Friday 12 September 2014

Open Studios

"The studio is the inverse microcosm: cut off from the rest of the palace, without windows, without space to speak of, here space is perpetrated by simulacrum… It is the blind spot of the palace, this place isolated from architecture and public life, which in a certain way governs the whole – not according to any direct determination but via a sort of metaphysical inversion, a kind of internal transgression, a reversal of the rule operated in secret as in primitive rituals, as it were a hole in reality, a simulacrum hidden at the heart of reality and which reality depends on for its entire operation." i

     My studio is more than a workshop. It is my camera meraviglia - a room of wonders. Forbidden, almost: private, normally. Because studios are usually hidden affairs, like a secret romance between an artist and their practice. Open only to invited visitors, and once a year, to the rest of the world - the small world of curious visitors that, lured by the voyeurism that 'Open Studios' seems to promise, care to make the trek to this motley collection of re-purposed farm buildings on the fringe of the oldest recorded town in England.
  So come September I sweep the floor, tidy the shelves and benches, put low prices on work that will never sell at any price, make tea and cake and a happy face. All day a slow stream of students interrogate me about my techniques, ladies who paint bore me with theirs, and the idly curious children and partners of fellow artists poke through my drawers of bones and scrap. “It's an Aladdin’s cave in here!” some enthuse, or, more often, “It's a real curiosity cabinet!”. Every year the same. They like my collections: of bottles, tools, rusty saws in rows on the wall. Of bones – particularly the drawer labelled 'badger'. Of broken toys, computer parts, jars of brushes, trays of insects and beads and shells and stamps and shards... oh, and they like the box of boxes.

     The work, not so much. This fact epitomised last year by the disbelieving eight-year-old face of the son of a fellow tenant and book restorer. The drawer of bones and bird's wings he could appreciate: the notion of making them into a box, a hat, a mask - any constructed object that I would then pass off as art: incomprehensible. I see his sceptical face peering at Loretta, a taxidermied rat dressed in a tiny frock and tiara. He patently wonders what the hell I think I'm doing: it's written all over his charmingly tactless little face. 
I wonder what the hell I think I'm doing, in my studio, in my cabinet, when unobserved during the quiet solitary watches of the remainder of the year.

     Nevertheless, it is an interesting and usually welcome process - to sort, clean, tidy and organise: to ease open the damp-swollen doors: to pause the practice and engage the social show-and-tell. Swap tips and interests, ideas and opportunities, catch up with old friends, share my treasures with curious strangers.
But such a guilty relief, every year, to close the doors at the end of the weekend: and begin the process of unmaking and making again.

Open Studios at Cuckoo Farm: 13th/14th September 2014,  11am - 6pm

i Baudrillard 1998: 60-62

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Dermatographism: intersections of language and visage.

The act of writing on the face makes explicit the connections between thought and expression. What I think is often revealed on my features: I would make a terrible poker player, or liar. (Which does not, of course, stop me from lying, though it's fair to say that I'm not that keen on poker.)
In these works, I was trying – in a very obvious manner, perhaps – to express something about how we are shaped – down to our very features – by language. The laying or layering of language onto image tries to hint at ways of expressing our search for meaning and identity through words.

The text comes from a number of sources: Latin copy from a book by John Ray, that great collector of words as well as insects, his love of etymology and entomology going hand in hand. Also transcripts of a conversation with an art historian: a rambling discourse, often breaking into profanity, in which he tries to help me situate my practice. 

Most tellingly for me, on one cast – of my whole head – I used copies of letters from my father. These were not sent to me, but inherited after his death – line after line of his thoughts, opinions, invectives, humour and anger tinged with alternating self-pity and misogyny – all in a crabbed, controlled, obsessively neat copperplate hand. I feel unfairly shaped by his presence. I also, more unfairly, see much of his personality in myself. And here, on me. 

After making 'letter head', I learnt about a verse form called pantoum: a Malay verse form, it seemed apt to me as much of my striving for a sense of identity and place is born of being mixed-race, half native Malay and half colonial English, a third-culture child. I wrote a pantoum – not a good one – entitled 'I am all written in my father's hand'. I never, of course, actually applied this poem to my face.

