Tuesday, 11 December 2012

a field student of compost art

This year I started disposing of some of my art, including the notes, samples, test pieces and other research items made in the preparation of the artworks. One of the first artworks I disposed of was, 'to MOTHERHOOD from MATERNITY', which I created in 2009 for the E17 Art Trail.

The title is derived from the minutes of a meeting held by the town council committee responsible for overseeing the building of the then new Walthamstow Town Hall in the late 1930s/early 1940s. The process involved the commissioning of sculptor John Francis Kavanagh to create 5 allegorical figures to go on the exterior wall of the council chamber. The figures were named, FELLOWSHIP, WORK, RECREATION, EDUCATION and MOTHERHOOD. The architect, Hepworth, with Kavanagh, proposed calling the MOTHERHOOD figure, MATERNITY. The New Town Hall Committee decided the name of the figure should be changed, 'to Motherhood from Maternity', as is minuted in the official records held in the local archives at Vestry House Museum. The figures, sculpted in Portland Stone, were completed and installed in 1940.

MOTHERHOOD - Walthamstow Town Hall.
I made, 'to MOTHERHOOD from MATERNITY' for a group exhibition (In Situ) at the Hornbeam Environment Centre, Hoe Street, for the E17 Art Trail 2009 - the titular theme for which was, At Home in Walthamstow. The work consisted of a patchwork blanket hung in one of the windows of the Hornbeam Cafe. The patches consisted of knitted strips of card, the source of which were old pocket wallets and files provided in abundance by the Hornbeam's neighbour, Forest Recycling Project. The patches were stitched together by theatrical barbed wire; that is, lengths of string soaked in a very thick gluey metallic grey paint and twisted together with the barbs tied in at intervals.

I hoped there would be a variety of tensions and contradictions expressed in the form and structure of the hanging blanket. How e.g. could the barbed wire have been used to stitch all the patches together? The barbs were too big and relatively stiff to pass through the spaces of the knitted strips.

Originally I proposed installing a formicarium (artificial ant habitat) in the cafe as an art work for the trail. The Hornbeam management committee rejected this idea. The pattern of colours in the blanket is based on a pixellated photograph of an entrance hole to one of the many ant nests situated along the bottom edge of the Hornbeam's exterior walls. In the summer great processions of ants can be observed between those holes and the hornbeams, where, I assume, the matriarchal sociable ants nurture the greenfly and cultivate honeydew. I think the origins of the blanket design are what is regarded as reflexive information in that I know that is how the pattern design was derived however it is unlikely another person not involved in the production could know this from the object itself.

I hadn't expected as much light to pass through the blanket when hung in the cafe window. That is why there was the cross shaped hole in the middle of the blanket; to allow more daylight into the cafe. That was the shape and pattern derived from pixellating the image of the ant nest hole. Had I known as much light would pass through, I would have knitted and stitched in the black patches. I disliked the hole immensely.

window hanging/installation
knitted lightweight card/string/pva glue/paint/honey/glass jars
c. 135cm X 260cm
Hornbeam Cafe, Hoe St
E17 Art Trail 2009

As an artist/maker, there is an important relationship to consider, that between what you know and think you know e.g what I knew about the material I used for this work - and what knowledge the audience brings to an art work. I knew the files were collected for recycling from offices mainly. The material and colours are (to me) those of administration and bureaucracy. There was, in my mind, a tangible connection to be made to the offices and departments of Walthamstow Town Hall (and other council offices) and tenuously and/or conceitedly, to the period when the Town Hall was newly built. I made 'to MOTHERHOOD from MATERNITY' partly as a meditation on some ideas about home and how the values and meanings of home change and interact in various private and public spaces.

The formal elements (colour/texture/shape/size...) of the work can be associated with other experiences and ideas. In 2009 I read quite a lot about literary theory and meaning making in the visual arts; in particular a paper* I'd read about Wolfgang Iser and hermeneutics. Iser's form of reader response criticism was informed by Hans Georg Gadamer. Gadamer believed in a fusion of meanings and values through a balanced dialogue between the spectator and the work - that that fusion is an expansion of the horizons of the spectator and of the work.

How do people go about engaging in a balanced and creative dialogue with or about art works? One way of beginning a dialogue either as an individual and/or as part of a group can be to devise a series of lists in response to the work e.g. a list of 5 words - adjectives - that come to mind in response to the work. Another list might comprise a variety of formal observations based on the empirical evidence of the work such as the materials, techniques, dimensions, tactile qualities, colours. Questions, explanations and discussions might develop from those lists.

Some guidance I was given recently, on writing about art, consists of 5 categories by which to begin appreciating and analysing an art work - empirical evidence, contextual evidence, interrogation, interpretation and invention. The appreciation does not have to be exclusively based on writing; a person may respond by music, dance or other forms of expression.

I don't recall much in the way of that sort of dialogue during or after 'In Situ' during the E17 Art Trail 2009. I don't remember seeing anyone dancing and singing their way up Hoe Street after seeing this.

knitted strips of card - detail

knitted patches unravelled


a tattered edge or selvage with pots of honey

supers of honey being removed from apiary for extraction - 2009
wheelbarrow, beehive supers and net curtain.

'to MOTHERHOOD from MATERNITY' moldered in a box until May 2012 when it was presented in the final Turnaround exhibition organised by Waltham Forest Arts Club at Wood Street Indoor Market. The blanket unfolded from the box shape it had been forced into during those years of storage.

 After the Turnaround exhibition I decidded to put the blanket in a compost heap to see what the worms, woodlice and myriad other creatures would make of it. The first 3 pictures below were taken in August followed by two photographs taken recently (early December) when turning that middle heap. I was delighted to see so many worms in amongst the soggy remains of the blanket - and also that we (fellow composter, Wesley, and I) were managing to seive such rich dark humus from that heap. A very useful bit of art.


* - Olga M. Hubard - The Act of Looking: Wolfgang Iser's Literary Theory and Meaning Making in the Visual Arts. The International Journal of Art and Design Education. Vol 27 No.2 - 2008.

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