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!

Play: Chance & Sequence – my work

Charcoal drawing of where pieces of 4 different types of string landed when dropped from a height onto paper

In this workshop, we were introduced to 3 different approaches to drawing, and performed exercises that incorporated an element of chance within them: stochastic, system, and collaborative. We were then invited to expand on these exercises further.

The above image is what I produced for the stochastic (organic) drawing exercise. One by one I dropped pieces of string onto my paper and drew where they had fallen. I was keen to capture the difference in texture and shape demonstrated by each string type and varied my marks and weight with the charcoal to do so. I think this has been quite effective. In doing this exercise, the longer I went on (say after the first 6 drops) the more editorial I became with how the string fell – I still dropped it from a height and observed how it had landed, but if the composition was not quite to my liking I tried again without documenting this shape. It was interesting that I gained confidence/a sense of agency once I had a feel for the task at hand – that there was a sort of dance in a way of the relinquishing and regaining of control with chance.

The second exercise we performed was the system drawing. Here we were told to draw a grid and then populate 6 squares to the side with 6 colours. Then we were told we would be rolling a dice and painting 6 consecutive shapes within the grid with the colour for square 6 if we rolled a 6, or 2 consecutive shapes with colour 2 if we rolled a 2, etc.

(top) my first grid, (bottom) I repeated the exercise with a less brilliant palette a la Mondrian

The third approach was collaborative drawing. Here we would receive an instruction from Myfanwy and add an element to the paper in front of us (e.g. draw a line). We would then pass the paper on as instructed (e.g. pass it twice to your left, and rotate it through 90 degrees). We continued like this for some time, adding what we had for breakfast, a drawing of something in the room, a pattern, etc. Finally, we were instructed to retrieve the paper that we had started with and made our first mark on (the line). We could then add to or remove elements in order to make it uniquely our own.

Here is my finished collaborative work. I chose not to obliterate any contributions from the work, though I submerged the pattern (which had been done in biro in the bottom right corner) beneath my ink strokes so that only the texture of the pattern could be seen.

I enjoyed this exercise, though I find the artefact itself I am left with does not fully capture the process I myself went on. Since I had created equivalent elements for each of those seen in my finished work, but they are not here seen, I feel there is something lost along the way. I also dislike that the orientation of the piece is difficult to really nail down, with the elements often being drawn at contrasting ones. But it was an interesting exercise.

For my self-guided piece, I was keen to do another piece that captured the element of dropping. In the session we had been introduced to the below work by Jean Arp (that does appear to have been choreographed somewhat) and I was keen to try this method out for myself.

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) 1916, MoMA

Then above an A1 piece of paper that I had placed on the floor, one by one I (without aiming/looking blankly into the distance) dropped the pieces approximately above the page. I varied the position of my arms in relation to the paper, but maintained roughly a height of 1.5m.

In my first attempt, I found that much of the paper floated off the page, and others ended up clumping into little piles. I felt that the clumping/pile effect might be difficult to effectively capture by sticking, as I would need to deconstruct first and then recreate and might lose something in the process.

For my second attempt, I decided to introduce an element of system/rule to the dropping, and not drop all the pieces of paper in one sequence. Here I chose to drop the coloured pieces one by one first, and then reappraise prior to dropping only a selection of the black pieces. This was interesting, but I still found that the pieces formed a pile/clump.

I decided to restrict the number of pieces of paper I dropped even further. Here I chose to remove from the collection pieces that did not fully have torn edges (i.e. exclude the pieces that had a straight edge)

3rd attempt with restricted pieces of paper

I was very interested by the fact that in restricting the number of pieces I used, the composition appeared to coalesce to a form of sorts – here a diagonal stripe. Below the piece following sticking down with Pritt stick.

I think it is interesting that texture and depth has been lost to some extent in the process of capturing these by sticking them down. A loss in a move to permanence from something impermanent?

I chose to repeat this with the remaining pieces that I had excluded onto another piece of paper.

Intriguingly, again a diagonal shape was formed, this time in the opposite direction.

Play – Exquisite Corpse: Critique/my work

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.

There were some forms I was immediately drawn to, and for the middle figure, the two objects that form it seemed to come together perfectly in the first instant. This is the only character for whom I did not go through an iterative process. I especially like how off balance but simultaneously complete it strikes you.

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.

Meanwhile on my second sheet, I liked this other lamp shape for other legs, and also the teapot, but didn’t feel they quite worked together in an interesting way. The middle figure I felt had a bit too much going on, though I was interested in incorporating the eyes somehow – I liked them being detached here from the body itself.

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.