Friday, 31 July 2009

Vladimir Arkhipov....more images

Teapot - Viktor Kuzmichoyov, Moscow 1992

Viktor's daughter recounts the story of dropping her mother's favourite teapot and smashing off the handle. She was completely distraught and cried in the corner until her father came home from work. He calmed his tearful daughter and took the teapot to the factory where he worked and fitted it with a new stainless steel handle. Even though her mother deemed it 'Not aesthetically pleasing...' the teapot continued to be used.

Birdcage - Nikolai Kudelin - Moscow 1994

Nikolai's daughter, Nastya, recounts how her father catches songbirds and keeps them in large cages that he makes himself. This little cage is also hand made to carry the birds around. He often sells the birds or gives them as gifts.

Bubble wand - Oleg Petrischev - Perm,1994

Oleg's granddaughter, Marina, tells how he converted this aluminium spoon for her little brother, Dima. Dima was often entertained by their mother, who worked in a theatre, with fairy tales and impressions of beasts and ogres whilst he was fed which made it easy to encourage him. Sometimes however, he would make a terrible fuss and refuse to eat his food. One day his Grandpa came into the room whilst he was being difficult, stirring something in a mug and banging on the side to attract the little boy's attention. Eventually he pulled out the spoon and began to blow bubbles through the hole he had cut in the bowl of the spoon which fascinated the child. It remains one of Dima's favourite things.

Toy house - Nikolai Ruchkin - Ryazan, 1987

Katya, Nikolai's granddaughter remembers that this little house was made for her brother, Grigorii when he was very ill. He had to spend the weekdays with his grandparents because he was too unwell to go to Nursery school. Katya thinks however, that her Grandad really made the house as much for his own pleasure, making her a bigger version later on.

All images taken from 'Home-made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts' Vladimir Arkhipov.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Antique Welsh Quilts and Blankets

Today I visited Jen Jones Antique Quilts near Llanybydder in west Wales. I've been meaning to go for ages. Next year we are showing a major contemporary textile show in the gallery and it's made me want to think about textiles in our local culture. Next Friday Jen's new Welsh Quilt Centre will be opening in Lampeter and I hope to go to the opening...look out for an update!

Vladimir Arkhipov's folk artifacts

Anatoly Yamanov - home-made chair
from Home -Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts

A couple of months ago, I found a book about the collection of Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov called Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts. The book is a document of a selection from the thousand or so pieces he has collected as part of his project. The objects are made by ordinary people in their day-to-day lives to fulfil a practical necessity. During the collapse of the Soviet Union impoverished people did what people do universally when they need to solve a problem, they adapted the materials at hand to the task. The results are ingenious, resourceful, inventive and unique.
Here is the artist talking about his collection:
"In the Russian language the word for 'creative work' (tvorchestvo) shares a root with the word for "Creator' (Tvorets). The word for 'art' (iskusstvo) shares a root with the word for 'Tempter' (Isskusitel). Formerly, when artists still believed in God, they 'Created'. Today, when most artists do not believe in anything, they make art. There is no creation left in art. So what is an honest artist to do? I have found a partial answer to that question. Since I require a viewer and I am doomed to self-conscious aesthetic reflection, I cannot be absolutely honest and sincere. But I know that every day hundreds of millions of people discover their connection with God in some way when they create. The act of creation has no need of justification. It is self-sufficient. The most interesting visual traces left by creation are those that have not been subject to conscious aesthetic assessment by their creators. All that is required is to find them and present them in a skillful manner. The right of choice is mine. I spent a long time searching for and selecting a modern folk phenomenon (which as yet has no name), as an example: millions of people throughout the world create unique everyday items for themselves. I interview them, take photographs, show their things in exhibitions. In this way, I combine their creative work with my art". P.303
I love this book for many reasons. The objects themselves are wonderful; extraordinary; but so is the documentation. Arkhipov attributes each item with the name and photograph of its 'creator' (unless they have been withheld) and also a story from the maker about the circumstances that brought it into being. The narrative context immediately animates the object and deepens its meanings.
I empathise deeply with Arkhipov's dilemma as an artist, the struggle with 'honesty' for which he has found his expression, the problems of aesthetic irony. I admire his approach greatly but I find my own solutions must involve making.
The chair above was made by Anatoly Yamanov from the Ryazansk region in 1993. His photograph shows a kind faced older man in a check shirt and a flat cap. Sacked without a pension from his job as a plumber he and his wife sold their town flat and moved to a village in the country to live a modest self-sufficient life. "...We bought a small house, but it's got a stove. Without a stove you can't survive the winter. That's the main thing. There was no furniture at all, so I made the most essential things: a table, a bed, some chairs, out of anything I could find lying around". P.276
Arkhipov continues the reach of his project through his Folk Forum website where anyone is free to post examples of hand-made objects.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Claire Coles and Bettina Bereś

