Putting myself in context

I’ve been pondering why I’m drawn to the subject matter I am and why it even means anything to me at all. This is a bit of a self-indulgent post but it’s interesting to me to have a look at my family and the influence that ancestry can have on the present. Hopefully it’s interesting to you readers from a voyeuristic point of view too!

So, here is my great grandfather, George Watson MacGregor-Reid, Chief of the Druids, Labour Party candidate ,hydro owner, publisher and all round storyteller (he never let the truth get in the way of a good story, which is a kind way of saying he was a bit of a liar.). Back in those days I think he would be referred to as “eccentric”. He’s the one in the back there with the funny hat.
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Here he is shaking his fist at the police for not allowing him entry to stonehenge. This was a huge bugbear for him! He felt that archeological monuments of significance should be available to all british citizens and should not be controlled by private ownership.
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And here are a selection of articles about him. Most of it is probably not true.
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Despite his loose relationship with the truth, by all accounts he was a very passionate, generous and charismatic man. He was a fierce advocate for social justice and liberty, and explored eastern mysticism as well as western esoterica helming the Order of Druids for many years and having correspondence with Aleister Crowley and other british occultists at the time (he advertised Crowley’s Equinox journals in his own publications).

My grandfather, Robert Arbuthnot MacGregor-Reid was elected to the role of Chief Druid after GW and continued his legacy. Here he is at stonehenge (far right).
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He was also involved with the labour party and was a less eccentric and apparently very kind and gentle character who would hold coffee groups to debate intellectual matters in Clapham. In the photo below you can see a younger, slimmer version of Robert at the back with my grandmother, Bridget, in the front holding my dad, George, on her knee surrounded by the druid order at stonehenge.
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My dad didn’t have the same interests as his predecessors and took a much more ‘normal’ career as an academic, but I do think he had a fair bit of their personality in him. When I was a child he would take me wandering around the countryside in the north of England to look at archaeological sites and standing stone monuments. He made up a lot of stories for me about the dragons and fairies that lived on the crag behind our house, and we would often go and look for them. I was particularly interested in fossils, so fossil-hunting trips with my dad were a real highlight. I also had a small book of british fungus and we would go though the woods in the autumn looking for toadstools so I could tick them off my list of “to sees” – I was so disappointed that there were some really exciting specimens we could never find!

My dad didn’t tell me about my relatives at all and by the time I was born my grandfather was dead. I think maybe he was a little embarrassed by them and their eccentricities, I was never able to really ask him. I always got the impression that by the time I was in my early teens and there were stacks of books on neolithic monuments, occultism and mythology stacked up on my bedside table he just sort of gave in, realising that through whatever weird genetic lottery I had inherited the family interests. Let’s face it, it could be a lot worse; feeling that care for the environment and respect for personal liberty is important is actually fairly forward thinking. Wandering around stonehenge in a white robe is just a bonus!

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A very specific symbolic language

This is an excerpt from an email conversation I had with one of the performers in “Mysterion Mellisius”. It is a nice little look into a very specific form of symbolic link making; the languages that are built up within cosmologies that join images to images, thoughts to thoughts, ideas to ideas, but then, perhaps, cease to function meaningfully outside that cosmology. The symbolic language creates a web that enables the link-maker to find a trail through his or her own thoughts.

An artist like Simon Denny works with link-making in a wider context with a symbolic language that is accessible and understood by a greater audience. This gives his link-making the ability to travel and be read by a large audience, but in many respects it’s the same sort of pattern recognition process being brought forth. A targeted net is cast and the relevant ideas are pulled together for the viewer to discover and question.

Obviously the below quote is rather ‘occulty’ because it’s dealing with that particular symbolic language, but it’s interesting to see how T.P. drew correlations between ideas:

“…the more I thought about C’s divination of the 8 of Disks for the rite the more I thought it was especially fitting…. From the surface level: where the figure 8s we did in the great Disk that was the hive befits the card… To the idea of storing the harvest, which is the traditional “sun in virgo” attribution (and the essential meaning of the word ‘prudence’ in this respect) – the harvest of course being the honey, but also the idea that honey can be used as a preservative for storing other foods. (Indeed, the very life of bees depicts this idea of prudence, in how they work so hard to build hives and store food for their fellows.)… The picture on the card is of 8 whirling red flowers, to suggest the activity of the bees… Even the yellow background of the card suggests honey!” -T.P.

