Matt Collishaw VR work, Threshold, at Lacock Abbey, National Trust Estate, Wiltshire.
I’ve not felt compelled to write a review of any work lately, but today’s visit to Lacock Abbey fascinated me in many ways. I went specifically to see Matt Collishaw’s VR work about Talbot Fox, to inform my own learning about the potential of VR in contemporary artworks. I was not disappointed.
I’ve seen a few in the past year – Bjork’s show at Somerset House; Rafman in Berlin Biennale and one in a Cotswolds barn, Corridor, by Helen Kincaid. All very different and satisfying in their own way. But I wish to consider context and the visceral experience and interactive qualities of Collishaw’s piece, not just in the space it was exhibited and experienced, but also in the wider location.
Firstly, you need to know that Fox Talbot was a pioneer of photography, so the medium is perfect shown here. Secondly, you need to know that the VR offer was in a tent in a courtyard within the Abbey walls, which enhances the circus-coming-into-town feel. After all, technology is contemporary snake oil, isn’t it?
What you also need to know is the ‘the village’ of Lacock is used regularly as a film set, so is designed to be easily adaptable for that purpose. It too is a VR environment, with all trappings of contemporary living removed from sight – no satellite dishes, no telephone cables, no PVC doors or modern trappings. Flip-flap – the street conceals the real, yet pretends it is real; the VR artwork presents a seemingly real experience that is virtual, by overlaying onto museum display simulations.
Photography was terrifying for many, and Talbot’s first ‘photos’ were made with real objects, such as plants and pieces of lace, on light sensitised papers to capture virtual images. Contact prints. Touch.
This touch thing is important to our experience of place. What works extremely well with Collishaw’s work is the way you can hold onto the display cases, and even lean on them, (they are naked white blocks, like CAD designs of the wooden ones they are modelled from). Being able to touch the surfaces of the cabinets locates your own body in VR space and time. The virtual fire emanates real warmth and the images in the cases can be extracted and expanded by your hand movements. I even played with a virtual spider which was walking across a portrait on the wall (sadly it only had six legs so wasn’t very convincing!). When rioting chartists are heard outside, you can look through the window and see them shouting below you.
Outside the grounds of the Abbey, in the ‘real’ village, life felt more virtual than it did in the headset. It was more theme park than a theme park. It all messed with my head and really made me consider, yet again, about this merging of real and virtual, and what it means to us and how we experience this world we live in, and create. It all reminds me of Benjamin and Baudrillard, about how a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Somehow the street reverses that phenomena, and Collishaw exemplifies it.
US & THEM is one of the artworks by Patrick Goddard.
In the newly converted gallery at Lydney Park Estate, Matt’s Gallery + BLACKROCK is also showing the work of Willie Doherty
Last year Blackrock launched at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, so this years second offer was something to look forward to. I wrote about it from a personal perspective last year. This year the project feels more consolidating, more like Harvest Festival, whereby the artists have gathered their thinking from the land and its history and shared it with others on the Estate . More mapped. More grounded in place.
That’s not to say the artworks last year weren’t grounded in place – indeed they were, very much so. That’s the good thing about residencies, the artists have time…..something very important when expecting artists to work in somewhere so far from a city.
As Robin Klassnik, of Matt’s Gallery said “Blackrock is national and international”, and is emphatic that it shouldn’t “pander to the locals”. It doesn’t, but it does bring excellent art to the area to be enjoyed at a local level for those that are interested, as I am.
And this year I have time to assimilate, to think and reflect, to consider what these artworks are collectively sharing with the viewers. And what they say about both Blackrock and the wider world.
Thankfully, there is another weekend coming up when the artworks can be revisited to inform my thinking. That’s on 24th & 25th September. Look out for information online, Facebook , or visit their website.
The first weekend included a performance by, or written by, Sally O’Reilly, which will not be repeated the second weekend. It was absolutely brilliant and what she refers to in her introduction speaks of the core curatorial concepts that all the artists have investigated and, duly, responded too. A harvest festival with rich pickings and excellent produce.
I recently attended the 2016 Berlin Bienniale, alongside ten other arts professionals from the region, with the support of a bursary provided by Visual Arts South West. Prior to going we read some of the reviews of the Biennial which were not very promising. The article in the Guardian by Jason Farago had the headline “In the hands of New York fashion collective DIS, one of Europe’s biggest exhibitions is now a feeble blancmange of ads and avatars – where is the art?” Written on 13th June, following the opening, Farago began with a reference to drowning refugees, before stating “this show does not argue for a better art world; it argues for giving up on art entirely.”
Despite the negative review, as someone who has a history of interest in the virtual world and wrote my MA Fine Art thesis about the Virtual Body, I looked forward to making up my own mind. I set off in anticipation of enjoying some of the works and was not disappointed. But I’d be lying if I said his comments hadn’t impacted on my expectations. I sought to keep my attention on an exploration of the visitor experience, in this case, my own, in the company others to discuss it with. The conversations were, as anticipated, very informative and revealed some useful learning.
Our visit to Berlin was only one month after Farago wrote his piece, during which time a referendum was held to decide whether the UK would remain in the European Union, or not. The result was to leave. As was one of the 48% that voted to remain, I arrived feeling like giving up, not just on art, but on the UK too. I was not alone. Since Brexit, the world seems to have become untethered, not only might the UK split from the EU, but it too has come under threat of collapse. A country divided. With no-one holding the reins, those responsible walked away, leaving no forward plan in sight. So the Bienniale was experienced through the lens of Brexit and shrouded by the emotional sensitivity that it had aroused. We entered a world that no curators could have predicted. The science fiction novel Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones, written in 2011, is a book about that very possibility, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. I can’t help wondering whether the DIS team had.
When we had our meeting with two of the DIS curators, Lauren Boyle and Marco Rosso, they began their talk by making reference to the Guardian article. It was still a sore point for them, but I already felt that Farago’s diatribe was no longer relevant because the context for the exhibition had shifted so far since he wrote it. He experienced the show in a different world, the old world. The curators explained that the Bienniale had evolved around the concept of an ‘incomprehensible present’. Many of the works connected across the showing spaces as part of a hyperlinked landscape, bridging the city and the locations. The works themselves were mostly very fast, very virtual, very surreal, yet oddly a little bit like retro sci-fi. The now we are confronted with is not looking good, the present we are living in is, or should I say was, because it moves so very fast, both incomprehensible and unimaginable.
When DIS initially set out to provide a mix of contemporary works that would represent, and illustrate, a sense of loss of future, it was a good premise to work towards, as a theory. Three years ago when they took up post as the curatorial team, no-one could have imagined the impact of Brexit. Little did they anticipate that a sense of loss of future would become the norm for millions of people.
The ‘futures’ they shared were pretty tame and unimaginative, based mostly on 1960’s/70’s science fiction narratives which didn‘t get close to foreseeing the events of the present. The world that they imagined as so intangible has proved to be real. No artworks could hold up through a period of such a constantly-shifting timeline of daily unanticipated change. When DIS planned their show they did not know that a referendum would be called, nor that Brexit could occur; or that the refugee crisis would be as damaging to the world as it is now; the devastation of the war in Syria or, while we were present in Berlin, a truck ploughing down people in Nice and a military coup in Turkey. Every day brings more twists and turns which flash up daily on my iPad. Every morning brought something more shocking than the previous one. Racism, violence, suicide attacks, mass slaughtering. A little like what science fiction films are made of.
So, returning to my intention to write about the visitor experience, I will reference just one work that encapsulated the overall sense of disorientation that the Berlin experience evoked in me. And I believe in others too. And it sums up how anticipation, expectation and delivery can impact on our experience of art, and can be very different for each visitor, depending on their own unique encounter.
The work that sticks in my head most is View of Pariser Platz, 2016 by Jon Rafman, which involved wearing an Oculus Rift headset.
As a group, following the curators talk, we were excited to try out this new experience and only one of us had ever worn an Oculus Rift headset before. Being English, we politely queued (see above) in an orderly line to await our turn. From the balcony of the Akademie der Kunste, we looked out at the Brandenburg Gate to the left and across to the French Embassy, on the other side of Pariser Platz. It was the morning after the truck drove through people on the streets of Nice. To don an Oculus Rift headset that merged the virtual and the real was more potent due to the events of the previous night. On the balcony were placed some strange, monstrous creatures and the white tent-like structures (see photo) were outside the Embassy where people were leaving flowers, and high security surrounded the area.