The process of applying the text – transferring it from printed page to face – necessarily reverses it, unless I take the trouble to reverse it before application. Sometimes I do, so that it is, in part at least, legible. Sometimes I prefer it to stand mirrored, so it's meaning is obscured and the letters become shapes and patterns, like tattoos in another language whose characters are not familiar to us. And later, I took to carving text directly into the mould – writing in reverse, so that when a cast was taken it would be the right way round. These carved texts stand proud of the skin, not laid onto it but emerging directly from it, as happens with a condition called dermatographic urticaria. It seemed to me that some thoughts are so powerfully experienced, or exact so vigorous a force upon the self, that they could rise up under the skin: that the skin itself – the largest organ of the body – could be both medium and message.

My first experiment with carving words into a mould, in reverse, freehand and off the top of my head, brought forth "what if the weather-map of your emotional life were engraved upon the very skin of your face?" Nothing deep or meaningful. I was imagining that a condition like that would willy-nilly transcribe your emotions (rather than your thoughts, say) on to your skin – as the devil might use you as parchment, if you were possessed. But in this case, possessed only by the raw and chaotic nature of your self. Why weather-map? The truth is that I was going to use just 'map', but needed a longer word to fit across: and the notion of weather being untameable, out of one's control, chimed with how I felt about the process. That feelings and words swirl around, ungraspable until they push their way out of your skin. 

 Sometimes, perhaps, what I think may be literally written all over my face.    

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research

An exhibition of doctoral research projects from 
Winchester School of Art
Level 4 Gallery, Hartley Library, University of Southampton.
10th February - 16th March 2014

This exhibition presents a series of images, texts and objects, which lead us to think about different ways of seeing, thinking, writing and making. The works on display derive from a range of research projects at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. The School is dedicated to the exploration of diverse practices and creative research methods. Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of design, media, fashion, and textiles. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

Works shown by:
Richard Acquaye, Bedour Aldakhil, Hazel Atashroo & Oliver Peterson Gilbert, Najla Binhalail, Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour, Ian Dawson, Kate Hawkins, Ben Jenkins, Sunil Manghani, Kay May, Nina Pancheva-Kirkova, Nicky Athina Polymeri, Walter van Rijn, Elham Soleimani, Lisa Temple-Cox, and Simiao Wang.

Practice [ˈpraktɪs] trans. To test experimentally, to put to the test; n. the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it; v. to perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency. ORIGIN late Middle English to mean ‘a way of doing something, method; practice, custom, usage’; also ‘an applied science’ (late 14th Century); similarly from the Old French of practique to mean ‘practice, usage’ (13th Century) and directly from the Medieval Latin practica, meaning ‘practice, practical knowledge’; with the underlying root from the Greek praktike to mean ‘practical’ as opposed to ‘theoretical’. Yet, equally, practice encompasses understanding, relating, for example, to the knowledge of the practical aspect of something, or practical experience, which arguably underpins all forms of enquiry, research and the creation of new knowledge.

“In everyday language we refer to practice as the application or use of an idea, belief or method. For example, we can speak of the principles and practice of teaching. It also means exercising a profession. The lawyer practices law, the doctor practices medicine. We’re familiar with the idea of business practices, which may differ across sectors of an economy and alter over time. Practice can also refer to the premises of a business, such as the doctor or solicitor’s practice. Perhaps most frequently, however, we refer to practice as the repeated exercise of an activity or skill so as to acquire proficiency in it; a child practices a musical instrument and if they complain we gently remind them: ‘Practice makes perfect!’ Practice, then, can mean a customary, habitual, or expected way of doing of something: a technique or set of techniques that end in a particular result (as Aristotle claims for praxis). In the university setting, the practice of a subject, such as law, medicine, art or music, refers not simply to attaining of a certain degree of proficiency, but to becoming situated and expert within a field of study. Furthermore, practice in this sense can refer to speculative endeavours, which allow unexpected outcomes and help challenge established ways of thinking, thus making it both repetition and variations based on and in response to repetition required to hone a skill. The artist’s studio, for example, is a site of sustained practice in making and re-making images and objects of culture. The writer, as a practitioner of words, works and re-works texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and meaning; while the ethnographer, as participant observer, reports on the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of a cultural group, which otherwise remain unarticulated.

As a set of interacting centrifugal and centripetal forces, research practices – simultaneously and paradoxically – take us toward and away from disciplined ways of understanding and fashioning the world we inhabit. We look, ponder, write and make; always prompting practical forms, engagements, and processes. To decouple the misconstrued, yet persistent divide of practice/theory, we might usefully pair the Greek praktike not with a single term for theory, but two philosophical terms: theoria (contemplation) and theoros (participation), the latter emphasizing an act of witness and participation in an event or activity. Together these terms help us consider a more fluid notion of theory and practice, whereby the two become inextricably intertwined and one impossible without the other. In experiencing an artwork, for example, theoria helps conceptualise the interface between art and its viewer. The artwork does not possess an intrinsic ‘truth’ claim, but does have a claim upon us – at its simplest, the artwork demands it be considered an artwork, to which the viewer must respond, even if the response is to deny it such status. The artwork, then, places us immediately into both a practice of thinking and a thinking of practice.”
Sunil Manghani 2014

Private View 13th February 5pm – 7.30pm

As I have only recently begun this programme of practice-based research, I will be showing an installation combined of elements created during and after my MA, provisionally titled 'An Order of Things: False Membranes'.

"There is a symbolic order within the conceptual architecture of a space that exists, in potentia, in both clinic and altar. What is the relationship between these systems? Both have relevance to our exploration of self, during which we invariably encounter something primal, unconscious, alongside the scientific – here represented by the supposedly objective medical gaze. We use art in our search for self, and art uses media that not only signify the body – flesh, blood, faeces -­ but invoke a sense of the abject: a separation of subject from object, a rejection of death. The aesthetic of the medical museum and its exhibits may have similar psychological effects on its visitors, containing specimens that simultaneously attract and repulse. In the casting of the face the eyes of necessity remain closed, thus blurring the distinction between life mask and death mask, in much the same way that the preserving fluid and curve of the glass jar further distorts the teratological specimen.
Our relationship with our bodies and selves is reflected in the mirror of the operating theatre. The theatre of medicine becomes the stage: the speculum becomes spectacle, the looking-glass of self turned outward. The work shown is a visual exploration not only of the way in which the museum specimen can seem to reflect, in some measure, residues of the human, but return the gaze of the spectator to create a deeper reflection of self: from object to abject, self to other, and back. Here, the artist becomes both subject and object. The eyeless faces, made diseased and necrotic by the rough textures of the materials, serve to connect the contemporary concerns of anatomy with an unconscious atavism – a simultaneity of the pure and the profane. There is a realm of sympathetic magic in the territory between form and misform: somewhere in these anachronistic juxtapositions of scientific paraphernalia and animistic object, the clinic and alter may be revealed to be synonymous." 


Thursday 9 January 2014

Poor Things

That poor dead two-headed baby. Emerged from the womb directly into the bottle. No name, no brief moment of existence as a person before bam! into the jar, a thing. Poor thing. A wonder, a monstrosity, a specimen, but never a person.
I forget this, sometimes, when I study the specimens I choose to draw. Four hours in the Hunterian, drawing "skull of a young boy with a second imperfect skull attached to its anterior fontanelle".
I post the image thoughtlessly online, proud of my skill, my hand to eye coordination. A friend and academic, whom I met at a conference on monstrosity, asks if it is 'the double-headed boy of Bengal'. No, I say, how can it be? - it is in London. It is specimen P1535. It has no history to me except for that which I created when I drew it. Her research produces in short order evidence that it is, in fact, the remains of the child she mentioned - I look at a painting of the boy, the little person, and not until then do I begin to wonder at his short life, and sad death, and the macabre instance that led to his skull - his little head, removed from his little dead shoulders - making the journey from India to London where I and innumerable other curious visitors can gawk at its uncanny asymmetry.
But still, the skull - the specimen - is not the boy. I still can no more refer to it as 'he' as I can consider the adjoining specimen - a deformed calf - as a living being, except to wonder (in the case of the calf) how such an extraordinarily folded structure might have looked with skin and flesh still on it. They are become things, objects of wonder, and I am not the same kind of researcher as my astute friend, who studies monstrosity and never disassociates the objects of her study from their lives as beings. Is this indicative of a horrible lack of empathy on my part? I see the wonder and beauty and fascination of the abnormal, the gorgeous aesthetic of skeletal remains made more interesting and fantastic by the departure from the norm. I don't immediately wonder about the life -or non-life – of the little creatures before me.
I like to think - I hope - that this lack of empathy is not just a callousness come from a selfish
self-obsession without regard for the feelings of other; from a brutal disconnect with other living beings that in popular culture so often epitomises the emotional barrenness of the psychopath, the serial killer. Rather I hope that my reaction, or lack of reaction, is born of a lack of this relationship with my own self. I am disconnected from my self, at sea in terms of identity, accustomed to thinking of myself as an object, a thing. Poor thing, naughty thing, sweet thing. 
Bad thing.
Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. My work seems to be about exploring the intersections of things: the gap between the viewer and the specimen, separated by the glass of the jar, the doors of the cabinet, the distance of years. When I draw the 'poor thing' in its jar, I cross that boundary, that semi-permeable membrane invisible to the eye, and this process of diffusion has its own effects. I don't feel pity, or empathy, or sorrow for the life or non-life of the baby in the jar. I connect, while drawing, very directly with physical remains. The wrinkled skin on tiny bottled fingers; the delicate crackling line of the fissures of the skull, meandering across its terrain like the Colorado river seen from a satellite; the tiny cluster of whiteheads on the pickled cheek of a Negro man whose half-head, for reasons unknown and unresearched by me, has come to be found in a glass pot on the shelf of a cold basement storeroom.
I don't do the research, follow the paper trail of identity and information on the origins of this material. I hadn't previously considered why not; I consider it now, and I still don't know. My work is not a journey to discover the narratives, the stories and histories and lives of these half-forgotten former people: I think that is a job for someone else. What I do is substantively different: I unpack my relationship with each object into every line I use to describe it. All those lines, little marks, like text but not text, tell a story of their own. They tell the story of my relationship with my own body - its demands, its alien presence, its unnatural existence here where, somehow, I feel I have no right to exist. They tell the story of of my disconnection with my own life and sense of being, of belonging; and perhaps they tell this same story to someone else. This is not just a drawing of a monster about whose short life I care to know nothing: this is a drawing of all our short lives, our deformities, our dysfunctions, our comparisons with perfection that leave us wanting, our inabilities to achieve what we feel we should achieve, our failure to live up to someone's high standards, our lack of self-awareness, self-control, self-worth. Our inability to realise our own potential may be locked into those tiny scrabbling marks that skitter across the sketchbook page like the nervous tracks of short-lived mice.
I would like to find myself in a small white room, armed with pencils and charcoal sticks, so that I could take these drawing off the page and onto those square white walls, cover the walls and floors and ceilings of that room with these things, these bones and heads and parts, all the wrong things of nature, collected by men who themselves had no thought of who they were putting into their cabinets, only what, and who were so full of themselves and their right to do so. Of which I am quite glad, because if they did not, then I would not be here now, selfishly losing myself in the tiny spaces between that thing, in the cabinet there, and this thing, me, here.
Well - if that is the case, does it in fact make me, the artist, complicit in the grotesque objecthood embodied by the specimens under my gaze? Or am I merely the recorder of pathologies and teratologies, alienated from their nature with no role other than to collect and project an image as clearly as possible, with no intervention? No, if I were merely a lens, set to reflect this material objectively, I would use other media than pencil or plaster or clay. The materiality of the medium affects the objectivity of the gaze: pushing the plastic matter through my fingers until it takes on the form of a little homunculus, scratching a pencil across the page until the shape and dimensions of a solid object begin to emerge - this articulates my intervention. I am interrogating the object, and interpreting its form, and something of myself is intersected into its representation. Something of the specimen goes into or through me, and something of myself enters it at the same time: art as an enactment of the Locard principle. There is always an exchange. Something is left behind, resonating in the brittle light of the cabinet, the fragile glass of the jar - and something is taken away.
Actually, upon reflection, my sense of curiosity about the person behind the specimen seems to be linked very directly with two things: has the specimen a face, and is it the face of an adult? The two bottled faces, eaten by horrific cancers, on a low shelf in the Musée Dupuytren caused me to wonder about the lives of the men they once were, as did the horribly enucleated half-head in the wet room of the Mütter Museum. These thoughts still led to no desire to research their former lives: perhaps creating my own narrative was more interesting to me than finding the real one. I made a story of the delicate line of pimples, the raffish beard, the soft, sparse hair and eyebrows of each of these specimens. It's harder to see a story in the grinning skull, be it adult or child, and even in the case of the bottled babies – each recognisable from the next, as I realised when I saw other artists' drawings of the same specimens, and knew which collection they could be found in, so distinct are they – their baby faces told no stories apart from the same one, that of being born wrong and dying too soon. Their neophytical features seem too unformed for more than a generalised tale of 'poor thing', all too quickly replaced with 'strange, deformed thing' and a whole other set of responses, come to by using chalk and clay and pen. Poor in identity, rich in meaning: matter translates to matter, and the rest matters not.

All text and images copyright Lisa Temple-Cox 2014

Image list:
1: From the Wet Room 1 (Mütter Museum)  charcoal pencil on photo-transfer
2: Skull of a Young Boy (Hunterian Museum)  pencil on paper
3: Model of a Wet Specimen  (Mütter Museum)  clay
4: Teratology Shelf (Musée Dupuytren)  watercolour on paper
5: From the Wet Room: half-head (Mütter Museum)  pencil on paper
6: Beaded Baby (Museum Boerhaave)  pencil on paper
7: Three Bad Babies (Musée Dupuytren) clay, card
8: Bearded Face (Musée Dupuytren)  pen on paper
9: Child's Arm holding the Eye's Vascular Tissue (Museum Boerhaave) watercolour pencil on paper

With thanks and apologies to Whitney Dirks-Schuster

Friday 7 June 2013

Lovely Bones: ‘inappropriate’art and animal remains

I was recently asked to show some work at a University in the north of England, by an academic I'd met at a conference on anatomical collection. He’d seen my presentation “Making myself a Monster”, which I’ve posted in its entirety earlier in this blog, and wanted me to show work to his History of Medicine students that would challenge and stimulate them to think differently about the body and its forms of representation. I duly set off with a number of pieces, which ranged from drawings of anatomical specimens to boxed assemblages and life masks.

Within an hour of hanging – and before, in fact, many of the pieces had gone up – I had a call saying that the head of the school had decided that the majority of the work was 'inappropriate', and requesting that it be removed. A number of pieces that were rejected featured drawings of teratological specimens, and in that case I can understand their concern – the venue is in close proximity to Alder Hey, and the echoes of that scandal continue to be felt in the public conscious. However most of the work deemed 'inappropriate' was not human anatomy, but contained, among other ephemera, specimens or drawings of dead animals. The content of these artworks ranged from an entire animal (cat, mouse, bird) to some with small bones in amongst the other found objects that I use in assemblages.

Why should some people - who happily eat meat, wear leather or fur, and set traps for mice - object to being confronted with animal remains on display in a gallery? Why is the notion of animal framed and re-contextualised as art so much more disturbing than the chewing and digesting of them, wearing them, shooting them for sport, or killing them as pests?  There is a disturbing dualism at play here; sentimentality at odds with a brutal indifference. Furthermore, there is the sense that their own dislike of the work has had to be re-framed as a moral issue, with the offended parties casting themselves as gatekeepers of propriety: deciding what is best, on behalf of others who will then have no opportunity to see the work that they are being saved from. As Steve Baker says in his book ‘Artist/Animal’,
“…accusations of offensiveness lump together aesthetic distaste and moral outrage, as they often do in public responses to contemporary animal art…” 

So why do I work with animal remains? This is not something I've ever asked myself - or indeed been asked. If I had to make a statement of some kind, I would say that I find something beautiful and compelling in the bones and skins of formerly living creatures - the static remnants, preserved by nature, decayed, decomposed and dried, so redolent of their former life but transformed by death into something else. I don't kill things, but pick them up as I find them. Sometimes, if the little corpses are still too fresh to keep, I bury them in my allotment and use the bones after the earth has done its work. 

I am not alone in seeing beauty in decay. 

The problem I have with working with remains is not the fact of their provenance, but that, while beautiful, they are very powerful objects, containing so much emotional resonance in relation to the awareness of mortality. Bones are hard to work with. Bones are bones, skulls are skulls, and their effect as representations of death makes them such striking objects in their own right that using them as art materials creates difficulties in the same way as working with text; decorative and beautiful, but difficult to divorce from its meaning - difficult not to read. People read the language of bones in very specific ways.

I take several approaches to this problem: one is simply to present the animal remains as I found them, laid out and boxed whole, a record of the transience of life and the structure of remains. Another is to reconstruct them into other, still beautiful, objects: wearable objects, such as fascinators, or rearranged into new work, to use the bones and fur and skin as materials in the same way as I would use other found objects such as buttons, paper ephemera, shells, or broken watches. The symbolism of the Vanitas pervades all this work, so perhaps in essence I'm not really changing the narrative of the remains. Other artists have worked with remains more directly: painting or drawing on them, covering them with other materials. I have been experimenting with painting or drawing the remains, and using this work - a step removed from the original material - in the boxes instead. Or covering them with gold leaf, or fur from a different animal, or paper - text or music notation - to force a shift in appearance, and therefore meaning.  

In which case, why use animal remains at all? Why not casts, or papier-maché, or something else entirely? I suppose there is something intrinsically 'authentic' about the remains – their organic nature, a reference to death and change – perhaps it all just comes back to the Vanitas, a reminder of our mortality which is often hidden or disguised in contemporary life. A group of my teenaged art students were horrified by my recent description of 'Hello Kitty' (the first work to go from this exhibition).They asked if I had an obsession with death. I said no, merely an acceptance of the fact that I was going to die, as all living things must. When I added that they too were going to die, one girl said she was going to tell her mum. I pointed out that her mother was going to die as well...

I suspect my career as a teacher will be as short as my exhibition – but that is in itself a reflection of the way that death is denied in current culture: the 'disneyfication' of the reality that life is, oftentimes, short and brutal and remarkably lacking in talking cats and rainbow coloured horses.

    None of this really explains why I like to use this material. But I'm not certain, in the end, that I really need to. The work speaks its own language, at a visceral level, to those who not too hampered by their conservatism to read it.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Foreign Bodies

This blog post and train of thought was inspired, indirectly, by the current exhibition at UCL and related venues entitled 'Foreign Bodies'. Curated by students at UCL, and using specimens from that collection, it is at once a display of unusual objects, and an opportunity to consider things simultaneously anatomical, historical, scientific and sociological.

My exploration of this exhibition began by my entering the University through the wrong door, and seeing the second part of the linked series of displays first. I found myself in the UCL Art Gallery, where I came upon a selection of the Galton collection of life and death masks.
Having previously seen these in a storage room at UCL, where many were charmingly stored with paper hats on their heads to keep the dust off, it was interesting to observe them on display. The documentation that used to accompany them has been lost, so - alongside the fact that many from this collection are missing - there is nothing to tell you who the subjects once were, or even if they were alive or dead when the mould was made. There are some tell-tale signs - a tension between the eyes in the living subjects, a disconcerting laxness about the mouths of others, a disturbing disjunction in the necks of those that may have been hanged - and some anecdotal reference, such as that relating to the death mask of a boy - a child musical prodigy who died very young.

