Truly fantastic - an inspiring exhibition
from the African diaspora
IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC IS AN OUTSTANDING AND IMPORTANT EVENT, GENERATING HEAT IN LONDON'S HOTTEST-EVER SUMMER - A LANDMARK SHOW THAT DESCRIBES THE WORLD FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
This is the domain of the Strange,
the Marvelous, the Fantastic ...
Here is the freed image,
dazzling and beautiful,
with a beauty that could not be
more unexpected and overwhelming.
Here are the poet, the painter
and the artist, presiding over
the metamorphoses and the
inversions of the world,
under the sign of
hallucination and madness
In the Black Fantastic opened at the Hayward Gallery, on London's South Bank, in the hot high summer of 2022. The exhibition continues until mid-September. Although all eleven artists in this spectacular display live in the African diaspora - mostly in Europe and America - the blazing intensity of the African sun burns through the show, contrasted with the profound darkness of the African shade. In this year, in which the alarm signals of climate change have sounded out with increasing urgency, visitors to the Hayward Gallery will have experienced that tropic chiaroscuro for themselves, before, during and after their visit. And they will have experienced the vividness of colour and the depth of texture that everyone experiences in the darkest yet brightest of continents. Beyond these physical sensations, this exhibition offers an forceful emotional experience, reinforced with the provocation of ideas. Like the best exhibition this one stirs body, mind and the soul.
To complement the Hayward show, its curator Ekow Eshun has assembled a season of films, in the BFI theatre that sits alongside the gallery. He curates both events with a keen eye on the issues of power, justice and race. He was born in London after his father had become exiled from Ghana, where he had been imprisoned by political opponents:
In the Black Fantastic is the first major exhibition to gather together artists from the African diaspora who embrace myth and science fiction as a way to address racial injusticeand explore alternative realities. The Black fantastic doesn't describe a movement or a rigid category so much as a way ofseeing shared by artists who grapple with the racial inequities of contemporary society by conjuring new narratives of Black possibility. Beyond visual art, it encompasses many other works, from the spectacular imagery of Beyonce's Lemonade and the movie Black Panther to the enthralling novels of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler. In all these instances, we see Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious.
But why now for the Black fantastic? After all, the long history of bigotry suffered by Black people in the West makes an unlikely context for art that looks to myth and fable. All the more so in the era of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. But I'd argue that the turn to the fantastical has nothing to
do with escapism. On the contrary, it suggests a refusal to live within the constraints of a society that defines Black people as inferior and alien. It shares an understanding of race as a socially constructed fiction rather than a scientific truth, albeit one that perniciously shapes popular perceptions
and behaviour. Ultimately, it offers a thrilling invitation to embrace fantasy as a zone of creative and cultural liberation. The Black fantastic is what freedom looks like.
Ekow Eshun, Exhibition Curator
The publicity for In the Black Fantastic makes much of its relationship to the Afrofuturism movement. I have found myself struggling, in my cursory dealings with Afrofuturism, to fully understand what is going on, so I went to the Hayward in a sombre mood of self-improvement. But I soon discovered that there is so much more to see, not least in the ubiquitous reference to deeper myths and ritual and the grinding realties of contemporary life - coloured, as they are, by the unfinished business of violent and exploitative histories. In this context, Afrofuturism becomes a strategy rather than the central theme. My need for self-improvement fell away, to be replaced by the pleasure of new experiences and the excitement of discovery. And there is a lot to think about as well.
When I first opened the door into the exhibition I was overwhelmed. My way was barred by a vast screen of what prove to be casts of forearms and clasping hands that appear to rise up from the floor as they fall down from the ceiling. Beyond, I could see areas of bright colour
dotted with mysterious standing figures, also brightly clad. There is a strangeness and vitality to this scene, as if you are are walking into a town square in a foreign land. As I moved through the rest of this enormous and bravely ambitious exhibition, I was increasingly reminded of a significant moment in my life close to thirty years ago. I was visiting the Paris Biennale and came upon another large-scale display - my introduction to the work of a very young artist creating a distinctive visual and verbal language to express his powerful presence and the force of his imagination. This was my first encounter with the prodigious early work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. It demanded my intention with the urgency of its message. "Pay attention!" it seemed to be saying. "Do not ignore my story or my shared history. We are no longer prepared to be marginalised or ignored."
We all know tragic fate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He quickly fell to pieces after his his exposure to fame and fortune, and died an ugly death before he left his twenties. But the language remains as strong and effective as it ever was, despite the cacophony of of imitations. Perhaps more so. A generation later, the collective force of Ekow Eshun's magnificent collective statement, and the breadth and depth of the artists he has gathered together, gives us cause for further optimism. GD
Over time, I shall add a profile of each of the participating artists in the Black Fantastic enterprise, as a gesture of respect and gratitude for its seriousness and the pleasure it gives. Its very popularity is a great encouragement, in a world that seems to be tumbling ever deeper into a pit of conflict and collapse. It helps to remind us: There are alternatives.
