Monday, 13 March 2017

There's more to art than the art world...

Today I read an interview on Hyperallergenic called 'Goodbye to all that: Why do artists reject the art world?'

'Everyone I know thinks the art world as it's set up now, and as it has evolved over the last half-century, is a deeply flawed system, and these artists [those being discussed in the interview]- diversely, sometimes at self-sacrificing cost and sometimes to their benefit - highlight that fact or call it out. Whereas most of us develop our own variant on "oh well". It's possible that the idea of walking out of this world at all, where there's an unspoken assumption that everyone engaged in cultural work is a de facto lifer, strikes some people as "mad"'.

If this was an academic essay, I could go to town on this question. Who do you mean by 'artists'?; are they all doing the same thing?; which art world are you talking about?, what is 'the' art world? etc etc. There's definitely not one art world, and people use the term to mean many different things.

Here are some of the ones I'm aware of, in hierarchical order... At the top, there are galleries where no-one expects anything to sell; where the host space has already bought the work and put it into a collection and is simply putting it on display. Then there are galleries that sell to big investors, because there's an investment market. Then there are galleries that sell to people who are not necessarily looking for an investment, but which take up space in an expensive part of town and charge very high prices. Then there are galleries which try to represent artists who don't sell in the either of these first two types of gallery, which sell at more reasonable prices. There are also galleries who look primarily for things that will sell to tourists and passersby, who don't try to represent anyone in particular but simply want to find what they can sell the most of. And then are various types of online art site, where anyone can post anything and sell to anyone who finds them on the internet.  All of this could be see as 'the art world', and much more that I haven't mentioned.

However, when people refer to 'the art world' in something like the interview above, they're referring to something a little more specific.  This is what I would call an (albeit highly varied)  establishment art world.  That an establishment art world exists is the first thing that confuses me, because I thought that art was meant to be quite a wide and free kind of thing, existing at least in part to mock and challenge institutions and establishments. But as far as I can see there is definitely an establishment thing going on.

It operates and perpetuates itself through 'top galleries', and also through the institutions we know as art schools/colleges. Where you go to learn how to be a free artist, right? Well, no, actually, not really. Art schools are educational institutions. Whether or not you realise this in your first flush of youthful hope and desire (I'm talking here about people who want to be 'fine artists', which in the past would have meant a painter, or sculptor, but which now means something much wider...), you go to art schools to be schooled.... in some version of the prevailing institutional/establishment views about what 'art', or 'contemporary art practice', is. To learn, amongst many other things, what is allowed and what is not allowed in 'serious art'.

When I went to St Martins, London, in the late 1970s, if you were serious about becoming a painter, there was an unspoken rule which said that you could not go anywhere near the life room, or do any other kind of work 'from life'. The real/proper/serious students all worked on very large canvases, and everything they did was abstract.

More recently, I was interested to see in an article on 'Ten Threshold Concepts In Fine Art' that one of the assumptions of a fine art art education in 2011 was the need to move your students from 'aesthetic to conceptual awareness'. There's nothing unreasonable about this idea, and it's perfectly in line with the aims of 'higher' education.

But let's consider it for a moment. Your students most likely arrive with a love of the aesthetic; a desire, perhaps, to work with colour and paint and line and shape... propelled by a big, unexamined soup of visceral and emotional responses to the world. According to the threshold concepts article, it's your job, as their art school lecturer, to shift them away from the soup that brought them to you and teach them:

' understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials.'

And there's nothing at all wrong with this. It's exactly what some people want. But this statement reflects a particular view, not only of the purpose of higher education (to develop critical thought etc), but of art as a primarily conceptual affair.  No problem, in principle, unless this becomes an orthodoxy. And that is more or less what has happened; the idea that 'the creative process' should be conceptual  is a highly prevalent institutional/ establishment view. I'm not trying to get into a discussion about what art education should or should not be, my point is that there are certain ideas that are acceptable within current institutional/establishment thinking, and certain ideas that are not.

