Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
Dubuffet “advocated for “instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness”2 rather than analysis and reason, as well as closer proximity to nature and natural forms and the discarding of traditional notions of beauty. “Look at what lies at your feet!” he once said. “A crack in the ground, sparkling gravel, a tuft of grass, some crushed debris offer equally worthy subjects for your applause and admiration.”3 Such values were embodied in what Dubuffet termed art brut (or “raw art”), produced on the margins by children, outsider and folk artists, and the mentally ill. His own collection of this work, formed in part with the help of the Surrealist Andre Breton and writer Jean Paulhan, was donated to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1971.” MoMA [available at https://www.moma.org/artists/1633 accessed 30th December, 2021]
I can identify with Dubuffet’s exhortation to feel rather than think, although advocating for instinct over reason and analysis suggests he believes it to be a quality mysteriously separate from those things. Today, he might be arguing for a well-fed unconscious freed from conscious linear constraints and allowed to make its own marks without hindrance. This, in my view, is not a bad idea, as the unconscious can be roughly conceptualised as a bubbling pond of experience where everything is happening at once, while a conveyor belt of linear processing chugs along above, waiting for ideas or words or images to be flung onto it from beneath. The more there is in the pond, the more likely it is that novel objects will land flapping in the conscious mind.
Where I differ from Dubuffet is his use of ‘untrained’ art – that of children and mentally ill people – which not only denies them the capacity for thought or analysis but also seems patronising and exploitative. Of course, that would not be the prevailing view at the time. Here in the UK, the institutions were only just closing when Dubuffet died, and prior to that, people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities were barely considered human. I worked in three of these places; they were shocking in ways unimaginable by the outside world.
But Dubuffet could not have known that and so to some extent he was arguably giving people access to a life they could not have had without his interest. I do wonder if he paid or at least credited them for the work that inspired him or that he used in his own work, if that’s what he did.
The more I look at Dubuffet’s work, the more patronisingly derivative I find it. This is not ‘him’, this is an imitation of the work of people to whom most would not accord respect, and that feels wrong. Admittedly, and as I indicated above, these were different times and we must exercise caution when judging past decisions, attitudes, or frames of reference by modern standards. Still, I am uncomfortable with these.
Discomfort set me off looking for other ways of seeing this work and I recall some research years ago which found that, if people prejudiced against an experimental ‘out group’ heard people like themselves (and therefore valued) speaking positively about the group, they would often change their view. I don’t know who wrote it, the date, or the subject matter but I’ve seen applications of the principle in settings as varied as tackling racial stereotyping and addressing fear of insects. The video below talks about Dubuffet’s work in ways I cannot hear in my own head when I read about him or see, without context, examples of his work; and I find he chose patients’ work to exhibit, that his caricatured portraits were counter-points to the tradition of presenting sitters in their best light, and that his steamrollered paintings of women were objections to objectification.
I like very much his idea that artists should be alchemists, turning raw materials into gold, and a quote from contemporary writer Maggie Nelson that resonates with work that could represent the minutiae of the ground beneath our feet or galaxies beyond our vision, ‘We are all made from stardust, why are we not talking more about that?’ His Paris work made me laugh, bringing to mind Where’s Wally, but his use of butterfly wings horrified me, acceptable as this practice was at the time.
Overridingly though, is the inescapable fact that placement of a piece is critical. In a gallery; beautifully lit with often tailormade backgrounds, and the air of critical acclaim and importance, and curators willing to talk positively about them; work is going to be viewed through the lens of kudos. I wonder how often that is factored into equations of value.
John Bock (1965-)
I don’t know what to say about a man described as he is by the Guggenheim:
“Bock is known for his lectures that parody academic activity, which he enacts in impermanent environments crafted from household objects, detritus, furniture, wood, and other generally inexpensive and often found items. These quotidian materials recall the work of artists such as Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, who wove kitsch sources into California’s post-Pop art aesthetic in the 1980s. During exhibitions and events, Bock occupies these spaces as places of semi-dwelling and stages for audience engagement. Consisting of pseudo-formal language in a mixture of English, French, and German, Bock’s lectures often verge on gibberish and are variously shouted, proclaimed, and spoken in a fast-paced manner. Although an admirer of Joseph Beuys, who performed similarly didactic works from the 1960s to the 1980s, Bock does not intend to teach his viewers but rather to engage them in an experiential and reciprocal relationship. However, his incomprehensible language and actions frustrate any clearly prescribed exchange, serving as a wider metaphor for the precarious communication between contemporary artist and audience. The lectures are accompanied by the wearing of costumes, sewn or knitted together; gestures; and spontaneously drawn diagrams and illustrations of the performance, further creating a deliberately absurdist, or to use the artist’s term, “a-logical” atmosphere. Items used during a lecture are often destroyed or discarded, while the improvised, collaged stage remains on view, sometimes alongside video documentation, and provides a permanent work to exhibit in its aftermath.” Guggenheim. Accessed 30th December 2021.
According to this account, Bock’s aim is to engage his viewers rather than teach, but, in using deliberately excluding language and delivery along with destruction of his materials, my sense is of someone going out of their way to create an unattainable image in people’s minds – this is what art looks like and if you don’t get it, that’s because you’re not as smart as me. It feels pretentious and disrespectful.
