Saturday, 13 February 2010

"Black Holes of Belief"

This week's Thinking Aloud was a small but engaging discussion with young and older people, several of them here for a repeat viewing of the exhibition. The experience they have had with the work is one that would seem to be quite common, in my discussions with other people viewing the work. Several people expressed an initial annoyance, at having to "listen to nutters" and their beliefs, and irritation at the repetition involved in a lot of the work. 

From there the discussion moved to whether the pieces were "deliberately annoying", and if so, what the purpose of that was. Also whether, if work is designed to irritate, that runs the risk of simply alienating viewers who never get beyond their initial annoyance. (This was certainly the case with some viewers I spoke with earlier in the exhibition, who had given the work very little time and had no intention of giving it any more.)

For those who had come back there was a sense that the work actually has a lot to offer if you can examine your own irritation and look at what it points to. For example, the Ways The World End pieces that greet you at the door, which are extremely difficult to read, actually lead to a "black hole of belief" at their centre (beautifully put by Geoff, a painter), when you literally follow the text; and visually, they are closed ciruits, enclosed universes of belief in black space. 

One of the other interesting responses to come from the group was that essentially the exhibition is pointing to the fact that "everything we pick up - every piece of information - is partial". I loved this pithy response to what is on offer, that there is no absolute truth, despite our very human desire to have it be so, as exposed in so much of the text that Richard Grayson employs.

Another interesting point was about the impact in The Messiah of the haybales to sit on, the smell and feel of them, and how the hay, as much as the music and the video, contributes to how the "message" of the lyrics is framed and received, creating a different setting from the "cold, carved environment" in which "church" music is often experienced. 

Thanks to all who took part, for an interesting discussion about "annoying" art!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Questions about Richard Grayson's work

On my way to the Richard Grayson exhibition last Saturday I formulated a few questions about his work that are particularly interesting to me in relation to my own practice as an artist:

What are the effects of an artist choosing to question ideas through the filter of the words of another person? In The Magpie Index Roy Harper's views are thrown into relief and Grayson's own perspective remains ambiguous.

How can we question those assumptions in ourselves that we don't even know we have? There are various methods of doing this e.g. peer counselling and psycho-therapeutic methods which allow us to become aware of patterns of behaviour or long-held beliefs with the hope that one might be able to break free of them. How can we challenge these beliefs in each other? What mechanisms do we have for doing so? In standard educational models an older person is often in charge of educating a younger person. Perhaps it would make more sense if the older person passes on knowledge to the younger one who in turn teaches the older one how to think?

Art often questions our assumptions. How is this achieved in Grayson's work? Through new uses of media and material, new use of a familiar form such as narrative and the chorus?

What is rational intelligence and what might it look like?

Grayson's work comes across as human-friendly at the same time as it is challenging and uncompromising. How does he achieve this?

Where are the places where we have the opportunity to articulate what we believe? Especially if we are not and do not wish to be religious?

Susan Diab

Thinking Aloud participants comments Saturday 6 February 2010

Not being sure if all those who were present would find their way to this blog I asked them all if they would like me to put a comment up here for them and these are the words of those who took up this offer.

Alison: "This was a really cool tea."

Lizzie: "I liked the conversation."

Danielle: "I like the gallery because it discussed about God and that. I liked the Country and Western music."

Faye: "I liked having interesting conversations."

Olive: "The Country and Western music is good and the fact that it's scripture and it's not too dominant and it's relating to the needs of individual children and adults speaking to all nationalities and walks of life. Speaking to people as people. It's applicable. In Ecclesiastes it says because the philosopher was wise he chose words that are applicable to the hearers."

Elizabeth: "I was thrilled with the exhibition because it clearly proclaimed words of scripture which I feel are being sadly phased out of Britain. And I loved the barn atmosphere and the bales of straw. I give the whole thing 10 out of 10."

Alex: "Great use of digital media, great songs and lovely pencil drawings."

Beyond Belief

Saturday was remarkable for the different approaches to engaging with the work that I found with others. Drawn into the dark space of the Messiah piece I saw three girls in their early teens sitting high up on the hay bales enjoying watching the video. They told me they liked the singing and music and just being in the space especially since there weren’t many places in Bexhill they could go to just ‘hang out’. They didn’t believe in God and had long ago stopped believing in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. I asked them how they had felt about finding out that they had been told untruths but they just shrugged their shoulders and seemed rather non-plussed at my suggestion that they might have minded this.

Next, a guy called Dave Minton sought me out to talk to about the exhibition. Dave is currently engaged in painting dead birds perhaps as a way of keeping death at bay and we laughed about how we are all hurtling towards that inevitable end. A kind of circularity was taking shape within our conversation as we tried to deconstruct the way in which the ‘Tombs of Christ’ drawings had been made. This dizzying movement around and through sources of origin, none of which could be found to be ‘true’ reminded us of the spiral form in which the texts are laid out in the ‘Ways the World Ends’ pieces. Dave and I discussed many aspects of art-making, including the fears which it arouses. I suggested to Dave that the attempt to think bigger than one’s capacity to understand might be an ordinary part of human life and that it was sad how this gets pathologised in our society as a disorder as one of the characters in the Hadron Collider works explains has happened to him. Dave spoke at this point about the class system and how sometimes having particular thoughts or questions or ideas can clash with the set of behaviours that are acceptable within a particular social class and that one can appear, or fear appearing, ‘silly’ if one voices them. I was glad that we had got onto talking about class as a very important factor in how our ideas are shaped.

Those who showed up for tea upstairs were Dave, a guy called Alex from Croydon (with friend), two women Olive and Elizabeth and the three girls I had spoken to on the hay bales. Olive and Elizabeth loved the Messiah piece saying how good it was to hear and see the words of scripture because they are declared so rarely in everyday British life. Now, one of the first rules of gallery education work is that no opinion about the work is ‘wrong’. So, if Olive and Elizabeth read Grayson’s work as an all-singing all-dancing, welcome affirmation of the Word of God then who was I to put them ‘right’? They will never see how I think the piece works because the biblical words which appear in the work, in all their terrifying power, are how they wish to read them anyway, complete with the terror and the power. Does the fact that Grayson’s work can be so wholly enjoyed at face value mean that it ‘fails’ as a critique of belief systems? Surely not, rather that Grayson leaves things open enough for multiple interpretations to be possible and valid. With one hand on young Virginia’s shoulder (Virginia was the youngest of the group and was still at Junior school) Olive spoke movingly to her of the preciousness of children and in the next breath, to substantiate her point, was quoting a verse from the Bible about hanging whilst figuring a noose about her neck. I was stunned but held back. Let this group of people be, I thought. Let us all see how we get on, let us observe how each of us is with the others and still be determined somehow to keep deciding to live together. Virginia looked rather baffled by Olive but demonstrated the usual resilience of youth in the face of adult behaviour and carried on drinking her tea and happily telling us about life in Bexhill.

It was a warm, enjoyable, interesting, friendly occasion shot through with a vein of pure violence courtesy of the scripture. Words. “Sticks and Stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”. How good that we learn that small rhyme in childhood! How it opens up for each of us a space between language and experience that allows us to assess a situation or a person and judge whether the words alone can really cause any harm or not. We can decide for ourselves, mostly. And this is the right that we must all protect. Elizabeth had a little riddle for us: an agreeable person agrees so what is a person like who disagrees? Why, disagreeable of course.

I, for one, retain the right to be as disagreeable as I please.

More tea, anyone?

If you would like to find out more about Dave Minton’s work you are very welcome to take a look at his website: