This would be assemblage but I am not best equipped for manipulating objects and so I am swapping it out for Project 1 of Option 2: narrative and appropriation. And while there is in theory an element of appropriation, the core theme is the use of a meaningful pre-existing story.
This plays directly into my submission goal; a series of paintings embodying key elements of a pre-existing short story and, the task being to produce around 10 paintings for the linked exercise, it can serve as preparation and exploration for that.
First, there is the research to underpin the theme, requiring a brief analysis of one piece of work by each of the artists below.
Thomas Hirshhorn (1957-)
Now that I’ve realised video material, at least as an introduction, that gives me access to the art and preferably also the artist is the most effective way of engaging, I am trawling YouTube for video material that brings the work and the person behind it to life in my mind.
I have several for Hirschhorn who seems to run a thin line between community involvement and exploitation. In the Gramsci Monument project, for instance, it’s clear he has engaged what appears to be a relatively deprived community and given many of them new ways of valuing themselves, but that he also has expectations amounting to work ethics we would associate with employees.
Reading a little about Gramsci, I am not yet seeing the connection between his prison diaries and the temporary monument project, beyhond the notion (mine) that this may be about Hirschhorn’s view of the housing in which his worker/participants live.
This sculptural installation is another collaborative yet slightly exploitative project in which Hirschhorn effectively builds a set using tyres and anonymised or socially equalised (with packing tape) furniture then invites poets and philosophers to perform in it, taking questions from the public. I don’t know if he paid them or relied on that old chestnut, ‘exposure’, and I may be doing him a disservice by thinking he did not. The concept is inherently interesting as an environment that is simultaneously high minded with its conceptual pedigree and performers likely to challenge thinking, and the very low minded warehouse back room appearance. I wonder what the invited performers thought of it, and the public. And how representative the visitors were of the kind of public the warehouse setting might be seen to reflect.
This piece though, is the one that struck me by its strong contrasts and slightly intimidating scale.
In the video below, Hirschhorn talks of his focus, possibly obsession, with ruins – the slow ones resulting from the passage of time, and those that come about by disaster, natural or human. It’s evident from his discussion that the work is conceptual because it only takes its physical shape when it it built in the space it will occupy. He has only the idea in mind when he makes the elements, the theatre of it seems to come about in the interaction between the idea, the elements, and the space itself. For me, the attraction was the striking contrasts – the white, black, and shiny brown that looked like gold at first glance. The arrangements seem carefully studied – it’s oddly difficult to replicate chaos, if chaos it is because engineering and the dynamics of materials interacting with gravity and each other would suggest an element of predictability in the way they fall. Too random then, and it won’t be convincing but to organised will seem posed even if that might be closer to the truth. Like the writing rule that says fiction must be more plausible than truth, I’d imagine the same would apply here.
We have all seen photographs of fallen buildings; the ones with a bath exposed and dangling through a blown-away outer wall, the plumbing tangled on the ground, and the one room with a TV, sofa, sideboard and no wall. So we have expectations. This piece is a clean, tidy version of those expectations – we won’t get our hands dirty here, there’ll be no smells, no dogs sniffing out survivors or bodies, no sirens. Perhaps we need those stimuli removed to focus on the visuals and to process the trauma from a place of safety.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1933- and 1945-)
“The exhibition charts the Kabakovs’ incredible artistic journey, from the early paintings, drawings, albums and sculptural works made by Ilya working as an ‘unofficial’ artist in his Moscow studio from the 1960s, through to his move to New York in the late 1980s – a turning point which marked the beginning of his collaboration with Emilia on immersive and often large-scale installations. Including architectural models of realised and unrealised utopian projects and public sculptures, the exhibition demonstrates the breadth of the Kabakovs’ practice.
Three major and rarely exhibited ‘total’ installations will be presented together for the first time: The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment 1985, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) 1990 and Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future 2001. Appearing as if they have been recently vacated, these uncanny environments draw spectators into the absurd and moving stories of these often fictional characters.” Taken from the announcement by the Tate of its 2017 exhibition of the Kabakovs’ work. Available from https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ilya-and-emilia-kabakov. Accessed 2nd January 2022 – and vanished a few minutes later with a 404!
