I would like to present this work so that it reflects the coherence I personally feel, now that I’m coming to the end of it.
Landscape: change and process (Assignment 1: Landscape: Observation) (Not included in Portfolio)
I started off preoccupied with a theme of disintegration: this was reflected in my quite depressing study of landscape, based on the fact that construction work had led to the cutting down of all the woodlands surrounding me to be replaced with a concrete highway and series of junctions, all connected to a tunnel through to China. All negative connotations there, which I explored using words from the poetry of ST Coleridge, Frost at Midnight, a hymn to nature and an attack on life cut off from the natural world, “mid cloisters dim.” It is also of course a blessing on his new born child, that he will grow up in the natural world and will thus speak “God’s language”. As I was limited in terms of equipment, this work was done using monoprinting techniques. The visual language I started to develop involved the representation of process, by creating images in a series. This was inspired by the work of Xu Bing, specifically his woodblock “5 series of repetitions” which commented on the change in land use in rural China. I won’t include these images in the portfolio, as they were quite exploratory, even though I found them quite satisfying in themselves, combining representational patterns and shapes with abstraction.. I was pleased with the scale of these- much bigger than anything I’d tried before in printmaking, and achieved using multiple impressions.
Later I learned new techniques, very different ones:
Copper plate etching, essentially a corrosive process; and
Photopolymer etching, which uses light to create etched plates on different surfaces. Inspired by this, I went on the practice other techniques related to printing with light, and focused on Cyanotypes.
Abstraction and Chiaroscuro: time passes, things fall apart (Assignments 2 and 3)
Portfolio piece 1: The enquiring mind (copperplate etching)
Portfolio piece 2: Forgetting (copperplate etching)
Portfolio piece 3: Greying (intaglio and photopolymer etching: series of five)
These two topics merged for me, as I was using starting to use techniques of printing with light, and corrosive/ destructive techniques, around a particular motif of the moon, the brain and the theme of aging and degeneration. This also had personal significance related to my mother’s decline due to dementia.
The images I will choose to represent these ideas are made using copper plate etching- whereby the copper has been etched to the point of near disintegration. This creates interesting visual effects, linear, shaded, textured and embossed. I will also include the series “greying” which recapitulates the idea of a series as discussed, showing progressive decay and destruction. This was made using photopolymer etching on Perspex, a brittle material which lent itself to the process. The word “greying” in reverse, became the object in this series, and became obliterated as the images progressed. Again, the work of Xu Bing was inspirational, not only the “5 Series of repetitions”, but also the exhibition “Metamorphosis” which was constructed around a narrative of transformation. It also included a biographical piece referencing his father’s death from lung cancer, a collection of pieces including a book made of tobacco leaves, which were presented in glass cases, as newly constructed “museum” pieces.
Portrait of my mother: “a photograph is a certificate of presence” (Assignment 4: Portrait, segueing into Assignment 5 A print from memory)
Portfolio Piece 4: This is in two parts- a suitcase which serves as a museum object, and a print which serves as its label.
Contained: Suitcase containing photo and objects, quilts and pillow book (cyanotype, mixed media)
Only through time: cyanotype and photopolymer
With my mother moving further and further away from the present, I was beginning to search back history to remind her of who she was/had been. Photos were important for anchoring her to her own past. I was interested in photos in connection to the light-printing techniques I had been learning, but also philosophically in terms of how they “fix” the past. With image manipulation so rife now, this is not such a sure thing anymore, but at the time the old photos I was using were taken, this was the case. They were phenomenological to a degree that is no longer true. Again, I was using text and image and explored philosophical statements from TS Eliot’s poetry about the nature of time, and passing beyond time into a timeless “present”.
The techniques used here were photopolymer and Cyanotypes. I made images which combined the two, photopolymer printed over cyanotype, and explored printing on cloth, to go further into creating images as objects. Relating to my mother’s condition, I created multiple versions of her portrait from a photo, all exposed differently in my prints, and stitched them together. I made two of these collections and turned them into quilts. These are the kind of “heirloom” objects that evoke a connection with the past, but their size and texture also relate to a mother and child connection, to tactile links. At this stage I realized that as well as exploring a visual language, and considering the “truth” value of images such as photos, I was now using art as a kind of therapy too, as a way of dealing with what was happening and a way of responding to it. Still using cloth, as the soft tactile nature of these pieces were also resonating as “presences”, things to be interacted with, handled, used as comforting materials. The quilt with its set of images was also a reassurance of having been present. The other cloth piece to be included is a book, “the book of sleep and dreaming” which is also like a pillow, and again is meant to have a comforting quality. It is a book of images of space, distance, dissolving, release: letting go of the present.
After listening to an artist’s talk by Kate MccGwire, in which she spoke about her collecting cases to contain her sculptures, I realized that the idea I had been playing with, to put the pieces related to the portrait of my mother into an antique suitcase, was the right one. It collects these items and makes them one piece, a container of emotions and memories, a repository for the past, and an invitation to participate in viewing. The case is labeled “baggage”, which is just stating the fact, but with overtones of “emotional baggage”, and a suggestion that opening it will release something. The case contains the quilt and the book, inviting them to be unfolded, opened, handled.
It also includes the still life photo I took in a frame, and the real life objects in this photo, including objects imprinted with my mother’s image. This draws attention to the relationship between the “real” and the photograph, the way the photo operates a “certificate” that these things really existed at some time. The packaging of all these objects also serves to illustrate the practice of curating the past, selecting and saving what fits our “nature morte” imagery, and the imprinted doily and handkerchief hint at fetishisation. Finally, there is a cyanotype print inside the case. It includes a quote from Eliot’s Four quartets, about a moment out of time, of being and not being, of an existence between the material and the non-material. I think it serves to “explain” the relationship between the objects in the case, and is included as the last piece to be found when unpacking it.
This suitcase then, is presented as a kind of miniature museum, and the portrait of my mother as something fragile, a material object needing to be preserved against loss. The acts of opening up the container, exploring, refolding, sorting, arranging and repacking act as metaphors for memorialising, and adds an edge of uncertainty to the process of selecting what memories to keep, and repackaging them.
Here is a video showing how the pieces could be unpacked.
Finally, the print with the text “Only through time, time is conquered” will sit outside the case, helping to introduce it as a kind of “time capsule”. This text has a double edge- it refers simultaneously to “baggage” that is hoarded like treasure, but is subject to decay as is all material, but also to “presence” as a non-material phenomenon, as the knowledge of “something having been” lives on.
The Rose Garden (Assignment 5)
Portfolio piece 5: The Rose Garden: images in a series: mixed techniques
This series of images was an exploration of image, word and symbol, relating to the poem “Four Quartets” by TS Eliot. Apart from the link via the poem, this was a thematic and philosophical development from the work on my mother’s portrait. That study had been about history and materiality. This one proposed demateriality, a spiritual sense that eludes representation in image or word, that exists outside time. I started off thinking if these images as a series, and put them in a linear order, to create a narrative. But I realized that they can interact with each other in various ways, that there are cyclical relationships between them (as is the case in the poem), and that putting them in order would limit that. Unlike the earlier series “greying”, which had a particular order, this one could be looked at in various ways, so I propose it be viewed in such a way that the images resonate with one another.
At first they were arranged in groups on cardboard mounts, in twos and threes, but I was unsure how best to lay them out. Each juxtaposition creates a different set of relationships, yet, if they are stuck to a card, they are fixed in their relationships.
Finally, I decided to keep them as loose papers but package them inside an envelope. I used a handmade paper with dried leaves, to envelop the “leaves” of the prints. A quote from the opening section of the poem “Four Quartets” introduces the Rose Garden as a place that was undiscovered in the past but which now reveals itself, a foreshadowing of the theme of the poem and of this project, about new meanings being discovered from familiar texts.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
(T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, 11-14)
Emotionally, this is, to me, a quite satisfying piece, as it moves through the same emotional stages as in the earlier work, using some familiar visual language of disintegration, and fragmentation, the dissolution of language, and it moves into pure symbolism, abstraction and nonmateriality. This work was inspired by rereading and reinterpreting the poem by TS Eliot, and finding altogether different meanings from those I found in the past, when influenced by a Judeo-Christian culture. Reading it again, I was instead finding strong links to the Zen traditions evoked in the work of Xu Bing. Like the poem, I hope the collection of images “The Rose Garden” leaves the way open for a viewer to find symbolic sense.