Polar bears take their ease in an abandoned human habitat. Should we despair at the incongruity of these images, celebrate the bears' resilience or simply accept what we see, not as surrealism but as new facts of life?
I do not know the answer to these questions.
When I first saw these pictures in The Guardian, presented as a photographic essay by Dmitry Kokh, I knew I wanted to share them. Not only as charming pictures, like those from the best kind of illustrated book for children, but also as highly problematic pictures that reveal just how profoundly we have moved from wild nature into a kind of domesticated kitsch - in the lifetime of, say, Sir David Attenborough. As I was going through the images I could not decide whether they represented DESECRATION or RENEWAL in that joint (or contradictory) category of the amaze website. Are these images tragic or triumphant? That demands an open discussion - and I would be delighted if any visitors to this site chose to contribute to that discussion.
Meanwhile, I have decided to place some the many extraordinary pictures in the SEE page, which is usually designated as the zone for visual
art Because, whatever else they are, these photographs are visual art, provoking thought, discussion and even - like some of the most interesting
art - provoking ambivalence and anxiety, attraction and disgust. Hoping that I eventually gain the confidence to address some of the questions of meaning and consequence embedded in these pictures, I am going to present now some of the personal thoughts of the
photographer, Dmitry Kokh. GD
Dmitry Kokh writes:
I had dreamed about photographing polar bears for a long time. Some time ago my hobby, wildlife photography, ceased to be just a hobby and turned into a large part of my life. And if you devote so much time to an activity then your goals should be ambitious. Most of all I like to take pictures of large marine animals, whether on land or under water. Not everyone knows, but zoologists classify polar bears as marine mammals since they spend most of their time on ice floes away from land. And their paws even have webbing.
There are only a few places on the planet where polar bears can be found in large numbers. One of them is Russia’s Wrangel Island, a nature reserve under Unesco protection that is often called a polar bear maternity ward. The place is very inaccessible, which may be bad for tourists but is great for the animals."
Preparations for the expedition to Wrangel took nearly two years, and last August we finally set off for the north of Chukotka on a small ice-class sailing yacht. We proceeded about 2,000km (1,200 miles) along the coast, stopping in deserted bays and photographing grey and humpback whales. We met an incredible number of different birds, several brown bears, sea lions and seals. We went scuba diving in the waters of the Chukchi Sea, which turned out to be full of life. I felt as if I was in a parallel universe. Days and weeks passed. Landscapes changed dozens of times: sunny pebble beaches, steep cliffs, mountains and tundra. Finally, after passing Cape Dezhnev and heading for Wrangel Island, we began to encounter floating sea ice, which was unusual for the time of year. It had been assumed that the ice edge would be much farther north.
One day, bad weather was expected and the captain approached a small island, Kolyuchin, to take shelter from the storm. Kolyuchin is known for the polar weather station that operated on it in Soviet times. Though the station was closed in 1992, the abandoned village still stands on the island. The stormy wind and rain and the neglected buildings on the rocky shores all served to make everything happening seem surreal. Suddenly we noticed movement in the windows of the houses.
Someone took out some binoculars and we saw the heads of polar bears. Fog, a place long deserted by people, polar bears – it was the perfect setting.
The bears walked around the houses and among barrels left on the island a long time ago. There were about 20 animals in sight at the same time, mostly males. The females kept to the side with their cubs, closer to the shores of the island. Barrels are a
well-known problem in the Russian Arctic. Back in the days of the USSR, fuel was delivered to the station in them, but it was very expensive to take the barrels back, so they were simply discarded.
It was too dangerous to land on the island that day, so I took pictures from a drone equipped with special low-noise propellers.
I also used certain tricks of the trade that allowed me to shoot the animals without disturbing them. After a while, the bears practically ignored the unusual buzzing.
Later I asked one of Russia’s top polar bear experts, Anatoly Kochnev, what causes the animals’ behaviour – why do they love to sit in the buildings? The biologist, who worked in Chukotka and on the island of Kolyuchin for many years, told me that, first of all, polar bears are very curious by nature, so they always attempt to get through any unlocked window or door. And secondly, unfortunately, these animals were traditionally hunted, and so they use these houses as a form of protection from humans.
But then he told me something even more interesting. It turns out that bears very rarely appear on the island in such numbers. No one knows why, but once every nine years the floating ice remains near the shore in summer. Consequently, the bears do not travel far to the north with the ice, as usual, and take up residence in the abandoned polar station. We saw proof of this later on when we met almost no bears on Wrangel Island to the north.
