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.