Tag Archives: questions

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some questions answered: talking about the Collective

Janey by Erica Eyres 2010. Owned by the Collective
Janey by Erica Eyres 2010.
Owned by the Collective

In June I met with Tatjana Schaefer, a Masters student at Goldsmiths University, London, studying Arts Administration and Cultural Policy. Tatjana was interested in analysing “the phenomenon of group collections versus the exclusive stand of the art patron” and wanted to understand more about the concept of our Collective.  Recently I asked her if I could post her questions in this blog as it might be useful for others wishing to find out more about our aims and ideas – and how we differ from other collectors in the art market.  She kindly agreed.

Q1 [Tatjana]. What does collecting art mean to you personally within the context of the Collective?

A1 [Marie-Louise]. The idea of acquiring art collectively was born out of a shared passion for contemporary art by all of us in the Collective. We wanted to find a way to be able to afford to buy, share and live with contemporary art in our homes on a cooperative basis. We wanted the work we chose to provoke and even disrupt in a way that provided more critical engagement. We needed to do it in such a way that fitted in with family life, we could share it, exchange it and circulate it around the six households. The majority of us are not involved in the Arts professionally, though two members are and have acted as guides. We wanted it to be more than just about acquiring a piece of art – we wanted to provide a deeper art experience by visiting artists studios and connecting with the artists whose art we wanted to purchase . So it was also a way to collect art experiences as well as art works. The buying process is a collective experience led by a purchasing panel usually composed of one member from three of the households. The purchasing panel has a budget range agreed with the others, but is otherwise at liberty to purchase according to their interests and tastes, rather than the entire group. During their time on the panel members are expected to visit galleries, shows, private views and the artists studios before making the final purchase. All members take turns to be on a purchasing panel. The other members can accompany the panel on its visits, offering thoughts and comments.

Occasionally there are “exceptional buys” which enables one-off purchases to be made outside of the purchasing panel. For example one of the members may see something at a show/exhibition that is an excellent example of a new work by an emerging artist and really good value. If they are not on the purchasing panel they can nevertheless recommend to the the Collective that, providing the funds are there – we make this purchase. If everyone agrees then the work can be purchased.  This year a few of us went to Drawing Room’s Biennial event and did exactly this, ending up bidding for and acquiring a drawing, Hang Man” by eastablished artist Mark Wallinger, “

The Drawing Room Biennial 2015.
The Drawing Room Biennial 2015. An opportunity for an “exceptional buy”

Q1.1 [Tatjana]Is the Collective a stable group of households?

A1.1 [Marie-Louise]Yes, it is made up of 6 households. Originally it was seven, but one of the households emigrated after the first year. So for the last 12-13 years there have been the same six households.

Q1.2 [Tatjana] Would you take on any new households to your group?

A1.2 [Marie-Louise]As we’ve been established for so long, it would be difficult to take on new members to our group. Instead we would rather encourage them to set up their own group – and we do have other groups around the country, in Scotland and Holland.

Q2. [Tatjana] Collecting has always been regarded as a “personal passion” and for most it is about building a collection as an act of individual creativity based on particular tastes. How is this realised in a Collective context as individuals can be so different in their personal tastes? Do you all have similar ideas and tastes about what should be purchased?

A2. No, not at all. Part of the experience of the Collective is about living with art that we may really like or not like that much. houseThe challenge of living with art opens up lots of new experiences, for better or for worse. Unlike visiting a gallery where you can walk away from something you like less and never see it again, living with contemporary art allows you to spend time with a particular art work, see it at different times, with different moods and form a relationship with it. It may not be your taste, but it can still be a valuable experience provoking new questions and ways of “seeing” differently. Living with art can influence or change your perception, together with meeting the artists and understanding more about their creative process to produce a particular work. You can grow to like something that you did not like at first glance.The purchasing panel are at liberty to buy according to their tastes at that moment in time, not the tastes of the entire Collective.

As households the art also impacts the rest of the family – children, teenagers, friends, family and visitors. Teenagers are the hardest to please!

Q3 [Tatjana]. What does the Collection itself (the works) mean to the Collective and does that meaning differ significantly from the reasons a typical art market collector would be collecting?

A3 [Marie-Louise]. First thing to say is that we don’t collect art for investment. We are a Collective that buys and shares art

No substitute for your love by Tracy Emin. Owned by the Collective
No substitute for your love by Tracy Emin. Owned by the Collective

collaboratively and cooperatively. We collect because we love contemporary art and we have a desire to share and “live” with art.   As our budgets are small we focus on emerging artists at the beginning of their careers as that is what is affordable for us. That said there are many artists now in our collection who have become more well known on an international level including Chris Ofili, Tracy Emin, Bruce McLean, Tacita Dean, Wolfgang Tillmans, and more recently Michael Armitage. There are many individual collectors who collect art for the same reasons as us but what separates us is our collaborative approach and that we collect, share and discuss experiences along with the purchase of art works. Ownership belongs to the group, not an individual, though purchases are made by each purchasing panel and not the entire group. Performance art is also included in our “collecting process” as we embark on our second performance piece this autumn.

As a Collective we have reached a point in its development where we are evaluating the collection as our twice yearly exchanges have become harder to co-ordinate because of the size of the Collection (over 50 works) and our homes have almost reach capacity in what we can display.  So selling some of the works has become a consideration for us. Under discussion is what we may do with the money if we did sell part of the collection – invest in new works, hire a curator for a fixed period of time or go on a cultural trip as a Collective? This may be a different experience for an individual collector or an investor collector. The Collective is not there just to acquire art but to collect experiences related to art, so simply reinvesting the money in new works is only one consideration we are discussing. It’s about the “whole package” – something other than just acquiring and handing over money for an art work.

In terms of what it means to us, the experience of the Collective itself has had a profound affect on most of us and in two cases spilled over in to our work place where we have introduced art projects in to non-art environments. These have been captured in separate blogs

Q4.[Tatjana] How is each Collective group formed and how does it evolve over the course of time?

A4. [Marie-Louise] We are the Founding Collective and we have a constitution in place setting out the structure required, it’s aims and principles. With the help of funding from Arts Council England we were able to help set up more groups around the country – in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge. New groups are asked to follow our model though there is flexibility to suit local circumstances and cultural differences. More recently groups have been set up in Edinburgh and Rotterdam .New groups are guided and helped by us as much as possible though how they evolve is not something that we monitor regularly. We try to meet up annually so that all the groups come together in one location to discuss progress and ideas.  We’ve had a number of exhibitions over the years where we’ve asked a curator to select works from across the groups. Hannah Higham, curator of modern and contemporary art at Norwich Castle Museum, produced a great show one year in Cambridge.

As the Founding Group we would like the Collective to continue to spread beyond the boundaries of the original group, maintaining the original model but remaining flexible enough to absorb local and cultural differences to suit each instance.