Summer resort

‘People say that it is the real world, but it is only a surface of equilibrium and the place where the lowest points of I know not what corporal and spiritual system are found. The roses in the carpet spring to life again, and things, setting aside the things which they were, become again specialised beings adorned with substantives: piano, armchairs, persons speaking …’
— Simone Weil

Our studies are about to resume again in October.
It’s likely, if unfortunate, that we will be looking, more than ever before, at art on our screens. I thought it an opportune time for a reminder … things are not all the same.

A flower, and a photograph of a flower, are different from each other and from a drawing of a flower, and from the photograph of a drawing that has a flower as a motif — although they may have things in common.


Any drawing (art object) will be an object of scale and material. It will have physical properties, some of which may be unique to it; not least, possibly, its colour.
If a drawing is on exhibition there will usually be other work on either side of it, or objects in the space obstructing our view of it; sometimes influencing how we see and understand the object of our attention.
Unless otherwise designed the drawing will be experienced by the whole body, not just the eyes.
None of this will occur before the picture on a screen, in there, the drawing has been usurped by another that looks like the original, but which is missing many, or in some cases, most of its fundamental properties.
In other instances the pictures relationship to the original is scant at best. The drawing has been intentionally ‘enhanced’ … for the arid shoreline of a Pinterest mood-board or Facebook update … veracity, always, among the first of the casualties.
And I think we should remember this—our absence from the material world of the object; from time and place; from environment; from context—when we consider our responses to photographs of the drawing; form opinions about photographs of it, and shape our critique of photographs of it. The photograph is not the drawing. (1)


In early March just before Scotland went into lockdown I visited my step-daughter in Aberdeen where she studies at the University, and where, some forty years ago I studied at Gray’s School of Art. We were, on this occasion, able to visit the newly opened Aberdeen Art Gallery. (The gallery has been closed for the past three years for complete refurbishment.)
I was excited at the thought of being able to see works from the permanent collection again, works I had become familiar with as a student, and two in particular:
‘Seated Girl Holding Sewing,’ by Gwen John and a painting by Paul Nash, ‘Woods On The Down’.
Both were in an upstairs room. The John painting on the right, and the Nash on the left as I walked into the space. I went toward the John painting first. Almost forty years had passed since I’d last set eyes on it and it had lost none of its serene and calm beauty.
It was exactly as I recalled it.
And a near forty year old bridge of time—between the anonymous young model in the painting and my younger self who was then perhaps not much older—collapsed; my chest tightened with an unexpected wave of emotion and forty years of living washed me through me in an instant.
The Nash painting by contrast—a painting alongside many others by Nash that I have looked at and studied over the years—surprised me in a way that I couldn’t have expected. It was a much larger painting than I had remembered. Significantly larger. Four or five times larger. So different in fact from my memory of it that it was like seeing the painting for the first time.
Would such moments ever happen with a picture on a laptop screen? I suspect not. So where does this leave us?

I recall writing a essay a number of years ago (for COIL magazine) about a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’. It’s in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. At the time I was interested in it’s multiple ‘appearances’ seemingly everywhere—on postcards, in newspapers, on mirrors, and most significantly, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Solaris’. Vadim Yusov’s film camera moves inside and through the painting making the black birds in the trees fly; brings it to a different life; directs time in a way that a painting is unable to do.
It’s fair to say that ‘I love’ the painting, and I know a great deal about it … but, I have never seen it. I have never been to Vienna. I have looked at photographs of the painting but I have never repeatedly sat with it in the gallery, quietly, studying, watching it. I have never devoted time to it as one would to a loved one; sitting with them, listening to them, watching over them … hour after hour on many different days, and different weathers.

It’s a conundrum, and one that I think can only be solved by our imagination, but for this to be possible we need to be thinking about it as we study this or that work for our studio projects.

The Gwen John painting, would in time, present a further issue.


Summer Resort (after Sergey Kozhemyakin) (2)
Watercolour, blue lead pencil and gold ink on 640 gsm. Saunders Waterford watercolour paper | 38 x 28 cms.

