2015 June: Exploring Leeds and Starting a Novel

The term ended a while ago, I am back at family home in Leeds, and the next focus in my research is I guess my BA paper. A good opportunity to think out those ideas about jealousy and empathy in art making. An awareness of these forces in my practice has actually led me to implement them even further in daily practice and in my relationship with my artistic research.

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Simon Fujiwara, A Spire, 2015, Laidlaw Library, University of Leeds

But it’s early days and I want to have the freedom to explore a broad range of things, whether they seem directly linked to what I think my paper will be about or not – I can narrow down later. I don’t really plan to hone in on my paper writing before mid September. Instead, I want to travel about Yorkshire, or whatever artistic hubs and collections are accessible to me, and give works and exhibitions a chance to settle with me. I’m trying to get deeper into what is going on in the Leeds art scene by mapping out all the galleries and arts centres, and also signing up for arts events around the town. I would like to not take for granted the very basic things I still need to learn. Below I’ll write a few reflections as I follow along this artsy programme I’ve drawn up. Hopefully it will make me feel more at home in the city, and more inclined to contribute somehow.

Leeds University Campus – Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery

I spent the day checking out three things up in the Northernmost side of the centre of town where the University gallery is situated. There was the small permanent collection of Modernist and late Romantic painters and sculptors, as well as a show by an artist in residence. The gallery also offered a Public Art Trail which turned out to be the main attraction for the day, that sent me on a treasure hunt around the Leeds uni campus in discovery of large scale outdoor sculptures that had been commissioned or lent through time and were now dotted about the campus.

Juliet Macdonald was the artist in residence, who had been granted access to historical archives from WW1 that now belong to Leeds Uni (the Liddle archives). From this she curated an interesting museum display which seemed to only have the faint echo of an art installation. I realised that I was confronted with a series of glass cabinets with numbered annotations, and that my initial response to such a thing is to scan, give a quick judgement and move on. My presiding prejudice was that this was a tale commemorating brave soldiers and epic scale horrors – and that the story of WW1 could hardly be told in a new way because society had had to formulate and universally agree upon its overriding narrative, its division between protagonists and antagonists, and our conclusive moral understanding of the facts, as part of its recovery from the ordeal. An artist’s job is, arguably, to tell new stories, so the world wars seem always to me a hopeless subject matter. But I realised I must immerse myself to understand the things I turn away from. This fashionable archival obsession in contemporary art is admittedly something that I never understood to be a part of what art could be until I began my studies. I was puzzled by collections and museum curations and exhibitions heavily based on archival research which I increasingly saw formed a solid part of the contemporary art scene. In Macdonald’s case, I came to realise that the artist did achieve to pull out of this archive a character of its own, and in that sense a new, unusual story (that may have to do with many things, not only the First World War, but indeed also contemporary concerns) was being told. I am not writing about this because I was blown away by this display, but because it helped me come to terms with this sort of art practice as yet another medium, rather than a misinterpretation of the role of art – a medium. And to me a medium’s purpose is, regardless of its form, to accommodate potential. And within the display I found bits and pieces which I enjoyed piecing together, and learned to welcome the element of discovery inherent such an archival exhibition form and to see my own role as viewer transformed into narrator, as I sequenced the – truly bizarre at times – letters, memorabilia and material remains. Where was the artistry? I suppose, in laying out a trap designed to reward me with a picture only realised when I’d fully committed myself to reading the notes and unpacking the abstractions of maps, symbols and letters. Of the elements that interested me were: a very freely written introduction to a thick typewritten manuscript of a soldier’s memoirs – with sparks of liberal self analysis that appealed to me because of my own introspective nature – entitled For What Purpose by an I. L. Read (1922). Also, strange photographs of a military superior posing in demonstrative poses for “proper inhalation”, and an article in a magazine entirely dedicated to the isolated culture of one munitions factory in Leeds, entitled Can Metal Feel, discussing the alleged lifelike properties of metals. Obsessed as I am with animism and anthropomorphic qualities in objects, the article delighted me, as did the specific and community driven nature of the periodical in general. In the context of the entire exhibit I recalled work by Susan Hillier, which I very much like, and which is also compelled by its own source material to display archival artefacts as part of the artwork. This kind of experience however, relies heavily on the viewer investing themselves and taking the gallery’s and artist’s word for it that a spiritual reward awaits them for their attention. In contrast, even though my work is often heavily rooted in my own research, I think part of my work itself tends to go into translating it into an immediate form. Not only because I want it to be entertaining, but also because I think there is value in making an abstract thing suddenly intuitive. All the same, I am not as ready to dismiss archival presentations as I used to be. Later I looked up Juliet Macdonald, and found that she is one of the co-editors of the drawing journal TRACEY, in addition to have written some interesting work on drawing that may be relevant to me. I am currently reading her thesis “Drawing Around the Body”, because she talks of drawing as “embodied knowledge” and investigates its potential as both probe and mediator from a perceptual standpoint. I think it promises to touch upon issues somewhat related to empathy in drawing.

