“In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
Nigredo is part of a body of work that examines the alchemical process as a metaphor for transformation. I’m fascinated by the moments that occur between change – I think of them as the Eternal Moments – when a point is reached where reality teeters between one and the other, between being and non-being. Alchemical process becomes an interesting language, with it’s array of symbols, metaphors and magic, as well as it’s questioning of the ability to transform material reality. I see in this a way to examine our relationship with the otherworldly, whether it’s a trick of the mind or a glimpse of something else.
The work acts a sort of sponge for my research and for all the things around me in the world that have are occupying my mind. They get filtered through the lens of whatever form the work is currently taking and end up a part of it. If you asked me to explain why I used a certain thing I think I could give a cogent answer to about 80% of it. Then there is that other 20% that I still need to explore and pick apart. It’s very easy to over-think, so I will also work intuitively and examine the choices I’ve made retroactively to make decisions around whether they help or hinder the work.
The Nigredo works are part of a larger body that describe the three major processes in alchemical transformation. Nigredo is the stage of dissolution, of breaking down, of burning away, of dying to be reborn anew. I’m referring to this showing as a ‘work in progress’ hence why I have chosen to present the works as a transient ‘pop-up’ show that can be viewed for a short time before it disappears.
GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
The Gallery of NSW is a classic gallery/museum exhibition space built in 1871 and evolved over time to work with contemporary needs.
Vic and I spent lots of time sitting with Samson Young’s (2018) “Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th” surround sound installation. Young created “Muted Situations #22” as part of his series of ‘muted’ works that reveal the unobserved or masked moments in everyday experience. By muting the sounds of their instruments, the orchestra reveal the underlying susurrus of their movement. Sitting within the installation you can hear the orchestra around you while watching them ‘play’ on a visual recording of the event. There were many times during the performance where the music can almost be heard through the movement of the players.
Riet Wijnen (2015 – ) “Sixteen Conversations on Abstraction: Conversation Six”
Riet Wijnen’s evolving work “Conversation Six” is curiously engaging and gets more and more interesting as you spend time with it and delve deeper into it’s complexities. The programme tells us that this installation is formed around a fictional dialogue between British Constructivist Marlow Moss and Australian artist and pioneer of modernist painting, Grace Crowley. This ‘conversation’ is explored in a diagrammatic sculpture as well as texts and photograms. The plans for the sculpture where fascinating with detailed notes on the thinking behind the structure. I have a soft spot for diagrammatic representations of ideas so I spent a lot of time exploring this work.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Tuomos Aleksander Laitinen (2018) “Dossier of Osmosis”
Where Riet Wijnen’s “Conversation Six” is an exemplary example of structure and reason, “Dossier of Osmosis” is another ‘diagrammatic’ installation that is, in contrast, biologically chaotic and somewhat indecipherable. My love of all things diagrammatical definitely extended to this work which really drew me in. The structure of the glass tiered tables were much like a scientific or archeological display, with all sorts of pieces of text, notes, ingredients, biological and chemical processes and diagrams floating between layers like giant petri dishes. The work questions the disconnect between organic process and the structure that sciences imposes upon them that prevent ‘osmosis’ from occurring. In this case osmosis could be read not just as biological process but as the generation and integration of ideas.
Marjolijn Dijkman (2018) “Navigating Polarities”
There was something incredibly inviting about the large bowl into which the imagery was ‘poured’. Sometimes a vessel, sometimes the firmament, sometimes the ocean, the bowl acted as a sculptural object as much as a projection technique. Curved seating around the edge of the bowl is an invitation to sit and immerse oneself. The work investigates the history or navigation, of polarity and magnetism. It speaks not just to the physical but also to the socio-political implications that go with these themes through a gentle narration and soundtrack that, to me, alludes to narration on TV science shows. Vic and I had been talking about binaries and polarities as we were walking to the gallery which goes some way to explaining why we got so immersed in this work and had to go back to it a second time! On a purely aesthetic level I loved the way the work had been so perfectly crafted to the environs of the bowl and all the detailed visual decisions that had been made by the artist.
