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 – 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.


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.

Half term research and experimentation: Abstract Expressionism

Over the half term weeks I enjoyed taking a break and slowing down the pace of my practice. However I still found myself eager to engage in research!

So I started reading this book I had taken out of the library – a heavy tome so I am still only part way through – and have been really captured by the characters Mary Gabriel introduces from the New York art scene in the 1920s onwards. I was moved to read the book to pursue a deeper understanding of Lee Krasner (whose retrospective at the Barbican this summer I had been bowled over by), but too in hopes of learning about the other 4 women the book biographied who were also innovators within the Abstract Expressionist movement (and regrettably overlooked in the art history): Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler.

(Below: works included in the Barbican Lee Krasner exhibition – I found the gestural quality and sheer scale of her work breathtaking)

I have found it particularly interesting so far to understand more about the context of the inter-war period for American artists, their sense of being onlookers from the European art scene that dominated, and the driving need for these artists to pursue abstraction. For Krasner, this was greatly guided by her tutelage under Hans Hoffmann.

You cannot deny yourself. You ask, am I painting myself? I’d be a swindler if I did otherwise. I’d be denying my existence as an artist. I’ve also been asked, what do you want to convey? And I say nothing but my own nature. How can one paint anything else?

Hans Hoffmann

Some other quotes contained in the book have been notable too

I found that I could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things that I had no words for

Georgia O’Keeffe

Painting or poetry is made as one makes love – a total embrace, prudence thrown to the winds, nothing held back

Joan Miro

Though I find this contextual background really interesting, I wish that it was accompanied with greater emphasis on the works they produced. I suppose I would like this to be an exhibition of its own (though it would need to be a really big one!!). I am interested to go and find works in the flesh for each of these artists (I know of a Krasner in the Tate Modern but I wonder if there are others in the UK, or of these other women?)

Anyway, I was inspired by reading about these intrepid women to experiment for myself with expression. I have til now adopted a swooping style not unlike that of Krasner (though perhaps more akin to a doodle). As yet I have not ventured into paint or proper layering, only sketches thus far as I feel I need to refine the vision before doing so.

I experimented here with using my left and right hand simultaneously to generate this gestural mark, with graphite first, then with willow charcoal. I am interested by how they differ between my hands – the left hand marks seem more erratic, staccato feel – almost vibrating with energy. I like this frenzied effect and I think it is to do with the strongest/most defined lines being straighter, more repetitive and generally within a similar axis/plane. Contrastingly, my right hand marks are more concentrated and looped, though not exactly restrained. For me, here the energy seems constrained instead – caught up inside itself. I think this perhaps reflects more of the intention I had had but it’s interesting that I find the left hand marks more pleasing. Altogether I think the charcoal most effective

I was keen though to try a different expressive technique (one that I thought of when lying awake one night). I conceived that this would involve rotating my arm through almost 270 degrees – starting behind me and swooping over my head and down onto the paper. This was to deliver some force in the contact with the paper, and also to some extent eliminate my control over the mark. Using this forceful hitting also seemed something that could be rhythmic and expressive – not necessarily violent but certainly with an element of physicality to it.

I was surprised by the tailing of the strikes on the paper. I especially like the indents of graphite that can be seen in the paper, and the contrast between the tone of the struck marks and these tails as I lift the graphite back up again. As I had seen in the Chance workshops (in dropping pieces of paper) some order did seem to be produced, as the marks appear to cluster and be heading off together towards the top right corner. They remind me of tadpoles or perhaps sperm, certainly life potential, which is interesting as I had not anticipated this connection (though in reflection now I notice how ‘alive’ this experiment made me feel).

The action itself felt freeing and I was keen to continue experimenting. Here again I tried to see if there was a difference between the marks of my left and right hands. I saw here that the left handed marks were less clustered, less ordered, with greater diversity in the marks made. Again here, I prefer the effect of the softer charcoal, and I am intrigued by the use of colour with this technique, as I think it evokes a vivid liveliness that is not communicated by the charcoal alone.

I am interested to move these experiments into paint, though I am nervous about making a big mess. I think it would be really interesting to try hitting a field of wet paint to see the effect of the impact in this reversed sense.

Signs and Narrative in Art: A R Penck – Research

I recently discovered the ArtRabbit app, which tells you about art events and exhibitions in your area. I was excited to get involved in more live art happenings, and a view into the art world outside Brookes. On here, I saw a half-day conference (free for students to attend) at the Ashmolean in Oxford related to their exhibition on A R Penck, and decided I would go along.

Curator Lena Fritsch gives us a mini tour of the A R Penck exhibition at the Ashmolean after the various talks, in front of the Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III) mural.

A R Penck was one of several pseudonyms for Ralf Winkler, which he first used in the 1960s to elude the authorities in communist East Germany (GDR), which has stuck. Self-taught, following an apprenticeship in advertising, he looked to masters such as Matisse and Picasso, prehistoric cultures, as well as popular culture comics and scifi to influence his work and style. He moved to the West in the 1980s, and lived in London for some time.

Shaped by the subversion of his early work (having to operate in secret with scant materials, smuggling his work to the West), his use of symbolism and repeated motifs is of particular interest to me, as is the fact that his work sought to communicate socially relevant narratives.

This exhibition focused on the development of his ‘Standart’ stick figures, which were used expressively as well as to form signs relating to the concept of man and social power systems. Often the Standart took on the form of a hunter, to play on the primal urges and timeless aggression of humans. Below we can see his exploration of this form expressively through various media (pencil sketch, printmaking, sculpture, paint and ink)

I think for me the more interesting executions here are the print and the painting, with the flat layering of colour accentuating this flat essentialised form that we still recognise as human.

I appreciated understanding a little more of the narrative within the Edinburgh mural from the curator Lena Fritsch, though I think a much lengthier talk would be needed to grasp all elements of this large scale work fully. She drew our attention to the elements featured which captured something of the zeitgeist from 1987 (when the painting was created on-site at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh). The middle image above shows two standarts (each holding a different letter) coming together – symbolising the softening of the cold war, with American and Russian interests meeting to discuss disarmament during this time.

The right hand figure sees a hunter, a dynamic figure covering much of the space, carrying a spear in two hands and a wheel in another (symbolising change/time?). He is breaking about a shape that hangs above the two conciliatory figures, with another letter falling out from it – perhaps to show the new phase coming?

The left hand detail was not mentioned specifically in the talk, but to me appears like figures falling out of a dinghy/life raft – perhaps a warning that this is yet still potentially unstable times?

I think in pictures before I think in speech. Before thinking in pictures I think in abstract motions. The content of such motions is abstract gesture. Such abstract gestures are what interest me.

A. R. Penck as quoted in the Ashmolean exhibition notes

I enjoyed his more abstract work, though I think it was most successful when working with a limited colour palette of only one or two, to help focus be drawn more to the gestural quality. I had not previously come across the art term ‘neo-expressionist’ but this is how his work has been described.