A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham. Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.

I have no Art training- I have just done a lot of looking- so visiting an exhibition called A Lesson in Sculpture about John Latham, an artist who I had never heard of was a bit of a challenge. I always think of the Henry Moore Institute as quite hardcore whatever it is showing. It’s a serious place, quite forbidding behind its sleek, grey, modern facade- a fortress of Art which seems to be built for people who are in the know. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, but it can be quite daunting. You don’t go in there to parade your ignorance.

My first reaction was to rush over to the two Cornelia Parker pieces, My Soul Aflame (1997) and Just When I Need Him Most (2005) and greet them like old friends. I know and love her work and I had seen them before in her exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead. Two charred hymnbooks, rescued from a church that was struck by lightning in Lyrtle,Texas, open at the pages showing the hymns which give them their titles. When I told a committed Christian about them after first seeing them he looked at me wide eyed and said, “I wonder why God did that?” An atheist would enjoy the wit and irony. I stood in front of them thinking about how fragile life is, how objects can change and resonate through time, and how we can never really know.
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It took a while, and an interesting conversation with one of the people guarding the fortress, before a return visit was able to help me start to see what was going on in John Latham’s work. Like Cornelia Parker he was also interested in time and transformation and changing objects quite violently. Often this involved books. Destroying books is an action with a lot of forceful associations, most of them unpleasant. Latham was removed from his teaching post at St Martin’s College for “distilling the essence” of a library book- a fine euphemism after seeing what he has done to some other books. It was a book of critical essays about Art by Martin Greenberg and his action seems to me to be both appalling and admirable- a nice example of Art triumphing forcibly over one of its hangers on. The books in this exhibition which Latham has destroyed to make his work don’t seem to me to be forlorn, maligned objects. You may not be able to read them any more but they are still there, surviving trauma, and the knowledge that they have already passed on cannot be so easily wiped out. There is real power in them as they skewer each other, lie there half hidden amongst the wreckage, or remain frozen in time, stopped in motion as they collide with each other. It’s all quite macho, cold and scientific, very male, especially the room which celebrates all the anonymous work done in the coal industry where piles of red shale and coal waste have been designated as sculpture with a soundtrack of shovelling.

I like the beauty, wit and thoughtfulness of Cornelia Parker’s work so much better but I think I was beginning to see where John Latham was coming from. Who knows?
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Playing at Art with Cornelia.

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Neither From nor Towards. Cornelia Parker. As installed in the Courtauld Gallery .
Photograph: Patricia Rogers.

Cornelia Parker, one of our finest living artists, has described making Art as linked to play.

“My theory about why I became an artist and why I do what I do is play was a guilty pleasure and so I think I’ve chosen a career where play is OK, although it’s hard work too, somehow work and play are very conflated in my work.”

Play is about freedom. It is about doing exactly what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it, in just the way that you want to. Of course that makes it fun, so why don’t adults do it more? That honesty of intent and clarity of purpose blazes out from a small child but many people lose it when they reach adulthood. Daily necessities and pressures get in the way and the hidden agendas that come with adult life are hard to avoid. We are taught to relax by means of things outside ourselves rather than looking inwards and enjoying what we find. Looking inwards becomes work, therapy, a way of judging ourselves and we don’t like it much. We filter what we show to the world, we wonder what people think, we worry. Play doesn’t worry about anything. When you play you are who you say you are, doing what you say that you are doing, and there is nobody awarding points for accuracy or achievement. A very rare thing in adult life. Whatever you do there is almost always somebody with an opinion about it and a “right” way of doing it. Play throws all that out of the window and allows itself to just be.

Someone who wants to be an artist has to find a way of keeping that playfulness alive. It is what connects you to your inner self and it is your inner self, your own unique way of seeing the world, which makes what you do worth looking at. It is an honest voice which says this really is me, this is how I feel and I am showing it to you. Only then can other people look at what what you have done and see themselves differently through the prism of the work. Of course technique and craft skills are important to an artist and they are also valuable in themselves but they are not at the heart of being an artist. I think that is what Cornelia Parker meant when she said this:

“I feel I’ve possibly been an artist always, but, you know, it doesn’t mean my art’s any good.”

Of course Cornelia Parker’s work is good, very good indeed, but I think I know what she meant. That openness and singular curiosity, an ability to see what other people walk past and point it out to them, is just the starting point. That alone will not automatically mean that what an artist produces will be good Art, but without it what an artist makes is likely to be dull and unremarkable. That singular eye comes first. If an artist is not expressing their individuality honestly then they are wasting their most valuable asset, that unique voice which nobody has ever had before and nobody will ever have again.

Those two quotes from a short but fascinating programme about Cornelia Parker, someone whose work I have loved since I saw it for the first time in her Turner prize exhibition room made me think……….. If Cornelia could use bricks like the ones I see on the beach where I walk my dogs to make a work like Neither From Nor Towards, which I saw and photographed in the Courtauld, maybe I could play at being an artist too. After all, I didn’t have to be a good one…………….. People play at Art on the beach all the time, whether they call it that or not.

