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Common Sense

Detail of a person in a space suit, the American flag reflected in the visor.

Whitey on the Moon (detail) by Ben Cove. Oil and Spraypaint on board.

Common Sense is a pioneering series of events, organised by West Midlands Disability Arts Forum (WMDAF). It asks questions about context and identity - amongst other things - and gives disabled visual artists the opportunity to talk about their work to mainstream arts professionals. Tony Heaton had a hair-raising experience in the Ikon lift, but lived to send dao this report.

Common Sense 2, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 20th June 05:

The day event, introduced by Alan McLean, Director of WMDAF was to provide a debate and insight into disability and the visual arts. In his introduction Alan talked of the importance to engage with new work, and new practitioners, to make sure this happened. WMDAF drew together an interesting and diverse set of artists to show examples of - and to discuss their work and methodology.

Ben Cove

First up was Ben Cove who had graduated from Sheffield Hallam in 2001, after first studying architecture. Slides gave a flavour of his work. When questioned about Disability Arts he stated that his early work was angry, then more measured, using Disability but recognising that Disability was part of his life, not all of it. As with many disabled artists he had exhibited at LDAF, giving him an insight into the issues. He was also a board member of Full Circle Arts in Manchester.

The paintings Ben produced at the end of his degree were seven feet tall and on wheels - a practical solution for a wheelchair user. This enabled him to manoeuvre the work around the studio. As a consequence they were exhibited like this. A predominantly non disabled audience may have seen this way of presenting painting as inventive rather than practical. Nevertheless the work attracted attention. Its content was the appropriating of other peoples images - especially superman and other 1950s comic strip heroes. The idea of superman and then the actor Christopher Reeve as disabled icon and high profile in the media, with its confusion of tragic/brave and hero/disability reference is rich subject matter. For me it was the structure of the painting, rather than the content, with these tall, narrow canvases that was engaging. The background towers upwards whilst the action is centred within the frame of vision from the perspective of a wheelchair user.

Ben has recently been granted a bursary to stay and to work in the ACME Studios in London. This presents a real career opportunity. I was uplifted by his optimism and the quality and rigour of his work and was reminded of why we had been campaigning for all those years. It was good to start to see the benefits.

Wolfgang Temmel

Wolfgang Temmel might be described as one of the first wave of disabled artists - process driven, conceptual. His experience resonated for me, especially when talking about the paradox of non-disabled artists creating art and disabled artists taking part in therapy. He used an example describing a review of his work by an arts historian/ journalist who dwelt on the notion of Wolfgang's impairment and the need for assistance. Yet when comparing Wolfgang's work with another artist (non-disabled) who had used a tiger skin within his work the question of whether the artist had shot and skinned the tiger did not arise. It's the same old story, care and control verses choices and autonomy. If Wolfgang had needed a tiger skin, the author would have emphasised his inability to shoot it due to his impairment!

In 1981 Wolfgang Temmel constructed a full-size sculpture of a ramp. The work won a major art prize, when exhibited up against what was, until then, an inaccessible doorway. The ramp was mysteriously moved without the artists' permission, and described as dangerous. Furthermore the authorities said it was unnecessary as they had installed a proper ramp round the back with a bell - so someone (non-disabled) could come to help. The question then being, well is it art? (It had won a prestigious art prize,) Or was it a ramp? If Wolfgang was not a wheelchair user would the question be asked? Is he an artist or a social agitator?

It was interesting to contrast the struggles of the 1970/80s and the echoes of the British first wave movement with Wolfgang's experience in Austria, to think of connections with the artist Josef Beuys and the notion of social sculpture, to muse that the path for Ben had been eased by the activists who had faced so much resistance, prejudice, oppression and disbelief. Yet, instinctively I know there will still be a struggle, and that the battle has yet to be won.

Katherine Araniello

As if to answer the silent rhetorical questions that arose from Wolfgang's work, we were shown a new film by Katherine Araniello The Interview like all of her work is witty, engaging and well observed. Katherine is interviewed about her work by a image conscious girl in pink, (Daddy got her the job, you know how it works…) All the stereotypes are here as the interviewer preens herself in the monitor, checking her image, saying yes and no - she hopes in the right place.

Whilst not listening to Katherine's answers to her increasingly banal and offensive questions - you know, the ones we all get asked, along the lines of Johnny Crescendo's where did you get that leg? It echoes the refusal to take us seriously, and the assertion that our accolades are driven by pity. Until finally the interviewer asks You don't have hope? - but, I won't spoil the punch-line for you, go and see it!

Anton De Clunes and the ghosts of Eric and Ernie were somehow present in this film though I am not sure why I think that.

Common Sense 2

A group of people are stood around a cross which appears above the head of Jesus.

Still from The Staircase Miracles by 15mm Films, (a collective of disabled artists). Katherine Araniello plays Jesus.

Juliet Robson and Jordan McKenzie

Juliet Robson and Jordan McKenzie did a kind of double act, discussing issues of collaboration. They had lived and worked together and that familiarity, the un-finishing of each others sentences, the assumption that we knew what they were talking about because they did - and perhaps the fact that I was unfamiliar with their work - meant that I was often unclear about the projects they were describing.

The images they showed were much stronger than the words and I would have liked to see more. There was also little time to explore what they were saying through questions. Alan had packed a lot in and we were running over time. The handouts described Juliet's work. I wanted to see her tragic opera, to experience the tuning of piano strings and architecture. Perhaps next time?

Aaron Williamson

Running throughout the event was a new installation by disability video/performance collective 15mm films, formed by Aaron Williamson who spoke about the development of the project The Staircase Miracles. The installation also presented a documentary directed by Simon Raven, which features revealing interviews with the participants of the project. Go to for details.

Vanessa Clark

The last presentation I saw was given by Vanessa Clark who, like many artists, struggled sometimes to put into words what she wanted to express through her art. Her images spoke for themselves, miniature chair forms… not knowing where the support is coming from… family, friends, comfort/ fragility. She said the work was not about disability but about the interpretation of it. It included visual descriptions of how things feel. A series of photographs took the reality of thousands of cable ties and somehow transported that image to say something very powerfully about muscle pain and the hidden aspects of impairment. The qualities within the work suggested Gormley or Boyd and Webb. From September her work will be on show at the Solihull Arts Go and see it.


What happened to the access anecdote I hear you ask? Well, the Ikon is an interesting space. But for some reason those that needed to use the lift to access the first floor were overruled by the lift mechanism. It lurched past the first floor and juddered to a halt at the second, regardless of which button was pressed. There were those on the ground floor waiting to go up. And those inadvertently on the second floor waiting to come back down to the first. Whilst I cower in the corner of this glass cube, nursing my vertigo, trying not to think of how the clear glass shaft is secured to the outside of the building… Is it irrational, or is it commonsense?