By Lucy Gardner, Assistant Curator of Fine Art, National Museums, Liverpool
This was my first experience working with and artist in residence and it has been a truly eye opening occurrence. We are extremely happy that Aaron chose the Walker to eavesdrop upon and I was pleased to be asked to facilitate the project. I could never have imagined the depth and scope of the research which was going to take place.
Over 6 months of Aaron’s visits to the Walker I have been lucky to have borne witness to the inner mechanics of the creative process, from the very beginning of his idea through its many incarnations to the development of the final magnificent performance. Indeed I feel as if Aaron has allowed me the privilege to have been surreptitiously eavesdropping on his own mind.
Every day I work among the many works of art in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection but very rarely do I get the chance to see how something is conceived and observe the depth and mass of thought that goes into creating this type of conceptual work. I had not anticipated that I would be so fascinated by the process itself but as the time approached for the performance I realised I was upset that it was over!
I think that Aaron’s working style is a reflection of his character. He is extremely contentious, never leaving a stone unturned in his quest for knowledge and understanding. In every step of his residency here he has pushed the barriers in order to find out more than was on the immediate surface. He has spent time as a gallery assistant studying visitor’s reactions to the artworks, explored the stores and cellars and delved deep into the copious amounts of information we hold on the paintings.
I sometimes worried I would lose him in the piles of paper and files, yet he would always reappear having found something I myself had never uncovered! In his quest he asked extremely difficult questions about the collection and the workings of the gallery, always wanting to find out more. I feel that through his incursion into the Walker Art Gallery my own knowledge of its collections, its history, its people and its purpose has grown hugely and I want to thank him for this.
The performance was extremely popular and each person who engaged with Aaron expressed a different reaction, from an elderly lady who informed me she wanted to tickle his feet to the student who told me the statue had ‘very real skin’.
For three days the models trapped within the paintings in our Victorian room were bought to life and visitors were able to experience the collection in a new and exciting way. The research Aaron has done has been fantastic, it will be used in the future for further talks and tours, we will of course credit our inquisitive Eavesdropper!
Self-objectification is curious thing to attempt. Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday I stood on a plinth in the centre of the Victorian Room at the Walker Art Gallery as a living exhibit. I wore a rough tunic that echoed the style of costumes in the paintings all around and added a touch of Victorian Aesthetic opulence by covering my head with fake eyes as though I was representing some mythological character or other. I named the piece Cyclodusa to indicate the mutant nature of my invention: a Medusa head of Cyclops eyes rather than snakes.
Atop the plinth I was mostly immobile, holding various poses that echoed those of the models in the 40-odd High Victorian paintings hung around the Gallery. Stationed right in the centre of the room I was the first thing visitors were confronted by when they entered. Even so, many of them only glanced past me assuming that I was a sculpture. Occasionally though, I’d shift into a new pose and people would jump back or come up to touch my feet to check if I was flesh or mannequin. The eyes attached to my head created a rather macabre effect and some people were moved to remark to the Gallery Assistant on duty on how horrible I looked and turned away in distaste. Others couldn’t pull their own eyes away and stood stock still as though hypnotised until I moved again. Most people took photos at some point, many from behind my back (I could see reflections off the paintings’ glass). Kids had to be dragged away and explanations were requested from the assistants. Sketchers set up using me as a model, and tours were conducted with tales about the real-life models in the paintings.
In this way the work became, as though reflected back through the eyes fixed to my immobile head, largely about the public’s response to the 30-eyed figure as well as the Gallery’s own operations as a public venue. For me it’s this relationship between reflection and response that is one of the strengths of performance art and I’ve often made work that, being predicated on very little physical or verbal activity, consists largely in the public’s reaction to the circumstances they’re confronted by.
Performance art to my mind is a form in its own right (distinct from theatre, dance, spectacle, spoken word and so on, that it is often lumped in with) that can work conceptually on many levels. Perhaps the most notable tenet from its classic period in the 1950-70s was to resist the isolation of art from its circumstances. Firstly, the artist was no longer mandated to produce work in isolation and ‘plop’ it down in a gallery: now, the artists themselves were inside the frame. Secondly, the conditions and setting in which the work is made and shown are not ignored; performance art is most effective when it solely belongs to the situation and time in which it is encountered. Whereas a theatre piece, for example, is produced for touring and repeating anywhere, a work of performance art is made for, and belongs to the encounter.
