It sounds a little egocentric, I think, to non-artists, to say that I spent four hours just talking about my work to people… and yes, of course, to a certain extent it is, but it is more than that. There is a bigger picture.
There are all sorts of things in play:
The Venue… we had the most amazing space to present our work: The Orangery at the National Trust’s Knole House, Sevenoaks in Kent. A hugely important house, set in incredibly beautiful grounds, complete with deer herds and trees that looked like they have stood for a thousand years. We owe it to them to enhance their space, so that they keep doing it, so that the National Trust see the value of placing contemporary art within their walls… it does favours to both sides I think.
The Curator… Franny Swann did an amazing job curating “The Send Off” (an exhibition to begin the commemorative programme for the First World war). I feel truly privileged she chose my work, and that she placed right by the entrance, to entice people in, believing it to be the piece that would instantly engage people in the whole exhibition, because it is “accessible”. True. I don’t deny it is one of the reasons I use clothing. Everyone wears it, sees it, understands it, and can “read” it. Everyone knows that clothes say things don’t they?
Anyway, from there, the work sat in that historical space, blending in with the crumbly chalky plaster and blue paint, the terracotta and stone, and stained glass throwing light across the floor and the works. Each piece led to the next, it related to the next, related to the two pieces of text by Wilfred Owen and Carol Ann Duffy. The works chosen were poignant, thoughtful. The curation was sensitive, had a light touch, but was strong in its message. We owe a lot to Franny… she’s bloody clever… the artists I spoke to were all saying how proud they were to be part of this, that she had made their work look great, by its placing, and the relationships between the works, and the way they sat with strength and silence in that space.
The Artists… Some of us knew each other, some didn’t. Some lived round the corner, some of us lived miles and miles away. Some of us were there, some of us weren’t. We spoke about each other’s work to each other. We made links and associations, contrasted thoughts and materials. We had a laugh, and we had serious conversations. We talked about our work for hours, but in doing so, in talking to our visitors, we imbue the event with emotion, and real life. These are not just bits of poncey stuff, but the evidence of thought and imagination and creativity, taking of concepts and making them exist in the real world, and making them relate to real events. By talking to people who are not used to seeing contemporary art, especially in such a setting, we can infect people with an enthusiasm for art. I heard at least three lots of people on the way out, discussing how great it was to hear artists talk about why they made this work, what compelled them to spend so much time drawing spots on fragile paper, stitching seeds onto an old coat, or cutting ivy from plastic milk containers, to make a display so beautiful, when the sun streamed through the windows it took your breath away. The viewers were in awe of some of these pieces, and the exhibition as a whole. It made people think.
So yes, it is egocentric to spend time talking about my work, but the talking about it also helps me understand it myself, it clarifies, and galvanises. It also can feel a little evangelical. I have frequently said in recent years that art is now my religion, and my philosophy.
In talking to someone about my coat this weekend, I made them cry, it made them cry… I watched someone’s eyes fill up, watched her swallow the lump in her throat. That the thoughts in my head have made someone have such an emotional reaction is mind-blowing, and I’ve never witnessed it before. I don’t know what this person brought to the work, what associations they made themselves, but I felt totally humbled, overwhelmed by this reaction. How can I possibly follow that?
It was the first fix. The addict needs more.