Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Courtauldian of the Month: Collage Artists of America
The undeniable girl power
by Edina Horvathova | 02 February 2023
If you ever made art, I will bet everything I have that you know very well what it’s like to be alone. And I also bet you that most of us have, at least in the past two years, thought of joining a collective, or better, founding one. Creative people know the feeling very well: however independent we humans claim to be, we are indeed social beings and need interaction. I will be going on and on about this in circles and I know you know this too, staying on the art scene is hard and making connections is inevitable! We as artists also tend to be quite closed off (speaking from experience), we make art for artists and live life in a bubble-like society. That’s why this month’s Courtauldian of the Month is a group of artists that were brought together not just by their art, but also by the desire to create together.
The Collage Artists of America (CAA) is a non-profit organisation founded in California in 1988 by nine women artists. It celebrates the art of collage, both analogue and digital, and has over 200 members worldwide. And let’s be honest, there is never enough time, space or opportunities when it comes to talking about women. I sat down with Lauren Rechner, one of our MA History of Art students, who is the youngest member of the CAA, to talk about this space.
E: I guess we’ll start with the obvious question here, how did you meet? How did you find the group?
L: It was in the summer of 2020, the first year of the pandemic. I was just starting my third year of my BA as an Art History major, PR minor at Loyola Marymount University. I love collage and I was looking for a group of collage artists that I could connect with to have something to look forward to, and I found CAA. Susanne, who is our amazing membership chair, reached out to say that if I would like to be more involved, the publicity chair position was available. From there, I met Elaine Piechowski who was the previous publicity chair, and learned more about what she did to help the organisation grow through the different newspaper publications in Southern California. I began to help CAA by sharing their exhibition Call-to-Artist statements online and with different magazine platforms. When I joined, the meetings had moved entirely online. We finally got to meet each other in May of 2022, and that was very special for me to say the least. We have different members from all around the US and Canada who have shown in exhibitions all over the world. Our membership includes art instructors, professional artists, art students, artists just starting out, or those simply with an appreciation for the arts.
Jean Hess, Gold, 2022, paper collage, pencil, ink, acrylic on antique print in antique frame under glass, 31.8 x 31.8 x 1.54 cm, http://jeanhess.com
‘Gold is full of surprises. Like everything collage, it was made with found materials used “as is” yet carefully chosen according to a personal aesthetic -- uplifting imagery and colours. It surprised me as well. It is a traditional collage – done with only paper and glue – created over the rather pedestrian print I found in this antique frame. The over-materials are all from popular magazines [some 20 to 30 years old donated by friends], with passages taken for their abstract qualities. I wanted to create a sense of celestial motion, happiness and transcendence. No serious lessons – just joy and hope. In the spirit of “faux museology,” I attach images of the finished piece as well as the print underneath and the sticker on the back of the frame.’ Jean Hess
E: So, are they all physical exhibitions or are they online?
L: Due to the pandemic, our last in-person exhibit was What If? in 2020, at the Topanga Canyon Gallery, since then it’s all been online. All of our previous exhibitions have been in galleries or at the San Fernando Valley Arts & Cultural Centre in California. From workshops, to talks, and exhibitions, this venue has given CAA a great space for community building over the years.
Sylvia Hamilton Goulden, Breaking Free, mixed Media, 86.4 x 76.2 cm https://sylviahgoulden.artspan.com
L: CAA was founded by nine women in 1988. Most of our members are involved in different artist groups in Southern California and across the United States.
She proceeds to show me the list of the artists that spreads and continues down the page.
Pennie Fien. The Resurrection of Frida. Mixed media collage: paper, fabric, pencil, marker 27.9 x 35.6 cm. https://www.pennief.com
Carol Priamo, Hats Off to You, mixed media, 22.9x30.5cm, http://www.carolpriamo.com
‘Combining a hands-on paper collage (coloured tissue, graph paper, vintage magazine and encyclopaedia pages, old letraset) with a photographic image digitally altered and applied, this piece references the value and integration of traditional symbols in contemporary every-day culture. I call this type of work "Integrated Collage"
’ – Carol Priamo
L: There are over 200 members worldwide and through our new World Collage Day event, encouraged by Kolaj Magazine, we recently had an artist join in from France. It’s really just a large network of collage artists who encourage each other. We have high engagement on our Facebook where we have over 12,600 friends who all share their work. It’s been wonderful to see it grow. Everyone posts so many different types of collages, and it is very interactive. Our Facebook provides a lot of inspiration, but our active members are also able to engage with the speakers and everyone live during our meetings. This spring we are going to have our first in-person exhibition since the pandemic in Burbank, California at the Betsy Lueke Creative Arts Center. We are all very excited.
Lauren Rechner. Alice’s House. Sheet music, paint, playing cards, digital photographs. 20.32 x 25.4 cm. https://www.maybemore.org
E: If you want to become a member, what’s the process for applying?
L: It’s a paid annual membership. A forum for all. Any artists around the world are encouraged to collaborate. It is not a selective process, but a welcoming community.
E: Are there any requirements that you have to fill though? I guess the only one that comes to my mind at the moment is that you have to be a woman.
L: Well, and we have men too!
At this point, a burst of genuine laughter filled the conversation.
L: We have men, it was just founded by women, so that is just a fun thing. But yes, we have men too!
Barbara Tabachnick, Can't See the Forest for the Wax, Mixed Media Encaustic, 25.4 x 20.32 inches, http://www.csun.edu/~vcpsybxt/Art.html
She shows me a photo of the board meeting that was happening the day prior to our meeting, talking about the members with such genuine earnestness, describing how she is the youngest member, and how much fun they have on their Zoom meetings playing around with backgrounds. All female board.
‘This is our wonderful president Sylvia who has an extensive background in dance, Pennie a former costume designer who’s our co-exhibits chair, Barbara T a former professor at California State Northridge who manages our website and all of our Zoom calls, her sister Karol who graciously records all of our minutes for our board meetings and has a passion for photography, Jean our speaker for this Friday who is also our programs chair and often includes celestial bodies in her work, Susie G one of our past presidents who maintains a print studio in California she is now our communications chair… Susanne, she is our membership chair, who has exhibited her work in Germany and she’s the first one that I met, Barbara our brilliant workshops chair who has great ideas about creating types of paper specifically for collage, Shawn is our treasurer and among many things creates embossed cards featuring delicate nature scenes … the board is all female.’
E: So, it’s girl power.
L: Yeah, girl power!
‘Carol is our amazing new graphic chair, she’s from Canada. Kwei-lin does the entire newsletter which is so much work and enjoys creating paper dolls too. Helen is our scholarship chair who helps choose a student artist for the award that we give out every year. We have a lot of fun at our board meetings.’
‘When I work, I work to please myself and feel
humbled to receive an award or move someone
enough for a sale. I usually begin with some
destination in mind but the work always ends
up on its own journey. As an experimental mixed
media semi-abstract artist and photographer,
there is nothing more exhilarating to me than
tapping into what I call “a collective stream of
consciousness”, a place where unlimited possibilities exist.’
- Susanne Belcher
Susanne Belcher, A Solitary View, mixed media acrylic on canvas, 78.7 x 63.5 cm, https://www.susannebelcherart.com/home
E: This is an inclusive space that has people from all different backgrounds.
L: Absolutely, and our members are invited to include all of their websites on our CAA artist page, so we have their details there as well, and it creates quite an open dialogue. A few of our past guest speakers include Della Wells, Jane Dunnewold, Jim Morphesis, Suzanne Stryk, Álvaro Sánchez, Billy Renkl, Trudy Sissons, Todd Bartel… it goes on and on. Our shows are always juried by fantastic artists as well like La Monte Westmoreland and Robert Burridge, and our upcoming show this May will be juried by Katherine Chang Liu. There are really outstanding artists that join us. Very inspiring.
Kwei-lin Lum, Punks and Prizes, 2016, mixed media, http://flatdoll.com
‘The work was made from dumpster finds and incorporates stylized carnival characters that were created from the materials.’ – Kwei-lin Lum,
L: They’ve just been such a light for me, since I joined. It’s been so much fun and I’m always learning something new. I am so beyond happy I found this group and I cherish every minute with all of them.
As I’m finishing this article, I just walked home from a meeting with a friend who I was in a collective with, and I have thought a lot about the power behind a collective. It makes days that feel hard easier, the person next to you will pick you up and on other days you will pick them up. It makes great stories and creates friendships that last. Joining a group like this makes all the difference, as it did for Lauren and many more. So, all I can suggest, if you allow me, think about the CAA.
The Courtauldian Abroad
The Venice Art Scene: The Biennale's big sister
by Edina Horvathova | 31 December 2022
I’m sitting in rainy London and thinking about time. How is it already a month since we went to Venice? With much melancholy and a couple of layers of clothes, I take a trip down memory lane. Venice. How could one even comprehend it? I’ve always found the idea of travel surreal. I’m in one country one minute and two hours later I’m in a different one, where I don’t speak the language and the food is amazing. As a proper caffeine addict, the first stop was coffee. What one realises instantly is the shift in pace. You slow down and enjoy the moment. In a London coffee shop, you are shouted at when your order is ready, and you still apologise for not hearing them calling you the first time. Overall, my four-day trip diet was coffee, spritz and pastry from the Majer cafe. But as I was told, that’s what you do in Venice. You have a coffee in the morning, a spritz in the evening and you look at art.
Venice has been a subject matter for many artists throughout the centuries starting with my favourite eighteenth-century Italian painter, the Venice born Canaletto, whose love of the city has been portrayed in many of his works until the present day when the city hosts the 59th Art Biennale under the title Milk of Dreams. It takes over the city and covers it like a blanket, incorporated into its structure and layout. The concentration of art per square meter is insane. We spent eight hours at the Biennale on average and when I thought the Giardini was a lot, the Arsenale was the absolute showstopper. The theme for this year was metamorphosis, climate change and technology, with the highest representation of female artists ever. History has been made in many ways and it was with great pleasure that we watched it all come together. The main focus of this trip was the Biennale, but one can’t help but think: ‘Is this all of art in Venice? There must be more to it.’ The city was art itself, but I was lacking the presence of local art. Or at least the absence of it from my knowledge of art.
One evening, while indulging in some amazing ravioli we started talking to one of the restaurant’s waiters. We left at closing and walking back to the apartment we were staying in, it happened he lived in the same direction, so we walked together. What this resulted in was my curiosity to know what local people think of the Biennale, its culture and just art in Venice. We agreed to have a little chat about it.
Canaletto, The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1741 (Photo: The Fitzwilliam Museum)
E: So, I’m writing a piece about Venice for my monthly segment, and I would like to hear what local people have to say about Venice hosting the Biennale and just about Venice in general. Would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?
P: No not at all! Ask away.
E: Fabulous! So, I guess my first question would be, how long have you lived in Venice?
P: I was born in Venice and I have always lived here with my family. I’ve lived in Rialto for 18 years, just a three-minute walk from the bridge.
E: Wow…and what is your favourite part of Venice?
P: My favourite part of Venice is Fondamente Nove, especially the northern side. On clear mornings, you can see the mountains from there. There are always very few people there and at night the stars look very bright.
E: What do you think of the Biennale? How important do you think it is to Venice and Venetian people in particular? And also, are you a fan of art at all? I should have started with that question I guess haha.
P: Haha, honestly, I have never been a huge fan of modern art, and I don’t usually go to the pavilions of the Biennale. But I must say it has a very important role in Venice nowadays. Other than creating workplaces (both of my parents work there), it also boosts tourism in the city quite a lot.
E: This might be pretty obvious, but do you think Venice would be still very much a tourist destination even without the Biennale?
P: Absolutely! Even without it, I think Venice would still be a focal point for tourism, because of the millennial culture and the history of the city itself.
E: But do Venetians visit the Biennale though?
P: Yes yes, many Venetians visit the Biennale. We even have a residential discount and it is the main point of many conversations at that time of the year.
E: That’s so amazing! Do you think that in some ways it therefore enriches the local culture too?
P: I don’t feel like the people in Venice consider the Biennale to be that important for the local culture, for the most part it’s just work, but it is an honour to be hosting such a global event.
E: Thank you very much for answering these for me!
P: Not a problem, and if you are in Venice again, don’t forget to stop by the restaurant for a chat.
It was interesting to see how what many see as cultural enrichment creates a livelihood for others and also contributes to the local economy. I guess I, as many others I dare to say, was quite shocked and checked back into reality after taking off my pink-tinted glasses that shaped my view of the Biennale. What is important to bear in mind is how amazing it is that art is becoming more and more a part of everyday life amongst people and creates opportunities to create livelihood not only by creating art. But what about the local art scene? My friend couldn’t tell me much about that so I decided to look up Venice’s local creatives. After visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, being in a presence of a domestic space holding all this amazing art, fully aware of how important it was for Peggy and how much she loved Venice, I realised I was looking for answers in the wrong place.
I took the liberty to email the artist Maria Morganti to hear her opinion on this symbiotic existence of the local art scene and the Biennale. She gave me a perspective of a more mature artist in the city and her experiences. She’s worked in New York and Venice over the years, but predominantly spent time in Venice and this is what she had to say.
M: First of all, I would like to talk to you about a very important experience with artists in Venice between 2002 and 2012. We have been organising weekly meetings, first in my studio and then in the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, which is committed to local artists. Everyone who identified as an artist could participate, there was no selection process. It was impossible for any other person to get in, such as art critics or dealers. The idea was that artists would attend and talk about their work without any audience, to a close group that wanted to share ideas, and the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas. It was very important at the time, in Venice. It was a way to build a space to share ideas but also to bring together artists, for example isolated people working in the countryside but also emerging artists. Also, professional artists but also visiting artists who were here as guests of institutions such as the UoV (University of Venice), were invited to teach. Some of the guests were Remo Salvadori and Fred Wilson who showed at the biennale in 2001. It was important for visiting artists to meet local artists and get to know their personal history and profession. These were very important years that pushed a lot of things. My role was to organise the meetings and make them happen. We moved to the foundation that was better as it was more natural than an artist’s studio.
E: Have you had any connection to the Biennale of this year?
M: At this time, we tried to have an official connection with the Biennale. Every time I tried to find tickets for the local artists we had to start again, every Biennale. It was never a constant thing, it was always through personal connections such as the one with Francesco Bonami, who gave us 30 tickets, but the rest had to be bought by artists as it was not enough. And it was a political statement as well. It’s a very simple thing to ask for a ticket for the opening, but I think it was symbolic. It should be an institution open to the community of artists that live in Venice. The only curator that gave us any attention was Robert Storr, which was a very important statement, but unfortunately, he was never able to systematise it. The Biennale became more and more difficult to get into, it became a way to get money, but they didn’t invite artists. If you paid a lot of money you could get in, but that meant that only very rich artists could get in. This is a very important moment for professional relations, which is not allowed by the institution of the Biennale.
E: How do you as a Venice-based artist see this influencing the local art scene? Do you think it helps to inspire it, or does it cast a shadow over it?
M: The Biennale started to have some relationships with local institutions. Through the institutions such as the university they are getting students to participate in performances. For example, someone had a part in the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Academia di Belle Arti, but these are always through the university, and it doesn’t really involve artists. Not all artists that live in Venice teach at the university, actually very few do. There are also protests against the major attempts to introduce an entry fee to Venice which is not a solution for Venetians. You know, we could talk about what a museum is but the city is not a museum. The city is producing money but it’s not producing relationships between the people and culture and art. They are thinking about tourism that profits the individual, not the collective, and there is no project behind the city and arts.
E: Is it easy to engage with local people artistically? I understand that Venice has such an artistic importance, but do locals prefer to see art by Venetians in the galleries?
M: Talking generally about local people, it’s very difficult for me to say because of course you have many different perspectives and views. I can talk about it from the point of view of the people involved in the culture and arts, but not tourism and what we wish to see. As a Venetian artist for example, it’s not that I want to show as a Venetian artist in a Venetian context. I consider myself as an artist but what I wish is really to live in a situation that is alive and this situation considers the local situation as well. For example, inside the Biennale the Venetian pavilion is always treated terribly. As a Venetian artist, I don’t want to show in it. At the moment, we are trying to see whether we can manage to replace the context in a more international scene, because right now it’s more of a fare rather than a pavilion that doesn’t consider the alive situation in the city. If that pavilion would say something about a group of people that live in the city, that would be interesting, also because we could talk about the issue of global and local. What does it mean as a local to be representing in a global situation? So, if you do it in an intelligent and creative way there are possibilities to let the space become alive, thinking through these issues. Right now, it talks about tourism. It’s something very bad and the real artists in Venice don’t want to show there right now. We started, a few months ago, a group of artists in Venice, to build something that would be more alive at the pavilion. Not because of myself, I don’t want to show there, but more for younger artists. To show the world how the city is a lively place to live. We are trying to survive in this city. It’s overwhelmed not only by tourism but politics as well. We are trying to scream and trying to show that there is a heart pulsing and that it’s a very experimental place. Within the more general community, not everyone will perceive this in a positive way. Many people want to make money, like milking a cow. Of course, if the city gets to this point, the Venetians are also guilty of contributing to this situation. The group that is non-profit oriented is much smaller.
E: With Venice being such a diverse city, how difficult is it for emerging artists to get onto and stay on the art scene? Also, what do you see as the biggest challenges for emerging artists in Venice?
M: It has changed very much over the years. For my generation, it was very different and difficult because there were not many opportunities. Now, because of the university, there are a lot of young artists that are here and want to stay here. However, the city doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities. First of all, it’s a very expensive city, so naturally younger artists have a problem to pay for studios. But many of them choose to stay here and find spaces to share. There are a few situations where groups of young artists have built groups of collectives. There are places such as BarDaDino, a studio with let’s say five or six different spaces, and some work on their own in their small spaces. There is a different situation in the city for young artists and curators that are organising things together. We’ve also had the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, but since our politicians took it three or four years ago, they destroyed it. I don’t go there anymore. They still have young artists in residence, but it’s not the space it was ten years ago. The most important situations are growing from the bottom, let’s say a group of artists trying to get together and trying to organise things together. There are not a lot of galleries but there are some that show Venetians artists, definitely not the international galleries like for example Victoria Miro. She has a gallery in London of course, but she also has a smaller gallery in Venice. She took the space of a very important gallery called Galleria Il Capricorno, but she doesn’t have any relationship with any of the locals. It’s difficult with galleries. There are some studios paid by the public, there are also non-profit places such as Punch.
E: My final question would be about your practice and, again, it is quite open. You are based in Venice, and you’ve also exhibited there a lot, but also internationally. I exhibited as an artist for some time myself and I guess the thing I battled quite a lot was the question of an original idea. Do you find it easy to keep up with the idea of originality in your practice when you are so often surrounded by so much contemporary art? This also raises the question of artistic trends. How challenging do you find developing consistency in one’s practice, if at all?
M: The interesting thing about Venice as a city is, I’m not originally from Venice, I choose to be here, also because I am married to a Venetian, but it started before I met my husband. It has two different levels. On one hand, you have this very simple calm life with a slow rhythm that for me was very important in developing my practice. This sort of empty space empty mind, slow time. It would never come out like this in New York. I was living in New York, but I needed this kind of environment. And also, the easy way of meeting people and of course the space of Venice, the nature and history.
On the other hand, it’s a very international city. Everyone stops in Venice in their life at some point. And I’m talking about the art world not the historians. People working in contemporary art; artists, critics, theorists, art historians, dealers etc. so you have a lot of opportunities. And if the two levels come together, I think something very alive comes to be, for us and also for other people. I think this could be very interesting as a symbolic space, to talk about many other places in the world that have this kind of double nature.
Up corner of the Infinite painting Venice, 2006, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm (Photos: https://www.mariamorganti.it/en)
After thanking her for her time and the amazing chat we had, I sat back in my chair and came to realise the scenario sounds pretty familiar. The art scene for emerging and local artists in a city of such international importance is not an easy place to stay at. However, the support of collections and the art community creates a beating heart of local creative groups. Comparing this to London, where I have experienced the art scene, is in a way a biased opinion. After all, I went to Venice to look at the city as a museum, which, I know now, that it definitely is not. My perception of the local Venetian art scene has changed, and I could not think of it any differently than the Biennale’s big sister. It has been there for so much longer than the biannual global exhibition of contemporary art, yet it’s been very easily missed and mistaken for being part of it. With her experience in the field, Maria gave me an insight into this group of people that consider Venice their home and find it essential for art making. The Venetian art community is small but strong and it’s based on support and community. So, next time you are in Venice, think of the engine that moves this local art scene.
Canaletto, The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, c. 1741 https://fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/objects-and-artworks/highlights/PD106-1992
Maria Morganti with her work (all 3 images) https://www.mariamorganti.it/en
Rest of the imagery my own
What the internet did to art: a people review. Spoiler alert. The exhibition was sensational.
Let’s talk about why we take so many pictures of art.
by Edina Horvathova | 23 November 2022
A couple of weeks ago, an email landed in my inbox about the Cornelia Parker exhibition at Tate Britain ending on 16 October. After a thorough two-minute contemplation of my future intentions I declared Monday as the perfect day for cultural enrichment. Parker’s work has always represented the impossible made possible with her brave and experimental approach to how art can be perceived. She was a part of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that in many ways were the pioneers of what we now know as the modern contemporary British art scene.
‘Cornelia Parker’s widely celebrated immersive installations have become significant presences in Britain’s cultural landscape. Transforming everyday objects into extraordinary works of art, she pushes the boundaries of what we understand sculpture to be.’
Tate Britain exhibition booklet
Upon arrival, confused about the entrances and corridors, I was struck by the statue of The Distance (a Kiss with String Attached), a work by Parker inspired by Rodin. These things only ever seemed to be of a celestial nature and seeing it in person always brings a thrill of butterflies (followed by an uncontrollable urge to cry).
The Distance (a Kiss with String Attached), 2003
After navigating through the staircases of the Tate, we entered the exhibition. There was nothing to sugarcoat: the first room of the exhibition was Thirty Pieces of Silver. Parker stated: ‘Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale.’ Boy, and epic it was. Entering the space, Thirty Pieces of Silver mesmerises you. And it, no doubt, had an impact on everyone who walked into the room. The precise positioning of each and every single piece of silverware created a dreamlike experience. In short and sweet words, the work was sensational. As I was looking through the strings holding the silver, I started noticing something.
It was the people, watching people watching people. People watching, in my opinion, is a sport older than mankind. People watching at exhibitions, however, is a whole new educational experience. What was even more interesting to see was the person who, for the sake of the perfect post, was willing to risk paying a fine for setting the alarm off, as they crawled under the installation. And in this moment, it occurred to me: is our social media image a measuring tool in how culturally educated we are?
Galleries and exhibition spaces, for some time now, have been working hard to make arts more accessible to the public, The exhibitions are welcoming people from different backgrounds, not just those involved with the arts, which makes a huge impact on where visual arts stand within popular culture. Continuous encouragement by big institutions such as the Tate Britain also invites people to see shows in smaller spaces which opens a conversation within the public.
Overall, I spent 40 minutes at the exhibition, in which I encountered three groups:
1) the students who were there on a trip with educational purposes;
2) the academic group, and members of the art industry who were carefully discussing the works.
…and the group that was most interesting to me:
3) the group who was there for the aesthetic experience.
Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988-89
Every room had a group of people aiming for that perfect picture, with the right angle and perfect lighting just to say, ‘yeah, I was there, I saw it.’ Don’t get me wrong, I did the same. Guilty as charged. I took a photo of Cold Dark Matter from four different angles: three close-ups, one video and one square photo just in case I’d like to post it online, justifying it by ‘oh but I am here on a professional account.’ It seems that the age of social media brought upon us a new passive way of viewing art in its given space. We moved on to taking photos of description labels instead of reading them because ‘we’ll get back to them when we have more time’. We book a morning slot to see the exhibition so we can get back home sooner, before the rush hour. The art of watching fundamentally changed the way we perceive art. What is the reason for seeing it in person if not the self-marketing strategies demanded by social media?
Halfway through the exhibition I started to ask myself: ‘Why are people not living in the moment and experiencing this amazing event?’ but almost every time my answer to this question was a click of a camera. My conversation with the audience, which consisted of my questions and their clicks, flew through the rooms as if we were dancing. Every dark room had a screen glowing in someone’s face, a little bit like when you try to enjoy the cinema, but someone has a different idea of what a public cultural experience should be like.
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991
The rooms in between the well known installations were the quiet before the storm (of another room). The indescribable joy of public spaces is the participation in strangers’ conversations just from being around them. These rooms were exactly that.
“If I could somehow plump their depths, tap into their inner essence, I might find an unknown place. Which by its very nature is abstract…both representational and abstract at the same time.
The room Abstraction was the only one, apart from the rooms with films, that had benches to sit down and look at the art. This made me wonder whether we have completely abandoned the idea of slow watching. It’s true, I overheard two ladies talking about it. Out of all the rooms, however, the one entitled ‘Abstraction’ raised the most conversations. The four groups scattered across the space were actively engaging with the works, talking to strangers about them. …And to my surprise, there were barely any cameras in this room. Funny, if you think about how much meaning these works were bearing, very few found it captivating enough to post about them.
Poison and Antidote, 2012
Perpetual Canon, 2004
Past the Perpetual Canon, the more dramatic sister of Thirty Pieces of Silver, in the ‘Film’ rooms, people set up their cameras to take a video of the videos. Capturing the aesthetic of the moving image in this speedy way passed beyond my understanding of watching. Is the familiarity of our own camera roll a better translator for the artistic message than the artist’s own words? Boomerangs are not in fashion anymore but, in that moment, it felt like they were flying around everywhere, coming back just to hit the viewer with an empty message. Out of context, what are we left with?
Towards the end of the exhibition, one of the most impactful rooms was hiding in the corner, the War Room. This room was covered in red paper with poppy cutouts to remind us of the emptiness that loss leaves behind. What was, in my opinion, one of the three most impactful rooms in the exhibition, was overlooked. Just as I had to hustle my way through the Cold Dark Matter room and the Perpetual Canon installation, there was one person in War Room frustrated because the whole thing wouldn’t fit into one standard picture. Not much of a conversation was flowing around this installation which I found quite anti-climactic. As I found myself alone in the room someone walked in and out mumbling ‘Oh, there is nothing here, we can go.’ The silence of the room spoke, and it was the loudest message that I could hear that day.
War Room, 2015
The surreal experience I just came out of lingered with me. The social media culture of the art world is creating a by-product where people don’t really engage with the meaningful side of art and it makes me ask myself: ‘what did the internet do to us?’ To turn artistic practices into educational experiences we have to unsubscribe to the idea of ‘pretty pictures on the wall’. As I walked out on the street standing in front of Tate Britain, it was a beautiful day. You know one of those very last days of autumn when you know that it might just be the very last one before the dreaded and cold winter. Cornelia Parker’s exhibition achieved just that feeling. The warm fuzzy feelings of a great day, that moves you, but you know you have to cherish it because you don’t know when the next one like this is going to come along. But then again, we have the pictures to remind us of it.