I am sitting amidst the detritus of another show. The period of takedown always has a sad feel to it. The works sit forlornly on the floor, waiting to be collected, like latchkey children in need of a parent. The litter from visitors and workers mingles with bubble-wrap and coffee cups to give the gallery the feel of an attic or spare room. The place where things go that don’t have a place.
And I am searching for my place. I still get that feeling of being an outsider, which of course I am. I am not one of the artists, I don’t belong in their circle, and can only attach myself to their conversations like a parasite, feeding on their thoughts, sucking up gobbets of process and production to excrete into a paragraph or two.
I am also searching for my place within this field of writing and questioning. I want a set of values with which to judge what is going on. But I am adrift in unknown waters. When the residency started, I thought I knew what I felt to be ‘good art’, but now am not so sure. I had clear ideas about beauty, intricacy and effort, and though these values still apply, I am finding new ways to apply them. Seeing the work evolving over the past three weeks has alerted me to fresh locations of virtue.
Dean Kenning, in Thinking Through Art (2014), points to, “the profound capacity art has to open up different ways in which we, as desiring individuals, connect to, and are caught up in, intricate social networks of influence and possibility.” And this is the promise of art, that it can change the world and transform us. But does it? So often, people visit an exhibition and come away unaltered, not understanding or engaging with the work.
A discussion earlier centered around the question of whether art is produced for another, public or patron, or whether it is more self -expression. The critique sessions, scheduled interactions between the artists and other local practitioners as part of the Graduate project, suggested a need to know who the art is for. It is important, I think, to consider the public, the audience, when creating work. Surely art is a method of communication whatever else we might think it is, and so we have to consider how to pitch ourselves and how we might be better received, as well as understand what it is we want to say. But it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing self and other, artist and public, as generator and receiver of art, as already existing, fixed beings.
Kenning directs us away from this, claiming that the artwork neither has to spring from nor reinforce pre-established identities. He posits that it is the artwork itself which thinks, thus removing the artist from their central position and putting them in the constellation of orbiting bodies alongside the public. We, as viewing public, are on a level with the artist and a mechanism is set up where the artwork not only generates further questions, but actually explores what the field of questioning could be. And more importantly, that this field of questioning can prepare the ground for who we might become.
We can, perhaps must, inhabit our problems. We can take ownership of the problematic field, not with a sense of control, but with a desire to explore and a willingness to open up the field itself, along with our minds and the possibility of who we may become. We have greater capacity than we give ourselves credit for, and often seem satisfied with ready-made questions, hand-me-down answers and fixed identities, that we don’t bother to think through for ourselves what the possibilities could be.
This is why the opportunity to watch the artists at work is so exciting. I can see them, not only thinking through, working through a set of problems, but actually exploring the field of questioning itself, and growing and changing as people. However, my worry once more comes to the fore. How will the audience, the public, become aware of this thinking, of this process? If, as Kenning suggests, it is the artwork that does the thinking, they may have a chance. One is confronted with a machine, or one creates one. We strap ourselves in, we engage with, a machine that can manipulate large particles of culture, that can zoom into the microbiota of civilization.
It is not an easy process though. Almost every conversation I have had with the residents, though it may start out with pleasantries and assurances that all is well, recounts feelings of struggle. The artists are working. We must work too. Engaging with art is not a passive process. We have to do exactly that: engage. Our days and nights are too much filled with entertainment, and it has become the default setting against which all is judged and to which we long to return after we have performed the obligatory minimum of toil.
Michael J. Lewis, in his article, How Art Became Irrelevant, proposes that, “a disengagement has ... taken place … The fine arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture … and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values.” He talks of the artworld in the past being centered around the figure of the patron who directed the artist, but also how the hopes, fears and values of society were made visible in art. I am not sure that art has become irrelevant, but I do agree that disengagement is something that we struggle with. Since Pop, so much art seems like a mere regurgitation of either advertising or entertainment. Both are predigested and too easy to swallow, and the work that springs from this ubiquitous ‘inspiration’ suffers from the same.
The workshop sessions that each artist is running give us some insight into their process. The artist sets a starting point and provides us with some material. This week we are given objects, images and words. Alison tells us that this is an investigation of the visual and cerebral links and associations between these three things. We are then guided to transform these in some way. We see collages of images, composites, words overlaying pictures. There are sketchy, disintegrated forms, sticker-book montages and deconstructions of many kinds. About a dozen people are here, eagerly and quietly working away. Their activities are accompanied by the music of scratching pencils, paper being folded, torn and cut, snips, creaks, rustles and clicks.
I don’t really know what is going on. I arrived late and missed the introduction. The day is incredibly hot and the city was busy. A late night of goodbyes joined with these obstacles to intrude into my usual punctuality. But everyone works busily, happily. Everyone’s product is very different, though we can trace back the connections, and we can imagine a whole body of work being born from this exercise.
The second part of the workshop is a bookbinding session led by Billy, and the process of this is clearer. Material from the first part is cut and trimmed and bound to collect the trans/deformations into a coherent form. I’m reminded again of an evening class, devoid of performance tests, purely for enjoyment. The participants are happily learning a craft. But art is not something that can be taught, only learned. Each book is like a mini-exhibition. And here is the rub, that art as we see it is as much a process of selection as creation. Every show that we see is made of edited highlights. Even retrospectives that throw in the sketchbooks and ephemera are edited. The artist themselves does some of that work with canvasses destroyed and sketches torn up.
So we have art as a process, both of discovery and creation. And we have the exhibition as a partial selection. Both leave us, as public, as viewer, bereft of the full picture. We cannot see the entirety of the journey the artist goes on, and there is little opportunity for them to explain. We are given only a glimpse of the surviving works that are the product of this process. No wonder few people ‘understand’ art.
Asking the artist to distil their practice into a few selected pieces and give us an adequate insight into their process is a big ask, perhaps even an impossible one. So maybe it is we who have to change. There is a matter of depth here when it comes to engagement. We can listen to the Best Of Beethoven and enjoy the familiar melodies, but to gain a fuller understanding we must immerse ourselves further. We must spend time with his work, listen to pieces repeatedly, read about his life. In a word, we must study. And so with art.
Even new artists like the ones in the residency can be better understood if we takethe time. Talk to them, ask them questions. Email them and ask for an explanation. Write about them and talk to other people. I think one of the problems with the artworld in terms of the understanding of art is that we don’t interrogate it enough, nor are we encouraged to. Art is never going to be simply understood and would be worth a lot less (in non-monetary terms) if it were. And the process works both ways. If we invest our time and effort, if we fully engage, we open ourselves up to being more deeply affected, more connected, and more changed.