According to the Bienniale website the programme offered a situation whereby “The intangible becomes real, and the real becomes incomprehensible”. The experience of the Rafman work would need reframing, it is more a case of the real becomes intangible and the intangible becomes placebo. The film we all experienced was, to my knowledge, the same one. It began by locating us where we actually stood or sat, on that balcony. Then the surreal imagery was layered over the ‘real’ place and became immersive. From conversations after the event, it soon became clear that we all had different experiences, so much so that we began to wonder whether there were various versions of the film, not just one.
What intrigued me was to what degree our place in the queue, near the front or the back, and the conversations we had with those before us, influenced our reception of the experience, not just emotionally, but physically too.
When the first people wore the headset they mostly decided to stand up. Some stood stock still and gently turned their head around, as if watching quietly, whilst others became very animated, twisting their bodies, leaping back as, we later understood, images approached them or threatened them. The more active the early experiencers became, the more nervous those of us queuing felt. When people took off the headset they often looked disorientated, confused, startled and a little dizzy. At first we asked people about their visual experience, but we soon became increasingly concerned with the physical impacts. The steward was asked if anyone had thrown up during the experience. “Yes, several people have done so” was the reply. Therefore those of us who suffer from vertigo decided to sit in a chair rather than stand. The longer we queued, the more anxious we became.
The thought of public vomiting did not appeal to me. I sat down, as did others. The presence and absence of the people on the balcony was punctuated by people reading their mobile phones, snatching the wifi moment. Even the steward read hers while each person took their turn. We were physically a group together, but were worlds apart in our heads. It is slighly ironic to consider that the player here is not looking at the people, who are looking a their phones, but at something else entirely, quite possibly a virtual rendering of the rhino-creature behind him swimming past…….
Later conversations revealed that those who enjoyed gaming were more animated, those of us who don’t were more likely to take a seat. There were varying levels of comfort with the virtual experience. But the truth is, the biggest discomfort from my perspective was the horror of the real world unravelling outside. The massive development of the area, the new buildings on the horizon, the private mourning of the families that had been devastated the night before in Nice. All those things, alongside my fear of feeling sick or dizzy, prevented me from immersing myself fully in the experience. I was distracted by the world. It appears that those who were most fulfilled by the experience were those that succumbed to it fully – mind and body.
Going to the Bienniale in the middle of Brexit created a fracture, indeed a rift, in my body and my thinking. It has informed the way I experience art and life. With a raised awareness of the impact of prior knowledge and experience of audiences and the thinking about the present speed of social change, it raises challenges for curators and producers in terms of time. These huge, scattered site shows take years to plan and prepare. What I learnt is that you cannot foresee a future, so to deliver against a futuristic agenda is to make oneself vulnerable to failure. Just as the experience of the Oculus Rift disappointed those that possibly had time, by queuing, to build up an emotional armour, likewise Biennials will always put themselves in the firing line unless they choose their theme wisely. Preferably one that won’t disappear down a black hole of social instability.
Another critique of the delivery of the exhibition is that the content of the 9th Berlin Bienniale was so heavily dependent on the virtual it was destined to be defunct even before it was installed. Because that is the nature of the virtual, it can override the real. On this occasion, it was upstaged by it.
I was invited to select work made by the Forest and Valleys Open Studio membership on the theme of ‘Commodity’. I’ve lived here for ten years and in that time I have learned more and more about how many artists live here. And there are a lot of them, understandably, because it’s a very beautiful place that has inspired writers and artists and musicians for many years. It also has a long history of commoners rights and anarchic behaviour, and that political fervour has contributed to the feisty behaviour of people here, who love this unique landscape and defend it to the hilt. Recent threats include being sold off, and now there’s the threat of fracking.
‘Commodity’ seeks to reveal both sides of the coin – the beauty and the beast – by suggesting artists share work that explores the natural resources through the lens of landownership and the natural resources. Those industrial materials – timber, stone, coal, ochre and iron ore, were the backbone of local industries. There were also wire works, brick works and Rank Xerox. Those industries have been replaced by tourism.
Come to see the Commodity Exhibition in the Garden Cafe, nestled next to the River Wye in Lower Lydbrook, and you will witness both the beauty of the place and the demise of the industrial heritage. Wander to the river side and walk a little way and you will see redundant manufacturing plants and warehouses. A disused railway line. There used to be a viaduct that ran over the Cafe rooftops, long gone.