At first sight it is a wall hanging, woven from some organic substance. Hemp? Sisal? It is quite large, maybe four-foot from top to bottom. Then, as I stand before it, I feel something of the presence of a human body. But this is not a body. It is a container, filled with air, with many holes to allow
the air - and light - to flow in and out of the soft structure. Is it perhaps a container for a person? It is certainly the right size. I am ready now to read the label.
"Joyce was one of many people who died of Coronavirus. She was friend and neighbour for forty years.
"In June this year I started making something with hay from her field. It seemed important to keep methods simple
- just to twist the grass.
"I made her a sleeping bag. Both ends open, so she could slip gently through."
FIONA HINGSTON 2021
When I return to look at the work again, giving myself up to its materiality and powerful presence, I sense an immaterial figure rising up out of the container. This feeling evokes in me memories of the Ascension of the Virgin by Titian, in the Frari church of Venice. But this is no glorious, radiant red statement from the High Renaissance. This is modest, simple, direct, workaday, real - evoking also other woven artworks with a purpose that I have seen in rural communities from Egypt, to India, to Japan - and in the corn dollies I once saw children making in Somerset, England, out of straw from local fields.
Fiona Hingston lives in Somerset, in a small village a couple of fields and a road away from where I live. She has lived there for decades, witnessing with distress - perhaps, like so many of us, distress verging on despair - the decline in species, environments, ways of life. Her studio is in an old barn, overlooking a farmyard. But no farming has been done there for years. What farming there is in the fields that surround our communities is a murderous system of growing grass for animal feed, often four crops a year, on soil compacted by heavyweight tractors, and made increasingly sterile by overuse of weed and pest killers, plus nitrates, phosphates and manure. Hedges are hacked without mercy and ploughing goes up to the edge of the fields. All this further ensures that the fertility of the land and abundance of birds, mammals and invertebrates diminish by the year.
Fiona has mapped this process with acuity and precision through a host of different media, often bringing wit to the table - and always a dexterity that is, in itself, quite moving and, yes, beautiful. Not least her amazing drawings.
When I encountered the Sleeping Bag sculpture, I was in the company of another artist - another woman artist - who seeks to reduce her own presence in the work she makes, in favour of the presence of her theme and subject, as if they are telling their own truth. She had travelled some way to see this piece, and said of it: "She's woven her friend back into the land she lived in."
Sleeping Bag, along with another piece, Pillow, will continue to be shown until February 27, 2022 as part of the CHANGING ATMOSPHERES exhibition at Hestercombe Art Gallery, near Taunton, Somerset, England. I'll post other opportunities to see Fiona's work as they arise. GD
Appetite and decay
Animal instincts in the paintings of Francis Bacon
by Colm Toibin
Extracted from the Royal Academy website
to coincide with their 2022 exhibition
Francis Bacon: Man and Beast
January 29 - April 17 2022
In literature, the dream of being an animal creates stark and memorable narratives, mixing grim comedy with unrelenting nightmare. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for example, or the short novel by the filmmaker Neil Jordan, Dream of a Beast, or the man/animal poems of Thom Gunn, the male figure senses a body within his body struggling for a more intense, authentic and earthy life. While all around him the genteel world conducts its affairs, in the shadows, or in another room, the animal stands poised to display itself with a mixture of shame and sudden self-delight.
Finally, a man has permission to say or show who he really is. Beware. In Kafka’s story, as in many of Bacon’s images, the animality of the figure is disguised or clothed or kept in check. Gregor Samsa, in The Metamorphosis, realises when he wakes “from uneasy dreams” that he has been transformed into an insect, but, as he contemplates his new state, he does not panic all the time. Sometimes, he thinks that he will soon be running to catch a train and continue his life as a salesman. He is surprised that his family are shocked by him and wish to shun him.
In Bacon’s Figure Study I and Figure Study II from 1945-46, for example, or his Three Figures and Portrait, from 1975, the sense of animal in the figure is both exposed and concealed. The drama comes from the same source as it does in Kafka, in the gap between the clothed human and the snarling figure hidden within the clothes.
In Kafka, there is always a sense of parable. He is demonstrating, with considerable subtlety and irony, the gap between social veneer and some dark hidden space within the self that is vulnerable, shivering, afraid, but anxious also to emerge, to be seen and known. The conflict in his work is between what is ordered, rational and what connects to fears and longings that cannot
be easily named.
Kafka’s work is filled with pre-Hitler premonitions, as though he is an alchemist or a prophet, a writer whose psyche has been darkened by knowledge of what is to come. Bacon makes most of his paintings in a time after the Second World War, a time when philosophers and writers confront man’s isolation and the forces of evil that lurk energetically within the self. Even Bacon’s earliest works, such as Crucifixion from 1933, have the figure on the cross as a sign of helplessness and cruelty rather than something that might lead to redemption.
