What Is It That You Think You Understand?

•August 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

What Is It That You Think You Understand?In December 2010, I had my first brief encounter with New Orleans. I had been drawn to the Lousiana city for years, but was only able to stop a few days while passing through.It had been five years since the devastating flood caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. What I saw there had a lasting impact on me.

Five years had passed but the city still bore its bruises, some were stark and in plain view, others were buried in the back lanes. Chance took me through the Lower Ninth Ward with its hollow, boarded-up houses, silent witnesses to the people who perished there and those forced to leave their homes, their belongings, their physical memories and sometimes their loved ones behind.What Is It That You Think You Understand?

Shortly afterwards, I passed through the former Six Flags amusement park, which now lies desolate on the brink of Lake Pontchartrain which overflowed and flooded the park and surrounding areas under water for up to a month after the storm hit. Years later, the seven-foot-high tidemarks remain. Although the city is mostly back on its feet and continues to recover a decade after the disaster, the Lower Ninth Ward and abandoned amusement park remain chilling testaments to the devastation suffered by the people of New Orleans in 2005.

What Is It That You Think You Understand?Walking through Six Flags was one of the most haunting experiences I’ve experienced. The stillness was profoundly disturbing, a place once full of the voices and excited screams of families, was now a barren expanse of land inhabited by immovable dinosaurs whose life had been cut brutally short leaving behind only huge metal skeletons broken and bent against a grey sky.

In her essay Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addresses photographs of war, atrocities and people in pain. She writes: “We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, What Is It That You Think You Understand?and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

I always intended to put together a series of the photographs I made during my two days in New Orleans, but it took me five years of failed attempts. The images don’t show any people, or events at the time they took place; they show only a fraction of the aftermath of disaster and a What Is It That You Think You Understand?slow recovery process. As a visitor and observer, I can empathise with the witnesses and victims, but I will never know how it really felt, how it feels now ten years on.

A poignant statement spray-painted on a wall at Six Flags seen through a shattered window and the comfortable filter of my viewfinder reminded me of this. “What is it that you think you understand?”, it read. I will never know what it was like to be there, to love there, to flee from New Orleans, or to remain there. These photographs will only ever be the superficial interpretations of an outsider regarding the pain of others, one I can neither fully imagine nor fully grasp. But making these images had an impact on me; it was my attempt to try to understand, so five years after their making, I have finally decided to share them.

The images in the photo series What Is It That You Think You Understand? are documents and metaphors of a place battered but not beaten. Some day I hope to return for a longer stay, but for now, this is my much-delayed and brief love letter to New Orleans, its strange beauty and its unflagging willingness to brave the storm.

What Is It That You Think You Understand?

The Intelligence of Not Knowing

•September 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I have arrived in Athens! My designated home for the next 8 days is worth every penny. On the fifth floor of a five storey house it’s a small room with a sink, fridge, ensuite toilet and massive terrace that looks out on Mount Lycabettus and the Acropolis. Thinking I was in for a week of wall-to-wall sunshine, instead I was met with weather as moody as Glasgow, sunshine then rain then thunderstorms then overcast then back to sun. Rather than being put off by this changibility, I found it quite invigorating! Not only is the temperature a lot better than back home even after a heavy shower, the thunderstorm was nothing less than magnificent! It rolled in from the sea like a heavy blue-grey carpet full of wind and water. A massive rain cloud moved ominously over the Acropolis as if summoned by Zeus himself and looked like a still from a Hollywood film (at least according to a friend who saw the photographic evidence!)

I feel as if I’m haunted by rain. It just seems to follow me, as if to say: Like me! Appreciate me! The same thing happened coming back to Glasgow from New Mexico in 2010 when I was on exchange there for four months. I ended up trying to embrace it in my work instead of letting it get me down, and it seems I’m being encouraged to do that again!

In my last post, I talked about my enforced minimalist approach to packing a bag for this trip, and initial panic set in when I realised that by not bringing my digital camera I had no opportunity to do long exposures or shoot high quality video. But when you don’t have the means, you find alternative solutions, so this was my first attempt at working with obstructions! So far it has worked out just fine. I began wracking my brain for ways to document or capture the amazing night sky here and the silhouetted trees on the hill next to the house. When you get over the annoyance about not having the perfect tool to complete a piece of work, you see that either you find something else to focus on or another way to capture or translate what you’re enamoured by.