Perhaps more than these twin elements, the artist’s own experience of being at the centre of the work is the factor that distinguishes performance art as a particular form. If one’s own presence is essential, how are you affected? What is the process one goes through? Over the long hours of posing as the ‘Cyclodusa’ I experienced a radical separation, a ‘standing apart at the centre’ that chimes with my experience of two cultural markers that are at the centre of my work and which for me are indelibly joined: disability art and punk.
When punk swept the UK in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ infamy in late 1976, the personal release I experienced was liberating: I chose to adopt an attitude and appearance that was radically different to the uniformity all around. Later, with disability I experienced a similar effect: I could never fit in with normality anyway, even if I wanted and so, working alongside many other disability artists who shared a rebellious rather than victimised attitude was crucial. I’ve always enjoyed the conceit that disability might in fact be a question of having more rather than less personal attributes. That it might be considered a ‘gain’ rather than a ‘loss’.
And so my performance as the many eyed, omniscient Cyclodusa joined all these themes into the work and made the many long hours of being scrutinised, whilst in an ostensibly objective state, a subjective pleasure to endure.
This is the last week of my residency at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and so I’m now devising the final performance. I’ve taken yet another direction with the work but it follows on from the research I’ve done into the real-life artist’s models featured in the paintings around the Victorian Gallery (Room 8). I’ve written about them here.
I’ve decided to transpose the concept of the eavesdropper from the ears to the eyes. A common phrase concerning a painted figure is that their eyes ‘follow you around the room’. I want to echo this effect back at the paintings and so, posing on a plinth in the centre of the Gallery my head will be covered with eyes. I will pose for the public to suggest the kind of mythological figures that the Victorian Aesthetic movement was so drawn towards (Europa, Perseus, Andromeda, Mercury, Venus, Psyche et al). I’ve invented a name for my mythic invention: the ‘Cyclodusa’ is an all-seeing hero who watches over the visitors to the Gallery. Medusan snakes have morphed into the Cyclopic eyes.
To emphasise the life-modelling aspect of the work there are drawing classes to attend for which I will pose around the gallery (drawing materials provided). Other aspects of the Gallery’s everyday activities are echoed such as a guided tour that follows my text about the models in the paintings.
The performance is over three days: 10am to 4pm Thursday 15th, Friday 16th and Saturday 17th, 10am to 4pm; (with a break between 1 – 2pm).
Life drawing classes in the Gallery are on Thursday 15th 2 - 4pm and Friday 16th 11am – 1pm.
Tours by Gallery staff (30 mins): Thursday 15th - 11am; Friday 16th - 2pm; Saturday 17th - 11am and 2pm (2pm tour sign interpreted).
Audiodescriber in attendance Saturday 17th - 10am to 1pm.
Taking a year out between my BA and MA back in 1991 I chased two sources of income. The first, which I soon gave up, involved patrolling the aisle on trains between Brighton and London offering to demonstrate to bored commuters how to fingerspell their names in sign language. The process took much gurning but having got the letters over ('Joe' was welcome, 'Hyacintha' not so much), I'd accept a small donation from the chuffed, newly-initiated sign-languager and move on to another victim.
The other occupation I took up was to work as a model for life-drawing classes. I'm unsure if it was my new lifestyle as a student that gave me an aptitude for this work as I've never really been lazy as such, but it turned out that I was good at it. Good at doing nothing, without moving for up to an hour at a time. It was cold when the bar-fires blew out, but generally I enjoyed working for art schools and village classes alike, and didn't think much of being nude either way. In any case I was in demand enough to suffer a drop in income on returning to University.
The connection between these two professions was that, whereas being deaf was essential to any success as a finger-spelling beggar (I was accused of fakery a couple of times); my deafness was also generally perceived to enable me to stand still for lengthy periods.
Many a sketcher of skewed figures (life-modeling is not a job for narcissists), would approach me once my mind had re-entered the room following a blissful plunge into the sublime, to enquire (in a way that seemed somehow prurient), 'just how much can you hear'? So that I wouldn't take anything the wrong way, they'd reassure me that I was good at the job and speculate that, surely, living in 'silence' must give me an advantage over the other fidgety thud-jumpers that shared my profession?
The point I'm coming to is that in preparation for my three-day durational performance at the Walker Art Gallery (1) I've been immersed in researching the real-life models who posed for many of the paintings in the Victorian Room there. I'll offer some outlandish tales about that motley crew in the next blog but I was struck by a phrase in Wendy Steiner's 'The Model in the Mirror of Art' where she describes life models as 'professional self-objectifiers'.
Social objectification (or stereotyping) is such a hazardous aspect of the disability experience that it can be liberating to 'self-objectify' to one's own design rather than accept what is imposed. It seems to me that this is at the root of crip humour: not to try and prove that one is as normal as anyone else but to play with stereotyping in order to subvert it.
In any case, social objectification is something the disabled person may have no choice about and so might as well answer with their own version of selfhood, their own way of 'standing apart' (excuse the ambulatory metaphor). So then, I'd ascribe my success as a life model not to being cloth-eared but to the fact that I was already some way along the path of self-objectification that has led to me becoming one of those troublesome creatures, a performance artist.
Recently I was invited by Richard Wilson, the sculptor, to make a performance at the Royal Academy (2). By neat serendipity, given my current research, this was to be in the Victorian life-drawing class, a wonderfully ramshackle wooden room that once hosted the likes of Turner, Constable, Burne-Jones and everyone else who has been an RA. So naturally for this performance I wanted to take on the guise of a life-model, adopting, for the modesty of any art-kids attending, the Victorian male models' convention of wearing a G-string (but eschewing the pipe and sandals that they often accessorised with).
The sub-theme of my work was 'the life-model's revolt'; his worm-turning breakout from object-hood. I dwelled upon a friend's anecdote of the Victorian RA's poking their models with a stick to see how the muscles reacted and I thought about all the endless hours in which the models must have had no auditory stimulation other than the scratching of lead on paper. In preparation for this 'revolt' then, I grew my fingernails long over a month, sharpened them and got the go-ahead from Richard to scratch the room itself anywhere I wished: it's still a working environment and not an ossified shrine.
So for my performance last Friday at the Royal Academy I reached between the audience to scratch the wooden drawing rails with my sharpened nails, moved on to scratch a life-sized model horse, some plinths, a skeleton; before rebelliously slicing the seat of a model's chair to de-upholster its foam. Most of the scratching, going by the largely hearing audience's winces, sounded horribly cringe-making (sadly, I had no blackboard to drive the pain home) and although it was quiet, people were covering their ears. Towards the end of the ten-minute piece I couldn't help but notice that a young couple at the side of the room were struggling with a violent nervous reaction and were giggling uncontrollably. So I scratched them a little too.
1. The Eavesdropper at Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, 15th, 16th and 17th November - See Walker website for details and events.
2. 'Frog Pond Plop' was an evening of performance and video art in the drawing room at the Royal Academy, (19.10.12); curated by Richard Wilson and featuring Marcia Farquhar, Richard Strange and Terry Smith amongst others.
“Which is the bust and which is the pedestal?” (Question posed by a tourist to his guide in Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ )
And so, off for a day’s training to be a gallery assistant and (possibly) a visitor’s guide at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Turquoise-shirted, I’m on patrol with Sheila Jones; there’s fire drill, assembly points, etiquette (let visitors through doors before you), and the welcome news that “you’re not expected to risk your life for others”.
The main difficulty that Sheila sorts out, one I’m prone to myself, is that many visitors get lost since the ordering of the Gallery’s rooms does not ascend numerically so much as scatter-ways (Room 8 adjoins Room 12 [I think] and so on). Sheila’s good fun and a fount of knowledge about the WAG – she actually prefers contemporary art to the old stuff and can date the hanging of the gallery’s various wallpapers with as much accuracy as the paintings.
So then after a brisk working lunch at the Adelphi Hotel’s Sefton Suite, (an exact contemporaneous replica of the RMS Titanic’s first class smoking lounge), I head back to the WAG to ‘shadow’ a guided tour by Emma Furness. Unfortunately no-one has appeared for guidance (or shadowing) on this occasion and I’m just interviewing Emma about past lairiness that she’s witnessed when a hue and cry breaks out and she answers her flashing radio instructing us to head to Room 8.
