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.’