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Why should she speak? In defence of remaining silent.

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We are convened as several MA Fine Art students to view a ‘small group’ show and to participate in a group ‘criticism’ of the work in the show.

We look at the pieces and, in line with an apparently open agenda, we are invited to share our thoughts, reactions, feelings and so on; we are also directed by the lead tutor to ask questions of the artists about their work. In a rather dilatory and somewhat desultory way we proceed.

The particular characters amongst us say very different things. Some say quite a lot, some say relatively little. Some make statements, some share associations, some ask questions.

But when one of the artists who has exhibited in the show is asked about her work she hesitates; she seems almost puzzled; she pauses – and when she does speak, she scarcely elaborates an answer. In my judgment (impersonal and non-evaluative) she is simply disinclined to be forthcoming. I am not surprised. I am used to this. From my previous encounters with her I know that this is not an unusual mode of response from her – either as a person (in typical social encounters – such as meeting-and-greeting) or as an artist. Her utterances are minimal. Some of us in the MA group have also reached the same conclusion; we realise, too, that if she is disinclined to talk and to discuss things in the group then perhaps we should not ask her anything for fear of disquieting or unsettling her. We may even feel frustrated and think that she really ‘ought’ to say more in the critique.

But all this raises a question: Why should she speak? Are her words necessary to her art? Even if she were to speak who (in the whole wide world) can really ‘articulate’ and explain their work. The work of art is placed in a certain domain – it is an ‘exhibit’ – something conceivably ‘of itself’. If it ‘speaks’ at all it is in a species of specialist symbolic language – one that is tacit, silent, and veiled. The criticism is something else: it is talk about art. So, on the one hand we have the presence of her work of art (works which are consistent, show a sustained focus and have an inherent authority) and, on the other, we have a social event which follows a conventional, almost ritualistic, model of social interaction.

If a ‘criticism’, as it is practiced on a degree course, exists then it expresses both a rationale and a value or values. What, though, is the rationale? What values are embedded in the practice of criticism? (And why have I reached the point where I fundamentally question what I am ‘up to’ in the group criticisms. Why should I ‘sound off’ at all?)

Part two: Some short notes on a theory

If I were to refer to some aspects of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger as it is expressed in his ‘Being and Time’ and clarified by Dreyfus (1978 ) and Wheeler (2018) then I might easily take the phenomenon of the group criticism and the artist’s response as indicative of some absolutely basic problems about human being (and being human). The criticism and our conduct raise huge questions to do with our being-in-the-world amidst other beings-in-the-world. There is obviously the question of authenticity: To be authentic is not to rush away from anxiety and conform to group norms if one feels that the norms are awry; instead it is to distance oneself but to continue by choosing – in all honesty – to proceed in a way that reflects a new and resolved attitude. In the case of the artist who scarcely speaks, she may be staying close to the grain of her being and resisting any kind of fakery. She may be resolutely authentic. As Heidegger would point out, when we are authentic we probably still do what ‘one’ (others) do – but we experience ourselves as liberated; we stick with the social practice but we are not stuck.

Then there is the question of meaning and meaninglessness. If there is no fundamental or basic meaning to be found in the world, then art itself, most certainly, has no special claim to yield any meaning beyond itself as a ‘thing that one does’ (a process that one goes through, an output materialised) in the community framed as ‘art’. Art is a social practice with a history and is in the process of unfolding itself. We are, as artists and participants in a criticism, necessarily located in this stable instability. We know that we are merely in a moment of history. We are not really playing a game but we are somehow navigating our way through a temporary power structure which has the extraordinary quality of ensuring that we follow rules and yet neutralises them as soon as they seem to come into view! (This is unnerving!)

The strange thing is that although I should be able to feel more comfortable as a result of trying to come to terms with the experience of the group criticism I am not. I think that this is because I have deeply internalised norms of having, in social situations, to give a ‘good’ performance. I wish that i would be otherwise.

Note: The photograph above is part of an autobiography project. It is the third in a series of similar mixed-media works – and reflects an aspect of my life when I was 8 years old.

Pin – with matchbox and text

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On 23 March I began to detail the fact that I had completed a record of 24 hours in my life-as-an-artist. My ‘24 hours’ was a direct response to the fact that the corona virus (COVID-19) was, as the agent of a global crisis, far more important to me and to many many others than any wistful ruminations about exhibiting work in gallery shows. My ‘24 hours’ began with a focus on ‘V words’, on words beginning with the letter v.

