I am a sculptor, printer, painter and an installation artist, and this is my critical review blog.
As part of my degree project I have been investigating the growth of wheat. In an earlier blog (Oct) I wrote about ploughing and farming as a metaphor for the seasons and life, a momento mori inspired by swaying barley fields. Last year I videoed the fields around my house, throughout the growing season and during the harvest. This work is influenced by some philosophical thinking around the ‘Event’ as described by Slavoj Žižek (2014) and Rancière’s book about Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, who’s films deal with a time “of pure material events against which belief will be measured for as long as life will sustain it.”
I considered others who’ve used growing plants in their art such as Agnes Dene who planted a field in her work ‘Wheatfield’ (1982)
And Newton & Helen Harrison whose installation ‘Full Farm’ (1972) comprised raised beds.
Then there was Vong Phaophanit (the Turner Prize nominee) who created an installation of furrows of rice grain (1993) incorporating neon lights which caused the rice to warm, giving off an evocative aroma.
I also looked into the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway, and the British NIAB seed archive.
Mariele Neudecker’s ‘Things Can Change in a Day’ (2001) was a series of installations that depict a dystopian future, a submerged landscape in an aquarium.
I wanted to hydroponically grow some wheat with the intention of incorporating it into my degree show as part of the life cycle. This element represented a future yet to come. I created some seed trays with drain holes, as they were hydroponic there was no soil. The grain required extensive washing and was left in a dark, warm place to germinate. When it was sprouting I transferred the grain into the prepared trays and watered them each day. I covered half with tin foil to prevent light from getting to the wheat, this helped to encourage stronger, taller growth, similar to forcing rhubarb. Both trays of wheat grew quickly at first, but after about 4 week the light exposed wheat started to yellow due to a lack of nutrients. I carried out further research and ordered supplements, as without soil the wheat couldn’t search for it’s own nutrients. The wheat “greened up” and continued to grow strongly for a further few weeks. However the wheat did not grow to full maturity as the process is not sustainable with the materials and resources at my disposal. Most people grow wheatgrass in this way to create the raw material for smoothies after 4 wks and I’d grown the wheat for 8 weeks, the tops started too wilt, the grain became mouldy and the wheat died.
However, even in this state the wheat had interest, although this was not the message I wanted to purvey. This was supposed to be about growth, future and life, and not another reminder of death!
This decision comes after forming a plan to grow the wheat to its optimum height in trays which I had already created out of zinc, trays that were to sit in the bottom of a framework cube I’d taken 4 weeks to create, utilising a hydroponic leaking pipe and pump system, with a waste water capture vessel, all of which I’d designed and already had purchased the materials for. However, I no longer think that this is as I’d wished, the trial highlighted a number of feasibility issues especially timing and the final look did not meet my objective, although interesting in its own way.
This week I’ve been tasked by my tutor to create a pared down, simplify sculpture, whilst still capturing the essence of my work. So I have considered an artist who has made incredible, minimalist works dealing with an enormously complicated and traumatic event.
I first saw Miroslaw Balka’s ‘Kategorie’ (2005) at the White Cube (Mason’s Yard) in the exhibition ‘New Order’ (April 2011), and it left a deep and lasting memory. The installation consists of a tunnel, or corridor, constructed of plain, gray-matt concrete, slightly taller than it is wide. Down the centre of the ceiling runs a row of five lights and five motors. From each motor hangs a single (barely visible) piece of thread which slowly rotates, each strand is dyed a different colour.
The simple design causes the viewer to wonder what it is they’re looking at, first I noticed the artist’s name, which sounds eastern block, European maybe? I thought that it was possibly something to do with the Balkan conflict, a direct leap from the name I suppose, but no he was from Poland, it said so alongside his name.
I read on and learned that : –
“The colours of the strands – red, violet, green, pink and black – are the colours assigned to uniforms identifying different categories of prisoner in the concentration camps (red for political prisoners; violet for Jehovah’s Witnesses; green for criminals; pink for homosexual and bisexual men; and black for Romany people, alcoholics and individuals with learning disabilities, among others).”
Susan May (2011) ’New Order’, White Cube, London
It’s clear to me from this and the rest of the catalogue text that the artist processes his cultural trauma from the wartime atrocities through his post-memory (being part of the “generation after”) generating this response. The work is strangely beautiful, and alluring, yet it is not until you read about the artist and his references that the true nature of the work is revealed. Therefore with all it’s aesthetic simplicity it is actually an extraordinarily complex piece which requires a codex to decipher, that is the galleries catalogue…
So what is my work about, and how can I simplify it’s appearance?