Jacob Kirkegaard (2013) “Through the Wall”
This is one of those works that you sometimes pass by mistake in a large art show because it can become almost a part of the environs. Luckily I’d been reading the map and knew the work to expect in the space because accidentally missing this would have been a real shame. This work needs time spent because it’s not something that can be sensed immediately, but give it the time and the viewer is transported. This giant concrete monolith is a replica of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, it is inset with speakers projecting field recordings collected by Kirkegaard on site in Israel/Palestine. The recordings not only represent the ambient sounds around the wall, but also the resonances and reverberations of the wall itself. Sitting with the work – listening to the wall – encourages questioning without imposing any political weight on the listener. I particularly appreciate the fact that the artist refrained from expressing his personal political opinion in the work and allowed it to be open to the viewer’s experience. This is especially refreshing considering how so much of the media we currently consume is heavily politicised and our interpretation considered a fait accompli.
I’m still digesting my thoughts around this years Sydney Biennale; three days of solid art is so exciting but it can make you go a bit strange! The variety and scope of work is overwhelming and I find it impossible to fully engage with all of it, so there are always interesting ideas that I miss. I thought I’d share some of the works that stood out to me personally in a two-part post.
Curated by Mami Kataoka, Superposition has a suitably all-encompassing theme that borrows it’s name from the theory that any multiple of quantum states can be added together or ‘overlaid’ to produce another valid quantum state. In the context of the Biennale we are looking at antagonistic, conflicting, collision states, many of which reflect on our current socio-political and physical world climate. The programme states “…the participating artists in the 21st Biennale of Sydney have not been chosen in order to represent or symbolise a particular theme. Rather, many of the artists reflect multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives within their work…” so that leaves it pretty open. The programme also stated that the works were chosen to be shown in the various venues due to the loose links they hold with the history and characteristics of the buildings. I’m not sure I really saw that (although too be fair I don’t know too much about the venues), but the theming of works within the venues was successfully symbiotic much of the time.
I like Carriageworks as a venue. It’s spacious, airy and has historic industrial features that make for an interesting building without impinging upon the experience of the works on display.
The first work that greets you when entering Carriageworks is Chen Shaoxiong’s “The Views” (2016) 4 channel video installation. There was so much about this work to enjoy! The painterly scenes with the subtly sporadic animation, the curved screens that can be viewed from both inside and out, the melancholy soundtrack, the monochromatic scenes that felt lit from within. The work evoked feelings of time and place without being tritely nostalgic, and somehow the images were more alive and real because of how understated the movement was. The scenes would appear still and then suddenly, out of the corner of the eye a tiny movement would be captured; a dog in the distance, a cyclist cross the tracks, the lights switching on or off in a building.
This work was one of the last Chen Shaoxiong completed before his death and captures the everyday views from his hospital window. There is a poignancy and resolution in the work that is difficult to describe.
Semiconductor have 2 pieces in the Biennale, one in Carriageworks and one in the Gallery of NSW. “Earthworks” (2016). This huge five channel video work uses a technique called analogue modelling where pressure and motion are applied to layers of particles to simulate plate tectonics. The data used comes from seismic data gathered in real world landscapes and terrain. The soundtrack is generated from the data and also controls the movement of the visuals. I enjoyed this work because, quite frankly, I always enjoy art/science crossovers! It’s immersive, it’s hypnotic, it visualises as undulating colour and form the kinds of processes that take millenia.
There were 2 works at the Carriageworks that highlighted the way the curation created an enhancing symbiosis. Firstly we watched a single channel untitled video by Laurent Grasso that explores the felt presences in the landscape around Yuendumu, Northern Territory using some of the imagery, such as floating light globes, found in his previous works. We then viewed the paintings of George Tjungurrayi with their rippling surfaces displayed vertically and horizontally. After watching Grasso’s haunting video we were primed to immerse ourselves into the outback landscapes of Tjungurrayi; the works enhanced and juxtaposed each other rewardingly.
Laurent Grasso (2018) “Untitled”
George Tjungurrayi – various works
This island is an amazing site in and of itself. The industrial buildings with all their old machinery, the huge rock in the centre crossed by tunnels and topped by colonial buildings are all fascinating. But – and take this with a grain of salt – I don’t always enjoy Cockatoo Island as an art venue. I feel that for some work the classic “white cube” is a better display choice because buildings like those on Cockatoo Island can overwhelm. Very large works (Ai Wei Wei’s gigantic inflatable refugee raft) and site-specific (or site-modified) installations thrive in the Cockatoo Island spaces, but some of the smaller and more restrained works are hard for me to engage with due to the fact that there is so much going on in the environs. This might just be my tendency to get distracted and it all very much depends on the artist’s installation intentions too, of course, but there were some works that I felt might have faired better in a more traditional gallery space.
