The work of two fellow students … and some profound thoughts …

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Side-by-side, in a space dedicated to the search for meaning through religious belief and practice, two artists deploy objects, words, images that represent their own searches – but also, in my own reflections on the work, all our forlorn searches. If I say that both pieces of work – Stephanie d’Hubert’s ‘What Remains’* and John Umney’s  ‘I keep looking for him’** – fall short, it is not to undermine them as artworks; far from it. On the contrary, it is because they fall short (of supplying any answers, any resolution) that they work successfully as artworks; that they stand in for our fruitless longing.

In ‘What Remains’, Stephanie presents precious objects and photographs that she retains, which belonged to her mother; together with a book, with the same title, that brings together images of these objects and a few associated words. This installation, though, has the actual objects:

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It is an intensely personal project relating to what must still be painful memories of a sudden and shocking separation. And I, who have no such experience, cannot usefully or sensibly seek to read this work through the viewpoint of its maker. Instead, I find small points of resonance – even just the dates … what was I doing at the time; or through a ring that belonged to my own mother, which was on my wife’s finger as we both stood looking at Stephanie’s work. In this way, the objects and the photographs and the words represent not Stephanie’s memories and loss but all objects and memories. That is their role here, I think, displayed so thoughtfully and carefully in this significant space – to represent our eternal dilemma between the pointless irrelevance of our trivialities and the overwhelming and permanent significance of the trivial thought or experience.

John’s ‘I keep looking for him’ is another highly personal project exploring memories of a parent – this time, though, a difficult relationship with his father. Once again, there are objects that belonged to his father, presented alongside images and words:

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The monitor loops a ‘slideshow’ of John’s photographs  of ‘Pergatory’; of the few objects from his father’s life; and of resonant text through which he relates to objects, images, memories … The specially constructed box on the table (right) contains the objects themselves, plus what one assumes to be photographs of his father. The ‘slideshow’ I have seen many times before as I have watched the work develop, but something entirely ‘new’ are the words displayed on each side of the box – John’s description of the events surrounding a birthday when he was “… eight or nine, or nearly both”. And I feel, as I have done before with this project, that there is little use me trying to read the work through John’s experience. What value in trying to relate to the emotions embedded in these objects and words and images. Instead, as with Stephanie’s, they stand in for all such – and the impossibility of pinning down a truth through words and objects and images.

John has constructed a story about a birthday present, for example; and displayed it with the objects and digital images – but how does it help in “looking for him”? Printed and presented as they are here, there is an authority about the words. There is the semblance of an autobiographical, diarised record of a significant event in his life, based, perhaps, on an often revisited set of accepted ‘facts’. Or is it a carefully constructed narrative that brings form and substance to a set of fleeting mental images? That is, after all, the way in which we usually construct the memories on which we rely. Is it, even, a complete fiction – either constructed with deliberate intention or one based on ‘false’ memories? Mostly, I think, all these words, objects and images represent all memories (and their falseness); and John’s search in which he ‘keeps looking’ is the search we all undertake, for a truth, for a reality, for the Real … that we will never find.

Thank you, Stephanie and John, for sharing your searches.

* http://www.stephaniedhubert.com/what-remains

** http://www.johnumney.co.uk/i-look-for-him.html

Exhibition at Bank Street Arts–some initial reflections

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All done! The exhibition was installed on Thursday, open Friday & Saturday, with a social/private-view Friday evening and a student event Saturday; all taken down by 4pm Saturday afternoon (in time for the gallery’s comedy evening in that same space Saturday night!). Earlier in the week I had remarked that I had everything planned to the nth degree, so something was bound to go wrong. Nothing really did, apart from the middle one of those five frames in the foreground falling off the wall shortly after hanging (my fault) and breaking at the top right corner. We managed to fix it with some glue and a piece of ‘invisible’ tape – and no one noticed (or rather no one mentioned it!).

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A formal reflection on this culmination of the publication of my work needs to form the core of Assignment Five, but here a a few informal and initial reflections:

  • At a purely personal level, I’m very pleased with the way that I managed to present the work. Some details could have been better, inevitably, but I think I achieved the touch of spectacle, the variety, the use of space, and the visual interest that I was hoping for.
  • That outcome was, I think, the result of good ‘research’ (I’ve learned a lot from contemporary art shows that I’ve seen in the last year or two) and meticulous planning. Fair to say, I think, this is something I take to more naturally than some artists.
  • Which might be one of the reasons that I got a good response from the gallery, who have offered me the chance to do another micro-exhibition sometime next year; and encouraged me to consider some of their other opportunities, too.
  • Response to the work and discussion about it with others is hugely beneficial and has, on the whole, gone really well. The audience has been a varied one – family/friends; gallery staff; fellow students; even the occasional walk-in visitor – though not large (whatever might define ‘large’, of course). I’m fairly sure that their engagement with the images/installation has been more than just ‘polite’ – testament to its visual appeal, I suspect. I enjoyed the anonymous comment in my ‘Comments’ book that said “It took me a while to realise it was a photography exhibition”. Good! One such casual visitor (not the same one) thought I’d painted the big mural on the far wall. Perhaps I’ll try that another time!
  • I would observe that most such response has been on an aesthetic/formal/process basis, rather than a reading of significance in the images. I have to say that I don’t mind that in the least – whilst recognising that not everyone would feel that way. In many respects, I have begun to read it that way myself. Hopefully, for those who wish to find significance, there are enough opportunities to look and respond – and I’m pleased with that, too. But I’m also reminded of responses to Thomas Demand’s work, where one could argue that the only significance is that he made it. It’s a complex area of thinking – but there is, I think, genuinely a ‘new formalism’ in contemporary photographic art. It doesn’t appeal to everyone – but I’m quite happy to engage.
  • The numbers for the Student Event on Saturday were disappointingly small. Huge thanks to those who did attend, of course – for making the effort to be there and for your contributions to the very useful discussion. I think it happened to clash with some other OCA Study Visits – and I must stress that I don’t feel any personal disappointment about it. I got what I needed from the day. But it seems a pity that more students at all levels couldn’t have seen the work. I am absolutely not blowing my own trumpet here, but I think it’s fair to say that this exhibition had much about it from which other OCA students could have gained. Anyway, “c’est la vie”.
  • And finally, I have an exhibition here that could be transported and repeated elsewhere – so just need more locations!

So, overall, I’m satisfied and pleased; and I have the basis for preparing an Assignment Five submission in the next few weeks. Still need to do Assignment Three as well, of course.

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