 Part of what I found alluring was the fact that they have become so dirty. A lack of funding for the kind of cleaning they might require has resulted in a visual illusion of negativity: the creases are clean and white, the surfaces of the skin grey and grimy. This seemed like a metaphor for their state; a reversal of tone, reflecting their uncanny position between the actual and the representation.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the conversation I ended up having with the young woman behind the desk, of whom I inquired if I was, in fact, in the right place. We talked for quite a while - about the death masks, and other anatomical objects: about states of being, the moral and ethical effects on surgeons of cutting into the body (a form of trangression that might cause shockwaves in the emotional states in which they, quite literally, operate). About the possible reasons why Jeremy Bentham's death mask might be in Norwich Castle (his body, famously, residing just down the corridor from where we stood). About mapping, and identity, and being an outsider - being in-between, on many levels. It transpired that we had met some years previously, when she organised a symposium on facial recognition that I had attended when I first began my MA and my current body of work, and this led to another conversation about recognition, identity, and chance encounters.

It was very interesting to discuss this idea of being outsider, or in-between states and places. I think more and more that the mapping project I am currently engaged in is very much a search for identity and self, using the anatomical museum, its contents and location, as a metaphor. I am still struggling with writing this in a way that makes sense. The hardest thing is to articulate what the expected outcomes will be - why am I interested in the subjects and objects of these anatomical collections, and what do I hope to discover?

Still, that is all part of the process. And it is interesting to consider that a sense of being an outsider is an advantage which others might not have - this is something else that we spoke of, and I think that might be true - the additional ability to emphasise with others who are in-between, and to see patterns which those who are comfortably embedded in their lives or cultures might not.

I realised during this conversation that this synchronous meeting could perhaps have been the real purpose for my visit.  I am more convinced than ever that sometimes the delays, frustrations, and stumbling blocks that we perceive as being put in our paths - or that we put there ourselves - must be for a reason, to do with our individual approaches to actualising the life changes we desire to make.  The notion that the path we think we are on is not the same as the one we are, in fact, following, might be the underlying reason that I went to see this exhibition, and why - most tellingly - I came in through the wrong door..

for more information on the exhibition and related subjects visit these blogs:

Monday 21 January 2013

Memento Mona

“Memento Mona” 2008

This piece of work evolved out a project concerning appropriation in art, in which several artists were invited to work with an image that is arguably the most well-known and familiar in Western art.

Much of its initial construction came about by chance: while I was working on it, I was given a discarded shoe, which I realised was proportionate to the face: having removed the face, I realised that it fit exactly, on its side, into the décolletage: having done this, I realised that the postcard size I had of the face fit exactly into the eye. The background I replaced with a collage of Van Gogh landscapes, and the text was taken from a reworking of Walter Benjamin's "Arcades Project" by Steffan Boehm - the face  collaged with 'The Prostitute', and the cut-up from 'The Collector'.

The piece as a whole represents several interests that I was exploring or developing at the time: assemblage, collage, text, cut-ups,  and the Vanitas. 

The bouquet turns the notion of a gift of flowers on its head through usage of traditional Vanitas metaphors - the skull (here, a rabbit's, complete with ears), the guttering candle replaced by a burnt-out light bulb, the dead flowers, the pheasant's tail - representing the bird as psychopomp. Working with found or reclaimed objects, working with animal remains as metaphors for human experiences, to create new narratives out of old icons.

It's a piece of art that has been interpreted by viewers in any number of ways. Some see the shoe as a symbol of the Nazi concentration camp victim, others as representative of a lost childhood. The fact of the shoe in the face inspired its usage to illustrate a paper about organisational politics. The removal of the famous face has been seen as a political statement in itself; and the addition of the Vanitas bouquet, as a memento mori - for the death of art, of the meaning of art: for where is the 'aura' of an artwork that has been so reproduced and defiled?

I had hoped, with this work, to make the viewer reconsider his or her relationship to the familiar, to create uncanniness out of the homely by 'defacing' the iconic visage. But in the end - as with many artworks that are not either politically didactic or purely decorative - I hope that the viewer will create their own meaning, narrative, or relationship with the work.

                                                                  Marcel Duchamp "L.H.O.O.Q." 1919

Further reading:
Boehm, Steffan The Consulting Arcade: Walking Through Fetish-Land

N. Butler, C. Land and M. Sliwa “Throwing Shoes...”

Benjamin, Walter “The Work of Art in the age of its Technological Reproducibility and other writings on media”  and "The Arcades Project"

Freud, Sigmund The uncanny”(1919) in Art and Literature London: Penguin 1990