Field – The City – Clare Twomey – lecture/researchPosted: March 10, 2014
We had a talk from the wonderful Clare Twomey today, and it has given me a strong sense of direction with what I want to do for my project.
The first piece of work she spoke about that really interested me was “Everyman’s dream” which was an instillation in London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum
This instillation was part of a series called “Legacy”, which involved participation from 1,000 men from all across the world. The men were asked “what is your legacy”, with the responses being varied from wry and witty to powerfully moving stories. These responses were then screen printed onto the inside of one of 1,000 china bowls in gold lettering, and the bowls were then placed around the museum. There is something extremely poignant about the idea of having a physical representation of your hopes and dreams, and yet that is counterbalanced with the fact it isn’t your possession any more. These often very personal and intimate desires are given a whole new context, and given a life of their own which is separate yet fundamentally linked to the imput of the men who responded. It could be argued that their legacy has been in creating this piece of work, which has been documented and will live on possibly long after they are gone, and can tell their children or family about. However while the embodiment of these desires is put on display in a physical form, each individual message is at risk of being lost or drowned out by the other 999 around it, with some not even being visible at all as they are stacked under other bowls. This reminds me of the revelation I occasionally have, that every person who you pass on the street or drives past in a car or is waiting in a queue behind you, is living an entire life of their own with their own personal struggles and happinesses and endeavours that are all as important as yours, and you could potentially learn so much from every one of these people but your lives never intersect.
The second piece she spoke about was “Exchange”, which was an instillation at the Foundling museum in London. The museum was originally a hospital, which took in unwanted children which might have been born out of wedlock or are unwanted for whatever reason, but with each child the mother would pin a token to their clothing. The children, once taken in, were renamed and so the tokens were used as a form of identification in case the mother ever returned to claim their child, and the museum has a wide collection of these tokens which are mostly everyday objects such as buttons or coins
“Exchange” is a response to this system of tokens, where 1,500+ ceramic cups are laid on display each with a request on the base. Each day of the exhibition, 10 people are given a token which allows them to choose from any of cups on the tables. When they pick up the cup, they can read the request on the underside, and if they feel like they are going to fulfil that request then they are allowed to take the cup home with them to keep.
The requests range from very small things such as “pick up litter from your local park” to life changing events including “adopt a child”. People were encouraged to give feedback and updates on their activities after taking the mugs, and they can be read on this dedicated blog, and as with the “Everyman’s dream” piece the responses are both humourous and touching.
What I like about this piece is how it encourages people to interact with it and respond to it in a very unique way, which I have never seen an artwork do before. The people who are chosen to take a cup are asked to make a commitment, which they may very well ignore and decide to just take the first cup they pick regardless of the request and whether or not they intend to fulfil it, I don’t think that many people would have taken the cup if they didn’t at least plan to follow through with it. Also it is a very nice thought that this work inspired people to do positive things and make the world a little better, rather than just to be looked at, thought about and then disregarded. Not only the cup, but the actions have integrated themselves into people’s lives in a positive way. “Exchange” has even taken on a separate life online (which you can visit here), where people can suggest good deeds and others can fulfil them by picking up virtual cups. What is remarkable about this is that there isn’t even the motivation of getting to keep a physical cup, but it purely operates on people’s willingness to good deeds and to take part in a project or an idea that is bigger than themselves and benefits others. It just goes to show that sometimes all people need is nothing more than a suggestion or an achievable goal to work towards in order to make positive changes
Another work that is similar to “Exchange” that Clare spoke about was “Forever”, where she effectively gave away 1,345 cups to visitors of the exhibition. This is again a response to the exhibition space, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas USA which Twomey had visited three years previously and became very interested with their Burnap collection of English pottery consisting of 1,345 pieces. The cup in “Forever” is a blank replica of one of the pieces in the collection, and was made with a local potter’s to support the production of English pottery in honour of the Burnap collection.
Visitors to the exhibition could apply to become the owner of a specific cup, and by doing so they had to sign a legal document which comes with a series of conditions. The owner must keep the cup forever, they are not allowed to sell it, or get rid of it. They must keep it on permanent display in their homes, and if an educational group requests to visit the cup they have to allow them into their home to view it. They must also explain why it is they want the cup, whether they just want their names to be recorded on the record of this piece or will the cup hold some significance to them? This certainly gives it a more serious tone than “Exchange” which was very much a light hearted (yet active) piece, whereas “Forever” is much more of a commitment which even asks people to justify their ownership of the object. Perhaps having to work that little bit harder to own the cup adds extra value to it in the eyes of the owner? Although personally I think I would value a cup from “Exchange” more due to the sentimental value of it being linked to my doing of a good deed, rather than these mugs which you are indebted to and are expected to be a permanent fixture which you work around for the rest of your life. This to me seems slightly imposing and I’m not sure I would be comfortable with that level of commitment, and although it isn’t likely to be enforced I wouldn’t feel happy with the idea of breaking the legal document’s conditions and taking it off display, so there is a danger of it becoming an object of guilt rather than the pride from “Exchange”.
The next instillation she spoke about hasn’t particularly interested me, but I find it very interesting nonetheless, and is called “Is it madness, is it beauty?”. It is a performance piece which involves one person catering the work, pouring water into various fragile vessels which eventually causes them to break, then mopping up the spilt water, replacing the vessels and refilling the pouring jug. This is repeated over and over in a futile attempt to find one vessel that can hold the water without breaking, but this inevitably fails. You can watch a video of the piece here, seeing as I can’t embed the video on this blog.
I think the most interesting piece is the way that the performer interacts with it, in a very unique way that I have never really seen before. Rather than controlling the piece and having it react to your movements, the performer is entirely reacting to it, and simply allowing it to continue existing. This is an interesting lack of control considering as humans we are largely used to the world fitting around our interactions and our desires, and not having to work our movements around something so menial as a series of objects. The idea of the futility of human behaviour is also quite beautifully summed up here, with it reflecting on the way that many of us spend much of our time engaging in efforts that are doomed to failure at some point, but on the hope that it will someday hold true, and treasuring the small moments before it all falls apart.
“Consciousness conscience” is the next instillation Clare talked to us about, which is another piece I find interesting although didn’t necessarily speak to me in terms of incorporating into my own work. It was installed in areas of the Tate London, and consists of a series of porcelain tiles which cover the floor, which you need to cross in order to get to a certain part of the gallery of piece of work. However by crossing the tiles, you cause them to break underfoot, and so causes a dilemma of weighing your desire to get to the other side against your guilt of breaking the tiles.
I find it interesting that the piece and people’s reaction to it is likely to change as the day progresses, with the first person’s reaction to a pristine unbroken tiled floor being very different to somebody later in the day looking at a mostly broken floor. I suppose this is also a reflection on society and human behaviour in some ways, that once there has been a dissenter that clearly goes against the crowd behaviour in a very visible way then it becomes a lot more acceptable for others to do the same. Once a clear path across the tiles has been established I imagine that most people wouldn’t think twice about crossing, as they can write off the small damages they cause as part of a bigger group dissolving their responsibility.
The work that I took most inspiration from, and has directly inspired my project is her instillation in the London V&A called “Trophy”, which was comprised of over 4000 small ceramic blue birds sat atop of all of the historic works and sculptures in the room, as well as spread across the floor. While there were signs that said “do not touch”, there were no guards enforcing this and the birds were so plentiful that people felt compelled to take them, and I find myself also wishing I had one (in fact so much so that I tried to find if anyone was selling them online, but sadly not).
The idea of making something that is slightly novel, and very desirable, as well as being easily accessible and guilt free to take without ever specifying that you can take them very much appeals to me, and is definitely the direction that I want to go with my city project. Placing a series of objects into a public space in the city which people come across and are slightly amused by and that makes them smile, but then they can also interact with without feeling self conscious or guilty about in the way that touching most artworks do. I think the secret in making the object guilt free to interact with, as well as bemusing is the sheer abundance of them, and so taking one (or even many) doesn’t seem to significantly deplete from the total amount, and by the time that enough have been taken for the supply to look short it has already been clearly established that it is socially acceptable to steal them. The trick is in making an object that is desirable, which I will talk about my thoughts on in a separate blog post. As visitors were leaving they were then invited to tell the museum what had happened to the birds and why they decided to take them, and the general response is that they looked very much like collectable objects and souvenirs that look very much at home on a shelf of interesting objects in their homes, which I completely agree with.
The last project that Clare spoke about was called “Blossom”, and was in association with the Eden project. As with the “Exchange” project, this work was made by the commissioning of many local artists, employing 2o female artisans in Stoke-on-Trent in order to make 10,000 unfired, individually handmade china clay flowers, made over a total of 4 weeks. Because these flowers are unfired they dissolve back into the ground, which is relevant because the Eden project grounds were originally a china clay pit and so they return to the ground from which they came in the same way as dead plant life.
There is always a certain beauty in temporary artworks and the way that even the objects themselves disappear into the ground, unlike “trophy” where the piece is temporary but the objects are simply dispersed and given a new context. The fact that each flower is completely individual, and some may be very literal roses whereas others may be more fantasy style flowers when the artisan might have gotten slightly bored and decided to do something more fun and interesting. However when they are all laid out in the ground it simply looks like an organic field of flowers, which likely not have been the case if it was simply several different models of flowers repeated. There is also an added value by the hand made nature of the flowers, and this combined with the fact they are temporary causes them to become very precious.
All in all I am very glad that I had the chance to go to this talk, and it was certainly a very valuable experience. I would even go so far as to say Clare Twomey is now one of my favourite artists with a strong influence on my work, along with Claire Curneen and Chloe Shaw’s “This living hand”, and are certainly works that I will come back to again and again. Trophy especially has now given me a clear direction in my project (which I am very grateful for), and I can now move forward from this point.