Saturday, 2 March 2013

Alice Oswald, Woodcut, Susan Hiller

One of my favourite poets, Alice Oswald, talking on Radio 4's new writing programme 'The Echo Chamber' (Sunday 24 February, 2013) talks about her practice and it reminds me so much of my own experience of making art.

'A lot of the writing goes on without writing, certainly. I don't sleep very well so I like to lie in bed thinking of lines. And I also do a lot of walking and that's a really important way of getting the brain moving beyond a fixed point, I find. Once the body's moving the brain sort of follows suit. But I do also love the actual physical act of writing: putting a pen to paper. It only comes for me at the end of quite a long process of mentally working out the poem and hearing it. But once the hand is involved something different and quite practical happens and I really like that moment as well.'

The mix of head and hand, intellectual purpose and manual skill is something I am interested in. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive but can be integrated into a practice of thoughtful making. 

Here's one of Alice Oswald's poems:

Leaf      for J.O and I.O 

the leaf that now lies being made
in its shell of scale, the hush of things
unseen inside, the heartbeat of dead wood.
the slow through-flow that feeds
a form curled under, hour by hour
the thick reissuing starlike shapes
of cells and pores and water-rods
which builds up, which becomes a pressure,
a gradual fleshing out of a longing for light,
a small hand unfolding, feeling about.
into that hand the entire
object of the self being coldly placed,
the provisional, the inexplicable I
in mid-air, meeting the wind and dancing

(c) Alice Oswald 2005 - copied lovingly from her brilliant second collection 'Woods etc.' published by Faber and Faber (buy it!)

The Winnall Moors woodcut is now finished. It looked too stark on white paper so I made a limited edition of 22 copies on buff coloured Somerset paper. I have been given the opportunity to show this and other woodcut prints at Winchester Discovery Centre, 5-12 March.

Thinking about these woodcuts and their status as fine art objects, I have been reflecting on the physical and manual process of making, which characterises a lot of my work. Creating these documents of my walks is my way of being in the world and engaging with it. It also has something to do with communication to an audience. The use of my handwriting, painstakingly reproduced with a chisel into wood, is a way of recording a few of the bird-sightings on that day. However, while the letters 'W a t e r  R a i l' represent a species of bird, they are unable to convey the exquisite experience of finding these elusive creatures, hearing their constant squealing call and seeing their  flicking white tail, curved red bill and barred flanks against the water's edge... maybe I will end up doing guided bird-walks to share these experiences.

The process of making art is bound up with thinking about what art is for and the intention behind making it. Is it just a complex game that one can learn the rules of; learning how to position oneself on the field, to make the right passes and maybe even score a goal or two? I think it is much more than this. I have found Susan Hiller's work helpful in exploring these ideas.

Susan Hiller currently has an exhibition at Matt's Gallery, Copperfield Street. It presents a wall of about 100 tv sets all running a sequence of colours and flickers - looking like an animated stained glass window, with a soundtrack of many accounts in various languages of people's out-of-body or near-death experiences (NDEs). 

In his write-up about the show, gallery director Robin Klassnik observes that 
"Hiller's interest is neither the advocacy nor the dispute of the anecdotal, traditional or scientific evidence for or against the 'reality' of NDEs, but in considering them as social facts, widely spread in time and space, as appropriate for the subject matter of art as Cezanne's apples of Schwitters' bus tickets."

I first became aware of Hiller when reading the transcript of a wonderful lecture she delivered to the students at The Slade school of fine art in 1989, in which she reflected on the nature of fine art at the end of the twentieth century. A lot of what she said still speaks directly into the current world of art education. Here are some extracts:

“…art is in the making, not the product. The making either is or is not part of the discourse of art, and simply because an object consists of paint and canvas does not make it art. Ruskin saw this and Eliot saw this; in other words it is not a new idea.” 

  “Western art history privileges  values such as abstract design, order, harmony, etc. as universal verities that transcend culture: it fails to see these values more accurately as manifestations of our society’s deep desire for the consolation such ideas of order might offer."   

“The best contemporary art reveals the terms and conditions of our common cultural dilemmas, our embeddedness in the structures of meaning which, no matter how complex, have made us what we are.  Good art provides a sense of a collective secret being shared, a secret brought out to look at together in recognition of our shared plight."  

“Meaning is social. Art activity is fundamental to the production of meaning."

Lucy Lippard* tells us that Hiller was an accomplished academic and anthropologist before 1965 when, 
"Determined to 'find a way to be inside all my activities', to be a full participant in the culture in which she lived, she became an artist. The decision coincided with the death of her mother, which suggests it was also a rite of passage."
Hiller's work and ideas resonate with me in many ways. I was particularly interested in this comment about her mother's death because my decision to return to art practice (and birding) coincided with the death of my father in 2008.

*Lucy Lippard's preface to 'Talking About Art: conversations with Susan Hiller' Manchester University Press, UK, 1996

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