Final Major Project – self-isolation earthwork performance

Following my reflections on self-isolation, making oneself an island, in this current climate of coronavirus lockdown, I wanted to experiment with creating an earthwork in performance. A moat, while ostensibly being a body of water, is first an earthwork – involving the movement and construction of large amounts of earth. I planned that this should primarily involve my push gesture, on my knees, arms extended, pushing the earth away so that it would create a trench and a mound encircling me.

The video above records this process, which in fact ended up seeing much more tearing and pulling than pushing – I encountered several areas where the earth was resisting my efforts, and felt great frustration and hopelessness. I persevered, and it took great physical effort. I paused at the end to rest, recover my breath, and find peace in the space I had made for myself. Throughout we hear and see the effect of external forces (the wind), and some passersby can be spotted in the background, and reflected in my reaction during my recovery period.

I decided to walk out to Northchurch Common, approx. 25 minutes walk from my home, to conduct this performance, taking with me my camera and holder. I chose this place as I was aware of there being historic earthworks in this area, used for a similar protective purpose. I discovered a tree near to these earthworks with suitably low-hanging branches I could affix my camera to, with a patch of ground that would be appropriate for my experiment.

Map of Northchurch common, with the earthwork marked in the centre.
The tree from which I hung my camera, and my completed earthwork – I considered whether to make use of the long shadow of the tree but decided it best to allow focus on the process/form itself of my constructing.

I particularly wanted to engage with the process of making the earthwork using my hands/fingers, rather than using any tool or gloves to shield or protect myself. Firstly, so that my only protection was coming from the earthwork itself – we have no defence from this virus other than the practices of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. Secondly, to directly undermine this hand washing practice – making my hands purposefully very dirty. Thirdly, as a representation of manual labour – I am literally labouring with my very hands, something that is atypical for someone of the middle class, and in our digital world where we engage less and less with the physical, with nature. Lastly, to make this most personal and direct means of expressing – by sensorially and manually engaging with the earth, I felt I might be better able to channel my emotions through my actions.

I chose to dress in black, to reflect the dark emotions I was exploring, and to avoid drawing focus from my actions. But too, the top I wore was similar to a dance leotard. I chose to keep on my accessories (engagement ring, watch, earrings, hairband), which I felt personalised the video more, made it individual and also feminised. It also roots the act in my identity and social strata (something I cannot escape). I kept on my practical hiking shoes, though in retrospect I think it would have been poignant to have worked barefoot here.

That my top rides up at the back in the video, revealing my lower back, was unintended, but is a curious effect. It highlights my vulnerability in this process, as well as being an unflattering view of my body. This harks back to my future self-portrait, which sought too to highlight and undermine notions of feminine beauty.

I think I will need to do some further research, to understand land art as a context, and what female performance has taken place within a context of nature/earth previously.

Final Major Project – push gesture water experimentation

Following my reflection, I wanted to explore the push gesture in water. I feel that I may be preparing for a performance at the moat at Berkhamsted Castle, but I want to develop my idea further before doing so. I chose to investigate the water butt in my garden, since being so deep it offered the same darkness/contrast in reflected light that the moat itself has. This limited the extent of the gesture I could adopt here, but it was interesting to explore the ripple effect and methods in video editing in Premiere Pro, since the uni have now had the Adobe suite made accessible from our home computers.

I chose to accentuate the effects on the water by slowing down the movement. The accompanying audio becomes quite mesmerising, and the shifting water creates some very interesting warped abstractions. Here are two videos I made of the footage, one in black and white, and the other in colour, zoomed in so that the edges of the water butt are no longer visible.

I especially like this decontextualised view of the water, further abstracting the reflected imagery. The light dances.

It would be interesting to repeat this on a larger scale – perhaps in the moat itself, though I am unsure if this would be possible within the current lockdown (or if it might break any rules more generally on site).

Water itself has some intriguing connotations – life-giving and preserving, cleansing, and appears in various rituals (washing of feet, baptism, blessing etc.) and routine behaviours primarily associated as women’s work, such as laundry, cleaning/scrubbing, washing up. There is also a sexualisation of water when applied to the body – think of wet t-shirt competitions and the car wash.

It too reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais, depicting the tragic character from the play Hamlet. She falls into the water but continues to sing, unaware or uncaring of the danger to herself, before drowning herself. The painting is rich and verdant, the figure appears floating and as one with nature, but it is eery too – her face pale and close to death, her palms upraised in surrender, mid-song.

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01506

Researching this briefly, I came across an article about the significance of water in this Shakespeare play, which too looks to where else this symbolism is seen (excerpts below).

Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.

Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action. 

A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns.

Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.

It seems then that water is a very apt element for me to be exploring as part of my theme of self-expression, being a tool of introspection and something we both seek out and shun through action. It’s interesting this too should harken to the flaw of narcissism in considering the self too much.

Final Major Project – Reflection on pushing gesture

Following my experimentation with pouring paint/gesture, it took several days for the paint to dry. The colour darkened during this, and below the final result. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not sure this fully expresses, since I was concerned with the pour of the paint, and so a more vigorous gestural work in this vein might be worth doing. It also could have done with some sort of background? Though I quite like the stark simplicity of this.

I like the near symmetry of this piece, and that the marks suggest a pattern or symbol of some form. It reminds me somewhat of rorschach ink blots in this way. But too the fluidity of the paint and the arching imply a spring or fountain of water for me. I was interested too by the concept of bodies of water in themselves as an action, having visited my local castle ruin in Berkhamsted on one of my daily walks.

I was reflecting on the concept of a moat in relation to the practice now of social distancing and self-isolation that we are mandated to perform during this coronavirus pandemic. The word isolation itself deriving from the Latin word insulatus, meaning to make an island. The manmade moat of this castle is in a literal sense constructing an island (whereby the castle is the island, isolated from its surroundings), and making manifest then this idea of social distancing.

Moats for me though imply a sense of stagnation, of anxiety and fear, and protection. I took several photos on my visit as I reflected on this, but found it difficult to capture just one that fully encapsulated that this was in fact a moat, and not some other body of water, such as a river. The closest to communicating that is the first below, where we can see the path across, a piece of the castle walls, and the two fortification mounds, but to gain this perspective little of the moat itself is visible. I think use of a drone camera (or at least, a much higher angle) would best work to capture the full sense of the moat.

I think this sense of distancing/isolating ourselves is also reflected in this pushing gesture I have been exploring. Pushing others away, rejecting our former habits and behaviours, creating physical distance/space for ourselves, all for me can be implied by this action of extending the limbs forwards and outwards.

When thought of in the context of water – pushing against water perhaps – it is also reminiscent of swimming, i.e. the breast stroke. A means of propelling ourselves, harnessing the resistance of the water. In thinking about water I became interested too in this resistance – the forces that act back upon us when we act on the world, as in Newton’s third law – the effects of our actions, repercussions and consequences (foreseen or not).

This is particularly topical at the moment, as we are made aware of the consequences of our individual behaviour on others – the possibility of spreading the virus by unnecessary contact with others. This has been made apparent by the study of the spread of the virus in South Korea, where just one infected person accounted for the majority of cases – patient #31.

Many images/animations have been circulating online using this matches illustration for the importance of social distancing to prevent the virus spreading to others

Final Major Project – experimentation in floor based drawing/painting

I was keen to get started experimenting with linear gestural mark-marking. It was important for me to capture the process of this as potential starting points for performance too, but as I have been cautioned not to use the studio space in the university due to the corona virus shut down, I was presented with a challenge to make use of my home environment to do this in!

My first challenge was in erecting some way of filming the process from above, as I do not own a tripod or the special craning equipment that would be used by professionals. I discovered a DIY instruction for a cardboard cradle of sorts for my phone that could be affixed to the ceiling using masking tape, and used this for some drawing experimentation in my sitting room. This floor is carpeted, which would mean it less than ideal for paint work, but does give me the most floor space in which to work.

