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By: Michelle Hunter-Gray
1 year Art Foundation course followed by a 3 year BA (Hons) in Fine Art
# 10 [27 May 2010]
It's not a bit like the Walton's (it's not like Eastender's either), a performance (2010) brings together many of these concerns though an exploration of the tension between the Ideal Family that is still promoted by both state and media and our lived experience of the complexity and diversity of human relationships.
As so often with my work, the idea grew out of personal experience. My own family is typical, with blood ties, adoptions, divorce, step families and live in partners complicating the somehow still expected two parents, 2.4 children and various grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins (though even the Ideal Family is a far from a simple organism). All of us bound together by an assortment of emotions from love and friendship to habit and shared experience.
The crib, in which my own children had once slept, relegated to the back of a garage and with its various screws and bolts missing, struck me as an interesting metaphor for the way we try to build family connections and then work to keep them together. In a rich and diverse culture nothing can be taken for granted. Couples are male and female in any combination as are parents. Children are adopted, fostered or created with or without the intervention of medical technology. Siblings are full, half or step related and all these variations and more I haven't mentioned, come together as families that love and fight and hate and forgive. No, family is definitely not a bit like The Walton's!
Beginning as an installation the work has evolved over time as my research helped to mature and clarify my thoughts. The political promise to reward marriage through taxation drew my attention to the way the establishment continued to support a kind of Platonic Ideal that is no longer the only viable pattern. In a society that promotes consumer choice, it seems that not all choices have equal value. Working through several variations I finally realised that just as family building is an activity that happens in real time, I needed to express my ideas through an active rather than a static medium.
During the performance of It's not a bit like The Walton's..., the artist is seen sitting amongst various domestic items and crib components. Instructions, a template for what the crib should look like when completed and how it should be built is close at hand. As she begins to assemble the various parts it soon becomes obvious that there are items missing and that she must find substitutes or improvise new ways of making connections. Several times the construction falls apart and she must start again. Finally, she has a stable crib of sorts. Gently checking that the structure is more or less stable, she sits back, content until the moment when it will be necessary to begin again or make repairs or replace a fraying element.
An interesting and important quality of performance is the difficulty of repeating the same action in an identical manner to arrive at an identical result. Each time a performance is given the end result will be something subtly or even markedly different, even though the performer begins with the same template and the same materials.
Just like families.
# 9 [27 May 2010]
The last few months have been exciting, stimulating and frustrating. I invested so much time and research into my crib piece that some version of it would have to be my degree show exhibit. Yet as deadlines crept ever closer it seemed that a resolution moved further out of reach. For weeks I felt close to...something...that I could not quite grasp. Like a word on the tip of your tongue or the lingering edges of a dream when you first wake up. With each construction my understanding of what it was I wanted to articulate became clearer but the means of doing so continually eluded me.
I had, up until this point, been working with the disassembled parts of the crib. Now I began to look at methods of assembly. Experimenting with found domestic materials as substitutes for the missing nuts and bolts, I was still thinking of the finished product in terms of an installation or sculptural object. Pleased with the appearance and the way string, tape and wool, amongst other things seemed to echo the way family connections are made and held together in a haphazard, whatever is necessary way, I wrote my proposal. Ignoring the nagging reservations at the back of my mind.
A last minute tutorial with a new (to me) tutor brought my anxieties to the surface and helped me to put words to some vague thoughts that had been chasing around my mind. I began to consider adding a video to the installation. The video would be a recording of the crib being assembled. The more I thought about it the more I came to realise that it was the act of putting it together that was central rather than the object.
I wrote the video into the final proposal, still imagining that it would be a small addition that would lead the viewer to the main piece - the crib - which would be presented in a dark space lit with one spotlight.
My mobility restrictions meant that I could not film until I had arranged some help. This worked well as Geoff Berrow not only carried equipment and helped to rig the set, but as an experienced camera operator and video maker was able to offer invaluable advice.
