Noticing things: what artists do

“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!

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Last night I watched the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” showcasing the Chauvet Cave paintings. The paintings are from 2 periods between around 35,000 and 28,000 years ago and have been buried within the cave for over 20,000 years, untouched by the outside world and, as such, they are amazingly well preserved; incredible in their detail and beauty.

I found this film deeply moving. Imagining the people who painted the walls, I kept thinking about what they saw, how they saw it and what their lives were like. The paintings had so much animation and vibrancy! Comparing them to later ancient art from the area and further afield it would almost seem that this fluidity was lost for quite some time. Thinking about Egyptian and Near Eastern art from 25,000 years later and looking at the stylisation of form, it’s comparatively rigid poses don’t have the movement of the Chauvet animals (although obviously just as beautiful). These artists understood not just movement but also perspective and the fact that you can ‘stack’ objects behind each other to create a group.

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I love these rhinos – who knew there were wooly rhinos in southern France! I think the way they overlap is gorgeous as it allows you to see that there are a whole heard of them, that they are milling around and that they aren’t even all facing in the same direction. The rhino at the back shows a technique that the artist’s have used with other animals drawings within the cave. The multiple lines around the body and the horn indicate that it is moving, tossing it’s head, maybe charging. As soon as I saw this I thought of the Futurists! Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase‘ popped into my head immediately. Or Natalia Goncharova’s ‘Cyclist’.

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This herd of horses is one of the most stunning pieces of art in the cave. Archeologists believe that all the horses were painted by one person, with the lowest horse, with it’s mouth open in a whinny, the last to be completed. I really love the shading that gives the animals some weight and volume and they way each animal seems like an individual with distinct features.

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I can’t stop looking at this rush of lions. They appear to be running, leaping, pouncing after the aurochs. The aurochs on the top left looks like it is screaming in fear as it tries to escape the onslaught. The technique that the artists have used of scraping back the cave wall to expose the whiter stone underneath has allowed them to create a bright surface for the black medium and has added to the movement with the underlying scraping strokes.

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As well as animals, further into the cave there were also drawings that appeared to be large renderings of insects and butterflies. This interested me a great deal; the large animals are obviously very important to the artists as either food or predators, but insects don’t generally fit into either of those categories. That made me wonder whether the artist painted the insects purely because they thought the insects were interesting or beautiful. They would have been painted from memory, which means that the artist must have spent time observing the insects for no other reason than that they wanted to understand them.

I thought about the paintings in this film all day, trying to imagine those people from 30,000 years ago and what they were thinking about as they made them.

 

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) Hito Steyerl

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My friend, Rupert following the instructional video and trying not to be seen at the Tate. I think his pixels are too big.

Hito Steyerl’s instructional video shows the viewer how to avoid detection by various digital surveillance technology. The title references Monty Python’s spoof Government Public Service instructional that showcases the benefits of not being seen e.g. not being shot or blown up, which is particularly important if you are a whole country avoiding nuclear annihilation.

The narrator in Steyerl’s video explains that visibility is dependent on resolution, whatever is lost by resolution becomes invisible. The videos are shot against a green screen at an old US airforce ‘resolution target’ that was used to test the resolution of aerial cameras and the artist (plus assistants) attempt to not be seen by the camera by employing various techniques that are explained in detail to the viewer.

The use of the .mov file extension and the exploration of very particular technologies sets this work firmly in a specific time and place where ideas around surveillance and our images being captured and held as digital images, with or without our permission, has become a topic of political, cultural and artistic conversation.

I read Steyerl’s essay “In defence of the poor image” a couple of years ago and found this piece to be a great accompaniment. They both examine how digital image quality – and degradation of quality – can be used within contemporary art to explore issues such as comprehension, visibility, passage of information and the place of perceived visual quality in value judgements.

Carl Sagan: A Glorious Dawn

The NASA announcement today of their new solar system discovery immediately made me wonder how Carl Sagan would have felt on hearing this news. There are 7 Earth-sized planets orbiting a small star 40 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, they could hold life, they could even support our life. Sagan said it was time for us to ‘venture to the stars’ if we manage not to destroy ourselves.

Because of my interest in working in the zone where science and mysticism overlap, I find Sagan a continuing source of inspiration.

We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
Sagan, Carl (1990). Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann (1997). The Demon-Haunted World.

We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
Sagan, Carl (1980). Cosmos

Something about remembering your own tininess and insignificance along with acknowledging that you have the ability to create something wonderful despite only ‘fluttering for day’ is infinitely liberating. A bit hippie, but there you go.

 

Birds in Suomi Mythology

I’ve been looking into Suomi mythology around birds – they appear very prominently and I see a direct correlation with Maori mythology in some of the stories. Being a Celtic-descended Pakeha it’s a weird place to be because I don’t have ownership of either of these mythologies; I feel a great deal of kinship with the Maori mythology because I think of Aotearoa as my home and as I’ve worked directly with birds and bird conservation to the point I can identify the calls of even rare endemic species. The Suomalainen don’t really fit in with the other Scandinavian peoples of whom I also have ancestry (although Finland has been variously invaded by Swedes and Russians over much of it’s history). I’m moving carefully around cultural appropriation issues, I try to keep my work *informed* by but not *taking* from because I want to incorporate ideas from what I am learning and experiencing here.

Diamond dust

I’ve spent a couple of hours outside today despite the -20c temperature. The sun is out low on the horizon turning the world blue and yellow. There is a phenomena called ‘diamond dust’ that is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen; ice crystals hang in the air, catching the sun and sparking like glitter. Everything comes alive in a shimmering haze.

Ellery and I walked out onto the frozen lake as it clouded over a little and started to snow. The flakes that landed on our clothes were each perfect brittle stars. Our hair became crunchy with ice around the humidity of our faces.

The frozen lake is black beneath the snow and walking on it has a different timbre to the land. There were small animal tracks crossing the pristine surface and we wondered if they could be from a wolverine.

I tried to capture the diamond dust then the snow fall on video without much success. The camera seemed to be struggling with the low temperature and its ability to focus in video mode was compromised. When we came back to Arteles I went out to the forest to collect sticks for an idea I’m mulling over.