During the MFA programme we have had the opportunity to exhibit our work beyond the Wimbledon campus. This has provided valuable experience in all aspects of becoming a professional artist. Organising a show entails research of the site, analysis of the curatorial theme, and applying the necessary subject knowledge to create appropriate work using technical expertise honed in the workshops. Developing ideas with colleagues requires effective and empathetic communication in order to strike the right balance between collaborative and independent working, whilst preserving the creative integrity of all parties. The following section contains short case studies on eight exhibitions, and what I learned from them.
'Traces' at CASS Art Space
Nicola Siebert Patel initiated this Dogma19 Group show having secured the upstairs room at CASS Art in Croydon for a fortnight in March 2020 free of charge, with invigilation by the shop staff. Though this opportunity was to follow on soon after the end-of-term exhibition we decided to seize the chance to do work inspired by a new material. Given the time constraints, and the nature of the space where only 2D work is permitted, we decided upon tracing paper.
1. As in the case of concrete for 'Immurement' at The Crypt Gallery, tracing paper turned out to be an inspirational material despite its apparently prosaic nature.
2. Professional technical and artistic expertise can accelerate the learning process. Most fortunately, Charlotte Brown, Wimbledon Print Workshop Manager, had been conducting many experiments with printing on tracing paper. So when I asked whether it would be possible to produce a 200cm x 90cm work, the answer was not only "yes", but the best settings for the Epson had already been established.
3. "There is no free lunch". The trade-off at the venue was that the room was in regular use for art classes which meant that there was no guarantee of access for visitors...As it happened this didn't cause a problem, but it was a reminder to double-check the contract in the case of a conventional venue hire.
4. When I showed my three works at the end-of-term exhibition in the MFA Studio the curators placed them alongside each other. Feedback suggested that it would have been better if they had been separated, so I took the opportunity to do so at CASS. The experience re-confirmed the degree to which curation and context can affect the experience of art works, and that the artist should remain open to new ideas on presentation.
'Emergency Art' at Platform
Galina Hristova initiated this group show having rented the Platform Gallery in Southwark for a long weekend just after the end of the 2019 Autumn term. Galina set the curatorial theme of 'Emergency Art' and invited submissions from amongst her MFA student peers. I took the opportunity to set up another participatory work. As with '101 fear and ...' I gave the work a title which in itself invited participation: 'Waste not ...'. I had also been encouraged to be more overtly involved in orchestrating the participants rather than merely enrolling them. So I developed a name and graphic identity to distinguish my work and donned a logo t-shirt for the Private View.
1. Though I had rehearsed the concept in the Wimbledon Canteen as part of my research, it turned out to be difficult to reconcile my own intentions for the work with those of my participants. When one starting colouring in Brazil instead of just adding her signature, I found it hard to contain myself. This raised a big question as to co-authorship: was I really inviting someone to 'be an artist' and express themselves? Or was it more as if I were asking them to add their name to a visual petition, or worse, just fill in a design I had pre-determined?
2. I had conceived of the Private View as an opportunity to enlist many willing participants and get them to engage both physically and intellectually with my work. In reality, it didn't work out like that. No-one was triggered into a debate about the environment or global warming. No-one commented on the title of the work, nor perceived its dual meaning. And certainly the use of Greta Grotesque as the text went unnoticed.
3. Afterwards, as promised, I sent each participant a free digital image of the work they had contributed to. Of nearly a hundred people, perhaps only twenty per cent, acknowledged receipt, only a handful made any meaningful comment, and none requested a high res image or a print. I didn't offer the latter as I wished to gauge spontaneous reactions.
4. Perhaps this lukewarm if not tepid reaction wasn't surprising as I wasn't happy with the end result. I had intended both the land and sea to have been filled with green and blue signatures (one of each per participant) but there weren't enough visitors to achieve this. I carried on collecting signatures after the show ended but by the end of January I was still needing another hundred participants. I asked friends and family when the opportunity arose, and they agreed, but without great enthusiasm and hardly any debate.
5. One of the major premises of my exploration into participation was that it would be possible to generate worthwhile artefacts. In the history of this live art form, the residue of the happening, performance, participation, or action has almost never been concrete. The messages left on Yoko Ono's 'Wish Trees' being a rare exception. My experience with 'Waste not ...' was beginning to make me understand why. The process wasn't sufficiently engaging or rewarding, and the end product wasn't desirable enough.
'Immurement' at The Crypt Gallery
The MFA 2nd Year group show was at The Crypt Gallery Thursday 7th - Sunday 10th November 2019. I presented '101: fear and...' a participative art work involving people, words, and wet cement...
1. My membership of the Dogma19 group resulted in an additional challenge as we chose cement as our common material - not one we'd used before. This parameter was on top of the site, the curatorial theme, and my focus on participation. These four factors made this a really stimulating experience.
2. Being present beside the work made me available for visitors to engage with, and plentiful footfall meant there was hardly a time when I wasn’t enlisting someone. It took about five minutes to enrol each participant, for them to decide on their word, write it on their wooden tongue depressor, and push it into the soft cement. This gave me a useful parameter with which to plan future collaborations.
3. No-one objected to completing the permission form, indeed people liked the idea that providing their email address would let me to send them a free photograph of the finished work. Several responded well to the possibility of being offered an artist proof of a limited edition print at a favourable price.
4. So far 12 of the 47 participants have responded to my email sending them a photo of the finished work. 26% is very good in direct marketing terms, and most encouraging in this context.
'Artists At Home'
Artists At Home (AAH) is one of the oldest 'art trails' in the country. It was founded by Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan in 1973. Having followed it for over thirty years I became a member and exhibited for the first time in 2018 and again in June 2019. I did so because I hoped I might raise money to invest in art materials for my MFA.
Despite my work being at the avant-garde end of the spectrum for Chiswick I have had some sales success.
1. Not many people go on an art trail with £1,000 in their back pocket to spend - you need to price accordingly...
2. Having a credit card reader helps make sales - I lent my SumUp machine to the 'Immurement' show at the Crypt and it seemed to help get donations for drinks.
3. Too much exposure of art work on social media may put off some visitors and reduce footfall. In 2019 I posted videos of all my work and fewer people came than in 2018. A higher percentage of those that visited bought something, but who knows what might have happened if those people who had been put off by what they saw online had seen the works in real life? It might just have changed their minds because photography doesn't flatter every picture.
4. Object-centred participatory art was as unsuccessful in Chiswick as it had been at Wimbledon. I displayed 'Gender Seesaw' and dozens of people walked straight past it. The only participation was when I asked people - usually friends - to sit on it. And their reaction was laughter because of the seesawing, but they didn't get the spectrum point without explanation...
5. This experience reaffirmed my determination to make participation and collaboration much easier and more fun, and probably with me taking an active guiding role.
'Eyes' pop-up exhibition
The ‘pop-up’ teams were announced at the beginning of the Summer Term 2019. Ours was Annie Rose, Chiara Pellegrini, Jenny (Yi Chiao) Chen, Yunyao Hu, Minqi Xu, and me. The brief was to create an artwork which could be installed and taken down in a day, and make an impact across the campus.
1. It’s hard to establish a new medium. I thought the pop-up would be an opportunity to exploit the ‘medium’ of the UAL / WCA ID card readers and use their ubiquity throughout the buildings to create a participatory art work focused on the EU Elections which fell on that day. However, under the tight time constraints it proved too difficult technically
2. Team work works. Minqi suggested putting photographs of eyes in the toilets, with male ones in the women’s and vice versa. This would be a comment on the surveillance society and the privacy we are losing. Chiara produced the photos of the pairs of eyes and Minqi got them printed, so we were ready in time to install them in all the toilets in the building. We even got one of the builders to model the art experience!
3. Seek permission before interfering with an artist’s work! The second part of the pop-up, in which one team swapped exhibits with another, and then adapted it with an overlay, was a lesson in respecting the IP of other artists. On confronting the ‘Body Parts’ exhibit I thought we could set up a couple of rows of chairs and improvise a court room inquest. Annie proposed a crime scene. This was better and caught the imagination of the team.
Before embarking we sought permission from our counterparts to apply red paint to their body parts, which they granted. Within no time white plaster casts had become gory and masking tape had become a police barrier unifying the tableau.
The tutor feedback was congratulatory, if a little taken aback: great adaptation but had we desecrated someone else’s work? Happily we were able to say we’d consulted the authors, explained our idea, and got their blessing.
'Olfactory' corridor show
Our team of Annie Rose, Bozhi Yang, and I were assigned the week of 24th April to 1st May 2019 to install our Corridor Show. It had to be up first thing Wednesday morning and taken down a week later.
1. Anticipation is vital. Checking the calendar I realised that with Easter falling as it did, we would have very little time together after Summer term started on 17th April.
So I set up a WhatsApp Group on 15th February so we could plan ahead and avoid a panic.
2. It’s vital to anticipate the requirements of Health & Safety. One of our colleagues’ shows had had to be taken down the day it was put up because their inflated plastic rubbish bags represented a fire hazard.
Since a key element of our ‘Olfactory’ idea was papering the double doors to the studio with a giant face, I wanted to ensure that the eye holes cut to allow sight lines through the two vision panels would be acceptable. So I prepared a Risk Assessment form and secured approval.
3. Detailed planning is essential for a pop-up show in an awkward site. So Bozhi and I worked on the detailed preparation of the paper to fit the doors precisely, and the painting of the face.
We booked Coco’s Room for the day after Easter Monday and had all the work done by midday, ready for installation first thing in the morning using the tall ladder booked at CLS.
4. Sometimes the first thought is the best one. No-one said they’d smelt orange blossom on the way to walk through the giant orange mask. I was disappointed by this result.
In retrospect I think I should have been more assertive in the choice of fragrance and stuck to the original idea of using a Lush Bath Bomb, even if that had had to be removed after its initial impact.
'Postopia', Ugly Duck
Over the Christmas break I responded to the 'Uncovered Collective' Open Call for 'Postopia' their show at Ugly Duck in Tanner Street, Bermondsey 21-23 February 2019. Their requirement was for work which related to the impact of digital technologies. I decided to focus on their implications for society and inter-personal relationships. Many people have concerns about the increasing use of social media platforms such as Facebook. Young children in particular are felt to be vulnerable to their near-ubiquitous presence. Having read seen photographs of the gallery space I knew there was potential for an art work ambitious in size and with the potential for participation. My response was 'Social Mirrors'.
1. I communicated detailed instructions for the assembly and hanging of my work. These included individually wrapped and labelled mirrors and chains, and the photograph at right showing the order in which the individual mirrors were to be positioned. The fragile work arrived intact and the curators commented positively on the diligence of the preparation which they said made installation much easier.
2. At the time I was busy reading the many open calls posted online and nearly all of them were either obscure, over-ambitious, or irrelevant to my professional development. In the case of 'Postopia', the 'Uncovered Collective' had themselves responded to Ugly Duck's Open Call to win the right to hold an exhibition. This meant their own request for submissions could be read in that context and it was doubly clear what the brief to candidate artists was. Thus it was obvious that my object-centred participatory sculpture would fit well, and inspiration came quickly.
3. 'Social Mirrors' was intended to help visitors explore their relationship with social media in several ways. My hope was that people would take the mirrors in hand and look at themselves. The physicality of doing would be an important part of the communication. Seeing themselves through the transparent logos should provoke questions. How is their presentation to others is mediated by the brand values of their chosen platform? What are those values? How does the content to which they're exposed condition their own self-image and behaviour online or IRL? Does their online persona reflect or differ from their reality? Should they make up different avatars per channel? To what degree is putting their personal details into the public domain a risk? However, as I observed the work in action at the Private View, almost no-one touched a mirror. This was disappointing. I resolved to try and find ways of overcoming our deeply embedded 'look don't touch' culture.
'Sparks' at Legge Street Studios
Through friends Liliana Oderstone secured their gallery space at Legge Street Studios, Lewisham. She convened a core group which committed to the show, agreed the dates for February 2019 which she had cleared with Edwina fitzPatrick, and formulated the principles for the submission to UAL Student Union for funding. UAL approved Lily's submission and granted £200 towards the project. Fifteen artists joined the group, each agreeing to pay £50 to cover the costs.
1. I set up the collaboration with St. Mary's CofE Primary School in the next road to Legge Street and negotiated the agreement in principle with the Head Teacher. Lily and her team were then able to engage with the staff and pupils to implement the community collaboration aspect of the funding submission in a safe environment at the school.
2. I took responsibility for finance, primarily because I had a UK bank account I could dedicate to the project, but also in order to allow Lily and the other artists to focus on their work and the rest of the organisational tasks.
3. Communications from Legge Street Studios were poor and this led to frustration and duplication of effort. I resolved to ensure that in any future venue hire for exhibitions that a proper contract was agreed and confirm that both public liability and contents insurance were in place.
4. Whilst challenging, the garage workshop exhibition space was inspiring. My work 'Sandpaper Family' was created for the context of the workshop location. The sandpaper sheet material echoed the sorts of abrasives used to clean and repair machinery. The family trio related to the ambition to embrace the local community, engage with the primary school, and appeal to mothers and children who were the most likely people to attend the exhibition.