The Clearing by Samantha Clark

I am a visual person. I work at a book festival. These two things marry in a particular way which means that I frequently judge books by their covers. It’s impossible not to, and the more you learn about the bookselling industry, the more you realise how important the cover is. Different visual tropes are used depending on the genre (think big, clunky font and capital letters for crime writing). I think most experienced booksellers and librarians would be able to shelve a book based on seeing the cover from 20 metres away. 

Naturally then, when I saw The Clearing by Samantha Clark, a blurry landscape speckled with flecks of gold, I was drawn to it, as I have been drawn to her art ever since. If you aren’t following her on Instagram I firmly suggest you amend that now. Her work is delicate, intricate, pleasingly detailed and you will also be treated to snapshots of her surroundings (she lives on Orkney so they happen to be sparsely beautiful).

The cover of ‘The Clearing’ by Samantha Clark

The book broadly follows the process of Clark clearing her parents’ house of a lifetime worth of belongings after their deaths. The clearing is twofold of course, because it’s also about memory, and in Clark’s case, dealing with the legacy and repercussions of her mother’s mental illness. As she wrote in a Instagram post on World Mental Health Day, ‘this is something that doesn’t just affect those who are ill, but everyone who loves and relies on them too’. It’s a memoir about some of the tough aspects of emotional life, but it’s not brutal or grim in the way you might fear a book about this could be. It is actually hopeful and there’s a calm quality to it that makes it easy to read and digest.

Reading the acknowledgements – I start with the acknowledgements, because I’m desperately nosey and I want to know about the writer whose world I’m about to immerse myself in – it was interesting to find out that the book didn’t start as a memoir. It was meant to primarily be about ‘the spaces between things’, meditations on philosophy and science that are part of Clark’s art practice.

The writings on art take a backseat to reflections on life and family, but the style is undoubtedly formed and informed by the piercingly observant eyes of an artist, one deeply connected to place and sensitive to the meaning of everyday things: ‘Memory is not just in the mind. It lives in actual places, in actual things. It sits in empty chairs and in worn carpets and smudged walls and light switches. I stand close to the wall and rest my own fingertips against the mark my father’s touch had left, a final intimacy, the closest I will ever get to his physical presence again.’

Clark writes about a worn mark near the light switch in her father’s workroom with precision and poignancy. This writing, this deep attention paid to surroundings, reminds me again how glad I am that artists and writers do all this observing, capturing, distilling. That they share it with me, the reader-observer, so I can be led to notice more, so I can get more out of the ‘stuff of life’, is why I love art. It makes me feel so privileged that I can be on the receiving end of all this work.

When I come to the end of a book, I tend to go back and write down the parts that resonate in my notebook. I read The Clearing back in January, in those pre-pandemic days, but looking in my notebook now, so much remains so utterly relevant to the present. Clark’s reflections on noticing the details, particularly of city life, have stuck with me. This passage helped remind and reassure me of a presence of hope, and I want it to do the same for you.

‘Perhaps every age feels like the end times. May be there is nothing new in this feeling that reality is full of pain and suffering, injustice and degradation, gathering pace, so much, too much to feel it all, so we make ourselves numb. But reality is also and at the same time full of startling beauty. The spinning feather catching the sunlight above the rush hour traffic. The starling on the rooftop signing a song of car alarms and squealing bus brakes. It feels like a small and necessary act of resistance, to pause to listen to the the urban starling’s city song, to attend to the careful washing of a cabbage leaf, to the uncountable blades of grass in my local park, each slender blade performing its own Indian rope trick as it lifts itself miraculously towards the spring sunlight.’

Page 164, The Clearing

These small and necessary acts of resistance are how we will get through this winter. Thank you, Samantha Clark, for reminding us.

‘Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers’ at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

There’s a new, free exhibition in town, at the Botanics. Ever a beautiful place to relieve your Covid-19 cabin fever, to feel the peace of looking at plants and be made to feel small by impossibly tall trees, now you can supplement it with a visit to Florilegium: A Gathering of Flowers. The first exhibition since the RBGE started its Climate House initiative, the exhibition marries what seem to be two very different ways of looking at flowers. 

The first is factual, scientific, research-based. Packed into the first room are depictions of flowers from the Garden’s collections, submitted by botanical illustrators from around the world. I love their precision, the sense that these drawings have been set to view in HD. Glancing at these densely stacked images, their uniform wooden frames fitting perfectly with the olive green of the wall, I’m convinced there would be enough detail here alone to make an entire exhibition. Enhanced by the ikebana style floral displays, it’s what visitors might expect, might hope to see. It’s beautiful, classy, and it’s about flowers. Tick.

Florilegium: a gathering of flowers, installation view. Photo by Tom Nolan

Up the stairs, we’re taken into a somewhat different realm by four contemporary artists, Wendy McMurdo, Lee Mingwei, Annalee Davis and Lyndsay Mann. While the immensely skilled botanical illustrators are concerned with depicting the flower exactly, and in some cases, the pollinators too, the artists upstairs are more concerned with what we cannot see. The emotions and meanings we as humans attach to plants, their embroilment in our colonial past, and the metaphor of life and death a flower provides so effortlessly, are all explored here.

Wendy McMurdo’s photographs from the Indeterminate Objects series from 2019 use gaming software to collapse the blooming/withering lifecycle of a single flower in one vase, an eye-catching narrative that makes you look twice. Her Night Garden series (2020), reflects on how her mother’s ill health and recent death was combined and synchronised with blossoming of a large, mystery, tropical-looking plant in her suburban garden. I loved the uncanny photo of seeds resting in the palm of her hand, which looked to me like the hand itself was punctured, decaying: a wound between the states of hurt and healing.

