Story power

 

Minoan_fleet_freeze_from_Akrotiri_fragment
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

images-3
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 personal 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 and inspirational 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.

photo 2 (5)

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.

86_img
Bobby Dowler, Odd painting 1. Owned by the Collective

The head of Kim Jong-un

138_img

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis the season to be …at an art Biennial

IMG_0476
Couple on Venetian bridge by Tim Eastop

Venice has the ability to conjure up a wide variety of imaginings from romantic trysts to historic and cultural forays. With its numerous canals winding their way between the small islands of the old town and joined by little bridges under which the famous gondoliers guide their mesmerised visitors, its magic reputation over-rides anything else.

It’s historic stage also plays host to the largest and most well-known theatre for contemporary art – the Venice Biennale.  The juxtaposition of old and new is a fascinating one and seems to point more to the history of internationalism that Venice built through its history.  As a centre for trade across the Mediterranean reaching toward the eastern markets of Constantinople, the Venetian Republic attracted

Canaletto_-_Bucentaur's_return_to_the_pier_by_the_Palazzo_Ducale_-_Google_Art_Project
18th century view of Venice by Canaletto.  Wikipedia commons

traders and dazzled visitors for many centuries.  It still does.

Held every odd year and begun in 1895 to celebrate the silver anniversary of the accession to the throne of King Umberto I of Italy and his consort, Margherita of Savoy the Venice Biennale now attracts around half a million visitors for the six months it is open . Showcasing the latest trends in art, architecture, film and dance and the best representative creators for their country – it’s an honour to be asked to participate knowing that curators from far and wide, millionaire collectors, celebrities, dealers and gallery owners are pulled by its legacy magnetism.  This year the Venice Biennale boasts 86 country pavilions with 28 in the Giardini and the rest in the Arsenale, the city’s former shipyard, with the curated main show, titled “Arte Viva Arte”, showing works by 120 artists from 51 countries.  The scope seems unimaginable to most.

Whether it is the scale or the masses who patiently wait in queues to attend the shows and pavilions, it puts a completely different perspective on the art world from our own domestic adventures with sharing contemporary art in our homes. For The Collective it is like looking through a telescope at a vast universe expanding in front of us and yet with definite links and opportunities back to our earth.

It is from the biennials that trends may be set, artists emerge, names are established, think tanks initiate discussion and large sums are circulated in the future global art market determining market prices.  Names of artists whose works we have in the Collective have featured in previous biennials (Chris Ofili and Tracy Emin). Despite the fact biennials are not about the exchange of money for works and the Venice Biennale banned the actual selling of art works in 1968 – the event remains an integral part of the global art market and its increasing commercialisation.

Microsoft Word - Document2
Untitled by Chris Ofili. Owned by The Collective

The Biennial Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2009 as a platform for art biennials around the world, lists a huge global network  – with the crowning event being the Venice Biennale.  Documenta in Germany, not a biennial, but an equally important event is held every five years and runs concurrently with Venice this year.  As the two most eminent art events in the world there is definite competition and curators often come under scrutiny from the art critics for the artists they select.  Other biennials in major cities (eg Sao Paolo, Istanbul or Moscow) compete for well-known artists and established curators understanding their value in terms of their own national art cultures and attracting tourism.

The art world has never been bigger or more international and it’s a good season to get a taste of it if you happen to be travelling to Venice or Kassel.  But at the end of the day it’s also about what works we chose to live with on a daily basis and the journey we go on with the artists to acquire them, and later share amongst the households of the Collective.

Workplace Gallery: The Collective goes public

 

The Old Post Office in Gateshead, a 19th century grade 2 listed building that is now home to WorkPlace Gallery, was appropriately built on the site of the studio of the 18th century British artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick, so maintaining the location’s dedication to art.  Founded in 2002 to promote artists in the north-east, Workplace Gallery has now become an established part of the British cultural art scene with an additional gallery in Mayfair London opened in 2013.   For The Collective, founded in the same year as Workplace, it was a unique opportunity to open up a part of our collection to the public and introduce the idea of collective buying and sharing of contemporary art for domestic spaces to new audiences in the north-east of England.

