‘Podcast’ tour via collage.
The internal geography of the Grand Parade campus has changed since I was last there (1967-68) and so, inevitably, has the premise upon which art is made. At that time we were being psychedelic, free spirited, and often quite intensively introspective but to little purpose. Politics didn’t enter into our thinking. But in this show, politics permeated everything that made its purpose clear; some of that personal, some social, and some encompassing global issues. Some gave us clues as to the raison d’etre of the work, the artist’s motivation or inspiration, their process and how it got there in the way that it did. But many didn’t; I’m a psychologist and that intrigues me. Communication feels central and while the art may be a communicatory channel in itself, if the message isn’t received by the viewer, or fails to spark something in the viewer, then I wonder if it can be said to have succeeded. I was there with a friend; we talked about finding ourselves looking at the last frame in the film, the last paragraph of the story, but with no idea of what led up to it.
The show covered three floors; the gallery area at ground level housing the Fine Art exhibits, a room behind this and part of the first floor was occupied by the Inclusive Arts students, and then on the second floor were the Digital Arts installations. In between, on the walls around a landing, were images from photography and fashion. They seemed displaced, temporarily put up in bed and breakfast rather than being allocated hotel rooms.
I think it’s an unavoidable fact that positioning a piece in elegant and purpose-built surroundings adds a kind of value and confers a dignity and gravitas it would find harder to accrue in less accommodating circumstances. Separating this out from the work itself is quite demanding – does this piece have an impact because of its inherent quality or simply because of where it is? Some pieces were certainly impactful: ‘The Tables are Turning’ for instance showed us paintings on the undersides of small tables that point to emerging restoration of political balance – what was beneath is finally coming to the top, a commentary on the people’s response to oppression. More bafflingly impactful – in terms of the space it took up and the voices played on loop – was a long row of cones wrapped in tights, each with a lipstick on top. This was designated a performance piece but as the artist was not there at the time of our visit, there was no dialogue to provide context. Two artists were on site and one of them came over to see what we had made of this piece. She tried to describe its origins and message but neither of us really understood. She herself was showing a very large abstract painting which occupied both physical and mental space in that its title did not give much clue as to its derivation. When I asked, the artist talked about being in the moment rather than having an end in mind.
The other artist on site was exhibiting a radiator piece which, when we found it, similarly gave away little as to its reason for being there. When we asked him though, he spoke fluently and eloquently about the how, why, and what of his exhibit and set it in a wholly understandable context. The radiator’s back story is one reflecting the horrors of war and represents a documented political assassination in Nazi Germany. Knowing this immediately added the story to this final paragraph and I wondered why something of it did not accompany the piece since it made such a difference to our experience of it.
Some of the pieces were cheeky – ‘People Who Piss Me off’ for instance, an installation comprising a filing cabinet with ticker tape printed with the names, presumably, of those people, spilling out. I can sympathise, many of them piss me off too, and I had a quiet chuckle. Other pieces managed to distance themselves from us by being dull-coloured, abstract, and untitled which made us question ‘what it was for’ – what were we supposed to take away from this artist’s work? In the end, we took very little beyond wondering how long these pieces had taken to make and what had driven the artist to reach these solutions.
Another piece – small wedges of dark wood with collaged images on them attached to a large piece of wood and rising from the floor – was so well executed and had an aesthetic appeal with its colours and surfaces that there was an inherent impact. What it was saying was not so clear – were the two wedges on the floor lost or left behind, or were they are the first of a tumbling avalanche with the rest poised to follow? The label gave no clue and I would have liked a clue.
The overriding impression of this part of the exhibition was that, where context was provided – even just an idea of the developmental process – works became immediately more interesting and held value as a communication. We wondered, along with the artists themselves, what the people who visited made of the work when there was no one to ask; how the thousands of people who had not chosen to visit saw art when they were challenged to ‘experience it’ in a vacuum and whether this was why so many were not there. Are people afraid of looking foolish for not ‘getting it’, or do they see the whole business as an exclusive (and excluding) side show that isn’t for the likes of them?
The next floor – fronted by a display in the area beneath the stairs that introduced the focus – was given over to the Inclusive Arts programme. This course is the only one in the UK offering artists the opportunity to express their work in collaboration with disadvantaged or ‘othered’ groups, and so works with people on the autistic spectrum, with women isolated by fear, with parents similarly isolated by the weight of caring for a disabled child, with voiceless people lacking connection with art and its positive effects. A sculpture constantly being remade illustrated the ways in which people, as I interpreted it, remake themselves in order to meet expectations; a closed hut with spy holes in it told us how much is hidden from us by so many; knots in fishermen’s rope was the entanglement many people experience in trying to escape or belong. The art on this floor was keen to talk and tell us about itself with postcards, printed sheets, labels and conversation. It wanted us to know and to understand.