The Public Art Trail was a great excuse to explore the University campus. I’ve never seen such a thing as a university town in real life, and partly was in complete awe simply by the beauty of the place. It was like some sort of Eden, a space truly designed for students to use. And the students themselves seemed proactive, as numerous events were under construction throughout the campus, and they were littered all over the place using the park spaces to socialise, study, eat or rest. It was nice to observe them simply interacting with these incredible spaces.

I enjoyed the format of this tour, and really felt delighted whenever I came across a work. I’ve never followed such a format, but know mapped, self paced tours are popular public engagement forms these days. Notable to me were: Sign for Art by Keith Wilson, The Spire by Simon Fujiwara, Lenton Cover by Mike Lyons and Meet, Sit and Talk by Lorna Green. It was nice to revert my attention to sculpture for a change, which for some reason I tend to largely overlook in my exploration of the art world. Land/environmental art tends to elicit in me always a sense of mythology, always something religious and mysterious. Their sheer size, and the ambience created by their often focal locations within a familiar environment, is always a little unsettling it seems, regardless of the project. Monolithic, they seem to often imitate ancient things that have always been. They seem to want to be treated no differently to the surrounding trees and houses that we know so well, yet their bad disguise makes them feel like alien intruders or divine prophetic monuments. I like that feeling, and it tends to come with any piece of land art. Then it also raises the question of how you as viewer are supposed to interact with it. It is freer in this sense than the gallery situation, where you are being surveillanced and certain special rules and habits apply, such as being quiet, having a contemplative rather than disruptive air about you, spending time with each work, walking clockwise past works in turn, etc. Public art is more like bringing the artwork into your home than visiting it in a designated viewing area, because you are already familiar enough with public spaces such as parks, buildings and streets to feel that the respective rules of conduct are familiar enough, to the point of being commonplace. Yet, the sculpture, by its own alien air, seems to demand different behaviour. Touching it might feel like touching a relic. Or perhaps works such as the low lying stones that comprise Lorna Green’s Meet, Sit and Talk invite you to use the artwork as furniture and make it your own by devising a practical use for it and imbuing the constituent objects with histories of that usage. Then there are the interesting implications of the weathering outdoors, which beyond the safety of sterile, preserving gallery stores are subject to inevitable and to some degree unpredictable changes through time. I didn’t have particularly revelatory moments, but I felt I had spent good time with objects, and internalised a space which was previously blocked off from my experience. It has now become a place I will want to frequent and be a part of.

The Hepworth – Wakefield

I am close to it, so I took a trip down for the day. When I visit a place, or even an exhibition, I often prefer not to read up much about it beforehand, but instead spend time getting to to know it on the spot. Like sculpture, architecture is another art/design form that has always evaded my attention and even filled me with a sense of boredom. But over the last year I’ve physically come across buildings which really moved me as I walked through them, and successfully piqued my interest in the question of what a building could be, and how it can narrate space and ultimately our perception as we live amongst them. The Hepworth Museum had that spiritual orb about it that I described above in the context of land art. It jutted from the ground in an austere and sterile concretist style, accompanied by the rushing sound of falling water in the river that drove through it and upon which local industries have historically depended. I was similarly, and even more so, impressed by the architecture of the Astrup-Fearnley Museum in Oslo last September – a building which formed a whole remodelled section of the waterfront in the city centre. These were really experimental buildings that defied traditional construction shapes, and integrated play, leisure, recreation into that very place of culture and commercialism where people work and learn. Sculptures, bridges, dazzling architectural reflections of the seafront and other neighbouring natural phenomena.

