This begins with researching Ian Andrews using the links in the course materials and then moving beyond that via a set of key words derived from that research to find other artists using ‘archival or appropriated material, stories, dreams, symbolism, or other ways of categorising/ordering knowledge and ideas and ideas which are partial or have degrees of unreliability in their systems’.
As none of the links are active and I have come across Andrews before, I have used YouTube videos as a reminder.
I am not going to spend much time on Andrews because unfortunately his work reminds me of raw meat at best and slaughterhouse slurry at worst; the colours and textures further reminding me of that early 2000s exhibition, Body Worlds, by Gunther von Hagens who used posed cadavers. I’m not generally fragile; I’ve cleaned up plenty of human bodily fluids in my time as a nurse, seen the insides of bodies in surgery, and the outsides of ones who have died. I think it’s about the purpose; the art is supposed to engage me or entertain in some way – it’s there for me to look at; while in the reality, nothing was there for me, I was there to help.
Thinking about how art is organised in the minds of different artists, I find myself immediately considering the drivers of art which sometimes are very direct and representative – botanical drawings for instance, and the more emotionally expressive war drawings – and at other times speculative explorations of religious or spiritual mysteries; unknowns for which people need tangible points of reference. Describers and explainers, maybe; hooks upon which to hang uncertainties in the absence of photography and documented evidence. Political references and satirical drawings such as those poking fun at the Prince Regent’s antics in Brighton would seem to form another category, its current proponents including the likes of Banksy and Led By Donkeys, although there is little disguise or sleight of hand in these.
I wrote recently about Ian McKeever who suggested that figurative art had become redundant in the face of photography and film, which was why he had focused on abstraction, and I agree to some extent. When a portrait or a representation is so photographic as to be indistinguishable, I wonder what the purpose is. For me, a painting has to do what McKeever sees as its unique job, letting paint express its difference, but I wouldn’t go so far as to abandon figurative work altogether because people are what people relate to. It was also clear from McKeever’s interview that he invites ‘people’ into his work and embodies each painting with a kind of agency in terms of ‘finishing itself’ so, arguably, he hasn’t excluded them at all.
Still, we are beyond the need, I think, of using paint to document and represent; film and photography can do that perfectly well and also be inventive and creative about it too. A look at Lisa Pettibone’s work though shows how creative interpretation can visualise complex ideas and, in her case, end up on the International Space Station. This collaborative work via placements with UCL, CERN, and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory was the subject of Lisa’s superb talk to OCA’s Art-Science Collective recently and I think we’re all waiting to see how her small green chlorophyll beads sculpture is getting on up there.
Political and activist documenting feels different. It has to be less obscure and so it must be clear in its message while nevertheless encapsulating a complex situation. Climate change is one that often relies on demonstrating temperature change with visual gifs, or illustrating the potential impact using evocative images of displaced people and animals. Banksy and Led By Donkeys have their own distinct ways of exposing the injustices of social and political errors or deliberate acts.
Today, we’re all wrestling with the images of threat and courage in Ukraine as Russia tries to subdue the country and claim it as its own. Impotence is a big driver of stress in the politically attuned and so graphics, posters, flags and stories from the front lines helped in the demonstration of solidarity until practical routes came available. UNHCR and Red Cross appeals – reliably not scams; an appeal on twitter calling for ‘IT nerds’ to help hack Russian websites and take down fakery. Protests across nations need placards and posters to make clear the message they want their respective governments to hear and creatives are stepping up.
I think this is where I am with this. Lack of clarity is anathema to me, and while I’m happy to make something that is thoughtful, or keeps a viewer (more usually a reader) engaged and wondering what’s coming next, I am not happy about leaving it up to them to figure out.
This doesn’t mean blatant signposting, but it does mean providing ordinary people with the same kind of information artists seem happy to give away to their audiences for documentaries and newspaper interviews.