As we entered the Gateshead gallery on a brilliant sunny afternoon in May, the first thing that struck me was the effect of seeing the works in a gallery space, rather than surrounded by the trappings of our various domestic existences.   Suddenly the diversity of our collection seemed all the more pronounced and intriguing with Gallery directors Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow quizzing us on possible themes within the collection.  This is usually difficult to determine as most works are bought on an individual basis by different buying panels within the Collective and the works then spread across six households.

Given this exhibition represented only half of the Founding Collective’s collection it was an eye-opener to see how far we had come with a limited monthly investment over the last 15 years. Artist names, once less known – now well-known!

As I looked at the works on the gallery wall what I began to see more vividly than before was the different acquisition “stories” behind each one, the different Collective members, the research, the learning, the gallery and studio visits with the artists.  Was it possible to determine, not themes, but the characters and influences of different Collective members over the choice of certain artists and works?  And then there were the memories of reactions to the art works within our households and the history of anecdotes that go with many of them.  Each work seemed to have a life of its own, now brought together in a single gallery space to an unsuspecting exhibition audience.

Workspace Gallery talkThe opening was preceded by an informal discussion chaired by the Gallery’s Co-Directors about the Collective, how it began, how it worked and expanded, and where we had got to today. Bob Lee and myself spoke about every aspect with contributions from members Tim Eastop and Paul Tanner.  The questions that followed were often focussed on the practicalities of the Collective objectives, the constitution, the insurance, succession, our families – all of them important elements in the success and longevity of such a co-operative way of collecting between households. Investment, however modest will always be a source of anxiety across a diverse group of people.  The individual discussions with participants after the panel discussion were equally illuminating often with very frank remarks about what they would find acceptable in their homes and what they would not!  I didn’t hesitate to remind them that having a work that was not to my taste was often part of the learning curve inherent in being part of a collective  – seeing how my relationship would change by living with the work over a period of months. It usually did.

Over the course of the evening the steady flow of visitors was impressive ranging from those working in the arts, fine art students, curators from Baltic and interested art collectors. This was especially gratifying as the exhibition was not about a represented artist(s) but about a different way of collecting amongst a group of households bound together by an interest in buying and sharing contemporary art at home.

IMG_0855
The Workplace Gallery start to fill up as the evening progresses

Towards the end one of the visitors said to me “I can tell how much you enjoy it from the way you talk about it” .  Fifteen years on that wasn’t a bad place to be!

Many thanks to Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow for all their hard work in putting together the Collective exhibition (on until the 3rd June) and ensuring its success at the wonderful Workplace Gallery, Gateshead!

IMG_0837
A view across the Tyne that bridges Newcastle with Gateshead

 

 

Things to remember

sad-blanket
“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?

Hangman
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.

shake-itstick-itok-it

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

soenoughomigod

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.

blog-context
“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

African vision

_mg_0019
Tanzania, Africa

2017 began in Africa .  This was not something I or my family ever believed would happen until we started planning the trip in early 2016. Nor was it something that we could fully imagine in all its detail, however prepared we tried to be.  We read, we had vaccinations, chose the anti-malarial tablets, studied the climate, the route we were taking, the planned itinerary  and packed as little as possible , not forgetting the insect repellant.  It all looked straight forward as we boarded the plane at London Heathrow on the 28th December.

Our destination was Tanzania but we could only get there via Kenya where we needed to pick up a second flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro.   A second flight that unfortunately never took off.  The cancellation was announced just before the departure time and threw us, and some fellow passengers, in to a degree of panic. This was suitably fuelled by the chaos at the airline’s transfer desk.  As the day dawned and with it our realisation that there was no guarantee we would get on another flight that day, or the next, we were advised that “by land” was our best alternative. ” By land??” We were in the wrong country, not just the wrong city!  This was not an African vision I had anticipated.

We were advised it was three and half hours drive to the border where we would be picked up by a rep from the tour company – followed by another 3 hours to get to our destination.  Long, but not impossible, and we would get there by the end of the day, provided there was no hitch with Kenyan visas or the border immigration. Thankfully there wasn’t.

