Ravilious & Co. Part 2 – Looking back to look ahead

I wrote the post below to consolidate my memory of the Ravilious exhibition and in part because I’m intrigued by how learning; forgetting and remembering works. But beyond this I’ve also been thinking about what it is that engaged me in the first place about the Ravilious & Co. exhibition and similarly about Jenny Steele’s work. In part it is the artistry; the striking, graphic aesthetic of many of their designs. I bought a book about Ravilious’ ‘Submarine’ series of lithographs because there are aspects of these that mirror the as-yet vague mental imagery I have for some of my own future work. The book traces Ravilious’ references and influences including Russian children’s books from the 1920s and London Underground advertising posters made under the auspices of Frank Pick. Both are design sources I’ve looked at before, but have not been sure why. What is it about them that I like?

Eric Ravilious, Passing the Bell Rock, 1940, Museums Sheffield.


The ‘something’ that I am drawn to is linked – I think – to the title of Steele’s exhibition at The Midland Hotel in Morecambe (referenced in my prior post): ‘This Building for Hope.’ Steele draws on the utopian imagery of Modernism. It was a time in western culture of aspiration and of belief in a better future. This is an aspect that I drew upon too in my 2016 commission ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody,’ looking at the later – but still aspirational – post war architecture of Coventry. There is a risk in looking back to wax nostalgic about these past times, which were in fact complicated and messy (Ravilious for one died during service as a war artist in the second world war). Simple nostalgia is certainly not what I (nor Steele I think) am aiming for. I am interested in a kind of ambivalent history, seen too in the recent exhibition ‘The Return of Memory’ at HOME, Manchester that marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution. To given a couple of example works from that show: Declan Clarke and Sarah Perks’ work ‘One Day The Sadness Will End’ involved naming, each day, someone who was betrayed by the revolution; Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield’s ‘X-Ray Audio’ included records surreptitiously produced on discarded X-ray plates at a time when the music industry was controlled by the state.

I am interested too in how moments that are narrativised as historical turning points offer the possibility for thinking otherwise. They entertain possible futures that never happened. In our present-day when the organising principles of society have succumbed to individualism and the market, there is an appeal to looking at past times when there seemed to be a belief in more collective endeavour (even if it was an ideal not fully realised in practice).

Amelia Crouch, Tomorrow Belongs To Nobody, 2016.


My own work is not particularly focussed on Modernism. I admit I am opportunistic and in site-responsive pieces have hopped around time periods as projects have allowed. Still I have been thinking about whether anything links the approach that I take in disparate works. Broadly speaking the times I have looked at are the Enlightenment, Victorian era and Modernism. Within each there is a narrative strand of rationalism and the idea of doing things for the greater good. Within my work I have often dealt with the interrelationship of individual and collective identity and contrasted rational and irrational behaviours. Perhaps realising this will help me to be more specific and focussed with where I want to take my work next.

I sometimes feel that my artwork is divided between site-responsive pieces (that take a lead from the history of a given location) and gallery-sited works (that usually play with words). There is, however, a parallel between them in that both counterpose order and disorder, sense and non-sense. The word works appear logical, ordered and systematic but in fact their meaning is intentionally fragmented or oblique.

Jenny Steele, Not so Nautical a Divide, digital print on PVC banners, 1m x 56m, Morecambe promenade, October 2017.


To get back to where I started – as I’ve wandered off topic a little – what the Ravilious and Co. exhibition and Jenny Steele’s work have highlighted for me is the relevance of considering the visual language of particular moments or ideologies in a more intentional way. When I heard Jenny Steele talk at a previous event (at the Tetley, Leeds) one thing that impressed me about her methods was the extent of her visual research. Her outcomes are based on extensive time spent in textile archives, gallery collections and doing factory or architectural site visits. Of course I do visual research myself, but with my penchant for wordy works this often comes after I have a focus or intention, rather than driving research.