Somewhere between this and the second floor was a small photography and fashion display. It felt like an afterthought, sitting there on the walls in a corridor between spaces.
Finally, we found Digital Arts where not only did the artists want us to see and know but also participate and make the art, albeit temporarily. That we missed the literature was due not to their negligence but to the darkness of the rooms and our own inattention on entering. There was information on the doors; we slipped past it into the fascinating areas beyond and I had to chase people down later to find out who they were and the titles of their work.
Alberto Sande was unfortunately absent when we visited but very quickly came back with the thinking behind his stunning piece involving deep rhythms, and coloured images given a 3D effect by projecting them through a gauze curtain. A sofa gave us a front row seat and a keyboard – the musical sort – as a way to affect the visual display. Seeded by thinking around a number of ideas drawn from Alice in Wonderland, Deprez’s Drolatic Dreams of Pantaguel, and a Chinese essay on the Thirty Six Stratagems, this installation would have been a challenge to interpret right off the bat. The artist kindly sent me his abstract by email but I would have loved a conversation with him to explore the roads he took in making this piece. It was interactive and projected some deep dark sounds alongside the images and low frequency notes always speak to me of something profound.
Moshref’s The Existential Crisis of the Phoenix* showed us the cyclical rise and fall of ideas and philosophies, emphasising the place of the phoenix as a positive influence. Using a range of equipment, this installation permitted participants to become the phoenix itself and change digital representations on a number of screens. Its particular focus though was resistance to the oppressive regimes that are systematically brutalising women, and we talked about the wings representing expansiveness; women taking up their space in the world by right and not by permission, and our world seeking collaboration as the antithesis to nationalistic insularity. As a visiting maker of the art in this context I could not help expressing my own views but as it was visually but not auditorily reactive, neither ‘Fuck Trump’ nor ‘and while we’re here, fuck Boris’ had any effect on the display.
*Title edited after email contact with the artist.
Fine Art had a catalogue containing some but not all of the works, and works from a previous show which were not on display. It did not seem to see in its mission any reason to assist visitors in understanding the work but when we asked, those present gave eloquent and valuable responses. Fine Art occupies the best position in the show. Quite often I hear that art is something to appreciate without explanation, and this seemed to be the position taken here too. Sean Scully, in his recent documentary, appears not to be a subscriber to this view saying that there is an inherent arrogance in expecting people to do this, with the implied assumption that, if they fail, then they must be stupid [link to my blog post on art and meaning]. This goes back to the question I started to address with the two artists on site – that of their audience. Visitors were most likely self-selecting art aficionados and there is nothing wrong with that, but what of all those others who were not there, self-excluded because art is ‘not for them’ or they fear not understanding it? At the very least, this misses a marketing trick and one assumes these graduates are hoping to make a living from their work. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Fine Art occupies the main space and has the catalogue.
In contrast, Inclusive Art had all manner of explanatory leaflets, printouts on the walls, and postcards but no catalogue. Nor was their work in the first catalogue. These artists appeared very keen to talk about their motivations, the media they used, the collaborations with disadvantaged groups and individuals, and had produced work that spoke directly to those issues by involving the people affected in producing that work. I wondered later if any of them had been present at the show in the role of artist as they seemed not to have a presence when we visited.
Edit July 19th. I had forgotten to mention an accessibility issue which, while they would affect any exhibitor not on the ground floor, seem particularly pertinent to Inclusive Arts. Asking for directions from the ground floor, we were told the lift would be the easiest route, but then advised that we needed a special pass to use it which meant we could not.
Digital Art was a little harder to find and had only two exhibitors*, but they made up for this with sheer enthusiasm and technical and artistic skill. Their ideas were expansive and the means of expression wide ranging. While one artist, Sande, was not present when we visited, his subsequent response to an email suggests he would have been as keen to involve us as participants in his interactive installation as was Moshref. The Digital Arts show was not just collaborative but also allowed us as visitors to influence the art itself.
*I discovered, after some email exchanges with an exhibitor and the course leader, that there were ten exhibits. Unfortunately, we had not seen any signage to the other eight.
 I lost the actual reference but a search using keywords Nazi Car Assassination brings up the heroic act of Jan Kubis who ran out in front of the open top car of high ranking SS officer Reinhardt Heydrich with the intention of shooting him. The gun jammed but he was able to throw a bomb which eventually killed Heydrich, probably saving hundreds if not thousands of lives. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18183099
Images from the day