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By: Alinah Azadeh
The process of making work as part of the ‘The Shape of Things’ programme, including The Gifts, a textile installation for Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and new work for a group show at Flow Gallery, London.
# 1 [2 April 2009]
This blog contains 2 months of backdated entries as the programme has only just launched publicly. I will begin with a passage from my own outline based on what I proposed when I applied.
‘I would like to develop a large scale installation using woven, bound and wrapped objects in response to Museum collections, location histories and with the input of BME communities accessed through the venue. I am interested in the crossover between anthropology, intercultural identity, social psychology and the metaphor of the woven/crafted object to create intensely interactive ‘live’ work within a public context.
I wish to investigate the ancient ritual of wrapping and binding objects which denote power and meaning within both ancient and contemporary societies, using this as a channel for individual and collective self-reflection.
The objects and their stories contributed would be of personal significance and become transformed through the wrapping and sharing process. These objects would be something the ‘Giver’ was ready to let go of and represent a narrative they were happy to place within a public context.
I would use workshops to explore issues hands-on through textile media and writing, generate the seeds of the finished work with them and then do finishing and structuring work myself to create a major floor or wall work within a large space. I would also consider the second stage of the work to be a live event open to a wider public who extend the piece through offering their own contribution fro transformation.
These objects will speak of ancient and contemporary identity narratives and be a powerful metaphor for the connection between the artist, the space and the community. I would have overall aesthetic control of the work and the wrapping materials used to transform the objects could range from materials which have been donated, found, recycled and selected by myself. The transmission of the memory/narrative associated with the object would be the ultimate ‘gift’ that these objects would represent within the context of the piece. I envisage these donated narratives to be written or drawn and to be wrapped around the objects, as well as recorded onto sound before this was done’.
# 2 [26 May 2009]
Alternative Selection processes
I must mention the selection process for this scheme, as it was quite unique. We were 11 artists, a group of venue curators/gallery managers, a publisher and the Shape of things team. I can’t remember the name of the method used but basically the venues presented themselves one by one, followed by the artists. I went last and was extremely nervous by the time my turn came, having seen a whole range of amazing work…. Though I was also aware that my practice, which is intensely interdisciplinary and interactive had its own place as I am not someone with a long history of making, like many of the others who had mostly mastered one or two particular forms of applied arts. I guess I am coming firstly from a conceptual/metaphorical place and so hopefully this complimented the mix of practices presented.
After a break there were two rotating, round table, speed-dating type sessions, the first was 10 mins (?) on one general subject each, e.g. aims of the scheme, marketing, etc. We had badges with different colour codes, as did the tables to ensure everyone got to talk to everyone. The second one really w as like speed double –dating as one venue hosted each table and two artists met with them to discuss how a possible partnership with that particular venue might work. It was all incredible intense but very holistic and I did feel inspired and like I had had a chance to express everything I wanted to. But then I like to talk about my work and the issues related to this bursary are close to my heart….This process might not suit someone whose primary focus is on making and not also on the discourse surrounding their work.
It must have been hard to select from 11 artists to 8 and I don’t yet know who the other artists are as nothing has gone to press yet but would have loved to have listened in on the conversation after we left and the venues/organisers had a discussion together. I think we were all pretty exhausted and blown away and it understandably took a few weeks before a decision was made as there was the complex business of matching up artists with venues in a way which worked for everyone.
If you want to know which the other venues are you can go to ‘The Shape of Things’ website which gives full info on the scheme and those involved. It is a three-year scheme and myself and the other artist selected for Bristol – Rosa Nguyen- are the first to show (Feb–April 2010)
# 3 [26 May 2009]
First Bristol meeting (1)
I just had my first trip up to Bristol. As well as the excitement of a museum project/solo show on the horizon, there is also the added bonus of some really good friends plus some family who live there who I will now get to see on a regular basis for the next year.
I met with Julia Carver, who is the assistant curator at the museum and my main contact. She seems very sensitive and open and looks like a pre-raphaellite painting, with a wonderful profile and poetic demeanour. I also met the Exhibitions Manager Phil, Reetha who works in the community development section and Louise who is the Learning /Participation Officer. There is a lot to plan for so we talked over some practical issues plus some ideas based on my proposal, which will no doubt develop and adapt to the space and audience (especially having just done The Bibliomancer’s Dream’ at Southbank where I learnt a lot about interactive work in densely occupied spaces!).