Two stand-out works on the island were Yukinori Yanagi’s “Icarus Container” (2018) and “Landscape with an Eye” (2018)
“Icarus Container” is a labyrinth of steel and mirror that reflects on humanities quest for power and advancement through the structure of capitalism and the folly of ego. A giant burning sun at one end references nuclear fusion, while a sky mirror at the opposite end pulls the viewer into the void. Much like Icarus, humanity strives towards self-destruction through unrestrained recklessness.
I enjoyed the texts etched into mirror as you advance through the containers, they were all references to the Icarus myth and to our unsatisfied quest for dominion. When walking one way down the labyrinth the sky was visible, increasing in size behind the etched mirror quotes. Turn around and there was the fire of the sun heading off into the distance. The roiling madness of the furiously burning sun with it’s thunderous soundscape contrasted beautifully with the cool blue emptiness of the Sydney sky.
“Landscape with an Eye” is installed in a different part of the island and also examines humanity’s relationship with the harnessing of power through archival audio visual footage from nuclear explosions. A giant globe hangs suspended in the room with spherical projections giving the illusion that a disembodied eyeball is floating in space. The eye moves spasmodically, it’s iris expanding and contracting, blood vessels visible around it’s circumference. I found this work at once compelling and disturbing. I didn’t at any time feel that the eye was an observer of us, the viewers, but that we in fact were witness to the visions of the eye.
Often when I’m exploring new work I come up against questions that I struggle to answer. In the current series of photos and videos I have been creating I started wondering about some of the symbolism I was drawn to and also the intention behind the desire I have to use women as the protagonists in this particular set. I’m very lucky to have a wealth of thoughtful advice to draw upon in the form of my art peers who don’t mind sitting down with me and having a ponder. In this case I called upon the brains of my friends Justine and Anita to think through with me some of these questions.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
I have found myself fascinated with the act of pouring. In previous videos I have used the pouring of beeswax, of honey, of carbon and I still have a desire to work with this action. I discussed the symbolism of pouring with Jus and Anita who had some similar thoughts to my own and also expanded upon them with some ideas I hadn’t come to on my own – highlighting the importance of having other thinkers to talk with!
Jus related the act of pouring to having tea with friends, of pouring out a cup for a guest as an act of friendship, of bonding and of interpersonal ritual. She also related it to the act of her mother washing her hair in the bath as a child. I relate to both of these actions as I am an avid tea-drinker and my mum also used to rinse my hair in the bath by pouring water over my head in a sort of bath-time baptism. There is a connotation of caring to these acts and we both mentioned the release of scent and the experience of the sound of water rushing into water. They also seem to be quite feminine acts, things that are often done between women and in the act of caring for others.
The act of pouring can be a sort of gift, as the substance leaves one vessel to then be contained in another, as in the pouring of tea.
It can also signify blending as 2 or more elements are brought together to create a new substance, as when cooking or in chemistry.
There is the cleansing or consecration aspect, as in baptism or ritual anointing.
There is also an idea of a substance transforming, which I think is particularly experienced in the release of scent through the movement of the substance from one place to the next. When pouring non-liquid substances like ash or carbon there is an explosion of dust that comes with the action.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
I talked to Anita extensively about my use of women as the protagonists in these new works and why I felt that it was important to the work, but could be a problem. This work is not specifically about gender, it isn’t a political statement, but at the same time I felt that my use of female characters could be interpreted in that way, bringing in content that I didn’t really want to be there. This took us around to the symbolism of pouring again and whether in classical art this is seen as a female gesture. Outside neoclassical concrete garden sculptures, we weren’t really sure if this was true, but we were reminded of the fact that the cup is very definitely a symbol of the female.
Both water and the cup or chalice are recognisable as symbols of the feminine. This gives me a bit more insight into where the pouring symbolism along with female protagonists is coming together in this work. Now that I’ve unpicked my unconscious decision-making a bit it has made me very interested to go back and reshoot all the scenes with male protagonists once I’ve finished shooting with women to see how that would affect the work and the viewer’s experience of it. I’ve also started thinking about the sound and scent aspects of the action of pouring and how this could work within the context of these or future pieces. I’ve worked with both sound and scent previously so it seems quite natural to think about how these experiential elements could integrate.
Mary MacGregor-Reid, 2018, Still from video “In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
Image: The main iconostasis in St Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia.
I’ve been discussing the idea of filmed ritual with Josephine who has collaborated with me in my video work. We were wondering about how have to have a more active ritual aspect to the work and how this would translate. The main issues I see around filmed ritual are as follows:
- Much ritual; western ceremonial magick in particular; just looks daft when viewed from ‘the outside’. It’s a participatory practice and rarely works as a spectator sport. Ritual is experiential in nature and there are few forms that can be viewed and appreciated without most of the active ingredients being completely lost.