Many institutions now have an online gallery, or viewing room, where one can go and see art works—in ways that are seldom possible before the object itself, and frequently in ways that artists themselves would have been unable to experience in their own work at the time of making.

On the 12th of May this year the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam published what they claim to be the most detailed ever photograph of Rembrandt’s, ‘The Night Watch’. (3)

‘The Night Watch is currently being photographed in daylight. First, separate photos are taken, which are subsequently digitally assembled to form a single image. In total the robot will take more than 8400 photos at an extremely high resolution of 5 microme-tres, or five thousandths of a millimetre … Never before has such a large painting been photographed at such high resolution. In this way, features that cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as individual pigment particles, are made visible.’

On Google Arts & Culture one can ‘zoom in’ (yes, that word again) and see Albrecht Dürer’s studio window reflected in the eye of a ’Hase,’ a young hare. Prophetically perhaps, Dürer’s image, rendered in watercolour and gouache in 1502, came to be regarded as the high watermark of accuracy at the time.

Now we see things—and make things—that our eyes alone are not capable of seeing. Our vision is technologically dependent, while both the technology itself (the phones, camera’s, cars, ear buds …) and our perceptions of the world are relentlessly fetishised.

The technology that the Rijksmuseum is currently using is being used selectively—it is not by accident that it is a Rembrandt painting that is being subjected to this level of granular scrutiny and exposition. (4) Will this change? Hard to say. Technology tends to trickle down but only if there is money to be made in it doing so. Or in this case, perhaps some aesthetic reason beyond the mere gimmick. While other benefits from such  innovation may be felt as the technology is picked up or migrates into other fields of knowledge—medicine for example.

But it raises I think many questions about our relationship to works of art, particularly if you believe as I do, that we need to be more innocent in our response to works of serious culture, and less interested per se in the technology of detail; more interested in talking and writing about how we feel about, and feel for, those things that we’re being attentive of.

I said earlier that the John painting raised another issue—one that in the course of writing this I see is more relevant that I’d realised at the time.

Try and find online (or in a book) a reproduction of the John painting which might be deemed as satisfactory (we won’t concern ourselves with for what purpose just now), and keeping things simple, let’s just say in formal terms of the tonality and colour of the painting.

You will be disappointed, none (to my knowledge) exist—and I have looked; approximations yes, but these are so far from the reality of the painting itself to be of little value beyond simple illustration in a text, and would, even then run dangerously close to misrepresenting the painting where it to be seen without qualifying comments.

The John painting as we see it in Aberdeen Art gallery is protected behind glass. This ensures that we are self-conscious in our looking; we are reflected back to ourselves as we look at the anonymous model in the painting; we are simultaneously outwith (her) and beside others who stand or walk behind us. We are aware of the architecture of the room, the smell of floor polish, and in this case, the smell of fresh wallpaint—The painting is a much wider reflection on human experience than John’s could have perhaps ever intended.

These ideas about the relationship between the photograph and the art work are not knew.

In an era where images are always ‘in the present,’ always emerging, always in the realm of forming, becoming, always, obstinately rooted to potentiality, they—perfectly neatly for some—circumvent critique, and remain morally and politically ambivalent. If something is unfinished or incomplete, or always on it’s way to a destination that never arrives then it is almost impossible to say whether it is good or bad because it will always be met with the rejoinder of ‘well, it’s not finished yet.’

Both the photograph of the flower and the photograph of the drawing of a flower are things that we experience at a remove, on the glass screens of technology where we have learnt to ignore our own reflection. (I nearly wrote ‘our’ technology but nothing could be further from the truth than this—we own nothing.)
Are we content to look from a distance always … some of the time … on occasion … seldom …?
And what of the making—and the destination—of our own work?

