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Site-specific art: a brief engagement with the campus of an art college

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I had been given the opportunity to make and install a ‘series’ of site-specific works of art. Fortunately, ‘works of art’ nowadays is a very inclusive category and whatever I chose to do would more-or-less count as art!

The brief included an excellent reading list amongst which was Clifford Geertz’s (1988) ‘Works and lives: the anthropologist as author’, the wonderfully titled ‘Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of super-modernity’ by Marc Auge (1992) and Merlin Coverley’s (2010) ‘Psycho-geography’.

These texts provided a backdrop of ideas for my project. I identified the campus of UCA as an anthropological site which included an admixture of buildings and structures that reflected both a psycho-geography and something culturally specific. I had also been reading Iris Murdoch’s views of the intentions of art in which, among other things, she had said that ‘art is fun and for fun’.

In consequence, I resolved to enjoy myself ‘playing’ with a few episodes of a personal psycho-geography located in an anthropological context. And I did have some fun.

Throughout the time allocated to the project I made a total of 7 interventions. I used books (one of which was Freud’s ‘The future of an illusion‘), record covers, a photograph of a work of art, a small brass sculpture of the Buddha and a fanciful model of a hunter/woodsman. (The complete set of interventions was later presented in a slide show to the MA students.)

The photograph above shows one of the interventions I made; underneath it all I intended it to be a really serious warning:  Freud’s account of ‘The future of an illusion’ can be read as a text concerned to draw our attention to any ‘ready-made’ belief system manifested in a culture. Correctly, he points out that, unless we are very careful, we can uncritically accept the limiting perspective that the belief system provides. We can extend his idea and ask a question about the meaning of buildings – along with their function: the UCA site enjoys a shiny new place in which, as far as I can tell, the new arts of performance are explored. (The building itself seems to be a kind of performance.) But these new arts may well simply serve as seductive distractions – and continue to beguile people with the hope and fantasy that they will ‘be someone’. The problem is that they are already ‘someone’ – and I think  that they might well feel happier if, rather than seeking the approval and attention of others, they were to place more trust in their own powers and obvious abilities.

In its own modest way I hoped that my site-specific intervention (by making explicit the connection between illusion and the function of the building) alluded to the possibility of this further alienation of the self.

Disruption and a ‘master idea’

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As part of our MA in Fine Art we had to complete a short project entitled ‘Disruption’. The brief was very clear: we were first to locate one piece of art that we had made and which, for whatever reason, we felt was unsatisfactory. We then had to ‘ruin’ the work in one way of another. Second, we had to retrieve some sort of ‘found’ object and ‘ruin’ it too – but in a different way to the first act of ruination. Third we had to put the two separate pieces together and make some sort of re-configured – and hopefully successful – work of art.

I liked the brief. I immediately thought of the words ‘slash and burn.’ I decided to take a watercolour study I had done (of a face) that was only minimally successful and, after heating a candle and allowing the wax to spill over its surface, I then set fire to the painting.

Next, I dismantled an already-broken child’s watch that I had found abandoned on the pavement outside my house. I added bits of the watch to the half-burnt semi-destroyed watercolour. Initially I thought the ensemble looked good, but then I thought it looked ugly and finally I decided that it looked horrible. I did not like seeing it. (It is, I discovered, actually difficult for me to make things that are really rather ugly.)

But the ‘Disruption’ project led me to retrieve different unused bits and pieces that I had collected over the years and then create mini-assemblages or mini-structures mainly themed in relation to terrific books that I had read.

Amongst these old unused items was something related to Susan Sontag’s brilliant text, ‘On photography’: some years ago I had taken a single photograph of a page of her book. The photograph had been developed before the advent of digital photography; it looked bright and shiny, graced as it was with a glossy sheen.

