Sketchbook notes from the drifting spaces

Circling Connections: Peter Fischli / David Weiss and Alexander Calder

The tongue and cheek, playful search and questioning of meaning in life and art was a major theme in the development of art in the 20th century, accompanied by a desire, starting with the Surrealists, to really subvert and later skirt around any kind of categorising of artworks. I’ve been thinking about the ‘circus’ of fun and hedonistic delight in the works of a few artists that show some loose connections.

Recently visiting the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow) I was captivated for the full thirty minutes of ‘The Way Things Go’, a 1987 film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It takes the viewer on a comical journey of movement in an old industrial looking interior between a set up of disparate home and industrial objects, such as tyres, bottles, liquids, chemicals on benches, ladders and shoes, that come together after moments of tense waiting for fuses to burn, ignition, steam or gravity to do its job and for something to crash or explode into the next in the vaguely circular set-up. Seemingly filmed in one shot to promote the feeling of a never ending, inevitable process, the film has several cleverly crafted edits. In the continual but fleeting meetings and silly interactions between the many parts of their installation, there is a sense of the circle of life and death and of the inter-connectedness of all things. The questioning has gone beyond one of dealing with the traditional gallery system and being surrounded by the remnants of mass production.

Weiss and Fischli have made a variety of work, often characterised with humour – one funny little piece is a quick looking, lumpy clay street with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home happily satisfied after a session in the studio doing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. The popular film ‘The Way Things Go’ has less narrative but takes forward their ‘Quiet Afternoon’ series of photos from the mid eighties, in which there is a quirky gravity defying and comical still-life combination in each piece of some five to ten tattered bits of home furniture or bottles, packaging tubes, plates, ladles or fruit for instance. The imposed boundaries between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ become blurred with one title in the series ‘Natural Grace’ reminding me also of the impending collapse of a piece of balanced stones on a hill top by Andy Goldworthy. In some ways the often used terms ‘land artist’ or ‘conceptual artist’ are truly meaningless and a distraction from seeing work afresh. One other thing I like about many of their works is the rugged, unfinished looking aspect that doesn’t value detail and solid compositions too much. Some later works lose some of the feeling perhaps due to the visual choices of the artists themselves or curators, (especially the photography on show at the GOMA) and started to lack that sense of the fleeting, off kilter aspects.

Two early films (excerpts below), ‘The Least Resistance’ (1980-81) and ‘The Right Way’ (1982-83) capture their energy and half joking, half serious mood that is full of life. There is a method too in avoiding factual documentation and underscoring a desire for unsentimental creative freedom, serving to communicate charged as well as playful encounters and experiments in various environments. Their work has obviously spawned a whole array of materially similar pieces over the years by younger artists, but their overall philosophies give a strong edge to their interesting body of work. As the Panda said: ‘Such understated vehemence’.

The sculptor of mobiles and stabiles, Alexander Calder, was also keen on mesmerising and making the audience laugh with his fun characters and gravity defying objects. His moveable clowns and animals of tin cans, brushes and other bits and pieces were performed like puppets in his ‘Circus’ for kids and adults to enjoy, and are quite similar to the animals and human shaped or characterised objects of the Swiss duo later in their films and installations, such as their Rat and Bear.

Much of Calder’s work broke the tradition of clunky sculpture rooted on a plinth and challenged the art world like Panda and Rat did briefly in Los Angeles (‘The Least Resistance’), before turning to crime in their case. His mobiles opened new scope for art installations and possibly encouraged the idea that ‘sculptures’ could be much more temporary works (seen only as traces in the work of some of the land artists for example) from cheaper, mass produced materials. Whilst aiming to engage with themes of the universal and inter-connectedness in a circular wholeness, Calder like the Swiss artists also looked for ways to challenge artistic boundaries and have plenty of kicks in the process.

Inspiring artist: Per Kirkeby

When I visited the Danish National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) in Copenhagen in 2010 I enjoyed seeing the work of the great Danish painter and sculptor Per Kirkeby for the first time. He was in good company, with powerful examples of Baselitz and Munch nearby and powerful examples of Danish expressionism. The building and contemporary extension itself perfect for installation and large sculptural work is an excellent space…

National Gallery of Denmark, Tomás Saraceno

National Gallery of Denmark, artwork by Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno

Relatively unknown by many in the UK, I think Kirkeby (born 1938) is absolutely deserving of a look-in! The large scale, complex painterly and abstract work is highly sophisticated, developed over a dedicated career, and is fascinatingly pleasurable to gaze at. For myself, trying to simplify the picture plane and reduce shapes and marks, it is nice to see painting that takes abstract the other way, into a constellation of flatnesses and semi-sculpted planes drifting and buzzing with a geographical mapping quality that makes their titles such as ‘The Siege of Constantinople’ all the more mysterious. The rich, dark palettes of colours are knifed and brushed with a variety of textures, with metamorphic transitions through low-key to higher key colours. Perfectly exemplifying the best of continental expressionism for me, his non-figurative work is gritty, unsentimental and uncontained by the boundaries of representational or pretty work. The brick pieces or bronze sculptures which are almost more intense in their darker simplicity, are also inspiring, and bounce off the 2D paintings and drawings. Check out his work and prepare to be transported on a free floating trip into abstract, intellectual painterly worlds…

Depth of Reflection – notes on David Lynch and Dogen

I made this small visual note after running along the Firth and Forth Canal, the reflections can be so deep, somehow reality is deepened. The space is literally deeper, becoming set further away, almost elusively in another time…

…colour and shape so dense, tinged with toned down silvers, greens – the poignant reality untouchable yet sharply present – visual paradox, toning down, into darkness. ‘Asserting one thing in language is to create an opposite’ (John Fraser). It is the same in visual art and culture: where there is light there must also be shadow. And we can’t avoid paradox.

Artist and film director David Lynch and Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen seem to me to share ideas in common, regardless of the ‘gap’ in time since the 13th century. They both deal with paradox and question the nature of our experience, often with really striking imagery and dreamlike visions. Not everything is as it seems! Time and impermanence. Dogen plays around with language a lot, using the flexibility of the Chinese Kanji characters to show that everything is change, taking forward the Hua-yen Chinese Buddhist tradition (from around the 7th Century) whereby everything depends on each thing, the self and the universe are identical. The categories of cause and result are interchangeable.

Lynch, in his movies and short films, which I find really inspiring and fun too, often deals with coincidences, paradox and change – as I’m sure the Log Lady mentioned in the Twin Peaks introductions! Reality is so charged, the characters almost over dense and placed in and out of a ‘common-sense’ time-span. So much of Dogen’s poetry and language reveals a non-linear view of time. Inland Empire (2006) is a superb movie by Lynch that captures such things. The story moves freely from time to time, without feeling forced at all. Here Lynch experiments with the beautiful textures and fresh feel of digital. ‘The Zen Poetry of Dogen’ by Steven Heine has a great collection of free-flowing waka style poems (the precursor to haiku but 5-7-5-7-7 syllables rather) and other pieces by Dogen that illustrate his Soto Zen worldview. If you are up for some heavier reading, Francis H. Cook’s ‘Hua-yen Buddhism – The Jewel Net of Indra’ is tough to read but very illuminating: ‘Everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable?’ And this poem ‘Mujo’ (Impermanence) is from Dogen’s poetry collection:


To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane’s bill.

These ideas I find very useful in my artwork. Awareness of transience helps to resolve to constantly train ourselves, and of a non-linear understanding space and time helps to build courage for spontaneity, not being confined compositionally, finding the way visually. Also seeing that all things are visually connected without the need to be discriminated into ‘catalogued’ objects and situations, and that I use certain craft to investigate the abstract, changing and atmospheric qualities of forms…

Inspiring artist – Christo and Jeanne-Claude

I first discovered Christo and Jean-Claude’s work in an unusual and interesting book about relationships in 20thC art, architecture and science by O.B.Hardison ‘Disappearing Through the Skylight’ given to me by my friend Alan Wilson. It was written in the late eighties so although tech has moved on a fair bit it is still quite stimulating, taking in Mandelbrot’s Fractals, Concrete Poetry and other varied ideas!

Hardison looked at the artist partnership’s (they work as a team, although initially in the sixties Jean-Claude’s name wasn’t added to works) ‘Running Fence’ (1972), a twenty-four and a half mile long white fabric, post and wire fence running gracefully and glinting in the sun through Californian ranches to the coast, literally into the sea. He wrote of it: “The fence has no functional use; it must be therefore be seen in aesthetic terms as a frame for the natural landscape and an assertion of linearity in contrast to the irregular natural contours of the hills through which it cuts.” I think it also, like a lot of their work, a sculptural thing of great beauty inspiring for art connoisseurs and the wider public too. (Please use the link below to the artist website for Running Fence images taken from 1972 to 76 as the project went on.)

They are recognised as major and influential conceptual artists due partly to the unprecedented ambitious scale of the industrial fabrics and other materials they use. Having three or four projects on the go at once has been essential for them as it can take many years to sort out permissions for planning etc, and when they get the go ahead concentrate their energies on the one project. The wrapping and concealing of coastlines in Australia or famous structures like the Pont Neuf in Paris or the German Reichstag actually reawakens the viewer’s view of the world, breaking down ideas and discriminations of what is an artwork or a building, and creating really intriguing connections between the man-made and the natural, as well as simplifying the forms. They are elements I have found very powerful in these works. The more recent huge Mastaba pyramid of old oil drums in the desert near Abu Dhabi is a much more solid enigmatic artwork, the textured oil drums reminiscent of Christo’s smaller works from Paris in the 60’s (see image below). There is recycling here on a large scale but not eco art at all – man and nature are in unison with all the trappings of infrastructure, so highways and cityscape etc are never ignored, all are part of the backdrop and a viewing platform for the ‘sensual’ or ‘nomadic’ use of fabic as Christo described in his Tokyo lecture at the end of last year, where ‘humans build their habitats in space’. Here is the link to their website plus a quote on the Mastaba artwork, and some images.

The Mastaba will be a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels secured to an inner structure.

The grandeur and vastness of the land will be reflected in the dimensions of The Mastaba, which will have two vertical walls, two slanted walls and a truncated top: 492 feet (150 meters) high, 738 feet (225 meters) deep at the 60 degree slanted walls, 984 feet (300 meters) wide at the vertical walls.