Part 3 – Exercise 3 – Childhood Memory

For this exercise I was required to recreate a childhood memory in a photograph…  I decided to pick a game which the family played endlessly in caravan holidays and over Christmas every year – Whatchamacallit. It was a game which was very inclusive (all ages could easily play it), rowdy (there was always much screaming and arguing) and quick (no time for boredom to set in). The game also allowed for a bit of cheating and appealed to the highly competitive, of which I was one such individual!

The object of the game following a spin of the psychedelic pink, purple and yellow alphabet wheel, was to quickly name something beginning with the letter the wheel rested on, based on one of the subjects from the main board. You then had to shout out your answer and simultaneously throw your ball into the cardboard box and down to the plastic ball-shaped hole with such a force that even if someone else shouted their answer first, your ball would dislodge their ball and you would win a plastic counter.  The bigger your pile at the end of the game, the more chance you had to be crowned Whatchamacallit King or Queen!

Balls used to fly long distances and in the caravan, often ricochet off the walls; there was no penalty for using whatever means, so long as your ball ended up in the hole first.  We often used to lurk menacingly on the edge of the box with our balls or hover over the top of the box with them but often this was just a threatening gesture, it was better to aim from further away to get enough pace on the ball. The pressure of the game often meant that other families on the same campsite could hear us having fun several caravans and tents from our own. We apologise for disturbing the peace…

WhatchamacallitFINALsmall

I took several photographs of the game and using a shutter release cable, hid under the table and at different angles, used my own hand to replicate the ways we used to wait for the spin of the alphabet wheel with baited breath before all hell let loose…  I then created 3 layers in Photoshop, one with the entire scene and my hand in, the other 2 layers using my hands holding the ball at different angles.  I think the picture captures the expectation, but obviously not the madness that ensured.. the proverbial calm before the storm.

Perhaps another way of creating this image would have been to get some bodies to throw in the balls from different angles. I could then have created a blur effect for the coloured balls heading into the box which would have given an essence of the frenzy that ensued… It’s sometimes a shame that photographs don’t contain the ability to include noise (although I suppose they do in the form of videos and obviously I’m aware that many contemporary artists now use a mixture of different types of media including sound alongside their digital or film photographs.)

The other idea I had was to include myself in the shot wearing a motorcycle helmet to give some sense of the sheer danger(!), but that would have moved away from the memory itself.  The other thought I had was to go to a second hand shop and try and source some orange and brown curtains, which always seemed to be part of the typical décor in the ‘Alpine’ mobile caravan of the 80s.

I am of course present in this image. The self-portrait aspect of it would be something along the lines of my competitiveness but I felt it was important not to include my face with it’s wrinkles in it of today; it is after all a childhood memory and I had no latex to hand!

The name of the image could be something like.. “Silently waiting for family carnage to ensue”… or similar.. it is difficult to think of something short and snappy for this.

I am fully aware that this photograph will appear a little bland and mean nothing to any other viewer, but the purpose of the exercise was to bring back a personal memory and for me, it does.  I have emailed the image to my sister to see what response it gets and I will update this post accordingly…

Part 3 – Exercise 2 – Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey

The brief for this exercise was to look at works by Nikki S Lee and Trish Morrissey…

Nikki S Lee

Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the people she photographs or both?

I assume that Lee invited herself into the different groups she focusses on for her ‘Projects’ series; The Punk Project, the Tourist Project etc., as opposed to welcoming volunteers to participate, so for me the level of exploitation, if there was any, relates to how Lee negotiated her ‘acceptance’.

It’s curious to think what Lee said to her subjects to be so willingly accepted into their group, despite so blatantly parodying their appearance and gestures. A typical UK response would be ‘Are you taking the p***?’ but that would be more of a reflection of our cynical British defensiveness in the face of something different and boundary-pushing.  But did the ‘Seniors’ have it explained that they would ultimately feature in an exhibition? Also what did ‘being accepted’ into a group really entail? An article on the subject by Brittany Carpenter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, suggests that Lee worked for 2 to 3 months to be accepted into each social group.  I’m sure she took time to get to know the members of the groups but what was the level of anticipation? Bingo every Weds with the Seniors? Attending gigs with the punks? Sharing the same hotel with the Tourists?  And what is her relationship with these people now? I cannot really comment on the question of voyeurism/exploitation because there are so many unanswered questions about what happened in the months before and after the images were taken, and I think this is entirely deliberate by Lee.

