm up a bit. A. struck me as a very agreeable, sympathetic, composed and authoritative person.

My response to the interview was to feel very highly motivated to do the course. Quite why I never managed to tell her about my online portfolio I do not know. And those weird books I had made remained hidden from view. Moreover I said almost nothing about how my background and experience would equip me to do the course. But I did enjoy the conversation with A. and the very last thing she said to me was: ‘I will write to you soon.’

 

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