What intrigues me about this work is the term ‘immersive’, a very common term now in the 2020s with regard to virtual reality but hardly so in the 1980s. Did they envisage viewers walking through the installations, becoming ‘present’ within them, or still being on the outside looking in on them? Hirschhorn’s are actually much more immersive, but I’m not sure he uses the term.
This video introduces their work, the soundtrack setting the tone of desolation which I’m inferring underpins the oppression experienced by creatives living under the soviet regime. The commentary doesn’t discuss the title; ‘Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future’, so for the moment I’m left to interpret this myself and it feels both physical and political. Death ends the possibility of a future for all of us and prematurely for those who resist a powerful political structure; and while those structures themselves may dissolve in time, some will hold onto the past and try to rebuild it, which we might argue is the situation in Russia today.*
This next video, posted in 2014, puts more perspective into the social history of the Kabakovs; the installation ‘The Toilet’, a living/dining room with undisguised toilets in it; Emilia finding a notebook with her name and the word ‘Jew’ next to it. No wonder Ilya talks about Man being a loser the minute he is born.
*Ilya talks about this in the video below, likening the way life moves on to a train leaving the station but not everyone being on it. He wonders what happens to art work left behind and not taken forward as an influence. I think this is a feeling many of us feel, whether artist, scientist, actor, parent, person (I’m avoiding saying ‘just’ here); what will be our legacy and will we be remembered in another couple of generations? I wonder if this is what drives his installation ‘Labyrinth’ which he rightly says can never be seen in its entirety at the same time. Is this another metaphor for life, I wonder? A commentary on being able to see only what we’ve seen but not what’s round the corner?
The installation that caught my eye, The Man Who flew Into Space From His Apartment, (1985) did so because of the colours and only later did I notice the huge hole in the apartment’s ‘ceiling’. This is the description from the Tate:
“It presents a fictional narrative that takes place in the confines of a communal apartment – a form of domestic residence that emerged during the Soviet Union to deal with the shortage of housing in urban areas. Multiple households were forced to share the same cooking and washing facilities in often cramped conditions. For Ilya, the Soviet communal apartment is emblematic of the way in which the individual is exhibited and exposed to the gaze of others. The title character of The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment finds a way to escape from this oppressive, everyday reality.”
I don’t think I would have guessed that due to having no experience of living under those conditions although I know I was imagining an escape of some sort and the USSR had been in space for many years at this point with satellites (Sputnik 1957) and the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
Again, this is for looking at, like a stage set, not for entering into, and I wonder how it might be reframed using VR. It would need to be navigable in 3D, to be walked around and viewable from more than the one perspective. Perhaps this is a way installations might be designed prior to construction of the the physical item – a test bed allowing for looking into or under cupboards and behind tables and an escape from confinement to just one view. Escape from confinement is exactly the theme of this installation.
Gregory Crewdson (1962-)
Crewdson is a photographer whose images are described as being ‘elaborately staged and lit’ (wikipedia, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Crewdson. Accessed 2nd January 2022). This image is untitled and dated 2005 [reproduced here under the principles of fair, educational, non-commercial use. Available at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/818025, accessed 2nd January 2022]
Again, it’s the colours that pull me in, and then I notice the dramatic composition, the untold story, the surrealistic hypernormality of it. The open doors and lit rooms in the back ground are still in focus and remind me of Velasquez’ Las Meninas where the same unvaried focus appears.
Made in 2017 from footage taken for a series, Beneath the Roses, dated 2003-2008, hence no social distancing as I had initially expected from the date it was uploaded (2020). His way of working seems hugely resource intensive and it’s fascinating to see how he sets up the composition for what he describes as ‘this very elusive moment’ which is somewhere between ‘light and dark’. His images are very, very still but carry the weight of a blockbuster.
