Thursday, December 27, 2007


I've had on my desk an article about Banksy from The Guardian (the British newspaper) about since July 2007, when I tore it out of the newspaper when I was in the UK. The article is by Jonathan Jones, and what struck me about it was the strength of his ire about what he might term Banksy's 'dumming down' of art.

I've read and re-read the article, thinking it would make an interesting peg on which to hang a blog post, and I have found myself feeling mildly irritated with Banksy myself, but I must admit that it's only in this last week and the run up to Christmas that I've found the mental energy to write about it, and I was prompted by the local reaction to Banksy's latest 'intervention' in Bethlehem: his use of graffiti in the town, ostensibly to drum up tourism in the area as a positive benefit to the local residents, has offended many, and some of Banksy's work has been defaced.

Jonathan Jones's argument is this: Banksy is a talented and humerous artist, but also complacent and conservative in his outlook. Yes, he can draw, and yes, he works hard at being a conceptual artist, and full marks to him for taking neither himself nor his subjects seriously. Banksy is, as Jones puts it, 'a popular creation: a great British antidote to all that snobby pretentious art that real people can't understand'. 'Banksy is merely one of the lads, having a laugh'.

I visited Banksy's own website,, to have a look at what the artist says about himself, and found it quite illuminating. Under the tab 'Manifesto' he uses a quote from one of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen. The quote itself is many things: observant, admirable, compassionate, and its emphasis on the importance of individuality is fine - but somehow I find the context a bit distasteful and the effect overblown. Why use a moving, first-hand account of a the liberation of a concentration camp after the second world war as a 'manifesto' for jokey, politically pessimistic art? It's as if the artist known as Banksy is trying to show us how deep and meaningful he is, and in trying so hard, failing... I'm not a proponent of the idea that all references to the Holocaust are sacred and therefore un-useable to anyone who wasn't there at the time, but there just doesn't seem to me to be any meaningful link between Banksy and the de-humanisation of people observed by Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO.

I'm afraid that I find a similar disconnection in Banksy's work on the West Bank. He, along with a group of artists, made a trip to the wall in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank in 2005, completing 9 paintings on the wall itself. They show various things: 'views through the wall' of gorgeously coloured landscapes that contrast very effectively with the brutalist grey concrete, together with his more familiar stencils: a ladder reaching to the top of the wall, a girl floating upwards on a balloon, a dotted line with silhouetted scissors that suggests the phrase 'cut here'. This year he has painted six scenes around Bethlehem, in order to illustrate the hardships faced by residents of the occupied territories as well as to promote the area as a tourist destination. The Bethlehem paintings have fallen a bit flat as locals have objected to some of the images, despite the fact that the implied insults are directed at the Israelis rather than at them. And I guess that sums it up for me: Banksy 'did something' for people but possibly didn't think about the implications. Suggested references to people caricatured as donkeys or rats have caused offence, and locals have questioned whether humour is an appropriate response to the vicissitudes of occupation. So Banksy comes off the worse, looking superficial and ignorant rather than clever, and you have to wonder how much though went into the project... Sure, it's generated a heap of publicity for Banksy (remember the marketeer's mantra, "there's no such thing as bad publicity"), but it doesn't help to position him as a 'serious artist'. I wonder what comes next?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Settling In

I'm a bit like the cat who turns round and round seven times before sitting down: I need to fiddle with things in order to feel at home in my working space, and I've had fun over the last week sorting things out, rearranging, putting things together... with the result that process of shoe-horning my printmaking equipment into our rented office/studio space has created a really nice space in which I can work. I am surprised in a way: I thought all my stuff would impinge horribly on Michael's working space, and yet we've managed to carve the room up so that we can both breathe and walk around without falling over things (apart from his shoes in the middle of the carpet all the time, but that's another matter!).

Now it's just possible that you may not identify the cluttered picture above as being anything like a workable space or it may seem like unimaginable luxury. I'm just very glad that in the whole awful process of coming over here so much of my equipment survived intact... all I have to do now is to start using it again.

Around the whole palaver of moving studios, lots of things have been happening to do with the initiation of new projects. Two mail art collaborative projects seem likely to get up and running in the New Year, allowing me to work with a couple of very interesting artists in the Bristol area. More on that later! Meanwhile there is the faintest hint of a possibility that I might be able to start an artists' book exchange project with a larger group of artists here, each producing a limited edition of an artists' book for collation into sets. Each participant would receive a complete set of the books and a couple more sets might be available for sale or for acquisition by institutions that collect artists' books. My model for this is, roughly speaking, the model employed by Exchange Partners in Print Media, with whom I have been involved for a couple of years. But I think that artists' books are perhaps more complicated to edition than A3 prints in two dimensions, so I'm interested to see how the model would work with fewer participants (so that fewer books need to be produced in each edition), and with a multi-authored blog to go with the project. All three projects are in their infancy, but they each play to my skills as an initiator and facilitator, as well as holding out the prospect of making links, bridging distance and encouraging a critical dialogue.

One place that I'd love to go to, which will undoubtedly encourage critical dialogue, is Artspace Mackay's biennial Artists' Book Forum which will be held in February 2008. Oh how I'd love to go! Michael and I discussed it, but looking at the transport options of car (15 hours driving, on my own, at least and then there's the cost of petrol - probably $500 - plus overnight accommodation on the way up and the way back), train (various changes, probably 15 hours travelling time each way, and no difference in price!) and plane (slightly cheaper than the car and train options, and definitely quicker) plus accommodation plus conference fees plus dinner fees plus class fees plus food etc... and I reckon I'd be looking at the best part of $2,000 and I can't justify it. So I've set my sights on the 2010 conference in the hope that a) I will have saved up enough money to go by then and b) I might have done enough work in the intervening years to make it more immediately relevant to my practice! We live in hope, that's my philosophy of life.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Thankfully the move was completed without significant injury and only minor outbursts of swearing. I've been told, confidentially, by the lady at the bank, that the British swear a lot... and she's probably right.

There were a few sticky moments when we wondered how, exactly, the *&^^%$ press had been taken through the doors at the gallery to get it in to the studio, but eventually the combined brains of Michael, Patrick and Willis managed to work it out - with minimal damage to paintwork and limbs! It was commented, however, that once it has actually moved to our new house (whenever that happens) it ain't moving again. I can live with that.