In the context of higher education institutions, and presumably the preoccupations of different forms of conceptual art (both of which are concerned with how you think ), what is often not so acceptable are things associated with the messy feelings and urges of the physical body (and, dare I mention, the yearning spirit?). I don't mean ideas about the body, which can willingly open themselves up for a wee bit of postmodern deconstruction and contestation. I mean the actual, visceral experience of getting messy with paint. The intense, physical yearning to make marks or form symbols, often without knowing why. The sensation of standing in front of a painting and feeling worlds open up inside your chest. That kind of stuff.

When I left art school and started working abroad, I began to discover some new and different purposes and orientations towards colour, and making, and images, and art, to those I had been schooled in.  In India, for example, I saw that a great deal of art was not made for the purposes of self-expression; it was not something that you made because you were special and had a calling; it was often not made to sell, and in many contexts it was produced without a sense of individual ownership, of either the process or the final product. People were making art everywhere, in temples, in cities, in villages, in shops, on roadsides, in the dust, onto cow dung, into mud. It was the same in Bali. Everyone was making things, for all sorts of different purposes. Art in these places was aesthetic, it was narrative, it was symbolic; art was visceral, and it came out of and affected people's bodies, often in the service of things that were not so physical.

Thirty years later, after living and working in Italy, North India, Japan and Australia, I started to paint again. No-one was more surprised than me. Not only that I was painting, but with the images that started to appear.

'It's also the case that nobody begins with a withdrawal [from the art world], or without somehow 'earning' the right to leave

Strangely, I did. I began with a withdrawal.  And though I did almost no work for those thirty years, somehow my connection to image and colour and texture and paint only went to sleep, it didn't die. I wrote a story when I was 16 called 'Stuck in Thick Red' which was about a man who got into a bath of paint every day just for the joy of it. Aesthetic, visceral, emotional, bodily. Completely unfashionable then, and pretty much still unfashionable now.

I never tried to join the establishment art world, and I don't want to join it now. I'm not interested in whether or not I'm moving art history on, or whether or not someone in a New York gallery thinks that my work will 'fit'.

I'm following a breadcrumb trail, and at each step, it satisfies me to share what I find, with anyone who cares to look.


Friday, 3 March 2017

'People will think I can't draw'

I quite regularly have a little conversation with myself as I make my work. It goes something like this:

A. 'But look how wonky that line/hand/leg is!'

B. 'I know, that just seems to be what happens when you don't draw first in pencil... when you just draw in a kind of free, unthinking way, in response to an idea or an image...'

A. 'Well, you could practice, so that when you draw free like that with a pen your line would be more accurate'

B. 'You just don't get it, do you? I've done loads of drawing 'practice'. I can make something very accurate if I want to. But I've never wanted that kind of drawing. It seems pointless to me. Of course it's what people who look, and perhaps people who don't draw, love. They're culturally conditioned to be impressed with factual accuracy in drawing, they can't help themselves. It's probably them I'm thinking about as another wonky line comes out.

A. 'But why do you think of them, who cares?

B. 'Now you're talking. The minute I think about them, I just step in front of that thought with another one, which says. Oh for fuck's sake! Why on earth would you want to make a technically impressive accurate-in-some-way drawing? Millions of people already do that. Millions of people have spent years improving their hand/eye coordination until they can do that just perfectly.

As 21st century culture we can do accuracy, we can do sophistication, we can do cleverness. We go on doing it, over and over again, and it's technically and aesthetically satisfying to us, to do, and to see. But the question for me, and it's only for me, is what's the point of that? Another pleasing, accurate image. It still impresses me when it's done by others. But as a maker of images, that bores me.

I'm interested in images not as cultural markers of a dedication to cleverness, but as expressions of human experience. What happens when the human hand picks up a stick and goes free, in response to an idea, a dream or a body-shaking fear? What can images be as expressions available to anyone, with  or without years of technical practice? It's something quite contrary in me, that, despite 'being able to draw' a lot of what I make suggests that 'I can't'.

