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Friday, 9 April 2010

Exhibition Diary - Comment and Response

I have written out entries from the Exhibition comments book below. This book was one of the options suggested to each visitor as a way of responding to their experience, this use of words, (together with the discussions they had with me with a cup of tea at the end), became the main way people chose to express their feelings about the exhibition. Reading through them I have realised that these pieces of writing tend to fall into two areas, and have defined them as either a comment or a response. (Of course in some cases the writing crosses over into both)

In most of what was written, and said to me, there seemed to be a tension - between telling me what they thought of the work, how it functioned - what it was to them as a piece of art basically. And then falling into and recounting memories, stories and thought processes from the ‘imagination part’ of their experience of the artwork.

The comments, were perhaps what you would expect to find in a gallery comments book i.e. this work is good/bad in my view because… These words are in some ways the most helpful to me, constructive criticism.

The responses are the ones where the writer continues to ‘fall’, willingly; they have gone into their imagination and stayed there without coming up for air. The reason these pieces of writing feel like ‘responses’ to me is because something has been created, in response to my work, that is another narrative, a new world to enter. As if the response writer/visitor has gone into my work and it has begun a story in them, or rather several tiny stories, you could say like a spell. They have then become the fairytale character that passes through, the door/ forest/ rabbit hole etc to make the story their own. The response writing is their message to me from that place. What I still cannot quite explain is why this is so exciting to me?

Despite this excitement, I do not favour the response over the comment of vice versa. My work needs them both. I also do not think that the people who wrote the responses were the only people who experienced the work and conjured up new narratives from it. The ways in which people choose to express themselves changes your perception of what they are trying to say. For some a ‘comments book’ has it’s own formula, a style of writing and number of words to adhere to, for others it is just a blank book. For many talking to me was the best way to translate their thoughts, even if they had already written a page or drawn a response. Those discussions felt very significant to me. There was nothing removed from the cycle of my work, the response, and my knowledge of the response. My presence within that discussion had to be as carefully approached as the building of the installation itself, I had to be someone people would want to talk to about it, so I listened.


‘I found it hard to relate to the objects in the space – to the smells, sights and textures of the items. They don’t mean the same to me as Naomi, I know they are significant to her – very significant. But to me the photograph is of no one, the popeye tin is simply a box and the dried flowers something to glance over. They made me think of ‘Things’ as a whole That objects + things + gadgets + this + that all mean something to someone. We are always attached to an object. We can never live with nothing. I wonder….would our memories exist without a ‘tangible’ substance to work alongside it…..??’

‘The Installation felt more intimate and intense in the smaller room, we noticed sounds and smells more than before. Having more time to experience it was great. The film let us relive a fantastic day, even though seeing us as others do was not good!! Very Impressed with how the exhibition is staged in ‘the lounge’, which made it interesting to view. Thanks again Naomi - Mum x’

‘Your fools gold made me think about if friends become friends when they are connected through similar childhoods. Some of Naomi’s objects and her family objects connect a lot to me and what I remember. Are these common things the things that meet you together as friends??’

‘Thank you for the experience! I love this kind of work that explores our shared experience in life. I find it very comforting to be reminded how connected we are and although we don’t have exactly the same thought processes – that would be so boring! We all have little happenings that we reflect on that shape us – and we can all relate to.’

‘It really expresses the way in which memories are layered and not straightforward – The happy and sad combined, the dark and the light, the clearly remembered and the almost un remembered. It’s also good to smell some artwork…’

‘I am interested in the communication of experience – can we ever really understand someone else’s experience? Does it matter? Is our job as artists to communicate our experiences, or is it more about allowing others to have experiences of their own?
My mum has been ill recently, and I have been compelled to re-enter the web of family, which I have tried to distance myself from, and have remembered how difficult it is to accommodate all the different experiences, emotions and interpretations of family members…
A very interesting installation, and I love the participatory element.’

‘It was as though I was reliving memories from my childhood and my children’s childhood. Lovely things…smells polish.. button tins.. The exhibition made me feel very happy – ‘Family’ is very important to me and it was very moving to read the letters, which contained events that featured importantly in the lives of my family members.’

‘Firstly Congratulations – a truly engaging and challenging installation. The instruction to handle, and explore (especially the instruction to delve to the bottom of the black box) were all a challenge to my natural instinct to respect seemingly private, and certainly personal artefacts. A constant awareness of the time constraint added to the sense of furtive voyeurism, of intrusion. I was particularly reluctant to extract the letters from underneath the sand – and felt the need to replace it accurately, trying unsuccessfully to replace the sand as if it had not been disturbed (again the feeling of doing something surreptitious, of not wanting to leave evidence of my intrusion into a ‘private’ space)
I have to confess that my focus was heavily upon myself, that I was aware far more of my own feelings, rather than the materials I was exploring. Was that your intention? The instructions and constraints you have put in place seem to me designed to provoke the response in the viewer, (or am I just being paranoid?)
To clarify, if my response seems less than positive, I found this immensely engaging, and connective, in the sense that it involved me in the artwork directly.’

