Thursday, 20 March 2008

Trying to write my own name

In Other People’s Skins has now been put up at Gloucester Cathedral. I’m amazed at the visitor comments for this piece because I’ve never seen such glowing comments about an artwork before (mine or others). My initial fears that the work would simply function on the smoke and mirrors level (that people would simply enjoy the ‘functionality’ of the work) has proved unfounded. It seems that people are actually ‘getting it’.

So this tells me something that I also regard as amazing: In Other People’s Skins is a signature work. What this means is that I have learnt a certain level of ‘craft’ in my art, enough to make a work that people can relate to strongly. The danger of the signature work is that it becomes what you are known for and which you can never better.

Earlier today I was thinking of other artists that I know whose engagement with their chosen medium (primarily digital) is still hampered by its technical elements. I’ve been working in video, both analogue and digital for a long time now; I’ve made a lot of work, both linear and latterly installation in form – I regard the definition ‘signature work’ as being a piece of work that somehow is imbued with the answer to the basic enquiry the artist is making. That doesn’t mean to say that I the artist, understand that answer, but rather that the glimmerings of an understanding are lighting the dark.

My use of the word craft, above, is about knowing enough of the technicalities of the medium, enough about the potential audience response from the use of those technicalities and enough about the mystery of art to create works which fulfil certain requirements of a ‘work of art’. The mystery is of course that an artwork should have space within it for the audience to import personal meaning and significance whilst at the same time carrying the resonance of what the artist was originally inspired by.

Subject matter can only really be one thing: that which makes us self-consciously aware or what we truly are. What we truly are, is ever changing, yet ever the same.

Anyway, my understanding has grown through making and exhibiting In Other People’s Skins (IOPS) and I hope that that understanding grows the more it is exhibited. On that point I’ve had a few enquiries asking for it to be shown at other cathedrals and maybe some in the US.

What this does is arms me when I make my next installation – on that note I have six to make, exhibit and report on, by the end of September. This gets really interesting for me because all six will absolutely not use any ‘engaging tactic’. For instance, in IOPS people get to place their hands in the image of others hands, or maybe move a plate when they feel it’s miss-aligned with the virtual image of the plate. Somehow I have to make artworks that use whatever fascinates the individual as a means of bringing them in to the essence of the work.

We know that everyone is different and has different meaning structures inside them so therefore the only thing to do is use whatever lies beneath and is the motive power of meaning structure and its corollary, significance. We might argue about that sentence: it could be that actually significance precedes meaning structure – I don’t know at this point – it might even be that one accompanies the other. But, what lies beneath either or both these ideas is the species base, the bit that got us out of the trees and standing upright. So as an artist I’m realising that I have to allow that to flow through me as it’s pretty clear to me that I as a thinker am limited by my own thought process. Here we go, we’re unavoidably into ‘the mystery’.

In a recent work I had some fun having found some old footage of me trying to phone someone with the phone set up to record the other end of the conversation. I remembered being on a documentary and flying Noam Chomsky over to our office in Great Russell street. I was introduced to the great man and said, ‘hello Noam’, with a degree of ignorance of his intellectual weight and reputation, I didn’t say anything else to him except the odd quip from behind the camera as my friend Renny interviewed him. In the recent work I put some text over the footage from 1977 which ended with me giving up and not getting through to the person I was ringing. The text said: ‘Trying to talk to Noam Chomsky’, a little joke to myself about a missed opportunity. As the piece went on I rang other people who I also didn’t get through to. Quite quickly I introduced people that were no longer alive, Bertolt Brecht, Plotinus and Hildegard of Bingen was one of them. I ended up trying to ring ‘the first person who stood upright’. These interstitial elements lightened what was quite a portentous piece.

That’s a circuitous way of getting to a woman who wrote music, poetry, painted and had sexual union with Christ – regularly. Hildegard not only knew the mystery, she was a part of it.

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...

Hildegard then did what committed artists do in some way, shape, or form:

But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.

Today artists aren’t required to have the ‘modesty’ gene that Hildegard had, and a lot of stuff that is presented as ‘art’ is neurotic as opposed to enlightened. ‘Mystery’ is one of the things that art is about and I find of course, that this cannot be described except by circumlocution. From the artists point of view the act of making art is to try to realize truth in some way, to convert oneself from the vessel governed by ego, to one governed by a more enlightened state. The use of the word ‘work’ in the phrase ‘work of art’ is not only a noun but also a verb. As the artist works, so they work on themselves trying to release the form that is hidden within themselves – they sculpt themselves. The urge comes to create, the inspiration comes for the work and then the artist through the truth of their practice places the inspiration in the work and through the exhibiting of the work the audience receives the ‘transmission’ of the inspiration – that is the artwork. If the artwork is fashioned with craft garnered from both talent and developed through experience then that transmission has the suitable space within it for the audience to create it’s own meaning as well as absorbing what the artist has to say.

So: I recognize that I’ve made a signature piece which is a marker along my route as a developing artist, for which I’m very thankful. Now, as I turn my attention to other works which I have to raise up to this level, I find myself having to become clearer about what I’m doing as an artist, more impervious to my own tendency to obfuscate through my own clouding mechanisms, I have to eliminate sentimentality towards my ego self so that my artist self is unencumbered by the neurotic elements of human existence.

Curiously, the thought of leaving my ego behind makes me feel free.