It's something to do with that thing in classical Indian traditions about images expressing life-force, breath - the line or image as an expression of something living, experiential. For me that's also about wonkiness and imperfection; and also about the message potentially encoded in a symbol or a visual idea which leaves the image open to interpretation by the viewer, rather than simply feeling wowed (and often alienated from the world of creativity) by reproductive accuracy.

I sometimes think about offering workshops that would provide this opportunity for anyone at all to work free with symbols and imagination; for the sheer joy of the sensation of making a pen move through ink, or of making a field of colour.  I'd like to find a way to take away ordinary people's fear of working with definite, symbolic imagery. So that instead of saying, 'oh, I don't know how to draw an eye' and feeling depressed at the lack of accuracy in their marks (people think accuracy is gift or talent, but it's not, anyone can learn to draw...), they would be able to dive into the world of their lived, embodied experience and create out of that without fear. '


Sunday, 11 December 2016

'Entering the territory of an image'

'When a piece of work feels finished, we need time to look, to meditate on, and to absorb what has been done. Every image holds a mystery, something outside or beyond the intentions we had for it. A thing once made has an autonomy, a life of its own - we need to get to know it as we would get to know another person; otherwise we will most likely have missed what it contains or speaks of. The power of an image is that it embodies the complexity of what we see, feel and think but cannot literally describe in words. The things we ourselves make reflect our lives, as do our dreams, and to discover what they hold for us, we need to enter their territory. There is a difference here between looking at an image, where we maintain a certain distance, and entering into an image, where we engage with it imaginatively. Entering into an image is as active and creative in its own way as making it. An image invites us to feel things differently, to see other qualities, other aspects of our lives - the familiar transfigured. The images we make and subsequently come to know, do not so much centre around us, as draw us out of ourselves into a wider field of constructions and meanings.

Everything we make is in a sense a living world - we explore it as with a new place we arrive in, asking: 'What is here?...'What is happening?'  As in the process of making, we follow whatever comes up, and what we find will never be entirely what we expect. Exploring the world of an image takes time - time to let it in, get to know it.

Our first account of an image will always be only a tiny fragment of what is there, sometimes even at odds with what we eventually see. But it is always difficult not to get stuck with our original thoughts and intentions and instead allow the image to have its own voice, to surprise us with what it holds. When we start to look, the image may well appear static, fixed. The process of looking is one of letting the life of the image unfold - a sense of movement and interaction within and between its parts.

In looking we need to follow the slightest hunch, let in the faintest impression, accepting wherever our attention is drawn, allowing any fleeting thought or association to take its place within an emerging picture of what is present. We need to 'see lightly', trying not to impose an account of the image artificially, letting a sense of its presence arise and grow in the looking. As we look, we move to and fro between the physical appearance of the image (its sensory impact), and the associations, thoughts, feelings, memories, stories, that arise from it; every aspect of our experience is potentially a support for our looking.....'

Tufnell, M. & Crickmay, C. A Widening Field; Journeys in Body and Imagination  2004


Monday, 24 October 2016

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?'

Recently a friend told me that I should be exhibiting what I'm producing, and the same day someone else said that I should put my images on a site that allows people to choose an image and then apply it to a tshirt or an iphone cover. I appreciate their ideas and support. I may have another exhibition eventually, but I'm intrigued by what's behind these suggestions, as they're so far way from where I am.

My priority is making the images, seeing what's going to happen next. I don't care what happens to them after they've appeared, as long as they get to go out into the world. As long as they have a chance to come into contact with another human, who may or may not resonate at the meeting. If someone sees an image and something happens for them, my job is done. And if someone sees an image and nothing happens for them, my job is also done. My responsibility is to follow my own trail, make the image, and put it out.