It comes back to this idea of being lost. When you’re in a new place, especially if you don’t speak the language, your senses are heightened. You find things to hook on to in order to find your way, you take chances on different foods because you can’t get what you usually have or your can’t read the menu, you learn to communicate through sounds, gestures and facial expressions instead of words, you adjust to another currency, different opening hours and customs. It’s a challenge and can be exhausting but also eye opening and inspiring. It becomes easier if you open yourself to the possibilities. You learn to find your way in the dark.

So just as I’m setting myself a challenge by going abroad to experience new sensations, new tastes, new landscapes and new people, I’m creating obstructions in my practice to force me to make new work in different ways. Although I initially chickened out on my idea that I could only take analogue photographs (I knew myself well enough to acknowledge that with my phone around I wouldn’t be able to help myself as its my main camera these days), I did refrain from bringing the “proper” camera. And today I decided to try and give myself limitations for 24 hours to make a work of art that relates to Greece in some way.

As my first obstruction I’m using a template from the reality series Work of Art where the participants were asked to pick a headline from the New York Times and create a work that in some way incorporated the physical newspaper. I have a copy of the international New York Times which has an English language version of the local Greek broadsheet Kathimerini. So in the next 24 hours I’m going to pick a headline, do some research and make a work of art. It may not be anything spectacular or ultimately usable, but it should get my mind going and help me start making again – instead of just thinking about it. Getting lost in unknown territory forces you to embrace the intelligence of not knowing and the art of learning how to find out.

The Travelling Hoarder

•September 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’m a self-confessed anxious traveller and a bit of a hoarder. Some people have nightmares that they’re talking to a crowd of people and realise they’re stark naked. While I definitely suffer from stage fright, my worst nightmare is packing. I always try to pack for any and every situation that might possibly arise. I pack clothes I’ve never worn because this trip might be the one time I’d actually want to wear them. I pack five books although I rarely if ever read a book in less than a week. I pack every conceivable type of vitamin and painkiller in the event that I might get a cold or worse. I pack woolly jumpers even though I’m going to a country that’s got an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius. After all you can never be entirely sure that the barometer won’t freakishly plummet and provide an autumnal freeze. And you also might need a bag of every size just in case you go out for dinner, or decide to bring home thirty kilos of local specialties.

What happens when I travel, or go anywhere, even to work!, is that I end up carrying several bags all of which are ridiculously heavy and full of stuff I never use. Sure, I use the odd painkiller and would never go anywhere without a spare set of contact lenses and my migraine medication, but I’ve taken this to a whole other obsessive compulsive level. I get extremely anxious if I only pack a little so I’m always panicking in the bag drop off queue wondering how close to the limit I am, or if I’ve accidentally gone over. 50 percent of the time I have gone overboard and need to repack at the airport. Which is an excruciatingly embarrassing affair. It feels like having eaten too much and having spilled half of it down the front of your shirt for all to see.

So this time I decided to pack light. Which doesn’t really mean anything to me apart from being 1 kilogram short of the maximum weight for check in luggage. I felt I’d done a great job when I hit 13 kilos – a full two kilos below the maximum 15. But I still knew I’d brought too much. So I packed and then unpacked three times altogether, the last time over a Skype conversation with my mother, another hoarder but a sensible traveller. We ended in fits of hysterics when I explained to her why I was bringing certain things. I then went on to find explanations for the dresses I’ve never worn, the mohair jumpers I might need on the event of a hurricane or blizzard, the six necklaces and four sets of earrings I might need “to change things up a bit”, the seven books I really want to get around to reading and the three cameras, two rolls of film and 256 GB of memory cards I was planning to maybe fill. I was getting stress just by thinking of all the things I’d have to do to make it worth my while to have carried all this stuff with me across the Continent.