As well as writing about the insect that lurks within us all, ready to surprise the world, Kafka also wrote a story called
Investigations of a Dog, told from the canine perspective. His narrator, of course, can use language, so his doglike condition is provisional. In the way he speaks and notices, he is also human, even though he does not notice actual or genuine humans. His
efforts to make sense of the universe are absurd, and their very absurdity mirrors the efforts humans make to come to terms
with the meaning of life. Kafka’s dog often seems more humorous and decent than Kafka’s humans, but this does not make his
dog noble or wise.
When dogs and chimpanzees dominate the canvas in Bacon’s paintings (Study for Chimpanzee from 1957 - above), two things occur to us. The first is that the artist has now come clean about his concerns. He has stripped his figures of their human costume and made them bare, and all the more present for that. The second thing is that he has placed his beasts in an arena normally reserved for his human subjects, thus giving them a comic dignity.
Neil Jordan’s novel The Dream of a Beast, published in 1983, mirrors Bacon’s work in the way it explores the solitary male figure, uneasy in any social setting but even more uneasy as he looks outwards into the dark. In the novel, it is as though the protagonist had been covered with a mask that is now fading. “I felt a sudden terror that the whole of me was about to be laid bare. Whatever adjunct of our persons it is that maintains this demeanour, it was slowly leaving me, I realised that now.”
That realisation has also come to the male figures in Bacon’s Study of the Human Head, or Study for a Portrait, both from 1953, or his Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, from 1966 (thumbnails). It is not merely that their pose suggests the animal within, but the way they are painted also shows and dramatises what is human about them, until this sense of them as individuals who feel and see, who live in knowledge, who suffer in ways that animals do not, comes to the fore very powerfully.
Thus we have the tension in all of Bacon’s paintings between the isolated solitary figure, fearful, self-aware, and the same figure as snarling, predatory, ill-intentioned, chilling. Bacon is playing the human against the animal, playing intelligence against instinct, playing vulnerability against brute strength.
In August 1937, Samuel Beckett, in a letter about the work of the Irish painter
Jack B. Yeats, offered his version of what the human figure in painting can achieve: “The way [Yeats] puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between… A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy… Simply perception & dispassion.”
Although Bacon’s paintings evoke human isolation and dramatise the savage in battle with the self, Bacon does not ask us to pity his figures. His image, as Beckett puts it in his account of Yeats, is dispassionately made. The vision in Bacon is unsparing, pitiless, stark.
While his figures are captured, on display, pinned down, this does not mean that the images Bacon creates are stable, easy to read, all surface work. His energy as a painter suggests a rough and dynamic interior life for his subjects. This struggle can be witnessed in the very way the paint is applied, especially on the face. The figure in Bacon is created with both textural energy and tonal variety. It is filled with work. This allows his human figures, including his portraits of women, to emerge ambiguously, to have a sort of suffering dignity, as well an animal response to fear and pain. The vitality comes from this doubleness.
But it is still not true to say that Bacon’s paintings of men and women have both a body and soul. Rather there is an outer body guarding or concealing an inner beast. The English poet Thom Gunn explores this idea of an inner beast evolving and emerging, living close to the skin. In his poem Tamer and Hawk, he sees a human relationship, filled with images of power and dark sexuality, through the metaphor of man and bird of prey:
You but half civilize,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.
In Gunn’s The Allegory of the Wolf Boy, the boy “open and blond,/Breaks from the house”. Soon, “spikes enter his feet: he seeks the moon.” By the end of the poem, he “Drops on four feet. Yet he has bleeding paws.” In Moly, the man has become a beast:
Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake. I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?
These poems by Gunn dramatise forms of energy and self assertion. They deal with the self as a mask for some inner set of strengths that emerge as a kind of power or do battle with more gentle and social forces, and win. In Gunn’s Rites of Passage, the poem’s own diction replicates the new certainty and sense of masculine toughness evolving as the man becomes beast. The poem opens:
Something is taking place.
Horns bud bright in my hair.
My blood, it is like light. Behind an almond bough,
Horns gaudy with its snow,
I wait live, out of sight.
The ‘I’ here is both ominous and vulnerable, the voice is both confident and hushed. From this drama between man and beast, Gunn finds complexity, images that remain unresolved, as the figure remains powerfully unresolved in Bacon’s work. There is a sense of primitive pain in Gunn’s beast poems and in Bacon’s figures that border on the animal, but are experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the persistent memory of a word.
Bacon likes the simple idea that flesh is meat, but simplicity is never enough for him. His figures may look as though they are born to hunt and forage, but their wildness includes a sense that they are in possession not merely of instinct but dark knowledge. Their quest is not only for food or blood but something unnameable and unobtainable. Bacon’s task is not to give them symbolic value or have them on the canvas as metaphors; they must be real and particular, they must be fully themselves. They must menace the viewer with their duplicities and their strangeness. They suffer in a way that is particular.