I decided to film in a dark space with one fixed camera. The scene was back lit with some fill being provided from the side.
As soon as the camera began to roll and I began to construct the crib my plans for the degree show changed. I immediately realised that it was the activity of construction that was the work, not the object. Performance was able to provide the means of expressing my thoughts in a way that my previous installation attempts had failed to do. A look at the raw footage confirmed my thoughts.
The final version was edited very little. This was not intended to be video art, but a straight record of a performance. If I had had the time to experiment I would have used two cameras and edited the footage together to give a more varied view of the action.
I am not altogether happy with presenting my work as a video for assesment and the degree show as the static nature of the medium does not fully express my intentions. However I failed to get the required permission to present it as a performance piece. I do intend to look for opportunities to perform It's not a bit like The Walton's (and it's not like Eastender's, either) after graduation.
One of the unintended consequences of moving from a sculptural installation to a recorded performance at such a late stage is that my I now hate the photograph that I chose to illustrate my work in the degree show catalogue. It represents a version that had yet to evolve into something more although I did not know it at the time.
# 8 [19 March 2010]
I have heard the creating of art compared with giving birth. A comparison that sounds good at first glance but that really does not stand up to scrutiny. As far as I know, no woman, after going through pregnancy and child birth has ever heard a midwife say
'nope, that doesn't work for me, Maybe you should start again?'
'Why don't you try adding an extra leg?'.
# 7 [11 March 2010]
I can't sleep tonight, despite being so tired that my eyes keep closing without consulting me first. Yet although my body wants to close down for the night, my mind has other ideas. If it is not doing re-runs of todays events its off gathering random thoughts from dark places.
Meanwhile a small voice is whispering doubts into my ear.
Why am I putting myself through this? Is it worth it? Whatever made me think I could do this?
They are, or course, rhetorical questions that I will have forgotten about next week or perhaps even tomorrow. But for tonight, after a bad day, they keep me awake and wondering why I didn't chose to study something that has clear cut answers and does not rely on the subjective judgements of others.
If there is such a thing. (Only this evening someone told me that 2 +2 is not necessarily 4 as I had always belived, but can sometimes be 3.)
I am still stressing about the 'It's not a bit like the Waltons' piece. Or rather I have returned to stressing about it after a brief delusion that I had reached a resolution and produced something I was pleased with. Having previously suffered from this particular delusion, I should have known better.
This week has been our Interim exhibition and there has been some very interesting work shown. I have really enjoyed seeing the various directions taken by my colleagues and speculating on the possible shape of our final exhibition.
Today was my groups seminar. Although I was nervous about showing the latest incarnation of the 'Walthons', I was also convinced that I had 'cracked it' so to speak.
It received, what I can only describe as a 'mixed reception'. The comments from my peers were generally positive . Sometimes in the past I have had a problem with 'activting' my work. It has needed me to explain or to give some kind of background information. This was not the case today. I was pleased with the responses and interested in the new or extrapolated readings, possibilities that I had not been aware of. Especially as at least two of the audience had no previous knowledge of my work so were looking at it with fresh eyes.
So far so good. Just as I began to relax...
I can't remember either of the two tutors present saying even one positive thing. Every comment was about completely changing what I had done. One of them has previously been interested in my use of text and especially lists. Today one of them dismissed the text completely and wanted it got rid of entirely. Gone was all the previous discussions of 'integration' and the talk was all of 'sculptural form'. I feel utterly demoralised.
# 6 [2 March 2010]
"So what's important to you? The object or the text? How wedded are you to the combination?' ... or words to that effect ... spoken by a fellow student during a self directed seminar.
I have to make a decision?
I have to make a decision.
The text of course.
An immediate response easily made because the meaning (meaning? my meaning? the viewers meaning?), resides in the words that were being projected on to and behind the object.
So the object is extraneous?
The object is...
Are there two pieces of work here that I am trying to combine? Like a marriage that should work according to the facts but hasn't take the individuals feelings into account.