As I played around making the assemblage (connected with ongoing problems I feel about the seductions of photography) I could still read the text of the page that I had photographed; I realised just how prescient she was. In the 1970s she had written:

China offers the model of one kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the good” in which the most unsparing limits are placed on all forms of expression including images. The future may offer another kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the interesting” in which images of all sorts, stereotyped and eccentric, proliferate …

She continued: And there seems to be no way of limiting the proliferation of photographic images. The only question is whether the function of the image world as created by cameras could be other than it is. The present function is clear enough if one considers in what contexts photographic images are seen, what dependencies they create, what antagonisms they pacify – that is, what institutions they buttress, whose needs they really serve.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, make war, give jobs to businesses …

As I re-read these words from the photograph about the photograph I could not help but think that for a number of years we have been living in an ‘image-world’ given over to the master idea of ‘the interesting’. It coincides with and re-inforces that other master idea that we must ‘be someone’. But, quite frankly, I feel that I have overdosed on images. I also have the sense that many people now have a compulsion to repeat the act of taking and publishing their photographs. Sigmund Freud has a lot to say about this! But, what is more, I am in danger of being drawn into this obsessive ‘look at me’ culture. It is as if we are all, collectively, lured into secondary narcissism.

Hiroshima roses (continued)

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Here are two more photographs in my ‘Hiroshima Roses’ series. Both photographs were taken in places less than 300 yards from my house in Farnham. As Monet said: ‘There is everything a painter needs within a short distance of where he or she is living.’

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Some notes on the duty of the artist

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Over Christmas I really enjoyed a BBC television production of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was merciless, confrontational and ‘of our times’. Then, just the other day, I had the good fortune to see another BBC production of a work by Dickens. This time it was his ‘Great Expectations’ and it was brilliant: pure and devastating tragedy was exquisitely mixed with the fundamental idea that people  – all of us – are ‘made’ through chance and circumstance.

The next day or two came and went and then the work of Dickens resurfaced in a rather unexpected place. I was reading a masterful discussion on ‘philosophy and literature’ featuring the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch and she happened to underline her deep respect for the writing of Charles Dickens. In the course of the overall discussion Murdoch had examined the important contrasts between the endeavours of philosophy as compared with the nature of expression in the arts; she then explored the attitude of philosophy to art and, during this, she began to identify the responsibilities of the artist. (Since I am supposed to be ‘en route’ to becoming an artist I took her assertions particularly seriously.) This is what she said:

‘I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.’ And she adds: ‘As soon as a writer says to him or herself, ‘I must try to change society in such and such ways by my writing’ he or she is likely to damage their work.’

In the unfolding discussion she is then asked about Dickens – who had genuinely social aims and who also had considerable social influence – to which she replies:

‘… Dickens manages to do everything, to be a great imaginative writer and a persistent and explicit social critic. I think the scandals of his society were closely connected with the kind of ferment and social change which engaged his imagination most deeply. He is able to embrace all these things in his genius and you rarely feel he is ‘getting at you’ with some alien social point. His most effective social criticisms are made through live and touching characters such as the sweeper boy Joe in Bleak House. Dickens is a great writer because of his ability to create character, and also because of deep frightful imaginative visions which have little to do with social reform.’

The BBC’s productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Great Expectations’ surely endorse Murdoch’s view. But then she returns to outline her thinking about the ‘duty’ of the artist:

She notes: ‘I do not think that the artist qua-artist has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society’ and she adds that, ‘the artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his or her chosen medium.’ She immediately goes on to say that the writer’s duty, like that demonstrated by Charles Dickens, is ‘to produce the best literary work of which he or she is capable, and he or she must find out how this can be done.’

By extension, in Fine Art (where I am primarily located) the artist’s duty is to truth-telling in his or her chosen domain or specialisation. Murdoch urges the artist not to lurch into propaganda and she recognises that ‘a good society contains many artists doing many different things’ whilst a bad society coerces artists because it knows they can reveal all kinds of truths.’

On this last point, I think that’s why I take so much pleasure seeing the great variety of artistic expression and the explorations of the height, breadth and depth of human being in the place where I am studying for my MA in Fine Art. And I wish that Iris Murdoch’s deeply knowledgeable discussion was part of the required reading list on our course. If it were then we would quickly recognise that there is an often unbridgeable gap between the rarefied specialist discussions of the theorist with the imaginative play of the artist.