I don’t think Lee is necessarily wanting to make a strong statement about the authenticity of photographs but maybe she does touch on it briefly.   In the images where it is clearly plausible she is part of the group given her age and portrayal (The Yuppie, Tourist and Punk Project images above), we wouldn’t even notice her participation looking at the photos individually.  We do however question their authenticity when the photos are viewed as part of a series and it’s evident in the Seniors Project that she’s not exactly decrepit.

I would like to think that Lee is commenting on our choices in life – which sub-groups we veer towards and become part of, our need to be part of a group in whatever form, the subtle ‘uniforms’ which we subconsciously take on to ‘fit’ with that group. As a forty-something year old female who might want to be out of that ‘oh God what should I wear?’ phase of life, continues to subscribe to the Fat Face/White Stuff casual, could-be-worn-by-a-teenager-as-well-as-a middle-aged-woman style…  I would suggest that she is wanting to expand our horizons. She is telling us not to fall into an expected group as if it’s a natural course of life, but push us to extend our boundaries, maybe be more accepting of other groups on the basis that we are ourselves all made up of the same stuff underneath. I like how she has left us to interpret her images in the way we see fit.

Trish Morrissey

Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?  Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects online and make some notes in your learning log.

Angela-Reynish

The above image entitled ‘Angela Reynish’, the woman that Trish Morrissey replaced in the photograph,  is taken from Morrissey’s series ‘Front’, obviously a word play on her exploits on various beaches, swapping herself with, and wearing the clothes of, someone in the family group, before taking a photograph of that scene.  I probably would not have accepted Morrissey’s request to swap. I think it is because I’m of the generation where half the box full of photographs of my childhood were those taken at Waxham in Norfolk, camping in a tent by the dunes with my mum, dad, sisters, and smattering of our 15 cousins and various aunts and uncles. These images are sacred!  These photos would be some of the ones which would be ‘hoiked’ out in the event of a fire at the house. These are evidence of the cement which ties a family together, of the ‘always’ sunny summer holidays, and probably of our innate, instinctive protection of the family as a unit. It would have felt perverse to let Morrissey invade these images back then and in a sense it would feel equally as perverse to let her do this now:- whilst our use of photographs has changed dramatically since 30 years ago, there is still a place for these ‘historical’ family documents remaining untouched, even if nowadays they are digital and the volume of them has increased exponentially. Let us keep some things untampered with by art!

The Failed Realist

 

Pocahantas (2011)I enjoyed this series of Morrissey’s a lot more (this wouldn’t be difficult I hear you mutter…).  This was Trish Morrissey’s collaboration with her daughter, highlighting the lag that 4 to 6 year olds have in developmental terms of what she calls ‘visual articulation’ compared to their ‘verbal articulation’, i.e. their ability to paint and draw, being reliant on less-well developed motor skills.  I like how the face-painting on ‘Mum’ must have been created with a lot of laughter, mess and joy.. and the resulting Picasso-esque face is symbolic of the mother-daughter union. It’s also a statement about the submission of the mother to put the child first, of the lack of  boundaries enabling the unleashed child to fully explore, express and be messily creative etc. This series has a heart to it and  Morrissey’s rather stoic, blank expression almost emphasises the symbolic passing her creative baton to her daughter. It is effectively a self-portrait of them both.

Seven Years

April-16th-1984

I enjoyed the comical endeavour of Morrissey reproducing the photos of the 70s and 80s with her sister. Original memories and photos intact, unlike in ‘Front’ above, she sought to mimic the staging of events that warranted a family photo. These images of a laid table pre birthday celebration/cake cutting are direct replicas of tens of photos we have in our family. The 80s clothes of course verge on being a painful recollection!  Again, the sense of fun in the creation of these photographs is evident alongside the obvious effort in generating an authentic reproduction, locating suitable props etc.  I would need to bring out my wipe-clean pinafore dress, the knitted dresses that automatically rolled up above our knees at the hems that our mum using that weird knitting machine, and the brown ‘The Good Life’ crockery. The awkward ‘gangly’ teenager look and body stance was very evident in my old photos but this seems to have been lost with the passing of a generation today, so used to ‘selfies’ and being the subject of photos. These are very astute observations from Morrissey and the whole series of images made me very reflective of my own past.

Ideas – Seville and the Art of the ‘Selfie’

I travelled to Seville in February to escape the dreariness of the UK, have a short break away from work and take photographs. I visited Plaza de España in Seville on my first day in the city, a beautiful spot in Maria Luisa Park with its huge half-circle of buildings, mosaic floor and fountains. It was a sublime spot with startling green parakeets flying around catching the sunlight on their wings and the sheer splendour of the Moorish architecture.

Despite the scenery and idyllic atmosphere, I was absolutely spellbound by an Asian girl who spent at least 20 minutes standing in the mosaic square in front of the buildings, perfecting a selfie. She posed in numerous multiple positions and must have taken tens or more images of herself. I grew increasingly annoyed. “Turn around and look at what you’re here to look at properly!” I kept muttering under my breath. “How can you possibly not soak in the beauty of that sight over and above your own good looks?!”  “Why travel so far from home and then just take hundreds of photographs of yourself – save yourself a plane flight and just sit in front of a mirror?”

Was I just being a grumpy middle-aged woman a bit put out because this stunning girl was enjoying perfecting an image of herself in this beautiful location? Was I ever so slightly jealous about her total lack of self-consciousness in such a public place? Did I want to ram her mobile down her throat to teach her a lesson? Yes. Did it not occur to me that I was at least two big steps removed from this ‘selfie’ culture… firstly obviously by age, secondly because it also seems the done thing if you’re from east Asia.. the Japanese in particular seem to do this everywhere – and it’s not restricted to young people – the spritely geriatric generation are definitely doing it too.

I have decided to research more about the development of ‘selfie’ culture as a bit of research on the side within the ‘self-portrait’ section of this course.  Stand by….

Part 3 – Exercise 1 – Francesca Woodman, Elina Brotherus, GillianWearing

The brief for this exercise is to look at works by Francesca Woodman, Elina Brotherus and Gillian Wearing and answer the following questions…

How do these images make you feel?
Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?
What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?

Francesca Woodman

I think Woodman’s images are complex and compelling. It feels wrong to classify them as somehow reflecting her ‘troubled state of mind’ as Bright intimated; just because many of the images are in a surrealist style and hide her face, or use movement and slow shutter speeds to render the figures making them appear like spirits or ghosts, I would suggest its almost lazy to make a reactive, knee-jerk correlation between her untimely death by suicide and some underlying dark menacing problem that pervaded all of her days when she was alive. She was undoubtedly immensely talented and she clearly not only composed images, but intricately and intelligently planned the build of them with layers and textures and movement. I don’t think an incessantly troubled mind could have the mental ‘space’ or capacity to engage in that amount of almost obsessive effort. Her parents equally don’t see her art as a reflection of a depressive state of mind. In an interview described by the Guardian, her mother Betty says:-

“Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them.  Young people in particular think she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. They’re often funny.”

I’ve looked through a number of Woodman’s images online and three of her images stand out for me:-

The image above left reminds me of the Dutch Vermeer/Hooch paintings because of the patterned floor and the subject sat inside what could be a drawing room with the light coming in from the window. The addition of the swinging female nude is obviously where the similarities stop. I like the photograph top right as it appears that the house is enveloping or almost devouring the body, and the image below it is just quirky because of the placement of the angles of the leg, arm and mirror. So very clever!

Her photographs make me feel totally unimaginative and obvious in my photography efforts by comparison so I shall make a mental note from now on to avoid planting myself next to  photographic icons!   I liked her blunt and practical response to a question posed to her on her frequent use of herself as a model. She said “It’s a matter of convenience – I’m always available”.

Elina Brotherus

Brotherus’ images in her series ‘Annunciation’ are difficult to look at. They are desolate photographs of what the artist calls her ‘involuntary childlessness’ as she travels the painful path of repeatedly unsuccessful fertility treatments.  Her nakedness accentuates the rawness and difficult exhibiting of Brotherus’ emotions. She is clearly willing her body to change with a successful conception and yet with every image, it appears more withered and broken. I think the hardest images to look at however are the 3 images of her sitting at a family dining table. It appears to be the place she returns to after each iteration of failure. It is symbolic – a single person sat at a family dining table and returning to it perpetually. The room is also immaculate and starched, underlining the childlessness, the lack of family chaos she so obviously craves.  The archway I think is also symbolic of the religious overtones in the series.

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I can’t relate specifically to Brotherus’ pain of childlessness, although I have not had children myself, and I’ve witnessed successful attempts at IVF for friends therefore I find the images difficult to connect with. There’s is clearly an anger bubbling within the photographs and in the commentary she has written to support the series she explains:-

“The clinics don’t necessarily rectify an unfounded optimism but rather let you understand that most of the people walk out with a baby when they continue the treatments long enough. After all, they are salesmen of hope”.

To me this does extend the scope of her intention of her images wider than the pain she feels herself, to one of publicising the mental health issues surrounding failure connected to IVF. The ‘salesmen of hope’ implies peddling false promises, a less than realistic sales pitch. She clearly wants other women to understand what life is like when the process does fail.

25+My+Dog+Is+Cuter+Than+Your+Ugly+BabyIn a later series ‘Carpe F*cking Diem’, Brotherus also explains more about why she uses self-portraiture so much in her work:-

Using myself as a model , with various degrees of autobiography, is something I have done for so long that my own figure has become my tool. It’s like a word in my vocabulary. Now I use it to have a failure to have a family with kids….. I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger..”.

I cannot help but be drawn to her abrasive, political character and the name of this image ‘My dog is cuter than your ugly baby’ continues to bubble with her anger and pain but at the same time marks a sense of her leaving it behind her and moving on. Brotherus’ images are stark, with strong messages, and they unnerve you with the sheer weight of their honesty and sometimes brutality. They are difficult to digest and maybe that is exactly the way she wants it to be.

Gillian Wearing

All I can really do is admire Wearing’s tenacity and stamina. The silicone masks she used in the images depicting different members of her family, took a team of people, including a sculptor, painter and wig-maker, 4 months to create. The masks were then glued to her face leaving it red raw when it was removed. In her own self-portrait aged 17, she managed to source an authentic passport photo booth curtain and was told that it was the last one the company had. Aside from the created images, the scientific endeavour to create this images was a feat in itself and her level of perfectionism is something I think that many of us could only dream about achieving. The images show her wearing masks of her mother, father, sister, grandmother and then made self-portraits whilst wearing them. She deliberately left a bit of space around the eyes in each mask so that the viewer could ‘see the tell-tale signs‘. She believed ‘.. it holds a sense of the uncanny that makes you think there’s something more going on‘.

I understand that Wearing wanted to explore the role her family played in who she has become, but I don’t get a sense of who that person is in the self-portraits or the link she has with those family members. To me these images have the intention to shock (and they are frequently charged as being ‘sinister’) and are seeking to stand out for that reason. I find the images technically incredible and I applaud Wearing’s sheer British barminess, but for me the photographs focus on the science that generated them, rather than giving any specific messages about the subjects in them or their impact on her life. There seems to be little ‘story’ or conclusion to what the result was after this exploration of self, although this probably sounds overly critical.

By way of a summary I don’t find any photographs in the series narcissistic, no images are presented to beautify the subject as a self-portrait.  Each seems to have a separate theme which is not actually the subject of the self-portraits (surrealism, IVF failure and family history respectively), and therefore this criticism could not be levelled at any of the artists.