Wendy McMurdo, ‘Night Garden’, 2020, installation view, photo by Tom Nolan

There’s a pleasant chiming here with the work 100 Days with Lily by Lee Mingwei, which documents a performance created back in 1995. His grandmother died, and in mourning he lived with this plant for 100 days, carrying it everywhere. He projects his own grief on to lifecycle of this plant, but the presence of the banal activities of daily life (Eating with Lily, Sleeping with Lily, Shitting with Lily) overwrite and undermine this strange, solemn ritual. For Florilegium, Mingwei has planned a new work called Invitation for Dawn, where opera singers will perform directly to the recipient via live video call. It sounds weird, experimental and intimate, but in a great way. You can participate between 16 November and 11 December, email creativeprogrammes@rbge.co.uk for more details on how to get your ‘gift of song’.

Lee Mingwei, 100 Days With Lily, installation view (photo by Tom Nolan)

The work of both Annalee Davis and Lyndsay Mann anchors the exhibition in something deeper, bringing the role of the Botanic Garden, the collection of plants, the colonial ecosystem at the heart of RBGE’s existence, into view. Annalee Davis is a Barbadian artist whose studio is situated on what used to be a sugar plantation. Her practice investigates the history of that land, examining the power structures that have been tilled into the soil. Here, her series As If the Entanglements of Our Lives Did Not Matter (2019-20), is casually pinned up on the wall, unframed, unglazed. It immediately felt visceral and direct, denying the formality, poise and stiffness of Inverleith House. Pink, flesh-like depictions of messy clumps of roots are daubed over old payment ledgers from the plantation, which are intriguing, loaded documents in their own right. In a haunting portrait, she places two of her ancestors side by side, who though blood relatives, would have never lived together in reality, separated as they are by race and class. 

Annalee Davis, ‘As if the Entanglements of Our Lives Did Not Matter’ (2019-20), detail

Davis’ art works in dialogue with Lyndsay Mann’s A Desire for Organic Order (2016), a mesmerising film of 55 minutes which explores the RBGE’s Herbarium, where species of preserved plants are kept for study and research. Although most visitors won’t have time watch the film from start to finish, it’s a fascinating piece, which shines a light on the strangeness of it all: the meticulously categorised, catalogued, classified plants, sitting in row upon row of filing cabinets and box files, the collection expanding over the centuries as new species are found and brought to the RBGE, their final resting place. 

The violence surrounding these collections is examined at a distance, with the narrator’s voice dispassionately implying but never quite explaining what we know now, that far more care was given to these foreign plants than to the humans who lived alongside them. If you do have the chance to sit here a while, I’m sure it will make you see the exhibition, and the whole RBGE endeavour, in a slightly different light. You may not think you need this part of your world to be challenged, that you just want to enjoy the Botanics and not think too much about the difficult history and context. But it’s the ability of artists to show things you thought you knew in a new way, that is what makes them so vital to how we think about our past, present and future. That’s why we need the upper floor of the exhibition. We can’t just have a “gathering of flowers”, we need someone to tell us what they mean.

Flower displays at ‘Florilegium: a gathering of flowers’

‘Janet’ by Caroline Walker at Ingleby Gallery

Yesterday I went to see Janet, an exhibition of paintings by Caroline Walker. This was my first Edinburgh gallery visit since March, and it felt great to be back.

Caroline Walker, (born Dunfermline, Scotland), has created a series of works focusing on her mother, Janet, based entirely in her home. They document her mother moving from room to room, like the evidence of a childhood game. Caroline seemingly goes unnoticed, she spies on her mother, following her as she carries out chores: cleaning, gardening, cooking, dusting. We too, the viewers, spy, follow and peer in unnoticed, and it’s almost surprising when on one canvas, Janet looks straight back at us.

From left to right: ‘Bathroom Sink Cleaning, Mid Morning, March’, (2019), ‘Sizing Pillowcases‘, (2020) and ‘Dusting Pictures, Late Morning, March’, (2019)

These domestic activities are elevated, not dismissed, by the artist. The images are snapshots which combine immediacy of photography with the grandiose detachment of oil paintings. These daily moments are purposeful, meaningful, considered, deliberate.

Changing Pillowcases, Mid Morning, March’, (2020)

Yet they are also intimate. They capture the feeling of when you’re walking past houses in the winter when it’s dark outside, when you’re thrilled and somehow comforted by the warm glow within, even though you’re outside of that warmth. That feeling is especially captured by the jewel-like light in Making Fishcakes, Late Afternoon, December (2019), and Tucking In, Late Evening, March (2020). I loved looking in, indulging my curiosity. You can tell a lot about someone by what they surround themselves with. Janet likes animals. Janet seemingly also collects egg flips.

Making Fishcakes, Late Afternoon, December‘, (2019)

At Ingleby Gallery, the main exhibition space is on the ground floor, but upstairs in the Feast Room there are works by other artists the gallery represents. It’s like a special extra helping of art you didn’t know you were going to get, and was here where I found my favourite work by Walker, Hemming Pyjamas, Late Morning, December (2020). The darker palette of the room around the painting, the fact that the room itself is more domestic (with sofas and a dining table, albeit very grand), the placement of seeing it from afar as you come up the stairs makes it so utterly convincing and beautiful. Even though Walker paints on linen, which gives an overall matte effect, the warm light shines from the room, reflecting off the chest of drawers, beckoning you in.

‘Hemming Pyjamas, Late Morning, December’, (2020)

This is a wonderful show about light, home, warmth, the intimacy of people doing normal things. It’s what we want our homes to be, there’s a serenity about these paintings, a peace I’d like to carry with me into the next few months of winter at home.

Janet by Caroline Walker is on at Ingleby Gallery until 19th December, they are open Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-5pm. The exhibition is free but you need to book a timed slot via the website.

Among the Trees review

What does it mean to come to a place like the Hayward Gallery, the most concrete of concrete buildings in the heart of the UK’s largest city, to immerse oneself in images of trees? This isn’t a museum, a science hub, or a university, so it’s not a place dedicated to learning about trees, but for looking at them. It’s impossible not to hear strains of Big Yellow Taxi as you see the hoardings around the Hayward Gallery: “They took all the trees, put them in a tree museum/ and charged the people a dollar and a half just to see em”. The irony was particularly present for me, as I headed straight to a dark exhibition space to look at nature, having just arrived from the actual countryside (full of actual trees).