Then, and rather unexpectedly, I was invited to begin a new project entitled ‘under(cover).’ Already, I had thought of the virus as ‘working away’ undercover …

However, just before learning about the ‘under(cover)’ project initiated by the lead tutor of the MA programme I had begun to create a micro ‘sculpture’ using mixed-media in relation to the immediate salience of the word ‘virus’; the word itself was a central source of energy for my ‘V’ and ‘V’ words project.

The title of the mixed-media piece is: ‘Pin – with matchbox and text.’ The text that I placed adjacent to the matchbox and pin tells us how many coronavirus entities can sit on a pin head. About the same amount would sit on the dot of the i in the letter virus.

For the sake of brevity I left out the following type written notes: Coronaviruses are so called because the projectiles that encircle the capsid (the protein coat) resemble a monarch’s crown when viewed under a microscope. The new coronavirus “COVID-19,” is the acronym of “coronavirus disease 2019”. COVID-19 has been described by the medical profession as a ‘very clever’ virus because, as we have all been told, it has found a way of entering a new host through the droplets projected outwards in the cough or sneeze of an infected person.

The above photo shows an early draft of the micro-sculpture that I submitted on March 27 this yearto the MA Fine Art lead tutor for the under(cover) project.

The text accompanying the project is deliberately subversive. I have little time for the ‘big is better’ ethos in art – or anywhere else. I have never forgotten Robert Hughes’ damning indictment of artists who exploit, the ‘vulgar expedient of size.’  My ‘Pin – with matchbox and text‘ states:  Small is beautiful; BUT small can be deadly. Undercover, out of sight, hidden – and very very small this new corona-virus can sit, in its millions, on a pin-head, trillions on the head of a match – and as many on the dot of the i in virus.

A record album, a song, a photograph – or two

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In 1974 – when the 60s dream of love and peace was well and truly over – I continued to live and experience life through the veil of psycho-phantasy; this often set me apart from the world. But that was a good thing ! The great writings that I had read as part of my attempt to haul myself out of the drab conventions of the past had – well, they had worked; For much of the time their content and their subsequent effect on my imagination meant that I didn’t really have to engage with the grey-brown world that surrounded me:

England – close up – was often rainy and dismal, scruffy, worn, dull and without sparkle. However, the exteriors and interiors of much, or even most, of the UK did not particularly affect me. By contrast, ideas and narratives and images did. And my recurring tendency to a certain ‘dreaminess’ simply meant that I was often not really ‘there.’ (I think this is also why I often detach myself from the presence of others …)

And certain songs served to stimulate and support my ‘dreaminess.’ Some of them appeared in 1974. It was then that Jackson Browne released his wonderful LP, ‘Late for the sky.’ I was immediately ‘taken’ by its cover. There’s no doubt that certain images and the overall composition, without further reflection, look wonderful. The cover of ‘Late for the sky’ is one of them. There’s something about an old snazzy American car – and there is something about a certain kind of sky – and I suppose that the whole thing would have to be explained by a theory of fetishisation … …

Late for the sky includes the prescient ‘Before the deluge’ and the transcendent ‘For a dancer’; they are my favourites; ‘For a dancer’, for example, takes the form of magical realism and includes the words:

Keep a fire for the human race – And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near – Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found …

But, in relation to my art, it is the song ‘Fountain of sorrow’ that says something fascinating about photographs – and relates directly to the temporary completion of the ‘autobiography’ project upon which I have been working. In this song Jackson Browne  tells us about how the discovery of some personal photographs led him to reflect on someone he once loved; He sings:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you

There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true

You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise

And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.’

I too, as part of my autobiography project, have been looking through some old photographs and I have also been ‘taken’ by one or two of them: The photos I found of me when I was just a boy reveal someone who seems happy enough; and, there doesn’t seem to be a trace sorrow in my eyes. In fact, initially the photographs have the power to evoke particularly good memories. The one of me on holiday in North Yorkshire reminds me of picking bilberries under the glow of a hot sun and liking the way my hands became tinted dark-purple – and joyously competing with my brother to see who could pick the most. But as I look back and imagine those early days – imagine how they were made possible – I can see how much effort and love and dedication my parents expressed towards me. But I learned all this too late. Over the years I had allowed a kind of relational destruction to take effect. So, now that I cannot make amends, the photographs also leave me feeling terribly sad.

And Jackson Browne’s beautiful and sombre song moves on to include the lines:

And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past  …

Yes: There is no going back but I often wish I could.