Having centred myself by completing a yoga exercise, and reflecting in my journal, I decided I would explore different modes of attack for my gestural drawings – from standing, from kneeling, and from lying down. I was also keen to see the difference between using a large graphite stick and large charcoal (i chose these large materials to more easily capture my gesture across a wide surface, and for greater distinction in pressure, orientation etc). I opted to do these with my eyes mostly shut whilst moving, so that my gesture might be guided from the sensation/from within, rather than aesthetic appraisal. I did allow myself moments in between marks to assess whether further marks were needed or not.

I think the standing piece is my least preferred, it is more chaotic and less readily understood in terms of being gesture. I especially enjoy the expression of the charcoal, the pushing/expelling nature, and how the paper in fact moved away from me and contributed to the mark itself. Kneeling seems to be the posture in which I can exercise more control of expression, and capture the full arcing of my arm movements. Lying down was intriguing for allowing movement that was not isolated to the arms as much, and for more chance to be involved (when the graphite was caught in my hair and made no mark on the paper).

While the cardboard cradle worked for this short experiment, i found that the masking tape peeled away and the camera angle could not be easily perfected. The sound of the tape coming away was quite distracting, so I decided I would purchase a cheap phone holder as an alternative. I reasoned that if I am needing to use my phone camera to document anyway then this is a worthwhile investment!

I decided to try a paint pour experiment using this holder, this time working on my kitchen floor (to prevent any spills marking my carpet!) and had the holder clamped on my kitchen table. This allowed for a more up close view of the work in progress, but less vantage of my full body movement. I think this shot though is better suited to the A1 paper size I am currently working with.

I chose Ultramarine colour to experiment with, as I believe it the nearest to the blue of Yves Klein. I wanted to repeat to some extent the gesture used in my charcoal piece – the pushing element I thought might be interesting explored in a more fluid sense. Perhaps in my execution I was more focused on the pour (I did not perform this with my eyes closed, though perhaps I should repeat this with them shut!) and so there is less forcefulness in my gesture. It seems more meditative.

Final Major Project – research/context in Pecha Kucha

In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.

Reflection on past work

First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.

Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.

Context

I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.

Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.

I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.

This photo of a woman demonstrating a ‘hysterical episode’, characterised by the arched back, was distributed for voyeuristic purposes in 1880

The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.

Helene Vanel (1938) at Exposition Internationale de Surrealisme in Paris

Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.

Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.

In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)

Experienced drag performers (left) and novices (right) demonstrate the nuance of stance/posture for gender performance

Art Research

So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.

A jiu-jitsu how-to guide for the Suffragettes, Mary Evans c.1910

Here I also referred back to my research around Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and how these women pioneered the freedom of expression for women’s bodies.

I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.

I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.

And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.

The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.

This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!

Final Major Project – Idea Generation

I already had established I wanted to explore self-expression in my final major project, but I needed to get a broader view of what directions I might explore. I began by considering the different associations of the inner and outer self, to understand how I might investigate their relationship.

It seemed to me that there were lots of ways in which the outer self can make known or express the inner self – e.g. through behaviour, gesture, grooming, ritual, touch etc. But too there were some elements relating to the outer self that might frustrate or obscure this – such as cultural norms, comparison with others, beauty standards, restrictions, and indeed gender. Reflecting that, if I am to explore self-expression I would need to do so as myself – a woman – I wanted to explore too the factors relating to identity in this gendered case.

I feel I barely scratched the surface (and this by no means counts as some proper feminist/gender theory – merely a brain dump in the moment). But it helped to coalesce in my mind that there are various societal structures that obscure the female self. Who am I really if I stripped away the gender roles and behavioural conventions expected of me? How would I act? How much of my personality has been shaped irrevocably by the expectations and experiences of my gender from early childhood?

So it seemed that to adopt a gendered lens to my exploration of self-expression might be an interesting path to pursue. But I was keen to move beyond the male gaze topic I had previously explored in my contextualising research of earlier units, and not only explore literal self-portraiture. I want to explore expression specifically – of thoughts or feelings – to make the inner world apparent.

I knew this would bring me back to the world of abstract expressionism, where I had previously learnt of Lee Krasner in particular. I was excited to learn that there was an exhibition on the 9th street artists at Gazelli Art House in London, who I had been reading about back in Unit 1, so went along to see some of their works for myself. Below are some of the works I liked most from that exhibition:

It is intriguing that several of my preferred pieces were by Grace Hartigan, she seems to here have particularly intriguing use of colour.

