Saturday, 13 November 2010

Spacex Review Group

On Thursday evening Spacex Art Gallery in Preston Street held their long-awaited Review Group.  Ten people attended (quite a drop from the thirty-plus who came in September) and spent an hour or more with the exhibits before coming together for an hour's discussion.
The main aim of the evening was to use Paul Rooney's exhibition of four installations as an example to consider the possibility of developing the Review Group to produce a series of published reviews on each exhibition.  (Does this piece count towards that, I wonder?)
Several professional writers attended and the mood was very positive.  The information from the group members' questionnaires will be used for development planning, but the overall feeling seemed to be that the group and its members would benefit from meeting to hear each other's reviews (possibly read out anonymously by a third party).  It was hoped that new members could join as the group developed, and that reviews uncomplimentary to an artist should be welcomed to ensure a balanced response.  The meeting broke up in good spirits and we all look forward to the next meeting, which should be in a month or two.  Special thanks to Hannah and Nicola for organising the event and providing excellent refreshments to keep us going during the evening.

Paul Rooney
Before discussing plans for the Review Group, the group members split into two groups to discuss the current exhibition of four installations by Paul Rooney.  Each person had a different impression of the work, so I'll stick to my own observations.
Each piece involves enhancing a piece of work in a conventional medium, primarily by placing it in an art gallery, but also (in some but not all cases) by the addition of artistic ephemera.

Letters that Rot

‘Letters that Rot’ is a piece of prose which presents the possibility that trees can think and understand human behaviour.  On this premise is built the story of a particular tree’s thoughts about the behaviour of a man called Franz.  For reasons which are not explained, Franz treats the tree as if he imagines that it can think and understand his actions.  In addition, for equally unexplained reasons, his behaviour towards the tree is deliberately cryptic and obtuse.  Having conceived of a thinking tree, he then wants to confuse the poor thing!  He delivers letters to the tree, which it cannot read.  The tree, naturally enough, doesn’t understand his behaviour, but perceives it as bullying.  In addition, the tree is apprehensive about being felled and used for firewood (which would be understandable).
However, the main point of the story is self-referential.  If a tree could think, what would it be thinking if a person acted towards it as if he thought it could think – especially if, in addition, his actions were deliberately ironic and abusive?  Also consider that such a person probably wouldn’t really be able to determine whether the tree could think or not – and the tree, if it could think, would probably realise that he had no way of knowing whether it actually could think or not – and it becomes apparent that this fantasy is much more complicated than it first appears (if it is a fantasy!)
This kind of self-referential speculation is typical of a lot of disordered thinking by humans.  (Trees, if they can think, don’t necessarily have the same problem!)  Once speculation is introduced into human thought, circular thinking is not far away.  Assumptions are imagined to be supported by logic, which is itself imagined to be supported by assumptions.  An invalid assumption!  This piece should bring us up short and make us think again about thinking, and take it more seriously.
But - was this the author’s intention?  Or did he simply develop anthropomorphic fantasies about a tree and abuse it (or imagine it being abused) and then compound his abuse by trying to imagine what the tree might be thinking?  Sadly, with the limited information that I have to hand, I am not able to determine whether either of these interpretations are correct.  Maybe Paul has an explanation for us.
The ‘art installation’ element is that we don’t simply read the story from a page, but have to try to follow a rapidly scrolling movie projection of an image of the text.  The text in the image is white typeface on a black background.  The projector is about 18 inches off the ground and angled downwards so that the image extends across the floor as a triangle and extends up the wall as a rectangle.  The text therefore appears to move away from the projector across the floor (where it is distorted) and then up the wall (where it is more legible).
The time available, between each line of text appearing on the floor and disappearing at the top of the image, is just too short for even fluent readers to keep up – even if they try to start reading while the image is still on the floor, and distorted.  In addition the prose is in an unnecessarily complicated faux-intellectual style full of irrelevant ‘long words’ and cryptic references.  The viewers are forced to skim read the story, but are likely to be happy to do so.  Some may be familiar with the story, having read it at leisure on a printed page – or they may have watched the looped projection several times.  For them the image can be simply a familiar story which they recognise, but don’t need to read.
To enhance the ‘tree’ theme, the projector is partially covered by a pile of rough cuttings from a real tree.  This is enough to help the viewer get into the mood for a ‘tree’ story, but it introduces inconsistencies.  The tree in the story is afraid of being chopped down with an axe and burned as firewood.  The climactic final line is “Is that an axe?”  Confusingly – either by oversight or design – the off-cuts in the pile are from very resinous coniferous hardwood (not suitable for firewood) and have clearly been cut up with a chainsaw (which it is reasonable to assume was also used to cut the tree down).  Is this deliberate self-contradiction, an attitude of ‘I don’t care!’, or genuine oversight?
One feature is very interesting but, it transpires, cannot be credited to the artist.  Rippling lines of light, like the surface of water – or even, conceivably, falling leaves – make their stately progress down the wall as the text moves up.
Contrary to the initial impression, this is an unplanned artefact peculiar to the Spacex gallery.  The floor, although black, is reflective and slightly irregular in texture.  The rippling lines on the wall are the reflections of the lines of text projected on the floor – and, of course, they move down as the text moves towards the wall.  It is tempting to read some artistic motivation into the effect, but it is the product of pure chance.

I can see this is going to take some time.  This post will have to be updated later - if ever.

Small Talk

Words and Silence

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