Notes
(1) Where ‘value’ is decided upon, discovered, given or placed—whether with the thing made, the original material if you like, or with the online simulacra—is in the end an individual choice. I’m not setting out a moral argument here. I believe however that unless an artist makes something specifically for reception or distribution through a screen then we ought to be going out of our way to get as close to the ‘real’ work—and I mean ‘close’ in the widest sense possible using all the tools of scholarship at our disposal—as we can, never forgetting however that the work itself is somewhere else, all but absent from us.
(2) Sergey Kozhemyakin’s photograph, ‘Presence,’ 1989–1992. ‘A man in a military uniform poses for the camera. He stands in a corner of an open terrace located somewhere high in the mountains. One of the man’s hands firmly holds the terrace’s railing; the other rests casually on his waist. Slightly off-centre, the vertical of the officer’s body is counterbalanced by the horizontal rows of bars. Far below, a sea merges with the sky. The portrait would have been a typical memento from a summer resort, except for one crucial detail: The officer has no head, for the figure is cropped tight across the shoulders. Despite this violent erasure of the subject, the photograph is disturbingly serene, and the officer, though headless, exudes confidence and even a sense of control.’
Serguei Alex, Oushakine. Presence Without Identification: Vicarious Photography and Postcolonial Figuration in Belarus. In ‘October’ NO. 164, Spring 2018 p.49-88
‘This article explores photographic works produced by key members of the Minsk School of Photography before and after the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Mostly reworking found images from the Soviet past, these artists employed the visual language of that period to disassociate themselves from Soviet practices of photographic recording. Appropriating conventions of the portrait genre, the Minsk photographers used them to create a stream of obfuscated representations in which individuals are presented devoid of their originary contexts, biographies, and, frequently, faces. Through their de-facing tactics, these photographers visualized forms of indirect postcolonial presence. Erasing subjectivity and abstracting imprints of lived experience, their vicarious photography articulates a model of dealing with history that allows presence without identity or identification.’
(3) https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/nightwatch
(4) ’Student artists exhibit their final shows online – in pictures’
On the subject of selectivity is it worth noting that in a recent Guardian newspaper piece about student online degree shows:
‘Most universities and colleges have cancelled or postponed this year’s final degree shows as a result of Covid-19, to the frustration of art students who have worked toward them for years. Many have turned to virtual exhibitions instead. Here’s a selection of their work.’
It’s tagged: ‘Students, Higher Education, Art (Education), Arts, Painting, Art (Art & Design)’
all the work selected for inclusion is painting of one sort or another! There’s no design work, no sculpture, no installation art, photography, film or video, no animation, performance art documentation …
https://www.theguardian.com/education/gallery/2020/aug/21/student-artists-exhibit-their-final-shows-online-in-pictures
other Journalism
‘The future of the arts: The world is coming into visual art on a human scale’ by Laura Cumming
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jun/21/the-future-of-the-arts-art-on-a-human-scale
‘Looking for Texture in Online Viewing Rooms’ by Kyle Chayka
https://frieze.com/article/looking-texture-online-viewing-rooms?

‘working drawings’

It’s the 26th of March. I walk into fields that have been turned. This marks the beginning.
The rag too caught my eye but unlike the immature fish that the angler returns to the river the rag will keep my eye.

It was hard at the beginning, still is …
reading the news … remembering to breathe … watching ‘at the end of the world’ as people compulsively fouled the nest. And just in case we thought that there was only one story abroad our shiny bits of not-so-smart glass (our mirrors) continue to show us that things for project-humanity are only getting worse … We exist (let’s call it that for now) in a time of constant emergence, but we seem to go nowhere.

I left my place of work at the University on a Tuesday afternoon near the end of March and I’ve been at home on my own, until recently, when the Scottish Government implemented Phase 1 of the easing of restrictions.
I’ve got to know the postman a bit better, a number of the courier drivers too, and I’ve spoken more frequently with those few neighbours whose paths I occasionally cross … I’ve frequently found the sheer volume of messaging-correspondence at times overwhelming.

Living always—on the crest of the present—is precarious, exhausting and, more often than not at the moment, frightening. And in isolation—is the prefix ‘self’ needed?—it is hard to establish any sense of proportion as life oscillates, or more accurately jump-cuts between global catastrophe and the quiet granular days of one’s own solitude.
We usually have some say over our way of living—if we are fortunate to live in a democracy—and I choose to make and study and teach art. But what of the intellect, what of culture at this time?

The idea of the ‘public intellectual’ is not one that flourished in Britain in the way that it did in other European countries after the First World war. Why not? The answer can be found in our education system, devolved or otherwise.
When you deal with words, with numbers, with pictures, with ideas, you are often dealing with dangerous stuff … it matters. Intellect matters; curiosity matters; knowledge matters. Culture, when it is (morally) serious is first and foremost an expression of human dignity.
John Berger was an exception. His essay’s … on art, on drawing … are never far from me. When I was making the things that you can see here I frequently asked myself the following questions: ‘What is this for?’ Is it a finished work? Who is it for? Is it a study for a fabric design; a ‘sketch’ for a tapestry or stained glass window; an illustration to a poem or a book jacket; is it an ‘instruction’ for a performance; is it to be ‘scaled up’ into a painting, or presented outdoors on a billboard …?

It was hard at the beginning, to understand … but they are not finished works, or things to be used for other reasons.
They are ‘working drawings,’ as Berger would understand the term. Drawings which are an autobiographical discovery of an event, of a thing—as opposed to a ‘finished work’ which would be an attempt to construct such an event in itself.
The drawings you see here are records of events, more akin to a journal or diary; drawings that contain within them in however an elusive state, the things I’ve been looking at, hearing, thinking, reading, listening to … while I was making them.

Garden, Window Sill, Mountain

I’ve spent a lot of the last month watching the shadows of whole clouds climb mountains; guiding on Skye, in the Cairngorms, in Feshie and Torridon. By contrast, for a few days, I was also in Belfast. I’ve seen landscapes shimmer on the far side of a glen in a haze of mauve, grey, green, orange vapor; the slopes seemingly on fire as the sun set, and as language set on my ability to describe just what it was that I was seeing. The object, and place as the origin of the object whose purpose appears to be to mark place, landscape and memory, has recently perhaps been where my casual reflections have been exercised; the extent to which we confer greater value on one aspect of lived experience as opposed to another, and the reasons why we confer value on this object, this picture, this action – irrespective of how empty, full, Grand, picturesque, menacing, ambiguous or beautiful their qualities appear to us to be – instead of all the others we could have selected … I began to get closer with these lines from a poem I was writing: ‘I think of you waking to this flat sky, a cup of hot water and a piece of toast / slipping out of your chemise of light, / thinking in pieces of sky made by the branches of a tree.’

pillow playcrescentstarstar.achina doll

From the seashore at the cleared settlement of Boreraig on Skye, an ammonite fossil; from the armchair in the front room a sketch of a big tree made near midnight on the longest day of the year; a glass marble (this fell to the ground from a third story window of a closed convent in Jerusalem as I walked under its eaves); those arrangements of materials and objects – like the pillows and garden chair in the photograph – that play with sculptural purpose, experimentation and misrecognition; a theatre of pillow talk, and domestic theatre (though in this instance the arrangement was wholly utilitarian – the towel was pegged over the pillows to prevent songbirds from landing and excreting on them); the crescent left on a window sill by a winter moon … or the heavy concrete stars seen near the summits of some mountains (stars that have been made, carried and left in place by the artist and climber, Dan Shipsides … near the summits because when I was talking with him in Belfast about the project he was clear that they had to be set down off to the side and away from the summit – as an object to be at first uncertain of, to be seen, over there or out of the corner of ones eye, only then to be approached, out of curiosity? fear? wonder? and explored close up … A different but no less perceptive view of things may be to think about Robert Macfarlane’s observation, made I think in his introduction to Nan Shepherd’s book ‘The Living Mountain’, that getting to the summit of a mountain is on the whole a very masculine aspiration – getting to the top and looking down on the world below – whereas, he argued, Nan was happier in and around the Cairngorm mountains and their lower reaches, off to the side, or, that lovely Scottish word, outwith, the plateau she so clearly loved … she looked up and into, as well as down and upon the mountain and its surrounding landscapes, being more likely to be discovered in the mountain, as opposed to on the top of it … and I think a similar guiding principle is at play in Shipsides project); a facsimile of an early pen, wash and chalk drawing by Paul Nash, Falling Stars (1912) reproduced in The Penguin Modern Painters booklet on Nash’s work published in 1944 with an accompanying essay by Herbert Read; a child’s coloured pencil drawing propped above the fireplace depicting one day at the shows (carousels and dodgems, rollercoaster, queues of parents and children!, candy floss and ice-cream stalls); an old wooden coat hanger of my father’s; a shard of frosted patterned glass that the garden gave up one summer; assorted shells and pebbles; an ornamental hedgehog … a symbolic landscape of objects in place and Time.