It was a good plan that none of us regretted.  The drive across Southern Kenya to the border was our first introduction to East Africa and despite the fact all of us were exhausted the expansive landscape absorbed us whole heartedly – the vast open spaces, the trees, the villages, the colours, the roaming Masai , the waving children and the road side stalls and shops. Everything made was brightly coloured – painted shop fronts, fabrics, clothes and trinkets.  Kenyan locals sat under trees and by their shops alongside the road as we passed through the villages. Clusters of people were gathered around local bars as well as stalls and shops.  There were busy markets in some of the bigger centres but all activity happened along the roadside , the well trodden route to economic survival.

tanzania

The Collective is fortunate to have two “studies” by Kenyan born artist Michael Armitage, who works between London and Nairobi. He draws most of his inspiration from observations and memories of Kenya but interweaves his images with reflections on the deeper social problems associated with the effect of globalisaton on East African cultures. Michael’s main medium is oil painted on lubugo bark cloth, made from beating the bark for several days before stretching it out as a canvas.  The two studies we have in our collection are drawings – studies for larger oil paintings not yet done, but beautiful works in themselves.

Our first contact with Michael was during a collaborative project I ran between my employers UBM and Drawing Room, a Southwark based public, non-profit gallery of international reputation.  Michael featured in the exhibition “Connecting worlds” (held at UBM’s previous Ludgate House premises) which highlighted the diverse communities and cultures we live and work between.  The Collective visited most of the exhibitions over the three years that this project ran, and as the works were available for purchase we bought Michael’s two studies of “people by the roadside”  in Kenya.

 

I have always found the drawings compelling – their simplicity and yet their ability to capture  a scene, a way of life, a gathering, a community, a moment in time in a culture that interacts with our own and yet is so different.

Now when I look at these drawings multiple visions of Africa come to mind – not just the people of Kenya and Tanzania but the landscapes, the colours, the heat and the feel of once being there.  African visions that can overwhelm and are never forgotten.

img_0628

 

 

 

 

The Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs

The work stands tall, bigger than I remembered.  When I first saw it at Art Rotterdam its significance stood out despite the throng of people, artists and works. But not its size.

fullsizerender-1
The partial declaration of human wrongs by Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson.  Acquired by the Collective from the RAM Foundation at Art Rotterdam.

Now in a domestic space it speaks out louder and begs different conversations. The text lingers longer in your thoughts as you scan each article and contemplate its satirical and conflicting truths.

A Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs?  Trump. Syria. Poverty. Oppression. Injustice. Racism (to name a few) fill my head before I even start to read.  This year has witnessed a good share of political shocks propagating uncertainty and fear across the globe.  Have we become immune to the depth of human wrongs?

This remarkable work was the creation of three people –  a dialogue between artists, Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson with philosopher Nina Brown.  Addressing some of the turbulent political upheavals of our times they deconstructed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to rewrite 30 of the articles as the partial declaration of “human wrongs”.

img_0440

Castro and Olaffson live in Rotterdam and Berlin, but the work was first shown in the 2012 Liverpool Biennial as part of a wider project on the ThE riGHt tO RighT  .  Every article brings to mind current events we are familiar with, and are accustomed to seeing and hearing through the media.  There is a humour to the irony but underwritten with an acknowledged sense of humanity’s failings – what is right and what should never be acceptable.

For a text based piece of this size it has the ability to draw one in, to provoke, to explore our own beliefs and ask the question “are we going backwards or forwards?”

 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written on the 10th December 1948 in response to the experience of the Second World War, “as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations”.

It’s a timely moment to reflect how this Partial Declaration of Human Wrongs expresses what we still need to achieve, rather than what we have just become accustomed to assimilating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside HM Prison Reading

img_0667
A section of Victorian red brick wall at Reading Gaol

Travelling on the train going west out of London Paddington, one of my enduring childhood memories was the sight of the tall red brick walls of Her Majesty’s Prison as I approached Reading station.   It was an unmistakable landmark and often left me full of curiosity. I never imagined for a moment that I would find myself on the other side of those walls, years later, immersing myself in a very different experience.  This was Artangel’s latest project “Inside: Artist and Writers in Reading Prison”.  As a readily captive audience for those few hours it was an educational day out for the Collective!

Reading Prison finally closed its doors as a remand centre for young offenders in September 2013, but remains a Grade II listed building with its cruciform Victorian architecture and individual cells that have all been preserved. Opened in 1844 and designed by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat its layout was purposefully created to implement the Victorian “Separate System” where prisoners were locked in their small cells for 23 hours a day with no human contact.  Even when allowed out of their cells they were

made to wear hoods to avoid seeing or talking to any other human soul. This form of cruel isolation was intended to give prisoners time to read the bible and reflect on their crimes, in some cases for years.

