Saturday, 24 September 2011

a field student of craft processes pt 2

Kirsten Schmidt, Creatures Great and Small, St Barnabas Church - detail
E17 Art Trail 2011.

In 1939, at least 2 significant public art works appeared in Walthamstow; J F Kavanagh’s 5 carved stone figures on the back of Walthamstow Town Hall, and (by another artist) the stained glass East Window at St Mary’s Church. The latter was removed for the duration of World War II; a wise decision considering the substantial bombing of the area, including the church.
Motherhood as a theme features figuratively in both those works of art. Anna Alcock and Kirsten Schmidt reflected this presence (perhaps unintentionally) of motherhood in their art work, Forest Guardians, exhibited in the ‘Inspired by Morris’ exhibition at William Morris Gallery in autumn 2010. In both sets of work one woman stands protectively over or by a child, while another holds an infant. The infant in the stained glass window is the baby Jesus. In Forest Guardians the infant held by the woman is a lamb.
What, if any, fantasy or mythology surrounds and imbues the maternal figures in these art works? David Mabb, another exhibitor in ‘Inspired by Morris’, gave a talk as part of the exhibition programme. He interpreted William Morris as a fantasist. Morris’s floral designs draw on an endless summer, fecundity and fruitfulness in medieval myth and legend. His affluent Victorian interior was a mis en scene for a quest for Avalon, Eden, and the Paradise garden. Kirsten Schmidt’s image of a woman holding a lamb is derived from a medieval German sculpture and the same image appears in a printed floral milieu in Creatures Great and Small - a set of 6 banners made for the columns of St Barnabas Church; a venue I took in on ‘my’ E17 Art Trail 2011.
Creatures Great and Small was a set of 6 printed banners. The printed designs consisted of intertwining floral patterns growing about a variety of animal and human figures. There were birds, a ram and the female/woman or chimera. Accompanying these symbolic creatures were streams of fish, Piscean in their upwards flow and meander through the trellis or undergrowth of assorted stems and leaves. Looking at the curving spiralling printed patterns drew my gaze upwards. Each banner followed a similar graphic scheme though each was also different in terms of the base fabric, the colours of the inks, and the order of the characters in the patterns. Each pattern appeared to be a variation on a theme - a play with the formal graphic design. I felt the lighter brighter prints on and against darker fabric (though still with a sheen) were more appealing and absorbing.
The columns were hard, stark and severe structures on and against which to hang the slightly diminutive banners. The precision of the column edges were in contrast to the soft unevenly undulating edges of the banners. The undulation accentuated the visual qualities of the printed surfaces however I felt there was also unwelcome visual discord by this. I wondered if the waviness was due to a difference in the bias of the printed fabric and the backing fabric. The discordance might have been less so had the banners been hung away from the columns rather than right against them, the weight of the banners hanging more freely.
What is the nature of Christianity’s relationship with crafts and craftsmanship and how could Kirsten Schmidt’s evocation represent not only some of the pleasure of this relationship but also tensions and paradoxes? Richard Sennett comments, ‘early Christianity had from its origins embraced the dignity of the craftsman’ doing work which ‘could counteract the human propensity for self destruction’. The appearance of peaceable and productive work could not completely affirm this conviction as the very materiality of the work brought or brings with it fear of the earthy temptress, Pandora. Kirsten Schmidt’s re-presentation of what might be an earth Mother Goddess (of pagan origin) inspired in part by William Morris also presents questions about how textiles has been used as a means of control of the female or feminine.  Sennett comments on this prejudice in relation to Eve; it ‘bred a practice: female temptation could be countered by a particular craft, that of the needle, whether in weaving or embroidery, the woman’s hands kept ever busy’. Could Schmidt’s female figure be confined to needlework, in the way of Homer’s Penelope, unpicking by night all the needlework of the day in the service of an established kingship or patriarchal lineage?
Each banner might have been a verse in a hymn - a song to creation or creativity, an alternative to the hymn to Hephaestus - ‘every silk woven by swift fingers came from a loom your (his) burly hand designed’. Quite fantastically, a 5th century priest, Proclus, contrived a poem expressing the transmogrification of textiles materials - ‘the wool was the ancient fleece of Adam; the interlocking thread the spotless flesh of the Virgin’. The female figure on the banners may not be an origination of the Mother of God or Theotokos, however I would be surprised if her presence is not intended as some form of prompt as to questions about the complex theology of Mary, and more universally, myths of creation and origin a priori.
A specific place or host venue accentuates or alters the meaning of a creative work (visitor) - particularly the identity of that thing as a work of art and/or craft. It is pertinent to say a church is a place to contemplate origins and any object, with some gendered identity, placed in the church leads to statements about the origins and values of gender. To say something is a work of craft is to confer gender and this dialectic may lead to discussions about difficult transitions in gendered roles in the church establishment.
It is probably as well to return to the bannered space as one for personal fantasy. There I probably made a misidentification of one of the birds perched in the design of the banners however there is a genus of birds, Halcyon - kingfishers. Halcyon also has a mythical reference, that of a bird which makes a floating nest at sea. Their song is said to charm and calm the seas - a state of tranquillity for a journey to a place seemingly ‘way over yonder’; a gospel song in which Carole King (surely blessed by St. Blaise) sings, recalling Mabb’s and Morris’s Victorian Halcyon,

‘Way over yonder is the place I have seen,
In a garden of wisdom from some long ago dream,
And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find my way,
To the land where the honey runs in rivers each day,
And the sweet tasting good life is so easily found,
Yes it is’.
(Way Over Yonder, Tapestry. 1971)

Forest Guardians can be viewed here along with a statement by the artists.

Creatures Great and Small (detail), St Branabas Church. E17 Art Trail 2011.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

a field student of craft processes pt 1

What did I make of the use of religious and sacred spaces on the E17 Art Trail? 
My art trail included several venues which are ordinarily considered sacred; churches and religious meeting rooms for example. Of course Walthamstow is a multi faith community and many other sacred spaces exist locally, including temples, mosques and a synagogue. I haven’t been through the art trail guide seeking out which of them participated directly, especially as host venues for the art trail.
I visited St Barnabas Church, St Marys and the Quaker Meeting House. St Barnabas and St Marys hosted group shows (including performances), while the latter hosted a solo artist installation including a performance and a discussion. Between the three venues there is a plethora of artistic endeavour to reflect on and in selecting specific works to appreciate I am not, hopefully, dismissing the others out of hand.

What do I care about the use and purpose of religious places around the town?
I am secular in a formal sense in that I do not abide by the codes of a particular religion including attendance at church or any other place of worship. In the context of liberal multiculturalism I’d like to say I abide by an ethos of tolerance and understanding and so in ‘my’ community different faiths are welcome and welcoming. I may be unwitting and my liberalism, or relativism, a form of false consciousness however I think the participation of faith communities, including places of worship, on the art trail signifies hope and that hope is a constituent of the sacred. My conscience may only amount to sentiment and so I set out to visit the exhibitions to look for works of art which would provoke and confront a stronger sense of conviction.

How did the art trail artists test my sentiment?
Places of worship are often where we see some of the most elaborate and traditional emanations of artistic creativity. How would the artists express contemporary 21st century senses of place in places of worship often hundreds of years old? In Making is Connecting, Dave Gauntlett explores the contemporary relationship between work, making and hope via William Morris. Morris asserted any work worth doing offers hope - the hope of rest, the hope of product and the hope of pleasure in the work itself. This seems a fitting critical tool with which to continue looking at the art I visited whilst also bearing in mind the hazard of lapsing into pseudo religiosity. Which works/makings connected me a contemporary sense of hope/sacredness and what capacity for connection did I bring to the art?

Aser El Saqqa - War and Peace - St Mary’s Church. (E17 Art Trail - 105)
Aser exhibited a series of photographs of the British Cemetery in Gaza City. The images were displayed in the church via an installation of a large overhead projection screen, smaller digital screens mounted on the pillars, and a computer. I assumed the projection facilities belong to the church and are a part of the ordinary paraphernalia of worship there. The images of the cemetery, including landscapes and details, were accompanied by short texts giving some historical context about the cemetery. Gaza is in a region blighted by a long history of war fuelled by geopolitical, ideological, ethnic and religious conflicts and the British Cemetery is in part a memorial to British forces personnel who fought in this region in the early to mid 20th century.
It is difficult to think of any culture or civilisation in which burial grounds are not sacred, indeed sacrosanct. Aser’s images projected a sense of peacefulness, care and propriety and the gentle pace of the slide show was appropriate to the sombre subject matter and the church setting which is also a mausoleum.
The connection of hope for peace and the hope of rest in this installation is a complex relationship confronting a viewer with the enormity of collective history and one’s personal place in it. Where, how and why are you visiting the scenes? The hope of pleasure in the work itself is the motivation for peace by peaceful means while attempting to maintain a sense of connection via less rapid fire and numbing depictions of conflicts. William Morris asked, ‘what is the nature of hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?’                  
 Asking what work is involved in the installation, ‘War and Peace’ gives many answers potentially. There is, for a start, the work of creating and maintaining the cemetery and the work of representing it. The slide show can be considered a tribute to generations of gardeners who have tended to and cared for the cemetery. In 2001, the Head Gardener was Mr Jeradeh MBE, son of Rabia who was also Head Gardener there. They arrived in Gaza in 1948 as refugees from Be’er Sheva. In 2001, Mr Jeradeh, when interviewed by The  Telegraph, hoped his son Issam Ibrahim would succeed him to continue the work. There is something moving and poignant in the continuity of care revealed by the photographs.  I’m unsure when Aser took the photographs and to whom we might attribute the care shown in the images however they represent a great sense of sustained humility.
The large screen dominating the projection of ‘War and Peace’ in St Mary’s was mounted in a place in close proximity to the large stained glass East Window (created in 1939). According to a ‘church art trail’ map (I picked up at St Barnabas Church) the design of the window is based on an ancient hymn, Te Deum Laudamus (Ambrosian Hymn). Translated from the Latin, this means, ‘Thee, O God, we praise’. The Wikipedia page for this hymn states the hymn is sometimes sung or given in thanksgiving for a publication of a treaty of peace and this site for the screen seems highly appropriate demanding as it does the question as to when and how peace might be achieved.   
One of the themes I’m trying to explore, via reflections on the 2011 E17 Art Trail, is the art craft debate and some contemporary myths of art and craft/craftsmanship. I’m using ‘Making is Connecting’ (Dave Gauntlett) as one of the guides to this. One of DG’s hypotheses is, popular creativity especially that expressed via Web 2.0 is essentially craft, and this craftsmanship rejects and even subverts the hierarchical and elitist mores of the contemporary art world. The debate could be mere semantics - a linguistic ping pong game for theorists while others get on with the real work however I happened to catch Tony Blair talking on the news this morning in his capacity as a Middle East Peace Envoy. The statement which really caught my attention was

"Let's see if we can craft [my emphasis] something that allows the Palestinians to come to the United Nations, to advance their aspirations for statehood that also at the same time allows us to develop a framework for negotiations so that they get back to talking," Tony Blair.

Out of respect for the peace process I cannot write anything more about this statement which is not facetious except to refer to a comment made in a previous post that craft is a slippery word.

Aser El Saqqa - War and Peace - St Mary's Church
for the E17 Art Trail 2011.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

a field student of scents

a field student of encircling

As ‘a field student of encircling’ I performed a whirling dance atop a tree stump in Aveling Park, intoning “flux” to the moon. The invocation involved the evaporative images of a hare, dog and tortoise chasing each other’s tails in pursuit of nowhere around the base of the stump. Witness to the spectacle, were two teenagers whose attempt at a communal smoke was thwarted as their jaws dropped and their fags fell to the ground. When the images had completely spiritualised, and thus was I released from my lunacy, I mused on the health benefits of my actions. I would not be offended if you rejected the notion of the dance as a sacred rite and chose instead a judgement of tomfoolery. Elsewhere on the E17 Art Trail more serious and sincere artists visited Walthamstow’s genuine places of worship in order to explore and express meanings of place. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

a field student of field measurements

Field Study's Man in E17 likes to think this is an audio recording of a section of the definitive map of Walthamstow being opened and laid out for viewing; an experience of a scale of 1:5000.