A Man in a Field at an Abrupt Edge

The fields were slowly melting in a mirage of soft rain that had been falling steadily for over an hour. I turned off the engine, leaned back into the seat and turned my head to look out the driver-side window in the direction of my house. The fields looked greener than usual. The sky flat and grey.
It is a view that I am familiar with, but one that I do not think I will ever tire of looking at as I, from time to time, leave and return home.  For many years the field to the left of the house has been home to the “pets”, the cows and sheep and lambs. This year it has been pasture for sheep and lambs, and their laconic bleating has been more counterpein than counterpoint to the birdsong, until today that is, when I saw that the field was empty, without them. (From the kitchen window one afternoon late in winter I watched a fox struggle up this same field in a snow storm. It had a wounded, perhaps broken front leg, and I could see that it was exhausted, likely starving and near to death. I watched as it held its paw out of the snow, and even though it was four or five hundred metres away I could see all of this in uncanny detail as if the white of the snow on the field and the dark grey of a leaden sky had somehow enhanced my poor vision. The animal eventually made it over the top of the hill and was absorbed into the storm, into whiteness. Later that evening I found myself hoping that it had found some small pocket of shelter at the foot of a hedgerow where it had curled up and closed its eyes for the last time, trying to imagine what final “vision” it may have seen moments before its death, like ‘The Little Match Girl’ in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale who ‘wished to hold her grandmother fast’).
A tree had recently been brought down by gale-force winds. The hole that this left in the column of trees that divides one field and the next held my attention in the way that a fresh gap in ones teeth does after an extraction by the dentist. My attention absent-mindedly worried around this unfamiliar break in the treeline as I formed a few half-hearted thoughts about getting out of the car.
It was here, in the rupture of this “abrupt edge”, that I saw a grey-clad figure moving unhurriedly in the field where the sheep and lambs had until recently been. Unhurried, but purposeful, moving from one spot to another close by with what appeared to be a spade. At first I thought he may have been burying something, but when he moved a short distance and repeated the action (like turning over a clod of earth) I saw that this wasn’t the case. He continued like this, as though joining distant stars on a sheet of paper, until the field and the action took him behind the trees lower down the hillside, only for him to emerge a short time later into the clearing again doing the same thing.
I do not filter all human action and behavior through the history or future potential of performance art (as I see it), but there are moments when life as it is lived around me and certain aspects of performance come together in ambiguous and intriguing ways, creating their own “abrupt edge”. Watching this man, creaturely focused on what was likely a mundane task of field management, was precisely one of those moments. His action laid bare for me the structure and feeling of a certain type of work, and a view of what it can often be to “be productive”. The mans actions appeared casual, so much so that he only ever used one hand on the spade to turn or stab at the ground. The work was purposeful, if strange and inexplicable. There was method, but one that saw him follow what he saw, his own “songline” rather than mechanistically working from left to right, top to bottom. Farm workers are pragmatists, where work is concerned at least, and so it was clear from the nature of the action, the repetition, and the poor weather that this had to be done when it was being done, not any later. Trust was absolute to the task being done correctly, thoroughly, accurately. And if the man was talking to himself I will never know, I could hear only the rain falling on the car, but in every sense of the word I saw and believed that his actions were essential: to the ongoing culture and continued well-being of the field; to the economy of the farm; and ultimately, to the society that relies upon it “to produce” in order to safeguard the prosperity and health of its citizens.