Julia showed me around the museum, it is a beautiful space and has been carefully curated with an emphasis on appealing to families. What do I remember? A David Bomberg painting (the teacher of my first drawing teacher, Roy Oxlade) among a collection of interesting modern work, an array of large stuffed animals, a small deep blue glass vessel, the old maps of Bristol around the first floor atrium space, the enormous books in the curators office, as tall as my daughter.
I have till September to research and develop my ideas to a point where we can start to plan the exhibition and start talking with the 3D designer, the marketing team etc. That isn’t really very long although the seed of this idea has been with me for many years and I think it will find its form comfortably within this time.
I am also back in the studio continuing to work on my ‘Gifts of the Departed’ series which I realise is very much related to this project and has pre-empted it in some way. For the selection we had to take an object along and I took my first piece in the series, apprehensive as to the reaction since it feels so new. The response was very positive and this has helped me to decide on investing in a good chunk of time over the next few months to make a series of up to 20 pieces. I enjoy the relied of working with my hands on something small after so many big commissions and teams of people over the last year, it is a real and intimate treat. Also, having a space in Pop-up studios here in the old fire brigade buildings overlooking the river in Lewes here is such a privilege and gives me the space I need to really focus away from family and domestic /professional concerns.
# 4 [26 May 2009]
First Bristol meeting (2)
I spent the afternoon at the Museum and then returned the next day. I wanted to see the Egyptian exhibition and also the China temporary show. I went first to the Egyptian one to look specifically at the way their designer had developed the space. I liked the way he had created a 3D timeline with a collection of small scale mummy models, suspended in blue –lit space, linked by symbolic lines of history that you had to peek through hard to get the whole picture of.
There was an Egyptian ball… made of old cloth and bound round with twine-it had charisma and strange to think it was a plaything now sitting behind a glass panel. I was drawn to it as am looking for objects that haven been wrapped or bound or relate to ancestry, personal power or have changed radically in use.
The Assyrian panels were the real pull. Of course there was an instant recognition, with my Iranian heritage of these huge figures carved into stone, in profile with their eagle eyes and coiled locks. I have seen such figures at Persepolis in Iran when I went there with my mother in 1992 . An extraordinary woman appeared at one of the doorways - a local gypsy who looked like she had time travelled there, with the eagle profile, darkest black hair and pitch black eyes Mainly it was her charisma I was so struck by –that of a living goddess. Of course, pure romantic projection on my part. It was a fleeting moment which I have always wanted to develop a painted image from but haven’t so far.
So, back to the panels,. I sensed my mother’s interest from beyond the grave as I stopped to sketch these powerful winged beings, the Apkalle. They were there to guard the King from evil influences’ and carried a bag/bucket containing a ‘magical substance ‘. What was this? Was it a physical thing or an invisible charm? They also carried a pinecone, to ‘scatter magic’…How do you imbue something with such power, is it mainly the taught belief that it is powerful that makes it so?
I read through the text about the piece and what struck me the most was that when the city, Nimrud (where these were found) which was the northern capital of the expanding Assyrian empire was finished in 860BC, the King Ashnurasipal II gave a feast lasting 1 days for 69,574 guests! How did they count the guests, how long did it take to cook the food? What did they eat? I love feasts as part of the ritual of art, but this takes the cake.
# 5 [26 May 2009]
First Bristol meeting (3)
TEXTS FOR THE AFTERLIFE
While sketching the Assyrian Panels, I remembered a dream I had about my mother about a year after she had died. In her life, she always wore the Zoroastrian symbol around her neck, the Apkalle made of gold. To her, It was a symbol of recognition of what Iran was before Islam came along and tried to destroy (but luckily failed). In the dream she had hooked up with one of the great Kings and was complaining about how demanding he was and how exhausted she was getting! There was an exasperated fondness in her voice and I woke up feeling amused at how typical of my mother this would be.
I loved looking at the cuneiform script inscribed into the panels, some flowing across the image itself. I noted down the production process as I found it interesting; ‘Alabaster slabs were set up around the room to be made. Artists drew the design and masons/artists carved them in relief. Scribes then wrote out the text and the masons (who were illiterate so did not understand what they were writing) cut the cuneiform into relief. ‘
Is there power in the physical creation of a text if you don’t know what it means?
What was the status of the masons compared to the artists compared to the scribes in those days?
I spent my last hour at the China show, freshly curated space aimed at younger audiences with a real playful feel.