Ravilious & Co. Part 1 – Poor Memory

Eric Ravilious, Drift Boat, 1941, Museums Sheffield


Some vernacular wisdom gleaned from my Mum (a retired teacher) is that you have to tell someone something 3 times before it will sink in. This advice makes me picture a magician tapping a coin three times on a container until the coin vanishes, later to be revealed within. It came to mind recently too after I visited the exhibition Ravilious & Co. at Sheffield Millennium Galleries.

I hadn’t heard of Eric Ravilious before (or so I thought) and only went to the exhibition to pass the time when in Sheffield for an unrelated reason. I’m glad that I did; it was an enjoyable show. There was a lot to look at in the densely packed hang of over 400 pieces including paintings, drawings, engravings, ceramics, books and wallpaper by Ravilious and his associates; chronicling their impact on British visual culture during the 1930s. I was most enamoured by the work of Tirzah Garwood – which spanned figurative wood engravings and patterned paper and textile designs – and of Eric Ravilious himself. Ravilious’ designs for murals at Morley college struck me in particular. They depicted life in a boarding house with the front of the represented building cut away, to reveal interior furnishings and activities of residents.

But back to tapping thrice.

The day after I visited Sheffield I looked at the online journal Corridor8 to read a review by Jack Welsh of an event I had attended the month before. Artist Jenny Steele – whose recent work references ‘Seaside Moderne’ architecture – launched her solo exhibition ‘This Building For Hope’ at Morecambe’s Midland Hotel with a symposium that included a building tour. Jenny is a talented artist and Jack a talented writer; I wanted to use his reflections to help me reflect back on my own experiences. But what his write-up made me realise is how little of what I’d been told at the symposium had actually sunk in. Jack’s article opens with a quote from Garwood who, Jack writes: “painted the lost Ravilious mural alongside husband Eric Ravilious.” The mural he is referring to is one that was painted at the Midland Hotel in 1933. It deteriorated – thus was lost – but was rekindled in a 2013 homage that now dominates the hotel’s rotunda cafe. This mural provided a central element of our tour. It turned out, I’d been told about Ravilious and Garwood only weeks before.

Jenny Steele, The Fountain- North Beach, Screenprint on card, print on metal, 2017.


That was tap two, so what about the first?

Well, when I looked at Garwood’s work in Sheffield it brought to mind the book papers used by Persephone books. The association was confirmed when – in the gallery bookshop – I noticed Garwood’s autobiography, published by Persephone. Still (I believed) I hadn’t actually heard of Garwood before Morecambe, even if I might have seen her designs. But then last week when I was sorting out old papers for recycling, I found a copy of the Persephone biannually magazine. On the front cover a painted portrait of Garwood and inside a preview of said book that I now remember reading. Accompanying the previous was a photograph of the artist on a ladder painting the Midland mural with Ravilious.

New Listening – Podcasts

After a question from a friend about whether I listen to podcasts, I decided this week to search a few out. My go-to topic, of course, was art. So far I have discovered The Art Newspaper (U.K. based) and Artsy (U.S.) which both do weekly offerings averaging around 30 minutes focused on a particular, and often newsworthy, topic. I don’t suppose I’ll be interested every week but the end of 2017/start of 2018 has seemed a good time to tune in for their looking-back and looking-ahead round ups. They include the kind of discussion of the art market and the art world that I find incredibly dull to read about but which is pretty engaging in a more candid, conversational style.

In a more creative vein, Raw Material from SFMOMA partners with different “podcaster-in-residences” to explore modern and contemporary art through the lens of topics such as ‘The Body’ and ‘Bewilderment.’ This seems a great way to discover new artists and explore ideas pertinent to contemporary art.

These are the podcasts that I’ve found so far that I think deal best with the listening medium. They are focused, succinct and don’t leave me wishing too much that I was near a computer to look up pictures of what they’re talking about.