Or maybe I think? Out loud? Out line? On line?
I don't like lines very much. At least not straight ones, except when...but that's another story.
Back to this story.
I suspect this is fundamentally about my practise. About what it is, or might become. Am I an installation artist? An artist who works with text? with sculpture?
Am I an artist?
What is an artist?
Does it matter what I call myself? How I am defined?
How I am defined? or how my work is defined? An interesting slip of the pen.
Again, back to the subject. This work. A work that keeps growing and shrinking and gobbling up ideas both serious and whimsical.
It began with the parts of a rocking crib laid out on the floor in my studio space. Moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle I fell in love with the shapes and the texture and the possibilities of shadow.
Then came the phrase. A title. 'It 's not a bit like the Waltons'. A wry comment. Tongue in cheek? It's not like East Enders either. Family life. Families.
Next came the list. There is almost always a list! Social comment?
At Christmas I projected the list on to the crib.
Maybe something. More work definitely needed.
Arranging and rearranging the seperate parts has been fascinating and intriguing. The way they related to each other. The spaces in and out and in between. How together, they create a brand new whole.
Now, I project the words and I am left with a restless feeling. A split in my intentions.
Pleasure in the .... objectness? ... of the sculpture?
Which leads me back to the seminar I mentioned at the beginning. We talked of instructions and leaflets. Of multiples available to be taken away by visitors.
I designed and printed a leaflet.
Next week is our Interim10 exhibition, which is what I have been working towards. Yesterday I brought my leaflet to another seminar.
And the sculpture.
which now need to be intergrated once more....
# 5 [19 February 2010]
words like rocks
pound into the ground.
the sharp prick of imagined slights
beneath the thunder.
Yet silence leaves me
# 4 [18 February 2010]
I suppose I should have expected a period of intense frustration, but I would have preferred not to have to go through this. I am impatient to move forward. There are so many 'starts' and 'almosts' populating my studio and sketch book that I feel like sweeping it all away and burying my head in a bucket! Although that might possibly make an interesting image in itself, it's not exactly the way I had anticipated my work going.
It all began with a phrase (as so much of my art does), in this case 'I love you more or less each day'. Like so many women my age, I seem to have been on a diet an awful lot of the time since the birth of my children. It's hardly surprising that the current one should bleed into my practise.
I am a compulsive list maker. Even my lists have lists and dieting provides the perfect circumstances for such an activity. Food diaries, the ups and downs of a daily weigh in (I know you shouldn't but...), counting calories, and so on and so on. I began to think about the way my self esteem was influenced by a pound gained or lost. And more importantly, the wider cultural meaning of dieting. The way body image is framed and dictatated by the media and then exploited by a billion dollar dieting industry.
The piece began to take shape. A mirror, positioned to only reflect the viewers head, bathroom scales standing on photographs of an over weight body. Because that is so often what is seen and what is not seen. It has little to do with reality. I wrote the phrase 'I love you more or less each day' across the mirror.
But...but...there is something missing, or something that is not quite what I want.
One of the experiments I wanted to make was with the lettering on the mirror. With this in mind, I attended a workshop on how to set up files to use the laser cutter. I was hoping that I could use it to etch into the mirror. Of course, this is the point at which frustration really set in. The laser cutter can be used to cut almost anything, it can etch glass, leather, wood, even tissue paper or silk. Of course the one material that cannot be used with it is a mirror.
Back to the drawing board, I guess.
# 3 [17 February 2010]
'Every Fairy Tale has an epilogue'
Epilogue - a short addition or concluding section at the end of a literary work, often dealing with the future of its characters. Also called afterword.
An old wedding dress in a black plastic bin liner. I first began working on this piece in late 2008. I had been doing a lot of research and work around memory and the way that objects become cyphers for our experiences. So many of these objects, that we consider to be intimately connected to ourselves, personal, are in fact cultural artefacts that contain stories that are accesable to us all. It is the old thing that we are much more alike than we are different.