a field student of art sections

a field student of eclipsed paths

Thursday, 8 September 2011

a field student of definitive maps

As Field Study's Man in E17 I resumed my search for the definitively blank map of Walthamstow; a search for which there has been a protracted hiatus. Today, yesterday, 10 years ago, I wish and I doubt (anticipating the historical relevance of my endeavours) I affixed an E17 Art Trail '148' badge to my cap and proceeded to Sycamore House, home of the London Borough of Waltham Forest's planning department, to peruse, by appointment, the conceptually artful un-spaces of Walthamstow. The badge, I assert, qualifies this action as an art action. As Field Study's Man in E17, I believe E17's footpaths - public rights of way - may be understood as 'unspaces'. I confess I am afflicted by contemporary art's infatuation with the 'un-' an obscure authority that lurks in the labyrinths of art criticism and interpretation.

On the way to Sycamore House I was pointed in the direction of Jorge Luis Borges who, the pointer claims, has mastered the craft of conceptual manipulation. Under the influence of Borges, and his pointing admirer, would I be guided to an ineffable core of a story worth telling? Ineffable indeed if I had stopped writing at the question mark; sadly this is a tale of an effable core. While in 'The Aleph', Borges' mind floundered at the prospect of translating into words the limitless, drawing on an age old mystical bird which is all birds, and 'a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere' for help, Field Study's Man in E17 waited patiently and less mystically at the temporarily vacant Sycamore House reception.

The promise of a definitively blank map, one by which I might, to paraphrase Borges, at one and the same time move east and west, north and south brought with it some anxieties. I kid you not when I say such angst played a part in the design of the motif for these E17 Art Trail field studies. By what other pretences - false or otherwise was I there? Thankfully a receptionist arrived, confirmed my appointment and put into play the day to day procedures of municipal bureaucracy. 

I imagined being escorted into a private room to view the definitive map and that the map would have about it a variety of ceremonies to confirm a sense of importance - or rather, significance. The truth was far removed from the post modern Gothic fantasies I had rendered, the likes of which might be compared to David Lynch's weird soirees. Hold on a minute, were those people speaking English, backwards and in code? Pull yourself together Field Study's Man in E17. I was handed a lever arch file and directed to a small open consultation space to one side of the reception desk.

The mundaneness and banality of bureaucracy had not yet extinguished or dulled the iridescent promise of a blank map, the map which is all maps, the right of way in which are all rights of way. Before opening the receptacle, I paused, closed my eyes, listened, sensed the fragrance of the space, shifted about in the chair to feel comfortable - poised. I envisaged the contents of the file - a collection of immaculately blank and folded sheets, a definitively blank guide to this town, the former home of Nowhere's greatest author.




a field student of directions

a field student of 148 badges

The installation featured above is, 1000 Cranes for Amnesty.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

a field student of contours

This evening, as Field Study's Man in E17, I set out for the live tattooing spot on the art trail. When I arrived there did not appear to be any tattooing going on, nor art trail signs to invite art 'trailors' in. I entertained the thought of offering myself for a tattoo but hesitated as I failed to resolve a dilemma as to what I would have tattooed and where. I stood divided between the 2011 E17 Art Trail logo or my art trail spot number - no.148. I envisaged myself in wrinkly old age adorned with years of art trail spots almost as if I were ridden with a comic book pox. As I arrived pruriently at a few choicely located spots, one of my guardian numbskulls piped up and talked some sense into me. I left, en route for Chestnuts Field via Clay Path, to design a contour.


The rapidly revolving doors of Clay Path perception served their purpose of disorientating me sufficiently well enough to ensure some lack of balance in the process of creating a contour. It is important not to be able to walk in a straight line when designing a contour.
Once on and in the field I unwound it's length in a fine silk thread to create a huge loop. I wavered and meandered a traversal of a character distinctly lacking in elegance. I blame the wind and its tangling effects.
Quite what the gentleman smoking (sic) at the edge of the field made of this tangled loopy spectacle I do not know however his speeding away in a car suggests some alarm on his part.
Having untangled myself I managed to form an impression of a contour fit for a map somewhere but as yet nowhere to be found.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

a field student of dirt

As Field Study's Man in E17 I lay in bed wracked by visions of the E17 Art Trail’s conviviality gone asunder. In this delirium I envisaged all manner of strife as the great collective of E17 welcoming mats, and further (onto the carpets and rugs), lay spoiled by the niffy doggy doings of Walthamstow’s poop ridden highways and byways. I would have to do something to allay my fears borne out of some unfortunate E17 field expeditions carried out earlier in the year. And so, as Field Study’s Man in E17, I present to you a report on this scatological issue.       
I have deliberated over this post for well over a week due to a variety of dilemmas concerning aetheticizing of the excremental. The dilemmas are further complicated by the diversity of motivations and 'energies' which constitute the E17 Art Trail. As Field Study's Man in E17 I have put my critical foot in it on a few occasions, however here I must critically go where other dogs have gone before in an attempt to demonstrate some learning from mistakes - a sort of art trail pedagogy or 'pedadoggy' as we dogs in the field might say.
So, to salve my dog dirt ridden conscience I decided to remove dog mess from the footpaths of E17 in between my visits to art trail venues. I contemplated conducting the altruistic acts in a radical transgressive manner, in that I could have done it bare handed - performance art in one of its base manifestations. The technical and social hygiene implications of this raw approach are rife and so I opted for a series of safer poop removal procedures. The things one does for art and the things one does as art might be a critical distinction to make to question the validity of the artfulness of this gesture. Still I found it difficult not to see my civic action as being an intervention in the sociability of the art making up the trail. When and how can an art work be defined as being separate from the event in which it was encountered?  As the number of stools in the bag in the bin increased I confess to a certain sense of self congratulation - well done man, you are a bloody hero, you should be proud of yourself!      
One dilemma concerns when to accept being an unsung hero or to sing one's own praises. The consequences of being unsung and not singing can be profound. I recall applying for a post of art teacher and following my unsuccessful interview I was told I had not talked myself up enough. Of course, confident inspiring teachers are a must in the classroom and so I departed (my portfolio hanging limply between my legs) cogitating on the better judgement of those more experienced and up there, so to speak. As Field Study’s Man in E17 I am down here developing my field art in relation to pedagogy by paying particular attention to byways close to schools. Sadly I can report the majority of the 20 odd dog dos I removed were found on pavements close to schools. Would I have stooped to such levels of artistic, pedagogic and social altruism had I been successful in the art teacher interview room? Of course this is not to say teachers do not do their bit by removing dog dirt from the pavements, that they are 'above' such acts. Nor do I wish to vainly denigrate the work of the street cleaners. In some areas I struggled to find dog mess for what might be a number of reasons; the responsibility of dog owners, the work of street cleaners and a sense of responsibility shared by others from across the professional spectrum. As Field Study's Man in E17 I will not make claims to any artistic originality in my cleansing acts; others more modest did the same.   
Most famous in scatological art is Piero Manzoni’s tinned ‘artists shit’ flogged by Sotheby’s (no less) for a handsome sum.  Chris Ofilli, with his paintings mounted on elephant dung, has been a subject in some local schools. An exhibition derived from this study was a part of last year’s art trail. With the complexity of ‘context’ in mind I have some reservations about how to add my recent works to my portfolio - a field study in progress. However my failures in art teacher interview rooms, and current lowly professional status (related to the arts), have not dampened my enthusiasm for art and services to art. Field Study's Man in E17 is not bitter; he is, or I am, on occasion, as sweet as honey. So I have determined to try and keep doing my bit for the cultural well being of the community, here, locally and further afield. How well is this achieved by relegating the value of my civic actions to the novelty of an art(istic) conceit?


a field student of invisible crossings

a field student of weights on tables