Category Archives: Exhibition report

A strange urge

I recently popped into Bristol’s Arnolfini to immerse myself in the brilliant Table of Contents: ‘a durational movement installation co-created by Siobhan Davies, Andrea Buckley, Helka Kaski, Rachel Krische, and Matthias Sperling, each using their own history as a choreographer and performer to question how dance is archived.’

This was a wonderful series of pieces performed interactively with the public; each dancer taking it in turns to lead or direct a work. Amongst these glittering gems a very simple piece caught my imagination.

The dancers each invited a member of the audience to work in partnership with them. Each dancer then laid down on the floor. Their partner simply had to instruct their dancer to stand up, movement by movement. The dancers were very reasonable, but very disciplined in following their instructions precisely.

The difficulty of this simple task quickly became clear, with dancers contorted into all sorts of unsustainable shapes.

The piece succinctly demonstrated the limits of spoken language, of logos.

Yet I couldn’t help musing that if the partners had been able to give instruction through any natural sign language, the task would have been achieved quickly and efficiently.

Australian scholar Dorothea Cogill-Koez has argued that the elements of sign languages known as ‘classifier predicates’ are remarkably similar to ‘typical systems of visual representation’, such that sign languages use ‘two equally important channels for conveying explicit propositional information, the linguistic and the visual’. Although I disagree with some of the further detail of her argument, that sign languages do not always have to rely on the linguistic to communicate information was a premise of my own doctoral study.

Because sign languages can visually represent the physical acts involved in standing up, the communication would have been conveyed much more easily, the dancers spared their agonies.

But more than that sign languages are languages that are inscribed through the body; they are body-conscious languages operating through, around and in relation to the body. Sign language helps me to locate emotions and sensations in my body, to read them in others, and it provides a physically-centred orientation in the world. What was so striking about the struggling speakers at the Arnolfini was how very dis-embodied their speech was.

So why did we ever adopt it as a form of communication? What were the evolutionary advantages to the urge to speak?

Although deaf people are often very noisy signing can be a remarkably quiet form of communication (good for hunting), and is much more efficient across distance. It is very useful in noisy environments, too. The only advantage speech offers, as far as I can see, is that it can be used in the dark (although in one’s humble opinion using sign to communicate on the body of another in intimate situations is far preferable).

So did humans find a sudden need to hunt only at night? When did all the lights go out?

Isn’t it time we switched them back on so we could all see each other more clearly?

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Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together

The second of a series of three posts written before, during and after an event curated by yours truly, supported by The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project and hosted by the the Royal West of England Academy.

A version of this post first appeared on the Afterlife of Heritage Research blog. All photographic images by Alice Hendy.

The weather forecast lied. The galleries of the Royal West of England Academy were pretty quiet on the Saturday afternoon of one of the few gloriously sunny bank holidays in living memory. This did not bode well for the first of the two Research to Public events I had been busily planning. Action/Assemblage: Drawing Together was scheduled as one of the activities running through the RWA’s Drawn exhibition. It was designed as an interactive visitor experience, and it wouldn’t work without visitors.

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I was relying on a host of folks to help the event along. The most important members of the cast were the Signartists Richard Carter and Paul Scott who had agreed to perform the poetic works they had created in the visual-gestural medium of British Sign Language. Then there were the interpreters, Pascale Maroney and Naomi Bearne, without whom the Signartists and visitors would not be able to communicate. Finally there were the members of the research-through-drawing collective HATCH who had volunteered to lead the graphic responses to Richard and Paul’s work, and Alice Hendy who was to record the event with her camera.

After arriving to arrange the ‘Drawing Lab’ gallery space far too early and sweating through the superfluous empty minutes supported by my partner who had generously elected to lend a hand, the cast began to arrive. Fifteen minutes before the start of the event we were all assembled. All that was missing was a ‘public’.

‘Assemblage’, but not yet ‘Action’…

But I needn’t have worried. Once the Signartists began to perform, their movements conjured visitors into the space as if by magic…….

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The Drawing Lab quickly filled. What’s more, the visitors didn’t leave. Most stayed for the entire two hours of the event.

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As an inveterate wimp (see my first blog on this subject), the bravery of others never ceases to impress and I was bowled over by the readiness of casual visitors to engage with drawing practice. They drew, they wrote haikus, they asked questions, they made comments and appreciative noises, and observed long intense silences while Richard and Paul performed, and I scribed provocative quotes on the blackboards. And as the event drew to a close and artists and visitors mingled and chatted, the voluntary contributions box began to fill with drawings, comments and those haikus.

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The success of the event was all the more rewarding because the whole was designed as a performance of the activity of my doctoral research. I’m looking at image in sign language poetry, and asking whether analyzing this ‘Signart’ through art epistemologies can offer a greater understanding of the form than purely linguistic or literary analysis permits. So Richard and Paul were performing the subject of the research, the visitors were performing the research practice by drawing, thinking, writing and commenting, whilst I was performing academically by relating all of these to existing knowledge.

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It seemed to work. I can only hope my thesis will be as well received.

And perhaps the brightest planning idea – which came from Gemma Brace, the curator at the RWA – was to run the event twice. This offered the opportunity for ‘rewrites’ and ‘corrections’.

The first event put a lot of pressure on the Signartists to perform continuously, whilst the position of the blackboards meant the content of my work could easily have been overlooked by visitors. In short, the three activities of the model were performed but could perhaps have interacted with each other more fully. At the next event, a few weeks later, I punctuated the Signartist’s performances by reading the statements I had written on the blackboards. This helped the ‘academic’ content inform the visitors’ ‘research’ activities. Both the visitor turn out and the responses were just as satisfying the second time round, but the discussion was a tad richer.

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I enjoyed the experience enormously!

I can’t tell you how fascinating I found the event.

I’m an artist. I’ve lived in Bristol for six years and this is the first event that has attracted me to the RWA.

 It was really moving, and incredibly inspiring and thought provoking!

Fascinating.Where is the line drawn?

I have never seen sign poetry before, and I didn’t even know it existed

Brilliantly expressive and strong. Mesmerising!

Wow! Really interesting challenge.

IMG_0433Haiku:

with eye,hand,lip

a concentration of

movement

understanding will come soon.

Yes


Learning lessons in public

This post first (and recently) appeared on The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project blog, as the first of a series of three posts written before, during and after a planned event. Take a look to see what other contributors are up to. 

Here’s Nana’s ‘before the event’ blog:

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstones’ in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologize if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 


Painting in the spirit of Catherine?

Being in a museum after-hours invokes a childish thrill- it’s naughty, daring, clandestine. So the opportunity to sit in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland after-hours and be entertained by an auditory-visual spectacular featuring the percussion of  Evelyn Glennie, with Philip Sheppard and Canty, and the art of Maria Rud, was irresistible.

The audience awaits in the Grand Gallery..

I wondered who would be the star of the AniMotion show. Evelyn Glennie is undoubtedly an accomplished percussionist; she certainly knows how to bang her own drum. In the programme notes she boldly claimed to have taken “the lead musical role in the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” and indeed to be “the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist.” One wonders whether, in Ms Glennie’s world, the beginning of ‘musical history’ serendipitously coincided with the launch of her very own career.

I am perhaps being a little harsh, but my hackles were raised by her claim to have been “on a mission to overcome barriers and stigma”. I once met Ms Glennie at an occasion in London, where she was far from the most celebrated of guests. I was with a deaf friend and colleague who is a native BSL user. As we moved into the conversational circle containing Ms Glennie, she physically launched herself across the space proclaiming “You don’t need to do that. I don’t Sign”, whereupon I was obliged to inform her that I was not signing for her benefit. Instead of apologising to my friend or blushing at her error, she merely tossed that lifeless mane of hers and sniffed, with ne’er a nod to my friend. So I have witnessed Ms. Glennie acting to overcome barriers and stigma.

But I digress. The evening was not about politics, but le spectacle. It was organised by the ever-capable Clare Allan to augment the Museum’s current exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress. The exhibition is truly stunning: Nana was sorely tempted to break out her inner Pink Panther and make off with a horde of goodies on that gorgeous sleigh. *sigh*. But beautiful objets aside, I learned that Catherine’s banqueting hall was at one time fitted with chalkboard placemats. Guests wrote their order on their placemat and- get this- the placemat then spun down through the table on a winding mechanism to the kitchen below, whereupon said dish would be placed on the mat and reappear as if by magic in front of the diner. I mean, come on! This lady knew how to rock. In her menopausal years she managed to kill off her 20-something ‘favourite’ du jour, who suffered from a weak heart. (She kept a special wing of one of her palaces in which to install her succession of ‘favourites’). On the wall at the entrance to her party palace (oh yes) she had displayed a list of house rules, which bound guests to be playful and to join in. Breaking these rules was punishable by forfeit- such as drinking a glass of water (as opposed to Champagne, one assumes) or reciting a particularly tedious poem of Catherine’s choosing whilst everyone else partied on, laughing at your expense. With each breach of the code of conduct, more water and more verses were added to the forfeit. It was with this glamorously playful spirit in mind that I took my seat among the excited throng.

