Planning ahead

Following the excitement of the first mark I received for a piece of coursework (merit, in case I haven’t shrieked it at you) I’ve been feeling under a certain amount of pressure to continually perform at a high level to maintain this somewhat high bar I’ve set myself. The essay for my Paris Moderne module is progressing well but it is not without its terrifying moments where I realise I’ve lost my thread. Or the fear of the classmates wiping the floor with me through the content of their essays showing me up. Or the nightmares, cold sweats or general madness that masters level strikes into my heart. But you know, its fine. Or my approximation of fine.

But with this at the forefront of my mind I’m conscious of the ways in which I’ve changed from undergraduate level. I’ve always been a keen planner when it came to my academic career, organising months in advance what my topics and research areas will be but I have also pulled late nighters in order to change my essay question the night before it was due. Or continuously worked til 3am as I got more done when undisturbed by crackers housemates. But because I’ve always pulled it off, and usually with high marks, I have at times been reckless in my preparation knowing I have the eleventh hour to make changes. But then last year the eleventh hour was impeded by me losing vision temporarily in one eye in the week before Christmas. Tiredness, eye strain from a computer at work for 8 hours a day followed by 3-4 hours more at home to study, with reading to and from work and at lunchtimes left me shattered, and for a while my optic nerve needed a rest. Which asides from developing Arthur was probably the most frightening thing that’s happened. For an alarming few hours I thought I was going blind – and it was only through the persistent calm of Mummy Pitt at the end of the phone, and a very dear friend looking after me and telling me not to be scared that I managed to not fall apart altogether.

In this instance I was so lucky that I had taken a lot of time in November and early December to cement where the essay was going. All of my reading was done, I knew the topic and I had the framework of the essay. So whilst writing it is always tricky I could black out my computer screen and type for ages without having to stare at the glare and read it back in smaller chunks. This has been a valuable lesson in thinking ahead, and at masters level I don’t feel there is much room for mistake or laziness. But my motivation at times is low, and my discipline can go out the window with a glance at my bed if I’m feeling particularly run down after a hectic week. So – it is with a sense of calm and minor distress that I have decided to postpone the 2nd year of my masters and will pick it up again in 2013. I love my course I am doing well, but if I am going to carry on at the same speed and intensity this necessitates a break to prepare fully for dissertation and another module in my second year. My health is constantly improving and whilst I know a big part of this is due to how happy studying makes me, I’m conscious that it is a double edged sword – and for as much fun and happiness it brings me it is also several hours a day and a block of each weekend spent tying myself in anxious knots and exacerbating my arthritis.

I will continue to plan ahead – the year out will be spent reading in preparation for the dissertation but without the weekly classes and the reading that is tied to those I will be able to work at a more leisurely pace and be able to immerse myself in the subjects without feeling other pulls on my time quite so acutely.

One of the hardest things to articulate in my return to studying is how completely it absorbs me; and how much happier I am for it. I don’t see this as a burden that I have to stay in for weeks on end to complete an essay or miss pub nights as I have class – this is exactly what I want to be doing. There is no resentment in the way I felt about some undergraduate work. I feel more like me for doing this course and as much as that makes me a square, I am going to miss the pace when I take a year out. But in terms of longevity, both of my academic advancement and in terms of my continuing good health a break is necessary. And I hope you will all support me in it by frequenting museums at weekends, mentioning articles you saw in passing and letting me talk your ears off about the dandy. Again.


In Defence of Damien

‘He is either the presiding genius of contemporary British art, justifiably making a fortune by thrilling audiences with his memorable reflections on life and death. Or he is an empty con artist, making a fool of us and raking in millions from buyers with more money than sense.’ Mark Brown for The Guardian.

Over the last few weeks momentum has been building in advance of the opening of the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern. Personally, I am really looking forward to going – and remain fairly defensive of Hirst’s work, despite the fact I wouldn’t call myself a fan. There have been some hilarious articles published over the last few days, my favourite of which was Julian Spalding’s scathing article published in both The Independent and The Daily Mail over the weekend, curiously at the same time as his book ‘Con Art – Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirst’s While You Can’ is due out. Whilst a few of Spalding’s points resonate with a wider feeling of unease about the confidence placed in Hirst’s work, the article feels more like the rantings of an overeducated spoilsport than true art criticism. For a fellow so well read and involved in the art scene it is sad to see Spalding reduced to placing words such as progressing, cutting-edge and ideas in inverted commas in order to show his dismissive and resentful tone. In a bid to discredit Hirst and the backing the artist has received from the Tate, he makes tenuous links to the mortgage crisis, the emperor’s new clothes and unforgivably states there is no genius in the work of Hirst, or of the wider conceptual and contemporary art scene. To take a dislike to the output of an artist is not unfathomable; but to write so vehemently dismissing the many mediums Hirst has worked through, sculpture, installation and painting – and to take it further by writing off the entirety of the contemporary art scene through use of barely disguised cliché’s to take digs at Emin and Duchamp is absurd.

