On occasion art has to be assessed very seriously.
This may appear an obvious statement, but (in my opinion anyway, no references to research here), the level of seriousness, the level at which one assesses anything, including art, is dependant on, or even analogous to, the level of involvement, or the level of commitment, the receiver or viewer has with the producer. Consider how seriously a marketing team will take the colour of, or a small detail of, a company logo. A brief history of Coca-Cola branding is an education.
Some people always take art seriously, critics obviously, but anybody who’s livelihood is dependant on art in some way. Those who work with institutions such as Gallery’s for example, or education. They often take art seriously, often analysing the slightest work, often analysing work which has no pretence to seriousness, in detail.
But for most there is no such dependence, for most the interaction, the connection with a work of art is limited. As a student of art I have a closer relationship than many, but it is still limited. Many pass from art work to art work, with the simple intention of enjoying them. A noble intention.
I am often moved in a minor way by art, but rarely deeply. It has happened, most surprisingly with Damien Hirst’s ‘Away From the Flock’, I went to see it almost as a joke, and had expected to treat it as such, but was caught off guard in the Serpentine Gallery many years ago. Partly it was the setting. A perfect day, gentle day light crossing the pristine gallery, in that London haven. I found myself oscillating between the conviction I had had a few moments before, that this work was slight, and an ever increasing sense that the work was simple, not slight. It was refined and as stark and plain as Gropius’s original Bauhaus. I felt the impact.
On Sunday at The Cornerhouse, I felt the impact. The previous Friday I had been at AWOL studios and met Laura part of a duo, The ultraviolets (http://www.ultraviolets.org.uk/). Laura had suggested seeing Writteninskin by her partner Stephanie Elrick. So with only a few words as a brief, I had little knowledge of what was about to take place.
I arrived about an hour into the performance, in the Annex of the Cornerhouse. The work involved Stephanie being Bloodlined, by her parner Tattoo artist Loren Fetterman. Bloodlining is the process of Tattooing without using ink. Skin is broken, blood is drawn, pain is inflicted.
I was actually expecting the opposite. I was expecting ink to be used without a needle, No skin broken, no blood drawn. I was expecting a drawing, a drawing in ink, on the body.
So I was shocked. Stephanie was lying on a table, naked, and her partner Loren on a chair beside her, and the sound of the machine in part drowned out by loud music. I had not expected naked. They were lit by red light and surrounded by music stands with the poetry that was to be written on her body, placed upon them.
The performance had begun, and Stefanie’s face was already heavily marked. It takes some time to adjust to a setting like this. You could walk around the table, separated only by the notional barrier.
For some time I viewed this almost as an elaborate hoax. Stephanie did not appear to be in any pain. One of my early photographs shows her smiling at the camera. I was with a friend who was not sure about the work at all. As an mainstream feminist, I had expected an her to have an empathy with the work, more so than me. Not the case, she believed that Stephanie may be exploited, or that this could be exhibitionist, or possible pretentious. She was not sure. But she did find the work somewhat uncomfortable, so did I.
I was not sure about the exhibitionist viewpoint. All art is in part exhibitionist, I do not know of any artist that does not want their work to be seen. As Richard Long on his recent visit to Manchester said. If he was the last person on earth, he would not be an artist. Artists, even the most reclusive, are communicating. It is perhaps the level of exhibitionism, that is crucial, and with very little knowledge of the performers, I was not in a position to judge, but I can proffer an opinion. There is of course something about a performance of this nature that is exhibitionist. But I do life drawing a lot, and know many life models, and I am absolutely certain that most are no more exhibitionist that the average person. They may be more comfortable with their bodies, but that is all. Furthermore it probably does not matter. I was reasonably sure it was not pretentious. All art when it is new, can be accused of pretentiousness. If any situation is not the norm, if it is not pure entertainment, but especially if it demands any form of intellectual engagement, can be accused of pretentiousness. There was no evidence of pretentiousness to me. But who is to judge? Who is the arbiter? Pretentious or not pretentious, it is a difficult point to argue. And the more weight you add to an argument, the reference to obscure french philosophers, academic rigour, weakens the argument, not as you may imagine, the opposite.
