The assignment focuses on aspects of the artist’s personal environment, from walks to buildings, animals, pets, garden, and the interior of the home. Written long before the current situation whereby some of us have spent almost a year with little else but our local environment to feed our thoughts and ideas, this task has a very different physical and emotional context from the one its author probably had in mind.
I am lucky enough to be locked down in a country village with a large garden and good delivery options. I was unlucky enough to experience a roof leak in my re-purposed conservatory and the subsequent discovery that its structural integrity was not up to having that fixed. Since October 2020 until now (late January 2021) the building site behind my once open door into that space has been the environment, and very nearly the only one that matters. As of next week, there may be glass in the windows and the roof. After that the floor can be completed, the low walls plastered and painted, the electrical sockets fitted, and, critically, the cat flap installed because the door will have to stay open until it is. On the plus side, the builders have been my surrogate social life despite the dodging around in masks and using semaphore through the windows.
Some of the artists recommended though resonate with me. David Hockney’s cats for instance, especially the startled-looking earthenware one from 1955, are pure cat which seems testament to his ‘eyeballing’ skills, given his preference for dogs.
Elizabeth Blackadder too has a good eye for what I think of as essence of cat; that is an image that describes cat qua cat rather than the more cutesie chocolate box versions that send the internet into kitten-spasm.
Similarly Stella Vine, and although hers are much more raw in their presentation they still say ‘cat’ loud and clear to me.
By coincidence, I noticed this in the grounds of St Nicholas church which dates back to the 11th century. It marks the grave of Sue Trew who died in 2001 aged 52. This too is wholly ‘cat’.
Of the other artists listed, I can’t say I saw anything particularly engaging, being either too small and detailed or, for my taste, overly naïve and primitive in style. But then for this assignment I have become more interested in what may be my fantasy of Chinese painting, and in architectural imagery, both of which have fed visually and conceptually into my ideas for the pieces of work.
I have two books the covers of which resonate with the mental image I have of Chinese art, and the contents of which draw on Chinese philosophies. This, and my personal interest in fiction by Chinese authors, notably Cixin Liu who writes extraordinary science fiction, seem to provide me with cognitive contexts by which to draw some kind of sympathetic imagery in my approach here.
There is also this, brought for me from China by a friend back in the 1970s and so familiar from being next to my front door that it’s seeped into my unconscious and goes barely noticed. But here is the parchment shade, the blue-grey, the green-blue, the pinkish tones, and the vertical script that felt right for this work.
For architectural elements, I find myself somewhere between the clean lines of artists such as Zaha Hada (architect) and Giger’s gothic designs for the Alien film franchise. The core principle in both, it seems to me, is vision – an ability to see beyond both the ordinary and the expected; Hada eventually creating extraordinary designs for what Le Corbusier referred to as ‘machine(s) for living [and presumably working] in’, and Giger constructing his imaginative landscape on the back of meticulous draughtsmanship to deliver the fullest visual impact of alien discovery.
In a triumph of hope over expectation, my assignment draws on fusions of some of these styles and principles and progresses from the historical/philosophical to present day space exploration, incorporating text from Chinese books of guidance, song lyrics, films, fiction, and NASA narratives. None of this is original, text having had a place in art for some considerable time and much of it message based as in religious iconography. William Blake (1757-1827) often combined painting and poetry, the illuminated text of bibles arguably subjugates the art work to the script but is nevertheless a use of visual imagery to enhance the words and presumably bang home the message. John Hollander’s ‘Swan and Shadow’ makes the image from the poem itself, looking far more dramatic on the dark grey background here – scroll to the bottom – than in its more mundane original form.
Arguably activist groups such as Led By Donkeys and data visualisers like Forensic Architecture are contemporary exponents of textual tradition with their filmic projections, bill board posters, and carefully reconstructed timelines aimed at holding politicians and sometimes entire nations to account.
My project is considerably more domestic and personal, but because I find it near impossible to make work that has no meaning beyond being a thing to look at, the imagery, subject matter, composition, and text are there to say something.
Hockney’s untitled ceramic cat as described by Auction Publicity in 2011. [online] Available at David Hockney Ceramic Cat Auctions for £34,000 : Auction Publicity. Accessed 29 January 2021.
The Complete I Ching: the definitive translation. 1998. Tao Master Alfred Huang. Inner Traditions. Rochester Vermont, Toronto Canada.
Tao Te Ching. 1993. Translated by Stephen Addis and Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Co. Indianapolis/Cambridge.
Cixin Liu (1963 -). I began with ‘The Three Body Problem’ which is an epic four volume arching story involving Chinese history, modern physics, virtual reality, and probably the best blend of real and fantasised science I have come across. Audible does good versions. Print provides the time needed for absorption. cixin liu three body problem 4 books collection set (the three-body problem, the dark forest, death’s end, the wandering earth): Amazon.co.uk: Cixin Liu: 9789123655397: Books. Accessed 31 January 2021.
H. R. Giger (1940-2014). The drama of the films aside, his drawings created the sets that made so much of the powerful then terrifying atmosphere possible. I can recommend ‘Giger’s Alien: film design, 20th Century Fox’ 1979, Galerie Morpheus International.
Zaha Hadid. Such a shockingly short life (1950-2016) but so incredibly impactful. This is the tribute on her business site Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) – Zaha Hadid Architects (zaha-hadid.com), and this a link to some of her early paintings Zaha Hadid Early Paintings and Drawings, Serpentine Sackler Gallery – Zaha Hadid Architects (zaha-hadid.com). Accessed 31 January 2021.
Charles-Edouard Jenneret Le Corbusier (1887-1965). His name and philosophy of architecture is one of the few that stuck with me after our race through the history of architecture for A level when our new teacher realised, three months before the exams, that his predecessor had covered nothing of this part of the course at all. No wikipedia in 1967! Le Corbusier – OpenLearn – Open University; Le Corbusier – Wikipedia. Accessed 31 January 2021.
Led By Donkeys. Led By Donkeys; Led By Donkeys | Facebook Accessed 31 January 2021.
Forensic Architecture. Based at Goldsmiths university, London. Investigations ← Forensic Architecture (forensic-architecture.org) Accessed 31 January 2021.
Hollander, J. 1929-2013. American poet. This link leads to the original poem and shows how carefully crafted were the words such that neither the poem nor the image seems secondary to the other. https://www.naic.edu/~gibson/poems/hollander1.html Accessed 31 January 2021.