Return

It’s a long time since I’ve written anything here. I’d largely put that down to starting a teaching job at Leeds Arts University whereby most of my critical thinking energies over the last 2 years when not used in producing artworks have been spent planning seminars. Coming to the end of year 2 I am starting to get the hang of the role (at least a little!) So I am hoping to reprieve the blog as a space to mull, to begin to form new thoughts and review things made or seen.

As a first step (to take stock and get back in the writing swing of things) I’ve updated my website so it includes a page of articles and reviews I have written over the years. Some are quite old but I have done a few bits slightly more recently – including articles about Lucy Beech and Chris Paul Daniels written last year when I was a participant in a CVAN critical writing programme, and an article on public art commissioned by Corridor8. Watch this space to see if I succeed in my intention to get other sketchy fragments of writing out of my notebook and onto this page.

P.s. Check out the book ‘The Social Medium: Artists Writing 2000-2015‘ edited by Jennifer Liese which I am enjoying delving into at the moment.

In The Crosswind


One of my favourite films at Leeds International Film Festival this year (and an audience favourite overall too) was ‘In The Crosswind’ (or ‘Risttuules’ in Estonian). The film is like an epic history painting, composed – apart from a brief opening scene – entirely of a series of tableaux vivants. Characters stand motionless whilst the camera weaves between them; their poses and expressions fleshing out the story of each scene. The film is set in 1941 when Stalin’s regime separated Baltic families, with men sent to prision and women and children to forced labour camps. A narrative voiceover reads letters written by a woman, Erna, to her husband when she and her daughter are deported from their home in Estonia to Siberia. On watching the film I presumed the letters were real, archive documents written and kept by the women as a kind of diaristic record and a gesture of communicating with her husband even though they were probably never sent. Research since has indicated that around 60% of the content came from letters written by a relative of the director. The remaining 40% of content was sourced from archives. Thus the woman Erna is based on a real woman but is also in part a composite character, combining details of several people’s stories.

The film is harrowing, its power comes from the sadness of the personal story it relates (one story representing the fate of thousands at this time). It also comes from the film’s artistic language and the interplay between the verbal voiceover and the visual scenes. The films’ posed scenes and its bleak landscape, all filmed in black and white, are beautiful. Scenes range from tableaux of small groups to those featuring hundreds of protagonists. I particularly recall an early scene at the railway station, where Estonian families are being forced onto a train, crammed in with their belongings. Numerous faces and poses fill this epic image. Later in a Siberian forest, swathed in snow, the vertical black lines of the trees and contrasting white provide a harsh but weirdly intimate location for a sad personal event. On the soundtrack, the letters are restrained and incredibly sad as Erna attempts to put a positive slant on her situation, yet the images we see tell us otherwise. Interaction between voice and image is well paced. Camera movement generally alternates with verbal voiceover, so the letters accompany still scenes and then the camera explores the scene further to reveal more details or nuances. Added to this is a subtle but evocative musical soundtrack of low drones, orchestral swoops, choral singing and character sounds such as whispers.

Making of Risttuules / In the Crosswind from Tolm on Vimeo.

The film is directed by Martti Helde. I wanted to find out more about how the film was made and what he’s done before. It turns out he’s a first time director which I think is pretty amazing for a film of this ambition. I find it hard to imagine how the more complex scenes in the film were produced and I guess that this type of film may only have become possible with recent equipment and computer software. I found the above ‘making of’ video which gives some details of how original footage was combined with 3d mapping and post-production digital editing.

I’ll be really interested to see what Martti Helde does next. ‘In The Crosswind’ has a very specific visual language which is appropriate to the story it tells. Helde explains that the choice to use stills came from a very specific quote he came across in one of the letters, which read: ‘I feel like time has stopped here in Siberia. That my body is in Siberia, but my soul is still in my homeland.’ For me the format works because as a viewer you identify with the main protagonist whose voice is also on the soundtrack, yet the sheer number of others in the shots conveys the mass of people who suffered the same fate and their static poses suggest the lack of agency or control they had over their own lives at this time. It evokes how the individual always lives their lives against the backdrop of a history largely outwith their control. Some of the film’s power may be that I have seen nothing quite like this before. One precedent is Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962); another film which I love but which is not as complex or epic as this. I hope Helde will go on to push the language of film in other interesting ways in subsequent projects.