The outside view

In the first room, I began by wondering whether this was going to be a contemporary echoing of Romanticism. There were seemingly no signs of human life, except for the artists of course. The ghostly, delicate Untitled (2008) by Toba Khedoori, and Robert Longo’s Untitled (Sleepy Hollow) (2014) exposed what we forget in the height of summer, the intricacies of tangled branches. I wondered then whether the show was going to be boiled down to a central message: escapism through beauty. With Covid-19, Brexit, government incompetency, economic collapse and the US election for context, we crave escape more than ever, and nature can seem to offer some sort of way out of it all. That’s also what the Romantics thought too: the fewer humans in their landscapes, the better! But we know that’s not a true representation of landscapes. They are, and now always will be, shaped by humans – for better and for worse. In that context, what does it mean to imagine landscapes without humans? Is it eco-fascism, or just an overly simplistic, narrative of nature = good, humans = bad? The artists and artworks in Among the Trees put this idea under a microscope, reminding us that art can do both – be visually pleasing and profound.

Remember the iconic Simpsons episode where Lisa has her fortune told? It’s full of painfully ironic, insightful vignettes of how the near future might pan out. In a college campus quad, a plaque reads “In memory of a real tree”, but the tree is flickering like a static TV screen. An electrical malfunction exposes this simulacrum for what it is – until a passer-by boots it back into functionality, into looking natural again. That’s the image I couldn’t get out of my mind while at this exhibition. I was looking at a monument to something we are knowingly destroying; the monument was artificial.

Yet the highly effective use of artifice in conjuring the natural is what I found most interesting about Among the Trees. One of the first spaces is dominated by a huge video projection across the back wall, the work that is on all the posters. This is Horizontal Vaakasuora (2011) by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, depicting a huge native Finnish spruce in five video panels, each slightly out of sync. It’s mesmerising. We hear the wind in the branches, bird song, and watch the spindly, yet strong and flexible, living tree, dancing, creaking and swaying in on itself. There’s a kind of discombobulation that comes from seeing something this tall lying on its side. You’re not supposed to see the tops of these trees close up. There’s a feeling of privilege in looking without having to crane your neck, but also a foreboding in the position. Trees lie this way when they are felled.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, ‘Horizontal – Vaakasuora’, 2011

The other large-scale video work is Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye 1 (2018). It is wholly artificial, using animated computer technology to show a fake birch tree forest move through the cycle of all four seasons in a cool 2 minutes 47 seconds. I’ve always loved the visual effect of technology speeding up the forces of nature in a way that reveals how utterly miraculous they already are – time-lapse videos of plants growing impossibly quickly, sprouting leaves, buds, flowers, seeds and withering and dying all in a few moments. It’s all so heart-wrenching and magical.

Jennifer Steinkamp, ‘Blind Eye 1’, 2018

Revealing what is already there is at the heart of Giuseppe Penone’s work with trees. His Tree of 12 Metres (1980-82) is the most ‘natural’ of all works in the first room: a very tall tree has seemingly been divided in two, stuck into plinths and carted into an art gallery, it’s warm earthy tones juxtaposing with the smooth, cold concrete staircase behind. But this tree is actually a sculpture, fashioned from an industrially planed piece of timber that Penone painstakingly scraped away, in a reverse Frankenstein fashion, following the knots, lines and ridges in the wood, unlocking how the tree would have looked long before it was felled. He takes it back in time, back to nature, back to life.

Giuseppe Penone, ‘Tree of 12 Metres’, 1980

Death and life are here in abundance. Because trees can span many human lifetimes, they are presented as witnesses, as memento mori. Ugo Rondinone’s cold moon (2011) is a cast of an ancient olive tree in southern Italy, its hulking, twisted, wizened form reminiscent of the White Tree of Gondor, as well as calling to mind the Ancient Mariner, an old man sitting in a corner of a dark city pub, a man who has *seen things*. Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree documents where countless African-American bodies were lynched, a site encountered while filming 12 Years A Slave. It is a tree that has, in its very shape, borne witness to and memorialised the worst of us.

Steve McQueen, ‘Lynching Tree’, 2013

Alongside this, you can see Plastic Tree B, created this year by Pascale Marthine Tayou, where plastic bags have become the bright, somehow beautiful blossoms of an Instagram-worthy sculptural tree. Simplistic idea perhaps, but still visually striking, and reminding us of how damn precious it all is, and how much it is slipping through our fingers because we are, by and large, terrible custodians. You can’t even walk down a street without seeing hundreds of disposed plastic masks on the ground, like scattered flags of surrender to the coronavirus age. The show could probably have pressed more on the climate crisis message. But I was reminded in a talk by Olivia Laing recently, that in the face of politics, art won’t make the change itself, but it’s a way of “galvanising, and grouping a response”. In other words, art can’t do the work for us.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, ‘Plastic Tree B’, 2020

The woodland I was walking in just hours before my trip to London is full of signs of human life. On a nearby bench, “Trump Out” is scratched into the surface, reminding us that our human politics infiltrate every part of our world, no matter how much we might wish to escape them. We have to acknowledge that, and not lose ourselves in the mesmerising beauty of nature and of art. That is appreciation, and it might give us space to become mindful, but that is only the first step. A moment of escapism is acceptable, but only if we emerge from it refreshed to re-engage, to take meaningful steps to do some damage limitation, to avoid the climate crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes. Otherwise we might find ourselves, in forty years, frustrated that our tree memorial isn’t convincing enough, wishing we had acted before it was too late.

Ugo Rondinone, ‘cold moon’, 2011

Art is so much bigger than me

Over the last six months, I’ve missed a certain feeling that being in a gallery or museum gives me. Before lockdown, I knew that looking at art made me feel calm and curious, slowed me down, gave me space. But my return to visiting a couple of places which house art (in London – Scotland’s major galleries are still closed for business) has made me realise what I particularly like about it. Experiencing art makes me remember I am part of something bigger than me.

This realisation hit home most clearly when I went to Gagosian Grosvenor Hill to see Crushed, Cast, Constructed, a show with a wholly grey palette, featuring only five works. These are sculptures made in metal by John Chamberlain, Urs Fischer and Charles Ray. The three works by Fischer dominated the show: they started out as lumps of clay moulded by the artist’s hand, and then were scanned, enlarged so each model was over 3 metres high, and cast in aluminium. It’s like they are the product of a kindergarten for giants, that have been dipped in a vast vat of bubbling of metal and then returned to our world as serious, grown up objects. They are alien, they are too big, the Guardian’s critic Adrian Searle found them overbearing.

Installation view showing the vast scale of Urs Fischer’s aluminium sculptures

But that feeling of being overbourne (not a word) is actually pleasant after being the biggest thing in your same four walls night and day for six months. It’s the same reason I like big skies, mountaintop views, the sea.

Even the mechanisms and processes that created these objects and made them possible as art – the ideas, the funding, the training, the supplies, the gallerists, the agents, the transportation, the curation and a million steps in between are too big and complex for me to get my head around – especially after being separated from this ecosystem for such a long while. We, the viewers, are the very end point, the final cog in the machinery of the art world. Sometimes it’s actually nice to feel like a cog, while at the same time knowing you are the privileged recipient of all the cumulative hard work of others. It takes you out of the mundane minutiae or dramatic highs and lows of your personal existence and allows you to just be, for a brief moment, an uncommitted observer. You don’t even have to like the art you’re looking at to get this feeling.

In an era where we’ve all had so much time to sit with ourselves, in our sometimes messy, sometimes directionless lives, it was somehow restorative to spend time in this clean box of a gallery. With its white walls and dark, smooth floors, architecturally it is the polar opposite of a home, where each object is imbued with personal meanings or tasks yet to be completed (laundry, cards to respond to, bikes needing a service). To be an anonymous person in this quiet room, looking at these weird objects, is to abdicate responsibility. I owe nothing to them, they owe nothing to me.

Charles Ray, Tractor, (2003-4)

They are weird objects. Alongside Fischer’s gigantic clay-as-metal lumps, there is a crushed box cast in galvanised steel and zinc by John Chamberlain and an old tractor that was painstakingly taken apart by Charles Ray and each piece cast in aluminium before being put back together. 

Some might say this kind of art is pointless: it’s difficult to imagine who might even collect such objects, once perhaps useful and functional, now rendered inept by their recreation. But here, in their very pointlessness, in their mere taking up of space for our perusal, they signify everything we’ve been denied in these serious Covid times: fun, playfulness and even a kind of detachment from the chaos of the world unfolding around them. That shift in perspective was like a tonic to me. In their metallic, alien coldness, these sculptures restored my understanding of the world as something far bigger than me, a realisation I often find reassuring.

John Chamberlain, Untitled, (c.1967)

My two-year-old nephew taught me how to look at art after lockdown

Last week I spent a really nice chunk of time hanging out with the youngest member of my family. My nephew is two and he’s great company. He’s how I want to be: curious, reflective, eager for fun and a sponge for new information. With his wide-eyed wonderment, he has taught me how to look at art again after a long, enforced break (otherwise known as lockdown).

We read books together and looked at the pictures (me reading, both of us looking). Illustration is amazing, and I think a severely underrated form of art. I’m extremely lucky that in my day job, I interact with children’s books on a regular basis. Children’s books are some of the most accessible, universally loved and widely appreciated ways we experience art. The stories fascinate us, but the images are what portray and communicate the joy and terror of the narratives to young minds who cannot yet read or form sentences themselves. Fearfully gazing at the Gruffalo’s long black tongue and terrible teeth, or admiring the crisp and clear (read Scandi) aesthetic in Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, we carry the pictures with us long after the words have faded from memory.

Some of the most memorable books from my childhood were about looking at details. I was raised on books by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, searching for the characters and minuscule, meticulously written lost letters in The Jolly Postman was my delight. Later, The Most Amazing Night Book by Robert Crowther was my favourite. My nephew is also seemingly enthralled by the details. His favourite thing to do is to ask “Who’s dat?”, pointing excitedly at tiny ladybirds, trees, rocks, main characters, random piles of hay, clothes and anything else that catches his eye. Anyone who has interacted with children regularly will tell you they are incredibly perceptive and observant. Sometimes surprisingly so. They can see and sense things adults can’t.

A household favourite: The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Last week, along with hanging out with my family I also went to a gallery for the first time in six months. After trawling the internet and realising most places in London had been booked out long before by far better-organised art lovers, I managed to get a midday slot at the Wallace Collection, one of my favourite places to see art, as well as admire luxurious furnishing (and pretend I’m part of eighteenth century aristocracy). I would probably go to see the silk wall hangings alone.

Blue wall silks and golden frames in a dense salon hang

I was so happy to have a slot, but despite really friendly staff and the safety measures that had been introduced, it wasn’t the most relaxing experience. It was a pressing reminder that we’re all still working through the anxieties this pandemic has produced. That the new normal isn’t going to be as good as the old normal for quite a while.

A one way system was in place and there were capacity limits on all of the rooms on the route, which created the slightly unpleasant feeling of being on a conveyor belt. Somewhat obliged to wait for those in front without pressuring them, but not wanting to take too long, disrupt the flow or be left behind, stuck in a swirling eddy without being able to rejoin the main current of my fellow gallery-goers. Not the best atmosphere for being absorbed by and for absorbing art.

I spent the first part of my visit worrying about the choreography of my movements between my fellow observers, concerned I was getting too close, getting mildly annoyed with pushy people behind me. But then I saw an oil painting, Still Life With A Monkey, attributed to Jan Jansz de Heem (c.1670-95), that made me stop in my tracks. I thought about my nephew, how much he would love looking at the cornucopia of riches in the painting and examining all the elements, individually interrogating their form and purpose. I stepped off the conveyor belt and just looked.

Still Life With A Monkey, attributed to Jan Jansz de Heem (1670-95)

The spiral of lemon peel, the oysters, the mushrooms scattered on the table, the oozing pomegranate, the jug on its side, the tankard on its side, the bright white cloth, the monkey?! This kind of artwork demands your time, forces your eye to wander. We understand that still life paintings are often laced with double or even triple meanings (broken column = transitory nature of human life), but just looking at the surface level composition of what is there, without any further knowledge of iconography or semantics, is a pleasure in itself. The brightness of the lobster, the chaos and excess of it all, the way the food packs 7/8ths of the entire canvas, the needlessly dramatic sky behind. The above is my photo taken on the day, but there’s a brighter, slightly yellowy version of the painting here if you want to look more closely at the details.

Much of what drives my blog and my Instagram is a need and a wish to celebrate the everyday, to encourage others to read the notes in the margins, to slow down and enjoy colours and contrasts, patterns, eccentricities, particularly of city life. We can apply this attitude to great paintings in grand houses too. We think we know still life paintings. I imagine they’re the paintings most readily walked past without so much as a second glance because they are rarely super-famous showstoppers — but let’s take this opportunity to recognise how very bizarre and beautiful they are.

When we return to art galleries, they might not be the same as they were. But if we remember to approach art with curiosity, to take time, and notice the details, even if we haven’t got the brain space to work out what they mean, they can bring us both joy and a little peace. As from now, I’ll be adopting the “Who’s dat?” philosophy of close looking. That’s how I want to return to engaging with art as lockdown lifts. I’ll encourage you to do the same, but if you’re not feeling ready just yet, you can always start with The Gruffalo.

Public art, statues and identity

A few of my friends, who know I’m interested in public space, memorials, statues and public art (because I’m constantly banging on about it) have asked me what I think about the debate raging over statues in Britain. In order to try and express this, I’m going to draw on something I wrote during my MSc at Edinburgh College of Art last year, which takes two case studies from the USA as its main examples. 

I want to show that public art, including performative rituals such as protests, can usefully inform debates around our identity, and that a frank discussion of visual culture in public spaces remains vital for understanding the public sphere we operate in today.

The essay was written for a class called Art in the Creative City, run by Harry Weeks (now at Newcastle University ). I’ve taken out large chunks, removed the footnotes and edited it fairly heavily in the interest of making it more accessible. If you want to see my reading list or access the original essay, send me a note in the comments, or DM me on Instagram. Events are changing so fast. ‘Statue defenders’ are holding protests at London’s Cenotaph as I write this. I’ll try and keep up with the momentum. Asterisks mark the start and end of the essay section, before sharing some of my thoughts on the situation in Britain.

***

The question of who is commemorated and who is erased in public space is one that is charged with different interpretations of history, politics and the concept of identity. Historically, public art has reflected the power of the dominant forces in society, because having a presence in public space, being deemed worthy of representation, is a signal of power, status and money.

Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlottesville, VA., (1924), bronze and granite, (7.9m × 3.7m × 2.4m including plinth)

The turbulent history surrounding the equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, is indicated by the renaming of its location three times over the past three years. Formerly Lee Park, it was briefly to become Emancipation Park, and now is known as Market Street Park; the difficulty of finding the right name for the space directly connects with the controversy around the statue of Lee. The monument was erected in 1924 as part of the wider movement known as the ‘Lost Cause’, which intended to frame the participation of the Southern States in a Civil War narrative of heroism and gallantry, with similar monuments erected in nearby Richmond, Virginia and further afield. In Charlottesville, city councillors took the decision to remove the monument in the spring of 2017, though its removal was delayed pending a legal challenge. During the delay between March and August of that year, the statue became a rallying point for far right groups, who protested against its proposed removal. Over the summer, a number of protests and counter-protests for and against the removal of the statue culminated in August, when violence at a rally for ‘Unite the Right’ resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful protestor. The event was reported widely on national and international news.

As a piece of public sculpture, this statue and its interpretation as a symbol of either hateful racism or historic pride by different sides of the debate, is at the centre of these political events. The visual symbolism of the statue and the differing aesthetics that emerged around it, are therefore highly relevant. As embodied rituals, protests, marches and vigils can be read as forms of performance, which use visual tools to enhance their legibility and potency. The rallies both for and against the Robert E. Lee’s removal were no exception. 

During a rally in May 2017 protesting against the removal of the sculpture, the leader Richard Spencer was heavily criticised for promoting the use of torches, which were interpreted as an symbolic visual invocation of Ku Klux Klan gatherings. Spencer’s response was to deny that the torches had any reference to the KKK, but justified their use on the basis of their ‘beautiful aesthetic’. This argument, highly doubtful given Spencer’s overtly white nationalist views, attempts to justify the use of a controversial symbol of terror on the basis of an aesthetic effect. It shows the extent to which aesthetic and political strategies are interlinked, and highlights the ways in which public art and aesthetic gestures can be (mis)used as tools for political agitation, whether progressive or regressive.

Scholar David Harvey has convincingly argued that cities as public spaces are constantly in a symbiotic relationship of shaping and being shaped by their inhabitants, through their political, intellectual and economic engagement. It is therefore no surprise that public art is persistently at the centre of debates about identity, collective memory, history and politics, and a whole range of different ideas about right and wrong, who is represented, and who is erased. The case of the Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee shows this in action. So far, the statue has been analysed as a magnet for far-right politics, but there are other tactics at work too, interventions that successfully question its validity as a supposedly heroic symbol.

On a purely formal level, the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, raised up on its stone plinth, works within the visual language of dominance and power: gazing up from below, we see nothing but galloping hooves. In 2015, prior to the council’s vote to remove the statue, the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ were sprayed on its plinth, and although removed soon afterwards, the outline remains vaguely visible. While many might categorise graffiti as anti-social behaviour and vandalism, Lucy Lippard has framed these kinds of gestures as ‘wake-up art’, and assigns them a significant role within the field of public art, with the capacity to call attention to problematic places and to galvanise communities into action. The political resonance of the graffiti gesture in this context, proven by the groundswell of support for the campaign to remove the Charlottesville statue, is indisputable. In February 2019, further graffiti covered the statue’s plinth, and it is likely that these gestures will continue to be enacted on the statue until its fate has been decided in the legal courts. In this context then, the graffiti acts as a kind of reframing mechanism, reminding passers-by and the media that the debate has not gone away. Statues and monuments commemorating military leaders who fought to defend slavery remain unacceptable to swaths of American society, and especially painful to the African-American community. The debate will continue in public life as long as these contentious symbols remain standing in shared, supposedly equal-access public spaces.

By existing in public spaces, public artworks and their interpretation are fundamentally unpredictable, just as people themselves can be unpredictable. Instead of being confined to the space of a gallery or museum, where artworks are constantly under surveillance and accessible only to a minority of people, public art is out in the open. It is exposed to all passers-by and, while this means it may exist completely unnoticed, equally it can also function as a site of intervention, either in the form of graffiti, or by being used as rallying points within performative gatherings, such as protests and vigils. It is through this very unpredictability and spontaneity that these public works can attain their meaning, and spark debate about what kind of society we wish to construct. Public art in all its forms can help to inform our debates about who is visible, who is represented in our public spaces, and can help us to articulate our equal responsibility in building our shared ownership of them.

Though the graffiti intervention on Robert E. Lee’s plinth effectively brings the sculpture back into the discursive realm and questions its validity, ‘wake up art’ is not the only option for diversifying public spaces. The right to be officially recognised in public sculpture and represented within the ‘symbolic public landscape’, to use Magdalena Dembinska’s term, is also important for the assertion of minorities’ identities.

Branly Cadet, A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial, (2017), bronze, granite, and stainless steel, statue height 3.6m

Branly Cadet’s 2017 monument A Quest for Parity: The Octavius V. Catto Memorial, which is situated on the southwest corner of Philadelphia’s City Hall, is a useful example. The memorial is comprised of multiple elements which together form an impressive monument to an extraordinary figure – a Civil War-era activist who campaigned for the rights of African-American citizens – who is clearly deserving of recognition in the public sphere.

The monument operates strictly within the confines of the traditional aesthetic of monumental public art, through its figurative use of bronze, and its position outside City Hall. From a formal perspective therefore, it does not push the boundaries or challenge its viewers aesthetically – it is clearly designed to avoid provoking controversy. Yet this is perhaps the very purpose of the Catto monument: it allows African-Americans to assert their presence and validity within the mainstream tradition of monumental forms. The sculpture’s title, A Quest for Parity, specifically refers to Catto’s campaigns for equality. Yet the monument itself is also a reassertion of that quest for parity within public art and representation in the public arena more broadly. The monument therefore is an example of how traditional forms can also help to raise visibility of minority communities, and that their presence in the public arena need not only be represented by avant-garde artistic strategies or counter-monumental interventions. 

Public art is embedded in a political landscape. In whatever form it takes, in both its inception and its interpretation, it is informed by differing ideological positions and political beliefs: what remains standing and what is removed from our parks, squares, and the façades of government buildings reflects the societies in which we live. Artworks can be deeply divisive, and can expose latent divisions within societies in ways that can be traumatic and will require healing. Art has the power to spark and intervene in public debate.

What was revered, relevant and what was commemorated in the past may not always be admirable and appropriate in the present and future, which is why those who manage public spaces need to enter into dialogues with the communities and individuals who use them. Artworks that evolve and change help us to question the notions of one fixed ‘public’, and can encourage us to embrace flexible visions of the public sphere, and recognise multiple viewpoints, helping to make those who had been invisible and unheard part of the many voices that make up public life.

***

Fast forward a year and after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, a wave of social activism has swept the US and Britain. In Richmond, Virginia, the government has pledged to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Images on Instagram of black ballerinas posing below the monument, now covered in graffiti, depict a significant historic moment and show the power of activism. Neighbouring Charlottesville campaigners are relieved that their state authorities are finally acknowledging the hurt these monuments have caused, and hope it will hasten the removal of Lee’s statue from Market Street Park.

In Britain, the argument over who is permitted representation in public space seems to be right at the heart of the nation’s identity crisis. There are a few thoughts I have to add to this debate, which is constantly evolving. Firstly, it is a good thing our public monuments are under scrutiny. They have remained invisible in plain sight for far too long. 

The statue of Edward Colston that was forcibly removed by anti-racist protestors and symbolically dumped into the River Avon, where his ships that carried slaves across the Atlantic would have docked, was a momentous and powerful act. The act of its removal has done more to educate people about Britain than the passive existence of the statue itself ever has. As historian David Olusoga has said, rather than the erasure of history, this was the writing of it. Removed in this way is actually far better than had it been quietly taken down by the city’s authorities. It was a moment of activism, a kindling of hope that change could be possible. 

For this reason, I don’t believe the statue should have been retrieved from the water so hastily, and I don’t believe it belongs in a museum. As stated above, museums are accessed by a small proportion of the populace, whereas the public space, city squares and streets, are used by us all. (Or were, until coronavirus forced us back to the private sphere, an act which though necessary and in the interest of public health, will serve to entrench the inequalities already prevalent in British society). Rather, Bristol City Council could commission an art piece which works in dialogue with the local community and their city to respond to Colston’s removal: an artwork which shows the journey of the statue from its plinth to the waterfront. Leave the plinth standing empty –  the equivalent of an empty chair at a political debate. Leave up the graffiti. Use the landscape and the statue’s journey within it to teach people about Colston, about the legacies of the slave trade upon which Bristol and Britain’s wealth was built. 

Graffiti on the Meadows, Edinburgh, 13 June 2020

For far too long have the British seen themselves as the “goodies” of history, an idea that has been perpetuated by an education system that doesn’t include the British Empire or colonial rule. I had to do a history degree before I was really exposed to these aspects of our past. If we need inspiration, our European neighbours have examples of public art that helps passers-by work through the traumas of the history. The Berlin wall is commemorated by a copper line which traces the footprint of where the barrier once stood, an artwork woven into the urban fabric which educates but doesn’t erase. Britain could learn a lot from Germany when it comes to acknowledging the past through the use of public space and visual culture.

Understandably, the movement to reassess our statues and monuments has now gathered significant momentum, and other historical figures have come into focus, which has exposed some uncomfortable truths that many would rather sweep under the rug. I think, or would hope, that the vast majority of people agree that slave traders like Colston should have removed long ago. Meanwhile, figures like Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell attract both support and denouncement. Many see these men as heroes, while others reject them for their support of ideologies which, while perhaps common in their day, are not to be celebrated in 2020.

I personally know that the Second World War was not won by one man, and believe that it is possible (and more constructive) to celebrate the now inclusive and welcoming Scout movement without glorifying its founder. However, when I ‘read the room’, and see who is in power in the UK, I think we may have to concede the impossibility of removing all contentious historic figures from view in this current climate. If that is the case, then we need to level the playing field by following the example of Brandy Cadet’s Octavius V. Catto Memorial: let’s commission artists to create monuments to those who have been forgotten, the historically powerless and marginalised. Edinburgh infamously has more statues of animals than of women. If we can’t topple the statue of Henry Dundas in St Andrew’s Square, let’s set up a sculpture that counteracts the ridiculous, phallic intrusion of his monument on our city’s skyline. Let’s insert the narratives of the witches who were publicly executed, the Windrush generation, the LGBT+ community, working class voices, immigrant communities and all who have built our cities into the diverse and interesting places they are today.

Public art can help to articulate and inform our very understanding of who we are, and how we operate in the public sphere, as both individuals and within the groups to which we identify ourselves as belonging. Britain is a deeply divided society, so a proper exploration of our art, which acts like a mirror, can be a way of working through and understanding these divisions. It’s not going to be an easy task. It’s not going to be pretty. There will be lots of feathers ruffled, tears shed, arguments and fights in the process, but asserting our public spaces as sites for activism and debate will be a necessary catharsis, and will enable us to ‘build back better’ in the imminent future.

‘Wake up’ art at a bus stop in Edinburgh, seen 13 June 2020

Communities, connections and growing things

Adapting projects to fit our ‘new normal’ has been the concern of many of us over the past few days, weeks and months. Artists have had to rethink entire proposals, final year degree shows are being reimagined so they can be exhibited online, and there have been lots of virtual gallery content for us to connect with. But how do you adapt a project that is about physically being present in a place, without being able to access it in person?

This was the challenge facing artists Felicity Bristow and Susie Wilson, who have been carrying out a Landmarks residency with Art Walk Porty. The project is based around a plot at Craigentinny Telferton allotments. After months of planning, preparing the soil, connecting with other plot holders and discovering what they had inherited from the previous owner, they were just on the cusp of beginning to plant, run workshops and kickstart the project in earnest when lockdown and the coronavirus crisis changed all that.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Felicity and Susie about their project, to find out how they have adapted and changed their approach to suit new surroundings. The interview has just gone live on the Art Walk Porty website. You can access it here.

Plot 55b, like all of Art Walk Porty’s residencies, is a place-centred project based in the local Portobello community. It is about process and engagement as much as, if not more than, about presenting a ‘final product’. In that way, the artists have discovered that although separated from the allotment itself, the process of growing things, of documenting their progress, could be carried out from their homes. They have set up a seed exchange and have been prompting each other with ideas, artworks and games sent in the post. They also discovered that the almost meditative act of sewing seeds and looking after plants has been beneficial to their mental health over the lockdown period. This is something that I can relate to even without access to a garden: managing not to kill my two houseplants over the last twelve weeks has been a source of great joy.

The recognition that connecting with the natural world can contribute positively to our mental health, combined with our need to avoid enclosed spaces in the coming months, will hopefully lead to more imaginative thinking in art projects, community engagement ideas and education as we turn to face our ‘new normal’. Plot 55b is a really lovely example of how that process can come to life.

The plan for Plot 55b – once Felicity and Susie can get back to it

Art in lockdown: The Hermitage, St Petersburg

Each week for the past month, I’ve been going to Russia. To the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, specifically. A close friend and I have been watching something we wouldn’t have considered engaging with before lockdown: a five-hour iPhone 11 advert, which explores the museum in an extraordinary way.

Even in lockdown, five hours is a bit too long. It’s far longer than I would be able to spend in a museum before fatigue, overwhelm and “museum back” set in. So we watched it in bite-size chunks. It became a little ritual. Every Tuesday at 9pm we would call each other, and press play at the same time to experience the tour together. It sounds bizarre, but it’s one of my favourite ways I’ve experienced art in lockdown.

The tour is meticulously curated. It is in one take, but isn’t a film that simply drifts past the museum’s many artworks (there are three million objects in the collection, including paintings, sculptures, textiles, porcelain, jewels, armour, coins, etc., so we only see a snapshot). This is a focussed journey that pays attention to the architecture and the interiors of the building. Dancers, actors and musicians all feature. They activate the space in vast corridors and lavish rooms, enliven the collection, and act as ciphers for our own bodies which, in normal circumstances, could be travelling through the rooms, pacing the floors, gazing at the ceilings.

I’ve long enjoyed watching people engaging with art: imagining what they’re thinking, and wondering why certain artworks speak to some people but not to others. My friend and I were now observing a false version of this in private and at a distance. We discussed the characters’ hair and clothes, speculated about their relationships with each other, puzzled over what the experience of making a film in an otherwise empty national museum, on the precipice of a global pandemic might have been like.

Gossiping with my friend, analysing what we were seeing together, was one of the best parts of the experience, making the surreal normal, as if we were actually touring a museum together. The mutuality of it, my friend watching in London and me in Edinburgh, spurred us on, and time slipped away quickly. Sometimes, the film became the backdrop to our conservation, sometimes we just watched and our words left us.

The physicality of the camera moving through rooms, doubling back, going in circles, helped make the experience lifelike. We commented on different works we liked, we discussed the merits of the decor (she hated the white curtains), I tried to show off some biblical knowledge to help interpret some of the Christian paintings, to varying degrees of success. There were moments when I craved a few clues about the paintings’ narratives, who made them, their titles – without explanation or context, lots of artworks are VERY weird and tricky to interpret – but providing additional information on screen would have made it too educational. The experience was more about wonder than learning.

The Garden of Earthly Delights prior to ultra zoom

The entire film is shot on iPhone 11, which is where the advert side comes in. The detail it captures is really extraordinary. The ultra zoom is one of my favourite digital tools through which we can experience art differently. Our capacity to see intricate close-ups of paintings is mind-blowing, and something to be celebrated. Zooming in on The Garden of Earthly Delights by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (1556-1568?) – the original is in the Prado in Madrid – we could see more clearly than had we been standing before it. There are people cavorting on/with animals, giant birds, bodies inside clam shells, people with flowers sprouting from their bums, fruit the size of humans. If you want to pick three minutes of the whole thing to watch, this carnival of a painting features from 1:09-1:12.

The Hermitage film played with light in interesting ways which warped time, creating uncertainty over whether it was day or night. Towards the end the use of a white torch light on white marble sculptures plunged everything else into darkness, and we were floating in a monochrome world.

Marble sculptures floating in a monochrome world

The museum at night is a creepy, exciting prospect, and one the film makes use of. There were several allusions to the presence of history, and the ghosts that live within its very walls. After all, it is a building which began as a private palace, its first collections were amassed by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. It has ridden the waves of Russian/Soviet/global history since then: wars, revolutions, political regimes, the Siege of Leningrad, and this pandemic. That it is still here today, for us to enjoy, even only as digital ghosts from a distance, is something we can all take comfort in.

I found some old photos

I recently found an old hard drive I’d stored photos on for many years, dating back roughly to 2009 – pre cloud storage and Instagram. Back then, I was getting ready to leave school and move out of the family home I’d lived in for most of my life. Finding these photos now, I’m struck by what you can learn about yourself by seeing what you’ve carried with you, and who you’ve journeyed with, over the years.

I never thought I’d taken that many pictures, and yet here they are. A selection of moments documenting around 8 years of my life. Over that time, what did I decide to photograph? Is this curation, of a sort?

Of course, my favourite photos, the ones that give me the most pleasure, are those of people. Family and friends, people I’ve held close, literally, over the years. My appearance has barely changed, I’ve never had an interesting or drastic haircut. But despise the lack of intrigue provided by my personal aesthetic, these pictures of people together show moments of joy, some of which feel so distant now – a packed Shangri la at Glastonbury in 2010. Look how many people are in such close proximity!

Shangri-la, Glastonbury, 2010

There are a couple of art photos, but not that many. Before formally studying and writing about art, I don’t think I took many photos of paintings or sculptures. In fact, I thought that was lame. That it was a distracting side quest which got in the way of the true purpose: engaging directly with the art, without intermediaries. Yes, I was a censorious undergrad. Now of course, photography is one of the prime ways I engage with and consume art.

Themes start to recur. There are photos of old buildings, the backs of houses. The patchwork aesthetic of cities, their layering, has always appealed to me. I like seeing things in multiples, billboards that repeat themselves, tiny bricks, signage, squares of different colours and textures that make up a whole.

Drummond Street, London, as a patchwork quilt

It turns out that the idea which underpins Encounters Art, of finding intrigue or humour or beauty in the everyday has been there for a long while. There are more photos of graffiti, ephemera, what I call ‘notes in the margins’ than there are of Art™, and each of these is loaded with associations and place-memories. My photo library treasures are a bin in Berlin that screams “HATE Gentrification” and an annotation on a signpost in New Haven (the home of Yale University) that advises, “God = 1st / College = 2nd).”

Bin graffiti, Berlin, 2012

Some of the photos that unexpectedly chimed with me were of a different kind of ‘everyday’, not in the city but at home. There aren’t many of these – clearly we don’t document where we live as much as the special, occasional, noteworthy moments in our lives. There’s a photo from my childhood bedroom window which I must have taken to preserve the delicate lattice of snow and frost on trees and buildings, but now it’s everything else, the normality of it, that resonates.

The view from my bedroom from 1992-2010

Looking back at the somewhat unremarkable picture, I realised that the view I saw every day for nearly 18 years (the apple tree in the garden, our neighbours’ grand conservatory they never used) had been forgotten. Or rather, it was covered in memory-dust that had gathered over years without me realising, which I hadn’t bothered to wipe away. Even my basement room in university halls of residence, a place I hated, seems interesting at this distance, captured in blurry photographs, hastily taken and packed away until now. Artists who work with found objects (a genre I, perhaps predictably, love) have understood that things don’t actually need to be our own to feel intimate, to resonate. Certain feelings, moments, memories are almost universal, though drawn from vastly differing actual experiences.

Perhaps these images of home interiors and window views have taken on a new significance since lockdown began. Looking at these photos didn’t feel simply like a trip down memory lane. I felt more like an archivist with the task of retrieving and reviving the forgotten. Unraveling continuities and disruptions in relationships, places, things my eyes have been drawn to, was a task which felt like the psychological equivalent of traveling. It gave me reassurance I think I needed, that this period of staying at home doesn’t have to be a vacuum because nothing has really happened. That memories can be made out of and despite boredom, via the simple act of taking a photograph from your window, or failing that, just looking out of it.

One of the exhibitions I did photograph, Gabriel Orozco,
Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, 2012