The objects that caught my eye were;
- A funerary land deed (AD1626, Jing Dezchen, Jiang Xi province) written on blue on white ceramic recording personal + family history + written for a ‘bureaucratic spirit world’ .God forbid they have bureaucrats in the afterlife but it made for an interesting object and idea. Creating objects for an afterlife? A possible starting point. Both Egyptian and the Chinese have examples of these developed n very different ways.
- A scroll written on by Mao Ze Ting of The Long march’ . The totally erratic flow of his writing compared to the land deed was what struck me. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
# 6 [26 May 2009]
Second Trip to Bristol Museum (March)
On the train up I read some of Lewis Hyde’s book ‘ The Gift; The Artist and Creativity in the Modern world’. It is the perfect book for my current ideas, and me and I know what gift and exchange will be a core force in the participatory aspect of this project.
He was talking about collective self-knowledge through the Gift I think, and I read the part about the historical circular nature of gift giving in ancient societies:
‘When the gift moves in a circle, its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of sound faith’
I have been thinking a lot about legacy and Gift donations .
Since it is within a museum context, I took a look at the admin and processes that already exist for the gift donation of objects to the museum.
We looked at the Register books – these detail the narrative of the objects donated to the museum as follows:
Number : date : name : how acquired :description : annotation.
Each object has an accession number – they are on index cards detailing each objects. It is slowly being transferred to database but it was great to see it on old paper and bond books, I think I will use this as a reference.
Julia also showed me the Solander boxes which look like large fake books , to keep specimens insulated. Solander designed them on Joseph Banks’ South Sea Voyage. I quite like the feel of them. There is also the possibility of using cases, though I am aware that for the main work I want it to be physically as accessible as possible. So these may be good for some selected archive pieces that relate to the concept and maybe a couple of my own individual wrapped works.
What am I asking people to give me to become part of the work?
Ideas so far:
An object they –no longer need or want.
An object that represents an area of their life that is over.
An object they would like to send into an imaginary after life (too esoteric?)
An object that represents their legacy to the world in this life (too overwhelming?)
I am very aware that this piece may be acquired by the museum after the show and so scale and storage are an issue. The object given must fit into the palm of the hand.
What is the transaction between myself and the public?
A bill of money (poetic currency) or a gift certificate to acknowledge receipt of the object.? Or simply a copy of the Register book entry?
# 7 [26 May 2009]
Second Trip to Bristol Museum (2)
Julia arranged a meeting with Sue Giles , the Ethnographic curator who gave us a Store tour . Based on the kind of objects I had expressed interest in, (divination objects, objects using text and textile, wrapped and bound objects) she showed us ;
A Sumatran calendar, engraved on a bamboo stick.
A ‘Book of the Chicken’ – a divination book,concertina style, with all kinds of symbols and codes.
A Larger palm leaf book which was beautiful and mysterious to take in.
She explained that ‘the past is often seen as the present’ in ethnography. So she has started a new collection of contemporary objects. Among these I saw some Guatemalan weaving and looms . Also, some modern Cofradia robes (for spiritual ceremonies) . A woven wristband from New Guinea and a woven elbow bangle. She carefully unwrapped all of these out of tissue paper, as if lovingly undressing a small infant.
I asked about ideas around containing the power of objects and she told us about the tradition of ‘Killing an object’ – eg breaking a spear or piercing a ball so it went into the afterlife . When I said this idea of piercing objects could be of interest in relation to how I would hang them (in the event of a suspended work) she reacted as if I were proposing to pierce a live being and the pain of object was real! This was interesting as she is obviously someone who has great reverence and responsibility for the well being of objects and it struck me how much I would like her to gift an object into the work. Then I realised we have to invite all of the staff to do this, it is the logical place to begin.
I am thinking of where to start re wrapping objects - myself, the staff and then the public makes sense . I am going to draft a LETTER OF INVITATION asking staff donate objects and also to raise awareness and create ownership of the project . The text for this needs to be very concise, clear and inspiring. I am thinking of asking for an unwanted physical object and also for a desired emotional object for the future which they would like to see realised. I am not sure what this means yet but it feels like there needs to be a system of exchange within the gift transaction itself. So the gifting to the work offers something back to the giver, ie the possibility that their emotional object . a hope, wish, intention, desire, creative thought or plan – can be made real through the power of residing, written, in the art work itself.