More info: The film is described in more detail by another positive reviewer, Nikola Grozdanovic, here and here by Jacqueline Valencia who interviews Helde and asks him some interesting questions about the film’s score. Martin Kudláč asks Helde about the visual language of the film and particularly the preparation process with the Director of Photography Erik Põllumaa where they looked at references from visual art including walk through sculpture gardens.

Futureday

Yesterday I visited Coventry for ‘Future day’ as part of the City Arcadia project. City Arcadia is an art project/series of commissions responding to the past, present and imagined future of Coventry. Future day was a meet up and getting to know the city event, for artists (including me) who have made ‘propositions’ to be part of the project.

It was fab to meet Laura Elliot and Michael Mayhew – who run the project – plus some of the other artists who have put in proposals. The structure of the day made a nice change from familiar commissioning processes where you make a proposal and then get either a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether it can go ahead. City Arcadia would like, in theory, to work with all the artists they invited to the day. So, funding and practicalities permitting, I hope that I will be able to go back there soon to work on a project with them. I’ll post more about my idea if it does go ahead. In the meantime here’s a few snaps that I took of Coventry, it was enjoyable to explore the city.

Unruly Utterances

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I recently co-edited a publication ‘Unruly Utterances: Participation, Criticality and Compass Festival 2014’ with Yvonne Carmichael. Download the Digital version here.

A limited edition of hard copies will be made available from April 2015, available at Compass events and venues around the region.

Love letters – The Cloud Collector

To continue an intermittent series of blog posts about artworks I love, I want to talk about The Cloud Collector by Lisa Stansbie. It occurred to me that my first two posts are both about artworks that are very verbal. The Black Tower and Let Me Take You There both have spoken monologue soundtracks that are core to their structure and how they convey meaning. Yet both films depend on a visual image or motif as a central element (a photo of a field in Rooney’s work, the recurrent black tower in Smith’s). To diverge briefly, this also makes me recall another film – Rules of the Road, by Su Friedrich – which tells a story of a relationship break up by way of recurrent sightings of of a brown oldsmobile car. I loved this work too, but alas have only seen it once in the distant past and so I probably can’t write about it in a coherent way.

For now, I want to talk about Stansbie’s work. ‘The Cloud Collector’ is similar to the above in its use of a simple visual image track, combined with a monologue voice over. But the weighting between word and image is shifted slightly. The soundtrack is structured around titles for the top 10 best selling novels of the 1950s. Elusive titles, such as ‘The Adventurer’ and ‘Across the river and into the trees,’ have been used as the basis to write a short narrative about a character called ‘The Cardinal.’ At first it seems that the images – a series aeroplane jet streams in a blue sky – act primarily as a holding mechanism, keeping the viewer’s attention as they listen to the winding narrative. But as I listen I realise that these photos have an impact on how I make sense of the story.

I love the work firstly because of its nice turns of phrase. The ‘poetry’ of the book titles seeps into the manner of the narratives telling. For example the video begins: ‘Delivering the news to those who still required it in paper form, he rode his rusted BMX along Joy Street each morning.’ I found myself enamoured by the language, the tone of the voice on the soundtrack and its pacing. I had to watch the video through a few times to work out what the Cardinal’s story actually is. The Cardinal, we are told, is a collector. He looks up at the sky and he has a camera. The soundtrack, the work’s title and the images collude to suggest a tale of a man who photographs jet streams. The project begins with a list of titles and a challenge for the artist to build these into a story. It ends with a densely packed video piece where word and image playfully combine.