From previous journeys into the unknown, I have discovered that what I mostly do on trips is to stare at things and think. Being in a new environment there is so much to take in that my attention span can’t manage all the things I wanted to do. So I give up and embrace the moment by just looking, making notes, taking photos on my iPhone and thinking. As it should be. I always want to write more when I’m away but I never do because I’m too busy rearranging the contents of my suitcase and feeling guilty about not whipping out my Conte crayons to make a masterpiece. Of course the truth is that if you’re unlikely to do it at home, you’re even more unlikely to do it on holiday. If you’re typically one to wear the same type of clothes most days, you’re not suddenly going to change your sense of style and don a flashy outfit for the week you’re in another country. Unless you find yourself inspired by local colour and then you end up buying the real deal in situ anyway. If you’re not one to plough through a novel in an afternoon you’re not likely to whizz through seven including the dense classics you feel you should be reading now that you have time.

So why do I hoard when travelling? Because being away from home makes me nervous. What if something happens or I can’t do what I usually do? Isn’t that the point of going away? To break out of a cycle and experience something different? Well I guess I think I want the same but different. Yet I never use any of the stuff I bring “just in case”. I only lug it around with me. A former teacher of mine used to say I had “snail tendencies” because she’d never seen someone carry so much stuff with them everywhere they went. I never showed up for class with less than a stuffed backpack and a tote for the stuff that didn’t fit in the backpack! I still do! And have sore shoulders and back to show for it. I always envy men who go out with nothing but a credit card and some change in their pockets. How will they manage?!!!! I worry for my partner too. What if he runs out of something and desperately needs it?!

Rationally we can most often get what we need if we need it. Or a version of it, or something else that will suffice. It’ll be ok. So my exercise for this trip is treating it as a residency but to bring only the bare essentials and see what it triggers in me. Besides panic!

To return to the place I set out, my recurring nightmare is not being naked in front of an audience, but trying to pack all my stuff and realising I can’t carry it. I repack and reorganise but to no avail. In my dream I have at least four bags all filled to bursting and I can’t take them all with me but I don’t want to leave anything behind. So sheer panic ensues. I think I know what a psychoanalyst would say about it! So in the hope that I’ll manage to cure myself of this nightmare, I replaced my suitcase with a smaller one, and downsized from 13 kilos to 9! I ditched the thick winter jumpers and dresses I’ve never worn, and even my digital SLR camera! Instead I’ve been optimistic and brought two books, a sound recorder and a set of watercolours I’ve not used in years in the hope that I will for once. To be continued…

If a Tree Falls in a Forest…

•September 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Please Do Not Pick Our Roses

“Please Do Not Pick Our Roses”

I’ve been struggling with my practice lately. Having just finished making my first documentary, and not engaging with my usual visual arts practice which involves a variety of media including photography, text and installation, I’m finding it hard to see where to go next. So instead of making new work, I’m thinking very intently about the nature of my practice and why I do it.

With photography I just can’t seem to *not* do it. I end up taking photos most days of things I see along my way that fascinate or intrigue me, or that I simply want to hold on to. It’s almost a subconscious or automatic act! Most images I take with my iPhone, and many get posted to Instagram, while many others lie dormant in my “Photos” folder either on a hard drive or just on my phone if I can’t be bothered to transfer them. I don’t think of taking photographs as a useless or fruitless activity, even if I’m not exhibiting them. And I wonder why that is. Is it because I get a bit of feedback on them via an online audience? Is it because I just can’t help myself so I don’t care what their purpose is? Or is it something else?

The question has arisen mainly because I have a lot of printed work, or other material work, just sitting around in boxes or cocooned in bubble wrap. It’s quite depressing coming into a cupboard and finding a hoard of old, unsold work that I spent a lot of time and money making, which has either been exhibited only once or not at all. I can’t keep it on display for myself all the time, and I don’t always want to have an exhibition, so what do I do with it? I could just store it indefinitely in its current invisible and cocooned state, but what’s the point of that? Which is why this question came up: what is the point of making all this work? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If I make work and don’t show it to anyone, does it have a purpose?