I’m not sure this video – a lecture staged as a fashion show – has further endeared him to me much. Filmed (and uploaded as collected clips) in 2009, this is punk with all the raucous noise, both aural and visual that goes with the genre. There is unwitting audience participation too as models, who from their gait are the real thing, place strange objects around the necks of some or haul them through the air above others. This is not nice in a very intentional way but the audience is complicit, they know this and so they are delighted with it. At the end, Bock parades with his models up the catwalk and then takes a bow alone. Whatever else he believes he is doing, at those moments it seems to me he is being, not aping or parodying, the world he apparently set out to rip apart.
Isa Genzken (1948-)
Genzken presents a different aesthetic entirely, something much more delicate even when the scale is huge. A sculptor and installationist, she is reported to have become interested latterly in bricolage, a term I had to look up and which means “the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work constructed using mixed media.”, according to wikipedia.
This YouTube video is joyful and, to my mind, describes her the way we might describe a politically astute comedian. She lets no one and nothing off the hook.
Realising now that I get much more from video than from written material, especially if this is commentary by the artist or in the form of a ‘guided tour’ by someone with insight and authority, I’m using YouTube as my main source of information. So far, I can see that being able to personalise by hearing at the same time as seeing commentary and visual material, I am far less prone to reactive negativity.
Samantha Donnelly – ‘negates the shifting relationships between the physical object and the photographic subject’ [course notes]
This site indicates at least an audio interview but there isn’t evidence of one. https://www.thecollectionmuseum.com/exhibitions-and-events/view/samantha-donnelly-artist-talk
This is the summary from the collection below.
“Samantha Donnelly’s practice is concerned with breaking down subjects and reconfiguring them in new constellations. Bringing together appropriated ephemera and quotidian materials such as magazines or cut-out photographs to produce assemblages, Donnelly reworks material remnants from various areas of contemporary culture, allowing them to dialogue and resonate within the same piece. By drawing our attention to surface and formal elements such as composition and colour, Donnelly’s work often references art history, particularly Modernism and the Baroque. She amalgamates objects and images from diverse sources with humour to create configurations that are playful and quite often fragile or absurd.” from the Zabludowicz Collection. https://www.zabludowiczcollection.com/collection/artists/view/samantha-donnelly
There was a video on this page but the link is broken. Multiple searches have turned up no audio or video for Donnelly.
Susan Phillipsz (or Philips in some listings)
Philips is a visual/soundscape artist with big influence and a wide appreciation of music, sound, and literature although not necessarily an understanding. She separates strands of elements to represent disconnection – instruments on different floors of a museum, elements of a score that was destroyed after its makers were killed in Auschwitz for instance. Recent performance pieces include singing songs by eg Radiohead over a bus station/supermarket Tannoy. The interviewer is prone, as are many, to producing his own theory or interpretation which, obviously, it would be hard to disagree with as this is public but also because it’s flattering and leading so it moulds the response. Again, the audience is in the dark, having no access to these insights, especially the people in the bus station/supermarket about whom assumptions are made.
Phillipsz/Philips has a dark bent but given what appears to be her history – holocaust imagery and connection – this is probably not surprising.
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2010/dec/03/susan-philipsz-london-city-installation Turner Prize winning sound installation, Surround Me. Quite atmospheric and an interesting idea. Madrigals. Uses the female voice a lot. Violinist plays the Lachrimae. Again, the public is not given the benefit of these insights.
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2010/dec/07/turner-prize-2010-susan-philipsz-student-protests Installation is called Lowlands and was originally ‘shown’ under bridges in Glasgow. Protests accompanied the prize giving, focused on cuts to funding for the arts. This was 2010 and here we still are, resisting cuts to the Arts.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Philipsz “Susan Mary Philipsz OBE (born 1965) is a Scottish artist who won the 2010 Turner Prize. Originally a sculptor, she is best known for her sound installations. She records herself singing a cappella versions of songs which are replayed over a public address system in the gallery or other installation. She currently lives and works in Berlin“. I have some queries about this: do artists need ethical approval to conduct what are essentially experiments on an non-consenting public, albeit experiments that have no objective outcome? Phillipsz makes inferences about the impact of her interventions over the public address systems of the station and the supermarket, but her subject population seems neither to be asked about it or debriefed. In my world, I would have needed local and regional ethical approval to go ahead, and that would have included contingency provision should any member of the public be negatively affected. Watching the faces of the unwitting participants, many seemed puzzled, a little confused maybe about what was going on. Some seemed amused. I wondered though about people with PTSD, mental health disturbances – especially those subject to auditory hallucinations, hearing abnormalities and so forth. What happened to those people? Were they affected? Was that traumatising? Did they avoid those places in the future or experience a consequent deterioration that had its own consequences?
I think my attraction to composers such as Max Richter and Hans Zimmer and those who made soundtracks from the radiofrequencies of planets* predicts an affinity with Phillipsz’s work. I often use audio to underpin the short videos I make based on physical art work but animated/edited using apps such as those made by Lightricks and the video editing platform, Filmora by Wondershare.
“If you make sculpture you do a weird thing … you compete with the real world” Fischer from his 2018 video below. By this he seems to mean that 2D work is a window and does not pretend to be 3D so it is not competing. But perhaps not being on the floor with the viewer is part of that equation because I’d imagine representational artists and those specialising in hyper-realistic work, or the installationists and assemblage makers might take issue. Personally I’m not sure where I am with this but I like his attitude and the way he seems to combine a kind of activism with a subverting cheekiness that might get a message under an unwary radar.
Symphonies of the Planets. NASA Voyager recordings. Attributed to Timothy Drake. Accessible via Spotify and also Amazon.