I don’t know why Stansbie chose to use 50s novel titles in the production of this piece. The video is one of a series of pieces in which she used lists of words as the basis for writing stories. Other instances have included the names of racehorses and Airfix aeroplane kit names. My interpretation would be that it’s perhaps something to do with the nature of information in our contemporary internet-drenched world (and as I type this I am dimly recalling another work exhibited alongside the Cloud Collector that I think was to do with the associative nature of hyperlinks). Certainly there’s something appealing to me about an artwork that takes a series of words and uses it to generate something new. It produces one story out of a series of endless possible stories and then shapes this into something quite formally tight, neat and satisfying.

Lists, collections and artworks are all ways to delimit and to organise the mass of stuff that we encounter in the world.

Christian Marclay – the good and the bad

Christian Marclay’s new video installation ‘Pub Crawl,’ currently being exhibited at White Cube, Bermondsy, is brilliant. Unfortunately the new paintings he’s exhibiting as part of the same exhibition are not. They have no nuance, they go through the motions of being paintings but evoke not very much. Words depicted in each of the paintings relate to liquid (splatting, glooping and plopping). ‘Liquid’ – along with the relationship between sound and image or sound and physical form – provides a conceptual continuity throughout the exhibition and the gallery hand out explains that these particular ‘liquid’ words refer to the act of painting, to what paint does. But these are not sploshy, oozy paintings. They are slick surfaces that, for me, have no charm.

Maybe my encounter with them suffered for going to see exhibitions by Marlene Dumas and Sigmar Polke on the same day. These artists both have a much better grasp of painting both compositionally and in their tactile treatment of paint (although to be fair in the converse, I didn’t think Polke’s films were much good). The surface quality and use of words in Marclay’s work is perhaps more akin to Ed Ruscha’s paintings. But Ruscha’s works have strong verbal quality – they trip off the tongue – where Marclay’s words don’t. I can’t help thinking Marclay was probably cajoled into making his paintings to have something big and shiny to sell.

The rest of the exhibition is great and ‘Pub Crawl’ – fun and perplexing – was my favourite. 11 projections run the length of the gallery’s central corridor, projected at floor level so that as you walk between them the shadow of your legs also become part of the piece. Each projection shows a hand-held camera shot as its protagonist (the artist I presume) walks the streets of London. Each time he come across an empty bottle or glass, in the the gutter or propped on a wall, he reaches into shot and taps it or kicks it. The piece is reminiscent of a single-screen work ‘Railings’ by Francis Alÿs where he walks around London playing railings with a stick. But Marclay’s work becomes more complex in its use of multiple projections. The screens are choreographed so that the taps and the kicks add up to a musical composition. As I watch I wonder how the piece was composed; how planned and how random. This conundrum becomes part of the work’s appeal.

Another series of works, each titled after a drinking song, includes the musical score for said song framed behind bullseye glass. Bullseye glass (the cheaper cuts of blown glass which have a circle in them where the glass blowing implement met the blown plate) is often seen in old pub windows. Here the effect is to warp the scores behind them like a funny mirror, so they appeared as if you were looking at them with a booze sozzled brain. I found this amusing. Plus the bullseye shape in the glass had a nice visual resonance with the stack of records being made by a vinyl pressing machine in the same room.

Throughout the duration of the exhibition a series of musical performances are happening in the gallery and being written live to vinyl. Then they are being pressed as multiples with screen printed covers, also made in the gallery, and sold. This is a much better way of making something sale-able. It’s a project that coheres with the exhibition as a whole and demonstrates Marclay as a continually engaging artist trying new approaches. I won’t get to see any of these performances, but I think they give another dimension to the exhibition and – unlike the unfortunate, staid paintings – activate the gallery in a more unusual way.

The Artwork as Misunderstanding

In the current exhibition of Marlene Dumas’ work at Tate Modern – The Image as Burden – quotes from the artist are pasted around the walls alongside her paintings. This one struck me particularly:

There is a crisis with regard to Representation.
They are looking for Meaning as if it was a thing.
As if it was a girl, required to take her panties off
as if she would want to do so, as soon as
the true interpreter comes along.
As if there was something to take off.

Marlene Dumas The Artwork as Misunderstanding 1991