Pictures of my new working space will follow soon. MANY thanks to my removals team. I wasn't allowed to do more than adjust a few boards and open doors, but frankly I'm not complaining.

Oh the pain...

... Of moving one's studio! I'm moving out of Gallery 37 because I've come to the end of my lease and, sadly, I am not yet making a sufficient return through selling prints there to justify continued expenditure on the rent. It's a simple equation, but has an impact: I daresay Shelley's upset that I'm leaving, not least because of the implications for her cash-flow as mine was the only studio she'd been able to rent. But I can't miraculously conjure up the money from nowhere and although there are tangible benefits to me being able to work away from home, they still don't outweigh the costs.

Anyway, such is life, and today's the day when we move my etching press! Michael, Patrick and Willis are kindly helping me... I'll let you know what injuries we sustain in the process.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Viscosity Workshop

Michael very kindly fascilitated my attendance at a workshop in Sydney last weekend, when I should really have been sharing the driving up to Brisbane to collect our son from University! Instead I had the luxury of driving to the local airport, parking in the secure car park (having learned from the painful experience of replacing the front door locks because they'd been broken by a screwdriver that parking in the ordinary car park has attendant security problems...), and catching a plane to Sydney, where I stayed with our friends Chris and Amy in their lovely new house for two nights!

Amy looked after my bag on Friday while I had a lovely day wandering around the Sydney Aquarium and the National Maritime Museum (which might prove a useful hunting ground for my PhD research on a future visit!). Why the aquarium? Well apart from the fact that I just love the fish, it was also interesting and a good discipline to sit and draw them. I'm not very good at seizing the opportunity to draw 'outside'; in fact these days I tend only to draw for a purpose: sketches of our building plans and their relation to the geography of the house site, or explanations of things, or directions. I no longer put aside the time to sit and draw anything, and I must change that. And it is particularly good discipline - and it was a lot of fun - to draw moving things. I'm not keen on drawing people, perhaps because I'm usually far more interested in the backdrop. I can do it, but I don't much enjoy it and it takes me ages to get a likeness. But give me horses or people moving around in the background, or fish, and I'm away... so I had a very happy couple of hours sitting down in small spaces so as not to inconvenience the other visitors, looking at beautiful fish. My output wasn't huge, but it was SUCH FUN!

The main focus of my visit, though, was a workshop with Seraphina Martin on Viscosity Printmaking at Warringah Printmakers in Manly, north Sydney. It was such fun getting there! I love bus journeys (and train journeys) because of the different perspective you get, as opposed to sitting in a much lower, and more cramped, car. I love the pauses as the bus stops, and the flow of people on and off, and on a sunny day it was great meandering over the Harbour Bridge, up through North Sydney, down and over and up past The Spit and into Manly.

I've encountered Warringah Printmakers before: a year or so ago one of their committee, Jan Melville, proposed to Spike Island Printmakers in Bristol that the two studios should run an exchange exhibition as part of Warringah Printmakers' 10th anniversary celebrations. Sadly I wasn't at Spike for long enough to see the end results, which are currently on show in Sydney at a gallery that I couldn't get to, but I gather it all went well. Anyway, having met Jan I sometimes browse the studio's website, which is how I found details of the course.

I've actually been using Viscosity Printmaking techniques for several years, having acquired - through exposure to Martyn's copy - Stanley Hayter's seminal text. As an exceptionally creative printmaker he developed viscosity printmaking, and I now know from Seraphina that he also developed the soft ground that I am used to. Clever man! A chemist by training, I understand, which provides a partial explanation for his innovations.

I must say that I'm not a particular fan of the brightly coloured '1960's' style prints that are often the product of using Hayter's techniques. I admire the technique and production skills, but the colours used are a long way from how I use colour in my own work, and I tend not to be so abstract, either. But it was fun to spend a day consolidating my skills, making notes about where I could improve my technique and exchanging ideas with other students that will probably find their way into new work - and that is what one wants of a workshop!

I also got a chance to make a solar plate because the copper plates I had brought with me weren't really appropriate in subject matter for the kind of printing we were doing. Susan Baran, who runs the studio, kindly showed me how to make a photopolymer plate in record time using a Printite solar plate and an exposure unit. This was particularly interesting for me because just before I left for Sydney I'd put an order in to Melbourne Etching Supplies for some solar plates, having earlier acquired a book about solar plate etching. I've been inspired both by the imagery that I've seen exponents get into their prints - text and photographic images - and the apparent ease of the process. Up here in Coffs we get a lot of sunshine, and instead of using a professional exposure unit I should be able to use the midday sun to expose my solar plates and just wash them out in water. No nasty chemicals, no mess, no expensive equipment! So you can see that the opportunity to have a go during the workshop was serendipitous.

Seraphina's an interesting person. She, too, has grappled with the demands of art versus the demands of a family and appears to make a reasonable living from her work: something I always admire. She's done a lot of teaching and knows Coffs Harbour as she participates in Camp Creative in Bellingen each year, in January. Sadly I've missed the chance to do one of her workshops at Camp Creative next January as the places start filling up in May, and I've only just cottoned on... Maybe I'll make it the following year! But the big draw for me in taking part in Seraphina's Viscosity Printing workshop this time is that she went to Paris in the mid-80's, when Hayter was an old man, and worked with him in his studio. How fascinating! So she learned her skills from the master, and it was great that she was able to pass them on to us.

After a weekend away I came back to Coffs Harbour feeling refreshed, and looking forward to getting my studio set up at home again, for the first time since we moved here, and to starting work. I have lots of ideas and once I've got printing the Christmas cards out of the way I'll get moving! Watch this space.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Artist's block

I've mentioned before the fact that I don't always find it easy to make work, and I've often wondered why it's a problem so widely recognised for writers but not for artists. Then the other weekend I read Angela Bennie's interview with Michael Gow, and felt a great sense of recognition of what he suffers as a writer! Phrases like 'the permanent migraine of not creating, or nothing coming out' and 'the vicious bastardry of being an artist' rather leapt off the page...