The artworks in the exhibition may, at first sight, be yet another mixed show of works with no connecting thread. But they are deeply linked, they each respond to the forest in some way, whether in terms of environmental threat; the history of hunting that shaped the landscape (and continues to do so with boar in the forest); traditional fishing methods that are disappearing; free roaming sheep; soundscapes and meditations on the fragility of this place.
11am – 4pm Saturday 9th July 2016 – Sunday 24th July (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Private view 6-9pm Friday 8th July
DOWNLOAD FULL OPEN STUDIOS PROGRAMME BELOW
There’ll be another blogpost over the coming days, looking more deeply into our relationship with art in rural places, including what we mean, or presume, by the term rural.
But firstly, there’s a show to install!
Just a quick note to get you thinking over the weekend – I’m looking for hosts for the next phase of the Story of Objects – maybe it’s you?
The Story of Objects to date has very much been about ‘show and tell’ sessions, for research purposes. The overarching vision – to create a social media network for things – is still underpinning all activity. However, the encounters have been rich and rewarding for many people.
One set of themes that came up again and again were inherited objects from family members that relate to making or creating something. All sorts of tools and materials, artefacts and childhood memories.
I’ve been exploring how to work with the stories you’ve shared with me – there are the 30second shorts on Youtube; the Flash Fiction pieces on Medium and even a Story of Cake! The Facebook page shares news about the projects and also about other interesting object-stories from around the world – all food for thought.
The next phase will involve workshops – and I invite you to contact me if you’d like to discuss this for your organisation. I’m shaping the programme now and have some great ideas developing from the conversations so far. Each partner/collaborator is welcome to get in touch now to explore how the framework can work for you and your audiences. It is currently flexible and adaptable, which is another of features and benefits of the programme structure.
If appropriate, where a making activity is not right for the object theme, there will be an option to book a talk/presentation by a practitioner or specialist for the subject area.
I’d love to hear from arts organisations, museums, heritage organisations, material culture people, ethnographers, archaeologists and historians. Also, studios for woodworking, metal working, potteries, forges, printmaking studios, musical instrument workshops, anyone who makes – oo, and I may need a chef too!
Get in touch by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone or message me via the Facebook page.
Qwaypurlake – at Hauser & Wirth
I only write reviews of exhibitions when I’m commissioned to do so, allowing my blogposts to share personal perspectives, leaving me free to meander. The work I’m doing with other organisations often affects the way I view artworks and yesterday was no exception. I now find myself reflecting on the works and the wonderful discussions between the curator, Simon Morrissey, and three of the artists – Ian McKeever, Marie Toseland, Daphne Wright – chaired by Sam Thorne, through a particular set of lenses.
Sharing – influenced by my own project Story of Objects
Transparency – by my work with the Paying Artists Campaign
Privilege – because of my interest in audiences and politics
I’ll begin with sharing and transparency, because one allows for the other. By far the most enjoyable part of the discussion was the openness of all the speakers. Simon told the story of how he came up with the idea for the show and the name ‘Qwaypurlake’, how the journey across landscape to get to Hauser & Wirth informed it, as well as his interest in science fiction. Read more detail in the Elephant blogpost. He described his process of selection, how the word Qwaypurlake feels to speak, how familiar yet strange it is. Try it, feel how your mouth moves, the way your lips purse at the start, draw back and expose your teeth, then ever-so-lightly touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue, ending with a clicking K.
Simon said he wanted visitors to feel at home at the gallery, in the show. To walk in and be drawn between familiar and unfamiliar. The exhibition didn’t contain figurative works, the absence of humans is a deliberate decision, the visitors are the human presence. There are switches of scale in the show and a very clear pathway of navigation. The works are often uncanny, unnerving, they defy explanation and refuse language, yet words are omnipresent at all times. Some refuse material categorisation too.
The artists were very generous with their words and what they said constantly referenced back to the curatorial process, the collaborative approach, the lack of hierarchy. I wrote some notes so I could harvest the key comments, below is a summary of some of them, as examples of the fascinating words that came from their mouths:
McKeever said he doesn’t usually do group shows, but was interested by the name and Simon’s approach. He had loved the book Solaris. At first he wasn’t sure about title, he thought it was ‘Quackatock’ in Greenland, which just made him think of ducks. When Simon shared his story of the evolution of his word Qwaypurlake he found the title liberating. He said “Painting is a felt experience”. Maybe it was the feeling of the word in his mouth that he experienced?
