Category Archives: story telling

Story power

 

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Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera 16th century BC. Wikimedia Commons

Everyone has a story to tell and all of us enjoy hearing a good story.

Story telling, across all cultures, has been around for centuries and its power to engage the human mind is recognised beyond reasonable doubt, whatever the medium used to deliver it and for whatever reason it is used.  Well before the written word people told stories through speech, performance and art understanding the power they held to make sense of the world, to immortalise events, to evoke human emotion and pass on traditions.  Story telling has defined our history and as a long-time-ago student of prehistory the single most defining attraction to me was that there were no written words to account for the ancient cultures I studied. What we have is their art, their creations – their artefacts, to piece together the story of their culture. Each tiny artefact telling its own unique story.

There is a science to stories and the way in which humans respond to them.  Darwin noted that there was a biology to how we interact with stories within the context of our particular social environment. So what might be a forbidden fruit to a particular culture, with dire consequences if consumed, causes no reaction if eaten unknowingly by the same recipients.

“Stories configure contextual triggers and the expected emotional reactions of our culture—perhaps defining a sort of emotional grammar.”
The idea that “the human mind is a story processor and not a logic processor” is the

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The story of Herakles with Cerberus. 6th century BC vase painting. Wikimedia Commons

foundation of so many fantastical myths over many cultures. Myths that stimulate the imagination with a world full of characters and events that are at once both unreal and yet able to explain man’s challenges or follies. Is this how we learn to navigate our human place in the world? is this how we best make sense of it?

So powerful is the desire of the human brain to detect patterns, not just in visual forms, but in the stories we hear that it can apparently lead us to see them when they are not actually there! Sound familiar?  In 1944 a controlled experiment was carried out with 34 adults in Massachusetts, USA.  The participants were asked to look at a short film and explain what was happening in it.  The film showed shapes moving across a two-dimensional surface (two triangles and a circle) with an additional half-open rectangle stationary on one side.  33 of the 34 participants came up with intricate and emotional human stories, including one involving men (triangles) fighting over a woman (circle) . Only one of the participants saw it as shapes moving on a screen.

21st century business has understood for some time the power of story-telling – especially “character driven stories with emotional content” (whatever the medium used). Such stories help the best speakers drive home their main points, trigger different emotions and are easier to recall for the listeners.  The story of the customer experience blown open at its worst moment and resolved with empathy might bring greater trust? The altruistic actions of employees that helped change the lives of those more disadvantaged than themselves might bring more purpose? These are the stories that help build understanding or perhaps encourage new directions.  That isn’t to say everyone does it well – or at all, but their motivational capability and association with potential resolutions is recognised.

So how are stories communicated in contemporary art? It was not until the 20th century photo 2 (4)that narrative art started to be replaced by more abstract and conceptual themes, when stories could be evoked without being told and left to the viewer to interpret or not.  That isn’t to say that narrative wasn’t an option for artists but the purely abstract works provided a new stream of thought alongside more traditional narrative forms.  How often, when visiting an exhibition, or just discussing contemporary abstract art do you here

sorry, I just don’t get it, what is it?” or “is that art? – what does it mean?

How do we make sense of the nonsensical? How do we read the patterns or colours? For some it may overwhelm and for others it will trigger thoughts and emotions that provide a connection that satisfies the need for a narrative.

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For members of the Collective there is an added layer to the story of each art work.  A layer that comes from the process of purchasing it, the interactions with the artists themselves and the reactions of the people who pass through our homes as we exchange
or purchase new works.   We re-tell the stories of our experiences within and outside the Collective just as our children recount theirs and their friends reactions to some of the works.

 

It all adds up to a multilayered narrative that is our story.

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Bobby Dowler, Odd painting 1. Owned by the Collective

The head of Kim Jong-un

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“Is it really him?, is it Kim Jong-un?” they asked.  Called “Head” there was no certainty provided by the title. “Where is it from?”.   Catapulted to the forefront of recent news events over missile capability, nuclear arms and the potential threat to the US – Kim Jong-un was up there at the top of their minds. But was it him?   Although completely recognisable could this remarkable little drawing be the portrait of someone else?   I needed to find out.