I somehow presumed that The Hepworth housed eclectic works in honour of its namesake, but it turns out that the greater part of the collection is devoted to the work of Barbara Hepworth herself. I recognised the aesthetic immediately. These works, that began germinating in the early 20s and continued to mature into the 60s and 70s, are today reminiscent of a by now well understood language internalised by the world of fashion and design. When I looked at her work, I saw IKEA lamps, chic stereo systems, and the comfort of modern interior design, which all in effect reduce the impact of her life’s effort in today’s world, to the point that it is utterly outdated. The objects were in a sense, “in themselves” beautiful, but they seemed bombarded with the noise of their posthumous applications across all manner of disciplines and markets. I spent the whole day reading about her life and trying to understand what it was like to make these things during her time. Walking through the, to my mind very well curated, exhibition of her thoughts (by way of displayed writings, video and sound recordings) and development as an artist, I had grown a great deal more sympathetic. It required that I erase the past few decades and imagine what it must have been like to concieve of such things at a time when such shapes as her sculptures had never been made, and when it was only at the very outskirts of the avante garde that such imagery was emerging, and how alien and totally brand new and exciting it all must have been. Only then do I see what courage and power it took to advance into those unknowns, and while my respect for art of the 20th century (much of which frankly never moved me much before the 80s) was somewhat restored, I also felt disappointed at the devastating effect of aesthetic appropriation that will doubtless also one day take effect on the results of our generation’s artistic enquiry. An artist’s job is to delineate quivering unknowables that ever evade capture, yet once they surface to cultural acknowledgement, they are all too quickly taken for granted and ironed out into givens of communal perception. I am too curious about those quivering unknowables that gurgle beneath the crust of society to cease my work as an artist, but there is a truth in that the excitement that accompanies it now is not future-proof.

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The Hepworth Museum, Wakefield

My favourite room in the museum was in its very centre. It was devoted to Barbara Hepworth’s studio, and did a stellar job of exposing the both physical and cognitive aspects of an artistic process that is in constant, lifelong development. From displays of the tools she used, to inspirational objects she collected (crystals, stones, small ancient artworks and jewellery), to unfinished works and maquettes, and most informatively, films about the work in progress of several of her projects, both monumental and minuscule. The exhibit also invited us into her studio space through video and objects and accentuated the importance of the working environment as almost a physical extension of practice. I loved photographs of her working (of which there are a great deal), fully engaged in the material – and both joyfully and bravely so. She became somebody I could be jealous of. I prize those jealous finds, because they embed a part of themselves into my artistic personality like an empowering virus, if there were such a thing. It reminded me that sometimes, at least for me, it is not always artworks that most inform my direction, but more often an attitude that I detect – an intention that even precedes creation itself – that resonates with my own ideas about artistic virtues. These attitudes, intentions – this kind of courage – is sometimes more jolting to me than the physical remains of creative acts. Thus, I took a mental snapshot of these photographs, these smiles, and these discovering hands, home with me, so that I aligned their aggregate sentiments with the contours of my own womanhood.

Carol Bove/Carlo Scarpa – Henry Moore Institute

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Leeds Art Gallery

I like visiting the Henry Moore Institute because I like the outdoor area in which the Leeds Galleries are situated. I like to sit on the steps in the sun and read, or watch people playing enormous versions of chess on the square. I also have an affection for the Henry Moore collection itself, which is tainted by childhood reminiscences of being taken there by my dad, growing up in Leeds. But I rarely care for the contemporary exhibitions at the HMI, and this was no exception. I don’t have any particular criticism, I was simply uninterested. It was another rendition of the long departed minimalist sculpture of the 60s, and after sweeping through the galleries in one go, I found little reason to stay. In the foyer however, I came across some exciting looking journals I hadn’t known of before, and spent some quality time reading them. I really feel deprived of something cutting edge these days. Yet with a global population soaring well above any other moment in history, there must be fervent activity bustling about the edges of the contemporary cut. So it is clearly my own failing that I’m not finding it. I feel barred off somehow from all the exciting discoveries of my time – I think I am not very skilled at researching. I seem to be looking in all the wrong places. Here is my effort to break through that, by way of walking into all sorts of venues, virtual or architectural, without a clue in the world as to what to expect. Trial and error. I am normally in the wrong place. I want to watch the pioneers of new ideas that excite me, in action, and then live up to them. I believe I will come across places in which I belong, I just have to keep looking. Journals are a good place to start looking. They have long been rather cryptic to me, as their genres are often ambiguous and I do not understand the context and sometimes language of what I am reading. But I am slowly getting the hang of it, and trying to capture bits of journalism that have ventured into the truly new, noting them down and trying to see them for myself. Cabinet and Aesthetica were the two journals that I spent most time with. Cabinet had a quirky air of art, technology and poetry, with eclectic collections of writings that almost formed the sense of a text exhibition. Aesthetica was more conventionally journalistic, but presented multidisciplinary threads of artistic interest that I might pursue further: films and plays and the like.