Spalding’s vitriolic tirade seeks to highlight the divide between the bohemians frequenting the Tate discussing the wider context of the shark in opposition to the Joe Average masses who have felt wrong-footed whenever they enter a gallery. But Spalding’s reliance on stereotypes is his own downfall. The desired face-off between The Daily Mail readership painted as struggling to understand the new era in artistic talent is supposed to reiterate that it is the artistic classes who have been hoodwinked by the complete immersion of the idea of contemporary art. They pretend to understand the nuances of the severed cow head on show and are lavishly throwing money after diamond encrusted skulls to have in their homes to show how cool they are. Spalding seems to purport the view that everyone who likes contemporary art is an oligarch or millionaire but it is ludicrous to assume that all of the visitors this summer will all be queuing in the gift shop with a spin painting we’ve collected from the gallery walls. From the way Spalding sells the art world the class divide is comparable to something out of a Dickens novel – which clearly isn’t the case. Galleries and museums are open to the public, and whilst the Hirst retrospective is an admission fee exhibition the majority of Hirst followers and visitors to the Tate this summer will not be collectors – merely mortals interested in seeing 25 years worth of art on show made by one prolific artist who has turned his hand to different mediums. Spalding’s insistence that those who can’t see the genius in Hirst’s work are the enlightened ones only seeks to further alienate the readership of certain newspapers to the view that this exhibition wouldn’t be for them. Which to those Daily Mail readers with more than an iota of common sense is unfair – to dissuade people from art is monstrous, and rather than writing such a one sided, self-serving article, Spalding as a seasoned art critic and ex-curator should be encouraging arts visits rather than sales for his latest book.

Spalding’s main line of argument is that ‘found objects’ (I’m quoting now, not being obtuse) are not art, therefore as Hirst has failed to alter said objects in any meaningful way his work should not be in the artistic canon. Spalding continues with his diatribe and in essence he is saying that anyone could create the works on show. But the thing is – you couldn’t. I couldn’t procure a cow or a shark and put it into a huge glass tank filled with formaldehyde. I couldn’t make one of the spin or spot paintings. I couldn’t keep a room full of butterflies as an installation (I would never leave the room, it would be so magical). In order to prove this I have made my own version of Hirst’s ‘Sinner’ made in 1988. This is one of his first medicine cabinets and a part of the Pharmacy series he made. So whilst you can emulate it – you cannot rival it. Hirst made dozens of these, mainly on huge scales, and at the Tate there will be several of his pill collections on show. Something your everyday pill taker couldn’t emulate without becoming poorly from having missed so much of their medication. So you see, Spalding, you can copy it, but seeing as I couldn’t replicate one of his smaller ideas I would love to see you take on that shark.

To have this article published in The Daily Mail, in my opinion the lowest form of print media, was clearly done in an effort to appeal to those who actively search for something, anything, to aggravate them. I can’t imagine for a moment the sort of half-wits who read the Mail would have even contemplated going to the retrospective – but over the course of writing a few ill informed, self-publicizing paragraphs, Spalding has set the struggle for the arts to integrate further mainstream back by miles. The erosion of the readers confidence that they may like to attend the exhibition is battered by the class division Spalding obliquely refers to. The amounts which are spent on the paintings are listed like some sort of upper class shopping list and the rhetorical questions which open the article such as: ‘Have you ever seen modern art on TV or been to an art gallery and felt bewildered and angry about the exhibits? Have you ever felt it must be your fault you can’t understand it because you think the people running the gallery must know more about art than you do?’ These views are sycophantic to the readership who Spalding (rightly or wrongly) assumes are heathens incapable of comprehending that a shark in a tank might be more than the physical object. Which frankly, the readers may not be as densely stupid as we arty lefties assume, but the point of arts is not to alienate – strong opinions are encouraged, it doesn’t matter that you don’t like the art; you just need to be able to articulate why you don’t. The inflammatory tone used to identify with the reader and to remind them how stupid they feel in the face of contemporary art only serves to show that the readership Spalding is gunning for is the slow witted, low intellect numpties who further qualified the article with their own banal comments beneath the piece. And as a side note, Spalding, you monumental moron, the people running the galleries, curators, as you well know as you used to be one, probably DO know more about the art on show than the viewers. You unspeakable idiot.