And so it began.  As the voices of Canty- “Scotland’s only Medieval music group” looking rather well for their great age – took flight, the great vaulted glass ceiling reflected the black sky beyond and the sparkling lights beneath and the diminutive Maria Rud began to daub oil colours on to the surface of her light box. Seen in projection, the tangle of her hair and the silhouetted movement of her hand and arm embodied and enhanced the performative. I pondered whether the singers’ process was equally transparent in their performance and why I rarely thought of it in those terms. As colours and shapes appeared, merged and disappeared into white, I found myself comparing Rud’s activity to that of a sign language interpreter. Both work at speed, creating a visual product from an auditory stimulus. And she was working quickly and efficiently enough to make the grade as a fully qualified ‘terp’. But something was not quite right…

Rud at work

I once returned from a long maternity leave and in literally the first hours of my first day back was filmed interpreting -without preparation – a presentation on French culture. I was then filmed reflecting on my experience, during which I acknowledged that I had identified a single underlying theme (comparing English to French) and whenever I began to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar I had reached for and re-iterated this theme. It wasn’t my best day’s work, but that was the point since it was being recorded as a learning tool (Three Interpretations: Sign Languages International).

Back in the Museum, after only the second piece of music, I began to feel that Maria Rud was using exactly the same coping strategy. No sooner did the audience began to discern unintentional Cubist figures, Van Goghian skyscapes and fabulous Monetian garden scenes in the richly coloured abstracts emerging before us, than they were brushed, wiped and sponged into yet another hooded figure with arms or scimitar upraised, yet another Christ, tree, bird, house or fish. Whenever a percussive burst heralded a change in tempo, a red sun could be relied on to appear.  It brought to mind the MC One Tzu, who recently told me the Edinburgh-based Sketch the Rhyme (where MCs are expected to compose on the spot in response to the output of a visual artist) was quite a difficult exercise since “everyone always draws faces”. Back in the Museum, my inner Nana was about to imperiously call for a glass of water when the interval arrived.

Aha! Something different!

I spent much of my twenty minutes, wine glass in hand, gazing upon a finely carved 18th Century Chinese ivory lantern, longing to see it lit and wondering what intricate filigreed shadows it might cast. How would this evening be , I mused, if the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster had been allowed to let rip in the space, doing some live construction of shadow art. Now wouldn’t thatbe something….

Oh to light the lantern

As the second act unfolded much like the first, we again appreciated the indubitably confident, skilful and occasionally rhythmic dynamism of Rud’s work but my eye was drawn to the Museum’s beautiful Chronophage. Whenever I peeped over, its giant insect was eating time at a different pace- now speeding, now slowing, now pausing, now seeming to reverse and again or not. Its movements wove in and out of the music around it. And that’s when I understood the second problem with the evening: Tempo. Rud clearly felt an urgency to produce, such that whenever a sound was ringing out, she felt obliged to respond. What I longed for was what I see when a good sign language interpreter is working well, transforming sound into really visual sign language (not a visual version of a spoken language, like SSE); for what I could see in the Chronophage as it sometimes aligned, sometimes counterpointed, sometimes wilfully ignored the insistence of musical rhythm.

The Chronophage dances

I wanted Maria occasionally to step back from her canvas, to pause, to duck, to weave around the musical stimulus rather than be simply directed by it. If this was an act of translation-in-process, I wanted to feel the relative spaces between the two forms. I didn’t want Rud simply to paint to a tune; I wanted her to allow the paint to dance to it, from it, with it, against it.

It might have been that everyone else in the audience felt the same, it might have been a response to having been instructed on the etiquette of applause at the start of the evening, or it might simply have been that this was an Edinburgh audience, but I didn’t feel a swell of joy rising from those gathered. Catherine might have felt this was not the most swinging party her palace had ever held – although it was engaging and thought provoking for a’ that.

So – a couple of renditions of pretty long poems for Dame Glennie, perhaps a small glass of water for Maria, but a large crate of champagne for the Museum, which stole the show.

And for the real party-goers don’t miss the upcoming Museum Late. Nana regrets most sincerely that she is unable to attend, and for that she is already reciting her verse….


