Dr Angela Rogers’ recent lecture explored the range or diverse responses expressed over the work of a number of artists. The description of the work, artistic intentions, symbolism and style of exhibit would inevitably all play a role in this. However the emphasis was on looking at a range of sources in order to establish a better understanding of how the work evolved, placing it within a context and securing it in some framework. Simultaneously we would consider viewing it from beyond that back drop, as work which stands singularly as an exhibit which one must respond to in terms of the physical experience of interacting with the work within an environment.
Dr Rogers gave the example of the Artist Thomas Schutte. Initially we were reminded that work often has little information attached to it when searching online. A google search can often reveal work by related artists or those who have exhibited alongside the artist and so on. There is not always a great deal to put the work in context such as a sense of scale or an understanding of the materials used. This is most relevant in some work by Schutte with sculptural forms and specifically his Model for a Hotel (2007) which was installed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The subject of much debate, with suggestions that the sculpture being a ‘design’ for a building, whilst still also representing it on enormous scale, plays with the notion of whether is it Architecture or Art. That it ‘mocks the very idea of monumental art’.
“The artist calls it `Model for a Hotel’ and to my eye what makes the statue unique among the works already commissioned for the fourth plinth is that it is essentially an abstract assemblage of panes of yellow, blue and red, glass – a miracle of engineering that weigh four tons and looks like it would blow away in the first strong breeze.
Whereas everything else in the square is heavy and inert, the new piece is as light as air and suggestive of movement. As the light hits the flat panels of glass the colours change from hour to hour giving us a whole different visual experience at dusk than we had in the early morning light.
And, like one of Giambologna’s Mannerist sculpture groups in Florence, it is almost impossible to stand still when you are looking at it. You feel you have to move around it because your eye never comes to rest.
That’s when you discover that there is no completely satisfactory angle from which to view it. At the same time, every view is complete in itself.”
Richard Dorment for The Telegraph
Responding to Schutte’s work is one of the elements which always strikes me as being a very ‘academic’ element of Art. Understanding context, purpose, symbolism, and concepts within the work of an individual whilst reflecting also on the relationship of this work within the arena of contemporary art is, at the very least requiring some extensive experience of and exposure to art education at a high level. In basic terms, work must be responded to by those who walk by; in terms of preferences and aesthetic qualities; do I like it, does it make me stop to look at it, is it intriguing, does it resonate with me on some level. Beyond that, understanding the work itself may be much more challenging.
Above work by Thomas Schutte
As an Artist I am always interested in whether I truly understand my own work or whether subconscious influences have manifested themselves. An example of this was when I created a sculpture of a weary face. I intended it to be a character sleeping so deeply the dream has manifested itself onto the face of the sculpture. However, my close family observed that it was a ‘painful sleep’ and that this accurately reflected the experience I was having as a new mother with frequent ‘nocturnal interruptions’. Indeed, I felt differently about the sculpture once this had been revealed to me. In a similar way I feel it is akin to analysing poetry or literature; do we truly understand the artistic intentions or do we project our own experiences and reflections onto the work?
In this respect it is important that we look at a range of sources when exploring a piece of art work. Is it enough to have seen the work first-hand and to have formed an opinion on the work from this visual experience, having been alongside and involved with the piece of work. What then do we need or want to know from the artist? There are many occasions when I have been so intrigued by a piece of work that I felt it necessary to find out more about the work. This has often changed my opinion, sometimes quite profoundly. I have twice found myself drawing a sculpture prior to reading about it. Once, I discovered that it was not an embrace and was in fact an assault, naturally my relationship with the work shifted. My initial reaction to the work was wrong. The reality of it is barbaric and haunting. When work is described by the artist themselves, the magic can be enhanced but the story may also be completed, leaving little for the viewer to use their imagination for. However, the advantages of hearing an artist contextualise their work certainly outweigh the potential disadvantages.
Another example Dr Rogers gave was that of Kiki Smith, a contemporary of Schutte who grew up in New Jersey. In 1994 the curator Elizabeth Brown described her work referring to the visceral qualities of the materials used “evoking solid bodies in fragile silk tissue or creating transitory visual effects in solid bronze”. Interestingly she went on to comment on the work revealing Smith’s “expressive scope” rather than Smith “argue a specific political interpretation or conform to a single way of suggesting meaning.” Post 2001 however, on a gallery website, Mary Ryan classifies Smith as a ‘feminist artist’ and writes ‘her body art is imbued with political significance which undermines the traditional erotic representations of women by male artists and often exposes the inner biological systems of females as a metaphor for hidden social issues’.
(L-R clockwise: Untitled, Getting The Bird Out, Born,Installation – Kiki Smith)
The question of the above comments is whether the work had dramatically shifted over the seven years between the two descriptions, or whether the references and experience of the two writers gave conflicting views of Smith’s work. Is the interpretation of the work accurate and how can this be established. In a book written by Elizabeth Brown, Smith speaks emphatically about getting the inspiration for her work from her own body; how this ‘drives her work’. The possible interpretations of this may necessarily fall into feminism and politically charged motivations, as is often the sentiment of those analysing work by female artists; that it must all essentially conform to some rejection of stereotype or political motives. During a crit in which we all shared our current work with each other on the MA course, a fellow student spoke briefly about her photography work. She had taken long exposure self-portrait images allowing her face to become obliterated through movement. The resulting image was being used as a form of identification on a formal document. I responded that the work could be politically charged and the absence of identity reflect a real sense of what Germaine Greer might have referred to as ‘the disappearing woman’. However, she assured me that she had not been motivated by this at the time and was more conscious of other issues involved in the work. It made me conscious of how my experience affects my interpretation.
Dr Rogers also reflected on the work of Louise Bourgeois. In Richard Dormant’s words, Bourgeois’ symbolism was easy to interpret and her ‘psychoanalytical case-history was seething with Oedipal angst’. Dormant implies that without knowledge of Bourgeois and her ‘indexical symbolism’ her work means very little, and that ‘confessional art’ was invented by Bourgeois and later adopted by contemporaries. He described her as the ‘spiritual godmother of Tracey Emin’. If the work has become so entwined with the experiences of the artist, does it therefore lesson the power of the work on a purely aesthetic and visual basis.
Spider – Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria – Louise Bourgeois
In a similar way to the work of Emin, Bourgeois and Smith, Bobby Baker was also the subject of much interest in relation to the nature of and narrative of her work. As a performance artist and illustrator, Baker brought much of her own experiences into her performance. Routine tasks and domestic experiences took on a significance:
“How we treat each other in supermarkets, how we care for our children, they’re symbolic of something much larger; international relations, war and peace.” B Baker
In 2009, Baker’s Diary Drawings were exhibited following ten years as a day-care patient in a psychiatric unit.
Baker suffered mental health problems and over these years she produced daily drawings which some might feel ‘tracked the progression of her illness’. These are, by their very nature a narrative which cannot be appreciated fully without some context. The question is whether we naturally search for the context with work; and where best we will find answers. The internet has become a vast resource of opinions and facts however it is not always easy to ascertain which ‘facts’ are accurate and indeed, which opinions are most relevant and poignant. In exploring online resources we can gain a greater knowledge of works of Art but Dr Rogers finished her lecture by reminding all of us to ‘maintain healthy scepticism’ and I think that sums it up very well.