In an article from Studio International dated 2017, Crewdson talks about loneliness and how he wants ‘photographs to feel like a suburban window‘ so that the viewer is looking into a world. For me, it falls somewhere between surrealist photography and dramatised documentary with total stillness at the centre.
Pablo Bronstein (1977-)
What a fantastically unpretentious, emotionally rich man this is. Here, he’s talking about his love of the baroque which he describes as a system of movements representing ease and elegance, superiority, and ‘frill’, the remnants of which he sees in classical ballet. Bronstein says he draws, makes installations, then activates them, in this instance with dancers. He talks of irony, voguing, kabuki, and queer culture and seems to have a wry eye and his tongue in his cheek much of the time.
These quotes come from the Tate site [available at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/pablo-bronstein-11761/who-is-pablo-bronstein, accessed 2nd January 2022]:
“One thing I like about architecture is its attempt at aspiration, its desperation. I’m not excited by good-quality, decent, sophisticated buildings. I like buildings that want to be seen as better than they are.
Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios published by Thames & Hudson
My feeling is that if it looks too much like art then it probably isn’t art.
Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios published by Thames & Hudson
Instead of drawing traditional houses as a child “I drew castles, with carefully demarcated bricks – and each brick would have a different motif carefully drawn upon it.
The Independent, 2014.
Bronstein gained his MA from Goldsmiths which must have been a gift of a place for him. I was an undergrad there in the 1970s when the art department mostly served the teacher training department and the Laban centre had only just opened. I found it a wonderfully eclectic place with science, arts, performance, music, and drama crammed together onto a very small campus. Bright colours, loud noises, twangs and clangs, and people from all kinds of backgrounds. In contrast, UCL was a sea of denim punctuated by pale narrow faces peering out through curtains of very similar hair.
Neo Rauch (1960-)
From wikipedia: “Art historian Charlotte Mullins explains […]: “Architectural elements peter out; men in uniform from throughout history intimidate men and women from other centuries; great struggles occur but their reason is never apparent; styles change at a whim”
This kind of anger might be explained by the fact of his parents’ deaths in a train accident when he was four weeks old and being a resident of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) until its fall in 19. I remember images of people coming through the gates in the wall, tentative at first, then floods. And the spontaneous demolition of the Berlin wall, later brought on stage by Pink Floyd.
Looking at the images brought up by google search, I was struck, before reading his history, how ‘communist’, over-bearing, and inherently violent they seemed to be. I can find nothing attractive about them, every one appearing to feature men in the midst of some awfulness. Perhaps that’s an inevitability, given his early life. Stylistically, his work seems to me harsh surrealism, a kind of 20th century Hieronymus Bosch painting out his anger for his aficionados to buy.
Which is really how this video has come about. Critiques are flashed on screen but not examined and the whole is essentially a fan-boy enterprise, the paintings in the exhibition having been brought together from individuals who have bought them. No women are featured.
Louise Lawler (1947-)
Lawler is a photographic appropriator who asks the question about what art is when it’s resized or reframed; when it leaves the artist’s hands. She uses text and also titles to make her viewers react, and employs complex historical juxtapositions which add a very detailed context to some. Unfortunately, if you are not privy to that extra information, then you’re on your own. The photograph, ‘War is Terror’ is a case in point. The curator giving us the tour in this video tells us about the matriarchal lineage denoted by Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1869 photo of her niece, Julia Jackson who would become the mother of painter Vanessa Bell, and author Virginia Woolf; thereby unifying anti war politics and feminism. Without that insight, this is just a 1900’s photo of a woman positioned somewhere in a room, which might be an unintended example of what she means – titles give me cues, additional information gives me perspectives, so if an artist withholds those elements, I am free to make (or railroaded into making) my own interpretations. In these situations, I would ask again how the people who never go to galleries are to be encouraged into them and to feel comfortable there.
Here again are insights those of us in the know might use to inform our viewing of Lawler’s work. I found her approach refreshingly un-precious at times, particularly the ones where she provided galleries with high resolution files of her work and asked them to simply ‘make them fit’ whatever wall they would be displayed on.
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