Past work : What / How / Why
This work is an intervention across the threshold of an exhibition
The entrance to the group exhibition ‘Temporary Status’ is signalled by press releases on a plinth and a placard at eye height. The show is taking place within a university institution on the occasion of a masterclass with a curator from Chisenhale gallery, London.
In the white frame of a doorway a shiny black curtain conceals the show from view. The curtain is hung diagonally, so that an individual could step into the doorway (but not past the curtain) and stand in corner of the room. The fabric is covered with tiny, flat, shimmering discs - which reflect the corridors institutional strip light. Darkened space at the top, and the gathered excess of material at the bottom seal any light from the preceding corridor entering the room. The fabric is heavy and made of some sort of lycra material - so it bounces when you lift and spread it to make your way into the room.
I obtained the materials from a fabric shop in the west end and a local DIY store. Simple construction included folding and sewing the top edge of the fabric, so that it could hang, gathered from the aluminium pole. I measured and cut the edge of the pole so that each end was flush to each wall (around 45 deg).
Making work on my BA at Goldsmiths was often organised around 1. convenors where we presented and discussed the work and 2. Group shows which were happening outside of the college. For this ‘show’ around 12 of us had decided to frame a ‘masterclass’ with curator Polly Staple by putting on an exhibition of especially made works. Inverting the curator/artist dynamic, her visit (& our subsequent conversation) became content for us - an event within the group show we had curated ourselves.
For this Untitled work I was interested in the idea of the threshold - both physically and metaphorically. I wanted to construct an intervention which was both a theatrical style ‘backdrop’ and a concealing ‘backstage’ curtain to engage with the idea of internal/external display of students works within the institution and the ‘status’ surrounding whether this was a public/private event.
Relation to prior work? Around this time (2010) much of my work was based around the perception of reality and subtle elements of performativity. I made sculptures from materials with illusionistic flatness or unexpected weight (welded steel that looked like folded paper) and tried to think about how these might perform as characters or how I could change the space to encourage viewers to be characters within the work. Prior to this ‘intervention’ I was going through the motions of making physical works where my processes were influenced by tropes of art history, so whereas previously I might have welded steel and painted it a unifying colour - copying modernist sculptors, here I was still interested in my own themes of perception and performativity but reference wise I was moving on a few decades and thinking about institutional critique.
What scene produced this work? A very institutional educational scene - in London. The work was produced with interaction and dialogue in mind. For me, in 2010 making an object began with formal concerns and then was consciously situated in a social space. This ‘intervention’ was based around the artist/curator relationship and the idea that my work would contextualise other works in the room. I did not want to settle on a medium or one aesthetic tone but was encouraged to explore each work in its own right. This work existed outside of a ‘developed’ artist practice - i.e. I had at this stage only ever made work as a student.
What was the broader cultural context of this time? International conflict in Afghanistan. Gordon Brown stepped down. David Cameron… Tuition fees had risen, arts council funding was cut by 40%. Communist red shirts in Thailand occupied parts of Bangkok and burnt down a mall. I was an art student with student loan and grant from the government. At Goldsmiths we were finding squatted spaces and putting on shows with titles like 'New Fictions', ‘Heterotopia’ and ‘Anonymat’.
What? A performance work set within an event called ‘The night of exuberance and exhaustion’ Taking place between 6-7am within a 16 hour programme, the work begins with participants being led into a large windowed room with their eyes closed. Each person is led in individually by stage-hands who take care of physical transitions within the performance (at a later stage this includes whispering to sit, and finally to lie). The participants are led in to the centre of the room onto an area of floor covered by carpet underlay. They are physically positioned, standing facing the windows in the direction that the sun will rise. [are they told this is the direction that the sun will rise in?]
Instructional prose is spoken live through surrounding speakers by the body of a young, female, native english speaker. The text is delivered slowly and is segmented into various verses which keep to a repetitive framework. “You wake up” and “you stand” begin and conclude each rhythmic verse. The second part of the work includes the stage-hands slowly assisting participants to sit, where the second chapter of text is delivered. Each section abides by a theme, stand, sit, lie function as physical positions as well as metaphors for resisting (to stand), decision making (to sit - with) and giving a false impression (to lie). [where will/is this going to take place? Within a gallery setting or elsewhere?] In what way is the current work similar to the older work you described?
Broadly speaking, both works mentioned deal with the concept of revealing and concealing elements of an experience within an event. They both use a light source, surface material (shiny curtain/wobbly carpet underlay) and duration. Minimal materials chosen for texture. Both works deal with bodies [were the bodies invited, or did the sign up to be a part of the group?] in a group, in an art event context. Both deal with a threshold or transit… the end of the night/beginning of day the outside/inside of an exhibition. A public/private space.
In what way is it different to the older work you described?
The older work was institutionally set. This current piece is not related to an educational institution so strongly. The current work uses text and my own body and my own voice. I also embody a specific instructive role within the new work, in the prior piece the material ‘invited’ a certain pace of participation for me. I am ‘directing’ linguistically and sensorially in the current work - whereas the past work was more of an intervention which affected the interior architecture of the exhibition space.
The prior work was of a very different tone, almost comical - a kind of ‘jazz hands’ irony in the flashy display of the ‘backdrop’. This newer work is more meditative, serious, critical. No jokes!
Martha Rosler via her text ‘why is everyone being so nice’ has helped me think about my implicated position as an artist working within a certain power dynamic (with curators and institutions) especially with her signing off advice : No more mr nice guy. Nana Adusei-Poku continues to help me to engage with culture (sets of practices) from my own position (as an artist and individual) rather than through habitual behaviour (of a social group) and I feel like I will explore this in is more holistic terms in future work - further oriented towards a situated sense of self and cultural history. The fresh criticality this brings to my practice allows me to engage with history - as collective experience - in a different way.
Jan Verwoert has helped - noting the elements I use in my current performance pallete. Balancing the subtlety and actuality in the work. Subtlety: with language and Actuality: with sensorial bodies and sunlight. Also, pointing out the oscillation of anglo-saxon and latin roots of words which I use in the text to traverse more directional and more abstract language.
Talking with Florian Cramer about the friendly indifference of contemporary western Zen practice supported me in recognising my ‘why’ for this new work(!) and my underlying political motivations as an artist and yoga teacher. This also developed my ideas in relation to active or passive subjects and my own research into audience engagement and the idea of the ‘interpassive subject’ (when canned laughter does the work for you). In this regard, Jan also helped me reflect on how I am setting up a certain space to plant a critical seed.
Future work: What could it be?
It could be a combination of the older and newer work. Noticing the elements which are similar makes me realise that there are material and conceptual themes that I am still interested in, the way these works/ideas have developed is through contexts of display and how I relate to history and culture. For example the idea of a threshold in the “curtain” work is symbolically akin to the darkness which lifts to reveal day in the Trans-actional Self performance and in future work this same idea might be explored pictorially through tracing paper paintings which depict certain doorways.
The architecture of single-story cities in China led to a different kind of (spatial?) privacy and certain kinds of division of space such as circular garden doorways which could be seen through but not crossed by the woman of the house... These doorways might provide a starting point for a new work which reflects on ancient and contemporary societies of control. Hanging, large, stage set or banner like the works may also be part of a production which is time/audio based. It is not what is through the doorway but the threshold as a physical and metaphorical experience - how do we deal with inherited behaviours and histories?
Why is the work necessary?
Because the work will allow me to engage with ideas that I feel are important. Chinese heritage is something I have engaged with speculatively for my whole life - my father’s father - who the family name ‘Shin’ comes from, provides a familial link, and this personal kernel, this ‘I’ does not only relate to me but provides a subjective foundation to begin to research from whilst engaging with themes of societal control and how it relates to space and language.