My art contains self-referential metaphors which are about my illness, prognosis, and my awareness of my own mortality (something typical of nearly all people at one point in their life or another, but my experience is earlier than that of most, at the age of 32 I was given 8 years to live). I’m now 42, therefore living on borrowed time and hoping for a breakthrough cure before I have to have a risky bone marrow transplant. Like Balka, I consider threads in my work, well at least the mythological threads woven by the fates. Time is also critical. As is existing in a state of limbo. The materials lead and gold leaf tend to feature in my work, which is a hint towards transcendence.
So maybe I’ll make a sculpture with a bobbin, or a reel, wound with lead thread or tape. It would be jammed so that it doesn’t turn, or possibly snapped from being jammed, and the end would be gilded…
I created this maquette this afternoon, I call it ‘Allotted 14/9/14’ indicating the day my prognosis ran out, normally I hate to miss a deadline but…
The wire needs some more work, I left it looking a bit like a walnut whip…
This is a better look… what do you think? I guess I’ll find out my tutor’s opinion tomorrow.
Many may consider my degree project to be about death, a memento mori or a vanitas work, however I am not so sure, yet I guess it is whatever the viewer want’s it to be. To me the work, is more about possibilities and existing at a crossroads of uncertainty, where the sword of Damocles hangs (as it does with everyone in reality, but) with a haunting prolepsis, that of the overdue nature of it’s pending swipe. However there might be a reprieve, a stay, as in the movies (‘Dead Man Walking’, or ‘The Life of David Gale’ which opens with a vista across a ploughed field, [SPOILER ALERT] “not that Gale gets a call from the warden at the 11th hour!”)
But first let’s consider the vanitas, a term used to describe a memento mori, latin for “Remember you have to die”. Vanitas, which is also latin, and literally means “emptiness”, from the Latin vanus, meaning empty or without substance. This references the christian view of a terrestrial existence (that of goods and earthly pursuits) as being worthless. The connection of vanitas to death probably derived from Jerome’s translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures (405) Biblia Sacra Vulgata, Ecclesiastes verse 1:2 which states “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas”, in the King James Version (1611) this became ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. In this case the meaning of the word vanity derives from the old english sense of futility, pointless, or in fact meaningless.
Therefore I’d argue that this was the opposite to what I was trying to represent, which is the possibility of cheating the inevitability of death, at least for the moment (whilst pausing to reflect on the past and future).
Anyway many artists have considered mans mortality using more ‘out of the box’ (excuse the pun) ways of thinking, such as through surrealism: –
In others’ work we might see death through the knowledge that he is actually lurking in the background, as described by Roland Barthes as the punctum (for more see link) such as in van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfields with Crows’ (1890) which he painted shortly before his suicide, or the photography of Francesca Woodman who committed suicide at the tender age of 22. Not forgetting Bacon’s ‘Triptych’ depicting his boyfriend in the very throes of death (which is probably more about after-memory than punctum)…
Rene Magritte referenced the art of past masters in a series he called Perspectives, in which he replaced the characters in the composition for coffins, such as in ‘Perspective II: Manet’s Balcony’ (1950); which is full of black humour.
Others have depicted death through mythology…
Or through religious iconography…
Whilst some have used literary references…
Many artists have been far more direct, depicting skulls, skeletons and corpses as memento mori…
Others hide death’s presence or even try to capture a thought of it as Kahlo does…
Here’s an example of an artist who has taken a more tangental approach to the topic…
After all that death (in the spirit of T2) why not choose life… several artists have captured actual life in their art. For instance a collaboration led by Ken Goldberg created ‘The Telegarden’ (1995-2004) a remotely accessible garden (by a webcam), which could also be tended over the web by a robot… you can now download STL files which will enable you to 3D print a version via their website. Then there’s Wim Delvoye who built a machine called the ‘Cloaca Original’ (2000) which processed food like an organic creature, where a series of vats bubbled and parped away, creating stools at the end of the chain, and not unlike Piero Manzoni he managed to sell his waste… then there are the Harrison’s et al.
Here are a few images and links to relevant articles.
After reflecting on all of this, I’m considering titling my piece ‘Ceci n’est pas une vanitas’ ,“This is not a vanitas”, or should that be ‘C’est une vanitas’, “this is a vanity”. It’s important to get the correct double (negative) meaning.
Magritte’s famous painting was titled ‘This is Not a Pipe’ but it was a symbol of a pipe.
My art is not a vanitas, and it remains a symbol which is one that is not a vanitas, so it does not flip and become a vanitas, such as in a double negative therefore…
‘Ce n’est pas une vanitas’ – “This is not a vanitas”.
Or possibly in the spirit of Marcel Broodthaers (who likes a play on words and straight puns)
‘Ce n’est pas une vanité’ – “This is not a vanity” so this is not empty.
Or I could possibly be referencing a friend who described my pursuit in education as an indulgence, in which I think he meant “a non-essential luxury”, or a means to pamper such as one might if they were vain?