Created by Lisa Wilkens and drawn with Chinese ink on old stock East German paper The Collective purchased this and two other works in 2013 from Sluice Art Fair.  This portrayal of the man, drawn with such precision and to such a small-scale on a very large piece of paper is intriguing.  What is its significance?

Apart from living with the art works day-to-day, The Collective has always sought opportunities to visit artists studios and connect with the artists themselves. More than that – we try to incorporate it as part of how we make purchases.  Every work has a story attached to it whether it is focussed on how we purchased it, the studio visit, or the reactions and conversations to each one from visitors to our homes .  This aspect of how we collect particularly struck me when Workplace Gallery exhibited half of our collection to the public: the stories around each art work and the personalities of Collective members were invisible to the public.

So it happened, that this particular reaction to “Head” from my son and his friends encouraged me to get back in touch with Lisa herself and see if she would be happy to have a chat with me about the works we had  – and to catch up on what she was doing. Was it the head of the North Korean leader (now so topical)?  Why him?, why was the scale of the drawing set within such a large piece of paper?  Why the chosen mediums of old GDR paper and Chinese ink? Lisa responded immediately and agreed to have a call.

After working with Wysing Art Studios and Paper Gallery  Lisa decided it was time to “push herself more” and has joined a post academic 2 year research programme in Gent, Belgium where she has both studio space and access to a wide variety of visiting artists, curators, theorists and visiting lecturers.

I have space to experiment and to test without having to produce works for a specific outcome like an exhibition – whatever idea, interest and concern I have, and then see where these ideas go”

Motivated very much by personal interest and concern in politics and history Lisa created both the “head” and 141_img“drones” during the period after her father died.

It was her father who would encourage political discussion and an interest in history and his passing came at the time of the last North Korean crisis when Kim Jong-un first came to power .

The use of materials from two communist states – ink from China for her detailed drawings (a technique she learnt in a previous scientific illustration degree) and old, yellowing stock paper obtained from an aunt in East Germany, seem to provide the work with a certain cohesion. A symbolic representation of a communist ideology brought together as one work and charged with questions, messages and an indiscernible meaning as we look on the head of Kim Jong-un.

When I asked Lisa about the small-scale of the drawing in contrast to the size of the paper used she explained

The world is too overcrowded and complex. It has to be broken down in to small and isolated pieces to allow time – and space – to think and reflect

Lisa believes that the technique used to execute the drawings “almost disappear” after the drawing is completed which gives you freedom to reflect on the politics and history of the space.

The dismembered head was a chance to focus on the features of Kim Jong-un’s face – a man with an almost child-like appearance with enormous power at his fingertips. The isolated head spoke to the idea of a “head of state”, an authoritarian rule, communism portrayed almost as a joke.

We ended the conversation talking about the importance of art in domestic spaces which Lisa believes can have a lasting impact on art and culture, perhaps more than the big art fairs. She believes that living with art is much more likely to generate discussion and thought, whether about the artist, the techniques or the subject matter.  That desire to produce work that asks questions is so important to the way she produces her art irrespective of the longevity of the materials she uses. Interpretation itself is not essential.

As we said our goodbyes I couldn’t help thinking how inspiring the conversation had been.  Now I look at “Head” on the wall across from the table and I see a new layer of appreciation and reflection.  A new depth to the story, whatever I might read in to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things to remember

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“Witness” by Tom Dale. Owned by the Collective.

“So you’ve got a new one up” says my son’s friend as he passes from the kitchen and through the dining room.   “it’s got wheels.. what is it?”  A shrug of shoulders as they disappear out pondering what it brings to mind.  Tom Dale’s work “witness” is an eye-catching work for any audience but placed on a domestic wall it tends to attract more comments than usual. Witness to a mix of people both transitory and permanent as they pass through our house.

Growing up with changing art in our home is something our children have got used to – and their friends too.   Sometimes they just nod in acknowledgement, other times they may ask a question about it, but usually they take a quick moment to have a brief look with little more than an “interesting”! But they don’t forget .  However they remember equally, if not more clearly, what I served up for tea – asking my children years later if they can come back and have that meal again!  Tea and art, art and tea – things to remember as you grow up.