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Thirty Pieces of Silver by Cornelia Parker. York St Mary’s. 22-10-11

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Cornelia Parker made her work Thirty Pieces of Silver back in 1988-89 and it is a major work, now in the Tate collection, consisting of over one thousand silver objects of all kinds, both useful and ornamental, which have been flattened with a steam roller and suspended on thirty two kilometres of fine wire. It has been on show at York St Mary’s for the summer filling the central space of what was the nave of the church with an eerie beauty. There are all kinds of transformed silver objects floating calmly just above the stone floor; spoons, candlesticks, a flute, trophies, trombones, fine wire mesh baskets, bells, mirror backs, plates, trays forks and knives. They are meticulously arranged into thirty perfectly balanced circular groups which hover, poised, serene and still. It is a moment frozen in time. It is only when your eye settles and begins to look closely that you sense movement, both within the composition of the piece itself, swirling shapes interacting gracefully with each other within each circle, and as breaths of air cause the objects to sway almost imperceptibly on their wires. There is a real meditative pleasure to be had from the concentration needed to notice these tiny movements and follow them with your eye. The fine wires shimmer as the sunlight falls on them through the plain windows of St Mary’s, making a sunlit gossamer curtain of indoor rain through which the blurred shapes of the arches and stonework of the church can be seen. Everything is shades of grey and glittering silver. From the high balcony as you look down on the work it fills the church, claiming the space as its own. The worn stone paving tiles underneath the circles are a perfect background for the piece, complementing the greys within it and allowing the silver tones to shimmer over its dull surface.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is a poignant title. As well as being a straight description of what is in front of you it also alludes to the fee paid to Judas in return for betraying his master. This in turn leads to thoughts of death and resurrection. Each of the objects has been transformed. They have had a previous life in an entirely different form and carry the resonances from this life forward with them. You watch them and wonder.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

It is hard to believe that Thirty Pieces of Silver is not a site specific work made for the space at St Mary’s which it fits so perfectly. The size of the space and the tones and colours within it complement the piece perfectly and St Mary’s itself has also undergone its own transformation from a church into a contemporary art space. These may be two very different uses but they also share strong similarities, especially when a beautiful contemplative work like this is placed there.

Photograph by Shannon Tofts.

Cornelia Parker’s silver objects are not the only ones to gather new resonances and change with time. At the back of the balcony area there is a board where visitors can describe the special meaning that silver has to them and pin their note onto a thin wire. People of all ages have enjoyed telling their stories and here are just a few. I think that Cornelia would like the first one, written by a child and accompanied by an illustration.

“My silver christening bracelet got run over by a fire engine.”

“I have a silver threepenny bit from my twenty first birthday cake and I am now 74 years old.” Ray.

“I have a newish silver and rose quartz ring bought by my husband on a weekend away. I wear it and it reminds me that when away from everyday life we get on very well and I love him. x”

“Silver tarnishes. It needs love and attention like people.”

Thirty Pieces of silver will never find a better home. I wish that it could stay at St Mary’s forever.

I would have loved to be able to take my own photos but I am thrilled to have been given permission to show you photographer Shannon Toft’s stunning images.

Cornelia Parker’s Neither From Nor Towards. Part of the exhibition “falling up” at the Courtauld Gallery. 22-08-11

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

T.S. Eliot – from Burnt Norton.

There is something quite magical about what Cornelia Parker does. She takes objects and gives them a new life, transforming them, sometimes by force, into a new form and then makes them into something beautiful. Her work, Neither From Nor Towards, made in 1992, forms the centrepiece of a small single room exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery entitled “falling up” this summer. She has taken weathered bricks and floated them in mid air on thin wires, allowing them to float magically and defy gravity.  There is a strong sense of structure in the work, the pieces of brick are carefully graded by size, height and position to form a unit rather than a collection of disparate floating bricks and the wires above them shimmer like summer rain reflected in the sun. As you walk around and view the work from different levels and positions it transforms and changes shape as the structure disintegrates in front of you and allows the bricks to float free of each other. It is quite mesmerising. It was made all the more so for me by the fact that the bricks were of a kind that I see every day on the beach where I walk my dogs. It was as if she had taken part of my life and reflected it back to me in a new way, giving it a fresh sense of wonder and delight. The title makes me think of the bricks as something outside of reality. They have come from nowhere and they are going nowhere. They just are, floating in their own ethereal space forever. A thing of joy and wonder.

There were other pieces in the room but I didn’t think to look at them. Neither From Nor Towards makes everything around it recede into the distance and seem unimportant. I felt lucky to be able to spend time in its presence.

The photographs are my own copyright.

