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.
Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors) 1971
Honestly, a lot of this was hard-going, as room after room of typewritten print, after a visit to the rest of Tate Britain, was rather exhausting, (and probably not the way to do it, although it had been my conscious decision at first that this was precisely the way to do it..) Challenging established ideas, questioning what art is, all great, but the works in themselves are often tedious.
The artists were preoccupied with truth and verisimilitude while acknowledging the impossibility of such an act of appropriation of “reality”. I liked the works where this was expressed succinctly, such as in the image above, where the camera itself becomes the object, and exists differently according to its physical settings, while it also functions to communicate different versions of itself. As an expression of both the multiplicity of meanings and of the instability of meaning making, this piece speaks highly effectively.
Visually, of course, it resonated with me and my work on images of my mother on cloth, in a matrix of multiple versions, although the similarity ends there. Hillard, like many of the other artists on display here, is intent on recording the context of production in detail, making the link to the contextualised nature of text. Mine is a softer approach, materially and emotionally, more akin to the blurring of impressions over time, and more personal, expressing an emotional need to hold onto memories in whatever distorted state.
Boltanski (Modern Art Oxford, 2014)postulated that you could create a person’s identity from their belongings, an idea that underlay his exhibition of photos of belongings in “Inventory of objects belonging to a young man of Oxford” in which he displayed museum-like collections of photos, which could be a way of exploring the sense of presence and absence.
I’m now living with lots of my mother’s possessions here in my house. Similarly there is a sense of presence and absence. I thought about using some of the objects to create a still life in a historical, nostalgic style.
I decided to try putting cyanotype images on other materials- I tried a few items, but they all proved more or less impermeable, but it worked with a handkerchief and a hand crocheted doily. These are old, antique, materials, of significance in themselves, now being stamped with an identity. I arranged these in a still life, trying to arrange the light so as to achieve depth from the chiaroscuro effects. The still life was composed of books from my mother’s collection, and one from mine, TS Eliot, Four Quartets. A handbag, a broken string of pearls from my brother’s wedding, an antique glass vase, a small brass container, a wooden box which she had used to keep my father’s papers in, and a collection of my grandmother’s lace. The effect is of a Victorian photograph, and resonates a feeling of a dusty unvisited room, relics, memorialising as an art form. Without this stamp, this is an ordinary object that is only recognisable to me. By placing an image on it, it becomes clear that this is some kind of object of reverence, stamped with an identity, and evocative of a presence. I’m thinking of Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, in which the weight of memory is overpowering, and the stillness of the present is palpable, making it hard to move forward. That makes it become fetishistic, perhaps.
It is a still life, but “nature morte” is a more chilling title. The images of my mother are now entirely objectified. She is imaged on handworked textiles, with objects that recall days gone by, as if to freeze her in a time and set of values.
What I want to portray with this image is an acknowledgement of their “museum” artefact status, and even, going beyond that into perhaps an unhealthy obsession, a fetish.What the practice hints at is the idea of the artists as a collector or curator of images, rather than a creator, acknowledging the impossibility of creating anything new in our multi-referential world. The art I make is a reflection of my culture and experience, holding up a mirror to what I value, and revealing, in my composition, my interpretations and priorities. The fact that this is a self-consciously staged picture, a tableau, the pearls carefully placed, the box artfully open and the textiles seeming to fall out, the images posed, all entirely unnatural, further acknowledges the fact.
To extend this, and further create a “museum-like” feel, these are cyanotypes based on the above. I need to consider the paper used- this is Fabriano, and it’s too grainy, maybe with sizing that reacts chemically. The negatives are not sharp enough either. Perhaps this needs an exposure unit with a vacuum.
I am thinking of Cindy Sherman and her staged tableau self-portraits, in which the artifice is clear, and seems to parody a particular genre, below, the Elizabethan oil-painted portrait, stressing the profile, the genetic identification of that nose and high brow, the status of the sitter, the textures of her clothes and jewellery, the pose, not making eye contact, but having the look of being looked at.
This was a little bit of experimentation with creating different effects, using red wine to add subtle warm tones, washing soda to bleach- which also adds a yellowish tone on some materials, probably depending on sizing or something. Using a vinegar spray could add darker tone, and the amount of it controlled by using it before or during development. There’s a limit to the amount of control though, as the strength of UV comes into it, as well as the material used, how long the chemicals have been sitting, the chemicals themselves…
I like the last one best, but I like how all of them add some dynamism to the still life.
Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections
Ames, Roger T., Tsao Hsingyuan
Bei Dao of Xu Bing’s characters in Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy: “You are a nothing but a pictograph that has lost its sound.”
Historical context: pre-and post-1989, art operating inside, trying to influence a Chinese audience using western ideas, and post 1989, outside China, those who were of the avant-garde, and emigrating to US, responding to Western post-modern philosophy and welcomed by the West as signs of a “Chinese Spring”- who was their audience? Western/ external influences being brought to bear. (Art and many news outlets banned in PRC)
Cultural exile + exhibitions in western galleries.
Argument that Xu Bing has created a third cultural space.