Performing Chance: reflection

We were introduced to performance art in a one day workshop relating to play/chance. This was probably the discipline I was most wary of in the art world prior to joining the course, as I found it to be unnerving and out of the norm (a bit like when you are approached on the street out of the blue by someone trying to get you to sign up for something). I’m still pretty sure this isn’t the discipline for me but I did enjoy some elements that I think I could look to incorporate in my practice – particularly the element of play possible.

First we engaged in some chance word selection from a newspaper, using the roll of a dice to determine the line and word we would cut out, to form a sequence of 12 words.

This was apparently a strategy used by J D Salinger and a similar one to how David Bowie created his lyrics.

We also had a task where one by one we entered a room and interacted with some objects (while being filmed). I was the last person to enter the room and unbeknownst to me the person prior had reoriented the camera so that my actions were not recorded. I found this to be a bit frustrating as I had put thought into them, but I suppose this was a lesson in itself!

Finally we had a group task. Here, we were to fill a disposable camera with a sequence of recordings of something. As the theme of the workshop was about chance and relinquishing control of the art form/the art being the performer, our group chose to involve the general public and ask that they perform an act for us, before then thwarting that and recording their reaction. We chose to ask them to blow up a balloon, draw on it, and then we would pop it without their forewarning. We created some rules and a vision of how we wanted this sequence to pan out before heading out to complete the task.

Below the photographs developed from the camera. We were not allowed to use the viewfinder to aim the shot, and found that winding on the disposable camera hindered the timing of the shot also, meaning sometimes we missed crucial parts of the sequence for some participants.

On reflection, I think perhaps we over-complicated the rules/sequence requirements and did not factor in the timing constraints/delays of the disposable camera we were using. We also had not planned for some participants being unable to blow up the balloon, so had to improvise with these participants the ‘destruction’ of their work by stamping on it, smearing the ink.

Overall I think it was successful in creating a sense of play for these participants, who were amused and quite willing to take part in our action. For the most part, they were unphased by the balloon being popped/trodden on and took this as part of the ridiculous scenario, so this too became a part of the play. I enjoyed this sense of fun and mischief, which I think is particularly seen in shots where the participants are laughing, or in the midst of blowing up a balloon (which harkens to children’s parties particularly).

Approaches to Drawing: Alexander Calder

They used to sell wrapping paper at the League and we found that it was pretty good for drawing. You folded a sheet into eight rectangles and it would fit in your pocket. With this we used to pass our time drawing people in the subway on our way to and fro.

I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line.

Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)

Calder didn’t start pursuing a career in art until the aged of 24 in 1922, when he began taking night drawing classes in New York, having found the working life following his graduation from engineering to be much too dull. He found his start as an illustrator at the National Police Gazette capturing athletic events including one time a circus (which was to serve as inspiration for the work that would catapult his career).

Once he had his own studio, he immediately began experimenting in wood and wire, and then wire alone. His works are recognisably playful and characterful and were sometimes called caricatures.

One cannot describe his works – one must see them…The figures are amazing and in these works of art all artistic rules are suspended for the moment.

B. Werner review of Calder’s ‘Portraits, Sculptures, Wire Forms’ Nierendorf Galerie, April 1929
The Brass family, 1929
Kiki de Montparnasse, c.1930

His networking in Paris was crucial to his gaining renown in the art world, and also was to provide a key catalyst to his work – none more so than his visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus Zurich

It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate…

This one visit gave me a shock that started things.

Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now, at thirty two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.

Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Drawings, 1931-2. Alexander Calder: “These are some of the drawings I made right after I visited Mondrian’s studio. They are among the first abstract things that I did and they led to the wire universes”
Mobile c.1932 Alexander Calder 1898-1976 Lent from a private collection 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L01686

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending the stairs’ is the result of the desire for motion. Here he also eliminated representative form…

Therefore why not plastic forms in motion?…Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.

Alexander Calder, exhibition notes at Berkshire Museum, Aug 1933

I had not heard of the mention of ‘plastic forms’ before, and initially thought this referred only to the material plastic. Upon researching this though I understand it now to mean anything that has the capacity for the artist to shape it, so in most cases for Calder, wire.

The move into kinetic or moving sculpture was groundbreaking for Calder – here he not only was playing with form and space in his wire drawings, but also time and movement. Though some were powered by motors, others were only subject to the movement of air or external stimuli.

A Universe, 1934 – motorized mobile: iron pipe, wire, wood, string

The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof… the idea of detached bodies floating in space…

There is the idea of something floating – not supported – the use of a very long thread, or a long arm in cantilever…seems to best approximate this freedom from the earth.

Thus what I produce is not precisely what I have in mind – but a sort of sketch, a man-made approximation

That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.

Alexander Calder, ‘What Abstract Art means to me’, 1950

I have enjoyed learning more about Calder, after I was first fascinated by one of his mobiles at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. One thing that I am eager to try and take into my own practice is to try the line drawing technique. Til now I think I have shied away from this for fear of making a mistake, but I am intrigued by the unique forms that come from this method, and the simplicity of the finished work, so will resolve to experiment with this!

Play: abstract use of objects – Research/my work

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.

I particularly enjoyed learning about his strategy here, in choosing an object from his home and reflecting on it for some time in how it might be portrayed differently.

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.

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.

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.

Play – Unconventional Bodies: Critique/my work

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.

Play – Gained in Translation: Critique/my work

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.

Francis Alÿs, Untitled (in three parts), 1995-1996. Triptych, encaustic on linen. Collection of Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Gift of Stanley and Nancy Singer.

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.

The object I described to my partner, her drawing of this description, and the cardboard sculpture she created of this, 09/2019

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.

My drawing and sculpture, based on the object described to me by my partner, 09/2019

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.

A failed foot attempt using two pieces, using gummed tape which made the cardboard itself soggy and unable to retain its shape

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.