Doing art is hard, and it can hurt people. It can hurt people for all sorts of reasons – for good reasons and for bad reasons. I remember one very self-pitious 2am on a Dunedin morning I locked myself out of an Otago Uni computer room. I locked my house keys in. I had uni work due and it was a very cold Winter’s night, and I had to walk up into the hills to wake my long-suffering friend and borrow her access card.
That night I was lonely and tired 20-year-old, and Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs came on my ipod. I had heard it many times, it had never affected me all that much, but suddenly in that state it hit me in that way that art can hit you. I felt that sense Gorecki had meant to provoke, that horror and sadness at just how brutal the world can be – how awful the Holocaust was – and I had a little cry looking out over the city from Dunedin’s hills, this warbling in my ears. That’s a good kind of hurt, the kind that makes you more humane, even if only temporarily.
Art has also provoked in me a perfect fury, simply by being bad and/or arrogant – by being wrong and untrue. Jeff Koons’s art brings the bile to my throat, it disgusts me, because it is so unintelligent and insensitive, because it is merely a means to money and fame, and it reflects so much that is fucked up in the world – the profiteering, and the glibness, the idea that living is just a joke, that sating one’s ego and furthering ones career is enough out of life. That is a bad kind of hurt that art can produce.
This painting, above, hurt some people much more seriously than that. These people were affected by the earthquakes in Christchurch. One of them won’t tell me exactly how it hurt him, which is his right, of course. He owes me nothing, no explanation, that is fine. It’s a complicated situation to be in. After all, “nobody owns an event”, as one of my classmates said in the art’s defence. I also know people are traumatised by events, and a sensitivity to someone’s trauma is important. It could be that my paintings ring untrue to people who experienced the earthquakes, but I am under no illusion that I could paint with perfect accuracy an experience that I have not been through. Certain authors seem capable of doing this, but it’s a rare talent, and I don’t think I have it. It takes a combination of factors in ones life to do truth without precise experience. If I’d been through a flood, and been screwed out of a home by a bureaucracy…? there are people who could write about going through Christchurch’s earthquakes without having gone through them, and have it ring horribly true. I am not one of those people. That is all there is to it.
What I want to discuss is not the personal trauma of “going through it”, but the injustice of people still “going through it” three years on. People have lost their homes, their community’s infrastructure, and they are either not compensated, or compensated inadequately. I want to raise people’s attention to the myriad of injustices forced on Christchurch residents by an economic system not built democratically and not built to meet basic human needs. If that is an arrogant undertaking, I’ll just have to eat that label. There is just too much here that an outsider can empathise with and understand, and should investigate and discuss, and as one of my lecturers said during the crit, “If we can’t do this, what can we do?”
In Brickwork #1 there were problems. The text I applied over the paintings was too distracting from the aesthetics of the paintings themselves. The text did not mesh with them, it just covered them over. My lecturer Emma pointed this out, which was helpful. So I went about not using any words at all, initially. I painted more A4 watercolours, then sliced them into quarters. Unfortunately, I got ahead of myself and did not document them before the slicing began, so here is the best I could do in terms of presenting the original images.
Paintings listed here are in chronological order, according to when I painted them. Detail of source images are on the slideshow when you click, as other formatting options were disruptive.
In Brickwork #1 I kept the A4 format paintings intact, and tied them together with text. I thought it would be better to echo the mixed-up-ness of Christchurch’s landscape following the quakes by mixing up the paintings, creating fault lines and junctures. I spent some time looking at the paintings of Julie Mehretu, but I found her work… …certainly impenetrable is the wrong word… …but her paintings struck me as bloodless, alienating and clinical – more about what one might do with media than about artistic communication. These were intelligent enough works, but not generous to their audience. Reading interviews with Mehretu I began simultaneously to find more and less appeal in her works. I grew ambivalent. Sometimes she is wonderfully clear, speaking about history and politics, and the destruction of history, but just as often she is painfully vague, and seems to have only the shallowest grasp of politics and history. Visually it looked like the work might be engaging with quite interesting themes, but this turned out to be a bit of a mirage. Conceptually, the work was more about her own identity and her cultural history, and I struggle to see that in the work, and wonder if it’s little more than post-modern pretentiousness. It is beautiful work, but also seems lost and muddleheaded. I found little I might adapt to make my works communicate better, except that some of her Futurist tendencies, the sway of lines, are quite lovely and draw out emotion. I do wonder if a little of her superior painterly influence crept in during my treatment of rubble, but these effects could equally be attributed to convergence – her works are structures exploding, and rubble is structures exploded. And she is a much more skilled painter than I yet am.
I sliced my paintings up into quarters – closer to brick-sized. These were suddenly very different paintings – surprises, my lecturer Shannon called them – and also they read like postcards. I even considered putting “Wish You Were Here!” over a couple of them, but I hate that one-liner art that Saatchi and similar collectors go for, so I didn’t. Now I hate that I even thought of it. Here, again, Mehretu might be influential, in that I was taking the shattered structures and rearranging them again, subverting recognition, one of the interesting aspects of her work. Shannon suggested to me that people lose interest in an image if they immediately recognise it. I felt, on the one hand, that excessive unrecognisability and incomprehensibility are what hampers art these days, but at the same time it made perfect sense that art poses some degree of challenge to the viewer. I concluded that, in the art world, there must be a debate very like the debate in English literature over whether it is “radical” to communicate clearly, or whether it is more “radical” to write in the bloated and idiosyncratic way that someone like Gilles Deleuze does. It seems as though English Lit and Philosophy scholars have come to the exact opposite conclusion that Massey’s art scholars have. In English Lit clarity in a text about a complex subject is a sign of a sophisticated and thorough engagement, but in Fine Art it seems that clarity in an image is a sign of simple-mindedness or shallowness. Personally I find Paul Nash’s watercolours about World War II much more intelligent and sophisticated than Julie Mehretu’s Dispersion paintings, and yet Shannon’s conclusion about Paul Nash was that his paintings were “boneheadedly simple”. I can’t quite get my head around this, just as I can’t get my head around how all the theorists regarded as “the worst” – shallow pretenders – in Philosophy and English departments are, in the Fine Arts, regarded as “the best”.
So how do I bring these sensibilities from doing English and Philosophy into my Brickwork paintings in some constructive way? I couldn’t let the extremism in Fine Arts theory force me to the opposite end of the spectrum, where I’m really just illustrating and a realist. Cutting up the paintings, reassembling them, but not losing recognisability, it seemed the right step, an appropriate compromise. I sat up all night, trying to rearrange the frames into a nice composition. Most of the frames were blue-green, and then four of them had definite pink flavours, and these kept disrupting the whole thing. It was very late, I was extremely tired, and the night before hand-in, reflecting on the sheer loss involved with the quake, all the things people would never get back, I scrawled lines from “What the Thunder Said”, an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, over the frames:
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
I felt I had ruined the whole thing, but in the morning it didn’t seem so bad. I thought perhaps some people might even recognise the text – using The Wasteland for anything these days verges on being a cliché. The composition finally settled when I arranged the pink frames into a “swirled” frame around the edges of the blues, securing those blues in without interfering with them so much, and this final composition swapped all the text around just as the images were all swapped around. It felt like it had all come together.
Crit Week responses
Bullet-points, because this is too long already.
- Contemplative. The slicing of images invites people to stand reading for 10mins, reflecting.
- Recognisably a city-scape with buildings and scaffolding, construction and repair, and destruction.
- Text is about water and rock, seems to reflect the watercolour paintwork.
- Hung in a brickwork pattern, perhaps suggesting a rebuilding process.
- Lots of little cliché moments, a boat and a church (interesting feedback as there are no boats or churches in any of the images).
- The medium and execution reminded Georgiana of “The Sunday Painter” – amateur watercolour landscapes that would appear in newspapers, etc – but cut into fragments and little moments.
- A portability about the piece, a “location painting”.
- Sandy or cement paste on some of the pieces (this was salt, it absorbs excess water while leaving a nice texture, and I thought of “salting the earth” and Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt while adding it).
- A focus on architecture.
- Is the imagery too saturated on the wall? Would it be better as a photo album? Put the text on the back, like postcards?
- The text is not legible or recognisable.
- Difficult for some people who have been affected by the Christchurch quakes to look at. Made two students “angry”.
- Mixed around images that were whole have been broken up. A psychological brokenness through the text, while images refer to physical brokenness.
- Raises questions about how the earthquakes have been digested and shared via the media. Images recognisable to some as sourced from the media.
- Too much packed into a small space, leaving viewers little room to breath.
- Shannon recommended a more conventional hang, as much because some of the stronger images were holding up some of the weaker ones. Treat the images as separate it allows me to weed out the flakier ones.
- Watercolour is a very unforgiving medium. Where I have been unable to recover images from mistakes it really shows.
- Did I have a good reason for adding the text? Would the images work better without text?
- Dealing with a tragedy I didn’t go through myself. Appropriate level of sensitivity?
- Ethics is a big thing in terms of dealing with other people’s trauma. Massey has prevented other students from pursuing similar projects. It would suck to get a long way into the project and have it vetoed.
- In the Hocken Library in Dunedin are little settler diaries like my great-grandmothers. These contain lots of little watercolours, etc.
- My distant and metaphoric approach may be too clumsy. Perhaps I need to talk about people more directly (a concern I tried to address in Brickwork #1 by using quotes).
- Possibility of focussing on one site. It might dissipate some of the heat/weight of the piece.
- Ability of the piece to move people to tears. Powerful, but maybe dangerous. Why did someone cry? Is the art inadequately sensitive? Very fraught subject, not necessarily a reason to run away from doing the art.
- Look at Joanna Paul and Francis Hodgkins.