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Experiencing the unknown

Since embarking upon an exploration of participatory performance art my research and thinking has been centred around the new concerns this medium throws up for me. A large part of that has been around audience engagement and participation, how levels of consent and safety affect the appreciation of the work and how this can be achieved for your audience without compromising the work.

Invariably there is work in the contemporary artworld that shocks, disgusts and creates discomfort in the viewer. When responding to an image or an object, the viewer has distance and a level of detatchment from the artwork, so if the discomfort is too great the viewer can turn away. How does this function within an immersive environment? Even when an artist may not intend discomfort, an audience member may still experience it and the artist needs to take this into consideration.

Olafur Eliasson’s “Your Blind Passage” (2010) requires the audience take a bold step into the unknown by entering a passage with no prior knowledge of it’s interior. Once inside, the viewer has to rely on senses other that sight to navigate as the density of smoke and coloured lights makes it impossible to see more than a short distance. In the gallery space the audience member has the option to enter or not enter the work depending on their level of comfort and they do not have to enter the space alone. Once inside the work the viewer could choose to leave if the experience was unpleasant for them. This allows audience members to give themselves over to full engagement with and experience of the work without feeling uneasy about their place in the environment.

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Olafur Eliasson ‘Your Blind Passage’ (2010)

Other works offer the option for engagement or observation. “Imponderabilia” (1977) Marina Abramovic and Ulay, creates a doorway from two naked bodies facing each other. If an audience member squeezes through the gap they must choose which body to face. This piece gives the audience the option of either participating in the work or watching others participate in the work. The experience will be different depending on which option the viewer chooses, but the ability to make that choice is given and that allows the viewer to feel comfortable in their decision.

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Marina Abramovic and Ulay ‘Imponderabilia’ (1977)

A work such as Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” (2010) requires a far more active participation from the audience. Rather than being explorers (Your Blind Passage) or having a brief but potentially intense interaction with the work (Imponderabilia) ‘This Progress’ envelops the audience fully into the work for an extentended performance. Although the experience of passing up the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim talking with performers doesn’t sound confrontational or discomforting, there is still the aspect of venturing into the unknown that has to be overcome by the audience. Their trepidation would certainly be allayed by the fact that the travellers can journey through the work in small groups, they can also see ahead of them and behind them, there are also no uncomfortable situations to be faced except for questions around the nature of progress.

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Tino Sehgal ‘This Progress’ (2010)

Apart from discomfort related fear of the unknown the other aspect of my work I need to contend with once again is the issues around dealing with exclusionary subject matter. I went back to looking at Kara Walker and the way she addresses racism in the Antebellum South. Her large installations are quite enveloping so a viewer could be well within the artwork before noticing that the charming silhouettes dancing around the walls are not so charming after all. There are bound to be viewers who are disturbed and upset by the scenes, but the nature of the work means that they have enough distance from the images that they may just move away and leave the installation.

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Kara Walker ‘Darkytown Rebellion’ (2001)

When working with the symbolic language of ritual one has to be very careful to strip away any excess symbolism that could have a negative effect on the work and only keep that which is truly useful. I’ve been creating some costumes for a performative piece and have changed them and rethought them several times to make sure that they retained the associations with ritual and mysticism while avoiding any problematic or unnessary connotations. I examined Mikala Dwyer’s use of ritual costuming in her work ‘ Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). She uses hooded robes which immediately evoke ritual and the occult, she even has some pointy hoods which can be a very difficult and potentially offensive choice. The way she changes the robes and creates her own ritual garb is to use unexpected materials such as gold lame, lurex and covering her mishapen hoods in strange material and textures. This way she effectively maintains the associations she wants to keep and removes those she does not. This has been a very valuable observation for me and something I need to keep pushing in my own work. Dwyer maintains a distance between audience and ritual performance, they are observers not participants so they maintain a level of detachment.