One game that was never part of our children’s repertoire of favourite pastimes or memories was “hangman” – the simple pen and paper game where you guess the letters of your opponents “word” suffering a ‘hanging on paper’ if you don’t make it in the number of guesses given!  I remember as a child the feeling of victory when I hanged my opponent who failed to guess my given word, drawing in that final limb to the picture to signify their demise. Or the feeling of defeat when they escaped the gallows and the endless paper we got through to pass the time on a slow afternoon!   Why on earth did we find it so pleasurable?  Perhaps our children had more sense: “death on paper” the punishment for failure to get the word or the spelling right? Is that the best way to encourage our children to become successful wordsmiths?

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Hangman by Mark Wallinger. Owned by the Collective.

Mark Wallinger’s work “Hangman” illustrates the steps needed for the game to be completed.  A victim hung for failing to guess the very name of the game. Taken from Wikipedia’s text description of a strategy that uses the most frequently occurring letters in the english language, Wallinger illustrates how the victim is not spared his punishment, with his simple drawing.

London-based with an international reputation and winner of the 2007 Turner prize for his exhibition StateBritain, Mark Wallinger is perhaps best known as the first artist to be commissioned to do a work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Ecce Homo

Wallinger is not a stranger to social commentary or political statement. But it’s the combination of the sometimes playful exterior of his works combined with undertones that invite much deeper speculation that make them so memorable.   First seen by members of The Collective on the walls of the Drawing Room Biennial exhibition and auction we were drawn to the simplicity of Hangman and the fact its creator was Mark Wallinger – so we put in our bid.   Safely acquired and looking at it everyday on our wall at home I found myself compelled to find out more about the origins of the game.  Why hangman?

Apparently created in Victorian times when hanging was not only commonplace but a form of established “entertainment” that could draw huge crowds (the more famous, the bigger the crowd) hangman was first referenced in 1894 in Alice Bertha Gomme’Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland .  Entertainment that could clearly be replicated on paper in a simple spelling game format for children!

The strange thing is, is that I had never considered the game in any other way than an easy way to pass the time with pen and paper.  If having seen the work in a gallery we’d left it there, I’m not sure it would have engendered the same reaction. But living with it has become a different experience altogether.   As Hangman sits on our wall it reinforces Wallinger’s suggestion that an art work can have the effect of seeing

how far we can get in to the consciousness of someone or something other…”

It was certainly doing just that.

In his video work “Sleeper” Wallinger appears dressed as a bear in the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, alone and late at night running, walking and surprising passers-by chancing upon this unusual spectacle. You can’t help but smile at the vision of this light-hearted “prank” in an empty museum at night! But its actual meaning is intertwined with disguise, espionage, surveillance, the history of Berlin and its physical division before the wall came down.  Wallinger suggests the art work was triggered by a childhood memory of “The Singing Ringing Tree” a story about a prince who was transformed in to a bear which originated in East Germany, but was unknown in West Germany. A symbol of a divided country. So perhaps not the first time haunting childhood themes have played a part in his art.

So for me at least Wallinger’s Hangman has become more of a statement, a piece of history, a symbol of an act that impacted our culture here in Britain until August 1964 when the last hanging took place.  But dressed up as it is as a simple word game for children that I played a long time ago.

Things to remember that are often unexpected.

 

 

“Do-its”. it rules.

A continuous scroll of two-word “do-its” on a small electronic LED sign encourages us to act – without knowing what “it” is referring to. It’s up to us, the viewer, to decide.

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At random intervals comic-strip exclamations stop the scrolling action for a second..

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seemingly to make you think about the doing of “it”.  Rose Finn-Kelcey’s evocative piece despite being only 19.7cm x 2.2cm has a presence beyond its actual size. It Rules can be left running while you get on with your life.”  Discrete yet powerful in its message – how often do we not do it through our lives and regret it later? What holds us back? Or what inspires us to go and do it?

Rose Finn-Kelcey very sadly died three years ago this month, aged 68,  from motor neurone disease. Her ability to combine irony and seriousness so effectively (like this work), her sense of purpose, her firm belief that a piece of art could be made of anything, the fact that no two works of hers are actually physically alike and her continuous desire to experiment (Steam inhalation) all combine to make one wonder what she would have been producing today? “omigod!” .  Her presence in the Collective is a special one.