Sun, sea, sand and sex: Nana and Tracey in Margate

I spent the English late summer bank holiday in Margate; a place that Tracey Emin, so the catalogue to her latest show at Turner Contemporary tells me, has described as “a most romantic, sexy, fucking weird place”. She’s not wrong. But then Tracey is really very good at describing.

As I wandered, I wondered just how much Margate describes Tracey. On the front at Cliftonville, white cliffs drop to paved seaside walkways littered with clumps of natural chalk. A free and ready supply of drawing materials that the locals clearly exploit, judging by the uniformly white-on-concrete graffiti that stares out to sea, like so much modern day cave painting repelling, informing or perhaps enticing potential invaders.

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Of course you don’t use chalk only to draw. One piece of graffiti proclaimed anonymously to the world “I love you, Melissa ***scott”, whilst just a little further round the cliffs the darker, more bruised  “Melissa, I never wrote the kid bit” made Emin’s neon gift to the town ‘I Never Stopped Loving You’ echo with fond distance. Here you could see real lives folding and unfolding before your very eyes, daily writ large on the communal chalkboard. Add the painstaking craft and marvel of the Shell Grotto’s carefully managed-for-profit mystique and you’ve pretty much charted the local girl’s artistic career.

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If this is Tracey’s external childhood environment, step inside the RIBA award-winning sympathetically-reflective yet monumental seafront gallery and you’ll come face to face with Tracey’s adult internal environment. On the way in to the exhibition rooms (sponsored by Farrow and Ball, don’tyaknow) a helpful lady tried to sell me the £2 audioguide, advising “Some of the art in there is very difficult, you see”. She was right, but I figured the audio would be hard to hear above the scream of Tracey’s scratchy blue gouache sketches of her naked female form.

In the catalogue Jeanette Winterson writes “This is not the female body as art object drawn by men for millennia; it is a woman drawing on herself as a woman.” Like womanhood, this is not for the fainthearted. Emin shows herself/us in a continual dialectic with the biology of her/our sex. She speaks to us through it. She is seen staring at her body in wonderment, but most often clutching, scratching, clawing and pawing at and into her cunt (no other word appropriate here) like a rooting animal, as if desperately seeking herself, her losses, and the answer to life and mortality. She doesn’t spare her blushes or ours. We don’t really need the bold inscription ‘RELAX’ in ‘Blue Figure: Relax’ to conjure the cold metallic pinch of the speculum.

And that brings me to Tracey’s writing. She’s working on a longer piece at the moment (‘The Vanishing Lake’), and it seemed to me that her graffiti is beginning to overtake her images, sometimes appearing like a half-descended final curtain (‘I Love You’, ‘I Didn’t Say’, ‘I Know You Are Beautiful’). For my money, the written canvases are less interesting. Her writing doubtless has an everywoman appeal -it is resonant and documents our age (‘I Said No’) – but it is not outstanding. Her drawing- rarely pretty but always curious and ultimately beautiful – is. It bears comparison with the revealing Rodin and JMW Turner sketches that are included here. Not as beautiful, certainly, but far more narratively rich.

What are beautiful are the embroideries – the developments of her textile work. Stitched large on visibly tacked together calico squares, it’s as if the memory of a thousand generations of women’s work softens the line, soothing the image into something altogether more ethereal (‘Floating Blue’, ‘Dark Recline’). And, breaking from the blue to a palette of soft earth, ‘Thankyou’ is the most evocative paean to that glorious post-orgasmic, post-coitally satisfied tranquillity I have ever seen.

The exhibition also shows her current thoughts in sculpture (mostly working on the kinaesthetic self-portrait in cast bronze), monoprinting (playing with comparing her own mark-making to Picasso’s- and yes, she can switch from Schiele to Picasso with apparent ease) and more of that neon graffiti. Excepting the latter, the work has the feel of progression.  When Germaine Greer reviewed ‘Love is What You Want’ at the Hayward for Radio 4, she calculated that Tracey was now menopausal. This, she said, is “a tough time in a woman’s life”- “the reckoning”- and counselled that Emin’s anger was coming back, now from “a deeper place- the well of female frustration.”  On the evidence of  ‘She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea’ I reckon Germaine’s right.

If you’re a woman, it’s a must see. Like Winterson, I don’t know what you’ll make of it if you’re male. I guess it depends on whether you’re man enough to come to terms with what the feminine really entails. You’ve got until 23rd September….you’ve already missed your chance to stick a proper Margate Kiss-Me-Quick hat on Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. Shame.

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