There’s a painting in that room called ‘The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden’ (1897) by Arthur Nowell whose obituary appeared in the ‘Methodist Recorder’ of 1940 (in the WAG archive); according to which this fellow expended much of his artistic energies painting ‘many well-known Methodist ministers’. One might deduce this from looking at the vast canvas (the Times: a fine example of the larger manner) since the 'Expulsion' is attended with the loftiest, frostiest, most disapproving, plum-snooty Angel-stares you'd ever want to duck under.'
As Eve’s long silky hair unmistakably (and conveniently for the composition), shivers across Adam’s other apple, the ground ahead is all thorns, Eden behind, a-flower; but I’d keep on trucking myself, I mean what had they actually done that was so awful? And what a lot to look forward to (the models for the painting are super-buff of course!) Irksomely, one of the Angels looks down her flared nose and over her tightly-fastened décolletage in a manner that puts me in mind of that great Daughter of Methodism ‘Mrs Thatcher’ who no doubt read of Nowell’s demise in the Recorder in 1940 when she was just 16 and – one can only hope on behalf of fallen humanity – likely grappling with her own ‘Expulsions’ at the time.
So anyway, arriving at the scene with Emma, we find that a woman has removed her raincoat in front of the said painting. Her companion, a leather-trousered male with pirate curls and earrings is taking photographs of her. The problem that we have come to resolve is that the woman has no other items of clothing with her than the discarded coat, and so she is as naked as the Expulsed heroine of Nowell’s painting behind.
We have to be nice but also firm: Emma picks up the raincoat and explains that nudity is just as forbidden in the WAG as any other public domain and so can the garment please be worn again. She then asks the photographer to desist from his enthusiastic ‘documenting’ of the palaver we’re in. Meanwhile, feeling a bit ridiculous, I try to block the lewd view from the room’s other occupants: three rubbernecking schoolgirls who had been morosely sketching from Frederic Leighton’s rather hunky, foreshortened ‘Elijah in the Wilderness’.
More assistants arrive, the Eve-impersonator grins and covers up, we all shake hands and smile in the British manner and then the couple are escorted out. I follow them through the swing-doors and watch as they swagger over the road towards a parked motorbike. They don helmets and then Eve takes the gears as Adam climbs on the back. It was all really quite deliciously suggestive and I was left hoping that they were roaring off to celebrate, in a lusty, fallen way, their ‘Expulsion from the Walker Art Gallery’.
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One of the bulkier Walker Art Gallery archives – a set of three stuffed folders – relate to that evergreen favourite painting ‘One of the Family’ (Frederick Cotman, 1880), discussed in my previous posting. For the General Public this one’s got the lot: bucolic rapture featuring a friendly old horse, kiddies, granny and a rather flirty-looking yummy mummy. (Is that Eve’s apple she is tempting Dobbin with while hubby skulks in the shadows? Is everything, um, as it should be?) The critics at the time hated it: ‘obtrusive and vulgar’ from The Times being one of the kindest cuts, but I could barely pause to laugh at this before getting onto the ‘Enquiries’ folder, drool already frosted at the corner of my lips.
I wasn’t disappointed. There’s much to choose from, but my favourite ‘Enquiries’ about this painting all relate to a curious small red object lying on the family table. On balance, someone writes in every twenty years or so with an Enquiry on the subject, and here is one from 1992: ‘I have a query that has been driving my wife and myself spare over the years and that is to identify for us the reddish brown object on the table which I would place at one o’clock from the bread knife and at ten o’clock from the drink in front of the little boy. . . we will look forward to hearing from you in the hope that I can get some sleep at night!’ The Assistant Curator’s reply is a bit thin: ‘probably a child’s toy’, but the Enquirer is transported into a rhapsody of gratefulness that could have got him into the painting itself as one of those forelock-tugging lickspittles that are nowadays celebrated in Victorian bonnet-drama TV: ‘it is quite frankly hard for me to suitably express our gratitude for the trouble you took over our letter. . . your kindness that my wife and I shall long remember. . . ’ And so forth, at some length. I dunno. I think the mysterious ‘red object’ is a Dobbin-bound carrot myself.
Elsewhere I found a lengthy exchange on the authenticity of the dogs depicted in the pet-painting by Richard Ansdell, ‘Two King Charles Spaniels and their Pups’ (1842). Apparently they aren’t. From 1976: ‘the dogs shown in the paintings are NOT King Charles Spaniels. . . they are much more like Springer Spaniels.’ The Keeper was inclined to take an early bath: ‘I did not think they looked like King Charles Spaniels myself because of the muzzles, but somewhere along the line the mistaken title has crept in.’ Despite this Enquirer’s glorious victory in the pedant’s art if you visit the WAG today then the title of this painting remains unchanged, although the doggies do look a bit ill-at-ease as though ashamed to have been fingered as low canine-imposters punching above their breed.
So in this way a day’s trawl through the WAG’s archive passes in a moment. I plan to listen to many more such voices from the archives over the coming weeks and indeed the methodology of this approach (‘nosiness’ essentially), fits the bill for being an eavesdropping of sorts. To end on, there’s a sad correspondence on the circumstances surrounding the death of William Davis (the Liverpool landscapist; ploughed fields and so on). The artist died after a fatal attack ‘brought on by seeing two of his pictures badly hung’ [in a Gallery]. ‘During the fits of delirium he raved about the treatment he’d received’, and then he pegged out dead.
I’m just hoping, wondering whether this tragic endnote might spark off its own ‘Enquiry’ to the WAG: ‘Dear Sir, please could you settle an argument between my neighbour and I as to just which of Davis’ paintings were so badly hung as to cause his untimely death?’
Aaron Williamson’s book: ‘Performance/ Video/ Collaboration’ documenting his work between 2000-08, and an accompanying DVD ‘Quick Clips and Short Cuts’ are available through the Unbound on-line bookshop.
In the wildly ornate Magistrates Chambers of the County Sessions Hall at Liverpool is a room lined with filing cabinets containing the records relating to each and every painting in the Walker Art Gallery Collection. This is then, a vast archive since the works in storage greatly outnumber those on display and I’d been somewhat daunted about diving into it. But after my discovery last week of an unattributed painting of James Williamson, the ‘Mole of Edge Hill’, I read through the files of records relating to this work and hit pay dirt.
Inside the buff folder containing documents from the painting’s original bequest along with minutiae such as the history of it’s framing, was a plastic wallet bearing a sticker labelled ‘Enquiries’. This, it turned out, was the archive of all correspondence between the public and the Gallery about this one painting over the last 150 years.
Amongst the various disputes about authorship can be found an exchange between the Gallery’s then-curator (in the 1980s) and a member of the public who had taken a photograph of the left hand corner of the painting and was convinced that it depicted the signature of his Great Great Uncle. I stared closely at the photo, but all I could see was an accidental record of the camera’s own flashlight reflected off the canvas. I couldn’t make out anything that remotely looked like a signature unless the Milky Way had somehow rendered the painting. The Curator, a patient if somewhat pithy type took the same view: "I find it difficult to read the marks as a signature or inscription", before firmly stating that the correspondence was closed.
I was really taken with the tenor and absurdity of this exchange and immediately started fishing out archive folders at random and filleting the ‘Enquiries’ wallets from them. Amazing stuff. Since the Walker has its roots in populist art then over the decades, it transpired, the poor Curators, Keepers and Directors had been at the eye of a storm whipped up by that starved, feral beast of wide renown: ‘the General Public’.
Many of the ‘Enquiries’ for example, relate to the appearance, or otherwise, of long-lost ancestors in the paintings. I can’t make free with names here, but amongst the hopeful was the man who sent in a snapshot of his mother, in her eighties and happily reclined in a deckchair on what appears to be the set for ‘Carry On Camping’, claiming that she was the model for the beautiful peasant girl in one of the more famous Victorian works in the collection. Amazingly, the WAG’s Assistant Curator agreed, ("incidentally, there is no difficulty in recognising the likeness!"), but I got a strong sense that the chap was well into a white-hankie retreat from the daily round of barbs and salvos from the public by the time of this correspondence in the mid-1960s when his retirement, which he mentions in passing, was near.