This coincided with a performance I learned of through an instagram post (below). The idea of natural barefoot dance defying the social norms of the day intrigued me, so I decided to attend the performance!

It was fascinating to learn about this pioneering woman, whose tumultuous life was immortalised in film, who led a sea-change in the approach to modern dance. She was opposed to the unnatural restricting and painful movements imposed on ballet dancers (who are intended to produce the appearance of floating on air), and instead sought a freedom of movement that expressed the innermost spirit, hoping to inspire individuality and authentic movement for all. As such she was a proponent of improvisation in dance, and was often danced in response to great musical pieces.

She was inspired by ocean waves, and the poses of Ancient Greek sculpture – from which she also derived her flowing fabric costumes.

There were 3 performances at the Barbican that night. One was a restaging of an original Duncan choreographed piece – The Dance of the Furies (with 5 dancers). The Second was Five Brahms Watzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, a choreography by Frederick Ashton that took on the style of Duncan (A solo piece). The final piece was a new work developed specially for this Barbican bill, which was inspired by this technique, called Unda (with 6 dancers).

It was entrancing to watch these dancers across the various pieces. I was particularly moved by the solo piece, in which the expression of the dancer was most apparent.

This is a short excerpt from a similar staging of the Five Brahms Waltzes from a few years ago

The group pieces were fascinating, though I found it more difficult to glean perhaps a clear expression in the Unda work, it seemed more of a narrative to me (around friendships forming, routine, death and loss). There was an interesting use of water in it – dripping from above into large washing bowls placed around the set. The finale of the piece involved the dancers ‘washing’ themselves and then splashing the water around using their hair and limbs. IT was quite interesting to see these precise movements interacting with the liquid.

The Dance of the Furies was intriguing, the movements used by the dancers were forceful and directive. That they sometimes ran across the stage, and moved aggressively really brought out the sense that these were human movements – heavy and earthy. I was particularly drawn to a repeated motion of upraised forearms (with the elbows bent) as though beating an invisible surface with the underside of your fists. There was often too a sense of undulation – the bodies rocking to one side and then retreating, much like waves. It gave a sense of being cyclical or inevitable.

They were evoking the mythological Furies, the goddesses of vengeance from Ancient Greece. They feature in the opera by Gluck of Orpheus and Eurydice, from which the music was taken that they danced to in this piece.

I am intrigued to pursue the notion of expressive and improvised dance for myself, and experiment with the movement of my body, to hopefully inform gestural mark-making in my work. It could be also interesting to understand how gesture and movement express within the convention of performance art and whether there is crossover with the world of modern dance.

Berlin trip – window photography

During our trip to Berlin in half term, we were offered 3 briefs. I chose to focus on the one titled ‘Through the window, outside in/inside out’. Here I was to explore the window as an intermediate space of communication between exterior and interior, as well as its materiality and reflective properties.

I felt drawn to this in particular as this dialogue between exterior and interior could be used as a metaphor for the interior and exterior self, something I am looking to explore further in my FMP. Here I have segmented some of the photos I feel most successful that I took during the trip, according to the theme I feel they best espouse: materiality & reflection, looking in/out & framing, concealment, distortion, openings, with some text discussing each in turn.

Materiality & Reflection

I was particularly interested in this reflective quality of windows. At once, we are seeing through and also back at ourselves/our reality. It creates a new reality, one that only exists at that particular perspective, a fiction. It is therefore fleeting and ephemeral. Something the camera can exploit and frustrate. In this too, in the process of capturing that reflection I was often capturing a reflection of myself, a self-portrait that was not the primary intention of the photograph. These were intriguingly anonymised though, as I held it up to my face to see through the viewfinder, my face is obscured almost completely by the camera itself.

The reflective quality of glass in windows was apparently a central interest for Walter Gropius in the design of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, where he made use of spiegelglas (mirror glass) to enhance reflectivity, which we visited on our trip.

I was also interested to discover at the Bauhaus museum the photographs of Marianne Brandt, who was a student and then faculty member leading the metal workshop at the school. Here she had a series of self-portraits using a spherical reflective surface, choosing to make her face visible, which reminded me of a similar sketched self-portrait by M.C. Escher. These distorted reflections are interesting, though I do wonder if she was more interested in the materiality of the metal than the exploration of self here.

Looking in /out – framing

In review of the photos I had taken that could fit under this theme, I found that I did not like the aesthetic of many of them. I found the framed view wanting. Here the selected group lend a certain eery sensibility. I think from the mode of surveillance/observation that this takes. All of them seem to be off kilter for me as a viewer, and there is something particularly sinister with the harsh highlighting in the first picture, of the man at leisure. It reminds me of Hopper somewhat.

Concealment

When we toured the Boros Collection during our trip, we were introduced to the work of Peter Piller, who works from an archive of collected photographs from print and digital media, and in this case from the collection of a home photography retailer operating before Google Maps (who took aerial photos of in residential areas to sell to the residents). One of the series from this collection that we saw comprised 9 photos with houses where the window blinds were shut.

Sleeping Houses (with closed blinds), Peter Piller 2000-4

I found it interesting how he effectively analysed and catalogued these collections, identifying patterns in behaviour and in the stereotyped language of media imagery. Another series showed people washing their cars in front of their homes. I was interested to explore this for myself, and so took photos of windows that were obscured from external view in some way. Particularly interesting for me was the sense that these sleeping buildings were left derelict, or were more susceptible to graffiti. But too that the means of concealment/shuttering often provided intriguing colour. I especially like the colour scheme of the final photograph, with the sub-bleached pale mint green colour on the blinds, marrying with the mottled pastel pink effect of the distressed white-washed brick walls.

Distortion

I like these photos for giving a sense of dislocation. The exterior is not visible, reduced only to a blurred white light, and there is little detail in the interior to provide context here either. It subverts the purpose of the window for seeing in or out, and makes it more of an abstract form in itself – we see the window itself. The surrounding light (or absence of it) is in contrast to that which illuminates the window – we see the window as having a primary function of illuminating the interior, bringing the light in. But in each case this purpose is also somewhat undermined by dirt, or blinds, or colouration of the panes. I am most pleased by the depth and shade occurring in the first photograph here, the most abstracted, with the simplicity of just one pane of glass.

This dislocation was also explored by an artist I saw at the Kindl gallery in Berlin, who made a site-specific in the Kesselhaus there. She covered the 3 windowless walls with true-to-life floor to ceiling prints of the windows that are seen on the fourth wall of the Kesselhaus. When we observe these prints, we are simultaneously seeing the exterior, but not the exterior we would see were those windows in fact real.

Panorama, Bettina Pousttchi (2019)

Openings

I was also interested in windows where the distinction between interior and exterior was less clear – when the window is open or broken. A broken window implies some sort of violent act (whether human or not), in the act of breaking the glass itself, but also violating that boundary of exterior/interior. But whether cracked or open, it would still for us be defined as a window all the same.

Further research – Gabriel Orozco

I try to use the tools that everyone can use. I don’t want to be a specialist in a technique that is very difficult. I prefer be a beginner… even like I think when I do the ceramic it’s like a hobby for me. It’s more like ‘yeah I like ceramics, it’s nice, I want to learn a little bit’

Gabriel Orozco, Art21 2003
Photographs appearing in Notebook 12, Gabriel Orozco

In the course of researching around this artist, who I find very intriguing, it struck me how his words here surprised me. I tried to imagine these words coming out of my own mouth, but couldn’t. I certainly see this as a way in which I do approach materials and processes, and his way of interacting with ceramics seems to be similar in some ways to my own. But until now I have not thought of it as a particular approach, more a personal failing! I think this might speak to a tendency towards Impostor syndrome.

For Orozco, the process of making is another way of stimulating his own thought processes, in this way it seems quite meditative.

When I feel that it should be ready it’s a kind of subjective thing, but it’s just that the shape should represent what just happened before.

Gabriel Orozco
My Hands are my Heart (1991) Gabriel Orozco

I was also surprised to learn that in his early career particularly he eschewed the artist’s studio, favouring instead a derive or flaneur style of wandering in the urban environment, photographing things that took his interest, and using the camera as a way of focusing his own attention. He would interact with found objects and intervene to create photographs also. So much of this is related to what I have done in my unit 2 work!

