A Journal

Francesca Woodman

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The first time I saw Francesca Woodman’s work was at an exhibition in London during my studies at St Martins. Her eloquent, historically referential work has since remained ingrained in my mind. Last month, at FOAM in Amsterdam, I saw a similar retrospective and those images jumped straight to the forefront again.

However, as with so many others, I have begun to wonder if my original draw into her world was due largely to the tragedy of her personal story. Woodman took her own life at the age of 22. Prior to her suicide, she created a vast archive that hints at ‘what could have been’. As with Kurt Cobain,¬†Fassbinder or countless other musicians, artists and film makers whose lives have been lost too soon, we pine for the unmade works of future years, with no knowledge as to whether there would have been a continuation if they had indeed lived.

Perhaps those ten years of creativity (the first image on show at FOAM was taken when Woodman was 12 years old) were in fact the peak of her talents? Perhaps the responsibilities of adult life would have grasped her and drained her creative urges? We are naive if we believe creativity to be a life long gift. It is dependent on surroundings, and would the artist behind such fragile intimacy at such a young age have had the conviction and resilience to protect herself from life’s viciousness?

Had she yet known heartbreak? Had she fought to eat or pay rent? Her family background of financial stability obviously afforded her the time and equipment to create at such a young age. As did the education that this brought. Her years in Florence are evident in the classical construction of her work. The influences of the cities art history is certainly is certainly not lost on her, as is the influence of American teen culture of the 1970’s.

The mind of a teenager absorbs like a sponge, and there is an undoubtable talent in restructuring this into such beautiful imagery. However, as adults, we all wish to once again be a sponge without the idiosyncrasies life has driven into us.

I’m do not in anyway doubt my love of Woodman’s photography. It’s youthful abundance and adolescent melancholy, fill me with nostalgia and hope at the same time. I am however intrigued by the questions of my own allegiances that her life story raises.

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The Smoke That Roams Looking For A Home

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In 2010 I began to look at the idea of candles being used in religious and folk lore ceremonies. It fascinated me that people see the lighting of a wick as a way to connect with people they have lost. The notion that by creating a light you are somehow keeping a person present is incredibly valid to our basic humanity. It approaches the fear of death alongside the vital understanding of light being the giver of life.

For the past year the British media, and much of the media around the world, has been flooding us with fear inducing articles and imagery regarding the crisis of migration from African and Middle Eastern countries. Following on from an election where the right wing parties gained momentum and an anti-immigration attitude became popular thinking, the newspapers did not offer sympathies or hope to those escaping the devastation of war. Instead they quoted numbers. The number of jobs taken by migrants. The number of people crossing boarders daily. The number of crimes committed by those awaiting asylum. The Prime Minister even described the gathering of people in Calais as a ‘swarm’. A term not out of place in biblical plagues. The press showed us pictures of large quantities of men at train stations and labelled them as ‘of fighting age’. They put fear in every breath those living in small towns across the country took.

Then something changed. A single photograph has the power to connect to individuals and a population in a greater way than a thousand words ever could. In the 1980’s, images of the famine in Ethiopia shook the world into a collective consciousness that resulted in an outpouring of help. Similarly the image of three year old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying on the shoreline of a Greek beach sent a shiver of truth through the eyes of everyone who saw it, and within a short space of time the headlines changed.

Once we remove ourselves from the press, and also from the present moment, we can start to look at the base issue that has emerged in the 21st Century. The search for a home is now loaded with far greater criteria than ever before. Those similar to myself find a natural migration for creativity. The immersion in a new environment brings with it new horizons and optimism. It allows work to grow naturally through encounters with a wider group of people. It also allows reflection on the places you have been before, and the things you have created at a distance that gives perspective. My personal migration has also been driven by ‘love’. The bond between another and myself has seen me spend long periods of time in Berlin and Amsterdam, and is something familiar to millions around the world. Be it a move to a neighbouring city or an entirely new country, our hearts can drive us over long distances.

Then, there is the kind of migration that I am undoubtably privileged to not have had to undertake. Escape. Whether it is from conflict, abuse, segregation or poverty, migration as an escape is a fear ingrained into an indigenous population. Does this fear stem from the individuals need to protect the four walls of a home from ‘invaders’? Does it have roots in the fear that their own society could degrade to a point that they too will have to find an escape?

The performance ‘The Smoke That Roams, Looking For A Home’ took place at Lights Of Soho in London, featuring readings from French, Spanish and British literature discussing the notion of a home, alongside vocal recitals with similar themes, and an interview playback with a Persian migrant who has resided in Holland for twenty years.

Performers – Lana McIver, Henry Bennet, Gala Knorr, Tom Sawyer and Soline Pillet

With Thanks – Sohrab Bayat, Hamish Jenkinson, Alexa Pearson and Lola Bastard

 

 

Tino Sehgal – This Progress (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)

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I knew little of Tino Sehgal before walking into This Progress at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The visit was unplanned, so I had not sought out his work, and I was unaware that his twelve month residency provided a fresh experience each time the calendar changed.

Walking up the medicinal white staircase towards a closed door, I thought I may be heading in the wrong direction. Then a girl around twelve years old approached me. She told me behind the door was an exhibition by Tino Sehgal, and that she would like to take me inside. It felt a little unnerving. I usually attend exhibitions alone so that I am not led into conversation that distracts me from the natural thought process that emerges. For a minute I wondered if it was an optional choice. It wasn’t and as the door opened it revealed an empty room. Before it had a chance to close behind me, and I could take in the large wooden floor and white ceilings, the girl asked me a question. ‘What is progress to you?’ I was a little lost. My first answer after a little silence, was ‘a movement forward’. She then questioned me again. ‘So it’s a physical thing to you, and not mental? Or is it both?’

The conversation continues as we complete a lap of the gallery, but as we reach a door at the far side, a woman in her early 20’s appears and introduces herself. Before I can acknowledge her the previous girl has left. The second encounter is far more personal, and the questions around progress are aimed directly at my personal life. It’s uncomfortable, but the things I begin to think about are important, and they are most certainly things I usually try not to think about. This bringing to the surface of my own doubts and insecurities actually turns into a positive as I begin to actually notice things that have been a force for good. It is rare we focus on things that make us happy, or that we are proud of. As humans our nature is to dwell on the things that didn’t go well.

Before I can really begin to analyse how I am thinking I am entering a new room, and with it a new conversational partner. This time a woman in her thirties. She has a great deal of energy, but diverts the conversation onto the economy and the environment. The topics stay political, and in a way it seems like a rehearsed speech more than the others. However she does seek out my opinions and I feel motivated to debate her. It becomes energising.

As we enter the final room, the energy suddenly disappears. She literally runs through a hidden entrance and I am met by a gentleman called Burt. He is in his 80’s and tells me how he was born in Amsterdam in 1937, but his life did not begin until nearly ten years later after the end of the second world war. He tells me about his businesses, about how he his now retired, and as well talk, we leave the exhibition space and enter the galleries corridors. A change occurs. We begin to talk like old friends. Discussing changing landscapes of the cities we live in. How glass and steel has replaced ornately carved brickwork, and how hubs of community have been removed to accommodate business and tourists. Our conversation seems to last forever. Then Burt turns to me, puts out his hand, and says ‘Good luck Oliver, it was nice to talk with you.’ And he is gone.

Finding A Feeling Through Film

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Digital photography is at best soulless.

It is a series of attempts to capture emotion and movement that more often than not fails. The ability to repeatedly click a button in the search for a golden moment or expression takes away the natural instinct of a human mind.

In using film, an image is produced that is both wrapped in silk and entwined by razor wire simultaneously; as soft and beautiful as it is cutting to the emotion. The process requires patience and an understanding, or at least a willingness to understand, your own way of seeing.

It is a hunt. A hunt where your ammunition is limited and where it is necessary to train your eye to make the greatest use possible of 24 shots. The subject is the prize, the landscape the great open plain in which the subject hides and the lens the vehicle that evokes the adrenalin flooding through you. In film there is consequence. Get it wrong and the emotion is gone forever. But wait, observe and learn the timing of a subjects actions and you will find a truth. Your own truth.

It is such a revealing process to the individual behind the lens. In a very short amount of time  it is possible to discover the way your eyes and mind work together. This is impossible with digital photography. The influx of possibilities confuse the photographer into mimicry, appropriation and a lack of original thought. In film the only thought that can live is original.

I recently discovered an Olympus film camera in the draw of a house that was being cleared by my partners parents. It is one that boarders the age of film and digital, and allows playful experimentation. In the four months since it was found it has not left my side, and in that time life has changed dramatically. My partner is now now my ex-partner. I have travelled to four countries, each of which has brought with it a new discovery, and my own constraints to my creativity have suddenly been lifted. I accredit this in part to the camera.

Having to relearn patience has been key. Watching a man walk along the rocky sea front in Mallorca, as the waves broke violently in front of him, I tried to predict his decision. I felt he would jump. He seemed to be looking for a safe point. For five minutes I waited, my finger poised. Then in one rapid movement he removed his shirt, threw it behind him and dove into the gap between the rocks he had located. As he did so, my finger applied pressure. I only had one shot. I could not reel off six or seven in quick succession, as I could have with digital, and I missed the moment very slightly. I caught him in the air, pointing his body towards the water, but I could not quite catch the angle I had hoped. I was left frustrated when the print came back, but more determined than ever.

As my relationship fell apart in Spain, I took an image of three close friends stood framed by a beautiful sunset. They held their phones in front of them and smiled to a backdrop of mirror like sea and succulent orange skies. The idea fascinated me that the image they capture is then likely to be circulated on social media, becoming a non precious object due to it’s physical nature. Yes, it will continue to exist. It will live via computer screens and smartphones. However it will never be held. The surface will never feel skin. It will never be found in an album that a grandmother keeps under her favourite chair ready to illustrate a glorious history full of life to her family. I may of course be wrong. It could indeed already be printed and hung on a wall. However in it’s digital make up I still struggle to find a soul.

Two months later in Amsterdam, I bathed in melancholia. For a day, on a borrowed bike, I cycled every inch of the canal system camera in hand. From red lights, to abandoned buildings and through relaxing boat rides to the random rooms I found myself in. Everything became framed. It wasn’t about pointing and clicking a button to celebrate a visit or something that looked great. It was about finding my emotion. Outside a bookshop on the banks of the canal, a small table sat with two empty chairs. An umbrella pierced the table. Nothing moved. No one spoke. I waited. Not for any kind of action, not to find the perfect frame. I waited to find out how I felt. As that tinge of loneliness set in, as the truth emerged to me, I pressed the button. The result is perfect to me. Whether the focus works, or the image is of interest to anyone else means nothing. I see that moment in the glaze on the water and the emptiness of the chairs. It is a wonderful moment of realisation.

 

Shia LaBeouf And Appropriation

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An interesting debate has been provoked by Shia LaBeouf around Plagiarism and Appropriation. In film, literature, music, design, etc, the use of elements from someone’s work is seen as theft, but is this only because we live in a capitalist society, where the original creator feels like a they are missing out on a revenue stream, when in truth they are probably gaining one? In the art world, where the majority of practice has very little financial reward, appropriation is common place, and seen in a completely different light.

Whilst watching the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony , a commentator said ‘Well the Russians may have named the television, but a Scotsman invented it.’ This theory of ownership that seems prominent in society today misses the point that it takes a number of people to create a finalised version of one thing, from invention, to branding, to marketing, to putting the right pieces together in the right order.

Michelangelo may have engineered the High Renaissance but if others had not appropriated his style, would he be revered in the way he currently is? The Rolling Stones first two albums were made up of tracks written by musicians in America, a choice made for two reasons, one because the music was amazing, and two because that world was alien to British culture at the time and provided them a unique, yet entirely appropriated sound. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs has been called a ‘scene-for-scene’ rip off of Ringo Lam’s City On Fire, yet it is still a masterful work of cinema that introduced him into our collective consciousness.

Whilst LaBeouf sits in a gallery appropriating Marina Abramovic and Bas Jan Ader, something the press seem to be glossing over in favour of his stolen phrases from Eric Cantona, we should recognise that had he not been so passionate about making something of his own and absorbing his influences, for a short film that would raise no financial revenue whatsoever – let alone recall its budget, some would have had no idea who Daniel Clowes was. His world has never seen the need to cross with mine before. It has now, and I am beginning to quite like his work. I am sure I am not the only one.