Monthly Archives: October 2013

Going, going …..

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This is taken from high on Brean Down, looking onto the levels below, while the photo below comes from the Welsh salt marsh on the other side of the estuary. I wonder how much longer these places will exist now, given the rising water levels and the prediction that there might be a rise of between one and three metres in the next fifty years?

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Predictability, security, and creative mutations

 

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It’s often productive to read more than one text at a time because of the unexpected cross-fertilization that result. This has been the case for me with reading the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Think differently, Humanitarian impacts of the economic crisis in Europe – see http://www.ifrc.org/en/news-and-media/features/european-economic-crisis/ – in the middle of working my way through Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Duke University Press 2013). The particular cross-fertilization I want to pick up on here is between observations made by Daniel Joseph Martinez – a professor of theory, practice, and the mediation of contemporary art at the University of California, Irvine – and the opening statement of the IFRC’s report. This reads:

“Creating a sense of predictability and security has traditionally been attributed to what a society offers to its citizens.

Today, as the economic crisis has planted its roots, millions of Europeans live with insecurity, uncertain about what the future holds.

This is one of the worst psychological states of mind for human beings and we now see a quiet desperation spreading among Europeans, resulting in depression, resignation and loss of hope for their future”.

I know quite enough about living with insecurity – in my case to do with unpredictability around medical responses to my daughter’s longterm illness – not to wish unpredictability and insecurity on anybody at the level of their familial, day-to-day life. However, the assumption that the function of society has traditionally been first and foremost to create a sense of predictability and security for its citizens seems to me a little simplistic to say the least and, at least in my view, needs contextualising. There are, I suggest, some very particular modern and secular assumptions at work that don’t necessarily sit very well with what we know of European history.

It’s in this context that Martinez’s observations seem particularly pertinent.

Asked about changes in his practice in the mid-1990s he refers to the importance of mutation, of being willing to see practice as “unpredictable and uncontrollable”, and of the value of this as a basis for ideas where the emphasis is on creativity in a social context as in “perpetual motion, constant flux” (Finkelpearl 2013: 70). The contrast between this understanding of creative arts practices – and as someone much influenced by Joseph Beuys’ notion of Social Sculpture we can be reasonably certain he would extend this to creativity more generally – and the emphasis, in the IFRC’s report, on predictability and security strikes me as worth exploring. After all, in the context of creative imagination it’s fairly obvious that a degree of uncertainty about what the future holds can be a useful, indeed highly productive, state of mind.

A book that made a very marked impression on me in terms of mapping shifts and clashes in historical mentalités is Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). It illuminates, in extraordinary detail, the point of interaction between two radically different mentalités: on the one hand that of a traditional peasant culture in which vernacular quasi-pagan beliefs co-existed both with residual elements of the Catholic faith and of the new Protestantism and, on the other hand, the new social order predicated on an essentially middle and upper class Calvinism. What is particularly significant about this clash here is that each of these mentalités, which uneasily co-existed for a while, would have understood predictability and security in very distinct ways and have valued them very differently. For example, for the vast majority of the rural poor in Calvinist Seventeenth-Century Scotland one of the very few things they know for certain was that their social status would not improve in this life and that, as born sinners who found themselves within a religious orthodoxy based on predestination, they were almost certainly condemned to the fires of Hell in the next. In terms of predictability, Wilby also makes very clear the almost unbelievable predictability, monotony and restrictions of the ordinary life or a Scottish peasant at that time.

While I have clearly chosen extreme examples, I want to make the point that neither predictability nor security need necessarily be the unalloyed or necessarily obvious ‘good’ that the report assumes them to be. What we take to be predictable – be it eternal damnation or, in the case of the mentalité of possessive individualism, the ‘sustainability of economic growth’ – may be nothing more than a delusory phantom, one on which we become so fixated that we cannot imagine an “otherwise”. Arguably it was precisely because of her creative ability to imagine an “otherwise”  through a creative synthesis of vernacular and other traditions and beliefs that Isobel Gowdie was executed. The predictabilities and securities we buy into may, then, also be the means by which we are manipulated by those who hold power in a society.