- It can look truly hokey. The trappings of ritual (again, especially western ceremonial) are so loaded with pre-existing cultural and pop-cultural meaning that use of them is very difficult unless it’s in a deliberately self-aware way, which lends itself more to the glib and ironic. Candles, incense, swords, robes? Pile all those together and you’ve got yourself a bad amateur horror movie.
- Blatantly utilising the ritual language of cultures that are not my own for the sake of my art smacks of appropriation and the arrogant surface skimming of something I can’t truly understand. In a personal ritual setting experimentation with new practice is enriching, but for something like my video art I think it is gauche. The best way for me to work with non-western ritual language would be to collaborate with a practitioner who understands the deeper context and for me to take more of an ‘outsider’ position. This is something to consider for future works.
Ritual as a live performance piece is fraught with many of the same problems, especially the ‘cringe factor’ that comes with the cultural loading mentioned above. For both video and performance I’m inclined to remove most of the symbolic aspects that the audience is familiar with and, if I keep any (eg the kind of robed dress I’ve been using), angle it away from the ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ connotations. I’ve been leaning in the direction of historical art in gesture and form so that the work alludes to Renaissance or Baroque art which I hope lends it a different symbolic texture.
Looking again at Mikala Dwyer’s treatment of esoteric themes in her work I’ve been influenced by the way she has subverted and also utilised the loading of the forms she has used. Her robes and costumes for example still retain the connections to magical dress but they use fabrics and forms that have different connotations and so take the symbolism to a new place. Likewise her performance piece Goldene Ben’der (2013) which sees hooded participants robed in golden lamé attempt to defecate publicly into clear perspex seats which are later displayed. While this work may seemed to have a humorous aspect, it also captures both the seriousness and visual ridiculousness of ceremonial magick in one go. Very clever I think!
I spent some time pondering the kinds of rituals that are meant to be viewed as well as experienced and I came to the concept of the Mass. Aleister Crowley created a Gnostic Mass as a ceremonial ritual that I believe is the only example within his canon that is intended to be viewed by non-participants, although that’s an interesting point to play with as truly the congregation are also participants through the aspect of the Priest.
(Side note: he did also create his interpretation of the Rites of Eleusis, but to my mind they are theatre more than active ritual. Others might beg to differ.)
Crowley was hugely influenced by a Russian Orthodox Mass he witnessed, so while in St Petersburg I attempted to attend one to get a feel for what impressed him. I wasn’t able to attend a Mass, as I was not there on a Sunday, but I did attend a Russian Orthodox liturgy at Kazan Cathedral. Obviously I took no photos at the time of the service.
The cathedral has a central altar and 2 side altars, the Evening Liturgy was at one side and was cordoned off for worshippers. In order to be part of it I needed to wear a scarf over my head and I paid attention to everyone else to try and make sure I was doing the right thing. There is an awful lot of genuflecting, but apart from that it was actually quite relaxed with people coming and going.
Here are some interesting things that I noticed:
- The altars are not visible to the congregation at all. There is a three part divider in front of each of the three altars called an iconostatis. Only the high clergy can go behind this to the altar and I believe it is only ever opened at Mass.
- There are three clergy involved and they move around a lot; in and out of the 2 side doors in the iconostasis (but not the central door, they adored this but did not open it). There is a small altar within the congregation in front of the altar steps. This gives the chapel a three-point area of movement for the clergy: 1 behind the iconostatis (at the high altar), 2 in front of the iconostatis on the dais and 3 in the congregation on a lower level. One of the clergy takes incense around the whole perimeter of the chapel area and everyone turns towards him as he walks.
- The congregation stand for the whole time. I had no idea how long the liturgies would go but I realised after an hour that they were actually looping round and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon. They genuflect a lot: head, base, right, left, touch the floor.
- The loveliest part is the continual chanting and singing. The clergy chants the liturgies and an invisible choir up behind us sang in a call and response with the clergy. It’s worth having a listen to a Russian Orthodox service if you are interested because it truly is spine-tingling.