Breath on Piano (1993) Gabriel Orozco

Unit 2: Future – Future self-portrait further research/context

I felt my experiment in the future self-portrait (capturing the view of self when we are able to see through the eyes of others in a telepathic future) was successful, but I wanted to think more around this notion of self-image and how we are concerned and influenced by how others perceive us. This had me think back to previous research of mine around the male gaze and female depictions of themselves . This seems to be a recurring concern of mine!

I was aware of a new BBC series presented by Mary Beard around the nude in Western art, and was particularly interested to take a look as I knew that as part of this she had explored being the subject of a life drawing study. She was driven to do this from the sense that ‘I am still looking for a naked portrait of an older woman who looks like I feel.’, and from using an example from Rodin that typical mainstream western art uses the naked form of an older woman as a symbol of what has been lost (the beauty of youth), and not depicted in a sympathetic way as we do see with nude depictions of older men.

She who was the Helmet maker’s once-beautiful wife (1887), Auguste Rodin

She wanted too to put herself in the position of the people she has been studying throughout the two programme series (the nude models). There is a self-consciousness though to this and it’s interesting to hear the feelings she had around this situation and her own perceptions of self in this scenario. She simultaneously casts herself as old (in her physical appearance) and adolescent (in her psychology).

I do feel a bit apprehensive about this – I think oh, I hope I don’t look too fat you know it’s a terrible kind of, well, adolescent vanity really.

She asks Catherine Goodman, who has agreed to draw her nude, if this is a common apprehension in her models. The artist answers that actually many of her models enjoy the gaze of another, the opportunity to just ‘be themselves’ for a short while. This is intriguing I suppose. It’s a unique sort of situation in the modern world, to be looked upon naked without judgment or sexualisation. This is perhaps the draw of nudism. But I am less interested in the impulse to be seen naked as the desire to understand how others perceive us per se.

Mary is still aware that some viewers are going to think ‘Did she have to?’ about her being a nude model – implying again that she feels herself an undesirable sight, “whereas I feel quite sort of, slightly brave about doing this”. It is literally bearing all in front of national television after all! Something I think many people would outright refuse to do. But it is interesting she is surrendering to this vulnerability and displaying that most private view of herself. Having sat for Catherine twice, on her third visit Mary allowed the cameras in, and admitted to being nervous.

It’s funny not having seen anything that you’ve done… of me I mean. It’s funny because I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me. Which is really what it is, isn’t it.

This is a curious phrase I will return to below, but particularly since Mary Beard is a familiar face on our television screens now, presenting many documentaries and now regularly appearing as a presenter on Front Row Late. Indeed, her first documentary series caused a stir from some quarters, as trolls and commentators such as A.A.Gill felt her unapologetic aged appearance should have no place on our screens. So she must be aware of how some view her, but perhaps the intimacy of life drawing is affording for her a glimpse of the view of someone with a deeper (and more human) understanding of her. We then see Mary’s nudes and hear her first reactions to them, alongside Catherine.

Oh wow! I thought I’d be a bit horrified of them. And I’m not remotely horrified by them and I think that, you know, the fleshy over-60s bits kind of work fine. I look at myself and I don’t think ‘Oh god she should lose a bit of weight’, I think ‘that’s me‘. And you know to some extent, I feel happy with it.

I notice I wasn’t much looking at you. You know, we were chatting quite a lot but I wasn’t looking and well I saw you looking at me and thought you are actually trying to work out how to do my tits.

So she was happy with the result, and seems she came out of the situation feeling good about the depiction of herself by another. What most interests me though is what she said prior to seeing these drawings. “I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me.”

This is intriguing to me, because the role of the artist here can only approximate or mimic how someone might view us in real life. In this modelling scenario, they are manufacturing an intimacy that would not otherwise exist, and therefore the view of the model is not a real one from their own lives. Yes, the artist can and often does seek to establish an understanding, a relationship with the model to more accurately capture their perception of that person, but the perception itself is not natural, it is not quite the same kind of perception that the people in our lives will have of us (beside the fact that each person in our lives probably has a unique one). This I suppose has parallels in the research problem, and the observation effect. It is impossible for us to observe or research naturalistic behaviour because the very fact that we are observing them warps the results.