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“it rules” Rose Finn-Kelcey 2002. Owned by the Collective

Two things happened last week that made me reflect on this work – both completely different and unconnected.  For as long as we have it in our household, I now return to it often and read the scrolling text. Previously unseen do-its always pop up.

The first was a video I saw of the first ever no-parachute jump successfully pulled off by veteran skydiver Luke Aikins from twenty-five thousand feet! Mad man? “thrill it” reads the digital screen, “breathe it” continues the LED messaging in green.  Whilst most of us would regard such an action as insane “omigod!’ or even “enough!” that was Luke Aikin’s “it” and he certainly did it.  Does it matter “why”?

The second was an excellent session I attended last week organised by the Digital and Social Media Leadership Forum [DSLMF ] on “women in digital”which was a chance to discuss the opportunities and challenges in leadership for women in the digital space. How can you “do it” ?- what are the obstacles that may be holding women back?  You didn’t have to speak coding languages to benefit from the session and there were a wide variety of careers represented whose common denominator was “digital”. But what really took it to the next level was the sense of support in the room for having the conviction to pursue the best route for you in your career irrespective of age, family priorities and responsibilities and the obstacles and pressures that may exist to put you off pursuing “it”.  To “do it” without compromise, “believe it” and “ok it”.

Rose Finn-Kelcey, despite her early death,  left her legacy  for us in all her art.  She once said of herself

I work in the belief – or dare – that I can continue to reinvent myself and remain a perennial beginner.”

You may not want to be a “perennial beginner”  – you might even become an expert! But working in the belief that you can reinvent yourself, continue to learn , start on new paths throughout your life is surely worth “it”.  “own it”, don’t “miss it”.  It rules

An influence not to be dismissed

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The Parthenon © Chris Conway

I’ve always been proud of my (half) Greek heritage. As I was growing up I felt that it enabled me to think differently and see life through more than one lens, which I saw as something special.   And it didn’t stop there.

The more tenuous connection between Greeks today and their ancient forbears didn’t stop any additional thoughts I had of laying claim to a small part of all the best of their great Classical Greek heritage. What more proof did I need than the ancient Greek words I could pick up in modern day conversation? The remaining monuments themselves, testament to that great civilisation: the Parthenon, ravaged so many times by unwelcome pillagers and yet still there!  As I studied the ancient language and learnt about the civilisation I continued to make my connections from ancient to modern with a degree of satisfaction.

But that’s just my personal view. Well known to most is the legacy that the “Classical” Greek civilisation left to modern western thought and philosophy. A society that lasted at its peak for less than 200 years and yet continues to influence some of our thinking, our teachings and provided the foundation for parts of our modern western culture over two thousand years later. Whilst other cultures have certainly influenced our development what is most striking is the limited time and small scale that was “Classical Greece”.

There are other links too that are less acknowledged but equally remarkable for their sophistication so long ago. Take today’s communication through social media and the digital space it sits in?

In Classical Greece the “agora” (from the Greek “ὰγορᾱ” meaning gathering place or mil_northmarket2assembly) was the place where “citizens” including philosophers, artists, playwrights, artisans, thinkers and decision makers , met to demonstrate new skills, discuss and exchange ideas and information about the future of society. Every person in the agora was equal and “no-one subjected to another”  It was an open public forum that was democratic. All it lacked was today’s technology and digital social networks. But the concept was the same – it was a “common space” that could be accessed by all citizens on an equal footing and involved the sharing of multiple common beliefs or opinions (Πολυδόξα) both commercial, political and social. Whilst the link back to Roman times, where the written word became transportable on small parchments has been documented ,for me “social” communication started in the ancient Greek agora itself and rested on the principle of open and shared communication.

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Sculptural relief: Plato and Aristotle in heated debate!

Plato and Aristotle, two of the best known philosophers of the classical world, would have visited the agora regularly, standing in the shade of the colonnades espousing their views on different subjects. Their perspective on art and artists was well known and recorded [Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics].