‘No secrets’: a classic album by Carly Simon and an MA in Fine Art  

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Last night I watched a documentary television programme about Carly Simon’s 1972 classic album ‘No secrets.’ The aim of the documentary was to  reveal some of the detail concerning how the album was made.  I had first seen the programme several months ago but, for one reason or another, I had not been able to give it proper attention. Last night was different. It was different because I have recently been especially interested in the creative process – and of how works of art (real art) come into being. The programme helped to enhance my understanding: it focused on the way in which Carly Simon successfully wrote songs, the lyrics of which were based on the fine-grain of her lived experience; this made them unique; and, coupled with the depth of her musicality, the songs she recorded were (and are) both beautiful, intimate and distinct. I was also reminded of the fact that ‘No secrets‘ helped to strengthen the feminist movement that was gathering pace in the 1970s. In certain respects it is a feminist work of art. 

The programme included a focus on the famous ‘You’re so vain’ and the psychologically challenging ‘Embrace me, you child’.  The analysis  was interspersed with selections from an interview given by Carly that was (I think) designed to supplement the details concerning the concept and contents of  ‘No secrets’. She was always charming and she impressed me as eloquent, highly intelligent and sensitive. She was also unusually adept at describing and discussing her feelings about various life-events and especially her relationships with others. Her candour was remarkable. As I listened to her I was struck by the way she acknowledged how at least one song on ‘No secrets’ drew from her subconscious: she reflected on the fact that, as a young child she had (underneath it all) striven to receive the love of her father; sadly his love had not been forthcoming; in consequence her relationships with men were, she thought, disguised wish-fulfillments; in them she was expressing a repeated longing of the unfulfilled need to be loved by her father. But, like so many great artists she had found a way to transmute the depth of feeling – even the darkest moments – into works of art. 

I thought a great deal about this. In fact, I took myself off to a darkened room in my house to consider more carefully what she had said and how it had influenced her creativity.

Then, after a while, something unexpected happened: 

I began to clarify the nature of the portrayals project upon which, for the MA in Fine Art,  I had been working. I realised that, subconsciously, I was, as it were, handing the torch of life on to a much younger person. Something I have been feeling had come to be manifested in the work. I realised that, in certain ways, I see myself in the person of the young Chinese artist Meng Zhang. Carly Simon described herself as a ‘paradoxical’ character – as are Meng and myself. (If the world were to be a rational place some of our characteristics simply should not sit side-by-side with each other! They are disharmonious, irregular, incompatible …)   My screen-prints and their associated artefacts make plain the fact that I really am moving into the twilight of my life whilst Meng is beginning to shine brightly in hers. I am ‘making way’ for her; in contrast to me she is a new kind of international person. I am strangely relieved about the expression of this contrast and its resolution in my work. 

It seems that my portrayals combine to tell one aspect of my life-story. ‘No secrets’ candidly (and often beautifully) expresses a powerful emotional narrative – and one that is set against a backdrop of great social change. It was (and is) a modern ‘classic’. In a certain sense, it deserves to be revered. 

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A micro-study of ‘the new international’

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Meng Zhang is nearly 25 years old and comes from the city of Jinan in China. I am much older and I recently characterised myself as ‘the old international.’ The name Meng, means ‘bud’ and therefore ‘vitality’; I often think that the name suits her. We are separated not only by years but also by culture and personality. I first met Meng in late September 2019. For two weeks, as part of our MA at UCA, we worked together on an art project; its title was the ‘Animal in us’; in essence, our work developed as a type of extended conversation. It was an unusual but positive collaboration. And, it was fascinating getting to know Meng.

She completed her BA in oil-painting in the Chinese city of Dalian. She’s artistically and technically very accomplished. Inevitably the distinct cultures of the two nations have presented her with challenges: she has had to work hard to adjust to the open-ended nature of studying and practising Fine Art in the UK.

Over the months and little by little I began to understand Meng’s character and to appreciate the deep anthropological differences between us. A number of episodes combined to show this – but two are particularly illustrative.

On one occasion Meng had invited me to join her and her fellow students for a specially-prepared Chinese meal. She did this because she wanted to show her thanks for the fact that she had made use of parts of my house in order to make a short film about herself. (The film was about a psychological transformation.) When I arrived for the meal I found myself seated amongst five young women from China. I could not but feel my age; it was all rather daunting. Moreover, I did not want them to have to make allowances for me by speaking in English. (But in general they did speak in English!) However, in no time at all four different dishes were placed on the table and the meal began. But, throughout our time together, the conversation was made strange because each of the young women would regularly consult their iPhones; they would either read or watch the content on their respective screens or would rapidly use their phones to type in information and respond to the stimuli that they were receiving, On top of this, a computer, that had been placed on the dining table, was showing a contemporary Chinese film. (I think the film was an odd melange of imagery – perhaps featuring a kind of fanciful romantic gangster motif.)