Claire Coles table - seen here

Bettina Bereś, Oil on canvas - seen here
I went into my studio today and spent a little time just looking around at all the little things placed as inspiration or saved in boxes. Tucked behind the electric cable on the wall there have been two invitation cards - one from Llantarnam Grange in Cwmbran and one from Oriel Davies Gallery in Newtown. They've lived up close there for a year or so talking to one another and in my mind they've fused together. The Bettina Bereś image is not the same as the invitation card - but I've been looking at it today and decided I like it even more.
Both these images have opened up questions in my mind about the function of furniture - especially chairs - and the place they hold in our psyche. I've made a few furniture pieces myself recently to think about it further.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd 'Economic Values 1 & 2' 2009

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Agnes's Jacket

Image from the Prinzhorn Collection

A few weeks ago I listened to a Radio 4 Programme, All in the Mind, featuring the American Professor of psychology, Gail A. Hornstein talking about her new book Agnes's Jacket: A Phsychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness. My ears pricked up immediately when I heard Claudia Hammond, the presenter, comment that Tracey Emin had raved over the extraordinary artwork of the book's title.

Agnes Richter was a patient in an asylum near Dresden in Germany during the 1890's, admitted against her will and held for 26 years from the age of 40 to the end of her life. In her former life, before her institutionalisation, she had been a seamstress. The jacket she created is now held in the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg.

This is an extract from Gail A Hornstein's book: "...The felt is frayed, but the course linen underneath looks indestructible. The flared cuffs, fitted bodice, and perfectly formed buttonholes reveal a skilled seamstress at work. But it isn't the jacket's design that mesmerizes every person who enters the room. It's the intricate text that has been embroidered in five colours over practically every inch of the garment. A needle-and-thread narrative unlike any other." (page ix; Introduction) The jacket was issued as part of her hospital uniform, but Agnes picked it apart and reconstructed it. During that process she embroidered her own text into every surface. It is more or less indecipherable, although there are many references to 'ich' i.e. herself.

I was trained as a lettering artist and also have a particular interest in the 'ghost' life and resonance of objects such as clothing and furniture - the powerful legacy of these formerly inhabited things; the presence held in such personal items. So this discovery feels a bit like a missing piece of jigsaw.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd detail from 'The Bone Dice quilt 2009'

Having researched the jacket a little further, I found a blog - Lulu Bird - with lovely images from the author's own visit to the Prinzhorn Collection:

Images from Lulu Bird

Yesterday, I learned about a fellow lettering artist Rosalind Wyatt who has created a body of work called The Stitch Life of Others and the resonances with Agnes's jacket are unmissable.

I have thought again about Tracey Emin - I wonder when she first saw the jacket ? Her work is so strongly resonant.

Image from BBC

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design

Jurgen Bey 'Linen-Cupboard-House' ('Linnenkasthuis') from V&A website

I've just found out about the new show at the V&A in London, Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design...GOT TO GO... I'm reeling a bit because of the correlations with some of the work I've been doing lately, always lovely when things connect.

Until I can get to see it - this image is pinging in my head!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Nick Cave's Soundsuits

Posted at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Every time I look at Nick Cave's work I come to life! I've known about him for a few years, and as soon as I saw these extraordinary pieces, my own work began to change. I've only ever seen his work online, and I'm sure to see them first hand would be a whole new love affair. There's so many references there, and a joyous sense of celebration.

When I was a child (and it still happens now), we had a carnival in our local town - when I say 'carnival' I mean a suburban south London version - sedate and non-participatory! Floats paraded through the streets and past the end of our road ending up in the local park - trucks and flatbeds decked out in tissue paper flowers, and all sorts of crafty attire with be-costumed folk waving out to the onlookers watching from the street. It was an annual ritual to go with my mum and grandma and watch and wave. The local May Queen always had a special float with a little throne and all her handmaidens in pretty matching dresses and flowery crowns. That's my heritage. It's low key but pervasive!