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Mikala Dwyer ‘Goldene Bend’er’ (2013). Ritual garb hanging on wall

Each of these artists have strong, well known practices. This gives them a bit of freedom to push the boundaries because viewers have some preconceptions around what to expect; they know that a Kara Walker work is going to contain some racially provocative images, that an Abramovic piece is likely to be confronting and that Tino Sehgal will probably have some audience participation. As these works are on display in public spaces the options for viewers to choose to engage with the work are totally open. For my work, in an educational setting, where I benefit from feedback from my peers, I need to make sure that the work is accessible and viewers are comfortable in engaging with it without taking away from the experience of the performance.

In Pursuit Of Venus (Infected) – Lisa Reihana

At Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

I’ve been looking forward to seeing a full presentation of this work since I heard Lisa Reihana talk about it last year. At the time I had no idea that I would start working with video as a medium but somehow I was drawn in and deeply engaged by the work and the process she was navigating. As it has turned out this work is very relevant and inspiring for me through it’s presentation, medium, technique and narrative.

Walking into the gallery space one is immediately struck by the size of the work; both it’s physical presence and the scope of the content. The work appears as a moving tableau, a static painting brought to life. The painted landscapes and flora are beautifully ‘turn of the century’ in their style and manage to avoid any of the cgi cliches of digitally composited pieces. The human aspects of the painting merge wonderfully into their painted landscape, both blending in and jumping out of the scenes; they can move from being at one moment static painted figures to be fully ‘alive’ and moving almost seamlessly.

The slow scrolling of the scene reveals the narrative in the work. At first sitting it appears to be a tableau of little vignettes (much like the 200-year-old French wallpaper depicting a Pacific utopia that helped inspire this work, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique). After observing for a time the viewer starts to notice recurring characters and sequential scenes that unfold into the narrative of Captain Cook, Tupaia and Joseph Bank’s travels and travails in the Pacific. I watched the full 30 minutes and found that there was no obvious ‘join’ in the work where the narrative started and finished, it was a continual loop, the Pacific islands be colonised over and over ad infinitum. Lisa Reihana talks about the wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique and how this hand-blocked panoramic paper was the only one of it’s kind to depict a death – the death of Captain CookShe talks also about the huge technical undertaking that it took to create this kind of wallpaper which is definitely reflected in the huge undertaking to create In Pursuit of Venus (Infected).
(Cicuit Cast Episode 23: Interview with Lisa Reihana. (2015) http://circuit.org.nz/blog/circuit-cast-episode-23-an-interview-with-lisa-reihana)

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I’m inspired by Reihana’s use of a fixed camera and the illusion of a static image to produce a moving narrative. With my work “Hive Oracle” I wanted to create the effect of a moving painting, a fixed image brought to life, rather than editing camera angles and shots as you usually would if making a film. I’m also extremely impressed by her attention to colour and texture; the interplay between the real people and the painted scenery is so seductive, it draws the viewer right into the world of the artwork and allows him/her to forget the technical aspects involved in the construction of the work.

Another aspect of the production of the work that I was very interested in (and I remember Reihana talking about last year at Whitecliffe) was the collaboration between the artist and the performers. Being members of each cultural group they must have a lot of their own personal experience to bring to their performances. That creates a very different work than a piece that is solely or mostly directed by the artist.

Part of the work that had a huge impact on me personally was the soundtrack. The use of audio in artworks is so powerful and can create instant engagement, emotional texture, drama, narrative. The soundtrack that Reihana has created for In Pursuit of Venus was stunning. Not only did it follow the narrative of the piece but it seemed to give the work a physical depth, in that the layered sounds within the soundtrack actually created dimension within the flat painting. You could hear the people who were meant to be in the distance and they sounded further away than those who were in the foreground meaning that both the visual and audio parts of the experience opened out.

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