As a regular visitor to the Soane Museum, I am sometimes a little underwhelmed by some of the contemporary art exhibitions which are installed there from time to time. The Museum is a difficult space to work with, and I wonder if it is an art installation in itself? The viewer enters what seems like a historic property, but moving towards the back of the house, enters into a bewildering labyrinth of objects.
Many are fragments rescued from the sites which Soane, as an architect, worked upon, while others are examples of more refined collecting, such as oil paintings by Canaletto. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Museum is the lack of labels or even wall texts, which allow the viewer to perform their role – looking at objects and the way they have been arranged.
I was therefore heartened to find the current exhibition “The Return of the Past: Postmodernism in British Architecture”, mainly due to an encounter with two BT phonebooks from the early 1990s, their covers being examples of post-modern architecture. In the same room was a large ball (I think) from the TV-am building in Camden.
Soane’s Museum is itself a 3D catalogue, both an archive and a showroom, and this is reflected in these two objects. The phonebook provoked nostalgia for a time without mobile phones, when one had to consult large volumes to find things out (one can apply to same principle for encyclopedias as well). The ball, from the top of the building, is perhaps as banal as the phonebook, but both are then transformed by their presence in the Museum.
I wonder though, whether this transformation is really only possible in the Soane Museum, which is really not much like any other Museum. Its cluttered interiors and lack of interpretation mean it is much closer to a private residence (which it once was) than any of the examples of institutional collecting (e.g. the British Museum) which we tend to think of as ‘museums’. The Soane is able to cultivate an atmosphere of intimacy which seems generally unpopular in museums and galleries, large and small.
I don’t often visit the National Gallery for a number of reasons. The sole focus on oil paintings seems particularly old-fashioned, and the way they are displayed in rigid chronology is also troubling. I feel the weight of art history rather than enjoying what should be an excellent collection of artworks.
Perhaps that’s why I get drawn into looking at the frames, the wallpaper and the marble skirting boards as much as the artworks. And in the room dedicated to van Dyck, I paused in front of a portrait of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I and grandmother of King George I. She is therefore, from one perspective, the link between the Stuart and Hanover dynasties, but this draws us into a history lesson.
She is also the focus of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, a book by Frances Yates about the influence of this esoteric movement upon early modern Europe. Elizabeth was also the Winter Queen, as she and her husband briefly ruled Bohemia in 1618-19, before they were forced into exile as part of the opening shots of the Thirty Years War. Again, I am being drawn into another history lesson, and this painting is merely serving as an illustration.
But it serves also as a means of tangential thinking, in that art as research has a certain power to make connections between many different things. My interest in doing so is somewhat unresolved – simply connecting pieces of information in the aim of reaching something encyclopedic? Perhaps there is something educational which could come out of this process, a necessary palate-cleanser to the facts-and-dates approach to knowledge and learning.
I have just published two pamphlets about the 2017 Joseph Beuys in Connemara Residency, which neatly coincides with a new exhibition of his work in London (at Thaddeus Ropac gallery). My interest in Beuys is however more about the tangential possibilities which can be excavated from his work.
I am, therefore, not hugely excited about the physicality of the works on display at the exhibition Utopia at the Stag Monument. For me, Beuys himself would have been the attraction, the restless fedora-sporting enthusiast for an endless myriad of political and social causes. I admit to most enjoying his lesser-known 1982 pop song Sonne statt Reagan yet remain insufficient of an enthusiast to have learnt all the lyrics.
The idea of Beuys is what intrigues me; the polarising impact he had in West Germany in the 1970s, where for some he was little better than a mystical charlatan, while for others he was a genuine force for good after the horrors of Nazi Germany. There is something encyclopedic about his range of concerns and the artworks he based on these, and these for me provide a convenient series of cultural markers for my own Beuys-project.
The thought of creating a residency in a small Irish cottage based around Beuys began when I considered a particularly tatty rug worn as a cloak would make me appear like the artist. The effect was more of a tribute rather than impersonation, for I lacked the fisherman’s waistcoat and hat. From this brief performance has flowed a variety of artistic activity. Much of this plays around with the idea of ‘artist-in-residence’ which somewhat makes the figure of the artist especial and even sacred. This is in contrast to Beuys’ own statement that everybody is an artist, which is a flattening of the concept of genius. But I follow my own logic, and pronounce that if I am an artist, anywhere I stay becomes a residency, even if do not intend to make art.
Joseph Beuys was both a creator and follower of myths – including the well-known story relating to his WW2 experience in the Luftwaffe in which he claimed to have been shot down in the Crimea, and rescued by Tartars. This biographical founding legend is one of the keys to understanding Beuys’s physical use of materials such as fat and felt (which he said the Tartars wrapped him in) as well as wider themes of healing and transformation. Beuys’ grotty installations have something of the air of Renaissance alchemy to them, that lost pre-Enlightenment world.
With this in mind, I wonder if biographies should be treated as fiction, given that most people’s lives are pretty unknowable. That a stranger should attempt to construct a narrative of one’s life seems an impossible task, for while documents can be perused, writings analysed, they are not the same as understanding feelings, beliefs and foibles.
The reverse also is problematic – that if one has the chance to meet a well-known figure, be they writer, artist or other, there may often be a sense of disappointment. This could be because of the difference between the person, the personality, and the work they produce. Books are neat, well-formed objects, with the invisible hand of the editor upon them. Artworks, while sometimes less neat, are still discrete objects, a totality. The person is none of these – the famous artist may have slept badly the night before, and they may have worries completely unknown to us.
So perhaps it is all the best that I never met Joseph Beuys, and have instead chosen him to form part of an ongoing artwork, based around a small cottage in Ireland. The Beuys in Connemara Residency suggests a new facet of Beuys, a rural palate-cleanser to his frantic antics at Documenta in Kassel, and his ever-enthusiastic teaching. Building on existing accounts of his time in Ireland, the residency encourages a speculative approach to his work, and the opportunity to engage with local flora and fauna.
On the ferry to Fogo Island, itself an island off Newfoundland, what I had expected was quite different to the scene unfolding in front of me. There were lots of islands, mostly heavily wooded, and I had no idea which one was Fogo Island, nor even the length of the ferry ride itself.
I was headed there in August 2016 to spend some time at the Museum of the Flat Earth, an institution dedicated to the exploration of unconventional thinking (here’s a local report about it). The Museum is itself an artwork, an elaborate appropriation of esoteric thinking all created by Kay Burns, who also plays the role of curator Dr Iris Taylor.
It reminds visitors of the importance of questioning the information which we encounter on a daily basis as authoritative knowledge, with its displays focused around the history of flat earth thinking, key figures in the movement and local archaeological excavations.
Since then I have provided a voiceover for a video documenting Kay’s experiment to measure the Earth’s flatness on a frozen lake in Labrador (which I hope to show in London in the spring). I have also begun investigating the life and disappearance of Bartholomew Seeker (who was a key figure in the Canadian Flat Earth Society) through time spent in Ireland in 2017.
The culmination of this so far is yet another piece of island-based research, Navigating the Edge, (published by my own Imaginative Press) which begins with the sighting of an island floating above the clouds…