There is a deeper problem however, to do with whether someone could accurately depict how they view another person. So imagining that a person in our lives was an artist, could they draw how they see us? This is the problem of validity in self-reporting – if we were to ask someone exactly how they viewed a person, even if they were fully compliant and adopting a ‘no-holds-barred’ response (throwing social convention bias to the wind), we would not get an accurate response, because this is something they are making conscious and rationalised which would otherwise not be. We simply cannot escape the cognitive biases that oversee our rationalisations to give a pure answer (though one question to consider is if we in fact do want to know how people see us through this cognitive lens)

This can be considered with allusion to identity theory accounts of how self-reporting of individuals around their own behaviour can be inaccurate. An oft used method is to ask people (through a self-administered survey) how much exercise they perform, and then compare this to direct observation of their exercise (unknown to the respondent) – for instance we might see someone over-report how much they exercise in a week. Answers usually reflect not only the actual self that we observe ourselves, but also the self that we wish to be (ideal self – reflecting the people we aspire to be), or the self we feel we ought to be (ought self – reflecting the internalised norms we have identified from the behaviours valued in our society). It can therefore make sense for someone to pep up the account of their exercise routine to paint a picture of themselves that is more flattering to their idealised or normative perceptions of self.

So wouldn’t these idealised and normative notions of identity also play a part in how someone consciously describes another person? If we are incapable of reporting our selves devoid of such influence, it is dubious we could do so for reporting of another. The act of portraiture in this sense is a projection of the values of the artist. We can better understand under such terms the male gaze in art, though perhaps not excuse it. The male has internalised norms around the female – what is valued (sexual appeal, physical beauty, submission, virtue, etc.), and so depicts or judges models based on this – hence how Rodin’s elderly woman is seen in terms of the loss of such qualities, rather than a more sympathetic depiction.

This reminds me of the famous destruction by Winston Churchill of the portrait Graham Sutherland created of him in his later life, now dramatised in the series The Crown. He reportedly said that it made him ‘look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand.’ and fought against it being publicly presented to the House of Commons for being unsuitable. It is therefore not always to our benefit to be shown how others see us, as it might well conflict with our self-perception in a way most unnerving.

It too has echoes in the early Dove real beauty campaign adverts – where the comparison was drawn in the forensic sketches drawn based on the physical descriptions of individuals and a stranger who had met them. The point drawn here was that we have less flattering self-images than a stranger would and should be more accepting and less judgmental of our appearance.

It’s interesting how none of the sketches actually bear much resemblance to the models though! A little like the exercise we had back in unit 1, describing an object to another person. Translating what we visualise in our minds into words so that another can visualise it accurately is very challenging! It is challenging enough to translate our mental visualisation into a visual representation on paper.

So all this means I come to some key questions. Is it ok that when we see a portrait/self-portrait we are not seeing an exactly true representation of how someone is immediately perceived, but something filtered through the artist’s own values (shaped and influenced by the time and place they are in). In fact are we seeing that person at all or is this a depiction of what they signify based on the artist/society? Or is that actually how we see the world – would an ‘exactly true representation of immediate perception’ actually not relate to the human experience at all, and this signifying and valuing actually be closer to the truth? When we want to understand how others see us, do we instead mean how do they place us within the world we live in based on these values and signifiers, or do we mean how are they immediately perceiving me? I think it might in fact be the former – we want to understand what we mean to people, not solely what we look like. Am I beautiful on a deeper level to you, not only superficially?

And this is where it becomes so emotionally charged – we find it tangled with the ideas we have ourselves of our actual, ought and ideal selves. Will you flatter me by reassuring me that I do conform to some of the characteristics I hold in the idea of the ought and ideal? Is my perception of my actual self accurate to how you view me? Or worst of all, do you reject all these views of myself and see me as something utterly different to my self-perception?

