Why Art Writing?

Just after graduating I was awarded a professional art writing mentor for nine months. The first time we met he asked me, ‘why art writing?’

I told him I had gone to art school but come out a writer. I enjoyed writing immensely, and found it easier to understand artworks if I structured my thought processes into a critical review or essay. I hoped that art writing could offer me a way in to writing in general, and hey, if I could earn some income from it along the way, even better!

He laughed. But not before spitting his tea (mostly) back into his cup. I should be under no illusion that I would ever make any money from writing about art, for there are so many people willing to do it for free that not until one is writing entire books on the subject would any worthwhile earnings ever be made, and in any case I’d have quit long before reaching that point. That was three years ago and today I filed my first tax return as an art writer. I didn’t earn a lot in the year 2015/16, but I made something, and that something was enough to leave me with a tax bill, so THERE!


The opening module of my Fine Art MA is Critical Review, and we’ve done a number of exercises, building up from 100 to 1000 words. The second task was a 250 word review of Daniel Burden’s Beam Drop. I’m posting it here because it’s a great piece of work, and writing about it was a pleasure. The resulting text is far from rigorous, but nevertheless encouraged me to take a thought and run with it. The tight word count and short deadline meant that once I’d chosen my angle I had to stick to it.

I’ll be continuing to write 200-300 word reviews of single artworks in the weeks that I’m not writing for other purposes, it’s good brain exercise!

BEAM DROP INHOTIM from Pablo Lobato on Vimeo

The I-beam, so called because its cross-section resembles an upper case I with two crossbars, is a structural steel girder that has so far been in use in the civil engineering industry for over 150 years. Chris Burden’s Beam Drop (1985) takes 100 of these I-beams and hoists them, by construction crane, to a height of 45 metres, before dropping them into a three metre-deep pit of wet concrete.

The footage is mesmerising – the beams appear to ease to the floor as though in slow-motion, defying everything we know about their size, weight, and presence. One by one, the girders plummet, eventually crowding the concrete square into which they fall. As twilight turns into night time, and the space between girders reaches a premium, steel grazes steel, and sparks fly.

The visual effect is remarkable – truly a new experience for all but a vanishingly small minority of viewers – and that alone is an achievement, but of course it is not without its referents. Beam Drop has been recreated in numerous locations since its first incarnation in New York, an event that took place sixteen years before that city became inextricably linked to the steel girder in the fallout of the devastating terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

I defy anyone to witness Beam Drop in the 21st Century and not be reminded of 9/11, and the controversy surrounding the claims of countless engineering experts, that such materials would not bend under the ferocity of an aviation-fuel fire. Indeed, as a sculptural work, Beam Drop’s formidable inclined cross-hatch is strikingly reminiscent of the handful of beams that remained standing in the aftermath of that event.

Trevor H. Smith
October 2017


Alt. title: What’s Holding You Back?
A public pep-talk to myself and anyone that wants to listen.

Mostly? Fear of failure. During my school years I was the best artist in my year, from beginning to end that was everything that I was about. My report cards from all classes went something like, ‘If Trevor could apply himself as much to the academic side of (Insert non-art class here), as he does to drawing diagrams, posters, and book covers, then I am sure he could achieve a grade higher than a C.’ As it happens I achieved straight Bs, with the exception of Art and Graphic Design, obviously.

Cut to sixth form and there’s a kid in the year above me whose drawing and painting was the stuff I could only dream of producing. At the UCAS application process, I froze. ‘Actually, parents, I’m just gonna stick with Morrisons, the pub, and the snooker hall for a bit.’ Truth was, the fact that this kid had been (in my eyes, at least) so much better than me struck me with fear. At university, would everyone be this good?

Cut to one month later, ‘Actually, parents, I’ve left my job and dyed my hair green. I’m just going to stick with punk for a bit.’

Cut to me, aged 25, as the penny drops that I’m an artist and can no longer deny it. ‘Actually, wife, I’m just going to stick with this call centre for a bit…’

Cut to me, aged 32, finally doing something about it and enrolling in Art School.