It is not that I feel as if I am a victim of my desire to make art, but I have a terrible frustration over the fact that 'being an artist' is hard to define, and the shape and nature of making art is also difficult to pin down. Not being aware of how it works or where 'it' comes from is frustrating, and the trouble is that none of this is new. There's a lot of writing out there by and about visual artists that describes individual battles with the creative force. I should probably have read some it before daring to mention it myself.

Part of the uncertainty comes from the effrontery of saying that making art, or music, or writing, is intrinsically different from other sorts of labouring. But I've had other jobs and none of them has twisted me around inside like this. When I was a programmer I agonised about cutting code; when I was a recruitment consultant I struggled with deadlines and difficult clients and awful applicants, and I got stressed about whether I was recommending the right person for the right job. Running my own businesses entailed all sorts of creative activities from designing packaging to making products, and I had to psych myself up for selling every time... I had moments of joy, moments of despair and interludes of quiet achievement in all of them, but each and every one relied upon identifiable, assessable skills that could be evaluated, labelled and reported upon if need be. Making art is nothing like that. Yes, having a flair for self-promotion or the skills to speak clearly about your work in public are very useful - in the end you're reliant upon selling yourself and your 'product' unless you're very idealistic or at least independently wealthy - but the act of making something is, for me at least, almost beyond words. So it's nice to see something written down that reflects something of how it is for me.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nascent mail project progress...

Thanks so much to Sarah Bodman at UWE for putting up a poster advertising my wish for a collaborator for a mail project! In the end I have had three responses, and hope to be able to set up three different projects that might/might not work out, to do with bridges, mapping and distance. More news as and when things become a bit firmer...

Meanwhile I've been having fun sorting out what to print on my Christmas card this year, and making a papier mache plesiosaur with Ella. Well, there are lots of different ways in which to be creative, aren't there?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Mail project

Having been here a year now I have an urge to build bridges back to the UK, partly as an antidote to the depression occasioned by some friends' extreme inability to communicate over distances! You'd have thought that people we've known for 20 years might recognise the importance of a little communication now that we've moved away, but with some honourable exceptions the fact is that we have, of course, lost touch with many 'really good' friends despite all the magical aids to communication that exist now, such as Voice-over-IP, international telephone calls to special numbers that cost the same as a national-rate call, email and the wonders of blogging.

Anyway, since dis/connection is a concern in my work I want to start a mail-art project with someone in Bristol, perhaps mailing each other something once a month for a year and seeing what we end up with. If it all sounds a bit vague, it is at the moment: I've found a potential project partner, but all the details need to be decided before the project can begin. I'm really excited about it, not just because of the possibility of 'connecting' in some way with bits of my old life, but also because of starting something tangible and new that has resonances with the rest of my work. I"ll keep you posted about what happens...

While I was ruminating the possibilities I came across Kirsty Hall's fab blog about her mail art work-in-progress, The Diary Project. She's sending envelopes to herself every day for a year, but I know that I'm not disciplined enough for that!

New stuff

I need to do some new thinking. In many ways I haven't yet used this blog as I had intended to. It hasn't yet been a collector of images relating to my work, nor a documentation about my work. In fact, really the only references to my work have been a link to photogalleries on the right-hand side bar of the page! I haven't used it as a way of noting my thought processes about my art practice; it's really just been a journal of some (not all) gallery visits I've made, which is fine, but the question is, why?

Partly it's been a question of time. I've been running another blog for family and friends in tandem with this one, and if I'm honest that blog won most of the limited time available for me to sit in front of a laptop and post articles... but in some ways that's a disingenuous excuse! The underlying problem in my art practice is my own lack of confidence in what I do, and I find all sorts of excuses not to do it because I'm afraid of it. Silly, isn't it? If I used half of the time I spend worrying about my art practice actually doing something that contributes to it, I'd be working a lot harder than I have been... and it's not as if I'm unsuccessful; I lack belief in myself.

This is not a new problem, but I do need to approach it in a new way, and perhaps this blog can help. There are a lot of people out there who struggle with conflicting demands in their professional and personal lives; I'm hardly unique, and I'm well aware that they're out there because I read some of their blogs.

Anyway, it's time for me to work more productively, and hopefully more regular postings will be a part of that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), Brisbane

I can't believe it's taken me so long to post this up - I uploaded the photographs several MONTHS ago, but forgot about writing any words! Luckily I did make notes, as I always do, in my trusty Moleskine notebook that I always carry in my bag, but I suspect that unlike the entry about Venice there will be more pictures than text this time.

Katharina Grosse, Picture Park
site-specific installation in the main
ground floor galleries at the Gallery of Modern Art

Katherina Grosse is, according to the blurb accompanying the exhibition, one of the most exciting and innovative abstract painters working today. Painting with a spray gun, Grosse works in situ, responding to a space’s architecture and ambience by working directly on the walls, floor and ceiling. Having exhibited widely through the United States and Europe, ‘Picture Park’ is Grosse’s first major solo museum project in Australia. The artist has transformed GoMA’s long gallery into an extraordinary environment that confounds conventions of museum display and challenges our expectations of painting'. And I guess that's true.

I was very interested in the use of space, and it was useful to contrast the way in which artists use the vast interior of Tate Modern at the Bankside Powerstation... This space, while impressive, is a less coherent structure and the art is more intimate as a result.

I don't know that I really responded that well to the installation. As a whole, viewed from a distance, it looked impressive, but close-up I found it fragmented and incomprehensible. It must have been a lot of fun to do, and I don't think I under-estimate the amount of work and thought that went into it, but I'm not sure what I took away with me apart from impressions of spray-painted surfaces. In particular the gravelly substrate piled up on the floors was disappointing when viewed close-up. It looked scraggy, dirty, disintegrating, and it was interesting listening to a staff-member commenting about how eventually the weight of the spray paint on the loose surface of the gravel causes it to slide downwards, so the exhibit eventually collapses. Is this a deliberate reference to entropy? I've found other explorations of decay more compelling.

Nalini Malani, detail from Sita
A Mylar panels painted from the back using acrylic and watercolour paints and enamel

The Ecstacy of Radha
Mylar panels, acrylic and watercolour paints and enamel

I was interested in Malani's technique, because painting from the back of your matrix can't be easy... How do you know what you're painting? Do you use a mirror? Or do you work awkwardly from the front...? Intriguing!