I don’t often have much choice over where I am. Currently I’m staying on the outskirts of Leeds in the provincial neighbourhood of Pudsey, because I can’t be anywhere else – and soon I will be in Smederevo, Serbia, partly by obligation. I try to be flexible though, working under the premise that there must be something for me everywhere, perhaps in the most unlikeliest of sources. I still have yet to unlock greater potential in my relationship with the internet, also. I feel strongly that I have a lot to learn in networking. Not in a professional sense, but literally situating myself in the network of the world, swimming in my surroundings. My strength has thus far been my relationship with myself, I frequently converse with myself and my creations through writings, I delight in my own worlds and nurture them, and have a healthy practice in that sense. But I have a lot to work on in terms of breaking into what the world has to offer. Breaking through this barrier I think will make me capable of more exciting things, because I will be part of a more intricate conversation and benefiting from the work and research of others.

Writing

The most interesting thing happening now in my practice is writing. Both performative and drawing activities seem to have slowed down a bit – I still do a little of both but not nearly as much as previously. It started a couple of months ago, and I am startled to find that challenging myself to write, by various techniques such as getting myself to travel to almost arbitrary points on the map to remove myself from familiarity, or keeping a notebook for writings that must always begin with “I am a stone”, or simply depriving myself of other distractions and inflicting boredom on myself until I simply have to write! I treasure my boredom.

My art has long been characterised by mobility, because I have had almost no space to myself for the last few years, even before starting my BA (I slept in the living room/kitchen of my parent’s apartment). This means my work took on small formats or was recorded by ephemeral media (hence, drawing and video/sound performance). I have learned to live outside, or in public places, and pack lightly any materials that I can work with. Often a book to read, something to write and draw on, and something to take pictures or videos with. Lately however, I’ve felt such an inundation of possibilities for my work. I don’t know what they are yet, but I feel positive that following any one of the tangents proposed by my practice could lead to little but important discoveries for my work to progress and mature. But, working in multiple media, I find myself often conflicted as to where to invest myself. Nowadays, I only pack one thing in my bag before I head out. In this world of infinite accessibility and choice, one finds a necessity to enforce limitations on oneself to remain sane!!! Indeed, when I have everything at my fingertips, I end up so conflicted that I do nothing. And I love that feeling of investment in something – focus. It takes me places, and it is so rewarding. I think I would go as far to say that that kind of immersion is the very thing I live for. But it does require some effort, and I have periods where I find myself hapless and at a loss and impotent, beginning to doubt whether I am an artist at all, because I don’t seem to be spending much time doing it. I lack some kind of courage or arrogance – either would do – to feel entitled to press on in good times, and justify my helplessness in bad.

The writings tickled me. Most of them were intriguing to write, but felt entirely unsuccessful in their production. Luckily, their success was not my greatest concern while I was writing – it was more the quality of the time I was spending. Surely this is a better way to judge the hours one passes at work – can I crane my neck, in the moment of making art, to look at myself, and consider whether I am spending quality time with myself, or the environment? I read somewhere – was it William Blake? – an artist talking about how art practice was a practice in the effort of living. I really can’t remember who said that but I agree with this thoroughly. It is a redoubled will to live, it is a self-conscious form of living, that worries about its own time spent in that mode of living. That’s why art can be humbling, because nothing can be taken for granted with such a philosophical ambition, and the “observation” and “noticing” that many artists report is so integral to art is an attempt at expanding the richness of seconds that flicker by, as if to bloom dormant buds upon which we stumble thousands of times a day.