A wedding dress carries associations and meanings and has a particular place within our culture. From the moment we are introduced to fairy tales such as Cinderella, as a child, to the day we begin to plan our own 'Big Day', the image of a princess in a beautiful white dress holds a place and a meaning that almost anyone within our society understands automatically.
'Every Fairy Tale has an epilogue' initially existed as a performance piece. I wanted to subvert the assumptions that surround the dress. So instead of a 'lovely young bride' taking this incredibly special object out of it's protective covering, the audience sees a very ordinairy middle aged woman carefully unpacking a wedding dress from a black bin liner while sitting in the floor. Stains have developed on the delicate fabric over the years, the woman wears no wedding ring so probably the marriage no longer exists. The fantasy begins to disintergrate.
It is just dress. A little old fashioned. And yet it contains so many memories and the very act of unpacking it resurrects those memories and simultaneously makes new ones.
More recently I have been working on creating an installation using the photographs of the original performance (photographs taken my Jo Clewes) and the dress and bin liner. I find the contrast between a once precious object and its storage in a black plastic rubish bag interesting and emotive.
# 2 [17 February 2010]
I love being in the studios. The opportunity to interact with so many creative people, to chat about every thing from art to last nights tv, is something I shall miss after graduation. I think that we all underestimate the value of working beside other artists. I often wonder around the spaces to take a closer look at what other people are doing. It's like having a pass to a constantly changing and developing exhibition.
Unsuprisingly, the atmosphere is a little different this semester. There is an air of tension and nervous energy that is hard to ignore. I suspect that although some of us might complain about the pressure, it is a productive and stimulating atmosphere, spurring us on to push ourselves and our art just a little further.
I do think that for some of us who come under the umbrella of 'mature studen t', there is an extra source of pressure. Achieving a decent degree is much more than a personal or professional goal. Our final graduation and marks are a source of validation for the choices we have made.
We had lives before university. We were mothers and fathers, employess and employers. We had jobs or careers. We had an identity that was recognised by our family, friends and colleagues. By becoming students we changed the rules and disrupted those familiar identities and sometimes our relationships too. For some of the people around us our actions were incomprehensible, selfish or indulgent. Maybe if we had chosen a vocational or academic subject that could be more easily related to the roles we had previously filled... But we chose art.
So now our choices are on the line. A good degree result will at least in part, offer justification for that choice.
Yet the odd thing is that on a personal level, if I block out all thoughts of other peoples opinions or judgements, my final results are the least important thing about the last few years.
# 1 [16 February 2010]
Experiencing the third year of a fine art degree is a very odd experience indeed. It's like being in the centre of a tug of war or attempting to be in two places at the same time, or, well, you get the picture. On the one hand, everything is centred on ones practise. This is it. The pinacle of three, or even four, years of hard work. A search for resolution and the expression of your artistic view that can represent all the work you have done and all that is to come in one, final, student exhibition. All ones attention and effort is focused on the work. The now of thinking and experimenting and making.
On the other hand 'The Future' looms large, casting its sometimes scarey shadow over everything. Being a student, indeed, being an artist, is no longer enough. Thought and effort must be given to making a living and paying the bills. 'Careers' suddenly becomes a relevant subject once more. Employment (or perhaps unemployment?) figures and information takes on a new importance. Choices between work or further study have to be made. Oh and if you decide to take the further study route, then what? Where? Full time or part time? How will you finance it?
Application forms begin to insert themselves into your life. What had seemed like a perfectly adequate CV only last month now looks worryingly sparse.
The work piles up. Deadlines creep ever closer. The End and The Beginning battle it out.
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Michelle Hunter-Gray is an artist who works in mediums ranging from photography and performance to found objects. She often uses both text and humor to make sly comment on society. She is particularly interested in the experience of middle-aged women in a society dominated by a youth obsessed media and consumerism aimed at a 15 to 25 demographic.