Sunday, 19 November 2017

Being naughty in an art gallery

I have always liked art. I did A-Level Art at school. I was good at calligraphy, not so good at painting; but in adult life discovered that I could take photographs quite well. I might, if Mum and Dad hadn't shunted me into the Civil Service, have made a career from photography. For some years I've been free to visit art galleries all over the country. I've even bought original art - paintings and figures mainly - and will do so again once my finances improve sufficiently to afford the many hundreds of pounds necessary to buy something reasonably good by a contemporary local artist.

The British way of life has a place for art, even if it has always been seen as an extra, a bit of culture, something not really central to everyday life. It has never been easy to make a good living from making works of art, but art colleges remain a popular choice for creative students. I think they deserve encouragement. We can't all be practical engineers and scientists. We need dreamers and visionaries too: people who can see things that are not there, or are invisible, or have a different form and significance from what the everyday eye takes in. People who speak to us all on another level, and hopefully make an impact.

I'm not attempting a definition of what art is, nor what it should try to do; but it does seem to me that key aspects of an art work are that it holds our attention and challenges our current attitudes. It asks us to change, be different, and do what it wants us to do. Political art is very good at that. For instance, this outraged lady, condemning the excesses of German fascism during World War II. A call to arms.

The same Tate Modern exhibition (this was 2013) also had this poster showing these wonderfully-drawn heads - clearly a selection of very ordinary people, but all made supremely noble and virtuous by the artist. (I wish I could read the Hebrew message)

I wasn't alone in feeling the hot baleful intensity of Rothko's works: their meaning was impenetrable, but they still held the eyes and would be overwhelming in a small room. Great art. 

But I didn't go much for the 'pile of poo' in one corner of the gallery, despite its clear artistic intent.

Here are examples, in no particular order except the date of taking the photo, quickly taken from the selection on Verity, my laptop - which is only a fraction of the art photos filed away on my desktop PC. I like all of these. Collectively, I'd say they must faithfully reflect my personal taste.

I'd assert that these photos of pictures, pots, posters, ritual masks, sculpture and street murals constitute a sufficient exposure to art to allow me an opinion. If you agree that is so, then let's see what happened when I visited the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea on 25th October.

This was situated directly across the road from Swansea's Art College - how convenient for the students! - and was an old building with a modern interior, apart from the elegant central hall, which had naturally been left alone. This is it.

There were rooms off on each level, for lectures and exhibitions. There was a permanent collection on display, containing this kind of thing.


That's a Barbara Hepworth sculpture just above. The emphasis however was not on these examples of art from the past, but on contemporary art from new or newish names. There were two current exhibitions, one by Helen Sear...

...and one by Bob Gelsthorpe, his first exhibition.

Well, the visiting public were clearly intended to take these very seriously indeed. I wandered into the Helen Sear exhibition first. There was a warning about flashing images. That didn't sound too good. But her first offering was something I rather liked. A projection of a tree canopy onto the floor (as if it were a rippling pool of water). It changed colour very beautifully.  

After watching it for a while, I decided to play with it, by extending my arm and hand, superimposing my outstretched fingers onto the projection.

Funny how the fingers are not evenly spaced on the hand - the two middle ones seem to have an affinity for each other! I then walked through to the main room, in which a video called the company of trees was playing. It consisted of various flickering shots of trees in a wood, with a girl in a red dress (Helen Sear herself?) fleetingly appearing for a split second, so that you never quite saw her properly. It was as if she was weaving herself in and out of the tree trunks. It was rather hard on the eyes, and I had to turn away to give them a rest. 

The next room I saw had these austere works in it. They might have been part of Helen Sear's exhibition, but I wasn't certain.

Then on to Bob Gelsthorpe's exhibition. (He'll have to change his name. People must be calling him 'Bob Geldorf' by mistake all the time) The main draw here was a video film showing miscellaneous images. It was made to look as if produced using an old-fashioned clockwork film camera, so colour and sharpness weren't perfect. It was difficult to see any 'message' in the scenes shown, nor any special relevance to anything at all. I was not moved. There was a simplistic sequence showing an owl, which puffed itself up and then deflated again. It looked amateurishly-done, although that might well have been intentional. What was this about? A flashback to something recalled from Mr Gelsthorpe's childhood? I found it irritating. And how could anyone present it as 'meaningful art'? If the owl had inflated itself so much that it burst, and then - say - the pieces reformed into something else, that might have worked. I decided I must intervene. I'd make myself part of this artwork. Naughty? Well, see what you think.

Obviously, I couldn't directly meddle with the exhibit. But I could - as I already had with the hand - put myself between the projector and the screen. Let's experiment with position, and see what effects are produced...

So much better than just a pulsating owl! The scene changed to the underside of a South Wales pier - Mumbles Pier, perhaps - with a sunset coming on. I think I definitely made the thing more striking. 

Now it was the cutting-room of a film studio, a period melodrama. Let's add a period woman.

I heard a noise. Was that the room steward, returning from his afternoon cuppa downstairs?  I quickly stepped out of the projection light and bagged Tigerlily, before he could see her and figure out what I might have been up to. I smiled at him and made my escape.

I wasn't quite finished. All the lighting in the gallery was contrived in one way or another. Why not make use of it? I found myself in a room full of dazzling white light. It made for a particularly stark selfie. 

Definitely better than a fat owl. But is it art?

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