Cut to me, aged 35, walking around my degree show with my new born son strapped to my chest. ‘Actually, art world, I’m just going to be raising this little feller and his little sister (arrived two years later) for a bit.’

Well, this year I turn forty. That little feller has started school and his little sister starts preschool in September, and with that goes my last remotely viable excuse for not getting on with it. Of course, I have been getting on with it – loads of exhibitions, writing, etc – but it can be hard to believe when almost all of your time is spend changing nappies, bathing small humans, cleaning up sick etc.

Thing is, a lot of artists have this thing called impostor syndrome – the fear that sooner or later we will be found out, unearthed as the frauds we feel ourselves to be, while simultaneously secretly believing we have one of the world’s greatest art minds – if only there weren’t so many things in the way of unlocking it.

Scrape all of that away and what you’re left with is fear of failure. There is nothing that can stop you from having a go at the life and career you want for yourself, be it artist in a garden studio painting watercolour sunsets of St. Ives, or community engagement officer of your local council, or anything in between, from lecturing to actually selling work through a gallery.

You see, more often than not, fear of failure isn’t fear of failure at all. It is fear of failing in front of people whose opinions we value, and whose trust we have, and who believe in us. The invisible bungee that pulls us back from achieving is the fear of letting down those people, but unless we cut that bungee, the only people we’ll be letting down is ourselves.


It has been just over a year since the news broke that Anish Kapoor had bought the (non-scientific, non-military) rights to Vantablack – the ‘blackest black’ of pigments – and, in the kind of petulant spirit usually reserved for the children’s playground, took it home with him and refused to let anyone else play with it.

Vantablack is a fascinating material. On a microscopic level the pigment’s filaments are 300 times taller than they are wide, so 99.96% of light that hits its surface is trapped within its tendrils. It’s no surprise that Anish Kapoor, to whose work the concept of the void is pivotal, has snaffled it up. What I find astonishing is that he’s keeping it all to himself. Mr Kapoor has defended his exclusivity by comparing it to his use of stainless steel, but I just stirred my morning brew with a stainless-steel teaspoon – am I and millions of other stirrers holding constituent parts of some massive public artwork?

Kapoor doubts his actions would elicit such a strong response were he dealing with the whitest white but I’m not so sure. Klein Blue, maybe, but technically speaking (I’m hardly qualified, but this is opinion after all) that wasn’t a stand alone pigment, it was ultramarine mixed with polymers that allowed the pigment to retain its colour when mixed with liquid and turned into ‘paint’.

I can’t imagine a younger artist, one that graduated this century, for example, would even contemplate not sharing this incredible new material. We swim in a sea of open source products, technology, and information, and most artists whose work features an online element have consigned copyright to the historical scrapbook, it’s just a shame that Kapoor’s attitude can’t go the same way.

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In 2010 I saw two fighter jets in an art gallery. One lay on its back, coming into contact with the floor at its nose, tail, and left wingtip. It had either been hyper-polished, or the panels had been replaced with chrome – so reflective was its surface that, if need be, I could have used it as a shaving mirror. The second had been buffed and repainted with feathers so barely visible as to have been unnoticeable at first, and it had been suspended from the ceiling by its tail so that its nosecone hung a foot above the gallery floor.

I was awestruck. Killing machines re-contextualised as decorative objects. Tools of war made, in the case of the prostrate Jaguar, hyperreal, and in the case of the feathered and hung Harrier, juxtaposed with nature.

More than once I heard visitors saying ‘I don’t get it’.

But get this, you don’t have to get it.

Sometimes art is a big philosophical hypothesis, other times it deals with politics, emotions, or death. It can be idiotic or profound, or both, and it can mean something entirely different to its creator than to every single one of its viewers.

Sometimes art is a spectacle, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes, the thing to get is no deeper than that it looks fucking awesome.

The gallery was Tate Britain. The artist was Fiona Banner


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