Then there are the ongoing claims for ownership. In 1966 someone sent in a copy of a receipt for the loan to the WAG of one of the nation’s most inestimable treasures, (a clue: it features our greatest naval hero). This receipt, the correspondent fervently maintained, was scrawled in 1866 (by the look of it at the back of some rat-infested highway tavern), and retained by a distant forebear on his mother’s side, and in his opinion a period of 120 years was sufficiently generous a loan of the painting. He wanted it back. The letter concludes with an intricate list of instructions for its delivery to his flat in London. The Curator was not so amenable this time: ‘we would certainly not seek to return it to you’, he states with that quintessentially English note of polite brutality, ‘since the provenance of your receipt remains utterly unproven.’
(To be Continued…)
Continuing the subterranean theme of my last posting (in search of kitten paintings down in the dank dungeons beneath Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery), I decided to take an afternoon trip to the wondrously-named Williamson Tunnels on Edge Hill.
Joseph Williamson was a Liverpool tobacco merchant who’d caused enough coughing by the age of 50 to afford his retirement and pursue his lust for building tunnels for twenty years from 1820 on.
He didn’t build them himself obviously – armies of grateful yet baffled men were employed to dig them out of the sandstone. A friend of Williamson’s, James Stonehouse posted a review in 1846: "the tunnels appear to be utterly useless... stupendous works without perceptible motive, meaning, reason or form."
I’ve had raves like that for certain of my endeavours in performance art and it’s always nice to be understood. But Stonehouse had a point. You would think it was easy to continue digging a tunnel: you have the basic shape overhead so just keep pushing forward with the spade, right? Well, not with the Williamson tunnels.
As the guide led our small hard-hatted group through, over and around the tunnels it soon became apparent that the man who designed this warren had anticipated the work of MC Escher a hundred years early. There are tunnels inside tunnels. Wide, low arches abruptly collide into tall thin ones and vice versa. They don’t even do this in a straight line, but haphazardly mutate at strange angles, off-centre, or why not – continue a storey up or down (access fans – this place is not good).
No-one truly knows why Williamson devoted his later life to building the tunnels. He was married to an artist (who shares her name with one of my sisters, Elizabeth Williamson); there’s an unattributed painting of the great man in the Walker collection and I’ve chosen to believe that his wife painted the likeness which Williamson wrote on the back of the canvas shows him ‘half-seas over’ – ie, drunk. I was looking at the painting for some time to see whether, aside from an appearance of inebriation, there was a family resemblance between us but decided there wasn’t.
I did, however, make some tunnel-art of my own a few years back in rural Italy that shared a certain aesthetic of futile labour with Ol’ Joe’s work. So it’s nice to have a possible ancestor who understood the uses of performance – that pointless, brilliant, infuriating medium – as long ago as the 1820s. Joseph Williamson ended up with various nicknames awarded him by his army of confused tunnellers who knew nothing of what their endeavours were aimed at: ‘The Mole of Edge Hill’, ‘The Mad Mole’, and my favourite, ‘The Troglodyte King’. He wore the same patched outer-clothing year in and out, but was always fastidious about his underclothes which were ‘of the finest description’. Mmm. And he attempted to carry his horse to church on Sundays in return for his own carriage during the week.
I like this story too from David Bridson’s Life of JW: ‘...a lady was sitting in her drawing room when a hole appeared in one of her walls. Workmen appeared and proceeded to fit a doorframe into the hole while other men made good the damaged wall around the frame. Williamson himself appeared in the new doorway and asked if the adjacent room would not make an admirable nursery. . .’
I definitely aim to incorporate some elements of this bright-star character into my eventual performance at the Walker gallery. Whilst reading the archival history of the unattributed painting of Williamson, I discovered an analogous form of tunnelling – through walls of filing cabinets – that took me back to my previous theme of clairvoyancy...
Down in the Walker’s art dungeon’s we quickly decided to disqualify proud bloodstock and hunting hounds from pet status and my three investigators spread out through the cages flicking lights on and off in search of kittens and lapdogs, budgies and parrots. Golly, I’d accept a tortoise or even an ostrich if it looked tame.
When I was very much younger my family frequented a beetle-browed dentist - a quite terrifying man when his mouth-mask was raised – whose surgery walls were hung with just the kind of saccharine Victorian study that I’m now looking for. The one that’s really stuck in my eye, even 40 years after a particularly memorable molar removal, was of a couple of kittens fighting over a thread of wool (in a friendly way - no blood, obvs). I’m pretty sure that it was a Victorian original and not an ersatz dopey-eyed 70’s pastiche since the kittens didn’t look quite right, as though the artist had heard them described somewhere, like Durer’s rhinoceros or Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘boneless’ elephant.
Meanwhile, back in the cages, the haul of such painted pets was a little disappointing, truth told. There was one of a fluffy little Pekinese sniffing nose-to-nose with a horse, another of various mutt-species falling over each other orgiastically in a barnyard, a creepy painting of a cat snuggling up to (or preparing to scoff) a chicklet. But a version of what, to me, mentally conjures the Victorian sentiment most acutely, the ‘Kittens at Play with Wool’ study, there was none. (Yes, I know about Google image search).
I can’t say with any certainty where such speculation is leading me artistically, only that I’m fascinated by the notion that, as testified by the title of a painting by Frederick George Coffman in the Walker’s Victorian Gallery showing a horse’s head poked through a window to eat at table, animals had come to be considered by the Victorian age as ‘One of the Family’ (1880). It’s this hinterland between official human-family status and something other, some creaturely being that is tolerated only for acting cute and cuddlesome that tickles my crippled funny-bone, so I’ll keep pushing for a while yet. One of my regular collaborators, Simon Raven, is currently executing a series of pug-dogs (in oil on canvas like,) so I may have to saddle up the livery and head over to Camden (where he is the current ARMB Bursarist) in my two-by-four carriage to ask him for some elucidation on the subject.
Meantime, I’m dreading the axe-fall text to ‘El Sordo’: ‘can you help me to reach my little Trixy? I so much need to hear her purring in heaven. . . .’
Aaron Williamson’s book: ‘Performance/ Video/ Collaboration’ documenting his work between 2000-08, and an accompanying DVD ‘Quick Clips and Short Cuts’ are available through the Unbound on-line bookshop.
I’m back on the job at the Walker Art Gallery via a stopover at Supernormal Art and Music Festival to perform with the cosmic band Flat Soufflée. (They’d decided I’m some sort of divinity and after forming a white-garbed cult, invited me to lead them around the festival as a well-refreshed wandering minstrelsy. The highlight amongst many japes was a hastily composed ‘Eastern’ chant that we embellished with dramatic prostrations in front of a roasting hog about to be served up to a salivating queue. As might be expected, many visitors to an alternative Festival, vegetarian or not, have some notion of karmic payback since the queue visibly dwindled when we howled as the knife slit the pig. . . .)
So returning to more sober environs and picking up from the previous blog, I’ve planted a card in a nearby Liverpool supermarket advertising my services to the public as a clairvoyant in preparation for ‘eavesdropping’ on the paintings in the Walker’s collection. (If you’re new to this blog then I’m afraid the only way to make sense of that sentence is to read the previous post. I can’t face visiting bereaved, broken-hearted people to see whether or not I can ‘hear’ their dear-departed since I know that the chances of this occurring in the absence of any experience, training, willingness to fake, or indeed, hearing, are mighty slim. So instead I’ve put myself forward as a freely available (‘absolutely no payment!’), dead-pet clairvoyant going under the Goya-esque nom-de-mort, ‘El Sordo’. I’ll have to invent the methodology of this niche operation when and if the occasion arises (do I ‘hear’ barking and purring? Cuddling? What do chameleons sound like?); but so far the advert has been up for 48 hours and no-one’s texted me yet.
This proposition is not merely a dilettante amusement. The Walker collection includes many paintings featuring pets. Most of these are not in the Victorian exhibition rooms themselves, but to be found deep in the bowels of the building, in a labyrinth of arched, frigid storage cellars. So when the two Ruth’s, Gould and Adams from Dada Fest - who, along with Niet Normaal commissioned this residency - paid a visit to my Judge’s chamber, I insisted that, led by the Walker’s assistant curator Lucy Gardner, we head down into the cellars in search of painted pets.
The main non-displayed paintings are kept in a huge warehouse, (stuff like: crowds of angels puffing their cheeks at some biblical dudes shivving each other etc); but the juice is hung in cellars that, curiously are divided into rows of cages. This mesh of dim caverns is reminiscent of some Vincent Price-patrolled dungeon with head-smacking pipes hung barely five feet from the floor, the dark recesses made barely visible by light-bulbs whose glass was blown way back when 5 watts was an imperial measure. It was here that I was hoping to find a whole host of ex-pets cruelly captured in oils and then banged up in this afterlife of infernal cages. As we stumbled along, arms aloft for obstacles, I was sure the clairvoyance was kicking off and that I could hear whimpering somewhere. . . .
Cont’d on Blog 3
Aaron Williamson’s book: ‘Performance/ Video/ Collaboration’ documenting his work between 2000-08, and an accompanying DVD ‘Quick Clips and Short Cuts’ are available through the Unbound on-line bookshop
It’s been two years now since I was last a-blogging for DAO during my time as the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursarist for Shape at Spike Island, Bristol [Read Aaron's previous blog here]. I’m now artist in residence at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool as part of the coming Biennial and the invitation to write again for DAO has arisen. Last time, I used the activity of blogging as a useful medium for reflection and speculation away from the crucible of, um, doing stuff, and I’m hoping that the magic will return once more.
I could hardly be in a more contrasting environment. Whereas at Spike I had a large, windowless studio-cell crammed with tools and junk, here I am ensconced in an oak-lined chamber in the County Sessions House neighbouring the Walker. I get here via a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that join the two grand Victorian buildings, passing through prison cells, around ornate staircases, along marble halls and through the eerily bedimmed, disused courtroom to reach the room. I am its sole occupant and have learned that the room’s original use was as a Judge’s chamber for the donning of wigs and stockings. The urge to call for a butler to crack open a bottle of jurisdictive port, to light a fraternal cigar and sink back in a leather divan is always with me, but I am in fact here to work on a project that sports a working title: ‘The Eavesdropper’
Firstly though, I have a bit of form with Liverpool and most of my record involves art-crimes on behalf of DaDaFest – the annual festival of deaf and disabled artists led by Ruth Gould out of the Bluecoat Gallery. This year’s DaDaFest includes the groundbreaking exhibition Niet Normaal and one of my video works, ‘Barrierman’ is in it. I mention this not as a plug for the piece, but because it was my first public (street) performance in Liverpool, some three years ago now. I followed that piece up last year with ‘The Feral Four’, a Beatlemania tribute that involves four artists screaming hysterically at the audience whilst dressed as 1963-style poptastic band ‘The Beatles’, who had some sort of connection with this city. ‘The Feral Four’ have a shifting membership depending on who can fit into the suits, but on the occasion of DaDaFest 2011, I invited Simon Raven, Sinead O’Donnell and Alex Oddy to join me as Ferals led by a Svengali-like cravat-sporting ‘manager’ performed by Laurence Harvey. We even staged a bed-in during the afternoon to drum up interest in the screamathon itself and generally had a hell-raising time.
This performance is a useful link to reflect upon (it was also performed at Spike Island’s open studios evening at the end of my residency there), since the Walker Gallery has always maintained a strongly populist outlook. It gets amazing audience figures each day of the week. According to one of the information panels in one of the Victorian Rooms, the curatorial premise for collecting works has always been to purchase ‘works of popular character to give great pleasure to the numerous visitors to the Gallery who are uninitiated in the higher forms of art.’
This unabashed populism isn’t the be-all of the Walker. ‘High art’ exhibitions of Picasso in 1933, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Paul Nash in 1934; and now, yours truly (hoho), have also been staged but the Gallery contains many canvases such as W.F. Yeames’ ‘When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (1878) that, being unafraid of sentimentalism, perform that evergreen populist ingredient known as ‘telling a story’. I’m here, ostensibly, as a listener, an eavesdropper, to hear or invent such stories around and between the painted figures in the Gallery’s collection, and to see what I can construct out of them.
I’m currently toying with the idea of offering my services as a free private clairvoyant in some kind of preparation for the artwork proper, but stay tuned for whether or not that happens. It does sound ill-advised.
NOTE: a book arising from my ARMB Bursary, ‘The Forgotten History of the Affligare’ is being published by Spike Island and launched at the Bluecoat Gallery on August 22nd as part of Shape’s Symposium of the Adam Reynolds Bursarists.