Which returns us to Martinez’s points about creativity and the unpredictability of mutability.

I don’t want to labour the point here, not least because I really do not in any way wish to imply that predictability and security are not vitally important to human society and wellbeing. My point is simply that unpredictability and insecurity, particularly as these help us see through phantasmagoric worlds such as that created by the current British government (which is actively working against both the spirit and practice of all six of the recommendations of the IFRC’s report), have their place too. Particularly where they act as a spur to a creativity that allows us to imagine the world “otherwise”.

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Works in Landscape, Art and Uncertainty exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery

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Installation shot of exhibition on from 7 September 2013 – 5 January 2014
Gallery 8 (photo Christian Shaw)

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(Left) Keith Vaughan The Singer (Right) Notes on an anxious landscape: Sidhe, etc. (2013), mixed media on paper

This work takes Keith Vaughan’s The Singer as its point of departure, along with scattered thoughts and visual notes on aspects of vernacular music in general and the post-war folk music revival in particular. The term sidhe (fairy) refers both to the central role of the ‘good neighbours’ in the supernatural Borders ballads central to the British vernacular song tradition and to Vaughan’s otherness as a homosexual.

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Notes on an anxious landscape: Women/Place (2013), mixed media on paper (photo Christian Shaw)

This work takes Peter Lanyon’s images of Zennor and other Cornish Towns as its point of departure. It is a musing on the possible interrelationship of two aspects of his work: the extra-marital relationships with various lovers said to be central to his experience of place, and the claim that he largely transformed the English landscape painting tradition by shifting its focus from landscape traditionally understood to place. The image also owes something to my long-standing interest in ‘deep mapping’.

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Gregory Maloba at Corsham Court (for Reg Boulton and ‘Rikki’ Richardson) (2013), mixed media on paper (photo Christian Shaw)

Before their marriage my parents-in-law – Reg Boulton and ‘Rikki’ Richardson as they then were – both studied art at Corsham Court (where Lanyon taught part-time). My father-in-law also attended a short painting course with Keith Vaughan, whose work he much admired. This image includes three photographs of Gregory Maloba, a Kenyan student at Corsham and friend of Rikki’s, together with material from a newspaper, as its point of departure. Other elements derive from Maloba’s vast concrete independence monument in Kampala and a map of the Corsham estate. After leaving Corsham, Maloba studied and taught art at Makerere University, where he had an incalculable impact on contemporary East African art.

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(Top) Small anxious landscape: all the others? (2013), mixed media on paper (photo Christian Shaw)

(Bottom) Small anxious landscape: Les Girls (2013), mixed media on paper (photo Christian Shaw)

Like the other two ‘Small anxious landscape’ images, Small anxious landscape: all the others? reflects on the social context within which the post-war art world was located at the time my parents-in-law were students. Also to the emphasis on ’social reconstruction’ (of traditional norms as much as of social infrastructure) after a war that, despite everything, many young people clearly found a liberating experience. The sub-title references all those from that period who, unlike Keith Vaughan and Peter Lanyon, were not able to have a career as professional artists, with the various freedoms that licenced.

The photograph used in Small anxious landscape Les Girls was taken by my father-in-law, Reg Boulton, and includes his future wife ‘Rikki” Richardson (on the far right of the image). I was very taken by the different stances and expressions of these four young women that, with aspects of Reg and Rikki’s family history, provided a starting-point for Small anxious landscape: Les Girls. Also in my mind was the very public recent exposure of the sexual abuse over many years of music students by their teachers, a situation that raised questions about Peter Lanyon’s affairs with two of his students, seen by art historians as of the greatest importance to his experience of place.     

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(Clockwise from top left – photo Christian shaw))

 Song / Place / Singer: first and last thoughts (2013) acrylic on paper on board

Night thoughts (after Zennor) (2013), acrylic on board

Song / Place / Singer: Peter Lanyon and Keith Vaughan (2013), acrylic on papers and board 

Landscape + Sexual Encounter = Place? (after Peter Lanyon) (2013), acrylic on paper on board