Once again the viewer is still a part of the experience; you are THERE, you are not watching it play out on video. I find the placement of objects and people, plus the necessity to move through the area and be in certain places at certain times, to be a concept I could work with. I have created a diagram of the layout of a Russian Orthodox service versus Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. You can see the clear similarities between the too and the way movement through space would function in both rituals as the various clergy (or officers in the case of the Gnostic Mass) move around the chapel/temple. The 2 rituals above are very different but have strong similarities in movement, pacing and interactions. I feel that perhaps movement through space with gesture and interaction is intrinsic to a lot of ritual practice and could be included in my video while still allowing the work to remain free of the problems I outlined above. Something to think about further…
I find this whole quandary of portraying active ritual very interesting to think about. I find it very difficult but a great challenge. There are going to be some serious failures coming up, but a good ‘art fail’ is the best thing to point you in the right direction!
“In the ash that lies at the bottom of the grave, there lies the king’s diadem…”
– Livre de Arthéphius, Bibliothéque des Philosophes Chimiques, Paris, 1741
- Nigredo – the earthly aspect, the shadow, the dark night of the soul, corruption, charring, putrefaction. To be reborn the spirit must die and decay, then rise again in a new form.
- The raven symbolises the Nigredo process; death, night, putrefaction. The dove is the spirit which reunites with the body once the long night has passed. Likewise the scarab, the dungroller, moves from the night of Nigredo into the light of the sun.
- Relating to Saturn who would eat his children, but was tricked by Jupiter into eating a stone instead. The stone Saturn vomits up becomes an alchemical catalyst.
- The Philosophical (Orphic) Egg is the the Prima Materia destroyed in the putrefaction of Nigredo.
- Caput Mortum: Dead Head – hematite iron oxide, a deep purple pigment produced by the Nigredo process and used for painting the robes of religious figures.
I’ve been reading about alchemy again and it’s started creeping into my dreams with some pretty fantastical symbolism. There have been 2 dreams in a row featuring talking animals; the first a conversational peahen and the second a white fox who said “Goodbye”. Nice dreams when you can get them eh?
The alchemical symbolism of animals tends to be a little different and rather more interesting than your standard dream interpretation. Ask the internet about foxes and peacocks and you’ll get the usual hodgepodge of ‘foxes are crafty’ and ‘peacocks are proud’
The peacock’s tail appears in alchemy near the completion of the ‘work’ whether by an oily residue on the surface of the final liquid (the ‘wet path’) or as a colourful oxidation on metals (the ‘dry path’). The peacock itself denotes nobility, glory and holiness – a path to attaining the Great Work.
Foxes are always closely aligned with the trickster archetype. Alchemically they are linked to the sun along with lions, although I’m not sure what white foxes would relate to? Maybe an alchemical transformation related to the moon or maybe the albedo process. They were also believed that they are the keepers of Elixir of Life and that they assume human form at night to visit the sick.
My main research lately has been around the symbolism associated with the Nigredo process, that of burning, putrefaction, death and resurrection. The symbolism of the Black Madonna is associated with nigedo, the Prima Materia, the black earth (Kemi) and also with Isis, and she is another character that has popped up briefly in my sleep. The photo above is one I took of the Virgin of Montserrat “La Moreneta”. She is housed in the Benedictine Montserrat Abbey in the hills above Barcelona. She has become a site of pilgrimage for Catholics and the pilgrim is able to obtain her blessing by touching her exposed hand which is holding a globe representing the universe. She sit’s in a pose known as the Throne of Wisdom with the baby Christ making a traditional sign of benediction.
When I had the chance to visit the Abbey the weather was bad and the whole mountain was covered in mist. There was no view either up or down the mountains which meant that the tourist numbers were very low – lucky for me! I wasn’t fussed about the views and was most interested in seeing the monastery. The mist was so dense that it was impossible to see more than 50m ahead and the grottoes filled with votive candles flickered all around. Going into the buildings meant that the mist swirled with you into the dark interiors and getting photos was very hard. La Moreneta usually has a long queue of pilgrims waiting to see her and if that had been the case I would have kept away and let them have their time with her. But there was no one else there! I was able to walk up to her and touch her hand, which was incredibly smooth and seemed to have a static charge from the thousands of hands before me.
“Rosa d’abril, Morena de la serra…” (April rose, dark-skinned lady of the mountain…)
– el Virolai, Hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat
I enjoy my research popping up in my dreams as sometimes it will make certain aspects that I can use for future work stand out more clearly. I hadn’t thought about La Moreneta for a while and I can’t think of the last time I even considered white foxes!
I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.
I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.
It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.
Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.
Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.
Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.
I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!
In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.
As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.
This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.
(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)
“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116
I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.
There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.
My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).
My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”
I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”
I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!