Posted at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Nick Cave occupies the other end of that spectrum with his soundsuits; exploding with movement, revelry, colour; making their own sounds through the extravagant gestures of the inhabitant. They talk about his own heritage and are unequivocally political. The acts of collecting, assembling, sewing, patching together is brilliantly resonant - in that process, these very physical, focused activities, there is a powerful ritual of re-possession.

Posted at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Having only seen the soundsuits in performance online, and mostly as still images, to me they are more like artifacts, and they do work perfectly on this level as well. They become more like museum pieces - bizarre ethnographic exhibits. This museum-like quality in itself becomes politically charged, touching on colonial notions of 'othering'. In that sense these gorgeous costumes constitute a riotous act of reclamation.
Throughout my life my mum has been a way-station for the second hand - our garage was the repository of stuff for a hundred jumble sales. I grew up with re-cycling running in my veins. Nick Cave has rounded up the glory of cast-offs and oddments and brought it to life in a carnival of colour and sound.
Nick Cave video here

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Bettina Speckner

Bettina Speckner - Posting seen here

I've had the work of German jeweller, Bettina Speckner in my mind recently. I saw some pieces in the flesh earlier in the year on Galerie ra's stand at Collect: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects held in Saatchi's new King's Road Gallery in the old Duke of York's HQ in Chelsea. Mostly, I have seen her work online only - which is a handicap, tactile, 3d objects rendered into two dimensions remove them from their function somewhat. The charged atmosphere of a fair was not particularly conducive either - there is something quiet and discreet about her jewellery that requires a little considered contemplation.

I am drawn to the nostalgic patina of her work, it appears to offer something emotional even sentimental, but curiously keeps us at a slight distance. Often using photographs - both found Victorian portraits and her own landscape and still life images - there is a deliberate anonymity to the images. A resistance to narrative. Its an interestingly dissociated experience, the portraits in particular should invite us to speculate on the stories and personalities of their subjects, but the considered use of materials and composition somehow displace that relationship.

Bettina Speckner - posting seen here

The use of pearls, diamonds, precious and semi-precious stones juxtaposed with the images do something strange to the surface - they break the fourth wall of our reverie and place us in a more ironic, self aware relationship. The fixings are visible and integral to the pieces which further strengthens that unsettling sense of detachment. These images have become precious objects, functional pieces of jewellery to be worn and admired. There are historical contexts for the work with references to Baroque and Renaissance jewellery through her handling of pearls and stones and through that association the conspicuous statement of wealth and possession. There's a slight discomfort in that relationship - the nature of the images and their dislocation through process challenge and subvert the concept of adornment and its social purpose.

Bettina Speckner has been trained both in a fine arts environment and in craft making processes. Those disciplines both find their expression in her jewellery pieces. There is a fine sensibility rooted in painting and a deep understanding of abstract form, however her work is steeped in the processes of its making and that attention to formal technique adds to its aura of alienation. This in turn reinforces the atmosphere of melancholy that permeates her images and her finished pieces.

Bettina Speckner - posting seen here

That very sense of separation from the emotion of the pieces is intriguing and paradoxically seductive. It lends a tantalising sense of inscrutability to the work, a barring of the way which triggers a perennial dichotomy - the less accessible the more desirable.

I wonder what happens when you wear one of these pieces? When you become the ground for it to inhabit, when you place yourself behind it or against it, when you come to know the other side of the piece and its mechanics, the weight and balance of its physicality. I would love to know!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Coalodonia - Jonathan Anderson

The last thing I bought for myself was from the Crafted - Contemporary Craft and Fine Art show at Oriel Myrddin Gallery. I was sold as soon as we unwrapped the work that had come in for the hang; a set of drawings, Coal Dust Mandala by Swansea based artist Jonathan Anderson. I was arrested (i.e: taken into custody and marched to the cash machine) by a simple framed drawing made from sparkling coaldust of a cottage/house/bothy. Reduced to its most basic elements the image becomes iconic; archetypal. This is the house I live in.

When I met Johnathan later, I found out that he comes from the north east of Scotland, a few miles from the town where my father's family came from. A scotsman living in Swansea. So that was that - too uncanny to ignore (uncanny/unheimlich - that's ironic -an unhome-ly house).

This is the series in situ in the gallery.

Jonathan also makes beautiful drawings contained within matchboxes - intimate and precious.

Find out more

The ghost of Alice Briggs

Whilst visitng Louise and Jake at The Old Tannery, I saw this coathanger, ingeniously securing a catch. I learned that the artists who have used the space previously all leave a little object or trace to signify their presence. This was the ghost of Alice Briggs...