Anish Kapoor, Untitled 1995

Oooh I've always loved Anish Kapoor's work. I don't know whether he's become a bit pretentious with age, money and reputation, but there's something very compelling about his pieces that gets me almost every time. I'm sure some of the attraction is to do with the surfaces he creates - I love a good surface and it's a preoccupation in my own work - and some of it is to do with beguiling simplicity of form and the intensity of colour. When I see his work I experience a sensory 'shiver' of recognition and excitement. Sad, possibly, but true.

1000 names 1981

Untitled 1997

Enormous blocks of Kilkenny limestone

Part of my engagement with Kapoor's work is that he is concerned with emptiness and intimacy, and their embodiment, and also that his work has a formal quality. They're very polite and quiet, Kapoor's sculptures. They don't scream at you, but talk quietly and if you listen, they draw you in. Further and further in, I find, until I want to touch them - a fact that severely disturbed the gallery attendant at GoMA! Of course I didn't actually try to touch the sculptures - I'm not that stupid - but he was disturbed by how much 'looking' I wanted to do, and also that I wanted to take photographs, even though gallery policy was that I could take non-flash photographs. I think he was used to bemused pedestrians who waited patiently to be allowed through the roped-off entrance to the small gallery in which Kapoor's works were displayed, and who trooped round and walked off again. Someone with a notebook, a pencil, a camera and an inquisitive nose wasn't really welcome and he made my time looking at the sculptures as tense as possible... so I somewhat bloody-mindedly stretched it out for as long as I could, and then came back for a second look with Ella!

Sutee Kunaviychayanont

This was an intriguing exhibition consisting of wooden desks with Thai symbols and motifs carved onto them. The audience was invited to make rubbings of the carved desks using paper and wax crayons provided. I thought it was great, and so did the rest of the family. Ella had lots of fun making a number of rubbings, and even Michael and Patrick did one each. The idea was a questioning of the shorthand of images about Thailand that have become ubiquitous and trite: noble elephants, traditional costumes, pagodas etc, as a way of revisiting Thailand's culture and history.

Kamin Lertchaiprasert

Problem-wisdom 1993 - 1995

Fascinating stuff: Lertchairprasert read a newspaper every day for a year, selecting one story to make the subject of his art for that day. The remaining pages of the day's newspaper were pulped and used for papie mache which he used to make a hand-sized obejct relating to the 'problem' identified in the selected article. A year later he revisited each of the 365 objects and meditated, inscribing a 'solution' to the problem as it arose from his meditation on the back of each object.

The resulting objects were displayed as a group, and reminded me of Robert Klippel. I really like the repetitive cycle of actions: reading, meditating and making a sculpture that are a part of Lertchaiprasert's practice. If only I was that disciplined myself...

Eko Nugroho
It's all about the Destiny, isn't it? 2006

I've got no idea what this means, but I thought I'd include the photo just because of the monumental height of the installation! It was begun before the Asia-Pacific Triennale, apparently with the help of local highschool students. Nugroho is described as being 'media-savvy' and 'politicised'. I'm really not sure what his work is about, but it is imposing.

Cai Guo-Qiang

Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: a myth Glorified or Feared 1996 (detail)

This work was created for the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1996. It refers to the Chinese mythological dragon which is associated with water and power, and thus has links with the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent.

Cai Guo-Qiang
Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: a myth Glorified or Feared 1996

I first saw Guo-Qiang's work at the Arnolfini in Bristol, ages ago, and found his use of gunpowder to make drawings fascinating. The texture of the paper after the explosion has burnt it and deposited ash and singed marks is great! I also like the idea of what making the work must be like: dangerous, unpredictable, exciting and spontaneous... out of control.

Shigeo Toya
Woods III 1991 - 1992

The thirty pillars of wood arranged in Toya's work are dusted with ash and subtle applications of paint as a symbolic recreation of a forest lightly covered with snow. Most of the pillars are carved, some have split. It's slightly eery...

Col Levy
Bowl with orange gift of heaven flash 1981

I put this in because there was a small exhibition of Australian ceramics as influenced by Japanese ceramics, and this wheel-thrown Richmond clay bowl, fired with black wattle in the Bizen technique, was big and beautiful. It was at once a perfect and an imperfect exhibition: perfectly sized and curated, and utterly inadequate in terms of documentation or information. But lovely, nonetheless.

Yayoi Kusama
Soul under the Moon 2002

This was a wonderful installation: a small cabin within the gallery that looked for all the world like a lift from the outside, complete with sliding doors. But inside was a magical space with a walkway hovering over a still pool of water withing mirrored walls and ceiling, hung all around with illuminated spheres and gently lit. The space became infinite as the doors slide closed and you stared around you... up, down and all around. It was beautifully executed - gentle and magical, and very effective. We adults enjoyed it as much as Ella!

Ah Xian

I've seen Ah Xian's work before, and marvelled at the intricacy of the sculptures which use all sorts of traditional Chinese manufacturing techniques - from jade carving to cloisonnee via painted ceramics - and imagery. I suppose the underlying concern is a re-casting of that immense history and knowledge in a contemporary idiom, but constrained in the human form. I find the resulting work very beautiful, and I accept with his work, as with many other artists such as Bridget Riley, whose work I love, that Ah Xian doesn't do all the work himself, but uses the skills of traditional craftsmen around China. This use of assistants doesn't bother me; for all those who say that if the artist doesn't make the whole work himself then it isn't really art, I challenge them to come up with the same visually and intellectually compelling ideas...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The 2007 Venice Biennale

The Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale re-opened after an absence of 8 years, apparently, which seems a bit strange when you're the host country of an art event of international significance! But it seems that this year the pavilion was conceived as a different entity: not a showcase for a display of nationalistic and artistic pride but as a broader opportunity to explore the theme of the Biennale: Pensa con i sensi - senti con la mente. L'arte al presente or Think with the senses - feel with the mind. Art in the present tense, whatever that means... This year's Director is an American, for the first time, Robert Storr. According to the catalogue Think with the senses - feel with the mind "is the result of his look beyond the new frontiers of world art; not only to rapidly developing artistic languages, but also to personalities, countries and trends emerging on all... continents".