If there was no internet it would be different. I would have to exhibit in order for it to be possible for the images to find people. But every time I put an image onto facebook there are potentially at least 200 people or so who might see it. That's 190 people more than is strictly necessary.

I'm not trying to make Art. I'm not trying to contribute to the history of 'special' people whom society has othered whilst removing ordinary people's fundamental need and secret longing to create things. I'm not hoping to be recognised, or to have a gallery ask to represent me. I'm not trying to persuade the world to hand over its money and give me enough of it so that I can pay my bills.

I could do that. I could do that if I was prepared to change what I want to do to fit what the people with money want. I could do that if I didn't mind spending a large proportion of the time I could be making art promoting it, carrying it to places, writing up invoices, making mounts and framing. But I'm not prepared to do that right now. I'm done with making creative products to fit other people's agendas, and I'm done with doing what I'm told. I'm done with organising and administration. And I'm done with gatekeepers.

The amount of money I would make if I did all of these things would never come close to paying my bills anyway. And even if it did, if suddenly someone somewhere decided to promote me because they thought they could make themselves some money by taking me on and it 'worked', I would then still spend most of my time not making art, and would probably gradually lose sight of the trail completely, overwhelmed by the comments of the gatekeepers, the market, and current fashions.

The trail goes down deep into myself and, if it stays true, can occasionally tap into streams that are not limited by my personal experience. This, to me, is a pursuit worthy of my attention. A worthwhile use of my one precious life.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA


Sunday, 18 September 2016

'this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.'

'When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.'


Friday, 26 August 2016

arising from and falling back into the earth...

Last night I went to see The Bhumi Collective, a 'multi-disciplinary theatrical performance by a collective of Singaporean and British theatre, dance and music makers based in London'  (bhumi is Sanskrit for 'earth').

I'm excited beyond measure, on all sorts of levels. Mainly, I think, because it so beautifully explores the mixing of many things that history, culture and tradition so often try to keep separate. It made me think about this in relation to some of the themes that seem to be trying to emerge through my images.

Humans as not distinct  from the earth.

Humans as not distinct from other creatures.

Watching Soultari Amin Farid made me think of another thing that's been happening in the images that I had only dimly noticed...the merging of gender distinctions.

South Indian, Balinese, Indonesian and I assume Malay aesthetic traditions have an entirely different take on what is appropriate and possible in relation to both adornment and movement. Men's eyes can be outlined in black; kings, mythical figures, and dancers may be heavily adorned with coloured silks, sashes or jewellery; movement and gesture flow and undulate in ways that cross all traditional AngloEuropeanAmerican gender boundaries.

In the piece, when Soultari Amin Farid is teaching the other dancers aspects of Malay dance, he outlines very clear traditions in relation to male and female cultural roles. But when he himself dances, I see everything mixing up in ways that free the human spirit from all such restrictions...

Going again tonight, hopefully to draw....

Saturday, 20 August 2016

'in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge...'

'One evening, after one false start too many, I just gave up. Sitting in a bar, feeling a bit burned out by work and by life in general, I just started drawing on the backs of business cards for no reason. I didn't really need a reason. I just did it because it was there, because it amused me in a kind of random, arbitrary way.

Of course it was stupid. Of course it was not commercial. Of course it wasn't going to go anywhere. Of course it was a complete and utter waste of time. But in retrospect, it was this build-in futility that gave it its edge. Because it was the exact opposite of all the 'Big Plans' my peers and I were used to making. It was so liberating not to have to think about all that, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn't have to have some sort of commercial angle, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that didn't have to impress anybody, for a change.

It was so liberating to be free of ambition, for a change.

It was so liberating to be doing something that wasn't a career move, for a change.

It was so liberating to have something that belonged just to me and no-one else, for a change.

It was so liberating to feel complete sovereignty, for a change. To feel complete freedom, for a change. To have something that didn't require somebody else's money, or somebody else's approval, for a change.

And of course, it was then, and only then, that the outside world started to pay attention.'