Doubtful Sound. Cornelia Parker at the Baltic, Gateshead. 14-09-10

“I resurrect things that have been killed off… My work is all about the potential of materials – even when it looks like they’ve lost all possibilities.”

Cornelia Parker. Perpetual Canon.
2004
Silver plated brass band, metal wire, light bulb
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist, Frith Street Gallery London and Collection of Contemporary Art Fundación “la Caixa”, Barcelona

I first got to know Cornelia Parker’s work when I went to the Turner prize exhibition in 1997. I knew nothing about her when I walked into her room and I was completely spellbound. The ideas and thoughts that had been circling inside my head since I was a child were made concrete in front of me and when I looked at the pieces I felt the same kind of wonder that I had as an eight year old, who wondered what happened to things as they grew, changed, died and sometimes transformed themselves into something else entirely. How did that come about? What was going to become of me as I grew and changed? Were the hairs that became entangled in my hairbrush still me? When they rotted away what was left? Nothing or something? What about my skin that became dust on the floor? So many things in my small world started out as one thing and became something different. Nothing was forever. Objects had resonance and meaning for me which were far greater than the sum of their parts. My push along dog which I had loved since I was a toddler was kept long after he ceased to be an active part of my life- in fact he was only thrown out many years later when his straw became too disgusting. An ordinary half crown given as a present by a favourite bus driver (the last of many) was kept, not spent, as a reminder of him when he died. These emotional connections to objects around us, and the wonderings which they provoke are a part of being human, and can last a lifetime.

Cornelia Parker. Perpetual Canon.
2004
Silver plated brass band, metal wire, light bulb
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist, Frith Street Gallery London and Collection of Contemporary Art Fundación “la Caixa”, Barcelona

Cornelia Parker takes these kinds of thoughts and investigates and challenges them. Sometimes she takes an ordinary object (a feather for example) and showcases the fact that it has been given extra meaning by its past. A feather from Freud’s pillow is framed, or a pile of ordinary sheets is starched with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover. One single feather makes us wonder about dreams and nightmares and what they may mean and something that was once part of an iconic British landmark has been transformed, making an ordinary object into something that carries a secret and makes us question. A church hymnal which has been badly charred by fire (caused when a bolt of lightening struck a church) is open at the hymn “My soul afire”. If you are a Christian you may wonder what made God do that, and question your faith, and as an atheist you may appreciate the irony and feel pity. Two revolvers are shown part way through the production process, smooth slick shadows of the dangerous objects which they might have been. Earplugs made from fluff and dust collected in the whispering gallery at St Paul’s cathedral demonstrate how something utterly disregarded can be given new life and meaning.

Cornelia Parker. Perpetual Canon.
2004
Silver plated brass band, metal wire, light bulb
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist, Frith Street Gallery London and Collection of Contemporary Art Fundación “la Caixa”, Barcelona

Sometimes Cornelia Parker will transform an object by force, blowing it up, burning it, or flattening it herself. The main work in the exhibition is Perpetual Canon, a large work filling one of the two rooms. It is very beautiful and atmospheric, a circle of flattened silver plated brass instruments hung on strands of thin wire and lit by a single lightbulb. They have been rendered useless, all breath gone, by the flattening, providing only a memory of the brash sound which they once made. Their shadows all around the walls seem three dimensional, reminding us of their past and the unseen bandsmen who once blew into them. The instruments are not battered. The flattening has been done with great care and precision, and the gilding is intact. They still have their pride. You look at them with both admiration and regret for a Northern tradition of brass band music making which has had to fight to survive in the face of industrial decline.

This is sculpture. Tate Liverpool.15th May 2009.

This exhibition is a bit of a sculptures greatest hits, and as such it is rather predictable. You very much see what you expect to see and tick off famous pieces as you walk round. Usually the pieces on show were the predictable choices, or the iconic ones, depending on your point of view. It would have been a good way to introduce someone to sculpture who had no knowledge of it, although the labelling and information was poor.
There were some gems among the exhibits. A wonderful mirrored box made in 2007 by Yayoi Kusama kept me and a number of others enthralled as we looked into its holes and saw ourselves reflected amongst the kaleidoscopic lines, circles and colours in the interior. If I had seen nothing else but this I would have been happy. I was glad that my personal favourites Cornelia Parker and Richard Long were represented and it was fun to see elderly carousel projectors whirring away- a reminder of a time when they were cutting edge technology. A pale grainy Gilbert and George were also there as living sculptures on an elderly television, slowly getting sozzled on Gordons Gin. There was also a huge, delicate and beautiful Barbara Hepworth work, the largest she ever made as it was the only time she got hold of a tropical hardwood tree trunk big enough. A beautiful Modigliani head too. Lots to enjoy then, and a few things to turn your nose up at.
I had a good time downstairs taking photographs of Jacob and the Angel, an epic monolithic masterpiece by Epstein which I love.