Marie Toseland certainly related to the feel of words in the mouth. She exhibited works made with her own wisdom teeth. She was interested in the act of them being sold, the intimacy of selling part of her body. She spoke of her mouth as a sculptural space, a place where language is modelled and moulded. She used the term ‘mouth terrorism’ and referred to the ‘sensuality of pronunciation’. (Nice reference to the title of the show).
While I was driving there I was listening to Radio4 in my car and a woman was teaching listeners to speak the word ‘lingerie’ properly, with a French accent – a strange coincidence?
While Marie presented her teeth on a little plinth on a bigger plinth, defining them as sculpture, Daphne said she was attracted to the idea of subversion of the plinth. To the death of the plinth. Upturning the plinth. The cast of the powerful stallion, prone on the ground, recently dead, legs wide open revealing a stitched-up chest, a flaccid penis, flayed skin drawn back and cut sharply above the front hooves. The tail splayed on the floor, almost like a liquid flowing away. Water in a lake, Qwaypurlake? Emasculated not memorialised. Cast in marble, it references the monumental – it is a rebellion of power of a horse on a plinth. Daphne spoke candidly about the problems she had with the issue of decay and bloating, how she temporarily had to become a vet. Whilst she shared her story, she would not reveal her secret process!
Daphne’s parting revelation was that she always talked at length to the owners of animals she has cast. On this occasion, the sculpture was shown in Ireland and the owner came to the gallery to see the horse and sat with it for an hour. Apparently he told someone “that’s me”. He is elderly and has cancer.
Sharing – sometimes it’s excruciating and wonderful at the same time. Daphne referred to this process as “emotional archaeology”.
McKeever has always loved language and literature, though his work is always non-narrative. He spoke about how he had lived in Dorset for 25yrs and what he loves about it is its time. Not space. Place-time. He said that being there feels displaced from digital and referred to the “land below, digital above” which is poetic and enchanting thinking.
Sharing and transparency – McKeever answered eloquently in response to a comment from the audience about elitism and how difficult art can be, that it shuts people out, that he can’t understand the meaning, McKeever replied “to engage people you have to be prepared to open up. Art doesn’t have meaning. It has a choice of multiplicities.”
Audiences must work for it, and that takes us to education and how people learn. And the fact that creative education is being stripped to the bone.
And that takes me to the issues of privilege.
There’s no denying that as one drives closer to Hauser and Wirth, you cannot ignore the wealth in the area. Look at the cars in the car park and you will see some pretty expensive vehicles, mixed in with very ordinary cars. Before you even go through the gate you know this is a very different thing to a city gallery. It’s about land ownership, art collecting, a day out for Londoners who love art and will travel to see it. But it’s not just Londoners, it’s attracting international audiences and many many local audiences. It is a brilliant thing for the arts in the South West and provides something unique to the regions cultural offer. Yes, it has all the trappings of privilege. There’s a gorgeous café that sadly only provides seating for about ten people and won’t serve you food unless you are seated. I found that rather odd, considering the distance everyone has to travel to get there, from anywhere, not to mention a loss of income and hosting a lot of hungry people.
It’s free to get in
It’s a great day out for families too – lots of space to run around in and great gardens
It shows fantastic art and offers informative events at a reasonable price.
It is a privilege to attend in terms of pleasure and anyone can do so.
The invigilators are helpful and friendly and well-briefed
Since leaving and getting home and thinking, issues around education and privilege have caught in my throat a little. The government has just scrapped maintenance grants for students. Private academies are springing up everywhere. Creative education is being dismissed. Maybe great art for everyone is further away than we would like, and I don’t mean in miles.
Yet the creative economy is booming. An article in the Guardian recently referred to how the UK might get left behind if this slash and burn approach continues.
We need to share more, make transparent our processes, help people understand and appreciate what the visual arts sector achieves. We need to encourage the privileged to support the incubation of artists, as well as buy work at the top end of the market. There is a huge space between those places in the terrain. Art is quirky, evocative, moving, challenging and amazing – the children there yesterday proved that.
I took a photo before being told that you can’t. I’m sorry, I really am. Last time I went to H&W it was ok to take photos. I tweeted – maybe that was not acceptable either? Are words in the ether less damaging than images? Or is the digital above the earth stealing from the ground below?
Daphne Wright, Stallion in foreground
Ian McKeever, Twelve Standing III, IX and V on wal
Heather & Ivan Morrison, various on floor