We left after a short while agreeing to differ, but I returned by myself for the final stages of the performance. Marina Abramovic, when I saw her at the WhitworthArtGallery, made the point that performance art has to be experienced. Time has to be spent with it. If I was to understand this work, if it was to be a work worth understanding. I had to spend some time with it. And I had to spend that time by myself. I find that when I encounter art for the first time it is often better to view alone.
This performance is a work of endurance. Six hours long. Stephanie was to be tattooed over her entire body. Everywhere except the soles of her feet,
My first encounter had prepared me for the periphery, so I could concentrate on content, on meaning. The performance although superficially the same, had changed. On occasion Stephanie was now clearly having difficulties.
It is becoming clear to me that a performance, always creates a relationship, it involves interaction. There is a different relationship between a performer, who is a person, and the viewer, also a person, than there is between an inanimate object and a person.
This engagement was becoming manifest by the moment. As was a more troubling issue.
During my first encounter, I was aware that I was looking at somebody female, attractive and naked. For a male you have to question, why you are looking. It did not take too much thought, as somebody comfortable with life drawing, I was happy there was no element of voyeurism, I was content with my reasoning, I was content with why I was there.
Now I was looking at somebody female attractive, naked and enduring pain. You have to question why you are looking, why you are there. And I was not happy with my reasoning at all.
I knew I was protecting myself with my camera. It is an easy justification. Some of the photographs I took are very good. I knew I could fully justify being there for this reason alone. Though the camera and taking this type of photograph raises another issue I will address separately. A camera makes you look. It makes you move. It makes you objective.
If I could disassociate myself from the camera, what was I experiencing? I hate people suffering, I abhorred bullying at school, I hate anybody mistreating another, even verbally.
Yet Stephanie was undergoing this as a public spectacle, I was invited to view.
The audience is the reason.
It was uncomfortable because I was not horrified. I cannot say I enjoyed watching Stephanie enduring pain, I didn’t. But there was a strange magnetism. An inexplicable fascination.
I mentioned Hirst’s ‘Away From the Flock’, for a reason. While viewing , I constantly found myself analysing the work from disparate viewpoints. Would this work look different to a vegetarian, to a vegan? Here with Writteninskin I was doing the same.
Can you understand this work without ever having a tattoo? I find the art of tattoo an odd one. I have never even considered having a tattoo before. But I considered it now. I realised I was feeling empathy. And a complex range of thoughts and emotions. Many of which I have still not resolved.
Does this work in some way reference childbirth? A woman, exposed and enduring pain for so long? In her description after the fact, Stephanie describes the pain of the needle as it passed near her ovaries.
I have only described a small part of the work here to fully understand it, you have to read the information presented on their website (http://writteninskin.com) The collecting of poems, the design of the tattoos, other ephemera makes the work complete. But it is the spectacle I am concerned with here.
But I can say this work is complex. It is sophisticated, but without sophistry. It has layers of meaning, not all of which are obvious to me, or probably to the performers. Even the reasoning and motivations of the performers must be vastly different.
Though in essence it is about pain, marking and healing.
But this is a work of ephemeral beauty. And that is my captivation. Stephanie’s body changed as I watched. Even as I write it will be changing, and the changing process is part of the work.
We are transient. We inhabit a world in constant transition. It is our nature to recognise this. And the motivation for many artists over the centuries to somehow capture moments in time. To freeze forever one single fleeting beat. To make the transient permanent. Now photography has made this task (in part) relatively easy, artists can concentrate, observe and reconsider. No longer is capturing a single moment our primary goal. We celebrate transience, in many ways we still present the momentary, but not frozen, not as a fixed image, but represented or re-represented.
Certain art makes you less certain. It is a good thing.
Art when it is raised to a certain level, generates debate, there is an element of confusion.
That a work of endurance can also be delicate is a by itself confusing. That any art should involve pain still seems irrational. That a work involving pain is beautiful, is surreal. But such is the case.
I will remember this hour for many years. I will think about it often. And I will compare many art works to it.
I must think it is important