Mainly I’m annoyed at Spalding for the wedge he drives further between the populous and the arts. The Hirst retrospective would have been an ideal medium to interest kids in the arts – where else can they walk into rooms full of butterflies, see sharks in tanks and decapitated animals on show? This is a perfect (if slightly scary) introduction to the arts, and as a faltering medium in the face of the 2012 cuts it is more important than ever to get the next generation interested. To an intellectual or artistic eye, by targeting Hirst – arguably the most prevalent, prominent and outspoken artist of current times, Spalding only serves to undermine his own agenda by further alienating himself from the art world with his outdated views that look to scrub away the whole conceptual art movement as it does not fit into his idea of the art world aesthetic.

The retrospective will attract those who are huge fans, and those who like me who appreciate what Hirst amongst others has bought to the contemporary arts scene. No, it’s not comparable to Rembrandt, Spalding, but it is comparable to Warhol. When Warhol painted Campbells soup cans and silk screen prints of celebrities he was initially called a sell out – lambasted for getting in on the consumerist game, but over time people began to realise that Warhol’s motives were far more tongue in cheek and is now one of the most celebrated artists of his genre and Pop Art – just as Hirst is for Conceptual Art. These two mediums are both sit under the Postmodern art movement umbrella and as such there are recurrent tropes.

Bearing in mind that I write this from the view point of someone looking to preserve the arts – not as a Hirst fan – I am well aware that his star is beginning to fall. His works aren’t deemed as important anymore, and the retrospective feels more like a last hurrah than the cusp of further work to follow; but I would like to be proved wrong. I think Hirst is a hugely important figure in modern art, and just because I wouldn’t spend the reputed £50m on an encrusted skull doesn’t mean I think he should sink into obscurity. As an artist he has pushed boundaries, challenged taste and mainstream conventions and heralded a new era of sales in the art market, which can to an extent only generate more interest in the art arena. Which is fantastic. His contribution to the art world has far exceeded what predictions in the eighties when he was the art It boy could have speculated – and for that, I think the celebration of his genius is well deserved.

Essay fear

So my previous post about deadlines saw me panicked enough about one piece of work being due – but one of the reasons for my failure to blog in a (really long) while is that I have recently had 3 deadlines close together. As mentioned below, the presentation on women’s fashion and Surrealism was one of these, which is thankfully marked off the list now. Another was submitting the outline for a 6,000 word project which needs to focus on the process of the research I put into it – which as an arts student boggles me completely. But nonetheless, the proposal is in – and it was approved. Hooray! This will probably be the main thing I blog about over the summer as it is due in October, and I suspect will take up a fair portion of my evenings and weekends putting it together and writing up my research. Excitingly I will be writing about Scottish Parliament and the plans, construction, materials and subsequent enquiry that examined the reasons for which it went so far over budget and took much longer to build than initally decided. I think this topic will provide a lot of issues to tackle in a relatively empirical way. Which seems to be the point. I pulled an 11th hour change on the whole plan as I had thought about looking at the art funding for 2012, and had made spreadsheets in support of this – but at the last minute I changed the whole project back to an idea I had last October and pulled together an outline. Not that I’m prone to impulsive decisions, clearly…

The last deadline which I am working to now is an essay to wrap up the Paris Moderne module and specifically I will be writing on the rise of the robot / machine as opposed to the decoration / ornament that had gone before it. I’ve got quite a lot of reading done but as yet I’m not really sure what route the essay is taking and the argument feels like it is still somewhat unformed in my mind. Which is frightening and overwheming as I would normally know how I would structure an essay and which view I would present, but this time I am at a bit of a loss. Perhaps because I like both robots and ornament, and don’t want to choose geometrics over decoratives, Matisse in his suits looking clinical over Dali on his lobster telephone sitting on a lips couch…


Elsa Schiaparelli

During the course of studying the Paris Moderne module I had to give my own presentation – and as luck would have it I was lucky enough to be landed with the topic of women’s fashion and the ways in which the Surrealists had influenced the new trends. Elsa Schiaparelli featured prominently in the reading – and all three outfits and accessories seen below are made by her. The Tear Dress, and the Shoe Hat were made in collaboration with her good friend Dali, as he very kindly made the print which is repeated on the dress.

The below is the Lips Suit – a twist on Coco Chanel’s little black dress (Schiaparelli and Chanel were rivals) – and as seen by the prolific work output, Schiaparelli gained a following of her own to rival Coco’s fashion house. Worn with the Shoe Hat this look is meant to embody the performance that Schiaparelli’s clothing evoked, in opposition to Chanel’s structured, fitted garments. These sorts of clothes, whilst high end couture, were worn in city life, and several are housed, though currently not on show at the V&A.

Made in the post war era of the late 1930s these clothes defy austerity measures and embrace the ridiculous, spurred on by the Surrealist movement which is gaining pace with members such as Dali, Andre Breton and Max Ernst bringing the absurd to the forefront of art and culture.

The Tear Dress is highly controversial as the purples and blacks show the bruised, flayed flesh that has been torn from the body. Ever subversive, Schiaparelli turns a beautiful silk gown and headpiece from a decorative, ornamental piece into a comment on women’s roles in society, showing their beauty and frailty in one item. The print, made by Dali shows the skin which has ripped and bled repeated on the dress, showing at once extreme violence and dark beauty.

One of Schiaparelli’s most famous pieces, the Shoe Hat evokes the child like pleasure of the absurdity of putting items on your head – but at the same time highlighting the performance element of the clothes. Many of her constructions show masquerade, theatre and decoration – but with help from the Surrealists, at times these can take on a darker, more perverse edge.

Hello again.

Apologies – I have been entirely remiss in posting a blog for weeks now; and once again having been called out by Dan I feel the need to post something to redeem myself. (Though in my defence he made me write the blog – I never said I would be any good at it.)

So – to what I have been up to this term: The module was engaging and interesting – but the weekly format of seminar style discussion was somewhat marred by a classmate presentation each week, of which the quality was variable. The highlight? Accidentally launching a pencil at a lovely girl whilst she spoke of the Bohemian uprising during Paris disputes. The low? People being forced to speak in front of a fairly unforgiving class when they were quite clearly very uncomfortable. As a learning medium it’s pretty lazy of Birkbeck to have a classmate give the seminar, and I think the issue was that it either needed to be that we each host a seminar and you go all out – not just head down reading aloud an essay and failing to interest anyone – or it is more open as a forum, more Q&A, more interaction and less underperformed content.

But the classmates imparting knowledge (or otherwise) aside, the reading material and content of the course was faultless, endlessly fascinating to look at the rise of the machine aesthetic and Henry Ford overtaking more traditional beauty and ornament prevalent at the time. Le Corbusier squaring up to Adolf Loos over decoration; Dali being crackers about everything; dandies and flâneurs wandering the streets of Paris looking at clothes and Charlie Chaplin getting stuck in a machine were all commonplace – and as delightful as you would imagine. I will post some links and pictures to show the brilliance of the course, as a lot of it is very visual and has to be seen to be believed!

New module: Paris Moderne

This evening I started my latest module as mentioned a few weeks ago; Paris Moderne, Modernism and Decoration. The class is 10 people and therefore a completely different mode of learning to the lectures which doubled as seminars. Obviously 10 people with opinions is more manageable that 60+.

The first class of 11 covered the course content, some of the elements we will engage with and allowed us to choose which topic each of us will take for a 20 minute oral presentation complete with stimulus and powerpoint. Although my second choice I am delighted to have signed up for Surrealism and Fashion at the end of March.

Several textbooks have now arrived so I will start reading through and formulating plans for both the presentation and essay which cannot be on the same areas of study. Lots to read and get to grips with but so elated at the end of this evening to be partaking in such a stimulating and exciting module which crosses over into so many of my own research interests.

In essence, whilst Sarah-land resembles 1920s Paris with dandies, Dali and decadence all is well.

Geffrye museum, Hoxton

Before Christmas I ventured with friends for a festive day out at the Geffrye. A furniture museum housing several centuries worth of chairs (hooray! – for those of you not in on the joke I am teased by the flatmate for once saying I would write an essay about chairs, such is my love for historical furniture. Which I stand by! I like chairs, especially armchairs with velvet or patterned upholstery.) I digress – the museum itself is beautiful from the outside, a lovely building with great outdoor space and easily findable.

There are several rooms – all set up as per the period they represent, from 1600 to modern times, and it is great to see how trends have resurfaced over the years. Seemingly furniture and fashion both enjoy a reliance on the previous constructions to inform current style.

The rooms themselves had been decorated for Christmas with contemporaneous festive garlands and the like, and more often than not were a bit lacking in sparkle, but lovely nonetheless. It would be interesting to return post Christmas and see how the rooms are normally dressed.

As a free exhibition it is well worth wandering if you have an interest in furniture, but I would say as a gallery it doesn’t seem quite sure who its demographic are. Throughout the gallery there are paddles which tell you the historical information regarding the room set up, but I would say they were slightly staid and could have been a bit more illuminating, rather than stating the obvious. Additionally, throughout the gallery are quiz questions, apparently aimed at children. Which is odd – I can’t imagine kids to be particularly interested in table legs from 1800s. Even I didn’t like chairs as a youngster…

So all in all, a good museum, an interesting exhibition but I can’t say it was hugely engaging or generated much discussion afterwards. However, I would return for a second look at some of the particularly lovely pieces. (Not necessarily chairs… There were some alright tables too.)