Today I experienced my first dark room, and got the chance to experiment with photograms. I enjoyed learning the technique and producing my own images, though it seemed most of the time spent there was in waiting for and using the chemical trays, rather than the creation of the photograms themselves.
We had been briefed ahead to bring objects, and on some of the history of Moholy-Nagy who famously used this technique for what he would call ‘abstract seeing’ of the forms of objects themselves.
On reflection, I wonder if the text here added anything, or if I could have produced a more interesting composition from something purely abstract (as Moholy-Nagy himself did). I had several comments from my peers that the typeface reminded them of book covers, which amuses me but wasn’t quite my intention!
I was reflecting the other day about how several of the workshops we undertook in consideration of Dadaism and chance was in using objects in unusual ways/reducing them to their forms.
This reminded me of an artist I followed on instagram, Christoph Niemann (@abstractsunday) who illustrates for the New Yorker. He has an interesting TED talk which I include below, which discusses precisely this, and the role of the audience in visual communication (without recourse to cliche). I also enjoyed hearing about how this allows simple images to communicate complex ideas, even emotions – we fill in the blanks. The picture only need suggest enough.
The real magic doesn’t happen on paper, it happens in the mind of the viewer. When your expectations, your knowledge, clash with my artistic intentions.
Christoph Niemann, 2018
I am interested to use this strategy for myself. Following the success of my teapot figure I wondered about using one of the teapots I have at home.
I like these abstractions – I think I could develop them further and take better into account the space around my drawings to ensure I can best document the intended perspective in my photography (without going off the edge of the paper! Here I used A2 paper, but perhaps A1 would be better, especially when using sizeable objects.
The use of ink felt right here, as Niemann uses, as helps for quick sketching, but collage might be interesting too.
In this workshop, we collaborated as a group in generating lots of images and drawings of objects that could signify body parts – these were all photocopied and scaled in various ways to give us uniformly black and white copies. We were then tasked to create a series of characters with these body parts in collage.
The final works I created are shown above – at the end of the workshop we walked around looking at each other’s work and came together for a brief critique, where we picked out ones we thought worked well and why. My image of the kettle with the moustache (left most on the right hand image) was picked out by several peers as being interesting, for seeming in motion, or suggesting a gesture of dance, due to how I had placed the different pieces at different angles.
For the left hand figure here, I was keen to make use of this folk icon sculpture, particularly due to the interesting form and large scale. I wanted to play with this sense of solidity with a small or off-balance leg so experimented with a few options.
I enjoyed this exercise especially. I think my most successful figures used shapes and forms that I had not myself selected from the material, and I found this allowed me some ‘distance’ to objectively select what I found to be most interested and explore different combinations more easily. The forms I had found (the crab, the lampshades) perhaps did not do as successfully because I had a bias to ensuring they were used and so perhaps working them in where they might not have been entirely best suited? I do like all my figures but I think some (the teapot, the wheel) are more complete than others.
In this workshop, we had been briefed to bring in objects and in teams of 3 we pooled our objects and constructed these onto a mannequin, the shapes of which were to inspire a fashion series in a sketchbook.
One thing that I think worked well in the physical construction exercise, was use of the unusual shapes and contrasts between the different objects. I found it difficult to see this as a complete structure however with so much of the mannequin visible once it was completed. I think perhaps if we had deconstructed the objects, or used something additional that was more fluid that we could have done this?
I preferred engaging with the collage exercise in developing my own series however. Here I had a little more freedom to experiment without being limited to the rudimentary construction techniques at hand in the physical task. I could also experiment further with scale and focus on the shapes that particularly interested me.
The shapes/objects I returned to most was the fan/pleats created from the woven placemats, which I variously used as accessory and detailing, but also scaled up as top and skirt in different outfits. This object with shading and curvature the most suggested an interesting 3D structure in my photographs so I found it interesting to experiment with this, particularly since the original object is in fact flat.
I was also interested in using the flat shape of the circle as photographed from the bowl/plate. This because we are so used to seeing circles as balls/spheres, I liked playing with expectations here. It provided a suggestion of structure and rigidity to some of the outfits, which I liked in the armour-like plating in outfit 4, and the egyptian flat style of outfit 5. And I liked playing with the idea of flatness in outfit 6 along with the semi-corsetry from the rattan magazine cover.
So this contrast of 2D and 3D was interesting – particularly since the exercises were themselves reflecting on this transition.
An alarm clock seems a highly relevant object to be depicting here – alarm and a sense of urgency is precisely what is needed to drive action, and you do not allow an alarm clock to keep on ringing once it goes off – you act.
In my first drawing of the clock, I considered what time to show on the face. It immediately occurred that in depicting an analogue clock face, I could show the doomsday clock as it stands in 2019 (at two minutes to midnight https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/ )
Yesterday, Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned and uncomfortable speech to the UN Climate Summit, berating them for not acting on climate change, despite the 30 years of science warning them of the consequences. It is chilling to think of the inaction of society against such an existential threat.
This made me think of the allegory of zombies used by George Romero in his 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, as a scathing critique of consumerist culture in the Western world. The zombies’ lumbering gait and slow speed imply an inevitable threat (like climate change) but also we see they are un-thinkingly stuck within the habits they have formed in their human lives – in the film we see the zombies gravitate to the mall, and this highlights just how irrational this constant need for more is. Even more starkly, the living protagonists fight to the death over their ownership of the resources within the mall – they cannot separate their need to possess from the drive to survive. Just like these protagonists/zombies, we cannot break free of the habits of our lives despite the existential threat looming in the climate crisis, and politicians to now have sought to assuage the guilt we might feel with empty reassurances and hope rather than action.
This made me reflect on the use by Extinction Rebellion of the egg timer logo and the slogan ‘Time’s Up’. I wondered if another apt slogan might be ‘Wake Up’, in response to the idea of us and our governments being like zombies or sleepwalkers on the climate crisis.
In their return tour in the 2000s, Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha used this song as a platform to raise awareness on key political and social issues, by making a speech towards the end of the song during a more quiet section, to be followed by him screaming ‘WAKE UP’ 8 times.
And in the face of all this propaganda I wanna say, we have here to unite here in Europe, we have to unite here in Europe across ethnic lines across religious differences across racial lines and its now the lines are clear. It’s us against the wealthy plain and simple. It’s time to wake up. WAKE UP.
I was interested in looking more into how graphic artists have influenced the imagery of protest. One such artist of recent times is Patrick Thomas, who with his book the Protest Stencil Toolkit sought to provide activists with ready-to-go icons to use in protest banners and materials, or even street art. This builds on the relationship street art now has with social consciousness and bringing art to a wider audience – catalysed by Banksy (see below).
Banksy has long portrayed environmental concerns in his street art, but has credibly been attributed a mural that is linked to Extinction Rebellion in 2019. The use of child-like handwriting and depiction of children underlines the importance of protecting future generations – a key message of Extinction Rebellion. That his artworks are generally to be found in public spaces means that it is truly art for the masses, and speaking directly to them (without the curation of an elite art world). In this way, it may break down the artifice and engage with people more meaningfully than other art might – and so potentially be more persuasive.
What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things
After my experience with the Gained in Translation task, I was interested to learn more about how sculptors have sought to capture the essence of an object in simplified or generalised forms. This seems to be of particular importance in considering the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
He paid great attention to the material with which he worked, coming from a crafts background. This means the artwork gives a sense of being formed quite naturally, not working against the fabric with which it has been created. The fluidity of metal, the roughness of stone, and the smooth flint of granite.
What is intriguing though in particular is his depiction of the subject. He has not sought for it to resemble the subject in a physical sense, but has imbued it with an abstract sort of resemblance. The Danaide conveys a serenity and composure of the subject; the bird in space, graceful dynamism; the fish streamlined movement that in a flash would disappear from view. In a sense here he has depicted the qualia of the subject (as philosophers might term it) – that is, he has relayed the experience of witnessing the subject within his artwork: the ‘what it means to see a fish’. This is beyond simple emotional expression and onto something quite more conceptual depth.
This too can be seen in the Endless column. He is giving us the illusion of a pattern, a motif, that could be repeated ad infinitum and conveying to us what it might be like to experience that.
That he would return to several of these motifs again and again, producing unique versions sometimes with only slight nuance, is perhaps less interesting to me. But the notion of repetition on a theme and meditation is perhaps something to consider.
I think it is also noteworthy that he mostly shied away from geometric design and instead focused on smooth rounded shapes and organic-like forms.
Our 2nd theme is related to Dada and Surrealism, and we will be exploring various elements of play and chance around this in the next few weeks.
In the first of our briefs, we were to seek to remove ourselves from the subject matter. This would be achieved by the subject not being direct interaction with an object itself but the description of that object by someone only feeling it with their hands from inside a bag (reminiscent of some parlour games I had played as a child). So the visual object was twice removed from the subject of the drawing we were to make initially, and three times removed from the eventual cardboard sculpture we would construct from the drawing. It was only once we had completed our sculpture that we would discover what that object really was. We were paired up and took it in turns to describe or draw a different object.