Anyway, is anyone still reading this drivel? If so here’s an update on my wheat trays: –
For the past few weeks I’ve been making a cube, inspired by Sol LeWitt it is an open frame and in it’s simplest form it is minimalist in appearance.
Whilst my method of making a cube was not as simple as one could make it, the process I took was arduous by design. There are faster ways to achieve this task, but this was intended to be a task in the Herculean sense, if that’s not overstating the activity too much (which I suspect it is). When given the opportunity I favoured manual tools over production tools (other than an electric drill which I allowed myself).
The black bullet points signify my progress: –
The 1m cubed frame
•First order wood, and cut approx. in order to make it manageable. Cut (using a chop saw) against grain to avoid breakout.
•Measure and trim with mitre saw, lightly sand off the saw burr from the edge.
•Shave pairs of timbers to exactly 1m long using a mitre planer.
•Mark up the face edges with the lap cuts, and mortise holes. Identify joints with unique identifiers.
•Cut lap joints with tenon saw, chisel off waste, shave with accuracy using the other half of the pair.
•Repeat creating the four joints for the base. Layout and check the dimension’s accuracy – 1m2.
•Drill out centre of mortise joint with 16mm blade drill bit.
•Saw out corners of the mortise with hand keyhole saw.
•Identify suitable piece of timber for the verticals.
•Saw tenon cuts and chisel off waste, shave with accuracy checking against matching mortise.
•Repeat making the four vertical pieces.
•Select four matching lengths of timber for the top of the cube.
•Measure and trim with mitre saw, lightly sand off the burr on the back sawn edge.
•Shave the pairs to exactly 1m long with mitre planer.
•Lay out and mark up lap cuts, and mortise holes, identifying joints with unique identifiers remembering that the mortises go on the lower part of the lap joints this time.
•Cut lap joints with tenon saw, chisel off waste, shave with accuracy using the other paired half.
•Repeat creating the four joints for the top.
•Drill out centre of mortise joint with 16mm blade drill bit.
•Saw out corners of the mortise with hand keyhole saw.
•Assemble the base and vertical pieces, measure and markup second tenon at the top end of the verticals.
•Saw tenon cuts and chisel off waste, shave with accuracy checking against matching mortise.
•Repeat completing the four vertical pieces.
•Assemble the cube, measure and check using ones fingers to detect slight inaccuracies at timber interfaces.
◦In a location with sufficiently wide door ways, assemble the joints using wood glue, pins and clamps. Pin joints to secure them.
◦Wood filler can be used where necessary to smooth the surfaces and blemishes.
◦Primer the timber, undercoat then top coat the frame.
◦Cube frame complete.
Why the cube? You may well ask…
There are many examples of the cube being used in art (as above), from Alberto Giacometti’s Le Cube (1934) which strictly speaking is a polyhedron, to Anthony Gormley’s Murmur (2014) so what’s the appeal?
The Russian constructivist sculptor, Naum Gabo was at the forefront of presenting cubes as art, his work Two Cubes (1930) investigates both the internal space and the external space of the shape.
Daniel Herwitz (1996) says of Gabo that his work is inspired by Descartes (the philosophiser who coined the concept ‘I think therefore I am’) whereby the shapes are depicted so that the viewer can fully appreciate it, understanding its make-up completely just through seeing the sculpture; he hides nothing. Krauss said of Gabo that his “cube makes visually available its mode of construction from simple lines in the manner of [a] geometric proof” thus referring to the shapes: 8 vertices, 6 faces and its 12 edges.
In 1969 the artist Jacques Schnier claimed that the representation of the cube in art had been exhausted, initially the shape had been picked up by artists during the movement from figurative to geometric abstraction, yet the minimalists picked up the cube and ran with it into the 1970’s. Sol LeWitt deconstructed the shape, making it with the fewest lines as possible; looking for the very premise of the shape. Robert Morris constructed mirrored cubes in 1965 and Donald Judd’s Untitled (1972) was a box of polished copper, Tony Smith’s Die (1962) was a 6 foot cube of rusty steel, whilst Richard Serra made the One Ton Prop (House of Cards) in 1969, which was a cube of 4 faces made of lead that were precariously lent together.
The intention of the minimalists was to create art that existed to present only itself and not something other. Traditionally paintings and sculptures existed to represent something other i.e. a landscape, a beautiful woman or a brave warrior. The minimalists made art that represented nothing but itself. Well, nothing other than everything else associated with the form, from the spiritualism of Malevich’s Black Square (c. 1915) to the Muslim icon of the Hajj.