Notes:
1. The “abrupt edge” is a phrase which occurs in ornithology, and denotes the point at which two types of vegetation come together, and where a bird might safely take advantage of them both. This can be a forest at the edge of a field, an isolated grove of trees – Fay Godwin’s photograph, Ridgeway, Barbury Castle Clump (1974) and Paul Nash’s painting, Wood on the Downs (1930) in the collection of Aberdeen City Art Gallery immediately spring to mind – while closer to home, the hedgerow and berry bushes of a garden can act as this boundary between safety and vulnerability, between the hidden and visible, inside and outside, between shadow and light and between the rich plant life that enjoys the sun and that which flourishes in the shade. From this edge a bird can keep an eye out for predators and fly the corridors of insect life that rise from the earth. It is a domestic space, the space in which the work and rest of daily survival unfolds in order for the species to thrive, so it is perhaps no surprise that the greatest number of species and individuals live at the edge, where the trees turn to moorland, meadow or open field.
2. A Book of Silence (Granta Books, 2008) by Sara Maitland is an autobiographical account of her life and strong Christian faith seen through the prism of a scholarly account of the cultural history of solitude and silence. While I find it difficult to share some of her conclusions, I admire her honesty and the strength of her conviction.  She writes at length in one chapter of the book about the “Desert Hermits”, and how at one point the Sinai and Sahara were so “busy” the notion of solitude “out there” was under severe strain. What interested me in particular though was the way in which Maitland discussed how earlier Christian spirituality was highly experimental, and similar in so many ways to the early experiments of significant figures in performance art as it emerged as a distinctive field of practice in the 1970’s: nest in a pillar of rock, live in a desert, fast, deprive oneself of sleep, don’t speak … ‘and see what this does to your interior life and your relationship with God’. Works such as Five Day Locker Piece, (1971, California) by Chris Burden, And For Today, Nothing (1972) by Stuart Brisley which ‘took place in a darkened bathroom at Gallery House, London, in a bath filled with black liquid and floating debris where Brisley lay for a period of two weeks …’ or any number of works by Marina Abramovic, while different in intent, share some of the actual physical and psychological characteristics of this nascent eremitical Christianity and its relationship to silence as an effective tool for inducing profound experiences. Burden writes of Five Day Locker Piece: “I was locked in locker No. 5 for five consecutive days and did not leave the locker during this time. The locker measurements were two feet high, two feet wide, three feet deep. I stopped eating several days prior to entry, thereby eliminating the problem of solid waste. The locker directly above me contained five gallons of bottled water; the locker below me contained an empty five-gallon bottle.” While all of these artists at one time may have shared an interest in “primitive” rites, shamanic practice and “old knowledge”, these performances were, like the extreme asceticism of the early desert hermits, exercises in power (self-control, mastery of the senses, the willingness even to contest with death) as they were acts of contrition or self-abnegation. And it is in this self conscious and performed “will to power” that we must look for their political reality – their consideration of contemporary society and its relationship to ideas of Self and Other.
3. I stumbled upon Fay Godwin’s photograph sometime ago in, The Land: Twentieth Century Landscape Photographs, selected by Bill Brandt. (The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd., 1975) with essay’s by Jonathan Williams (poet and photographer), Prof. Aaron Scharf (writer and academic) and Keith Critchlow (environmental scientist and architect).
4. I wondered at one stage as I looked over this piece of writing what a Tooth Fairy might leave were she to visit a little boy or girl and discover an enormous fallen tree instead of a milk-tooth underneath the sleeping child’s pillow.

Library:
Goldberg, RoseLee.  Performance Art:  from Futurism to the Present. London:  Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Goldberg, RoseLee.  Performance:  Live Art since the 60’s.  Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Sayre, Henry M.  The Object of Performance:  The American Avant-Garde since 1970.  Chicago & London:  University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Kaye, Nick.  Art into Theatre.  London:  Macmillan, 1995.

Web:
http://www.tracegallery.org (a comprehensive archive of international performance/installation art practice)
http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk (Live Art Development Agency)
http://www.newmoves.co.uk (an annual and ‘National Review of Live Art’, Glasgow)