I suppose in my ‘future self-portrait’, under this identity theory, the ability to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and fully grasp their perceptions (not only immediately but alongside the value judgments and signifiers they see) might distort all sides of our self perception – the actual, ideal and ought. We might find these perceptions merge with that of another, or contrastingly experience a visceral disconnection when observing ourselves through their eyes – an ultimate outer body experience. That we do not naturally consider these 3 separate elements of self perception as distinct in our minds makes me think that this process too might be unconscious and hard for us to fully comprehend.

It could be interesting to ask various people in my life (from different social groups) to provide their perception of me, in either drawing or description. Of course, this self-reporting would be highly flawed, but perhaps as I have just discussed, we are more interested in this flawed lens than the pure view. That it would be moderated by social conventions, and likely a sense of not wanting to insult or embarrass, could be interesting to explore. It could also help to combine my instructional work with this other avenue of exploration which I have continued to be interested in.

Unit 2: Futures – Instructions for navigating the unknown further research

I am keen to work further on the instructions I created, to help navigating the unknown. In my assessment yesterday, one of my tutors mentioned that it could be interesting too if people are able to take just one instruction in isolation and whether they might interpret this differently without the context of the others, or if this instruction in isolation might be interesting.

This had me recall the work of Brecht, where he had a box or card system of instructions that you could take from. This reminds me of board games, such as Cranium or Pictionary, where the player is given instructions and often other players have to guess what was on the card. It also reminds me of notices placed on notice boards, where there are tear off contact details at the bottom, or of ticket machines at deli counters etc, where the piece of paper you have taken affects the result for the next person (by removing the previous number in the case of tickets, or reducing the number of people who can take the contact details from the notice). Or even fortune cookies, whereby a ‘personal’ script is found inside each one. It could be interesting to explore these different modes of presentation for my work.

Water Yam (1963), George Brecht

In looking up the above image, I came across an excerpt from a book mentioning this work, called Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan, see below:

This chapter in particular made mention of an artist I have found very interesting to read about – Gabriel Orozco. There is a fascinating interview with the artist found here. That he combines two interests of mine – a playfulness and also philosophy, is fascinating! Games turn up as a theme here, not only in his process, and he confounds the rules of some conventional games such as ping pong, billiards, football and chess by transforming them in some way. He speaks very well about his thinking behind these transformational acts, and I have included some quotes below that I found particularly interesting.

That is the space that I’m interested in, the in-between space. Even in photographs, I think what is interesting is in between the photographer and the space, which is the same as the in-between of the photograph and the spectator. To activate that space—to activate means to fill it with meaning and connections, so that we can think about it. We can connect with it and make it happen as a space and time in between things.

I think every game is a universe, in a way, or every game is an expression of how the universe works for different cultures… Every game has a connection to how we conceive nature and landscape, how we order and we structure reality.

Probably they are more like philosophical games. I believe that philosophy has to be a practice: practical philosophy. It’s like the way the Greeks used to solve philosophical and mathematical problems—by walking. Not sitting. It’s easier to solve problems moving—when you walk and you talk—probably because you have better irrigation in the brain or just because you are breathing better. Because you are moving, you have better chances to solve complex problems. And also I think, in a way, it’s an action thing. So, I think philosophy is an action; it should be. And to play the games are part of it.

I concentrate on reality in terms of what is happening to me, and I try to revolutionize that and try to rethink it and transform it. I try to transform reality with its own rules, with the things I found there. 

I am interested to learn more about him and have reserved some resources from the library to look into!

Another work I have come across in my initial research is his photo series called Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe (1995). Here he drove around Berlin on a Schwalbe motorbike, and photographed it next to a second whenever he came across another one. The final work in the series of 40 includes a third bike, as he had sent invitations to all the Schwalbe owners in Berlin to meet him for a get-together (and only 2 turned up). I love this level of unpredictability in his series (providing an instruction that may or may not be followed by other persons), but also too this repetition and persistence. The photography itself had a kind of rule to it, without other persons, closely framed, bikes in close proximity, etc. making it a game in itself. It’s interesting that games should require rules to be set, almost paradoxical in a way.

Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe 1995 Gabriel Orozco born 1962 Presented by George and Angie Loudon 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07506