Storr's own essay in the 'short guide' to the Biennale says something similar. "Rather than trim the edge or reweave the pattern to neaten it, this exhibition focuses on selected aspects of curent production that hint at what the emerging patterns might be without presuming to map them entirely. No attempt has been made, therefore, to be programmatically 'representative', either in terms of styles, media, generations, nations or cultures. Instead certain qualities and concerns widely found in contemporary art have been used as magnetic poles for gathering work from all seven continents, in all media, in various styles and of all generations now active. Between the poles to which some works have readily gravitated is a force field where many other works hover. The poles themselves have been used like tuning forks, such that the criterion for selection has been resonance or mood as much as subject matter or aesthetic methodology. Among these vibrating points of reference are the immedacy of sensation in relation to questioning the nature and meaning of that sensation, intimate affect in relation to engagement in public life, belonging and dislocation, the fragility of society and culture in the face of conflict, the sustaining qualities of art in the face of death".

So what's it all about then Robert? I don't know if I have a definitive answer, and you could justifiably accuse me of having only scratched the surface of the exhibition (I thought we did rather well taking a 5-year old there at all, but there were obvious limits on what we could achieve and so we were only able to visit a handful of pavilions in the Giardini and saw none of the Arsenale exhibitions, nor any of the peripheral shows around the city...), but I did form a few opinions about the work I saw!

First up was the Italian pavilion, which seemed like a sensible place to start, and it was amazing - so good, in fact, that I was only able to cope with seeing a few of the rooms before I began to feel rather overwhelmed. I took the same approach to the Biennale as I did to my choice of theology courses when I started at university: why struggle to glance over the major world religions and come away with very little more than a postcard-view when you could get up-close-and-personal with your European, christo-judeo-centric heritage? I chose to take my time over the latter course, and in the Italian pavilion I contented myself with long meanderings around the exhibitions of Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Felix Gonzales Torres and Robert Ryman. Believe me, that was heavy enough...

Image by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Before I came home from the Biennale and started to do a bit more research I have to confess that I knew little about these artists except for their names, which feels like a timely reminder to me that being an artist necessarily involves reading and also looking at art and that perhaps I should be doing a bit more... so anyway, it's been good to do a bit of reading and looking recently.

Gonzales-Torres, I am reminded, was a Cuban who moved to New York via Puerto Rica, and who died in 1996 from AIDS at the young age of 39, six years after the death of his lover, Ross. The best summary of his work that I've found comes from an essay on the Queer Cultural Centre website,

"Felix Gonzalez-Torres combined the impulses of Conceptual art, Minimalism, political activism, and chance to produce a number of "democratic artworks" including public billboards, give-away piles of candies, and stacks of paper available to the viewer as souvenirs. These works, often sensuous and directly audience-centered, complicate the questions of public and private space, authorship, originality and the role of institutionalized meaning... His primary audience, as he explained in an interview reproduced here, was his
lover, Ross... yet his work clearly appeals to a large audience for its combination of formal restraint and emotional lushness. The theme of lovers is co-mingled with themes of mortality, loss and absence which surface in the later work. Always charged with the sensibility of an overtly queer man, his art nonetheless often passed under the radar of the self-appointed moral guardians in both the political and art worlds. Felix Gonzales-Torres was a not-so-secret agent, able to infiltrate main stream consciousness in a most beautiful and poetic way. Activist without being didactic, a catalyst of that rare combination of sensuality and political empathy, he raised the bar on future queer art making, and continues to be one of the most influential artist of his generation"

'Democratic' art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

An interesting exploration of entropy and place: the stacks are constantly worn down and rebuilt by the museum or gallery, which invisibly replenishes the stacks. The site of the exhibition becomes a non-place, a non-site, where the exhibition both is, and is not, happening

I don't know whether I agree with the final statement but I know that I find Gonzalez-Torres' work very powerful. There's something very poignant to me about the images of the waves and of the lone seagull. In many ways both images have been overused, but in Gonzales-Torres' work, embued with an autobiographical layer of meaning in the life and death of his lover Ross, they become statements about the loneliness of the one in the absence of the double, a constant search for partnership, a joining of souls. Very quiet, very sad work.

If you're interested in more about Felix Gonzalez-Torres it's worth reading the interview with him on the Queer Cultural Centre website, but it's far too long to include here. Interestingly, the interview is with Robert Storr...

The installation of one of Gonzalez-Torres' pieces of 'take away' art in the gallery, with protective cover sheet in the foreground pile and image in the background pile

Another web-essay about Gonzales-Torres talks about another of his 'democratic' works of art, a corner full of licorice candies.

"The museum label describes the dimensions of the piece as "700 lbs. ideal weight." Ideal weight describes a human being in a state of wellness. Being under- or overweight suggests ill health. The candy spills are like beings who, due to constant viewer participation as well as inaccurate replenishment, are never at their ideal weight, never healthy. Candy itself serves as a sense pleaser, a body destroyer or a reward for which we are punished with sickness and dentistry and, in this culture, guilt. Candy is such a compact little metaphor for human desire and repercussion, especially in a culture [the USA] which believes so strongly in punishment".

Series #24 by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman is another 'name' I know but I don't know much about his work. How I love his paintings, though. A series of frameless squares around the room, painted mainly in white over a monochrome ground. I found them intense, powerful, moving - and yet, if you looked at them, weren't they just daubs of white paint repeated monotonously over black or grey? For me there was a depth, a profundity that comes out of a formalist concentration on a single shape, a single colour. White is somehow more than 'just' white. The diagonal brushmarks of these paintings seem to move over the image and it visually comes to meet you off the wall, and the wall is also a part of the image.

Series #24 (detail)

I notice in my own work that I am drawn to minimalism, although I haven't achieved it yet. There seems to me to be a path drawing me through imagery from realism to abstraction and beyond, to minimalism in a reductive process that doesn't limit the depths of meaning in an image, be it print or paint. Minimalism is what I am striving for but haven't yet achieved, and I think I've got a long way to go! But I think a common thread in Ryman's work and my own is an interest in mark making and surface. Texture is an important part of his work, not in the sense of bringing the canvas into three dimensions a la Brett Whiteley's mummified cat's head, for example (which I saw at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane!), but in subtle ways to do with choices of surface and paint and brushwork. Ryman's subtle manipulations of the white square format set up a tension and a dialogue between the work, the gallery and the viewer. I'm hooked...