By far the most famous inmate of Reading gaol was Oscar Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour  in 1895 following his conviction for “gross indecency with other men”. Spending hours a day tied to a treadmill for the first year he suffered pain, poor nutrition, sickness and deep isolation.  By the second year he was allowed a few books and a piece of paper and pen to write letters.  Despite the fact the paper was taken away each night and inspected, the longest letter he wrote “De Profundis” (literally “from the depths”) was preserved in its 50,000 word entirety and published after his death.

img_0676-1
A cell viewed through the door window

But this was not a prison just given over as a gallery space. The high windows, the narrow small spaces in each cell, the feeling of claustrophobia when the door was shut leaving you with the thick yellowish brick walls on all sides, was enough to make anyone feel queezy. It spurred the imagination and encouraged questioning.

Wilde’s Ballad to Reading Gaol written after his release, speaks of the pain of incarceration

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky

img_0700
Cell C.3.3 : Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol

Oscar Wildes’ cell C.3.3 was an exhibit in itself, with more light coming in through the window than one might imagine of the day. Wing C was also where the Dark Cells were – where prisoners were punished by having their small windows blocked up living a life of darkness and loneliness.

It was sometimes difficult to separate the sheer experience of the prison setting from the contemporary art installations that had become part of it. But that was the challenge that James Lingwood and Michael Morris, co-directors of Artangel, took on when they embarked on this project.  Nor are we meant to separate: Wolfgang Tillmans abstract video screened at the end of one wing symbolised a person trying to reach the light of a window in a truly evocative way – made more effective by the sound track of scraping movements along a wall.

img_0692
Separate System by Wolfgang Tilmans

With the light constantly blocked by bars and mesh the sense of restricted freedom and desperation was powerful.  Robert Gober‘s installation – looking through the floor to a model of a woman’s torso apparently prized open by latex gloved hands to see the inner workings of a body flowing freely with water, stones and twigs – left one feeling a combination of amused curiosity and “sinister goings on from the depths”

img_0684
Waterfall by Robert Gober

There were letters submitted by artists on the anguish of separation from loved ones in a world that seemed to speak of injustices to the innocent. Ai Weiwei‘s letter to his young son came with a beautiful audio version (provided in Chinese or English) describing the torment of his own imprisonment in 2011 where his every move was watched and nothing happened without the permission of three attending guards.  As I listened and sat in the small cell I was reminded of the injustice that people can suffer for just being who they are.

Some of the artists were responding to the theme of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading gaol : the American photographer Nan Goldin whose videos and photographic installation on the walls of one of the cells tackled the theme of homosexuality laying bare the reasons for Willde’s conviction.  The stark and haunted portraits of men – a

reminder of the distorted reflections of faces seen in steel made mirrors (no glass allowed) of more recent years were,strangely, some of my favourites.

Steve McQueen’s installation – a gold plated mosquito net draped over a stark iron bunk bed was a strange apparition, atmospheric and incongruous. A shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing to the prisoner.

img_0683
Weight by Steve McQueen. Inside Reading Gaolwas a strange apparition – haunting and incongruous – perhaps a shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing.

But one never escaped the bars, the walls, the heavy doors ,the metal steps up to other floors, and the mesh to stop you falling to the ground.

The art was like a reprieve from the physical surroundings, but at the same time an exploration of it – a reminder of a darker world, of criminality and the victimisation that innocents can endure in many parts of the world.

The connections between today and Victorian times was kept alive, not least by the portraits of some of the inmates shown on the ground floor – pictures of men and women stood beside a mirror with hands placed across their chests.  Who knows what crimes they claimed?

img_0703
Portraits of Victorian inmates

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing.’

Ballad to Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

A remarkable project.  A remarkable ode to captivity.

An influence not to be dismissed

parthenon-drawing
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.

4090820230_dc7b70b880_m
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

img_0809-1
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.

Stories about The Collective Founding group – a group dedicated to buying, collecting and sharing contemporary art in the home for the last sixteen years. Written by group member, Marie-Louise Collard, it is based on personal experience.

%d bloggers like this: