I’m feeling very pleased because the results have come out much earlier than expected. I got the email today and my mark was 75% which makes all the sweat and tears very much worth it.
A full breakdown of marks, with any Assessor comments/advice for future study will be posted to me by 17th August. So I’ll know then where I did best and what needs to be worked on for the future.
I’ll be celebrating tonight that’s for sure.
31st July 2012
Assignment 5 : Response to Tutor Feedback Part Two
Creative influences underlying my approach towards the Assignment
I’ve described previously how the starting point of Tales with Valeria was a new Holga lens that I thought Id try out on a doll bought from a charity shop. In its own small way Tales with Valeria grew organically, with the first image nurtured by comments on my Flickr stream particularly from Clive White who also mentioned the magic words ‘fairy tales’ which captured me straight away!
In my assignment write-up I quoted the author Clarissa Pinkola Estes. My tutor commented on this in that her only criticism was for more – “perhaps discussing in greater depth the work of other photographers/artists/writers who employ similar feminist themes/strategies”.
Fox and Caruna (2012 ) state “All photographic series are harvested from research from scholarly investigations to catching an overheard conversation on a bus” (p.11) they then go on to provide a clear model for planning and developing your project. Looking at my personal learning cycle I know that I can easily get stuck in the thinking/planning stage. This can be good in terms of learning and assimilating but not for getting something done. Sometimes I can think about a project for so long that I lose interest so it was good for me to dive into taking photographs and allowing ideas to form more spontaneously.
I did do some planning. The doll was going to find the babes in the wood, there was going to be a wolf and the tables would be turned on him. Snow White and a mirror also featured. The Holga lens was good for creating more dreamy images that I hoped could also make the doll look more life-like and enable a combination of the man-made and natural. I had no intention of creating a femininist theme but soon realised that I had a notion of a girl who knew what she wanted and set out to get it. Why The Babes in the Wood, Red Riding Hood and Snow White? They are amongst the best known but, presumably, they have a particular significance for me. It’s only through reflection and re-reading that I’ve been able to clarify what this could be.
I’ve always enjoyed fairy tales, fantasy and fiction. Through reading I’ve learned that fairy tales may appear to be simple tales but they carry many underlying implications and messages which can be interpreted in so many different ways by listeners, readers and academics who ‘analyse’ them for their meanings. I’m referring to ‘fairy tales’ because that’s what they’re usually called although writers such as Jack Zipes do remind us that they are actually folk tales and fairies hardly ever appear.
In The Uses of Enchantment (1976) Bruno Bettelheim provides a psychoanalytic viewpoint on the purpose and meaning of fairy tales in terms of fostering children’s personality development ). He believed that children have to learn step by step to understand themselves and make sense of both a complex external world and the inner turmoil of their feelings and urges. People have to learn to develop their inner resources and fairy tales can get this across to children in a simple yet symbolic form. He suggests that, whilst myths give definite answers, fairy tales’ messages are suggestive and, “ leave to the child’s fantasizing whether and how to apply to himself what the story reveals about life and human nature (p.45). Characters are usually given general or descriptive rather than ‘proper’ name, “Fairies and witches, giants and godmothers remain equally unnamed, thus facilitating projections and identifications” (p. 40).
Bettelheim also reminds us that, to the child, there is no clear line separating objects from living things; or dead things or objects etc. Therefore it’s only natural that a child will believe that animals or objects can talk. He refers to the development of logical thinking from this ‘animistic’ thinking but it seems to me that magical thinking is always with us, although maybe more strongly in some than others. As science progresses and the world becomes more mechanistic our right-brain continues to seeks nurture hence the apparent rise in fantasy films and literature.
Whilst Bettelheim looks from a viewpoint of ego, id and oedipal fantasies etc Jack Zipes adopts a much wider view in looking at the history of folk tales/fairy tales in the context of the prevailing social and cultural context of the time. In Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (2006 [updated from the 1983] edition ) we are reminded that the genre’s origins lie within the tradition of oral storytelling. and almost all critics agree that “…educated writers purposely appropriated the oral folktale and converted it into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners so that children and adults would become civilized according to the social code of that time” (p. 3) which was a patriarchal one.
Zipes provides examples of how the oral folktales were converted in this way in relation to Beauty and the Beast. . The oral tales originated from a cultural pattern of matriarchy where the wild, predatory and undomesticated animal bridegroom had to be ‘saved’, clothed and domesticated by the woman . By the end of the C17th, “the original female bringer of salvation could find her own “true” salvation only by sacrificing herself to a man in his house or castle, symbolical of submission to patriarchal rule” (p.49). Zipes also compares three different version of The Frog Prince to illustrate how the original, more simple tale moves from being more explicitly sexual, with mutual sexual recognition and acceptance, towards the princess rejecting the sexual advances of the frog and being rewarded for this.
Zipes is highly critical of Walt Disney (2006 considering that, even though the cartoons feature young women as heroines, they are “ pale and pathetic compared with the more active and demonic characters in the film.” (p.205). Films continue to be about the domestication of women, Disney celebrates the ideal of the Protestant Ethic of hard work and desexualizes and orders the world into cleanliness. In later films in the genre such as “Shrek” and also the films of Miyazaki, handsome princes do not save virgin princesses and the ugly Shrek and Fiona choose to stay in their messy swamp.
Zipes describes the way in which some contemporary writers have transfigured the tales to show that, “..civilization and life are processes that can be shaped to fulfil basic needs off the readers” (p. 178). He refers to the ‘strident antisexist and antiauthoritarianI perspective of some of the contemporary writers which ‘question male domination and sexual stereotypes (p. 179) and refers to four women of the Merseyside Women’s Liberation Movement in Liverpool who rewrote several of the fairy tales, and Tomi Ungerer who rewrote Red Riding Hood to break the sexual taboos of the original story. It was always my intention that, in her search for love, Red Riding Hood was going to use various strategies to capture the virile ‘wolf’.
Historical perspective from a female viewpoint
Marina Warner (1995) also looks at the context in which the stories were told; who told them; the history of story telling and some of the roots of the folk tales in various literary cultures. Warner looks at the rivalry and hatred between women in some of the stories that often focus upon other women as agents of the heroine’s sufferings –ugly sisters, stepmothers etc. She tells us that the earliest extant version of Cinderella was written down in China around AD850-60 where there is the link with bound feet (p. 202). She asks why it is that women continue to narrate these stories where female characters are so cruel and mothers absent whilst reminding us that, in terms of the history of the fairy tale, the absent mother is literally that as so many women died in childbirth and men remarried and provided step-siblings so there would be competition for resources.
Frogs and animals as symbols
To begin with I chose the wolf and the frog. In “A Hero with a thousand faces” Joseph Campbell (1988) describes the frog in the Frog Prince as the ‘herald” and, in this fairy story, as signifying the coming of adolescence (p. 50). Bettelheim cites the frog as both the necessity for the child to move from a symbiotic relationship with his mother and also a symbol for sexual relations. (p.289) and the metamorphosis from ‘disgust’ at the cold clamminess of the frog, to pleasure when the frog turns into something very beautiful.
Marina Warner looks at ‘The Beast’ in terms of the bear, which survived as a beast of prey in many fairytales, despite actually becoming tamed and humbled in actuality including becoming a teddy bear. The bear, like the wolf, is a metaphor for the masculine appetite, wildness and lust, and Warner cites how Angela Carter “dared to look at women’s waywardness, and especially at their attraction to the Beast in the very midst of repulsion” (p. 308). when she reworked ten fairy tales in ‘The Bloody Chamber” (1979). Carter’s choice of fairy tales for the Virago collection (1990, 1992) also included women of all types, from the bawdy, to the clever, to the crafty to the crone.
Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992) uses the symbol of the wolf in a different way. She writes that the title of her book “Women who run with the wolves” (1992) came from the study of wolves, and that wolves and women
…share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion ….. Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. (p2).
Dr Estes believes that women’s wild instinctual nature has been repressed and she offers the Wild Woman archetype as a way to understand this innate basic nature of women, illustrating this through recounting many absorbing stories from all over the world whilst integrating messages that encourage women to trust their intuition. She also refers to dolls as “talismans, reminders of what is felt but not seen, what is so, but is not immediately obvious”. (p.87)
Dolls in Fairy Tales
Bruno Bettelheim states that children use dolls and toy animals to ‘embody’ aspects of their personality, “which are too complex, unacceptable and contradictory for him to handle” (p. 55). For example, a doll can sublimate an Oedipal desire to have a baby with either mother or father. Well, to me, that’s rather a narrow view of the wonderful use of imagination that children show in playing with dolls, which I think are often serving as role-plays for many aspects of how children perceive their current and possible future lives. Dr Estes gives us a richer meaning of the doll (whose use in various forms and beliefs goes back to antiquity) – as a “symbolic homunculi, little life….… Superficially, it is just a doll. But it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger soul-Self” (p. 85).
My tutor had previously suggested that I look at the work of the photographer, Olivia Parker who has also used dolls as subjects. I was caught by Parker’s introduction to the Booklet on her series “Weighing the Planets” (1987). She writes, “For most of human history people have looked to the spirit world to explain what was going on. Animals floated in the night sky and each object had its own “Anima Motrix” its own moving spirit. Further on she writes “Fairy tales speak of strange tensions and balances: life, growth, and sex versus death and decay”. For me both those aspects infuse her photography. This leads me on to images as illustration and narrative.
Illustration and Photography
So far as “Tales with Valeria” is concerned I think I was mainly influenced by illustration in children’s books and the way in which simple sentences can convey so much more. I was very drawn to David Hockney’s illustrations for his book “Six Fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm” (2012) It’s hard to describe them but they are finely wrought black and white etchings with a look of stylized cartoons.
Olivia Parker has used dolls as subjects but not in portraying fairy tales so far as I know, and I have not yet found other photographers who do so in combination with use of the Holga lens.
There have certainly been many initiative by femininist photographers, such as Jo Spence (M.W. Marien, 2010, p462) to explore social and cultural aspects of womens’ role socialization. Cindy Sherman used protheses and mannequins in her Fairy Tales Series – 1985. I don’t recognize any fairy stories as such but the images are certainly reminiscent of goblins etc. Another photographer, Annie Leibovitz produced a series of photographs for Disney where Hollywood stars such as Jeff Bridges and Penelope Cruz were transformed into characters from fairytales. they are mainly glamorous and beautiful though and, for me, reinforce the notion that heroes and heroines should be too.
The photographers I have appreciated the most have been those such as Jamie Baldridge and Paolo Ventura who have created and illustrated their own fantasy tales. Jamie Baldridge created a fantastical journey entitled The Everywhere Chronicles (2001) and his images can be found here. Paolo Ventura created a work entitled ‘The Automaton” which is a photograpahic narrative centring on a Jewish watchmaker, living in the Venice ghetto in 1943.
I have to agree that the doll, Valeria, does embody much of my life experience, and knowledge/reading around fairy tales and myths over the years that I wasn’t aware of at the time. I was surprised how such a small piece of work can carry such an accumulation and I’ve enjoyed re-reading the books and doing further research. Being immersed in the reading took me back into my childhood, adolescence and the later years when I was working out what kind of a woman I wanted to be. If I’d actually been asked to produce a piece of work around fairy tales I don’t think the outcome would have been the same. I might have been more inclined to do something along the lines of interviewing children, young people and some adults on their favourite fairy story and what it means to them’ perhaps with photographs of them and extracts of their words. I’m pleased that, unusually for me, the narrative just emerged with a twitch of Valeria’s nose as it were. On the subject of names – I couldn’t complete Assignment 5 until I had a name for my doll. It wasn’t until then that she could become an entity in her own right, an agent of her own destiny, and the Assignment could come together.
I’m reluctant to explain my intentions behind the images and simple words because I would prefer for the viewer to make their own interpretation based on their own experience. However, here are some of the personal experiences which seem to fit the various analyses offered by the writers I’ve mentioned. Personal Experience in relation to the meaning of Fairy Tales
I have a file of all the work I’ve done towards the assignment. This particular piece fits some of the categories provided by Fox & Caruna (2012) in their Photography Project Self-Evaluation Form (p. 101).
There seem to be so many directions in which I can go with all the information I have to hand. My husband thinks I should ‘finish the story’. I’m less sure because the one drawback concerning this particular doll is that she doesn’t have movable parts and her nose will always be pointed in the air. I have now acquired other, older and movable dolls so could do something with those.
I’m attracted towards Olivia Parker’s work in general and intend to explore her approach more deeply. I also like her notion of each object having its own “Anima Motrix” and would like to do more work along those lines. I’ve rediscovered a liking for telling stories and so work such as that done by Jamie Baldridge and Paolo Ventura also interests me.
The major challenge for me is how I’m going to align that with my new OCA module which is People & Place which doesn’t seem to fit at all. Whatever I do I think it might have to be a concurrent personal project.
30th June 2012
Baldridge, J The Everywhere Chronicles, (2001) (Thesis) submitted towards degree of Master of Fine Arts
Bettelheim, B. (1978) The Uses of Enchantment, Peregrine Books
Campbell, J. (1988) The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Paladin, UK
Carter, A. The Bloody Chamber and other stories (2012) Vintage Classics
Carter, A (ed) Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (2005), Virago Press, London
Estes, C.P., (2008) Women who run with the Wolves, Rider,
Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, (1933) George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London
Fox.A and Caruana, N (2012) Behind the Image, AVA Publishing SA, Switzerland
Grimms Fairy Tales (1930s?), Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd., London and Melbourne
Hockney, D (197) Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Royal academy of Arts, London (2012)
Marien, M.W, Photography: A Cultural History (2010 (3rd Ed), Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London.
Parker, O. (1987) Weighing the Planets, The friends of Photography, Carmel.
Warner, M. (1995) From the Beast to the Blond, Vintage, London
Zipes, J, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1983) rev 2006) Routledge, Abingdon
Assignment 5 : Response to Tutor Feedback Part One
I’ve mentioned before how heartened I was by my tutor’s preliminary feedback on and support to take the leap and submit Tales with Valeria for Assignment 5. She also commented that my draft of Village Voice was a strong contender as well and she hoped I would draw attention to this when I send my work for final assessment. What I have done is to place all the draft work for the latter in my paper learning log.
In addition to the positive feedback there were three suggested areas for further work/reflection so far as Valeria is concerned:
- The varying degrees of sharpness/blur in the prints
- Suggestion that I discuss in greater depth the works of other photographers/artists/writers who employ similar feminist themes/strategies
- Encouragement to produce a Blurb book
For this post I’ll concentrate on the prints and the book.
My intention from the start had been to have a small, square book as a final product for myself if not for actual assessment. For the Assignment itself, though, I had created larger pages in InDesign using the Blurb plug-in for a small portrait book (approx 8” x 10”). I had done this because I thought that my tutor (and Assessors) would want to see larger prints and my tutor agreed with this assumption.
My tutor was concerned that the first three images of Valeria were perhaps a little too blurred compared with the images with her sister, the tree trunk, the frog, the children and the birdcage. She also commented that the last two images were quite blurry again but didn’t seem to fit the narrative. Her suggestion was to work on the sharpness a little or perhaps just increase the contrast slightly. She thought she agreed with my point about printing the images smaller. Additionally, she commented that she found the completely sharp woodland path a visual jolt and, for her, it didn’t fit the sequence in its present form.
I had had some problems in managing the colour in InDesign, despite using the same profiles for all the Adobe software, and this had driven me quite distracted in trying to produce a print that matched my calibrated monitor. This was particularly so with the wolf. My tutor’s other concern was with, ‘She wanted them’ where, in the print, Valeria is slightly darker and it’s easy to overlook her presence. Suggestions there were to experiment by using the dodging tool very carefully or using magnetic lasso/Select/Modify/Feather.
1. The cover
I made the blue background larger which makes the image itself smaller and sharper. I also increased the contrast on the image, which makes it stand out more against the background. The blue is a paler colour but I think it works well now that the image has more contrast.
2. The Woodland Path
I discussed this on the telephone with my tutor. She said she was less familiar with the Helga lens but was surprised that this too had been produced from it.
At the time I’d been pleased that I’d obtained such a bright, clear image from the lens but I do accept the point about the visual jolt.
I’ve added some Gaussian blur, which is probably more obvious on the print I’ll be submitting than here on my blog.
I have also re-printed the wolf so that he looms more out of the darkness in the wood and ‘the babes in the wood’ so that Valeria’s face is more noticeable. The soft-proofing function in Lightroom 4 really helped with that. I’ve also re-sized the image on the page where Valeria is looking at the Wolf man so that, again, it looks less blurred and all the re-worked prints will be submitted with the Assessment material. I’ll write more about the Wolf man in Part 2.
For the assignment itself I submitted a booklet I’d put together which showed the layout and wording, together with approx 8” x 10” prints of each individual page. As mentioned above though my intention eventually was to have a small square book. I think what was in my mind was a similar book I’d been given by my headteacher at infants school when I’d passed my first piano exam (which turned out to be my last as well!). The book was Cinderella and it’s a shame that I no longer have it.
The idea of a small, square book was reinforced when I bought a lovely small book Andre Kertesz : The Early Year (2005)s. This book is only 5” x 5”. It has a lovely navy blue, linen cover with a small (2 x 1 ½ `’) sepia image of three little boys reading a book (A link with Kertesz’s series On Reading which I also love). The Early Years contains some unknown early photographs created in Hungary between 1912 and 1925 and the book accompanied an exhibition. The book has a an Introduction by Bruce Silverstein and a beginning Essay by Robert Gurbo, curator of the Andre Kertesz estate, which details the reclaiming of the long-lost negatives and prints in 1963. The photographs in the book are quite tiny – most of them 2 x 1 ½ “ and you almost need a magnifying glass to see them, and I knew that really would be too small for Valeria. (In any case, at present Blurb’s smallest book is the 7×7”).
My tutor had encouraged me to go the self-publishing route and so I re-sized Valeria into the separate Blurb software rather than in InDesign. This was because I was concerned about the colour management problems that I still haven’t been able to resolve. My tutor had a look at the ‘proof’ on the Blurb website, pointed out a typographical error, which I corrected, and made a couple of suggestions on possible minor tweaks in the placement of the wolf and the pacing of the last two pages. The book was re-uploaded and here it is
It’s just a small and simple book but it’s very satisfying to follow the whole process through to a proper completion. It won’t arrive in time for me to send it with my material for Assessment but I am including the link here so that the Assessors can see another outcome of my work.
I still want to produce a more personalized book though especially after buying another book from the bookshop at The Whitechapel Gallery the other week. This is Six Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: With Illustrations by David Hockney. It’s a small portrait size (8 ¼ x 5 ¾ “) hardback, with a blue-green coarse linen feel cover which has a small inset etching of Rapunzel. The book is illustrated with black and white etchings drawn onto plates by David Hockney and information on the back cover states:
Although inspired by earlier illustrations of the tales by such artists as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, Hockney’s extraordinary etchings re-imagine these strange and supernatural stories for a modern audience …”
The Fairy Tales are the lesser-known ones, apart from Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltkin and it’s delightful book to hold and read.
I’m not going to promise myself that I’ll do it for Valeria but I do intend to talk with Otter Bindery where I did a Workshop on Bookmaking some time ago. They offer a Photobook printing service with software you can use for arranging photos and inserting text etc plus bespoke bindings in addition to standard ones. I really do like the idea of linen bound covers with inset images.
8th June 2012
Hockney, D, Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, (2012) Royal academy Publications
Silverstein, B & Gurbo, R , Andre Kertesz : The Early Years, (2005), W. W. Norton & Co., New York, London.
The Art of Photography
Assignment 4: Response to Tutor Feedback
This was an Assignment that I struggled with due to technical issues of dealing with the lighting whilst wanting to stay connected with my subject. I was relieved to get positive feedback overall. My tutor also noted how I had struggled in one or two cases with the shiny surface of the cup and suggested that bouncing light from white reflectors rather than silver might have overcome this. She also suggested that I could try the Clone or Healing tool in Photoshop and experiment with various Opacity and Flow settings. Well – I did attempt this on No. 9 where you can see how the light fell at each side of the cup.
I spent some time experimenting with both tools but, unfortunately neither of them worked well enough. I think this was because there were striations of colour which couldn’t be duplicated accurately enough at least at my stage of technical know-how of Photoshop.
Suggested reading for the next Assignment – ( 5 : Narrative and Illustration)
I was guided towards the works of Olivia Parker, Josef Koudelka and Chris Steele Perkins and I wrote about the latter two here
I’ll write more about Olivia Parker in my response to feedback on Assignment 5.
7th June 2012
When I looked again at my Assignment prints I decided that although No. 9 definitely had too many striations of light/colour for me to improve on (at my stage of expertise) I should look again at the others. I thought I should at least try to rise to the challenge! I therefore looked again at 2, 5, 7 and 8 and used the clone and/or healing brush tool to see what I could do about the ‘imperfect’ effect of the light. The originals are at the top and re-done images are on the bottom.
No. 2 : Form
I think I have improved on the shine that shows between the middle berry and the blue.
No. 5 : Texture
There was some shine which showed on the top right of the cup; However, the re-worked version looks somewhat duller somehow so not an improvement.
No. 7 : Shape
I removed the shine over the man in red’s head and I think it is an improvement.
No. 8 : Shape
I know I wasn’t happy at all about the shine in the middle of the cup. I have removed it but, to me, it doesn’t improve the image as now it just looks dull.
I’m pleased that I did persevere even though I don’t think that some of the work was an improvement. I will submit prints of No. 2 and No. 7 with my assessment material.
8th June 2012
The Art of Photography
Assignment 3: Response to Feedback
I had overall very positive feedback on this Assignment: –
“Your presentation and printing are excellent. Your work shows your confident technical control, your willingness to experiment with new ways of working, a sharp ‘eye’ and the development of a mature approach to image making…………
You have a good ‘eye’ and as in the previous assignment, this is particularly evident in your people/ documentary photographs. When composing, you are becoming much freer with composition, using the whole ‘frame’ and not always placing the subject bang in the centre of the image.”
I felt very encouraged by this, together with the fact that no changes were suggested to any of the images.
However, my tutor commented that she did find my blog a little hard to navigate (as at 4th September 2011) and that it would be helpful to have any experimentation, research, and reflections relevant to a particular assignment grouped together in one folder. I took the point and, for Part 4: Light, did include a Summary of Learning at the end of the Exercise Section – She also asked for a little more information on my assignment photos such as decision making, camera settings etc and my evaluation which, again, I included in the next Assignment (Assignment 4).
I’m aware that I still haven’t written-up all the work I did following my looking up of Robert Mapplethorpe which then led me on to John Blakemore and his tulips. My set on tulips is on my Flickr site and, if there is sufficient time before Assessment, I will endeavour to complete the promised write-up as it would be a shame to lose a written record of my learning.
30th May 2012
The Art of Photography
Feedback and changes to Assignment 2 : Elements of Design
No. 2 – Two points
My tutor commented that this was the only image as such that she had a slight problem and I agree with her as it’s the one I had difficulty with at the time. She had agreed with me that 4b) Verticals and Horizontals did fit the brief for Two Points also but thought it fitted better in Verticals/Horizontals. My tutor reminded me of an eye image which I had put on my blog in one of the exercise write-ups. These are my dog’s eyes where I can see two me’s.
The reason I hadn’t submitted it at the time was because it didn’t fit into my theme, which was London. I’ve been back to London several times since then but still haven’t found ‘two points’ which fit my brief i.e. two singular subjects which are small in the whole composition but catch the viewer’s attention.
4a: Combination of Vertical and Horizontal lines
It was pointed out to me that the sky top left weakens the image and needed ‘pulling in’. Using the ‘burning in’ tool didn’t work quite as well as selecting that part of the sky in Nik Viveza. It’s now improved, has been reprinted and will be included in my Assessment submission.
Although commenting that this was an original way of interpreting the brief, my tutor also pointed out that the window is paper white. She suggested either tweaking Levels, Highlights or using a slightly tighter crop. The highlights have now been tweaked and the reprint will be included in my submission:
Learning log/critical essays
Comment made that it would be useful to have a link to images I decided to reject, print or contact sheet. From then onwards I did include such prints in my submission where appropriate.
30th May 2012
Whitechapel Gallery : 28 April 2012
Gillian Wearing Exhibition
Study Visit with OCA
I felt very well-prepared for this visit, with a good briefing from OCA concerning ‘Looking and Reading’. A video to watch; Guardian interview to read, and suggestions for some thinking to do beforehand.
Gillian Wearing has a degree in Fine Art, is a conceptual artist and was a member of the Young British Artists Movement. This group rose to fame in the 1990s; its members often used shock tactics; used new materials to produce art and were from the East of London (e.g. Tracey Emin). I’m assuming they were part of the postmodernist movement.
It’s obvious that the Guardian interviewer, Tim Adams, had difficulty in getting her to speak as freely about herself as she achieved with her own subjects. I gained a sense of an unsettled, shifting ground between them with Wearing using words to elude and the interviewer trying to pin her down. Wearing describes herself as a listener and I’ve found that people who are more used to listening can certainly find it hard to talk about themselves – and vice versa. There is another interview on the Guardian site (talking to Kira Cochrane) where she describes her own inarticulacy and problems she had at comprehensive school in Birmingham that pioneered large class sizes. Thinking about it, there’s a ‘listening’ mask and a ‘talking’ mask we wear when we’re interacting with others and we switch between them with greater or lesser facility according to our intrinsic personality and whom we’re with at the time.
After my preparatory reading I noted down masks, sense of self; many different selves; unexpressed selves; boundaries; verbal/non-verbal; Erving Goffman; Eleanor Rigby, and showing yourself through your art. I read Goffman many years ago and was entertained by his notion of the front and back stage personalities – that we all enact multiple roles in our lives. That was the biggest question I took with me to the Exhibition – is Gillian Wearing going to show me herself through her art – ‘communicate an inner life by proxy’ as her interviewer writes?
It was good to meet up with everyone from OCA and link some more names to faces. As before, we were greeted by Michael Lawton of the Gallery who provided a commentary as we walked round. He gave us his introduction whilst standing under a monitor playing a video of Gillian Wearing singing to herself in a shopping mall. So far as I could tell, none of the other shoppers actually paused to look at her so she was in her own inner world there. Maybe they thought she was madly eccentric. Michael Lawton drew attention to her use of colour; her switch into films and the performance element in her work.
We looked at one short film before we went to the upper gallery. This was of a girl called Lindsay, a street drinker who subsequently died. The film is grainy, in slow motion and synced with Lindsay’s twin sister speaking about her. Thinking about it now, the graininess and slow motion added a slightly drunk effect. I wonder if this was Wearing’s intention.
Whilst Michael Lawton had been talking to us I had had this odd thought that maybe Gillian Wearing was actually with us; playing the part of one of the group and observing us. Maybe it was because I’d caught sight of her self-portrait at the bottom of the stairs – wearing a mask of her own face with just her (real) eyes looking through. The smooth rigidity of the expressionless mask combined with those large eyes was quite unnerving and, throughout, the rest of the tour it was the eyes within masks that were the most compelling yet weirdly skewed to me.
The early series, ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ was the most ‘traditional’ to me. 600 portraits ranged around the room with the subjects holding signs. It was the sheer number of them that was impressive. Some of the signs were at odds with the subject such as a woman smiling whilst holding a sign ‘I am depressed at the moment’, and a man unsmiling and with eyes closed stating ‘Queer and happy. The latter made me think of how small children can often believe that if their eyes are closed people can’t see them. My other thought was, “How do I know that the signs are telling the truth in any case?”
There are further films where the subject’s words are synced with someone else’s voice. The twins and their mother for example. How often do I now hear my mother’s words coming out of my mouth. My daughter and I were only talking about this a few weeks ago and she said sometimes she almost horrifies herself by doing this. Sometimes my grandchildren say things in such an old-fashioned way that I know it’s a parent speaking – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and all that!. I find those occasions amusing but it was odd to see here – not knowing whether to close my eyes and listen to the words or watch the non verbal behaviour of the now muted subjects. Maybe it was harder because these were strangers I was watching and listening to.
There were further portraits – again with the use of masks. Gillian Wearing as her favourite photographers, and also as members of her own family. Again it was the eyes that seemed weird, like those films where aliens take over humans or The Midwich Cuckoos. You know there’s something not quite right about their behaviour but it’s hard to work out exactly why. Gilllian Wearing attempting to get behind the skin of other people – is this because she thinks she can or because she wants to know what it’s like to be them? I don’t know what her living family thought about the portraits but there’s another interesting Guardian piece on the creation of the masks.
Beyond this were booths where one could watch film of more people in masks giving intimate details of their lives and secret thoughts – some of which I really didn’t want to hear! One of my fellow students Julia has compared this to confessional booths, whilst also raising an important point to me concerning the ethics of this kind or work. What effect do these confessions have on the speakers; how do they deal afterwards with any feelings raised. I think it’s fine to say, “Well they volunteered to do this”, but people don’t always take into account what the consequences might be.
There were some harrowing stories as well in ‘10-16’. Volunteer actors, trained in method-acting, lip-synced to the voices of children and young people. Reminding me of how so many adults carry the bruising of their childhood within them.
I might not like her methods but Gillian Wearing is certainly full of talent and creativity. I suppose I’m left wondering how she felt about the stories she heard and whether they helped her to express or make any connection with her own feelings and thoughts. I certainly didn’t get a sense of the real Gillian Wearing behind all those different masks – even her own.
I think that in speaking as yourself from behind a mask you become an actor in your own drama and so, in a sense, unreal. Also, how real do you feel when you speak as someone else? I know I’ve certainly engaged in role plays in the past where I found I was identifying with the person I was portraying. This kind of projective identification also gave me more of an insight into them as a person – I found clues and answers I hadn’t been aware of before. This brings to mind the role of empathy in our lives and the effect of confluence. If we enter into someone else’s thoughts and feelings then the boundaries between us become a little blurred and we sometimes have to work hard to distinguish between self and other.
In the Exhibition itself seeing through masks actually distanced me from the person behind them, despite their often tragic stories. Their stories were just that – not quite real and so I felt both slightly troubled yet uninvolved at the same time. Thinking of theatrical tradition I’m reminded of Greek tragedies and the masked actors. The masks de-personalize and so the subjects become Everyman and their stories take on a universal resonance.
There’s a lot more of a philosophical nature concerning self, aspects of self and how all those different possibilities of our birthing gradually become distilled into a central core, so that we know when we are, or not, ‘being ourselves’. If we don’t then we can become psychotic or suffer various personality disorders. I want to re-read Goffman to remind myself whether or not he touches upon this aspect. What comes through in Gillian Wearing’s Exhibition is a view of life which seems to believe that we take on these ‘masks’ to hide something negative about ourselves. I don’t remember that coming through to me when I read Goffman all those years ago.
I’ve been given a lot of food for thought here, including how as a photographer I want to interact with my subjects. I certainly don’t want to de-personalize them yet, in the very act of pressing the shutter button, I do freeze them in time.
1st May 2012