Visited Machynlleth in mid Wales today to see a collaborative installation by crochet artist, Louise Bird and sound and film artist Jake Whittaker - Loopholes. It was installed into the Old Tannery, a semi derelict building next door to The Tabernacle (MOMA Wales) which is hosting temporary art pieces until building work begins to convert the space into an extension for the gallery.

The project was the result of an Arts Council of Wales development project to explore the connections and correlations between the artist's work. Louise's crochet incorporates ideas about science with traditional crochet techniques. She currently uses deep sea fishing line to make intensive, repetitive objects. Jake uses "...found objects, music, video, photography, performance, and interactive networks/processes to explore themes of memory, nostalgia, aesthetics and perception". Both artists use repetition as a theme.

The Old tannery is gloriously run down, a gently decaying space full of crumbly lime dust. It has three defined spaces. On entry you hear a monotonous, stuck record - a turntable on the floor with its arm tied playing looped vinyl from the local charity shop - Telyn Cymru/The Harp of Wales. Louise's "Iota" crocheted piece - 60 metres of fishing line punctuated by little rosettes of crochet connects to the turntable and then leads off to draw us into the rest of the exhibition.

Next, a darkened narrow space, a convex mirror with a spooky, green, swirling image of a crochet piece projected onto it. Mesmeric and slightly mandala like. Little disembodied hands pepper the image, sliding in and out of the frame, crocheting-crocheting-crocheting, constantly making. It's a lovely piece, and the droning from looping sound either side of the space accentuates the hypnotic quality.

In the last space Louise's huge Fabric of the Universe piece - a circular piece of fishing line crochet - is on the floor. Four old fashioned decks with tied tone arms are playing drones. Fascinating choices of vinyl - from BBC sound archive of bird song to Esme Lewis Productions disc of 'Dawnsiau'r Twmpath 2' by 'Band y Meillion'- all sourced in local charity shops. The old fashioned equipment roots the experience into a context of place and history. Projected on the wall is a close-up image of the transparent crochet on the floor. It blends serendipitously with the stone and lime wall behind to make a rippling, ephemeral texture.

The transparent but slightly scintillating nature of the fishing line expresses something profound about the process of making. The continual activity of the crochet...the constant creation of the universe - big/little - all the same activity. It has resonances of all those myths where women spin up reality, Arachne, the Norns et al.

I left buoyed by the sensitivity and gentle balance between the artists work, the subtle inhabitation the space, the skillfully understated aesthetic. Exquisite.

Find out more: Louise, Jake

Friday, 3 July 2009

Venice Biennale 2009

4 June. My first time at the Venice Biennale...I thought three days would cover it. It Didn't.

I saw maybe half of what I had on my list. I had gone to attend the opening for the Welsh pavilion, and fully intended to see all the other UK offerings. I managed the Northern Irish pavilion and the New Forest pavilion. I walked in confusing patterns to find the Scottish pavilion but failed. I didn't manage to gain entry to the Steve McQueen in the English pavilion - it was choc-a-bloc. I did see him in the cafe, but was much too British to snap his picture.

We recently had a show in the gallery called Crafted - Contemporary Craft and Fine Art, our publicity described the objects in the show as "...expressing a new mood of exchange, between contemporary craft, art and design" perhaps my eyes were particularly attuned, but much of the work at the biennale also seemed to be blurring these boundaries.

The 53rd international Art Director, Daniel Birnbaum has named the Biennale Making Worlds/Fare Mondi
Here are a few things I particularly enjoyed.

Pae White - Birdseed Chandelier

Irina Korina - Russian pavilion

Moshekwa Langa - South Africa

Zoran Todorovic - But if you take my voice, what will be left to me? - Serbia

I think my favourite piece was the installation Human Being by Cameroon artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. Emulating the activity in a small African village, wooden huts, piles of found materials, video; constructed, sewn and knitted objects; noisy with ambient sounds and chaotic with items. The piece is pulled into focus by huddles of small characters or 'families' - maybe working, talking, buying, selling - often under standard lamps. Find out more

Pascale Marthine Tayou - Human Being

Fiona Tan's Disorient at the Netherlands pavilion was another favourite, a beautiful video piece exploring ideas about travelling and journeys, and particularly in relation to Venice, ideas of 'the merchant'. Find out more

Fiona Tan - Disorient
Also a double screen work called Rise and Fall; poetic and melancholic, investigating the passage of time.

Fiona Tan - Rise and Fall

This piece from the Moscow based conceptualists Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich had a strong personal resonance also.

Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich - Cupboard

My Flickr page has lots more images.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dark Days in Venice

I went to the 53rd Venice Biennale last month, a three day adventure. I hadn't been before. My primary objective was to attend the opening of the Welsh collateral event at the Ex Birreria (old brewery) on the island of Giudecca. John Cale (LEGEND!) is representing Wales this year with his film and sound installation piece Dyddiau Du/Dark Days. I went to see him speak in advance of the event in a tiny little theatre in west Wales - Ammanford Miners' Theatre.

I was really excited with what he might produce as a musician stepping into the visual art world, his pedigree teeters on the edge of sound art anyway - I was particularly grabbed by his intention to film and record ambient sounds in the house in which he was raised in Garnant.

Cale revealed a very difficult childhood and a fractious relationship with Wales and the Welsh language, and his intention to address these issues through an essentially cathartic mix of performance, film and sound in association with cinematographer Bevis Bowden. At the heart of this concept he discussed his mis-communication with his English speaking father. Unable to speak with him until he was seven years old due to the matriarchal edicts of his Welsh speaking grandmother - this formative trauma and his subsequent exile to America underpin the work.

I watched the piece Dark Days/Dyddiau Du twice and wanted so much to really fall in love with it. Having chewed it over I have to admit I haven't. There are some beautiful sections in the 45 minute work, some lovely sound, some exquisite images. It is sentimentally Welsh which I don't actually mind. My problem lies in its unremitting self indulgence.

I hoped the piece would open a dialogue about and for Wales around language and identity, but there is an inherent dichotomy in that position. The work addresses the condition of non communication weighed down by time, distorted and muted. It's a bit of a one way street. Cale exposes his own convoluted rage, processed, diverted and subverted, but, (and this is poignant when I think of it) he is once removed behind the glass of his fame and it is possible he hasn't considered the impact of the piece, the nature of the relationship with the viewer. Alternatively, perhaps one can detect just a ripple of mischief, an irresistible opportunity to settle a score. Cale proclaimed the wish to create a visceral piece, and in the process may well have eviscerated his own dark days, but in an act of personal catharsis to which we are asked to stand witness and endure. There is a curious numbness and lack of engagement for the viewer, and if that is his intention it is very successfully achieved but perhaps not successfully communicated.

The work exemplifies Cale’s skill with the condition of discomfort which is integral throughout the piece, successfully disorientating and unsettling the viewer. The fragmentation of the images through a series of floor standing screens have some validity in this respect. I watched the audience move uncomfortably in the space unsure where to place themselves, self conscious of their own presence and physicality. It seems over stated however, five screens seem excessive. The sense of dislocation veers towards arbitrariness which ultimately dilutes the experience.

The sound content is equally fragmented between environmental sound, music and experimental sound. The music is beautiful in parts, but distracting. I was most engaged when the environmental sound deepened the visual content, vehicles swishing past the empty, derelict house at the heart of the piece has an intense eeriness and tension. The hard breathing and clink of slate as Cale ascended the wintry mountain path in North Wales has a mesmeric quality.

The length of the work feels problematic in the Venice setting. With so much else to see and experience it is a very big ask of the audience to cross the Giudecca Canal, find the venue and stand in the darkened space with a demanding work for 45 minutes. It is probably entirely in keeping with Cale’s oeuvre and output and therefore simply what one would expect. In this sense there is integrity in his approach. It is uncompromising and uncompromised.

Most disappointingly I really dislike the ending of the piece. This is where I feel Cale's inexperience as a visual artist really shows; a totally unnecessary visual sledgehammer exploiting dubious resonances with torture techniques. I dislike the narrative construct topping and tailing the piece, it feels rather contrived and stagey. I wish also that he had resisted the temptation to claim a 'bardic' status. I feel it is an unfortunate trick of the ego to append the shaman/bard tag, a little bit of a post-Beuysian pretension.

I think I agree with a critic I chatted to about the piece after the first screening "It's the curate's egg - good in parts". The show runs until November, and will then tour in Wales. I am not Welsh born, I am already somewhat removed. There's some issues around the piece watching as a woman also, I felt rather cudgeled by a kind of outmoded machismo that really belongs to the tail end of Modernism.

Cale for Wales was a brave choice - it's feeling a little uncomfortable right now, let's see what further illuminations are brought to bear on John Cale's Dark Days....

Images: John Cale shakes hands with Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, AM
No photography allowed inside the installation..

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