Plato completely disagreed with his pupil Aristotle viewing art as merely “an imitation” or “mimesis” (μίμεσις) and “thrice removed from reality” that had no connection with those that possessed a real skill (tέχνη) – (like the medics, the builders and the mathematicians)

Both focused their attention on the theory of mimesis and the principle that all art was a form of it. But it was the “imitative function of art which promoted disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle” [Stephen Conway 1996, Plato, Aristotle and mimesis]. For Aristotle imitation was good, how we learn, how we understand objects and how we can understand “an inner beauty” by viewing an object through art. All forms, thought Aristotle, should be subject to scrutiny and understanding – that’s how we learn.

For Plato the visible result of any human creation was “an indistinct expression of truth” (Republic X, 22), truth and knowledge being the ultimate objective in life. “Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real” and still worse Plato believed it could corrupt the mind of the viewer. He saw art as a threat to his ideal Republic because for him it widened the gap between “reality and appearances”.

Aristotle, however believed imitation was a creative and educational process, and that

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The 200 year old art room at the Royal Academy

skills required to do it well could be taught, learned and developed over time.  Some art schools today teach skills in drawing as Aristotle might have imagined.  How infants learn from the adults around them is through imitation.

But as I look at the art works around my house I often wonder what these philosophers might have thought of contemporary art forms? Imitation has become irrelevant in many ways.  Contemporary Art is more about reaction.  It can engender a feeling or a thought that may trigger a conversation. Imitation might be the seed for an abstract concept but to the viewer may offer a completely different interpretation to what the artist originally conceived. But that’s fine. We don’t seek absolute truth and knowledge like Plato.  What we seek is the reaction art

creates in ourselves as we look at a work: the emotion, the appreciation, the transcendence to something outside of the ordinary. And yet embedded in our everyday lives at home as we surround ourselves with contemporary art.

Perhaps Aristotle saw that capability in human understanding. Whilst he didn’t speak much about individual artistic expression he appreciated that skill and knowledge was required and that we could learn and understand about life by looking at art.

That’s not to be dismissed.

The Invisibility test

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“Looking and seeing” Frits Ahlefeldt (1966)  Denmark.

 

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about how the constant exchange of art works through The Collective meant that what’s on our walls would never become “invisible”. Instead, our domestic spaces assumed a more dynamic nature that changed in aspect and feel every time we had an “exchange”.This made us pay more attention to their detail, even when you have had them before, as it was more akin to a new acquisition “with a certain familiarity” every time they returned to your home.

The idea of an art work, or any item on a wall, becoming “invisible” because it remains in the same place for many years was put to the test recently, albeit inadvertently, in our own house.

We have a large screen print by a well-known artist that is very distinctive. I am particularly fond of this piece though it is not part of the Collective’s Collection. Apart from being a wonderful work, it has a history and memories associated with it that hold great significance for me personally.  Every morning as I eat breakfast in my kitchen I can see the work on the wall, through the door in the next room.  And every morning it reassures me and inspires me, as I look at it and see it there in its particular location. I never tire of looking at it.  It’s been there for years and I watch it change with the different seasons as mornings get lighter and then darker ,and through all the associated light changes that come with our weather and hit our dining room in the morning.

The work needed reframing which we had discussed on numerous occasions and as Tim knew the appropriate framers I was going to leave it to him.  Time passed and still we hadn’t managed to do it and now it also needed some conservation work.

This year, on my birthday, Tim presented me with what appeared to be a large art work, all wrapped up as it was.  I was excited! When I opened it, it was the very same screen print that was on our wall in its usual place.   How had that happened?  Only then did I really notice.

Unobserved by me, Tim had taken down the original, had a good photocopy done, reinserted it in to the old frame and taken the original screen print to the framers where it was now presented in a brand new perfectly finished frame, fully restored and even more of a spectacle than before.  I was stunned – how could I have not noticed?

Only once had I speculated that the colour looked different but thought it was nothing more than a trick of the eye with the particular light of that morning.  I had ceased to observe it properly, but just viewed it from a distance in its rightful place.  It’s detail had in fact become invisible and what mattered more was that it was just “there”.

There is an established science around “familiarity“and psychologists have discovered that there is a “happiness directly correlated to how many thing we are familiar with”.  But why are familiar things more “likeable” ? Are our brains lazy or is it that “familiar things make us feel more comfortable“?  The answer is “yes”,they do – they reassure us, provide landmarks amidst all life’s uncertainties and anchors in our domestic  spaces.  In this case the anchor was the art work that never moved from its place. The trouble is that in the process of making us feel more comfortable our brains stop to really notice and a layer of “invisibility” is created.  We only really sit up and see when something changes significantly.  This is of course why the the constant change of the Collective art works provide so much stimulation and interest because we, and all visitors to our houses, have grown to expect change and notice more readily when they see the new or returned art works.

I’m still astonished I failed to notice the substitute, but it struck me how true the assertion was that familiarity creates invisibility. Perhaps the difference between looking and seeing.

When did you last ‘see’ a familiar object that you look at every day ?  You might learn something new!

 

 

 

 

 

The Collective go to Art Rotterdam

February is a cold time of year to visit anywhere in the northern ar signhemisphere but a VIP invitation received by The Collective to visit Art Rotterdam was not going to be passed by, whatever the weather.  Although not all of us were able to go, it was the first time that a sizeable number of us made the trip. Kicking off a season of European art festivals Art Rotterdam is now well known for the opportunity it offers to see young emerging artists with over 100 galleries occupying the vast Van Nellefabriek building, an impressive Unesco World Heritage site set in a bleak landscape on the outskirts of Rotterdam.

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The Van Nellefabriek building in Rotterdam where Art Rotterdam was held

There was a perceptible excitement and energy inside the Fair and although there was a good proportion of commercial galleries mixed with not-for-profits, there was not the same sense of wealthy collectors and cash machines that you find in some of the more established Art Fairs. This was largely about new visual art, new talent and ideas and it felt good to be there as an individual and as a “Collective”.  I enjoyed being surrounded by the sounds of Dutch, Belgian and French to name a few, although English was always an option when you needed something!

Exhibits included video projections, installations, sculptures as well as the more traditional painting, drawing, print and photography.  The deeper you went in to the fair the more interesting it seemed to get, and it was easy to forget your way back through the labyrinth of walk ways, spaces and ideas to our various meeting points. What really struck me was how busy it was on a working day – the constant throng of people testimony to the popularity of this fair, the commitment and engagement with art and new talent. Yet you never felt overwhelmed by it or crowded out by it, as each gallery space offered its own intimacy.

ART RotterdamCertainly time to experience an audio sculpture in the RAM Foundation stall where you could hear moving stories told by migrants while you sat on the sculpture, or some virtual reality in the new projects section where you could exchange your body for the opposite gender in a parallel world.

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An opportunity to experience a virtual reality with a different body

 

 

As a Collective, a purchase is always a shared decision, and approval for a purchase must come from more than one household or the buying panel.  Did we come away empty handed?  Of course not. A piece by artists Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson who together with British writer and philosopher Nina Power “deconstructed “the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and reconstructed parts of it through a provocative art work and powerful commentary  called the “Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs“.   Given the current global political upheavals and the huge migration and displacement of people across Europe, it could not be more poignant and thought provoking.

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Example: Article 3:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security
of person. The police will let you know when
and where these rights are operative.

Living and working in Rotterdam and Berlin the artists compiled thirty articles for this art work that represent the injustices that exist, despite the “right” that is being proclaimed.

Rotterdam is a wonderful city, a mix of old, new, different architectural eras mixed in with canals, barges and bicycles.  And if we hadn’t had enough of walking during the day at the Fair, there was still time to visit the  spectacular Boijman’s Museum in the heart of Rotterdam where the opening of Ugo Rondinone’s show was taking place by night. An intriguing piece consisting of forty-five life-size clown sculptures was displayed across the expanse of the 1500m2 gallery floor to mimic, sit with, walk around, absorb and be entertained by in a way that only a gallery allows….

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Ugo Rondinone’s work “Vocabulary of Solitude” Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam

and only experience can tell….

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Double vision- Collective members enjoy Ugo Rondinone’s work, “Vocabularly of Solitude” Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam

Collectively called “Vocabulary of Solitude” the clowns describe a solitary and contemplative day at home.  And yet the experience of seeing them seemed a far cry from that description.

Thank you to Art Rotterdam for providing so much pleasure at the Fair.