# 8 [26 May 2009]
Second Trip to Bristol Museum (3)
The next day we met Kate Newnham - the Middle Eastern /Islamic curator, full of great references around gifting/text/textiles, among them -
Darum Dolls – used by Buddhist monks in Japan, they bring good luck to the start of a project . Drawing an open eye on an object brings it to life again , so they draw one eye at the start of a project and a second eye at the end to mark the end of it. I like this idea…
There are treasure houses in Temples in Japan where they wrap objects like lacquered bowls in textiles to preserve them. In China, impressions of fabric on bronze statues in tombs have been found – the textile has fused with the object it has embraced. In India, the Hindus clothe their religious figures. She also mentioned Furoshiki, the art of wrapping gifts in cloth, which I knew about already and I just ordered a book on and aim to learn in order to use in this project.
Kate also gave me a copy of ‘Declaration of a Gift’ form for staff use . She said that Return gifts must be always be ready -particularly for Japanese collleagues - to reciprocate so as not to offend. On the form there is a heading: ‘Reason for accepting gift ’ She normally replies ‘It was culturally inappropriate to refuse’.
I so love the space in the front atrium and I had explored the possibility of a suspended work, did some rough sketching and measuring and visualising.
However although I think a suspended work could be spectacular , with an immediate impact as you walk into the Museum, I am concerned about he distance between the viewer and the work, especially since I want to use texts and smallish objects.
It’s become clear that the work needs to sit on the floor and be grounded, as well as in close proximity to the public. There needs to be space around it to be written into by the public, textile texts of some sort. So its back to the temporary gallery, a shame I won’t use the atrium but it feels inappropriate to the concept of this particular work.
# 9 [26 May 2009]
I have had quite a week of decluttering, and have ended up with a large bag of clothes/ materials as well as a small bag of objects (which I will detail at some point) to begin my wrapping with. It felt very liberating to choose these to become part of the piece, rather than put them back on a box and not know what to do with them, a space got created inside. I also found some video footage from a documentary made about Dying that I was part of, a short piece form one of the other interviewees commenting on my mothers death and its connection to my children which was a very moving moment and got me present to her strong and eternal presence in my life, especially as an artist. Right now I am working on wrapping her rice cookers and feel particularly connected to her, and I know that this process, which feeds into this commission, will bring up some powerful experiences for those who engage with it and allow the emotional space to work for them. I am laying things to rest with gratitude and preparing the foundations of this very public work with my own personal, small scale pieces.
# 10 [26 May 2009]
Methodology / Engagement
‘YOU ONLY POSSESS ANYTHING THAT WOULD NOT BE LOST IN A SHIPWRECK’ (Sufi Saying)
We have started thinking of who I might be able to work with in a more small scale way through workshops on the issues of the project. They have suggested a few different groups with an existing connection to the Museum which we will decide on in our next meeting. I am keen to have a very clear sense and outline of what the engagement will look like before jumping into it, and this is bound up with the concept and form of the work itself. It seems to be unfolding itself quite nicely at the moment though, like a gift.
I realise that my process is that I always engage with part of myself first to get clear a to what kind of relationship and meaning I am offering through the work. Part of this is making, which I ma starting to do in my studio. Then I will have a (flexible ) blueprint which leads me to an engagement with others which can be integral to the work. This will be a specific group, an intimate encounter. From this the core questions of the work will become clearer still and I can then offer up the engagement to the mass public through the larger scale piece. It is really like an unfolding.. In this case, the relationship will begin earlier as I am asking the public to connect with the project via an object before the show opens, with little visual knowledge of how it will become part of the piece.
In terms of engagement during the show itself, I think the idea of the public (both those who gifted and those who did not) writing down an ‘emotional object’ The question posed will be broad enough for those who already gifted to reflect on how giving me the object impacted them or what it made space for. For the remaining public, this could be a personal hope, desire, intention, something connected with a desire the future not linked to an real object. This would mean that on a daily basis, text could be written into the exhibited space on textile strips , to contextualise and add layers of meaning to the collection of objects that will form the main artwork. This all needs more specific consideration and discussion with Julia and David but I feel its in the right direction and ties in with ideas around cultural legacy and creating a broad conceptual /visual space for dialogue and diversity which are at the heart of the work.
Alinah Azadeh is a British-Iranian artist with a background in painting, video and new media. She works across artforms, using live and digital processes relying on intimate human interaction to create work that can be a device for mass participation. Textiles and live, participative work are becoming central to her practice.Her recent impetus to create has been inspired by experiences of cultural displacement, birth and bereavement.