In the paintings, Bacon sets out not to represent, but to find hidden energy as he deforms the image, twists it, smudges it, moves the brush closer and closer to see what might emerge. As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze writes, Bacon “dismantles the face”. In working with the image of the animal, Bacon is not interested in “the animal as a form, but rather the animal as a trait.”
Bacon’s paintings are a kind of anti-Darwin, playing with the possibilities that evolution moves sideways and backwards and inwards. His faces are distorted, uncomposed, unplacid. He liked figures crouching, bending, darting, snarling, screaming, pouncing (Triptych – Studies of the Human Body, 1970). Their surface life is all disturbance, a disturbance that moves inwards. In most cases, they are profoundly alone, and, as Beckett would have it, terrifying in their irreducible singleness.
Pain in Bacon’s work is registered not just on the face itself but on the pose, on the way figures seem to flinch and smart, shrinking away from something. The pain is felt by the animal, even if the animal comes in the guise of the human. Bacon realises the visual possibilities of the hybrid form, the biomorphic form, the weirdly erotic shape, the strange body part. His men, women and beasts share an emphatic appetite. Bacon likes teeth and is fascinated by the shapes the mouth can make.
Bacon began to put monkeys into his paintings in 1949 when he painted Head IV (Man with a Monkey), a sombre image in which both man and monkey seem oddly merged. His Figure Crouching, from around 1949, has a man’s head but the pose of an ape. This occurs also in Crouching Nude and Figure, both from around 1951, Crouching Nude from 1952, and Study of a Nude, from 1952-53. In
Figure with Monkey, from 1951, the man feeding a caged monkey could almost be a supplicant. Behind the criss-cross wire, the monkey dominates the picture.
In this same period, Bacon made six large paintings of dogs. The first one, from 1952, shows a snarling mongrel in a green circle, more menacing because of the calm road in the background with a single palm tree. Man with Dog, from 1953 (above), has the man as mere shadow, palpable absence, his proximity emphasised by the lead. It is the dog who dominates the picture, all coiled, moving, it seems, towards the grating beyond the pavement. The scene is made in washed-down muted colours that create an abstract landscape except for the line of the pavement, the grating and the dog.
Bacon’s animals do not resemble humans. They are given their full animality. On the other hand, even his paintings of Popes look as though their fear and hunger are visceral before they are spiritual. What excited Bacon was not the idea of this but its visual possibilities. For him, the time had passed when a figure could pose as civilised and at ease in the world. His genius was to work with this idea of man and beast and make images from it that are not only disturbing but visually arresting, and not clear in their meaning, but fully strange, astonishing the nervous system before there is time for the intelligence to resist their impact.
A magnificent experience
A memorable fusion of the art and setting in one of England's great cathedrals
Something truly visionary has been happening at Wells Cathedral in the early autumn of 2021, as Europe started to emerge from the darkness of the Covid pandemic . You might expect something truly visionary from one of Europe's great palaces of worship, so often caught up in the story of the nation. This spectacular yet warmly welcoming church was dramatically rebuilt more than 800 years ago, as the first cathedral in England to fully adopt the Gothic style. One of its bishops had been Chancellor of England in the reign of Henry VI, as the Hundred Years War with France finally ended in defeat. Another Wells bishop was elevated to the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, in the tumultuous seventeenth century. But he was beheaded for treason for so fiercely attacking the Puritans. And back in Wells, Cromwell's warriors used the cathedral as a stable, taking pleasure in smashing some of the most beautiful stained glass ever made. A few decades later, troops supporting the Monmouth Rebellion tore lead from the cathedral roof to make bullets, and then entertained themselves by firing cannonades at the stone carvings on the unique West Front.
In our less violent century -at least domestically- Wells has become famous the world over for the quality of its choir and its extensive role as a champion of music. Now it seems ready to achieve another cultural distinction. The cathedral has not only opened its doors but has cleared its decks to welcome a visual arts exhibition of memorable quality.
The Wells Art Contemporary 2021 was surely one of the best shows around, in the moment of post-lockdown euphoria for artists and public alike. A steely eye might suggest that the art on display could not really match its profoundly impressive surroundings, but that is hardly a fair comparison. Very little could.
Dominic Weston Flip Flop Films
What seems clear to me is that, working together, the cathedral and the artworks generated a magnificent experience. The wisdom and open-heartedness of the Dean and Chapter had a lot to do with this. It takes courage and, yes, vision to give artists the space and occasion to engage with a large and mostly general public, in such emotionally-charged surroundings. This lofty building inspires lofty thoughts, and intense feelings. But there was no lecturing and sermonising on display. The Wells Art Contemporary exhibition was a varied expression of free thinking, as most good exhibitions are.