In Rosalind Kraus’ essay LeWitt in Progress (1978) she highlights Kuspit’s analysis which details how LeWitt’s incomplete cubes are completed by the viewer, Kraus uses Kant’s terminology to describe how the observer combines the incomplete ‘phenomenal’ cube with their ‘idea’ of the cube, this creates a tension or an aporia. This same sensation is described by Beilder in his paper, The Postmodern Sublime (1995) which links Tony Smith’s cubes with Kant’s sublime, as a simultaneous repulsion and attraction, or the comprehension of a “multiplicity in a unity”. Kant used these terms to describe the sublime in his Critique of Judgement (1790). Kant argued that the sublime cannot be presented in art which only deals with the representation of something phenomenal, but Beilder uses Lyotard’s essay The Inhuman and Michael Fried’s concepts to demonstrate that the sublime can be witnessed in art which uses the mind to create an eternal oscillation, endlessly receding and approaching the beholder’s ability to appreciate the object.
In my creation of the cube I intend to piggyback this sensation (in those who’ve witnessed these works) and then apply my presentment of the concept ‘combining unity and multi-potentiality’, i.e. a grain of wheat (a single grain which can have many different futures) or better still a shit load of them. I plan to take a ton of seeds and present them in different ways.
Here are a few trial ideas: –
I’ve been procrastinating for too long, too much cerebral thinking and not enough dumb making (so my tutors are telling me). So I have a concept an feeling which I want to evoke. In short it’s the idea that one can be alive and yet not, stuck in a living limbo. Ever since I was diagnosed I was living my life to a given timeframe, my prognosis, but now that I’ve out lived this I’m in open (blue) water, afloat and all at sea, without reference or sight of land. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a bubble, I’ll zone out, voices become distant and the pit of my stomach feels like a ball of lead. Before I was diagnosed I was a different person, I was a career engineer, I had a clear purpose and I achieved objectives, now I have feelings that I don’t know what to do with. I’ve been told that my cancer free future is predicated upon a bone marrow transplant, a procedure that has a 50% chance of fatality (at least with my complications). So apropos of nothing (certainly not anything to do with the season or Dickens) I want to capture these three ‘ghosts’: past, present and future. The use of three elements has strong ties with mythology (as I suspect Dickens was all too aware). The Greeks called the three who controlled the thread of life of every mortal the three fates; the Spinner (Clotho), the allotter (Lachesis) and the unturnable (Atropos).
Basically the three witches, sorry my mistake (Shakespearian-slip) the three goddesses were the daughters of Erebus & Nyx (Darkness and Night). They determine each and everyones lifespan, their allotment of misery, and their destiny. Clotho the spinner and youngest (aka Nona by the romans) creates the thread, she decides when someone is born, but also has the power to bring someone back to life (such as Pelops). Therefore she is the bringer of life. The second goddess, Lachesis (AKA Decuma) measures the length of the thread (with a rod), she monitors ones destiny. Lastly there’s the eldest, Atropos (AKA Morta), who deals with the end of life, she carries the shears and the scales, Atropos is capable of cutting ones life short. She chooses the means and ultimate timing of each persons death.
Whilst the Greeks called the fates Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos the Norse had three similar figures, the Norns, who were referred to as Urd (what once was – past), Verandi (what is coming into being – present) and Skuld (what shall be – future). Seemingly the very words Dickens used for his three ghosts…
However this understanding is based on a linear concept of time, the Norse where not so linear. Whilst past and present are accepted terms “what shall be” is more complicated and a deeper understanding of Norse mythology is needed to understand the meaning. Like the Judeo-Christian belief of the garden of eden, the Norse spiritual cosmos was predicated on a beautiful garden. Whilst the Norse believed in an enormous Ash tree (not an Apple tree) growing out of a water well (Urd) at the very centre. The tree provides spiritual transportation between the nine worlds which exist on the branches and within the roots, Odin rides his horse (Sleipnir) up and down the trunk travelling between the worlds. The well, called Urd (the Norse word for destiny) or the well of destiny. In norse mythology the three ‘WISE’ maidens carve runes into the tree, the lives and destinies of children.
“Fundamentally, this image expresses the indigenous Germanic perspective on the concepts of time and destiny.” (McCoy n.d. “Yggdrasil and the well of Urd”) here McCoy explains that in the old Norse, germanic language, as with english today there is no true future tense, instead we add a verb that depicts an intention to do something. So there’s past which related to the well, a collection of water (memories) which nourish the tree. The tree itself, is the present, real, tangible. This leaves “what shall be”, which McCoy suggests is the dew on the leaves, the hail and the streams which run back into the well. Therefore this is not set but ever changing, a cyclical, changeable possibility which can be influenced by others.
Therefore Skuld’s role is more dynamic, and manipulable than you might think it sounds.
The norse mythology is closest to my appreciation of the spiritual world, therefore it is this ideology which I intend to draw upon. I also wish to incorporate Žižek’s theories around the Event. Using my surroundings of the rural setting as a canvas I shall create sculpture and video to capture a sense of the cycle nature of life whilst nodding towards the intertwining nature of present and past spiritual beliefs.