In this way we were exploring the idea of authorship and subject as done by Francis Alys – who briefs into two sign painters to create a triptych based on his own original painting.
I found this task very interesting, and enjoyed the challenge of conceptualising the object in a new and different way. The fact that we were working from organic forms which would not usually be summarised by geometric shapes made this an interesting challenge. When describing the object for my partner, it was easiest to talk in comparison and simile, e.g. ‘it is curved inwards like a spoon or a shovel’, and to use gesture to help indicate the contorted forms and shapes in the air.
It was interesting to see the elements of my description that were picked up in her drawing, and what details were lost. The form was greatly simplified and generalised, but the crucial elements remain (of the broad curved planes and the twisted dimension). The finer detail and symmetry of the piece was lost, though these had been described they were perhaps less easily conceptualised by the non-viewer.
Here too the forms were simplified towards geometry. I drew tentatively, so that I could reshape and revisit the lines as the description progressed. She began describing the foot itself as a rectangle, before clarifying that it was in fact more sloping and curved. Other elements were depicted that were less visible, but tangible nonetheless, e.g. the seam of the plastic moulding of the foot.
When converting the drawing to a cardboard sculpture, I further generalised the forms, in light of the thick cardboard material we were given. The curved shapes and ‘lumps’ that ended up being the toes were details that were lost. After finding the gummed tape difficult to use as a fast adhesive for the structures I was seeking to achieve, I redesigned the foot to be formed from one piece to minimise the need of the tape. I used scoring to gain the bends that would be needed.
I enjoyed the conceptual challenges in this task, but am not overall happy with the artefacts produced. That said, the task was indeed to remove our own aesthetic preferences from the process, so in this sense I have been successful!!
What has interested me is this notion of reducing objects to their essential elements, or simplifying them. I am reminded of the notion of Plato’s Forms, which were the ideal essence of the objects we see in the world (i.e. that there is a Chair Form which all chairs in the world harken to and symbolize in some way, that we recognise). Perhaps this act of simplification gets us closer to the Form?
I am interested to learn more about the idea of form in sculpture, and plan to visit the Henry Moore studios to discover more.
The environmentalist movement may well have started in the 1800s, by Alexander von Humboldt. He was the first to come up with the notion of an inter-connected natural world, unleashing the basic ecological awareness that our modern understanding has roots in. Since, in viewing everything as connected, he understood also that should some part of it fail, the whole may be at risk. Read more about Humboldt here
Today, the ‘Green Wave’ is picking up speed. The evidence of climate change is now apparent for all to see, but this can also be attributed to the loud voices from the modern environmentalist movement.
One who has influenced global dialogue most is Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden who now famously began striking from school to protest the inaction of adults to address the climate crisis. Millions around the world now join her on ‘Fridays for Climate’ strikes, and she has used the same candour at the marches and gatherings she has attended, as the most senior political arenas she has been invited to speak in.
They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop then we must stop the emissions.
Greta Thunberg , speaking at Extinction Rebellion in London, 31st Oct 2018
Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black and white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.
Greta Thunberg, speaking at World Economic Forum in Davos, 25th Jan 2019
Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.
Greta Thunberg, speaking at UK Houses of Parliament, 23rd Apr 2019
Extinction Rebellion is a grass roots protest movement which seeks to use the direct action method successfully used by the Suffragettes, in gaining women’s emancipation, in order to drive greater public awareness of the climate crisis and force politicians to act.
They seek to rebel in order to disrupt business as usual, and welcome arrests as this helps to demonstrate the ardour with which they support the cause, and encourages others to be outraged also. In April 2019, after shutting down 5 iconic London landmarks over a fortnight, 1000 people had been arrested. The next day, the UK became the first country to declare a state of climate and ecological emergency.
They use incendiary language and imagery in their posters and campaign literature, making key use of the skull and egg timer running out of sand to indicate the direness of the situation as they see it.
The science is clear: we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe is we do not act swiftly and robustly… Our air is so toxic the United Kingdom is breaking the law. It harms the unborn while causing tens of thousands to die. The breakdown of our climate has begun… The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored… We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future… We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.
Declaration of Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion 2019
They acknowledge that this is emotionally charged territory in the introduction to their book This is not a Drill (2019). That it may make the reader feel ‘sad, or empty, or guilty, or angry, or frightened, or numb’. They counter this with the idea that for them the book is about love for the planet, and for humanity.