So my actual feeling was that my writing was really crap – no exaggerations – but that did not matter so much because I was playing with the act of living itself. Much later, however, I find, bafflingly, that I enjoyed reading some of them. I don’t know what conditions were in place to make certain writings better than others. Looking back I can’t tell that I felt much more positive about one or the other as I wrote them. It’s a curious aspect of the whole thing that I don’t understand at all. But the feeling that these can be enjoyed as literature, that they weren’t wholly unpleasant, introduced these works to me as yet another part of my practice that could potentially communicate to an audience, despite my not having intended them to.

I then noticed that the collection of short stories and poems that was building up in The Publication began to grow into longer pieces. This was not a premeditated desire. I think I was simply settling into the role of writer, and feeling more entitled to expand the time spent in the text.

After having written a couple of completed short works that I was in fact pleased with, I wrote the beginnings of an absolutely awful piece of writing, which I still think is awful. But I relentlessly wrote on top of that text with fresh narrative. It unravelled into the story of a character which had been on my mind for a few months, and whom I at no determinate point christened Meredith. She started out earlier this year as a small series of drawings.

I drew her imagining her as a comic book character. I drew her on my hand in thick black ink – she could be summed up in a few rapid lines. I drew her on timetables and scrap paper. I imagined the drooping pair of eyes had been plastered onto her somehow, as if by chance, and I called them Sad Eyes. I envisioned these Sad Eyes as an organism in their own right, that planted themselves by suction onto unassuming victims (birds, fashion models, Merediths, trees), and for me they signified the inescapable goggles of depression, based on my own experiences with the condition some years ago. Depression in itself has fascinated me as a state of being (referred to by Atwood in her apocalyptic Maddaddam trilogy as the “fallow state”) ever since I was essentially cured from it, because it prompted for me interesting ontological suggestions. Of particular interest to me was how that coma of will, for instance, impacts the patient’s sense of their own body. Drawing and thinking about Meredith became a platform for making corporeal thought experiments that replicated or suggested at symptoms typically brought on by depression. I imagined for instance, that Meredith, sitting by the window of a gothic manor, gazes out at what looks to be a veil floating innocently in the sky. As it floats towards her ominously, she realises it is a transparent suit of atomic-thin thickness, shaped just like her – and as it approaches her and settles over her body, she finds herself perfectly encapsulated. The thought experiment here, was what it would be like to be perfectly covered in an impossibly thin, invisible material, so that it were impossible even to detect it on your skin? It is an almost inconsequential condition, but one that remains with the bearer of the suit. Then, it is the knowledge for example, that you “never truly touch anything”, that might become unsettling, that your are effectively cut off from the world and rendered temporary or exceptional. You become something of a clumsy, walking anomaly that is barred by invisible boundaries from the other objects of the world, preserved in spiritual cellophane. Introducing this simple parameter recreated for me the sense of detachment that I strongly associated with depression.

After not having made drawings or thought much at all about Meredith for months, I now found myself writing a text that increasingly looked like a narrative that belonged to her, from the gothic castle in which it was set, to the slinking, limping nosferatu-esque female protagonist that roamed its walls in solitude. I realised that the text, although it was messy and awful, was bringing together themes, visual stimuli and environments that feature as motifs in several of my works. This inadvertently transformed the growing text into fertile ground for uniting multiple concerns that have been on my mind, and the text soon began to grow into the most expanded of its kind.

What I am left with to date is something that to me very much looks like a novel in progress. I’d certainly never anticipated that that’s what I’d be doing right now, but the scope this new format lends me is to me cause for excitement. I am not even too concerned when I write something crap. I just struck through the entire text that prefigured Meredith’s entry into the narrative. And I have a lot to strike through in between. Still, it has become a dimension which I explore with Meredith. I empathise with her, I pull my hands through hers like gloves and experience the plasticity of her body, and the dizzying amnesia of her mysterious surroundings, which only materialise piece by piece as we (Meredith and I) tred on new turf throughout the household together. She has inadvertently become a metaphor of my practice, and makes literal the steps taken into the unknown. There is nothing simple, easy, or certain about the process of writing this story. The most recent chapters have been fiascos. A couple in between have been very strong. A lot of the time I sit in front of the keyboard utterly incapable of writing a single sentence. But I feel so compelled by my intuitive sense that there is potential in this groundwork, that I am quite resolved to devote most of my attention to writing her out this summer. I consider my writing as much a part of my practice as my other two dominant media, and feel a renewed sense of confidence about welcoming my writing practice warmly into my art practice in general.

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