‘…..I really enjoyed it and I am glad I got the chance to have a proper look. To me it is strong in 2 important ways the work is very evocative and rich and the way you have presented the experience and made it into a place to take your time, stop and look, a space to think about life.’

 ‘Birdsong always evokes peacefulness and a deep feeling of calm. Murmured voices remind me of my own childhood – being upstairs in bed, when the rest of the world was downstairs and doing other things than trying to go to sleep. Shafts of light and dust motes moving in the air make me remember woodland glades and dreamy afternoons in my uncles hayloft on the farm…..Other emotions were of not wanting to disturb things or pry, so that must be my own upbringing, emerging in inhibitions at having to “interact” I realise I am not an interactive – not with things or people, very much. But I have really enjoyed and relished this afternoons experience and am gladdened by it.’

‘When I first came in I felt a bit uncomfortable at rooting through the personal – I avoided the diary for a while – but soon felt drawn in – it made me remember my always started but never finished diaries. And how I would lapse into using keywords to remember dates – but not to express stuff – put it down because it was not sayable – and consciousness of people reading it, that limited what I wrote. I thought of my sisters diary where she started by listing the meals of the day……The way objects trigger memories make me wonder a lot about if the memory is gone without the object. It also makes me think about the things we keep and the things we don’t……….Although I was very conscious I was entering someone else’s childhood, it also made me remember mine I think the digging around inside the containers did make make me dig around in my head.’

‘Funny to ‘look’ in on another family – in the sand reading the letter to Granfer, so sad but also heartening how people ‘live on’ for us – I carry my own Grandpa everywhere – Somehow touching the materials, the sensations conjure up my own memories of childhood – Felt ‘naughty’ opening up the suitcase I remember stealing a gorgeous ‘jewel’ from the next-door neighbor at the age of about 6 – It must have been plastic but but I knew it was wrong, but had to have it. So amidst the ‘naughty’ feelings, pleasures – the cold stone of luminous red cold against my cheek – The squidgy feeling of viscera only I ‘know’ it’s not but my mind still goes there – almost wanted to wash my hands after touching the entrails. But wishes I could have pulled them out of the rabbit – despite how beautiful it all looked laid out. I wanted to do the dismembering? Why? Wanted the rabbit to be whole (not separated) to start with………The weird thing was I put on the straw hat to read the diary and saw my body in shadow against the projection of snow? Dust in the sun? Felt suddenly like I had been overtaken by another identity – inhabited and that my body image and concept of myself was now ‘in’ her world. These sensations, Qualities, came and went as I explored. Felt very peaceful – (I should say) I now feel very peaceful. So much to enjoy sensual pleasures and surprises garlic smell the black hole under the blanket and I was going to sit on that to read! Pulled out a gun, a dolls head, a truck (which reminded me of turning four in Greece) got given a truck for my birthday as the Greek people who knew us thought I was a boy. When they found out I wasn’t they took the truck back! It was fabulous – big red, yellow and blue wooden truck. I loved it!! They had no other present for me so not a great experience aged 4. The woman who gave me the truck was a very young Nana Mouskouri the singer (my few seconds of connecting with someone famous) Thank you Naomi and Naomi’s family really wonderful experience.’

‘The best feedback I can give is the thoughts triggered by your thoughts, turned into an installation. Something’s had no connection to my past, some triggered a train of thoughts: I remembered the toys, I remembered the comic books, then I felt sad I didn’t have British beach holidays as a child, and had not so many fabulous memories of holidays. But as I traveled around the room I realized that many of the happy memories for me were in my immediate home environment, which made me happy. Going shooting with my dad, haymaking, tea in a cup and saucer at my Nan’s. Old story books and recipes. I then wanted to make my own installation!
Also made me think of my responsibility to make happy memories for my son. Big responsibility, and I am well up for it! I hope when he is 30 he can have such full and happy strong memories.
Then on the video, I saw a bit of you and your mum, (talking) about whether to get the food out or not. It reminded me of the royale family and made me laugh out loud. And brought me back to the modern day, and how the innocence of childhood turns into the whole different game of adulthood. Digged it Kendrick.’

‘Lots of things resonated with me – The wood pigeons always make me think of Norfolk in the morning – the air misty as dew rises and the earth warms up – it always makes me feel free and calm…I used to work in rose fields early in the morning as a teenager – It brings back the warmth of the sun and physical activity, dust and general contentment of working alongside 2 men I liked being around…My friend said her gran used to tell her the wood pigeons were saying ‘My toe hurts peg-gy, my toe hurts peg-gy’ If you listen it’s it’s not far off…being let in on family stories is rather special..
Entering the space is very exciting – dens always inspire a little awe at the world as you can hide in them and look out with a little more apparent curiosity than you may feel is appropriate in normal ‘non –den’ life! We used to make dens in rockeries and trees anywhere you could squeeze in to. The story tapes reminded me of one that I listened to at my Nanny’s house about Thumbelina…it half intrigued half repulsed me…years later I heard it sampled on an Aphex twin track…
The cookbook reminded me of my granddad who was a big silent man with a lovely warm smile. He read cowboy books and drove me everywhere in his little red metro; he never talked about being a chef in the war. When he died we found his chef training books that he used to teach with – They had recipe and teaching tips written out in very neat writing – They made him learn how to write with his right hand in the army so he became ambidextrous. There was a recipe for a ham and egg pie – lots of whole eggs and slabs of ham rolled up in pastry. The black box made me feel like I was intruding especially when I found myself in the bottom tin….how strange – will think on that.’

Reading through, the comments book, as a book was an interesting and pleasant experience. It reminded me of the reactions I had felt over the course of the exhibition, to what people had to say.
On of the strongest reactions I had was in response to lots of people describing the installation as being made up exclusively of objects and memories that were about my family and myself, this only really became a problem for me when someone gave the reason they could not connect with the work as being because it was about Naomi’s family and memories and so had no meaning for them. Over the course of the exhibition, and heightened by re-reading the comments book, this grew to really annoy me. Why? Well one of the first decisions I made prior to making the installation was that it would not be ‘about my family’ precisely because I did not want to a barrier preventing intepretation, by others.
Therefore I felt my work had failed to communicate in the way I had intended. I wondered how much of this was down to the installation itself and how much was the environment in which it was shown, as at previous venues, the installation was not described in the same way.

 Over the course of this exhibition I remember some people coming around and thinking this was my family home - no one has ever assumed that about my shared house before. Most people, including me, felt that the installation worked best in this domestic environment, the setting of the middle room, gave many people the feeling that they had literally walked into a room in someone’s house, and been left to pry. Could this have been taken too far? The installation context overpowered and controlled it’s meaning rather than simply complemented it? There is also the fact that the room next door, was covered in images of one family, mine. Or it could have been in the way I worded the publicity?
I need to be more aware of the entirety of the work, and how it is read as a result of the full expeperience. However if I am handing over my work and the fictional narratives within it, to be continued, or concluded by the visitor then why is this different to my enjoyment of the other interesting, different ways in which people have responded to the work?

Letting go is still not easy, is this one of the reasons why other artists don’t want to know what happens to it beyond their involvement?

There is delicate balance to be found between creating an artwork that communicates as the artist intends it too, whilst encouraging and being open to interpretation - and the notion that the viewer invents it’s entire meaning, which would make the artist’s artwork redundant. In this sense the ideal is a kind of collaboration, in the form or a relay.

Reading the comments and responses gave me a sense that I was looking for something in amongst the writing, beyond evidence that the work had evoked ‘something’ in the visitor.
Uneasily I realised I was interested in unravelling the psychology behind why people had written what they had - why bring up that particular memory, or point, what does it say about them and why are the things that have a sadness to them more interesting to me, more of a result?!

As with making the installation itself, I always want to curve away from just projecting the beautiful, the happy, I will always push an element of something darker into each corner.

So was it just about – proof of causing a big reaction in my audience? Finding out information about them? Making each person realise something about themselves by forcing them to dig? Finding something in common with them? Or was I looking for a story from a visitor that captures my imagination, as my work did for them? I think whether I want to admit it, different parts of me can answer yes to all of these questions. However I think, it is the story I am searching for most of all, and though I like the exchange of the story, the collaborative nature of it, it is not about wanting to ‘know’ it’s author.

Perhaps my work is about connecting to people through a shared process? - There is a lack of commitment, a detachment there.

One of the visitor’s comments made me think about how I would have reacted if placed in the same situation, being left to explore an installation alone. I think I would fall very quickly inwards and like the writer of the comment, not necessarily to the imaginative playful world some seemed to write about but the very self-aware state, where the rules and barriers have been taken away you notice the ones you put there yourself. ‘Gallery etiquette’ also had a lot to do with how people chose to interact with the installation. People are not used to exploring art in this way. There were exceptions to this tentative approach to engaging with the work physically, children mainly, but also some adults, they ‘owned’ the work quickly, taking me at my word - they took the work and ran with it...

The ideas around connecting through a shared process or experience reminded me of something I wrote on a train once, years ago. I was thinking about how to make a multi sensory experience of a film, and using the situation of me being on the train as the films subject. This is the last bit of it

‘Perhaps they would be sat like this, and watch this film I’m making now in my mind, and hear the soundtrack of thoughts I have thought, read out, while listening to the music I’m listening to, that moves with the speed of the view.

And they would blink when they are told, because the sun on their face part is happening, and it all seems silly and so clear what it is I am trying to create.

Someone to be here with me.’

To see all images from the exhibition

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