The Dean and Chapter certainly deserve credit for the imaginative leap of their support, yet the full honours must go to a handful local artists and art enthusiasts who had the bizarre idea of focussing an international art competition on the smallest city in England. Wells is a city that has the character and the size of a small market town. If you took the mighty cathedral away, along with its associated school, you would hardly have a town at all, but that did not stop Kate Noble and a handful of friends from having big ideas.
Kate Noble New Years Day Floods
Kate -now sadly deceased- was the first person to voice the idea of establishing an international art contest in Wells. She was a painter who produced impressive work in defiance of a severe impediment to her sight, so establishing a prestigious competition was no challenge at all for her. Yet even Kate would have been surprised that her idea could grow so quickly. In 2021 there were 3,000 entries from close to 50 countries - just a decade after her initial proposition
The number of works selected out of this process was about 120, which is one-in-twenty-five of the original entry. The rest instantly became rejects. That figure provokes in me the nagging doubts that I have always had about art competitions. Immediately the artworks are judged, categorised, discriminated against. Inevitable maybe. But for the best?
And best for whom?
I was a member of the WAC committee in the early days. My main responsibility was the website. I had joined the group with certain misgivings, which increased over the two years I was a member. I have long been ambivalent about competitions, and by the end of my brief stint I was confirmed in my dislike of them. As the web designer, I saw the hundreds (as they were then) of entries. I saw them as the judges saw them, low resolution files of artworks, accompanied by brief descriptions. Even then, the entries came from far and wide - each of them begging for attention and affirmation. For me one of the worst aspects of the visual arts game is that there is so much of this begging for attention and affirmation. It can make artists endlessly feel, and often react, like neglected children. This is a demeaning and unedifying process, and I wish there was a better way.
Standing among artists on the WAC prizegiving day, when most of then failed to win the much-desired accolade, was very unpleasant indeed. Not least because they seemed to have been awarded or rejected for no particular reason that I could fathom. Why was this better than that? The given reason rarely convinced. This was not really the fault of the judges. Their opinions are invariably valid and interesting it is the fault of the whole enterprise, any art prize. Judging art from on high, sometimes using criteria that are idiosyncratic or even perverse, is not a laudable occupation. Art, I still strongly believe, is an act of communication, stimulation, inspiration etc., not a race nor a beauty contest nor a prizefight. There is enough jeopardy in an artist's life. There is no need to increase it.
Yes, I am aware than an art competition is hardly gladiatorial combat. Nobody dies. Yet, for me, it is the verity antithesis of what art is for, and about. Or should be. I used to work in international television and, before that, journalism. Both are forms of mass media that thrive on jeopardy, vulnerability, aggression and pain, often in the name of entertainment. But the jeopardising is not usually directed at the makers of the work. Most certainly they can be bloody and unsatisfying arenas for creatives to perform in, but at least there is some kind of rational economy, a system in which to function, with a sense of possibility of continuity, of growth. The art world is hardly a system at all. It generates a gigantic amount of activity but so much of this output is disconnected from a clear goal and evident achievement.
The art world has a vast amount of money circulating around, let's say,
one-twenty-fifth of this output, fuelling a volatile system of investment, sale and profit. Perhaps another twenty-fifth is under the patronage and influence of the academy, working in concert with a few big funders. This "public" sector operates as a bloodless arena, you might say. But people do get hurt, and most of them are ultimately neglected or entirely ignored. The artists who fail to be patronised by the elite institutions -the vast majority- inhabit an echo chamber of people calling out for recognition and praise, in embittered isolation, or they are clustering together for warmth.And, sometimes, stabbing each other in the back, as evidence of their inevitable neuroses.
I do recognise that none of this is the fault of Wells Art Contemporary. In fact the ubiquity of competitions all over the world, and the attention and enthusiasm they engender, places me and my opinions in a very small minority. Increasingly, during its short lifetime, WAC has brought the attention of a really extraordinary number of people not only to a hundred or more artists at a time but to the very idea of art as a virtuous enterprise. I can see that the consequences of my rather grumpy purism
would leave most artists even more subject to the merciless neglect of the established gatekeepers. Perhaps the fatal fact is that there are too many artists for the available resources. Their determination -their need- to carry on regardless is the artists' problem and no-one elses. Perhaps. But maybe a healthier relationship between artists and survival would be a mark of a healthier society.
So back, at last, to what I saw at WAC 2021in the Cathedral. Without question, the exhibition was a triumph! At the risk of repetition, it was not simply the scale of the show that so impressed, but also the scale and majesty of the venue, and its overwhelming cultural authority. The fact that the vast nave was cleared of furniture magnified the impact of what the visitor could focus on in detail. WAC exhibitions have been held in the cathedral before, but this time much of the installed work had the scale and verve to encourage a complex and confident dialogue with the space that surrounded it. There is another important factor here. Most of installation pieces were curated and selected outside the main competition, with their relationship with the surroundings in mind. This had a tremendously beneficial effect on the clarity of the experience for the viewer, and the way that ideas could flow freely between one piece and another and between the art and its environment. Consequently, although there was a diversity of theme, as you would expect from an open competition with more the hundred contributors, some unifying themes emerged.