Moon Baby (Assignment 6)
Portfolio piece 6: Moon baby: cyanotype on cloth
This final image is joyous, surreal, fun. It reverses the connotation of the earlier “moon” images, positing instead newness, perfection, blank slate, but in a lighthearted way. There’s an edge to it, though, literally, with the inclusion of kitchen utensils, which adds irony, or threat, slightly unnerving. I guess it’s like a cartoon, but I like it, and like the symbolism of something new emerging into the light, but with the acknowledgement of an “alien” presence too.
I would like to explore alternative photography techniques, and develop my technical skills more in etching. I’m sure life is going to provide the thematic stimulus with lots of new beginnings coming up.
This final assignment is a recapitulation and a resolution, much more of a resolution than I had ever expected it to be.
It is supposed to reflect the subject of the parallel project. Well, as I have discussed, Xu Bing tells stories. The exhibition I saw, which influenced me, was cyclical, and told a story beginning with “metamorphosis”.
For this project, I returned to cyanotype printing, using direct images, or photocopying onto the light sensitive cloth.
My original idea was to create a series of images to represent ages of women. I planned to be the central image myself, which of course meant I would need help. After planning several possibilities, these were the ones I felt would work.
Image 1: Foetus: This was to start with a foetus shape- this was to be me curled up, with a tape/ paper line around my shape, and a pair of scissors, suggesting the idea of being cut to shape, or cut out, constructed. It would also reference domestic crafts, and dressmaking, which fit the use of cloth.
Image 2: Construction of identity: referencing the old “Bunty” comic we girls all used to get, which featured on its back page a cut-out doll with clothes that were to be cut out to dress her. The clothes had tabs to hold them onto the doll. Again, I was to be the model/ body shape, and I would fit tabs to clothes, which I would lay flat. Again, this would reference being cut to shape, constructed, and involve the use of dressmaking materials.
Image 3: Queen of Hearts: this one would be based again, on dressing up- this time as a fantasy powerful woman- a ridiculous one though. I decided this time to create the shape with cut paper or something artificial, and lay out the clothes in such a way as to be slightly surreal, misaligned, to create an unsettled tone, and reference the Alice story. Power dressing, as we did in the 80s. Mocking the idea of power as a constructed thing, a fake, and very short lived. Heartshapes would reference the Alice theme but also the fake adulation of the powerful.
Image 4: Shroud. For this one I thought I could soak cloth so it was stained on both sides, then wrap it around myself and expose to the sun. The result would be hard to predict, and I wasn’t sure if the shape would be recognisable at all. It would also be on both sides of the cloth.
Image 5: Earth: of this one I planned to create a skeleton shape, but using materials such as tools, or cutlery and kitchen appliances, to create the bones.
I can see how this series reflects my preoccupations over the past couple of years. Literally carving out a space amongst competing demands, and consciously entering a new phase of life myself. Being a member of that older generation, at the stage where you lose your parents, and becoming the “next to go”, being aware of keeping historical records, putting things down for posterity. Facing my mother’s condition, her impression on the world fading and her history being forgotten. Photography has interested me for this reason. It creates a record and a curatable object.
It was important to match the materials and the subject- hence the relationship to domestic objects and crafts, but the process too was important- the idea of imprinting a shape that is exactly the same size and dimensions as the real life body, or tool, creates a visceral connection between the subject and the image, as the subject and the ground have to touch. What is variable and serendipidous is the shadows cast – these can be controlled by the direction of the light, but are also highly dependent on environmental factors such as time of day, weather, location and UV strength. However, I had also noted the process used by Rauschenberg and Weil, and had a UV lamp to use as well- as the direct exposures of my own body would be very hard to arrange outdoors, without exposing the cloth too soon. That method would allow the exposure to be done inside, and the shapes arranged in a darkened room. I also realised that to an extent, double exposures could be arranged, and that errors could be fixed by re-applying cyanotype chemicals and re-exposing.
I started with the foetus shape- but changed my idea as I realised that making a curled up shape would not be very clear in silhouette. Instead tried to make an image of myself trying to cut out of the cloth, cutting along a dotted line- I cut the cloth to show this process.
This was done indoors, using a UV lamp, which of course I had to get help with. Making something this size meant the lamp had to be moved- this means that shadows are obliterated by the moving lamp, and in the end the image was not at all clear. There were also patches, which I think was to do with my rinsing in vinegar which had been previously used for this, and which still contained dye. The watery effect is not unpleasant, but on the whole this didn’t work. I felt that I should not pursue this method. It was too hard to be lying still giving instructions and unable to check what was happening. I need to involve another model and control the light myself.
I then tried using the lamp myself to create the “Queen of Hearts” image. This one worked a bit better, but it was clear that the UV lamp was much less effective than bright sun. it was hard to get details- for example there were lacy textures and mesh, but these did not come out- the movement of the lamp would have been to blame, whereas strong sun would fix the image clearly with a constant direction.
Then, everything changed, and I haven’t finished this series.
I got this image to play with- first grandchild.
I combined my ideas of tools/cutlery, and the foetus shape, and tried various arrangements.The weak wintery sun now wasn’t quite up to it, and so I also tried the UV lamp again. Outcomes varied, and sometimes the chemicals just washed out completely. I wanted to bring back the “moon” theme from earlier- and used a crescent shape, and circles- now the shadows are not as powerful as earlier in the year though, so effects are very different.
After a few poor attempts, I knew this was the one:
I love it.
Now the “moon” is full, and perfect, unlike the corroded and degenerated forms I was making earlier, which reflected my mother’s condition. It’s outsize, like a real foetus. The use of a sieve is playful, making fun of the idea of a brain being “like a sieve”, but also reminds of my mother at the other end of the spectrum. The use of cutlery is meant to be playful, although a sense of threat might be felt too, but the pose is of a young child exploring- crawling. The “technique/ technology” involves blocking light to form an image, and the ultrasound works in a similar way but with sound waves. Both are testament to something “being there”, to presence. Both create positives out of negatives. Overall, it should be fun, joyful, new- positive in that sense too.
For me it marks a turning point , and a much needed relief from the thoughts and emotions that have been obsessing me for the past year. As this moon baby emerges “into the light”, I feel I am emerging from darkness too. And so this is a good place to end.
Very small venue, and not at all like seeing the pieces in situ. Conscious of it being a commercial gallery and a sales promo. But the pieces are still impressive, eerie, unsettling., seeming to have a life force, but quite reptilian, capable of staying still for a long time, then moving.
Good chance to get to hear Kate MccGwire today at Hong Kong Arts Centre: she was here to install her exhibition at a local commercial gallery, Galerie Huit, opening next week.
I’ve seen Kate’s work at Art Central and loved it: her feather sculptures are amazing, sinister, abstract, sinuous, violent- and her pictures (I don’t know what to call them) images made of lead lined with feathers, like bullet holes with teeth, rather scary, beside extremely peaceful landscapes constructed with overlapping feathers.
I was interested in hearing her talk about how and why she often presents her works in glass cases, as this was something that I am also considering regarding some of my pieces.
Her feather sculptures evoke organic forms, human bodies or knots. She said she collects glass cases- old pieces, that would probably have been used for stuffed natural specimens- by doing thus she creates context- gives them the air of being aged museum pieces, scientific objects even.
She also spoke of HOW she fits them into the cases- she makes her sculptures to fit the case as nearly as possible, so that sometimes they may appear to be close to bursting out. This gives the pieces an energy that adds to their constrained force that they get from being tense, knotted structures already.
She said that this idea of containment was important to her as it also suggested the containment if her idea inside her head, things that burst out into her work.
While she was talking, I thought about my own ideas of presenting the portrait work relating to my mother. I could see how the idea of putting it into an old suitcase was also relating to this idea of containment, of emotions. The link to “emotional baggage” is also there. But I also realised the way the old suitcase, like MccGwire’s antique cases, creates a historical context. There is also a sense of revelation, as a suitcase is something that can be opened, and that is also a potential threat, as it may may reveal things hidden or forgotten. But it also evokes a sense of preservation, of something stored because it is valuable, an heirloom. All in all, I feel convinced by this choice now, and am happy that listening to the artist talk helped me articulate the reasons.