There's a good essay about Ryman's aesthetic by Ann Rorimer on the Dia Centre's (New York) website.

Deucalian's Flood (Axial Age) by Sigmar Polke

In ancient Greek mythology Deucalion was a son of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, thereby earning himself the eternal torment of having his liver eaten daily by an eagle... Anyway, presumably before his agonies began Prometheus warned Deucalion (who is a parallel figure in the mythology to Noah and Utnapishtim: all survivors of a great flood) that Zeus was going to cleanse the land of the savage and cannibalistic Pelasgians by unleashing a deluge. Deucalion was to build a ship and save himself and his wife (not the animals).

I wasn't really 'hooked' by Sigmar Polke's work, although I did find it visually and technically interesting. A room was hung with seven large pieces - a triptych and six separate works - all of which were apparently conceived in Venice. I've read things about Polke but still find that I don't understand much about him or his work! These pieces are large and brooding and, typically, combine elements of photography with painting.

What I liked about the paintings was their dark, brooding quality. They seemed like omens of bad times ahead, and Deucalion's Flood is almost prophetic in a water-bound city on a lagoon in an age of climate warming and melting ice-caps. We've been coming to the Biennale for 112 years, and the UK and USA have raised hundreds of millions of pounds to save the city - what happens when the weather changes?

I wasn't so sure about the 'graphic' inclusions in some of the pictures, but then, perhaps I didn't take the time to make sense of them. Instead I was drawn to the fluid surfaces where layers of varnish or resin built depth into the paintings. There goes my interest in surface again!

Cage 1 by Gerhard Richter

It turns out that I don't know very much about Gerhard Richter either, but the difference is that I can't find out very much about him from the web. I can look at many of his paintings, prints and photographs on a website dedicated to him, but there's precious little in the way of explanation. The only essay I've found on the web, is very interesting but doesn't shed much light. If I've read it correctly the author finds him impenetrable, and suggests that he's managed to find a sort of inner peace that enables Richter to rise above the art world and do whatever the hell he likes without worrying about it. And it's true that he has many apparently different styles of work, and that he swaps between realism and abstraction, photography and painting without making a statement about his methodology. He's enigmatic, and I found his paintings enigmatic too.

Cage 1 (detail)

My notes about looking at the Cage series of paintings in the Italian pavilion were again about technique and surface. At first I found the paintings overwhelming, and the multiple colours and the 'busy' impression of the surfaces jarred slightly. I guess that I didn't particularly want to be disturbed by what I saw; I wanted to be pleased, moved, made aware, and in that sense I found his paintings quite confrontational. Richter doesn't seem to be interested in pleasing, soothing or explaining; there are no helpful titles or curatorial notes. I suppose I could have investigated the official Biennale guidebook, but I have for the most part found translations from Italian impenetrable and I didn't want to spend €70 on something that I couldn't understand!

In the end I had to accept a certain un-closable distance between me and the work and the artist, and come to grips with them in a way that was relevant to me. And so, inevitably, I looked closely at the surfaces and the way in which Richter uses his paint and drags or scrapes it across the surface of the canvas. The detail, above, reminds me of Monet on the one hand - the same sense of reflected water, the same blues and greens as the lilypond pictures - and cinematic images of cityscapes reflected in dirty puddles on the other.

Anyway, I think I decided in the end that I found a room full of the paintings too much to cope with, but that close-up I enjoyed the colour and the technique and the surface.

L-R, Cage 3, Cage 4, Cage 5 by Gerhard Richter

Oh dear, and now I have to talk about Tracy Emin again. Artists are chosen by the participating countries, but in view of Storr's curatorial approach that suggests that this year's Biennale is a democratic look around the world at the state of art in the moment, does Emin's selection as the sole representative of the United Kingdom mean that she is the only 'now' in British art? What does that say about the British?

The Purple Virgin 2, 5, 10

I have moments when I like (some, not all of) Emin's work and moments when I'm bored and fed up by it. I feel compelled, sometimes, to defend her because she gets so much sexist, misogynist, patronising shit thrown at her, even as I'm longing for her to present something that ISN'T about her sex life, her relationships, her abortion - again. There is a part of me that is positively shouting aloud with delight at the fact that a woman - unmarried, childless and in her forties - is representing Britain. Being an artist is hard work and Emin has every right to be successful and to be proud of it. Of course, her success and obvious enjoyment in it is yet another sexist brick thrown at her... It gets tiring and confusing, and I just wonder whether Emin is seriously considered by the powers that be in the Royal Academy to be the best Britain has to offer?

My ambiguity about Emin (and it is as much about her self-presentation as the author of her work as it is about the work itself) is nicely echoed in an essay by Melanie McGrath that I found in an on-line version of the Tate Gallery magazine.

Walking around my World

Anyway, there was the renovated British pavilion decorated inside and out with Emin's work, which ranged from neon 'light sculptures' of text to towering constructions of sticks, which seemed to be the most recent pieces.

Tower family

Again very little information was on offer about the work, which was a particular disappointment with regard to the stick towers as they represent a seemingly radical departure from the methods Emin is famous for in making her art: embroidery, painting and drawing. Perhaps the sculptures are part of a hitherto invisible volume of work? I wasn't sure about them in lots of ways. My immediate impression was of childish games of pick-up-sticks and there was a momentary thought, I could do that! But the sculptures are called Tower Family, so perhaps there's a message in that. A lot of Emin's work is around disfunctional relationships. Perhaps stiff, spiky structures with no flexibility and isolated from each other in space are a very relevant commentary about family relationships that comes out of her own experiences? Who knows. They seemed more like space-fillers than anything of depth; I didn't find them particularly impressive and moved swiftly on... Doubtless I'll find some learned essay in due course and realise my mistake!


I enjoyed the neon 'sculptures' more. Apart from their aesthetic appeal and apparent delicacy (with their trailing wires they remind me of the reverse side of hand-embroidery where the tracery of the stitcher's work is in evidence - a parallel with Emin's stitched paintings) they seemed fragile, vulnerable, truthful. Outside the building on one side of the door was an installation that I think (from the catalogue) is called Sock, and is a neon-drawing of a bird. It echoes a drawing Emin did of herself as a small, scruffy bird and I really like it. I think The Independent offered a ("limited edition"!!! with all that term implies for a printmaker like me!) giclée print of the drawing, and I used it at the time as an illustration of the fact that Emin can, in fact, draw.

On the other side of the doorway and inside are text-based neon sculptures. McGrath's essay highlights the importance of text in Emin's work, and it's an interesting analysis.

Waiting for a Moment

Sky Hands

What I like about Emin's painting is its immediacy. She doesn't seem to fart about wondering if what she's doing looks 'right'; she doesn't seem to agonise about painting or drawing in the way that I do. I really admire that sponteneity and freedom in her work.

Abortion watercolours

I'm not a fan of the Abortion watercolours, though. Freedom and sponteneity, yes, but they're basically doodles painted and drawn on pages from an exercise book that have been lovingly framed. I can accept the idea of them as preparatory sketches or visual 'notes', but I can't understand why they've been presented as a major work in themselves. Emin isn't the only female artist to have painted subjects that are painful or damaging - look at Frida Kahlo - but I think I would have found these drawings more interesting as adjuncts to the rest of the work, like Turner's sketchbooks, displayed alongside his paintings.

Daniel von Sturmer's The Object of Things

Von Sturmer is one of Australia's hosted artists (although a New Zealander by birth), but his was the only art on display in the Australian pavilion. I wanted to see my adoptive country's featured art and von Sturmer's was the only installation I saw, and I left feeling that I came close to an understanding of sorts, but that meaning was shifting just outside the edge of my vision. Once again there was nothing helpful to the viewer at the exhibition itself, so I've been reading up about von Sturmer since I got back.

The artist has his own website with - helpfully - full extracts of texts, unlike people like Robert Rymn whose website references texts but doesn't enable you to read them! Mind you, a couple of the catalogue essays were, to my mind, prime examples of 'art bollocks', but one or two I found really interesting. Charlotte Day's essay Landscape Thinking talks about von Sturmer's interest in space and scale, and the relationships between the internal space of the gallery and the external space of the real world.

The installation on display in the Australian pavilion consisted of a strange wooden construction that snaked over, through and around the two-storey space. Custom-built for the pavilion I guess that it did confound the notion of the gallery as a 'white cube', forcing the visitor to look at the whole - space, installation and projection screens - differently. The viewer was in a physically different relationship with the work viewed. Day says, in relation to other of von Sturmer's work,

"Each object manipulates the space around it in some way – framing it, folding it, flattening it or deepening it. For example, in one wooden bent and twisted frame, a partial dissolution of space is achieved. In another object, a humble short plank of timber laid out in an almost ceremonial fashion, space is flattened... While von Sturmer is not interested in projecting any specific symbolic value onto his objects, nonetheless there is a remarkable sensory
quality in this work".

I really liked the light-screens: a visual essay on the physical properties of light! Starts blank, then coloured translucent squares drop onto it, until the whole screen is black...

We popped into the Japanese pavilion, but only briefly since it was so WEIRD. The artist, Masao Okabe, works in frottage, the process of making rubbings of things using a pencil and paper laid over the subject. His work is underpinned by a strong sense of history and of how the events of the past are inherited into the future. The work at the Biennale is an exhibition of hundreds of frottage drawings (or, in some cases, photos of his drawings, displayed in light boxes) of the paving stones of Ujina railway station and port in Hiroshima before it was dismantled. The stones bear the traces of the atomic explosion of 1945. I think I read somewhere that the rubbings were done over 10 years...

I can see the sense behind the art, and it seems that it is all of a piece with the rest of Okabe's work as he has apparently done rubbings all over the world, for many years, but I found the exhibition itself obsessive and slightly ineffectual. The presentation of the images in such an oppressive, 'library catalogue' sort of way took some of the impact away for me. There was no variation, little information. It was frottage overload...

I found myself in some way disappointed by the work. I 'got' the impact behind the work, but was visually bored by it. So - interesting, but no more than that.

Christine Streuli's psychadelic screen prints in the Swiss pavilion

Yves Netzhammer's video installation that had Ella enthralled!

So what do I think of the Biennale as a whole? I think I'm not really qualified to comment because I saw so little of it! But what I did see inspired me, on the whole, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of visiting. I was delighted with how well Ella managed the experience too, and I'm looking forward to visiting again in 2009 - with a bit of luck - and perhaps managing to stay in Venice for longer and see more of the pavilions and some of the peripheral shows.

Monday, March 05, 2007

G.W. Bot exhibition, Works on Paper gallery, Sydney

I've had posting an entry about this exhibition on my 'to do' list since December, when I came back from Sydney having visited it!

L-R: Australglyphs deciphered - Mother and Child; Australglyphs I; Australglyphs II
Lino cuts on Magnani paper
92 x 52; 92 x 52; 92 x 52 cms

I've been interested in G.W. Bot's (AKA Christine Grishin's) prints ever since I saw her calligraphic relief prints in a book on Australian printmaking by Sasha Grishin (whom I now know is her husband), which means I've been looking at her work for at least six years. I actually own one of her prints through the auspices of Imprint magazine's annual series of commissioned prints - worth having now that she has been declared one of 'australian art collector's 50 most collectable artists for 2005'! ( reference from the Maunsell Wicks gallery website, although when I searched for the reference on their website I couldn't find it, but then, you can't find G.W. Bot on their website either unless you know the URL of the specific page on which to look!)

The name 'G.W. Bot' is both a pseudonym and a totem, providing the printmaker with anonymity and referencing her adoption of the wombat as her 'emblem'. I'm not sure - and she isn't specific - about whether by quoting the Aboriginal tradition of using animals as clan totems she is also claiming Aboriginal ancestry. Her notes on the Gadfly gallery website simply say, "According to Aboriginal totemic belief, each member of a clan inherits a totemic relationship with a particular plant or animal of the region. I like this idea of oneness with the environment. Where I live wombats are especially prevalent and they have become my totemic animal. The earliest written reference to a wombat occurs in a French source where it is called "le grand Wam Bot," and hence my exhibiting name - G.W. Bot".

Glyphs I
Linocut on tapa paper
60 x 362 cms

I went to see Bot's most recent exhibition Glyphs at the Australian Works on Paper gallery in the Sydney suburb of Paddington just before Christmas. The gallery itself is slightly more interesting than the average 'white cube' gallery space: the timber floor makes the space feel 'warm', and there are various levels up and down around which you have to move in order to see the work, and which give you different 'views' of the pieces. I like the space. It is intimate but not so small that it limits the white space around the works, and the staff are actually friendly and interested! I was positively encouraged to walk around and take photographs and notes - and all of this means that I will actively choose to go back there when I'm next in Sydney.

Anyway, there were over thirty works on show: mainly quite large lino cuts, with some pencil drawings, some watercolours, and one multi-part bronze sculpture in an upstairs room.

Pencil on Colombe paper
73 x 100 cms

G W Bot's use of a pseudonym interests me, for as well as allowing her to retain a certain amount of privacy in her personal life it also reflects a 'veiling' of meaning in her art practice. If I look up her details on the internet I find surprisingly little information about the content and context of her work. I will discover that she lives in Canberra, and that the grasslands surrounding her home provide her with inspiration. I can also deduce from the titles of the series of works that she becomes engrossed in that she is interested in 'the garden' and that she has produced work that in some way reflects the importance of family in her life.

In some ways this avoidance of explanation appeals to me, as I find myself quite uncomfortable talking about the ideas that inform the content of some of my work. While there are clearly personal references in some pieces I would rather bury such intimacy and allow people to draw their own conclusions. I don't want to go through the agony of explaining myself. Perhaps G.W.Bot feels the same? It brings to mind my responses to Tracy Emin’s work. Emin’s work is touching, painful, confessional, personal and reflective of some of my own experiences. But do I want to be as self-revelatory as Emin? With her work I wonder if the searing honesty of it isn’t searing her too: at what point does it go beyond the therapeutic and become damaging? The endless urge to reveal all can become addictive, and as much a signifier of trauma and stress as the original incidents.

An Australian Language
Linocut on Magnani paper
92 x 59 cms

The problem with not saying anything at all is that it can place a barrier between the viewer and the work, as well as the between the viewer and the artist. At some point the relationship between the viewer and the work breaks down through lack of information. Sometimes I come up against a dead-end in ‘reading’ someone else's work if I’m cannot make a connection between the image and my experience and interests, or I cannot reference what I know about the artist’s experience and interests. Art is a vehicle for expressing something: feeling, emotion, knowledge, poetry... all sorts of different things. If it isn’t outward looking it is inward looking: by saying nothing explicit it says something implicit. I guess you can argue with me about the ‘inherent meaning’ of art or whether it is possible for art to say nothing, or whether it’s important that the viewer ‘receives’ something from the artist in the act of viewing a piece of art. But for me it is all about a sense of connection: something in what I am looking at connects with me, and I find it difficult – maybe impossible – to appreciate pieces of art when I find it difficult to make a connection on any level.

Does it matter if I don't have biographical, historical or contextual information about an image? I suppose that for me the answer is, 'No - as long as I'm getting something interesting out of the image, but I can only go so far'. I’m a picky viewer: I want some information, just not too much! I am, in fact, quite happy to make things up and imagine biography/history/context – if there’s enough in the image for me to start with...

Australglyphs VI
Linocut on Magnani paper
92 x 52 cms

So maybe the questions for me about G.W. Bot's work are, 'Am I getting enough out of the images?' and, 'What clues is the artist leaving for me?' The biggest clue left by Bot about the meaning attached to some of her work, at least, is that she is 'particularly attracted by Rupert Sheldrake's ideas on morphic resonances and morphic fields'[1]. Briefly, the suggestion is that all things - organic and inorganic - influence (and are influenced by) "fields" around them, so that if a chemical crystalises in a certain way once, the next time circumstances arise in which the same kind of chemical might crystalise it will crystalise in the same way as its predecessor because the first crystal to do so left a 'morphic resonance' which subsequent crystals pick up on, and so on into the animate world as well as the inanimate world.

Gift of Tongues
Linocut on Magnani paper
70.5 x 100 cms

How might this relate to Bot's work? Well I'm guessing in saying that she detects 'connectedness' in the natural world, seeing the same patterns and forms arising in the grasslands around her Canberra home. I’m a cynical rationalist rather than a romantic idealist and find morphic fields, in Sheldrake’s system, about as likely as the idea that position of a toilet in my house will affect my future wealth, but there you go. I find it more interesting that Bot raises the connection between morphology as a study of the form of living things and in the study of language, because I have always seen her work as very calligraphic.

Glyphographic Drawing
Bronze relief sculpture
708 x 135 cms

I see Bot in the tradition of Fred Williams. The genius of Williams was in what he left out as much as what he put in. So many artists gape when confronted with the Australian landscape, but Williams expressed the vastness and the complexity with minimalist elegance. So I find with Bot’s work. The first image of hers that I came across was a series of black squiggles on a neutral ground that expressed – you could tell from the title – a land after burning. Another artist might have put in more detail, but in fact none was needed: the loops and curls of the lines were sufficiently twisted and bent to suggest scorching and heat, cracked timber and leafless branches, but also a sort of endurance and potential for new life.

Glyphographic Drawing (detail)

In the end, what do I conclude? I find Bot’s work compelling: it speaks to me of a landscape that I have seen. I’m not intimate with the landscape around Canberra although I have driven through it, but I’ve seen scorched trees and seared grasslands, dust storms and twisted eucalypt trunks elsewhere. I identify the restricted palette and the austere marks as essentially Australian, and I place Bot within a visual tradition that encompasses Aboriginal artists and non-indigenous artists such as Fred Williams. Her work speaks to me, but how I wish I knew a little bit more about what it was saying.

[1] Sheldrake, Rupert, Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham, Chaos, creativity and cosmic consciousness, Park Street Press, Vermont 2001, quoted in Klepac, Lou, G W Bot: Morphic Fields exhibition catalogue, Hart Gallery, London 2004



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