One of the buzzwords of modern and contemporary art (to use that odd division we have inherited) is "aura". It was a word used, about a century ago, by the cultural thinker Walter Benjamin, to characterise that special quality which, historically, had given art much of its value, ethically, aesthetically and financially. For Benjamin the uniqueness of a historical work of art, its singularity, was what gave it authority, a kind of mesmeric power,. For many people, aura has come to mean not simply a quality of the one-off but of any work of art that holds us in its grip, transfixes us, transcends the mundane - the effect that induces strong feelings within us when we look into Rembrandt's eyes or Monet's pools or Rothko's voids.
Benjamin assumed that industrial technology, not least the mechanics of mass reproduction, would inevitably rob art of its aura - perhaps to award it with a new democracy and authenticity. What in fact has happened in the intervening years is that there appears to be more aura emanating from more artworks than ever before. And the digital means of reproduction add a radiant glow all of their own. So now Banksy makes a brief and sardonic comment on a wall overnight and, by the next night, people are hacking at that wall so they can take their block of aura to the art dealer with the best connections. So now Banksy devises strategies to break the strongest of links between aura and commerce. But the more he subverts the more aura he generates, and thus the prices rise - and still more walls get vandalised.
Of course, great cathedrals, temples and mosques have been generating aura for thousands of years. It is essential to their purpose. They still do so, even for many millions of unbelievers. As Anglican churches empty at an alarming rate, visits to and worship in Anglican cathedrals continue to increase. So, place an artwork within such a setting, and you can get a glorious howl of positive feedback. Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to be moved. (Yes, I know I am getting carried away here. Some people will be more able to resist being moved than me. But many of us are suckers for aura, addicts even. It nourishes us. Often, it is the closest we can get to the transcendent, the numinous, the divine.
This brings me to the individual artists. I open with the shimmering work of Bob Spriggs, not least because of its audacious relationship with the setting. The Chapter House, built in the early thirteen hundreds, is as close to perfection as any building I know. The octagonal structure of limestone and clear glass is like a premonition of Bach's music, in its precise order of rhythm and harmony, and the clarity, subtlety and invention of its unfussy detail. Bob Spriggs' installation showed no compromise. It is as if Ligeti has joined in with Bach. That should create the most outrageous cacophony, but it proved to be a stimulating, invigorating, fascinating counterpoint. I am reminded that such an effect was created by Shostakovitch in his reinvention of Bach's Preludes and Fugues.)
Bob Spriggs calls his symmetrical construction of metal, rainlike lines and aleatoric moving balls Gathered from the Four Corners of the Earth. This is from his label:
More than ever, we are conscious of interdependence, with each other and as elements of a living planet. The parts of Gathered are linked by unseen forces. Movement of one moves those around it. Yet some remain unmoved, part of the whole but separate. Different, by choice, exclusion, inability or some other reason. Whether we move or not, we are parts of the whole.
The chapter houses of great abbeys and cathedrals were built as meeting places, locations for discussion and debate. They were made distinct from the ecclesiastical parts of the building because these meetings dealt with worldly matters such as finance and property - the church as a business. The Chapter House at Westminster Abbey was where the KIng's Council gathered and, in 1352, it became the first meeting place of the Commons of the English Parliament. Appropriate then that Spriggs' machine should invite us to move beyond the mechanics of the divine order, to contemplate the natural order, the scientific order, the political order. Complex interconnectedness, interdependence, mutual responsibility, symbiosis, democracy.
When I visit Wells Cathedral, which I do frequently, I almost ritually climb the fourteenth-century steps to and from the Chapter House. And doing so, I sense the company of people who have preceded me centuries before or might do centuries hence. This is a pleasant feeling. But the invasive presence of Nicola Turner's invertebrate form, slowly slithering down (or is it slothly slithering up?) seems to disrupt such musings. It emerges that this piece is actually expressing ideas related to those in the Bob Spriggs' installation, in the Chapter House above. As the label makes clear,
...this assemblage of material from organic "dead" matter (including horsehair) embodies memory, as do the Cathedral steps. Exploring the interconnection of humans to matter and each other, and the awareness of the vitality in all things, [the artist] investigates the entanglement of life forces and influences that run through and across bodies, both human and non-human.
It emerges then that Nicola Turner and Bob Spriggs are investigating overlapping territory, yet the materials and sensibility they use are so different. I find myself unsettled by this amorphous, forbidding creature, reminiscent of a coagulated community of slugs. Yet I catch myself and ask why should I be alienated from an implied lifeform, simply because it is so unlike me. Isn't that one of the presiding reasons why we have managed to get the world into this shocking mess, our sense of apartness from the natural order and chaos we are part of ? I have a hunch that creeping, soft organisms like Turner's will have a much better chance to survive the coming Fall than the muscles, bones and brains of arrogant humankind.