I suppose it’s quite a philosophical question. Who do we make work for? In art school we make it partly for ourselves and partly in fulfilment of a curriculum to obtain a mark and a degree. So in a way we make work for ourselves, a degree show audience, and also our tutors – for them to judge. When we graduate, we may want to continue our practice, so we find ways to show our work to others in some way. Via a website, or a group exhibition, or if we’re lucky a solo exhibition. But what if we try and try and can’t get our work shown? Do we stop making it? Intuitively, I would say: no, of course not. We make work because we want to, so we should keep making it, regardless of who sees – or buys – it. But then it comes back to the question of the unused artwork storage space. What good is it if it just sits in a corner? Does it have value simply because it caused us pleasure when we made it? And if it no longer causes pleasure but just takes up space, should we discard it? And why does that also feel wrong?

I’ve started reading the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking again, which handles the issue quite well, and acknowledges that it’s a genuine crossroads for artists, one from which many do not return! “Artists quit when they convince themselves their next effort is already doomed to fail. And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work – for the place their work belongs.” But there is a solution to the issue: keep going. Sometimes it’s not lack of success but success itself that brings things to a standstill. The authors David Bayles and Ted Orland suggest the following:

“Avoiding this fate has something to do with not letting your current goal become your only goal. With individual artworks it means leaving some loose thread, some unresolved issue, to carry forward and explore in the next piece. With larger goals (like monographs or major shows) it means always carrying within you the seed crystal for your next destination. And for a few physically risky artforms (like dance), it may even mean keeping an alternative medium close by in case age or injury take you from your chosen work.

For art students, losing the destination for the work goes by another name: Graduation. Ask any student: For how many before them was the Graduate Show the Terminal Show? When “the critique” is the only validated destination for work made during the first half-decade of an artist’s productive life, small wonder that attrition rates spiral when that path stops.



A. Make friends with others who make art, and share your in-progress work with each other frequently.

B. Learn to think of [A], rather than the Museum of Modern Art, as the destination of your work. (Look at it this way: If all goes well, MOMA will eventually come to you).

This problem has had me feeling a bit like a hamster on a wheel. I keep going in circles, feeling I should make work, but seeing all I’ve already made and not knowing what to do with it, but also not feeling good about throwing it away, and not readily able to find a place to show it either! I remembered that I watched an interview with artist Nika Neelova, who found inspiration in her own life moving from place to place and having constantly to let go of things and relationships. Her practice involves using reclaimed materials, and creating works that are designed to disappear or be destroyed by an audience. In creating temporary works of art, she keeps having to let go and start over. Or at least that is how her work used to be. These days she is casting broken or damaged objects in materials such as concrete. So in a sense she has completely reversed the concept. Instead of making work that will dissipate through interaction, she’s now making work that’s so solid it’s almost immoveable! Perhaps that’s her subconscious statement as an artist: she’s here to stay.

I am very drawn to the idea of work that ceases to exist after a while, or that I have no control over. Essentially as an artist you have no control over your work once it’s put out in the world anyway, so you need to learn to let go of it sooner or later. Also, I’m thinking more about how cluttered with objects the world is, and that there’s something very freeing in content that only exists in a liminal or virtual space. Of course, now we just fill up lots of hard drives with digital versions of books, photographs and films instead, which doesn’t really solve the problem. But a work of art that ceases to exist completely, that is more interesting to me. Or one that never existed in the first place. What would happen if instead of taking a photograph of something, you were forced to just describe it in words. Obstructions are often the seed of new ideas I’m finding…

In my last year at art school I began to toy with this idea by making an exhibition in an elevator. It was a place of transition, and ended up being partly removed by cleaning staff every morning. This is when I began writing chalk texts which could be erased. I always documented them by taking a photograph, but if they were written either on the wall or on the street, they were easily erased. Some people would experience them for the length of time they lasted, while others never got to see them. In a way performance is much the same. Unless it is documented through photographs or moving images, it is an experience that exists only for a short length of time, and then never again. Even the same performance will never be identical to the one that came before it. The thought makes me panic slightly, because it emphasises the impermanence of things, but also forces us to take note, because before we know it the tree will have fallen and the sound will have faded and there will never be another one completely like it. So the trick is to keep chopping and plant new seeds…

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


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


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.