So What?

So What?!

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Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

OK, so here is probably the most uncomfortable lesson, art as an academic pursuit has presented me with: the “so what?” lesson. “So what?” is uncomfortable because it immediately makes you aware of the dissonance within your world and you cannot help but find yourself outside of your comfort zone. By dissonance I mean inconsistency between the beliefs one holds (or it could also be between one’s actions and one’s beliefs). Want an example? Loving (claiming to) animals so much yet they appear on your dinner table, that’s dissonance. How does “so what” create dissonance in the artistic world? Well, it says “yes, you can paint (draw, sculpt) well, but so what?” Painting is a technical facility, it is what you do with it that makes the difference. Decorating walls with paint techniques does not make you an artist, it makes you an interior decorator, and yet you are painting and have a technical facility. I might have a really sound understanding of the body because I did biology at school but it does not make me a doctor. There is a huge amount of dedication, effort, sacrifice and training that goes into becoming a doctor, and similarly in becoming a fine artist or visual artist. “So what?” asks what are you are willing to do for your art, it asks for sacrifice. So you love animals? Well, stop eating them then. Get the idea? “So what?” asks for moving beyond the mere application of paint in an effort to represent what you see or what you wish to “pretty”. It wants you to think, to feel, to be…it wants you to question everything, to remake everything, to see everything for the first time. It wants you to get the hell out of your comfort zone!

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Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

The first time a lecturer used the “so what?” statement/question it figuratively stopped me in my tracks and changed the entire way I view and consider art forever. Not just art though, but also the world. This is what a lot of artists entering academia find extremely uncomfortable which is good because…well, you know, the whole “comfort zone” thing. Unfortunately, because of this discomfort many drop out, most in their first year of studies. I have experienced this both as student and lecturer. I usually start a new year with a group of about 40 1st year students. By the end of the year I am lucky if I have 10 progressing through to second year. By their final year the group will consist of no more than 4 students. In my final year I was the only one of my group to qualify. This is not because I am some artistic genius but simply because I embraced the “so what?” statement/question and the accompanying being out of my comfort zone.

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Above: self-portrait (a couple of hours before the performance).

Ask yourself that question, you will be amazed at the effect it has. Ask “so what?” and see if you can answer. Then see if the answer is one you can live with. And to live for art, as one of my most favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson, says, is to live a life of questioning.

Labour of Love

LABOUR OF LOVE:

The phrase is often used when viewing artists work. The meaning is given to be a task done for pleasure, not reward.

Implicit in that phrase are 3 things – time, hardship/opposition and extreme personal involvement.

Linking them all is the artist’s commitment or investment to a specific project.  What you have here in this gallery is evidence of, not only this commitment and investment in a specific project, but the sheer single-mindedness and force of will it takes to overcome all obstacles in the pursuit of self-expression and art. In addition to all of this, these artists have undertaken to do this within the critical and unforgiving parameters of academia. And to reach your third level exhibition takes a real strength of will. I always tell my new students in first year to remember that an arts degree is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It requires endurance and stamina.

I would like you to keep that in mind when you are viewing these works. These artists have invested at the very least 3 to 4 years of their lives to be here. That in itself demands your respect.

This was part of the speech that I gave to open my 3rd level students’ exhibition yesterday (28 November) at the Rivertown Contemporary Gallery. This was the culmination of an incredibly intense week of installing, curating and assessing students’ work. Many long emotionally-draining hours. As a lecturer you share your student’s journey over the academic year, working incredibly closely with them. At the end of that year you then have to be part of a panel of lecturers who assesses them. That is the heartbreaking part of the job, to bear witness as strangers pull their work apart. It’s even tougher with your final year students. I have worked with these 3rd level students for 3 years, some from their very first year. The process involved in discovering one’s artist voice and what one wants to say and how, is so transformative, and so very personal. As a result the relationship between lecturer and student becomes an extremely intimate one. As mentor you receive their confessions, are witness to their internal struggles, and oversee their flagellation and supplication.

As Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

This what I try and instill in my students; that in order to make truly engaging and honest art one needs to operate outside of one’s comfort zone.

Ben Shahn tells us that “The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered”.

Essentially what I tell them is to make your work personal, and by that I do not mean, you as artist merely observing and reproducing what you see. That is illustration. When I look at your work I want to see you, I want to feel your joy, your pain, your anguish! I want us to howl at the moon together!

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Six of Six

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40RTY, my performance art piece happened on 29th October at 7.00 pm, and, as is common after these things, I have been laid to waste! It is Tuesday now, and almost 3 days have passed, yet I still feel all tired, achy and blue; like I have flu and a hangover simultaneously. Now I know this feeling, it is the same after every performance, this feeling like a sordid whore. Some of the reasons are physical: my face looks and feels like it has undergone a chemical peel as a result of my having ripped chucks of hair and flesh from it with wax-strips.

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And, of course, my body has also undergone a really brutal 40 day fast, so it has a right to feel a tad aggrieved! But more than that is the sheer toll of subjecting one’s self to a performance art piece. If the rigours of preparing one’s mind for the performance are exhausting, then the actual performance is virtually debilitating. Perhaps it is the fact that at its simplest, performance art is the artist as artwork, there is very little remove between artist and viewer and that is a terrifying thing. This is central to the process and execution of performance art, this live presence of the artist and the real actions of his/her body, to create and present an ephemeral art experience to an audience. It is the artist using his or her own body (hence the name, body art) as main artwork, knowing all the semiotic, political, ethnographic, cartographic and mythical implications associated with that living, breathing body. This is magnified/amplified by use of the ritual, the artefacts, the symbols, the sacred space and the significant gesture.  These actions in the performance lead to a work resulting from an entirely uncontrollable and unforeseeable combination of events. Chance: this is the other element of performance art which continues to unsettle the world of art.

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Performance art remains an avant-garde movement in a world which no longer believes in it. It hopes to inform and to show a new way, and by doing that create a break from the old. This is another reason why I love it performance art, this and the fact that response, feedback and connection from and with the viewer are almost immediate. A good example is the response I received from my old mentor lecturer (a very accomplished artist in her own right) Lolette Smith. She got me through my first 2 academic years of my art studies, and taught me a massive amount about sculpture, so it was awesome to receive acknowledgement from her:

The simplicity of the set added to the outcome.

That first rip of wax got the audience totally engrossed.

The ritual worked, it built expectation and produced results.

The soft chanting in the background sent shivers down the spine.

So in reality it was visually and emotionally charged.

 

A fair number of the audience also approached me after my performance wanting to discuss the work and ask questions which was totally gratifying.

 

So what now? Well, it is back to the theory again and my dissertation but this making has given me the boost I needed to see it through as well as giving me things to consider for my Master’s exhibition next year.

I am going to share with you some really amazing images that my cousin, Dallas Dahms, an awesome photographer, took of my performance. Check out his article too: http://www.dallasdahms.com/40rty-by-swany/.

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