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

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 2

Disregarding for now his somewhat problematic subject matter, it was interesting to explore his studios and the Perry Green estate to get an insight into the practice of this prolific artist.

What I found particularly interesting to discover was his incorporation of found objects (bone, stone, shells etc) in his experimental miniature casts that would then be scaled up in working models and final pieces. Knowing this now, and seeing the examples e.g. of whale vertebrae dotted around his various studios, I can now reflect on how the forms of these organic and geological objects informed his work. ‘The metamorphosis of natural objects into human forms’ is how they put this in the exhibition notes.

It was interesting too to get a greater understanding of the technical approach he took to sculpting, both carving and in plasterwork. That he would cover his working medium-sized plaster model in a grid system to enable it to be exactly scaled up and then cast in bronze at a foundry.

I was also surprised how natural light was important to his practice – something that I had only previously considered would be the case for colourwork – and gaining a sense of the environment. His use of scalable plastic temporary studios (a bit like greenhouses) was quite novel.

I visited 4 studios on the estate – the ‘top studio’ outside his Hoglands home, and the three in the top right of the map – the Bourne maquette studio, plastic studio and yellow brick studio.

Henry Moore Gardens/studio – Research pt 1

Following my research into Brancusi’s use of generalised forms, and Calder’s approach to drawing through sculpture and singular lines, I was keen to go along to the Henry Moore studios and gardens before they close for the winter season.

On this visit, I encountered several of his bronze cast sculptures dotted around the estate where he used to live and work for the majority of his career, as well as the various studios he had there. There was also an exhibition being shown cataloguing his approach to drawing and how their role in his artistic practice changed over the years.

I was excited to discover the sculpture after being encouraged to get ‘hands-on’ with the outdoor ones and feel their texture when purchasing my entry ticket.

I found it really engaging to be encountering sculpture at such scale and so personally – it seemed an artform made for human observation and interaction. Many of them I could step into, and touch, and peer around. They offered interesting changing forms when you looked at different angles, as you walked around it. The sculptures themselves bear the marks of their making – the above piece is smoothed but also deliberately etched into.

The above piece shows clearly defined grooves that I believe have been made by the artist’s own hands – running my hand along it felt as though I were running it through carved wet clay.

The above work had intriguingly distinct forms from different angles.

The pieces I found less intriguing were perhaps the ones he is best known for, the reclining figures.

I found some of the forms here interesting, but I couldn’t get past the fact that these were staging the female nude as object. The figure is uniformly passive, and static. She is reduced to her ‘primary function’ as childbearer. This could only make the contorted forms and exaggerations of fertile hips etc seem exploitative for me.

John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ was released in 1972, ahead of all but one of the sculptures shown above, and in episode/chapter 2 he dealt with the problematic obsession with the female nude in art history. This feminist perspective may not have been taken seriously by Moore etc however, with contemporary reviews in the industry literature dismissing Berger as ‘a committed leftist who poses as the antagonist to all received knowledge about the arts’ (J.A.Robinson writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Education Oct 1974) – with no direct mention of the feminist argument he had been making. Indeed the modern movement was less under scrutiny here than mass media imagery for Berger, but that the passive female nude and mystification as the Great Mother could be still so primary to an influential artist like Moore at this time suggests perhaps it should have been.

The 2nd episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which first considered the problem of the male gaze in the convention of female nudes in Western art (1972, BBC)

This episode was aired just at the start of a great feminist movement in art history, which was kickstarted by Linda Nochlin’s article from the year prior ‘Why are there no great women artists?’. I am interested to read more into this subject and hope to start with some writings by Griselda Pollock.

Gained in Translation part 2 – my work

Following on from the cardboard structure I had created in the previous weeks (as a translation of the drawing I had made from my partner’s description of a plastic severed foot prop), we were tasked with further translating this into different materials – wood, and then clay moulding for a plaster cast.

My finished wooden piece

I enjoyed finding an even more generalised form for the wooden interpretation – I utilised some very strong timber (previously used as a wooden fencepost) as I wanted to evoke the solid and supportive role this object could take. Cutting and sanding this to smooth out a more organic form was hard going but I am pleased with the end result on the arch of the foot. The graining on this part also is very interesting, and unique to the material used – I think it adds a suggestion of movement and dynamism as well as materiality.

The most difficult was the concave jointing space that I cut out from the foot piece, to slot the cylinder within it. This was to replicate the joining mechanic I had used in cardboard, but it was too sharp a curve for the saw to do, so I had to cut straight towards the curve line and break off as many pieces as I could with the saw, before chiselling down by hand. This proved very hard work, and I did not quite achieve the finish I had wanted. I might find a different solution to this if I were to repeat this/look to produce a finished piece.

The cast plaster

I took quite a different approach with the clay/plaster sculpting – here rather than simplifying/generalising I explored detail that had featured in my cardboard structure, and some abstract forms. I first was interested in exploring the effect of depth and relief when carving the clay, though it was difficult to fully envisage what the finished result would be in the plaster reverse. I knew that I wanted to attempt a full standing foot like I had achieved in the other materials, so I doubled the depth of my clay to ensure I could achieve the height required. I’m not sure the generalised shape that I reproduced here is as effective with this material as the detail I captured, e.g. of the severed top of the foot in the bottom corner.

We were given instruction to prevent undercuts in our mould, which I tried to follow, but I think some of the finer detail in my design still meant clay was not easily removed from some of the crevices.

It’s interesting I think that here again we can see I am repeating the concentric circles/vortex motif that I have been exploring in survival!

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!

Forms in Sculpture: Research

Constantin Brancusi

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things

Constantin Brancusi

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.

Play – Gained in Translation: research/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.