And yet, isn't that a hint of human presence emerging from the lumpen mass? To be precise, what I actually see when I look down on the sculpture from the entrance of the Chapter House, is an enslaved person attempting to both hide and protect themselves in the folds and coils of a heap of cowering humanity. Given Wells' proximity to one of England principal slaving ports, Bristol, this offers up another layer narrative - one that was possibly not in the artist's mind.
As I proceed through the cathedral I can see, all around me, evidence of the rich and unceasing conversation between the orders of nature and the orders of geometry. And when the organ plays or the choir sings in distant places in this enormous building, I hear it in the air.
Zara Saganic's impressively, compellingly ambitious drawing explored the processes on which all existence is based, the one's invisible without scientific instruments. But the images she produces are not what a microscope would show us, or those instruments that peer outward towards other galaxies. They are imagined - and meticulously realised - in act that is meditative and deeply personal. Her brief statement is revealing, and moving:
My practice explores control, repetition and the relentless pursuit of perfection (Kodawari). This is a drawing journey in which I have embraced new levels of obsession, solitude and diligence. I only experienced the little section that I was working on, always dealing with the immediacy of the present. This piece records the passing of my pandemic time in isolation; in many ways this has become self-perpetuating; as restrictions have lifted, I have missed time alone to work and have mourned the solitude that lockdown gave me.
Everywhere I looked across this extraordinary piece, which covered the full width of the low wall that separates the quire from the Lady Chapel, I could see the threatening shape of the coronavirus, as it has been represented to us. For me though, in this context, the image seemed to have lost its menace. It did not appear uniquely evil but just one more organism in the infinity of organisms that surround us, or are part of us. [Yes, I am aware that viruses are not considered to be organisms but, in my imagination, it has the menace of an organism and, it would appear, the agency of one.] Yet, in the context of this work, its capacity to mutate in the interests of its survival does not appear satanic, or even motivated, but simply an example of what organisms do to survive and replicate - with an inventiveness and determination that astonishes us even as it puts the fear of God into us - a god that for me, as a child, was always presented as a vaguely menacing force, confusingly intertwined with thoughts of love and kindness that I could never disentangle. Even today, I look upward with a tinge of anxiety when I think, let alone express, a blasphemous thought.
WORK IN PROGRESS
In her installation in the cloister garden Leah Hislop worked with a different kind of organic language. I was reminded of those amazing sheets of white, silken web that ermine moth caterpillars create to cover trees and hedgerows in the spring. These act as protection so that thousands upon thousands of caterpillars can munch their way towards moth-hood without being attacked by predators. Leah also creates an informal geometric structure as a place of refuge.
She states in her label:
The concept of sacred geometry and Wells Cathedral itself have inspired this site-specific installation. The shapes and patterns surrounding the central figure reveal the concept of divine protection from evil forces outside. It is also representative of the geometric and labyrinth-themed patterns of the cathedral's architecture. Such sacred geometry is almost as old as art itself - appearing in cultures and traditions throughout history and prehistory, and across the globe.
For his video projection Oak Tree, Mark Hill generated digital patterns to represent the experience of observing an everday natural phenomenon. This abstraction of the organic removes the viewer from the original experience but rewards with a concentrated experience on its own terms, of kinetic energy and flow.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Sometimes art feels like a displacement activity. I would rather be changing the world, making everyone safe and more humane. Reflecting these concerns through art, I use a rich, delicate abstract language in a very deliberate and meant way; selecting materials and processes that embody ideas. A kite-like construction is used here for its association with being blown by forces beyond our control; scraps of paper reflecting fragility, vulnerability and displacement.
The artist states:
Oak Tree uses data obtained while circling an oak tree at different intervals and observing changes in the play of light filtering through the branches overhead. This experience is represented as a set of concentric circles rotating at different speeds to convey a sense of duration.
As I reflect on this piece, I am reminded again of a connection back to music - with its intervals of sound and silence, movement and stillness, presence and absence. This brings me further back to the oft-quoted statement of Goethe, the German poet and polymath: "Musicis liquid architecture, architecture is frozen music." Checking on precisely what he said, I discover that Goethe only coined the second part of the quotation. The liquid music idea is a later addition from someone else. Furthermore, "in stone" might be a better translation of the original German that the word "frozen". In the context of Wells, of course, "stone" is just the word. And music itself is so much in the air, as choir and organist rehearse of contribute to a service
Although each of the installation artists followed their own line and used distinctly different material and means, overlapping themes kept emerginging. Stella Tripp's structure-within-a-structure placed translucent abstractions inside the ornately
carved stone of a small side chapel. She describes the work as an intimate painted construction related to the ideas of threat and frailty: