Controlled Burn – a curator’s notes

•July 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Part Seen, Imagined Part: GSA in Dunoon 2014″. Installation view featuring work by Melissa Maloco, Romy Galloway and Lin Chau.

Almost two months ago, the Glasgow School of Art was ravaged by a fire. At about the same time, I was asked to co-curate an exhibition featuring selected works by this year’s graduating artists and designers to be shown at the Burgh Hall in Dunoon. As a graduate myself in 2012, I had been chosen to show work at the same venue, so it was exciting to be the one on the other side of the fence, looking at work and deciding what to exhibit. Due to the fire,the curation process faced particular challenges, which I outlined in the initial rationale that accompanied the press release and the interpretation sheet for the exhibition:

The title of this year’s GSA in Dunoon show is borrowed from one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s watercolour drawings made in 1896. It reflects the unique process involved in selecting this year’s graduates for the exhibition due to the fire that damaged and destroyed a significant part of the Mackintosh Building and the Fine Art degree show on the 23rd of May 2014. Some works we were able to view physically, some survived only as photographic representations, some were lost entirely, while others had to be described to us verbally by department tutors or the artists themselves. By partly seeing existing work and partly imagining what the selected artists would be able to present, we worked diligently to curate a show that provides a visual and mental space for reflection on the events that have affected the entire GSA community over the past weeks. At the same time, it is a show that celebrates the resilient spirit of the graduates as they continue to make their mark beyond the physical boundaries of the art school itself.

However, there was a deeper resonance for me as co-curator of this year’s show that extended to my own degree show and my current practice, one that very much influenced the way I selected the works. Some people commented on media articles about the fire that it wasn’t a significant tragedy and that there are more important tragedies in the world to write about. I don’t disagree, but every experience is relative. The fire in a domestic home in, say, a Newcastle suburb might not garner much media attention nationwide, but the feelings of grief experienced by the people involved would still be palpable and valid. Friends, colleagues and people I don’t know were affected by the GSA fire in different ways. Some lost 25 years worth of artwork and personal belongings, some lost their physical work space, others their degree show and as a library staff member I know only too well that the loss of the book collections and the historical Mackintosh library itself felt, and still feels, like having lost a friend or relative.

When something devastating happens on a public scale, and it becomes a big media story that people are interested in, it’s not about belittling the grief or suffering of others. The reason these stories are read is that they resonate deeply within us. We don’t mourn solely the loss of the Mackintosh building, but rather the history it harboured, loved ones we have lost in the past, for nostalgic reasons, for fear of seemingly solid things disappearing. It’s a memento mori that pokes at our vulnerability as human beings. We never know when disaster will strike in our own lives. When something like the Mackintosh fire happens, it helps us exorcise and express our personal fears and our melancholy in a communal way. If everyone else is crying, it’s more acceptable for us to cry, too. Even if we’re not directly affected by the incident, and even if we’re thousands of miles away. Similarly, the exhibition in Dunoon, “Part Seen, Imagined Part” is intended as a space for people to reflect not only on the tragedy the art school community has faced but on trying times in our own private worlds.

The following is a piece I wrote immediately before the opening of the exhibition. And, like most of the artists and designers featured in the exhibition, I’m also inspired by the fire and allowing new things to sprout from its ashes.

A note on the exhibition

In 2012 I graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. My degree show was housed in the former women’s studio above the library, at the very top of the west wing. Incidentally my work was inspired by a fire in my tenement building. Apart from brick walls and some blackened broken windows, the space, Studio 58, is now gone. For myself and others in the wider GSA community, Friday the 23rd May was a heartbreaking day. As someone poignantly noted afterwards, it was “like watching a dear friend die”.

It may seem irrational to have such a strong emotional attachment to a piece of architecture, and it’s hard to explain why that’s the case to people outside the GSA bubble. But there is just something about that building. Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed it in the name of art, and it has remained the beating heart of the art school that every GSA student has passed through during their time there, whether it was years spent in a studio, an hour in an art history lecture, twenty minutes of quiet contemplation in the library poring over books, or even a brief trip to the finance counter. We all remember the heavy swing and creak of the doors, the air of dark wood and turpentine, the exquisite patterns of light that moved and merged throughout the day.

On a warm and sunny afternoon, the fire tore through the Mackintosh Building turning most of the west tower and second floor into a memory. Fire doesn’t discriminate; it consumes what it can. And so rare books, historic architecture, offices and artwork by both staff and students were all lost or damaged in the blaze. Devastating on several levels, for the city of Glasgow and the GSA community in particular, many immediately predicted it was the end of something once so grand. But as destructive as fire is, it is a natural element that can both stifle and revive. There is an expression called ‘controlled burn’ that denotes a type of farming in which fields are set ablaze to destroy weeds and fertilize the soil. This ensures that new crops will grow.

A new ‘crop’ of students graduates every year from GSA, but this year’s graduates had to stand a tougher test than the rest of us. What happens when you lose your dream, everything you’ve worked towards in the past many years? While one might worry that a devastating event such as the GSA fire would crush the desire to make new work, in actual fact a large number of students climbed right back up on the proverbial horse. If you read the statements of the artists and designers, it will become apparent how many of them were already inspired by themes of fragility, loss, memory, survival and regeneration.

At first glance, the works selected for this exhibition are modest and quiet works, small islands in a sea of white. But if you take your time with them and lean in close, you’ll realize that they’re screaming out loud. None of the works have been shown in public before, and they have either survived the fire, been recreated after the fact, or were made immediately before and after the tragic event. Each work bears testament to the fact that when artists hit a brick wall, they wince for a while, then dust themselves off and find innovative ways to climb over it. Dunoon Burgh Hall has kindly provided a stepladder to make that journey a little easier, and we are all grateful to be there. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such inspiring makers – without their resilience and hard work, there would be no exhibition. A friend of mine noted that the show looks like “a complete triumph over adversity”. I couldn’t agree more.

- Theresa Moerman Ib, July 2014

GSA in Dunoon photo gallery

I’m Jealous of the Jealous Curator

•May 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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A while back, when I was still an undergraduate, I came across a blog called The Jealous Curator. It was an instant source of inspiration, mostly because it was based on the concept of resenting other artists for coming up with a great concept before you (the it’s-all-been-done-before problem) and at the same time finding the work incredibly inspiring (the I-hate-you-but-I-love-you problem). Of course, because I’d been so frustrated about these issues myself and had commented on them in my blog, it didn’t help that here was another perfect example of someone coming up with a great concept and going for it full steam! Why didn’t I think of making that blog?! How’s that for irony…

Although I’ve pretty much trawled through every post on The Jealous Curator grabbing inspiration left, right and centre, I still go back now and then to discover new artists I might otherwise not have come across. After a long break, the other day I found a bunch of artists working with textile, embroidery and photography that I hadn’t heard of before. That set the cogs of inspiration going in my head.

I recently scoured the internet for artists to add to my own jealous curator’s list. I was looking through the LUX archives for biographical artist films and by chance came across the online exhibition The Elusive Portrait which featured a work by Margaret Salmon. Intrigued by what I saw, I looked up more of her films and discovered “Housework“, a brilliant piece on domesticity, something I’ve been researching a fair bit lately. The discovery of what I thought was a defunct dishwasher in a kitchen cupboard led to a feeling of being a 1950s housewife getting her first automatic household appliance! “With my new dishwasher I have time to make art while the dishes get washed as if by magic!” It was a Mary Poppins moment to be sure.

My grandmother was very liberated as a woman.  With two educations and a full time job as head nurse, she was the major breadwinner in The Happy Housewifethe family. Yet she was still the one to do all the housework: the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, making the beds etc. My mother took this a step further and became a stay-at-home mum because my Dad didn’t want her to work. So domestication was a big thing for me growing up. As a female, you learned to darn and knit and sew and make the bed and mop the floor and wash the dishes and hoover by default. It wasn’t something that was ever questioned. Housework came first, then all the “fun” stuff later. I still find myself procrastinating from pursuing my art practice by doing domestic chores. It’s easier somehow to dust and clean and organise practical things than to sit down and do work. Having a home studio doesn’t exactly help the problem, either!

With this inherited proclivity towards domesticity, I decided it was time to try to incorporate it in my creative practice. There is some evidence of it in my previous work where I reimagine and repurpose everyday materials and elevate quirky mundane moments through photography and video, but I haven’t fully embraced it yet. Salmon’s video was a great inspiration, not least because it references the supernatural. It reminded me of a previous post I wrote about an artist video by Catherine Ross where objects fly around the room of their own volition. The video uses various clips from the TV show Bewitched. 

Thus inspired I’m off to wiggle my nose and conjure up some art!

The Pursuit of Perfection

•May 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Time to write again. After nearly five months silence, I’ve decided to type my way into action again. I hit a road block, a creative block so massive that it just wouldn’t budge. I tried to walk around it, but it was the size of an iceberg and kept drifting into my path. Every time I tried to make something, the result was ridiculous. Every time I tried to write, the words made no sense. My brain was tired, my body was tired, and I thought this was the end of my artistic practice. No one like an artist to be melodramatic, eh?!

Weighted down by yet another day of painful tiredness, today I made some sort of breakthrough. A pinprick in a very dark cloth. I had decided that, no matter what happened, today I would sit down and do something. Even if that something turned out as hopeless as everything else I’d laid hands on in the past few months. I would soldier through it.

After two days working in the library, I was looking forward to my days off. But, as usual, the mental exhaustion of a day job got the better of me and this morning I couldn’t get out of bed. I woke at 7, fell back into a deep sleep till 9, then agin till 9.30. I stumbled out to get some tea then back again lying almost immobilised staring at the pages of a book on Eva Hesse, snoozing intermittently till 11.30. Reluctant, I got up as the postman buzzed the door. What is this relentless exhaustion? The boredom of serving other people, watching other people create, waiting for a shift to end, wanting to make art, not knowing how, thinking if it continues you may as well get a full time job. Ah, the artist’s block. A first world problem to be sure.

I read somewhere that no one should wait around for inspiration to come. Like everyone else, you should go to work at 9 and do anything regardless of whether or not you’re feeling inspired. On the other hand, Christian Boltanski spends most of his time thinking, doing nothing, staring into space, and telling his students to do the same. When the idea is right, you can make the work in 10 minutes, he says. Today I took both approaches.

I started out by thinking and then thinking some more. In the space of that time, I came up with a number of interesting ideas, which when I tried them out in practice were absolutely ridiculous. It’s like that with dreams, too. When you’re in the middle of one, it seems completely realistic and plausible, until you wake up and try to describe it to someone. Then you realise it’s complete nonsense. I won’t try to explain what I did today or why. Suffice to say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My former tutor always told me to stop researching and do some actual work. Research will only get you so far, he said. I agree to a certain extent. But if you don’t know at all what to do, looking at what other people have done, or helping someone else to make something, actually isn’t the worst thing. At least it feels like work. So I organised the inspiration I had printed out, browsed some more websites, and took another look at an artist a colleague had mentioned yesterday. What I found was that something triggered. In all my attempts at forcing work, I had been producing silly, sentimental, sad work. Work that was going nowhere. But today I realised something. Part of what upsets my process is the pursuit of success and perfection.

Let me explain. The work I looked up actually wasn’t directly related to what I was interested in. I had heard of the artist, and the award she had won, but knew nothing of the work. So out of general interest, I googled her. She is a Spanish artist living in the UK and working with image and text. I was reading her text-based work and realised it was full of mistakes. Being a bit of a grammar nazi, I found myself frowning, annoyed that she hadn’t let a native speaker do a spell check. But as I continued to read, I realised that the so-called mistakes were possibly meant to be part of the work. In fact, without them the texts would perhaps have been a bit bland or at the very least not as captivating as they were. A lot of them were about displacement and living in an unfamiliar environment. So of course the emphasis on the awkwardness of the sentence structure, or the odd use of words, lent a particular authenticity to the work, and I found myself wanting to read more and smiling as I read on.

Now here’s the rub. I realised while I was reading that this reminded me of the poems my Dad wrote as a young man, which my cousin had tried to translate from Dutch into English for me as best she could. She said they often didn’t make sense, or contained non-existent words. As English is not her first language, the poems also came out a little disjointed and odd. At the time, I remember being incredibly disappointed. I had wanted my Dad to be a great poet. I had wanted to discover that he had written profound and meaningful poems that would change my life and give me access to his inner world – and to him. My desire to know more about him is only intensified by the fact that I lost touch with him for 15 years prior to his death, and never had a relationship with him as an adult. The book of poems is one of the few things I have left of him. So I obviously wanted it to be the key that unlocked all the secrets about him I never got to know. Instead, it turned out that the poems were just as jumbled and disjointed as the information I already had. My attempts to understand who he was will always be dead ends. At the end of the day, we can never fully know another human being, not even our parents. People are enigmas: fragmented, inconsistent, impossible to pin down, lost in translation, imperfect. And then it hit me. My struggle to fence him in, to put his poetry and photography and personality in a box to dissect and display, were shot down. The imperfection of his poetry, his photography, and his life, perfectly mirrored the imperfection of my failed attempt to understand and translate and curate them. The harder I tried to decipher him the less I understood, the further away he slipped. However, the disjointed poems that evolved from my cousin’s, my own and web-based translations were a metaphor for the impossibility of telling a complete and true story about someone, the difficulty of expressing our innermost thoughts in coherent sentences and the problem of being lost in translation.

When I realised that the crux of my block is the pursuit of perfection, I began to see that the outside your comfort zone really is where the magic happens. I recently watched a documentary about the artist Kiki Smith. She mentioned how she isn’t really good at anything. That what she enjoys is the struggle to make something and the joy in getting it almost right. I also was reminded of the artist girlfriend of a former colleague who makes work about being dyslexic. Instead of trying to be perfect, she embraces her inability to spell things the “correct” way and just spells them the way she hears and thinks them. If she didn’t work like this, she probably wouldn’t be making work at all. Instead, she’s prolific and renowned! I suppose it’s like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, flawed beauty. By embracing imperfection, we come to realise that nothing lasts and that everything is already perfect just as it is. I may not be able to turn my father into the perfect poet, but then there are no perfect poets, no perfect fathers. My father was a flawed parent, and I am a flawed daughter. I’m lazy, I can’t speak Dutch fluently, I don’t always use the correct grammar or sentence structure, I tend to repeat myself, and to talk too loudly. Sometimes I like to watch bad TV shows. I don’t have a pitch perfect voice, or the best songwriting skills. I have stage fright but love to sing. I want to be a great artist, but sometime that involves pathetic and failed attempts. My need to do things perfectly or not at all is the material that has coagulated into the big boulder obstructing my creative path. If I could kick it a bit, in an odd way, it may crumble and eventually let me through.

Make, Do & Moan

•January 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Right, enough procrastinating. I’ve put off this new post for months. I often forget how much blogging helps my creative process – or helps me process my creativity! Writing, even if it is mainly to myself, makes things clearer, weeds out promising ideas from  corny ones and generally eases the frustrations of making work. 

It wasn’t until a friend recently recommended a book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland that I began to look at how I work most efficiently. I haven’t been able to create anything substantial for months, and kept sublimating my ideas into procrastination tactics like hoovering, tidying files, baking or doing another batch of laundry. Admittedly, I’ve also spent a lot of time surfing the web thinking of it as “online research” but truthfully just getting mired in the bogs of relentless social media posts.

The Art & Fear book led me on to other books about how to overcome creative blocks, and while many of them tend to lean towards a jaded self-help genre, some of them have great advice to offer the struggling artist. The latest golden nugget came from a sample of the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. That really got me going. In the first part of the book, Pressfield talks about the artist’s number one enemy Resistance. How it makes you put off everything till tomorrow and fills you with doubt. The fact is that there is never a good time to sit down and do work. There’s always something else to attend to, but you just need to sit down and do it. Hence this blog post!

In Art & Fear, the authors touch upon another idea that made me sit up straight and read the chapter a second time. They hypothesise that if you suddenly feel “blocked” and unable to make work, the reason may be that you changed something fundamental about your routine. For example, if you used to draw during the day and write at night, but for some reason flipped your schedule around, this may not be conducive to your work. I heard alarm bells going off all over my head when I read that one. After leaving art school two years ago, I was good at maintaining the same working rhythm. I continued to blog, make sketch books, carry out tons of ideas, even though they didn’t all work out, and set myself deadlines by signing up for exhibitions. After the last organised exhibition, however, which coincided with some tumultuous changes in my personal life, things went awry. Moving from place to place for a few months and needing to sort out practical life obligations was the kiss of death for my artmaking routine. I stopped doing the things I used to do to keep up the momentum, and before I knew it, the inevitable happened: I stopped making work. 

My many attempts to come up with ideas for new bodies of work were like trawling through the swamps of sadness in the Neverending Story. The going was thick and heavy, and I seemed to be sinking a little more with every step. I was so confused, because ideas (however unlikely and corny) used to flow from me in a steady stream; at times so prolifically I couldn’t keep up! But suddenly it was like squeezing blood from the proverbial stone. Squeeze…. nothing. I spent huge amounts of energy writing bursary, grant and residency proposals, trying to come up with ideas for work. In the end not anything I wasn’t content with per se, but I made the mistake of depending on the results to fuel my further efforts. When the applications were rejected, I felt even more hopeless. Not only could I not make work, I was struggling to come up with ideas and apparently writing bad (or at least  unsuccessful) applications to boot! What was I doing wrong?

I think I’ve finally figured out part of the answer. I won’t necessarily go so far as to say that we create our own circumstances, because I don’t know if I fully believe that. Nevertheless, to me it was a sign of some sort. I was pushing in the wrong direction. My English professor once told me to never give up my day job. I wrote a lot of poetry at the time and dreamed of a life of unadulterated freedom with no obligations, in which someone would pay me to do what I loved. He adamantly disagreed. “You need to be part of the world to write good poetry”, he said. “If William Faulkner hadn’t been forced to shovel coal for a living, he would never have written As I Lay Dying. That novel was written in a completely innovative way, because he kept having to stop writing in order to stoke the boiler. Every time his writing was interrupted, he started with a new perspective. If he’d had all the time in the world, he’d have written the same old kind of novel, no matter how talented he was”. That piece of advice stuck with me (although somewhat begrudgingly) – and I do think there’s a significant element of truth to it. 

I remembered my professor’s words and began to think about my artist statement and the kind of work I do. I apply “a make-do and mend approach to my work”. That’s the core of my practice. Finding things, transforming one thing into something else with the means I already have or can source cheaply. It’s sometimes an obstruction, but it is an essential one which helps the work. Whether I’m capturing something unusual with my camera phone, picking up discarded things on the street or working with material found in my own archives, it’s all about sourcing things from the everyday to look at them in a different light. 

I also remember reading somewhere about how David Shrigley started out with his characteristic black-and-white drawings after graduating from art school. It may be a case of Chinese Whispers since I can’t remember the original source, but the gist of it is that he was too poor to make anything else! Black felt tip pen on white copy paper was a cheap and accessible resource that allowed itself to be reproduced via black & white photocopies just as easily and cheaply. In other words, financial restrictions necessitated creative thinking. 

You need look no further than to the beautiful boro fabrics of Japan that are stitched together from bits and pieces of torn clothing both to mend tears and create layering for warmth. These exquisite composites are like patchwork quilts, each one unique. 

So it’s time to get back in gear. Grants notwithstanding. Making work by thinking about work and experimenting despite obstacles and financial restrictions. Do what you can, this second, not tomorrow, not when you get unexpected money, not when a “good” idea hits you. Make, do and stop moaning.

Doll Face

•October 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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I came across these haunting photographs this morning. The Finnish photographer Pertu Saska has made a series of portraits of street monkeys in Jakarta. The sad fate of these monkeys is to be dressed up in doll’s clothes to attract money and attention from tourists. Held in chains and trained to put on old doll’s heads as masks, these monkeys beg for money on the streets of Jakarta. It’s hard not to find them fascinating, but these photographs make you question your immediate reaction and understand that this is a sad and deeply disturbing phenomenon takes place for the sake of entertainment.

I’m so moved by these photographs and the uncannily human poses of the monkeys. They are like the living dead, tiny automatons that are actually live animals in chains. Thought-provoking…

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Film You Can Feel

•October 21, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I have recently discovered the wonderful work of Margaret Tait, the Scottish experimental filmmaker and poet. I had heard of the Margaret Tait Award but never given it much thought until a friend of mine mentioned her work and that I might enjoy it. Soon after, I looked her up and was amazed at what she made in her lifetime. Such poetic, moving films that play with collages of moving image and sound. I completely understand her way of approaching the world, in fragments and through memory.

One of my favourite films is “A Portrait of Ga”, a film about Tait’s mother. It doesn’t tell the viewer much about Ga, and yet it manages to say everything. The way the footage is shot and edited together, combined with the voiceover and the sensibility of movements where you can almost taste, touch or smell what’s on the screen. You can feel the wind blowing, the smell of the land between rain and sunshine underneath a rainbow, the delicious stickiness of a sweetie kept too long in a warm pocket. Truly inspiring.

Letter to the Sea

•October 16, 2013 • 2 Comments

This is my most recent film poem. I edited together a video I made while scattering my uncle’s ashes with a poem I wrote a few months ago about the sea. It sometimes amazes me how two mediums can come together and turn into something bigger than as separate entities. This was one of those times for me. And I want to make more…

“Letter to the Sea”

There is a sea for every stage of grief:
All are full of salt.
It is said that signs of drowning look like waving;
no way to tell dead calm from done for.

At night no one can find you;
black water reflects back rock.

The moon is a lighthouse,
darkened and mostly invisible.
Only the shipping forecasts make waves
to predict the speed at which you fall:

Quickly. Slowly. Not at all.

 
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