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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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