I enjoyed the delicious food but I was never quite sure as to whether or not I should develop a conversation or try to catch a glimpse of the content of the phones. I even wondered if I was supposed to watch the film!

It struck me that the new norm of social interaction (perhaps even of social being) is cast in a multi-stimulus digitally-mediated fragmented and episodic ethos and it compares strikingly with my older-style media-free ‘conversational’ mode. In fact, there is nothing remarkable about this: the young Chinese women are perfectly happy to engage with ‘life’ – and those around them – in this way. It is a new international norm. (But it is not mine!)

On another occasion Meng learned that my wife was travelling in northern Italy. Meng wondered if she would be able to see a certain kind of bag – a ‘Pinko’ bag. (I had never heard of Pinko. It turns out that Pinko is an Italian women’s fashion brand founded in the early 1980s. They even have a shop in the Brompton Road, London.) Meng was hoping that Jo, my wife, might be able to bring such a bag back from Italy. In fact, Jo has always been interested in fashion – its history and its current manifestations – so she was not averse to looking for a Pinko bag. But, in the meantime, Meng herself found and bought the bag in question. I had seen an image of it online. She playfully asked me how much I thought it had cost. I underestimated the amount by 500%. She was amused by my error. And then something struck me: it was to do with a ubiquitous shared imagery – or iconography: I realised that there is a ‘Vogue, China’. The covers feature models or celebrities that might just as easily be seen in Europe or the USA. There is also a new edition of ‘Dazed’ – one that is specially crafted for China. (It has the ambiguous strap line ‘Declare Independence.’) And the result is that a shared international fashion is plainly apparent. A shared international style is ‘abroad.’ Pinko goes with Meng, as does Zara or Chanel, Random Event or Yeezy.

These and a number of other experiences have led me to describe Meng as ‘the new international.’ I think this is a good thing. It seems that nationalism always carries with it a worrying tribal ‘charge.’ It includes and it excludes. By contrast the ‘new international’ is a far safer prospect for the future of humanity.

Footnote: The photo above features a still blue lake. The blue of the lake is made possible by the natural presence of copper sulphate. It is a beautiful lake for all to see.

A strange autobiography in the making

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By Friday 28 February I had successfully completed 6 screen prints that were self-portraits. Prior to this I had made a number of other screen-prints that featured, in turn, Celia, a student of fashion and Meng, a fellow student on the MA course. However, in the latter stages of the overall process I had conversed at length with the artist-in-residence at UCA; we had a spirited, feisty and good-humoured exchanged. As a result of that conversation, I decided that it would be unwise to exhibit any of the portraits of either Celia or of Meng in the forthcoming UCA show. The reasons are fairly obvious – they hinge on questions of ‘appropriateness’ and ‘the male gaze’ – and I certainly do not want to get involved in any acrimonious debates. (It’s a shame because it had been very enjoyable making their screen-print portrayals. But our culture is now obliged to do its utmost to resist the objectification of women; So, it seems that my work has effectively gone up the spout!)

In consequence I have had to develop something more substantial in relation to my ‘self-portrait’ screen-prints. So, in the last few days, I have been constructing a rather strange autobiography: it consists less of a sequential narrative but more of identifying particularly significant episodes in my life. It actually begins sometime before I was born. (I was born in the aftermath of Hiroshima and I experienced the angst of the post-nuclear age.) The autobiography is designed to link an early photograph of me (aged just a few months old) to the one upon which the screen prints are based. I have also selected a few images that have had an impact on me – and the photograph above shows one of them; it is something typical of the counter-culture in which I first participated during the mid-1960s. I still love the mood of that special time. (And then it all came to an end – an end marked in 1969 by The Rolling Stones’ album ‘Let it bleed’.)

But I am facing a very difficult problem: I haven’t really the time to create a form of presentation for my work that is commensurate with a decent Fine Art show. I have assembled lots of text and images and it may still be possible to find a way of showing the ensemble to good effect. However, I may have to jettison the screen-prints and paint one more decent painting. But time is short … very short … and I hate rushing things or taking short cuts …

Footnote: The photograph shows Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar.