Archive by Author

‘How to Do Things with Salad’ … and other foods

25 Apr

by Lizzie Homersham


Susannah Worth, ‘How to Do Things with Salad’, 2016. Installation view. Photo: Hydar Dewachi


I’ve taken myself to a café to write my final blog post as Jerwood Writer in Residence. To write in cafés may be ‘such a cliché that it needs no explanation’ but I’ll put it pragmatically: the distractions of domesticity can be avoided, exchanged for others of a focusing kind in a café where you can pay someone else to serve you and clear up when you’re done. Had I stayed at home I could have conjured the cafe atmosphere with ‘Coffitivity’ but I’d have been surrounded by a heap of dirty laundry, an unmade bed, the unpredictable sounds and movements of six housemates, the possibility of so many more chores. There have been many days when I’ve preferred, told myself it was essential to do a mind clearing, guilt relieving or simply necessary number of domestic tasks before beginning to write. The need to fulfil the compulsion to write/make/create, and before that the need to be paid, is always in competition with other time consuming and unremunerated forms of reproductive labour.

In her 1969 ‘Maintenance Art Manifesto,’ Mierle Laderman Ukeles categorised human labour as falling into ‘Two basic systems: Development and Maintenance’:

Development: pure individual creation; the new; change; progress; advance; excitement; flight or fleeing.


Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)

The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.

The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs =

minimum wages, housewives = no pay.

clean you desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor,

wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s

diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the

fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking

garbage […]

Ukeles emphasised the unequal division of labour along lines of gender and class – the excitements of development all too often enjoyed by men for example, while maintenance tasks overwhelmingly fall to women. I look up from my laptop and framed by the café window there’s the 236 bus, halted at traffic lights and carrying a pretty teenager applying lipstick, maintaining her appearance in the reflection of her iPhone.

Ukeles’ maintenance category included cooking, also too often gendered female, especially when taking place in the home as opposed to in the professional restaurant kitchen:

I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.

The preparation of food was not among the tasks that Ukeles would go on to perform in an art context (In 1973 the Wadsworth Athenaeum museum hosted Maintenance Art Performances.). In contrast, documentation of food preparation (if not cooking itself, perhaps to avoid treading on old relational aesthetics ground) is shown in Susannah Worth’s How to Do Things with Salad, exhibited in the Project Space – an art space that spills over into the functional space of a café. The work is partly functional too, consisting of tablecloths covering all the usual tables, a plate hung on the wall, and of audio – an essay read aloud that layers recipes and anecdotes with observations regarding the visual circulation of food via social media, the rituals and traditions associated with the preparation of food, a form of labour that is frequently aestheticized, and often more pleasurable if collectivised.

I can imagine the audio providing the kind of low-level noise that would help a solitary worker focus, while also perhaps inspiring that worker to consider collaborative work, or tempt them through descriptions of flavours and textures into taking a proper break to enjoy their food. I wonder if when, on the two Mondays prior to writing this blog post, I met Alice May Williams and then Karen Kramer at lunchtime to go through the final stages of preparation for the radio shows we recorded, we were in some sense satisfying an ideal of working together proposed by Susannah Worth’s work. We may not have made our meals but we did enjoy eating them, Alice choosing a pasta dish that seemed so fitting because her film Dream City – More, Better, Sooner troubles the logic of (property) development that prioritises speed and speculative futures while pasta is associated with taking things slow. Dream City also values history, the archive and learning from previous generations, and pasta was once the target of Futurist hatred precisely because it was deemed to represent the past. As Marinetti wrote in his 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking:

Pastasciutta, 40% less nutritious than meat, fish or pulses, ties today’s Italians with its tangled threads to Penelope’s slow looms and to somnolent old sailing ships in search of wind. Why let its massive heaviness interfere with the immense network of short long waves which Italian genius has thrown across oceans and continents? Why let it block the path of those landscapes of colour form sound which circumnavigate the world thanks to radio and television? The defenders of pasta are shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or carry its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.

How to Do Things with Salad may have satisfied Marinetti through its focus on the light food type that salad constitutes but its decorative, friendly means of communicating itself would surely have been anathema to him and the Futurist preference for dynamism and smooth straight lines. Worth’s tablecloths represent the distinctly un-Futurist efforts of a workshop held by Worth in November at Open School East: participants were invited to follow many different salad recipes and then photograph the results, which are then represented communally, documented mosaic-fashion on Worth’s tablecloths, perhaps against the logic of Instagram (Worth comments on the Instagram-native practice of hashtagging one’s food photos) where a single user’s images – often of food – are fed one by one to their followers.

The ceramic plate under which the audio plays through headphones is also a collective document, featuring the names of all the Open School East salad makers and the ingredients that they used. It struck me as a way of making labour visible, much in the way that Ukeles insisted on in her Maintenance Art Manifesto and subsequent performances, while the plate as medium reminded me of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party of 1979.

Before quitting Facebook just over a year ago, Dinner Party was among the works suggested when I put the following question to the ‘hive mind’: ‘Examples of artworks involving food and/or eating? Can think of a good few but want to consider many.’ I saved the results of this lazy, outsourced form of research, and in the spirit of Susannah Worth’s work (which acknowledges that ‘the recipe is a form of writing that has been adopted and adapted within literature and visual art, and especially in performance art, where food has proved a rich source of material…’), sign off by sharing them with some of my ideas added in the mix, in chronological order as a partial recipe for anyone wanting to further explore the role of food in art since the 1920s.

Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto), 1928

Salvador Dali, Autumnal Cannibalism, 1936

Piero Manzoni, Achrome, 1961

Carolee Schneeman, Meat Joy, 1964

Dieter Roth, Literature Sausage (Literaturwurst). 1969

Jørgen Leth, 66 Scenes from America, 1982 (in which Andy Warhol eats a hamburger)

Claes Oldenburg, Floor Burger, 1962

Caroline Goodden, Gordon Matta-Clark, Tina Girouard, Suzanne Harris, Rachel Lew, FOOD, 1971

John Baldessari, Choosing: Green Beans, 1972

KwieKulik, ‘Activities with Dobromierz,’ 1972-74

Stuart Brisley, 10 Days, 1973

Jean Dupuy, Soup & Tart, 1974

Natalia LL, ‘Consumer Art,’ 1975

CADA, Para no morir de hambre en el arte (Not to die of hunger in art) 1979

Felix Gonzalez Torres, “Untitled” (Public Opinion), 1991

Jan Svankmajer, Food, 1992

Rirkrit Tiravanija, ‘Untitled (Free)’, 1992

Angela Bulloch, Liam Gillick. An Old Song and a New Drink, 1993-2014

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22, 2002

Sophie Calle, ‘The Chromatic Diet,’ 1998

Rainer Ganahl, ‘Credit Crunch Meals,’ 2008 –

Pil and Galia Kollectiv, ‘Sci-Fi Banquet,’ 2008

Song Dong, Eat the City, 2010

William Alexander, ‘icecreamvanman,’ 2011 –

‘Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,’ Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2012, including art, documentary materials, and public projects by Marina Abramović and Ulay, Sonja Alhäuser, Mary Ellen Carroll, Fallen Fruit, Theaster Gates, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, InCUBATE, The Italian Futurists, Mella Jaarsma, Alison Knowles, Suzanne Lacy, Lee Mingwei, Laura Letinsky, Tom Marioni, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mildred’s Lane, Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, motiroti, National Bitter Melon Council, Ana Prvacki, Sudsiri Pui-Ock, Michael Rakowitz, Ayman Ramadan, Red76, David Robbins, Allen Ruppersberg, Bonnie Sherk, Barbara T. Smith, Daniel Spoerri, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Peles Empire, ‘ART SOUP 1,’ 2012

Bedwyr Williams, ‘Curator. Cadaver. Cake,’ 2012

Hannah Lees, ‘If I won’t burn, where will the light come from?’ 2013

Holly White, Memories of McDonalds, 2013

Maja Cule, Laughing Alone with Salad, 2013

Archie Franks, Scotch Eggs, 2014

United Brothers, Does This Soup Taste Ambivalent? 2014

Paul McCarthy, ‘Chocolate Factory,’ 2014

Oscar Murillo ‘A Mercantile Novel,’ 2014

‘M’m! M’m! Good!’ Group show with Luca Francesconi, Lisa Holzer, Maryam Jafri, David Jourdan, Sophie Lee, and Kate Sansom, Rowing Projects, 6 March – 18 April 2015

Sheila Callaghan, Women Laughing Alone, 2016

Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke, The 3D Additivist Cookbook, forthcoming

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2: sound in ‘The Eye That Articulates Belongs on Land’

22 Apr

by Lizzie Homersham

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: ‘Borrowed Time’ is an exhibition of two moving image works: The Eye That Articulates Belongs On Land by Karen Kramer and Dream City – More, Better, Sooner by Alice May Williams, installed at Jerwood Space, London from 9 March to 24 April and at CCA, Glasgow from 28 May to 10 July 2016. I invited each artist to record a radio show with a view to focusing on their use of sound – the second discussion with Karen Kramer aired on Resonance FM on 19 April and considered the use of field recordings and the attention given by Kramer to breath and voice in the troubling of the distinction between the natural and the manmade, the human and the animal. Listen again via the player below and watch an excerpt of Limulus, a previous work by Kramer referenced at the end of the podcast here.


Jerwood/FVU Awards 1: Mindfulness in ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’

18 Apr

by Lizzie Homersham

Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: ‘Borrowed Time’ is an exhibition of two moving image works: Dream City – More, Better, Sooner by Alice May Williams and The Eye That Articulates Belongs On Land by Karen Kramer, installed at Jerwood Space, London from 9 March to 24 April and at CCA, Glasgow from 28 May to 10 July 2016. I invited each artist to record a radio show with a view to focusing on their use of sound – the first discussion with Alice May Williams aired on Resonance FM on 12 April and considered the voiceover, the language of mindfulness, and the loop. Listen again via the player below, and read a tidied up extract of the notes that Alice and I exchanged in advance of our recording.

The voiceover in your film draws on the language of mindfulness, partly in order to deconstruct it and ask whether it’s really as good as it’s made out to be. You sent me a Guardian article, Dawn Foster’s ‘Is mindfulness making us ill?’, referring to ‘mandatory meditation’ in the workplace ‘as a route to heightened productivity, in tandem with various apps, wearable devices and forms of low-level employee surveillance’. One of my criticisms of the use of mindfulness in the workplace, and the translation of what should be freely accessible health services delivered by specialists into apps would be that it supposes that states of mind can be calculated, quantified, and easily set to the ‘correct’ or ‘healthy’ level. I also sent you a PDF of Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn’s article ‘Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes,’ and you replied that you found it ‘terrifying, truly horrible’ to read.

Yes, I think the application of mindfulness by employers, as a way of encouraging workers to take individual responsibility, even blame, for their stress is very worrying. The use by the health services of mindfulness as a one size fits all response to mental health is also very tricky as there is a big difference, for example, between a person’s experiences of work related stress, someone who needs a break from their emails etc., and somebody who has a depressive illness. I was really interested in the workfare article you sent me; I find it particularly sad that people are now being penalised for not having the correct ‘positive feelings’ about finding a job, even as the actual difficult conditions of doing so point to their pessimism as being the more ‘correct’ response.

Film still from ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’ by Alice May Williams. Image courtesy the artist.

Film still from ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’ by Alice May Williams. Image courtesy the artist.

Did you feel wary about engaging with mindfulness in an artwork? I feel like mindfulness, as well as anxiety, depression, care and therapy are themes that are very much in the air at the moment.

I started scripting this work over a year ago when I was give a course of mindfulness for depression. I’d never heard of mindfulness before but it has since taken off! I had hoped that people would understand the type of language being used and the structure of the piece as being borrowed from mindfulness, and people have told me they felt a slightly uncanny recognition of some of the particular phrases in the film from their own experiences of the practice, realising there is perhaps a ‘scripted’ element which mindfulness teachers learn and repeat. I also wanted to use the structure of mindfulness practice in the film, but to ‘disobey’ it in a way, to continually divert away from the present moment, to recognise the importance of being able to understand the past, to be able to dream of futures. It is actually I think a condition of depression to be sort of stuck in an endless present, to be unable to imagine a different future, and so I wanted to offer something more hopeful than that.

To what extent is your drawing together of mindfulness, regeneration and financial speculation on property (the history of Battersea Power Station and its redevelopment) an attempt to suggest that the root of mental illness does not just reside in individual predisposition, peoples’ inability to cope, etc. but that it also comes from structures that force us to live in unhealthy ways? I re-read Sam Kriss’s review of the DSM 5 the other day and highlighted the following passage:

‘The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine.’

It chimes with what Hannah Black says in this conversation with Andrea Crespo: ‘It’s possible to conceive of most mental illnesses as finding it hard to hold down a job’. That’s what’s so awful, among other things, about the ‘shift from rest cure (signified by the sick note), to work cure (signified by the fit note)’ that Friedli and Stearn have identified in a context of austerity.

I think there is an element of truth to some mental health issues arising from the circumstances under which we are made to live but I also think that we can’t talk about these things in such universalising terms (as some applications of mindfulness as therapy for mental health are guilty of). Every one of us has a different set of circumstances and difficulties which can arise from a chemical imbalance as much as a capital one! I’m also wary of critical theory using the language of mental health to talk about wider, or more abstract concepts, or exoticising mental health conditions as ‘alternative ways of being’ – for example the art world’s fascination with the ideas of R. D. Laing. There’s a danger of theorising about mental health in relation to capitalism, which fails to acknowledge the very real painful experiences of people whose medical issues go beyond ‘the present moment’. I think Hannah Black’s writing about schizophrenia in ‘Crazy in Love’ is very good in this regard.

Film still from ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’ by Alice May Williams. Image courtesy the artist.

Film still from ‘Dream City – More, Better, Sooner’ by Alice May Williams. Image courtesy the artist.

At the Artist’s Film Club screening event and talk at the ICA you referred to hope, saying that
if you only focus on the present moment [as mindfulness asks us to] ‘you can’t really have any hope, you can’t project into the future. We can’t even begin to imagine 60 years into the future.’ You’ve also referred to hope above. But can we really be hopeful though? I sometimes think I’m more in favour of a something like ‘depressive realism’, as described in this interview with Lauren Berlant.

I like this part: ‘Depressive realism allows for an account of the utility of fantasy in maintaining but also imagining alternative modes of life.’ And I appreciate how Berlant talks about depressive realists understanding themselves as being at odds, fully aware of everything that is happening, and acknowledging everything that is difficult about staying in sync with the world. I think we can be hopeful though, by trying to understand history and the present moment within it as part of a much larger whole, by thinking in terms of the cyclical nature of change, over centuries rather than decades. I attempted in this film and in my previous work An Unreliable Witness to think in terms of my great-great grandmother’s life span of 95 years and what kind of potential long-term thought would open onto. I also think dreaming and inner life need to be preserved sites of hope, refusal, and parts of life escape ownership.

Matthew Finn: ‘Mother’, the family home and photography

16 Dec

This interview is the last of my blog posts relating to the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015.* It was conducted over email and edited to develop some of the themes of my first post on ‘Mother’, 1987-present, a long duration series of photos depicting Finn’s mother Jean in the context of the family home they shared until her health, deteriorating since 2014, called for her to move into an assisted living residence.

Matthew Finn, Untitled, from the series 'Mother', 1987-Present, 2015

Matthew Finn, Untitled, from the series ‘Mother’, 1987-Present, 2015

Lizzie Homersham:
I have almost the inverse relationship to my mother, my family home and photography: I lived away from home during my degree, returning to stay with my newly single mum immediately after graduation, aged twenty-three. The home I grew up in was no longer my parents’, or family home; my mum asked my dad to move out in the final year of my studies, when she found out about the latest in a twenty-five-year-long string of denied until they became undeniable affairs. My sister, three years older than me, had left home at the age of eighteen. So it was just my mum and I, driving each other mad with circular conversations regarding my ability to find paid work and move out and her capacity to understand my father. I remember her questioning his yet to be expressed interest in the family photo albums. The atmosphere was suffocating, and tearful until a friend, the photographer Esther Teichmann, whose photography has also captured members of her family, came to the rescue: she invited me to share her flat for an undefined period, at no charge until I got myself on my feet – she knew I’d be better off in London when it came to finding work. I want to ask you how easy or difficult you found sharing a home with your mother, and did the camera play a part in facilitating your relationship?

Matthew Finn: It was easy; my mother protected me from many of the difficult episodes that she had to deal with, especially issues around my father. It was not until his death when I was twenty-one that I began to get an idea of how much of a complex man he was and how much my family had protected me. Or if you look at it another way, how much they kept hidden from me! I was given time and money to experiment with photography even when money was in short supply. I could come and go as I pleased and eventually went off to college but came back most weekends to photograph and get my washing done and have a proper cooked meal. My mother and I were not the type of family to talk about our problems and emotions, except when she was drinking – at that point I could never get a word in. Photography gave me my mother back: the more I photographed her, the more she gave me her time. It helped our relationship in so many ways; in fact memories only occasionally surface as to what family life was like before the project started.

LH: How do the photos that you have taken of your family, especially your mother, compare with any pre-existing photos taken by other people?

MF: Initially they were very similar, partly due to the camera I used, an old Polaroid with the flash bulbs mounted on top. The subject matter also mimicked the family snaps seen in most of the albums of days out with my mother and my aunties and cousins. But once I’d made the decision to concentrate on my mother using the home as a backdrop, then my photos attained a style of their own. I arrived at this decision by looking at photography at art school, spending time looking at the work of other photographers. It was through that period of study that I developed certain formal arrangements and the isolation of my mother within the frame.

LH: Was the final photo of the series included in the exhibition at Jerwood Visual Arts? And did you intend to give a sense of an ending in those photos I guessed might be the last?

MF: The last image I’ve taken is in the show but the series may not yet be complete. It’s a first and a last image in one; the first photo taken in my mother’s new environment of the nursing home also represents the end – the end of our relationship, the end of being able to communicate with one another. I wanted to give the audience a sudden jolt, a real sense of the decline in my mother’s physical appearance. I am happy to include the images that show mental and physical change and maybe it is time to say goodbye.

LH: During the talk held at Jerwood on 23 November, you said that dissatisfaction with your work is the thing that keeps you going; you tell yourself the next project will be better. Could you talk about which aspects of ‘Mother’ you feel dissatisfied by, and where you might go next?

MF: I only know that my work is good because I have been told that it is by people who have seen it. But what am I to do from there? Only the maker of the work can find a way to move forward. I’ve never been happy with the images in ‘Mother’ but as I started putting them into order they began to make sense. And the conversation I had with my mother when she was still well, regarding the work that she liked, just had to be enough. For a long time, I didn’t know how to stop but after the death of her brother Des in 2014 and the decline of her health that coincided with his passing, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to improve the series by adding to it. I could see that my mother no longer needed to be photographed; she needed to be looked after. So I started paying her bills, sorting out issues with her home, doing the food shopping and ordering the tablets she was prescribed. The need to find my mother a smaller, ground floor flat to live in had to take precedence over my need to make images. Before the circumstances demanded that I stop, I didn’t know how to, partly because my photography was allowing my mother and I to talk and spend time together. Working on projects of a personal nature can be a godsend insofar as there is no one telling you when they need the work by. The downside is that things can spiral out of control. I knew from an early stage that ‘Mother’ had to be much more than just a few images, and that the series had to be made over a number of years. In the late 1980s, I was looking at other artists who worked over longer periods of time: Nan Goldin, Nicholas Nixon, Emmet Gowin and Bernd and Hilla Becher. I still need to find a voice for my other long-term body of work ‘Uncle’, which involved photographing Des over a twenty-five year period. But my next work will be a yearlong project on rugby players in Hull. I was brought up on rugby league and in some ways it brings me closer to family members who have passed away. I just hope it does only take a year and not another quarter century.

LH: About how many photos did you take in total while working on ‘Mother’, and can you describe how you went about the process of editing the larger body of work for the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015 show?

MF: I can’t say for certain but looking at the boxes the negatives are housed in, there are about 1,500 rolls of Ilford film, so over 50,000 negatives. Editing is always a difficult and lengthy process. It helped to know which spaces the work would be shown in, and I was assisted by the group of mentors I was assigned as part of the Award. I showed larger edits to these mentors, which was useful as well as complicated because when you show your work to many other people they each have a tendency to take the work down routes that they themselves have an interest in. I took small amounts of advice from all of the mentors and from the staff at Jerwood Visual Arts and Photoworks. The final edit you saw on the wall was a collaboration of ideas, as well as the product of practical decisions made within space and budget restrictions. Interestingly, the more easily read images made the edit, whilst my more complex images involving shadows and surrealism (my personal favourites) did not. In future, I would like to try showing my larger edit, which presently stands at about 200 photos.

LH: I visited your website and have seen other images of your mother in colour. Why exclusively, except for the image featuring a photo on a windowsill, exhibit black and white photography at Jerwood Visual Arts?

MF: Because I hadn’t shown the work before I think I wanted continuity, and the majority of my work is in black and white so it’s also more representative of what I do. The single colour image breaks that continuity, and the continuity of me as the photographer; the picture on the windowsill is one that was taken of my mother many years before I was born.

LH: I’d love to hear more about the ways in which Jean’s awareness of her self-image, which increased the more she was photographed for the series, led to her playing a decisive role in your representation of her.

MF: Once I’d decided only to make images within the home, and on a daily basis, the terms of representation were set. We wanted to make a document rather than construct a character through costume and props in the manner of say Cindy Sherman. The visual material was plentiful, though simply inspired by our daily routines and the objects found in the spaces my mother had put them in over the years. Over time, my mother’s understanding of her image became very apparent. She started to arrange me, telling me where to stand, telling me how close I could go in with the lens and at which angle she was happy to be photographed. In a sense, my mother played the part of director and I was simply the technician pressing the button. When I look back at pictures of my mother from the 1960s it is obvious that she understood how to pose and what to wear. She had many lovely images of herself taken in photographic studios when she was younger, and later she was happy to pose for me in a domestic setting and just be herself.

LH: I wonder whether your anxiety around showing photos of a highly personal nature has been deepened by the prevailing attitudes in the world of photography and photographic discourse?

MF: It has to do with timing I think. I’ve long been asking myself: will the photography world want these images and how will they respond to them? Ten years ago there did not seem to be much appetite for work like mine, especially in photographic discourse. But that has changed as the wider discussions on age and mental health have broken into the mainstream, leading to a better reception of projects like mine. I did show the work to several people about eight years ago and got nothing from the exchange. As a result I kept on making more work but with no real need or desire to show it. I kept it buried. It was only after a conversation with my mother about how we would feel about losing control of the work, if and when it was released, that I realised we were happy to take that risk. I then started showing the work to those I felt would be responsive individuals. They were mainly women: besides my mother, Carol Hudson is a photographer and friend and she offers incredible insights into my work and its possible position within the photographic canon. She is a fierce critic who makes you think about every element of the work. Bridget Coaker from the Guardian offers different insights regarding the photographic market and pays incredible attention to detail in editing. I owe them both a lot and I owe a huge amount to my wife who drives me forward and allows me the time I need to continue working in this medium.

*I will return in March and April to write about the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2016: ‘Borrowed Time’, featuring work by Karen Kramer and Alice May Williams.

The Unseen

12 Dec

As a small child, like many small children, I was afraid of the dark and going to bed would involve a dilemma. To avoid going to sleep surrounded by pitch black (the fear, I think, had to do with not being able to distinguish visually between the state of having my eyes closed or open) I would have to leave my door ajar to let in some light from the hall. And yet, lying in bed, I couldn’t help focusing on the vertical gap between the edge of the door and its frame, mentally conjuring all the things that might be just out of sight – witches ready to slip through the slit as soon as my eyelids fell. The hallway light would also let dramatic shadows leap onto the wall above my bookcase: I remember soft toys turning into looming mutant Donnie Darko-esque forms. Or, on one occasion, waking up in the middle of the night to see a shiny foil helium balloon, left in my room by my dad returning home when I was already asleep, transformed into a towering human figure made doubly terrifying by its reflection in the mirror at the foot of my bed.

Like many children, I also used to like confined space and building dens: creating a prism out of a clothes horse and draping a blanket over the top, or clearing enough room in my wardrobe to climb in, close the door and hide out until the pleasure of privacy turned through lack of attention into an uneasy state of boredom. This second habit must have involved confronting fear of darkness: it was no lighter under the blanket than in the wardrobe. Maybe the dark just wasn’t scary when I’d created the conditions for it myself, when I’d been in control and could emerge into light again at will.

Tereza Zelenkova, The Unseen, 2015

Tereza Zelenkova, The Unseen, 2015

The distinction between personally controlled and externally imposed darkness is the only way I can think to reconcile the above two childhood experiences involving bedtime and play and fear and amusement respectively. It’s a distinction that I’ve been thinking about while looking at Tereza Zelenkova’s work, which appears, alongside the similarly black and white images comprising Matthew Finn’s Mother and Joanna Piotrowska’s studies of adolescent women, in the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015 exhibition at Jerwood Visual Arts. Zelenkova’s The Unseen, 2015, depicts four women gathered around a lace covered table, three of them sat on wooden chairs, legs crossed and hands folded into their skirts while another stands behind the table in the background, ambiguously poised as either head of the family or a waitress preparing to serve. All of their faces have been covered in white fabric that hangs down around their shoulders and falls into points over their breasts. A wooden floor is visible but the background is completely black, making the group portrait the stuff of hallucinatory visions and haunting dreams, unnerving due to its lack of context and raising of questions we can’t as viewers hope to answer with any certainty.

Who covered these women’s faces? What kind of faces lie beneath? They look like they’re waiting for something – for what? Zelenkova places the viewer in a position of unknowing that I think of as resembling the position of the child who is afraid of the dark – I want to see and understand the things that an external hand has concealed. It’s like watching a horror film, when tension mounts around a figure, creature or force that is far scarier all the while it’s out of sight, often comical once revealed. In another photo, titled Dog Cemetery, Zelenkova allows the viewer to see everything within the frame, letting us feel more in control. And she also appeals to a playful tendency, learned in childhood, to look for faces in natural forms – a lump of rock set in one of the Czech landscapes of the photographer’s own childhood has well-defined eyes, nose and mouth.

Tereza Zelenkova, Dog Cemetery, 2015

Tereza Zelenkova, Dog Cemetery, 2015

In Joanna Piotrowska’s work faces also take on an important role, and are for the most part either partially or completely hidden by body parts or hair, employed in the interests of self-protection or as a way of establishing privacy. We’re out of childhood and into adolescence in these photos in which the girls’ poses derive from self-defence manuals but sometimes look like they could instead originate from cinematic seduction scenes. The girl whose body is all angles, her jutting knee and elbow making lines as straight as those found in the hedge behind her and on the tiled ground, has become a shield ready to ward off anyone else.

Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, installation view of Joanna Piotrowska's work at Jerwood Space. Image: Anna Arca.

Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, installation view of Joanna Piotrowska’s work at Jerwood Space. Image: Anna Arca.

But the girls sat on a wicker bench look as though they’re in a moment of indecision: caught between a headlock and an embrace.

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2015

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2015

Standing with her back to the pond, in a shot that makes me wonder whether Piotrowska has seen Stranger by the Lake, the girl with shadowy arms and long hair hiding her face could just as well be ready to pin down the friend she looks down on, or she may be contemplating a caress. I think to Berlin-based artist Anna Zett’s new video work Circuit Training and about Zett’s writing about self-defence, specifically boxing, which is described as ‘a radical form of dialogue, just like a caress, but at the other end of language.’ Boxing, like the work of Zelenkova and Piotrowsksa, also entails navigating the other and moving between positions of control or of being controlled. What I liked most about Piotrowska’s work is that the idea of transition and movement – along a scale of being dominated or dominating – is made physical: this exhibition represents the first time Piotrowska has used free-standing, larger than human size frames for the display of some of her work, which viewers have to encounter at different angles, do battle with or confront in some sense, in order to see the rest of the smaller, wall-mounted work.

Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, installation view of Joanna Piotrowska's work at Jerwood Space. Image: Anna Arca.

Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, installation view of Joanna Piotrowska’s work at Jerwood Space. Image: Anna Arca.

These smaller pictures have been arranged so as to refer to spreads of illustrations laid out in self-defence manuals, however they refuse the instructional role that images in manuals usually aim for. Where figures in books would more commonly be photographed in spare settings, helping readers concentrate on the body, Piotrowska surrounds her subjects in busily patterned domestic environments where lace curtains clash with several different flower patterns embellishing wallpaper, carpet and couch. The comparative simplicity, clean lines of the girl’s body and the fact that she is acting out self-defence training methods, suggests the home itself is hostile and a context that the adolescent must learn to confront and distinguish herself against.


7 Dec

At the talk held at Jerwood Visual Arts on 23 November (Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015: Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska and Tereza Zelenkova in conversation with Martin Barnes), Matthew Finn said he wouldn’t recommend the way he works: over long periods of time spent in close proximity with family members and that only end when life or a certain way of living concludes. Finn’s Uncle series terminated because it had to, at the point of his uncle’s death, and he was forced to finish photographing his mother (for Mother, 1987-Present) when she moved into an assisted living residence – out of the family home she and Matthew had shared and which served as the setting of his photography of her for more than twenty five years. I found it humbling to stand in front of a body of work that had been in development for longer than I have been alive, and that had been built up in private according to a different, much slower pace than the one at which I tend to work, in the compromised time of unrelenting deadlines. The idea of slowing down holds a lot of appeal right now, the idea of having to stop because of a death or other form of loss of course much less so.


Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, installation view at Jerwood Space. Image: Anna Arca.


Without asking Finn, it’s unknown if the final photograph taken in the series has been included in the display at Jerwood Visual Arts. Nonetheless, after the talk I went to look at Mother for a second time and found myself trying to locate a possible ending amongst a non-chronological extract of a vaster body of work. The edit that Finn presents takes in his varied approaches to representing his mother, by means of conventional portraiture as well as through objects such as domestic appliances and food, all of them black and white and fairly small scale, like the favourite photos of a family album, a few plucked out, slightly enlarged and hung in frames in a household hallway. From the available selection, I narrowed down the final photo to one or two. Could it be the square format photograph in which the absence of Matthew’s mother, Jean, is most keenly felt? Empty frames within frames: light shines through French doors and another two sets of doorways before falling onto a clean expanse vinyl wood-effect flooring, also empty save for a Henry hoover that assumes the subject position taken up by Jean in most of the other pictures. I focused in on Henry’s eyes, obviously expressionless though I charged them with guilt for having vacuumed up all evidence of Jean’s clothing, home decoration choices and habits that are in abundance in several other shots: tomatoes ripen on a lace curtain-framed windowsill; Jean sits in the sun and drinks a glass of water while holding a lit cigarette; the sofa Jean has drifted off on is striped and made of velour.


Matthew Finn, Untitled, the the series Mother, 1987-Present, 2015


Or, perhaps the final photograph was the contrastingly cluttered square format photograph in which Jean is slumped sideways in a chair pulled up close to a wrinkled bed. She is surrounded by her own small collection of photos, clustered together on top of a chest of drawers. It’s the only photo where she looks diminished and unwell. I imagine that continuing to photograph her from this point would have been too much of an intrusion, too exploitative to carry on. (In the talk, Finn cautioned against the photographic tendency to aestheticise or blow up images that emphasises human distress.) In many other photos Jean faces the camera, or is more clearly conscious of its presence: as poised as a dancer as she stands between washing machine and fridge in her galley kitchen, head on a tilt to show her ‘best side’. In another photo she stretches a bed sheet out beneath her chin as a photographer’s assistant might hold a reflector, clearly aware of the ways in which light can be flatteringly employed. She appears in charge of her own composition, acting the part of the woman she wants to see portrayed.

Matthew Finn, Untitled, the the series Mother, 1987-Present, 2015


Despite Jean’s apparent comfort with the camera, Finn said that he worried about exhibiting this work: his difficulty has been in bringing something so intimate to a broader audience – ‘What happens when you make something that is so personal and that yet has to distance itself from the personal in order to open out beyond the individual who has made it?’, he asked. I know that many artists and writers share this worry of overexposure or that sharing something apparently intimate may be met with derision or dismissive charges of narcissism and self-obsession. It’s a problem with deep roots that art historians and critics have contributed to – Rosalind Krauss for example: In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson recalls the graduate school seminar she attended in 1998, in which Krauss responded in an outrageously belittling manner to Jane Gallop’s new work. Gallop presented a slideshow of naked photos of herself and her son – Nelson recalls that:

‘She was trying to talk about photography from the standpoint of the photographed subject, which, as she said, “may be the position from which it is most difficult to claim valid general insights.” And she was coupling this subjective position with that of being a mother, in an attempt to get at the experience of being photographed as a mother (another position generally assumed to be, as Gallop put it, “troublingly personal, anecdotal, self-concerned”)’

Where Nelson thought Gallop was ‘onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start’, Krauss ‘excoriated Gallop for taking her own personal situation as subject matter, accused her of having an almost willful blindness to photography’s long history.’

Krauss’s stance seems so outdated and yet we continue today to have to battle against such a stance. Finn needn’t have worried – the personal nature of his work makes it no less relevant to others. It’s prompted me, in the week or so since viewing it, to look again at the mother-son work of Leigh Ledare and to search online for clips of No Home Movie, 2015, the mother-daughter last work of Chantal Akerman which emphasises the role of the camera and the ways in which different technological filters can affect child-mother relationships – how a mother can be be brought closer by video services like Skype, the physical distance imposed by Akerman’s travels minimised. Spending time with Finn’s Mother also made me reflect on the host of mothers I’ve been reading about lately; besides The Argonauts I’ve just finished Jenny Diski’s travelogue-memoir Skating to Antarctica, in which she describes a troubled family history and estrangement from a mother of whom she owns a single photograph. Diski’s family album was also lost – entrusted to a man who worked in the boiler room of the home her mother hastily moved the family out of, and never saw again.

Finn’s Mother is perhaps first and foremost about avoiding loss – capturing as close as possible every moment – he even had a camera in hand while watching television with his mother and once caught himself watching TV through his camera’s viewfinder. The series has also been about control: Finn said that part of the motivation behind Mother was about taking charge of the representation of his reduced family (he’s the only child to Jean, his single mum). He had been looking at family albums and at what happens when families break up – as Diski’s book testifies, the family album gets broken up and he wanted to create a ‘safe’ album: an album that would at once be his own and that could also be shared in exhibitions. I think of Mother’s audience becoming members of an extended family.