MATERIAL IGNORANCE

 

Stephen Feeke

 

Having been asked to write a response to 'Material Intelligence', I deliberately avoided reading anything about the exhibition in advance as I want my response be my own, unmediated by anything anyone else had already said. So it's with a mixture of emotions that I climb the stairs at Huddersfield Art Gallery. On the one hand, I'm curious to see the show having heard a little about it. However I am also daunted by what I am going to find at the top and whether I will like it. But above all, I wonder if I will be able to understand it and find enough to write? Some works I know will be familiar, as I've either met the artist before or seen their work in other contexts and I am also researching a show about simple techniques and vernacular materials. Other works will be completely unknown and I am interested to see what these individual works will be like, but of course I am already thinking about the ways in which all the works might hang together and what they might say as a unified group. As I enter the first room, lost in these thoughts, I am startled when another visitor approaches me and says: "is it art?" It's an indiscriminate enquiry, aimed at no particular work at all - he means all of it, I assume. As always, I'm winded. This kind of question is an occupational hazard but it always stops me in my tracks, but on this occasion I can't think how to respond especially since I've barely seen anything of the exhibition myself. Whilst I instinctively feel the usual compulsion to defend all contemporary art (again) and I stiffen my resolve, I find myself saying only "yes". My inability to say anything more constructive takes us both by surprise and he walks away. Normally, I only encounter this kind of questioning outside the gallery where I work, when I've admitted to what I do for a living to a taxi driver say or when I'm having my hair cut; to ask it when you're in an art galley struck me as odd... surely the fact we're both standing in an art gallery should be answer enough? It seems not. I regret my assumption almost immediately and am sorry that he's gone before I'm able to be more articulate. This response is therefore written with him in mind and what follows are my own thoughts as I walked round the show, the questions I asked and my attempts to find answers.

As I move on. I try to concentrate on the questions: "what is it about; what does it mean?" - the basic though fundamental questions any exhibition should generate. I find though, that the works expressly ask me to consider how each has been made. This causes me some concern as I recall an occasion several years ago, when I annoyed an artist by asking too many questions about his process; "why something has been made", he told me, "is more important than how". However, an exhibition with the title 'Material Intelligence' must, to my mind, be about making and surely gives me licence to consider the different media and how they have been used; meaning, I hope, will come later.

The first work I see is by Tony Feher. It is alone in the first room and whilst it comprises comparatively little, it occupies the entire space. There are pink dots on the walls all round the room, but I'm taken by plastic bottles, filled with water, which hang by knotted string from a framework that it is suspended from the ceiling. Each string is the same length but the bottles are tied at varying heights, which forms a gently rolling wave as bottles rise and fall around the room and which I think must have been harder to do than appearances suggest. There is no daylight, just a wash of yellowy light from the lamps above which cast hazy shadows on the walls. For its message, I look into one of the bottles. What I see is a smaller, refracted version of the room around me; here are the other bottles, the walls and pink dots. As I try to delve deeper, it seems, Feher is bringing me straight back to the beginning. I squeeze past a couple of the strings/bottles (hoping it is ok to do so and that I'm not going to be told off), to the middle where there is a bright-blue plastic bag, its sides rolled down to reveal triangles of blue foam of the same colour. It's like a little nest but also reminds me of the protective corners used to pack framed works. Standing there, I look out and am drawn again to the pink dots. I move out again to make a closer inspection of them. They are a kind of tape, I think, stuck randomly to the wall in an arrangement that seems to ebb and flow, concordant with the rise and fall of the bottles. At regular intervals up the walls, there's a series of grooves forming a series of horizontal lines right round the room. Rather than a scattering then, the dots seem deliberately placed and I feel as if I am looking at a score with musical notes upon a stave. Pink noise I wonder? Which is lower frequency than the white variety, and then I see the work is called 'Singing Room' and I feel a sort of vindication. I am imagining music then but at that point I stop myself. I feel I am merely describing things and then finding equivalents in the everyday world for what I'm looking at. It feels like I'm cheating but then perhaps it is a problem when artists use mundane matter to remember that it adds up to more than just the bottles, tape and string; I shouldn't be dwelling on the things I already know but on their meaning when they are used in combination.

I move on, determined to try harder...

As I enter the main body of the exhibition I see works spaced at intervals around the perimeter of the room. Some hang from the ceiling, some on or against the wall, on the floor and there is one in the middle - it is an interesting use of the space, utilising all the available surfaces. I walk past a Calder-style mobile by Martin Boyce. I've seen it before and like its take on the failure of modernist design. I am more struck by its poise and beauty than before though. The breeze I make as I approach causes it to move very slightly and completely silently when the sound of breaking glass shatters the silence... I'm immediately distracted. Glass pinging across the floor is the kind of noise no curator ever wants to hear in a gallery (even when it's not their own) and I am alert to a potential problem. I'm able to relax though as the sound is coming from a work, a film by Matt Calderwood. I check the label, it's only a few minutes long (always a relief where artists' films are concerned) and is then followed by another. I've missed the start so I know how it ends before I really should, however to put events in film in their correct order here, I see a man (I assume the artist?) arranging with spirit-level precision 4 wine glasses equidistant in the four corners of a paving slab which sits on the ground. With help, he places another paver on the glasses - amazingly they do not break. "He's not going to...? Yes, yes he is." I think to myself, as the man is lifted by 2 assistants onto the block. The glasses do not break. I find myself thinking about eggs - that shells do not break at certain points - tensile strength and crash-test dummies. He jumps and I wince, but the glasses remain in tact. He jumps again and then a few more times, landing more forcefully each time and I worry about the impact on his knees. The glasses finally smash into tiny pieces and scatter everywhere, which happens just as I'm thinking that it never would and that simple goblets were some great, unsung achievement in modern manufacturing. Footage from the 1970s of Open University scientists comes to mind (I can't stop finding analogies it seems) when the first man appears on screen again. This time he stands behind a car battery suspended by red and white ropes. With his hands underneath the battery and tethered by the red ropes, he starts burning through the white rope. I'm gripped but he and I don't have to wait long before the battery crashes down... Does he remove his hands in time? I shan't spoil the plot here (though you can probably guess what happens).

Houdini now comes to my mind and also, perhaps rather obliquely, "Man on Wire". I read the label which tells me Calderwood does not practice his 'experiments' before they are filmed. I'm immediately sceptical. Surely such precision must be choreographed carefully in advance? Full of doubt, I cross the room to a canvas on the other side of the room by another artist Wade Guyton. The bias of the institution I work for sometimes means that painting is an alien art form to me and indeed on this occasion I find Guyton's impenetrable. It's undoubtedly attractive to look at, but I'm unable to read the black crosses which randomly overlap and decorate the white surface. A general reference to minimalism, I wonder, and to Sol LeWitt specifically? I think so, but neither reference seems to help much. I read the label for some guidance, which provides a description of the artist's process. It's not really a painting after all but a kind of print made by dragging a canvas through a printer. I notice overlaps, smudges and traces of coloured phosphors, but then the more I try and understand how it was made, the more I begin to doubt that it is physically possible to make something in this way. The whole thing would shred, I'd have thought from my limited experience of paper jams and conventional printers. Of course I'm no maker, so I don't actually know. I take my disbelief and move on. I am suffering from a material ignorance, I think, which is stopping me fully appreciating these works. Yet at the same time, I actually know enough so that I cannot accept everything I'm told in a label. It's a bind, having some knowledge but not quite enough.

Walking to my left, I see two works by Shirley Tse: one silver and one bronze. They both look like ribbons which cascade down the wall in generous fluttering loops. I like them and it's always good to be introduced to the work of an artist you don't know. When I try to find out more about the pieces I find myself again unconvinced by the label and am unable to equate the information it gives me with what I actually see; I look hard but still cannot find references to the military and early computers. Tse also glorifies plastic, the label says. "I hope she recycles", I say. I make a note to try and engage more effectively the next time I see a Tse, but I've already been attracted by a Claire Barclay piece nearby which I think will be safer territory for me. 'Stillstill' is a quiet piece that does not scream for attention and I'd not noticed it when I first walked in the room. In fact it's something of a surprise, as I've not seen her work on this scale before and never in a group show like this. However, I am entranced. The elements of Barclay's recent vocabulary are here: machine-turned brass, ears of corn folded simply or woven into elaborate dollies, mirror painted glass, and random shapes sewn in black cotton. I think Barclay is interested in finding meanings in juxtapositions and the materials and textures used here contrast nicely and one is drawn to speculate on how each element has been made and by whom (she learns to make them herself or has them made especially if they require a skill she feels she lacks). Barclay's idiosyncratic combination of high gloss and homespun objects seems more exquisite on this scale than in her large installations and it gives me the impression of something from a domestic interior. Indeed, the various items are displayed on something like a shelf giving them the appearance of a small collection of prized but disparate items arranged on a mantelpiece or console table; it looks random and each object is quite different to its neighbour - I imagine that they are only linked by the implicit sense of taste and style that has brought them all together. Placed together then, these items seem to have purely decorative effect. Yet studying them more closely it becomes clear that each has been very deliberately placed and has greater significance (ritualistic or symbolic perhaps?) than at first glance: I feel they must have purpose and meaning, but Barclay does not help by declaring what their greater importance actually is. As I struggle with this, I start looking at the surface textures again. The more I try and get to grips with 'Stillstill', the more it seems to slip away and I'm brought back to how it looks and how it was made. Then again, maybe that's what Barclay wants. Just like Feher.

There's a nice correlation between the Barclay and a piece at the opposite end of the room, which appears to also have a domestic feel. It is by Ian Kiaer, who, I would hazard, is similarly interested in the poetics of surface texture and arrangement, but he has employed a seemingly random collection of what I assume to be objects he has found (Barclay never finds, she makes). Some of Kiaer's items are recognisable from everyday life, but have been manipulated a little - like a mirror that has had its silvered backing partially torn off. Tiny pieces of glass also litter the floor, which remind me of Calderwood's film. Other items are completely unknown to me but look a little mechanical and sometimes medical. The arrangements draws me in but all I see is my own reflection in the ragged mirror looking back rather blankly, and I feel there's a cold austerity that also repels me at the same time. I don't know if it had added resonance at Kettles Yard (where the exhibition originated) which is more homely than here, but surmise that these objects only have meaning in this particular configuration in what ever context they are place in; they are able to exist independently but have something more when they are in this kind of configuration. Elements which look ordinary at first are raised in status to art; they are given new meaning by the artist who has selected and placed them so.

I feel like I am finally making headway now and have a better understanding of the works on display. With confidence, I go over to a large shimmering sheaf of plastic hanging from the ceiling. It's a painting/sculpture by Karla Black who also makes use of mundane materials - in this case Cif, toothpaste, nail varnish, paint, soap, body lotion etc. - mixed together and sandwiched between sheets of cellophane. Sealed in this way, the liquid does not dry out and the temptation to squeeze the thick, lemon-coloured suspension is great. It has a joyously infantile air and was, I imagine, messy and fun to make. The manner of its production belies the fact that the work also possesses a delicate, fragile beauty. It moves at the slightest breath of air (listen and it is possible to hear its gentle crinkling sound) and light flickers across its crumpled surface. Entitled 'Pleaser', I decide it's an appropriate name for such a charming thing. Finished, I start to cross the room to make my way out. In the centre though is yet another work which I've thus far failed to take in - I'm amazed at myself that I've been so engrossed and almost missed it. It is another work by Calderwood, it transpires, made from two ladders, two spades, two buckets and two balls. I stand, I look and wait for the 'experiment' to become apparent, as it seems to be completely solid and stable I assume all the parts have been secured in some way. I walk round and start looking for fixings, but as I move IT MOVES! I'm completely shocked and stand stock still for fear of causing the whole thing to come crashing to the ground, but as the ladders gently see-saw I realise that it has been made to do this. It sways but is perfectly balanced. It is also perfectly pitched; simple and yet brilliantly, audaciously clever.

To conclude, what did I learn? About myself, I feel my own ignorance of materials and ways of making was tested by the use of diverse, unusual media used in a variety of different ways and to great effect. To a certain extent though, this is nothing new. A long time ago, artists thankfully started making all sorts of matter really matter by employing all sorts of unexpected means. So, what else? Well, I feel writing this response has allowed me to describe each work, which I've enjoyed greatly. I've tried very hard to engage with each piece; I've looked and then looked deeper as I would do if I were looking at a conventional oil painting say, finding delight in the detail in much the same way too. And what I have found especially liberating during the process is that I've also been able to look closely at what each work has been made from and to consider how each has been fabricated. How, it seems, really can be as illuminating as why. Indeed, as this exhibition illustrates, 'how' is just as good a reason as 'why' is. There is a lightness of touch in this show though, which is deceptive, and whilst I think each work has a simplicity I would say they have actually been carefully considered and complex to engineer. Ultimately, to go back to my initial inquisitor, if he was to ask me the same question again I think I would still just say yes - though I would say it more definitively.

Stephen Feeke
Curator (Exhibitions)
Henry Moore Institute