A few years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “The Thought That Counts”, on hierarchical dualisms within academic and non-academic modes of thought.
In it, I tried to address all manner of subjects including conceptualism, craft, feminism and graphic novels, linking these through similarities within oppositional pairings.
The sprawling project did earn me my Master’s degree but also helped me to address my own practice, in the way in which I became interested in binding thought, language and writing with the image.
Mixing it all together
Personally, I’ve come to re-think my previous work on the gendered gaze, or the male as recipient of the gendered gaze, and try to combine visual and textual elements to be read as equal signifiers… or ignored, at the viewer’s pleasure.
I’ve chosen watercolour for this kind of work precisely for its unfashionable status and attachment to now-repugnant understandings of art and middle-class respectability. (Think twee cottages and greetings cards.) There’s also the matter of its legibility – it’s familiar and understandable, and downright gorgeous at times.
I don’t know.
As my work continues I hope for it to provoke some internal discussion over the remaining hierarchical structures surrounding concept, word and image – will it actually succeed? .
Give me something I love, and I’ll find a way to make myself hate it.
I don’t mean people or even objects; I mean things I do. Let me get a whiff of being good at something, and I’ll want to be the best – or at least the best I can be.
The harder I work at getting better, the better I get, then the harder I work, and then… do I get even better? Actually, after a few cycles, that’s when I stop entirely, because I’ve burned myself out.
Then the separate cycle of despair over not being as good as I could be starts, and it takes me a while to work up enough momentum to fling myself out of that orbit into being obsessed with being good at something again.
There’s not a lot of time left for enjoying yourself in this pattern, is there?
I loved art before, when I was younger and the purpose of art was to make art, to be part of it and not just to see it. After I dropped out of art school at 20 to have an unsuccessful stab at happy housewifery, I felt as though I’d betrayed my real self, and that was the start of the trouble with art.
I couldn’t blame anyone but myself, because I’d stopped myself from getting better. I did try to push through on my own, but nothing connected until I enrolled in art school again, at 31.
This time, I was going to squeeze eleven years’ worth of practice into two years of education, and I was going to come out of the other side with my old life back.
Of course, that couldn’t happen. Private views, residencies, commissions – these are easy when you’re fresh out of college and don’t have to fit in the school run.
I tried to take on as much as I could, because the sky would fall down on my head if I didn’t hit the ground running. After all, getting a job with the word ‘art’ in the title would prove that I was worth something, right?
Suddenly, the happiness of finally getting that BA in Fine Art (with a lovely 1st class to add to the CV) bled into dread of not being able to get a job, and of having to face the dreaded JobCentre and the supercilious agents of employment scorn therein. Then, the happiness of finding a job! Of being asked to start a band! Of getting onto an MA course! Of moving to London!
Such a lot of happiness all at once… of course, I had to keep my job, practise with the band in Kent, study for the MA and raise my son as a single parent and be the best I could be at all of them at the same time. But, the thing was, I missed making.
The MA was challenging and interesting, but the studios at Goldsmiths looked so much more appealing than the library. I started to wonder if I was the only one who thought that the theory wasn’t half as important as the art itself. I thought I was.
It was starting to look like a very expensive mistake, as if it was all for the sake of some more letters after my name to prove I was worth something.
The job was good, but was physically very tiring sometimes. It would only be there for another few months, and then I’d have to find another one – panic. The singing was incredible fun and the band had my name on it, which was all a dream come true, but it took me an hour and a half to drive to rehearsals each Saturday and then an hour and a half back home, and the same for gigs.
It took four months for me to crack, but I did crack. I got so physically run down that I became depressed. I had the flu for about a month, lost my voice and barely recovered in time for our first gig.
A few months later (this is the short version), I had the answer handed to me by my deus ex machina in the form of my future husband, who picked me up and dropped me in Lancashire and made me get on with life away from the things I loved that weren’t loving me back enough.
Three years on, the sky didn’t fall down because I’ve only had a few exhibitions. My son loves me as much now as he did when I didn’t have two degrees. I have a job with ‘art’ in the title and I can still find something to complain about. No-one who loves me cares that I’ve never been an artist in residence anywhere and I stopped caring as well.
What am I doing now? Two websites for two separate businesses, a half-started novel, a part-time job, and a full-time family. Sounds like I haven’t learned, right? Only this time, everything else has to come after what’s best for me and my family. If you’re panicking about what comes next in your art career, don’t. Seriously, don’t.
I’m happier now that I’ve stopped panicking and started living.
You can make something happen by simply making your own work for your own gratification and making your own opportunities. Panicking won’t help. It certainly won’t help you to enjoy your life.
Make your (art)work fit your life, and you’ll realise there’s nothing to prove – you’re already worth something.
A colleague of mine gave me a little man and asked me to do something with him… something reflecting my personality.
Well, that automatically threw me into a tailspin – I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do, since I couldn’t even figure out what I was supposed to be “about”!
I was pleased that she asked me, but I sat down in a bit of a funk and wondered what I was going to do. I had ideas on the back burner for Foreign Exchange, which I’d been telling my friend about, but with so many ongoing projects in the other pockets of my life, I’d not gotten around to them… and they couldn’t be attached to this anyway. This was supposed to reflect me somehow, and that was the problem. I carried this little guy around in my handbag for months.
Meanwhile, I was reading about money, income and inequality. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I knew what I was thinking about, and that I had to start working on the commission. For some time I’d been reading articles on the idea of basic income, or universal basic income (UBI): the concept that a country’s citizens could be paid a flat rate of income by the government, not linked to work or means testing.
It appealed to me as a tool for feminism because it has the potential to transform the lives of women who perform unpaid and therefore undervalued labour in the home. Breaking the link between income and value would transform the way we think about work and about each other.
Income and value/money and morality
Money and morality have a sticky relationship, thanks in part to lingering Victorian ideology. We can hold two opposing thoughts in our heads:
a. that those who are poorer than us have made themselves that way by being immoral wastrels and vagabonds who would rather buy fags and booze with their benefits than get jobs.
b. that those who are richer than us have made themselves that way by the amoral pursuit of Mammon and would sell their own grandmothers for a profit (or by inheriting their parents’ riches, thus being both undeserving and corrupted).
We’re not comfortable with the very rich or the very poor, but we don’t seem (as a whole) to like the idea of UBI because it means giving money to people who don’t deserve it. Even if we all got the same amount, something about not earning… it feels immoral.
Still, having to rely on a paycheque to prove your worth in the world is cracked, in my view. No human being should have to prove their worth or their right to live based on how much they earn.
What is a mother’s labour worth?
Your mother earned nothing by giving birth to you, but that act could never be remunerated. I still have a lot of reading to do around the subject before I write anything at length, but as a starting point… here I am.
As its name suggests, this piece was the product of the aftermath of a fight.
Not long married, my husband and I had – to put it mildly – a bit of an explosive disagreement, which fortunately was resolved before too long. It made a longer lasting mark on his already permanently scowling face, though, and somehow his hair had managed to whip itself up into a whirlwind – it seemed to be the outward expression of what was going on in his head.
It was so ridiculous that it broke the tension and made me laugh.
Of course, that didn’t go down very well, but neither did taking his picture and threatening to paint him. I did it anyway.
I liked the space after the paroxysm – a minute after a storm that makes you think, “what just happened?” and wonder whether it was real, or whether you imagined it… and wonder whether it will happen again.
At the time, I was struggling to find time and space to make any new work, after moving to Lancashire and being newly married, so watercolour seemed to be the medium that worked best for my life at the time. I started to experiment with writing in paint, and this led to my handwriting prints, which led to this painting.
Why the speech bubble? I had to include it. The text element is more of an indication of my interest in graphic novels and the crossover between drawing and writing than an actual quotation, although the words were chosen carefully to reflect his character.
The words act as his portrait as much as the image does.
It’s a part of our family now, so although it has been exhibited, I’ll never sell it. I’ve made this piece available as a postcard print on Zazzle.
Use Him was a work that was intentionally… well, slippery.
I’d hoped to make use of the sculptures I’d produced for my BA degree show in 2012, and I’d envisioned making a video of my soap and wax casts being used – washed away or melted.
Whilst I was studying and working at Goldsmiths almost a year later, it occurred to me that I finally had the perfect circumstances to mount the project. I decided to put my soap man into one of the female toilets, and see if anyone would use him.
Feminism and fun.
It was about the usual things – feminism, objectification, looking, function – but I wanted it to be fun. It was simple, and I hoped it would be effective; however, I worried that it would be too simple, and be seen as too literal, too obvious. Still, I wanted to do it in that way – in public but in private, with the willing or unwilling participation of the women using the lavatory.
The participatory aspect would make his wastage more meaningful than if I had filmed him on my own. Also, it would raise a debate over exclusion and the female gaze – the male students and members of staff were only allowed to view the photographs that were exhibited in the gallery space.
It may have been an entirely new experience for them to be excluded from such an event by their gender.
I was always there, or so it seemed, working on some days in one department and studying for my MA in another, so I could take a photograph of the soap’s disintegration each day. I realised after a few weeks that I’d tied myself in to a somewhat onerous task, wandering the dimmed corridors of the Richard Hoggatt building with no-one else around.
What I hadn’t expected was the vocal reactions he provoked.
I wandered into the strangest conversations in the toilets – most people spoke freely to whoever was nearby, and as they didn’t know that I had made him and put him there, I was able to find out what they really thought about my work. Unsurprisingly, some women hated him.
He did become rather slimy and repulsive close to the end, so it was to be expected. What I hadn’t expected was how provocative it was to some.
The fresh audience
One of the cleaners was positively incensed by his presence.
She swore and ranted, and was more angry than I’d ever seen anyone become thanks to a piece of art. This actually made me fairly happy – I’d expected a much more blasé response all around. This did cause me to think about the division between the art ennui sufferers and the art uneducated – is it better to know less if it mean you feel more strongly?
Another woman was raving about it when I walked in – she was saying to her friend that it was the best thing she’d ever seen at Goldsmiths. Naturally, that’s the one review I choose to recall most often! By the way, I did tell both women that I was the one who made it… but only after I’d got a piece of their minds.
Taken, then stolen…
The sculpture was actually removed from the loos on the third day of the exhibition/installation – I panicked, as I thought it had been stolen, but it turned out to have been removed by the security guards, probably on the complaints of the cleaners.
I retrieved him and put him into a different toilet for a few days whilst I smoothed things out, and by day 5 he was back in his old place.
Still, he came to a similar end on day 29. He disappeared and I never saw him again – I wondered if he was done in by the cleaners, but I hoped that he had been stolen instead. I’d be happy if he ended his days in some student’s shower, scaring the flatmates and hopefully, actually being used.