I wrote this essay before Christmas for the Constellation Formative Assignment. It’s the beginning of an investigation into philosophical and ecological ideas which I hope to develop into my dissertation proposal.
This essay is a proposal for an exhibition: an outdoor installation which explores ideas surrounding relational ontology and ecological aesthetics in order to create an experience whereby the audience’s wellbeing is improved through a raising of awareness of their place in the meshwork of existence. Cut off as we are from our roots, our relationship with the natural world, the planet and non-human agencies or ‘estranged from the stars’ as David Abram so poetically puts it, I am interested in art’s power to ‘renew some of those bearings, to begin to recall and re-establish the rootedness of human awareness in the larger ecology’ (Abram, 1996, pg.261). I have placed myself in the role of artist-curator; the exhibited sculptures will be my own but I am also considering how the work will be experienced in a meshwork of space, environment and human interaction: ‘It could be said that the role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or objects), space, and audience’ (Smith, 2012).
The curator has a responsibility towards society. They have the power to enrich our lives through presenting us with artworks and objects in such a way that we question our way of life and consider ways we could live better. In Terry Smith’s ‘Thinking Contemporary Curating’ he describes a core question posed by curators through the ‘Be(com)ing Dutch’ project of Netherland’s Van Abbemuseum which was ‘whether art can offer alternative examples of thinking about how we can live together today… to put ideas of cultural identity under pressure and examine the process of inclusion and exclusion in the world today’ (Smith, 2012, pg.213). I intend to question our cultural identity and the way we live by taking a critical stance of our current fast pace of life, using this exhibition as a means of slowing down the pace at which the viewer interacts with the artwork and creating an environment that aids contemplation and creates an experience of stillness. Mindfulness as a means of introspection and creating a heightened sense of awareness in the present moment has been a crucial catalyst for my thinking through this project.
The practice of mindfulness appears to be becoming ever more popular in our ever growing, complexing world where people are realising there is truth in the saying less is more. Even Cardiff School of Art and Design is offering mindful meditation courses on Wednesday afternoons. Mindful practice and meditation are described as attempts to alleviate suffering and mindlessness in everyday life through ‘a form of self-regulation of attention that is ‘present-orientated’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.139). Mindful practice that advocates sitting still for long periods of time can be extremely difficult for the uninitiated though. Sitting alone at length to contemplate the inner workings of our own minds can make for uncomfortable but invaluable journeys since ‘stillness produces an existential gap that most people try to avoid by continually talking, thinking, watching TV, checking their berries and tablets, or listening to music’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.145).
Our current society’s interest in finding deeper meaning in everyday life may have origins in the Slow Movement of the mid 1980s which began as a protest against multi-national food companies and became a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better (Wellesley-Smith, 2015, pg.12). It has now become an International campaign, a kind of revolution against our ‘roadrunner’ existence with spokespeople such as Carl Honore advocating the abolition of slow as a taboo, dirty word with connotations of laziness and stupidity, and progress towards a philosophy of ‘good slowness’. The origin of the problem may lie in our approach to time: ’In other cultures, time is cyclical. It’s seen as moving in great, unhurried circles. It’s always renewing and refreshing itself. Whereas in the West, time is linear. It’s a finite resource; it’s always draining away. You either use it, or lose it (Honore, 2005).
This motif of the circle is recurring in describing a certain approach to life and philosophy. Gaston Bachelard in ‘The poetics of space’ devotes an entire chapter to ‘The phenomenology of roundness’. An article in Australian Ceramics quotes from Michael Leunig’s book ‘The Curly Pyjama Letters’ ‘What seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’ (Leunig, 2001). This metaphor of the day as a container with an inside and outside brought to mind ceramic vessels and was an idea I kept in mind when creating my recent ceramic sculptures, all of which began as circles, rotating lumps of clay on a potter’s wheel. Roundness, cycles and circles especially have recently become integral parts of the work I make, the centrifugal, balanced force of the spinning potter’s wheel being ideal in creating these symmetrical forms. There is something universal about the spinning of a wheel, synonymous with the spinning of our planet and the cycles of our solar system. On our timescale of human existence we perceive time to move linearly but it appears cycles are ubiquitous.
The sculptures I intend to exhibit follow on from this thinking about time, space and balance. They are abstract compositions of wheel thrown forms constructed together by hand, a process in itself which explores the slowing down of the pace of making; while forms on the wheel are created quickly, the stage of splicing these together is slow, contemplative and requires constant adjusting and consideration of balance: ‘The speed at which we do something – anything – changes our experience of it’ (Freeman, 2009). The sculptures are all currently about 30-40cm in length but for this installation I envisage them to be enlarged to about 2m high. Five of these enlarged sculptures, cast in bronze, will be displayed together in the centre of a wide open space in an inner city park, within easy walking distance of nearby shopping centres and offices. I want this cluster of sculptures to be a place of refuge and calm where people can come to sit and contemplate the park in peace when the stress of navigating the centre of town has become too much, somewhere office workers can come to eat their lunch. The number 5 has a special significance in Japanese philosophy as it is situated in the middle of the first 9 numbers and hence marks the centre. In many Japanese dry gardens, rocks are arranged in patterns of 5 (Berthier, 2000).
Jane Edden’s ‘Post Secrets’ public art project has inspired the philosophy which underpins this interest in slowing pace. Explaining the hollow bollards around Cardiff’s St David’s Centre in which she has installed tiny scenes of people, she explains they are intended ‘to be little moments of calm so that when people do bend down and look inside they completely enter another world’ (Edden, 2010). These surprise glimpses into another world momentarily take us away from the noise and colour into a black and white stillness. An important part of my sculptures is that they act as windows onto the surrounding environment, tools which the participator can look through. Holes and openings in the forms will draw the viewer’s attention to the surrounding landscape by framing it in new and unexpected ways. The intention here is to highlight how all our experiences in life are framed subjectively though angles of perspective, that our experienced reality is different to that of anyone else’s. Hepworth described vision as not sight, but the perception of the mind.
The idea of framing the landscape is way of challenging our perception. By drawing a box around a section of three dimensional space we are rendering it into a flat image of two dimensions. I hope to give flesh to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas surrounding phenomenology (phenomenology being ‘an effort to describe the world as we subjectively experience it’ (Abram, 1996, pg.36)) with the hope that by giving the viewer these different frames with which to experience the surrounding landscape, I will provide a space in which it is possible to meditate on our own bodies as subjects of awareness, ‘recalling us to our participation in the here-and now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand’ (Abram, 1996, pg.47). The paradox of looking out of a window is that often it is not done to discover what is going on outside but rather to find out what is going through our own minds. We gaze from windows to daydream, for a moment of stillness in a busy day. It is not really an action, more of a state of doing nothing. My argument is that this time is precious and valuable. If more of us spent more time staring out of windows instead of mindlessly going about our everyday activities, the world may be a better place. We would take time to think of our actions, to prioritise and consider what is truly important in our lives. I hope the windows in these sculptures have the similar effect of turning our gaze inward by looking through and outward, creating a space to experience a focused stillness an a more deep connection with the artwork.
The sculptor Barbara Hepworth described our interactions with sculptures almost like pieces of performance art in themselves. Performances are planned or conform to rules to some extent just as our interactions with displayed artworks conform to what is deemed suitable or normal by society. The use of negative space in her sculptures can be linked to a phenomenological and holistic approach of the human viewer connected into a wider framework that includes space, material and environment in an enmeshed experience: The integration with the landscape – one of Hepworth’s abiding concerns – is made actual by these openings, through what she termed the viewer’s ‘sense of participating in the form’ (Bowness 1971, p.12).
By enlarging my sculptures so that people can sit on them and climb through them I hope to encourage playful interaction with the art and a greater sense of ‘participating in the form’, bringing about a kind of ecological awareness of how human and non-human agencies co-exist and have effects on each other. By using the outside space I hope what Tim Ingold describes as ‘a dance of agencies’ becomes part of the work over time – the waring away of the ground where children climb on and off the sculptures, the way puddles form inside them and grass grows up around them will all be unpredictable but will illustrate the way an object belongs to the environment and time as much as the artist.
A description of this enmeshed approach comes in an interview in ‘A Brief History of Curating’ where one of the curators explains ‘It was Duchamp who said that it is the viewer who completes the work of art. I think he meant it profoundly, he meant it in every sense. So that says to me that it’s not just numbers, that you need to connect more people with more works of art, but you need to connect people more deeply with works of art’ (D’Harnoncourt, 2008, pg. 192). D’Harnoncourt goes on to explain that in today’s world the internet has a powerful role in connecting people more deeply with artworks. Museum and gallery websites can let us browse collections from the comfort of our own homes and provide us instantly with an abundance of information. This is wonderful and enriching from a museum’s perspective but for the purpose of my own installation I hope to connect people more deeply with the artworks by disconnection from the distractions of the internet, phones and social media. Because of this overload of technology we are never caught up with our own lives or sat alone long enough with our thoughts to really feel stillness. Scientific studies have proven that we take in as much data today as Shakespeare took in in over a lifetime and research into interruption suggests it even takes 25 minutes just to recover from a phone call (Iyer, 2014).
As a result, the setting where these sculptures are situated will be a deliberately wi-fi free zone. This is not a Luddite attack on technology. It is a hope that through temporary disconnection from the digital ‘cloud’, the public can connect more deeply with the physicality of the sculptures and environment surrounding them and feel a greater awareness of the materiality and thingness of the objects by paying attention to light, sensation etc. which ties in with Djikic’s reasoning in earlier paragraphs. It is revealing that ‘many in Silicon Valley observe and “Internet Sabbath” every week, during which they turn off most of their devices’ (Iyer, 2014, pg.43). We are never truly alone when we are with our phones, which most of us carry everywhere. Privacy and solitude can be difficult to find in the city, from my experience, especially living in shared accommodation and sharing a working environment so I hope this is something this installation will accommodate.
My desire to exhibit these objects outside also came from research into how museum and gallery environments influence our experience of collections/art. Thinking about how art can be used to heal or improve our wellbeing, it was first important to understand the ways museums and exhibitions can sometimes lead to mindlessness and stagnation through a concept called ‘museum fatigue’. Bitgood argues that museum fatigue is caused by not one but many (at least seven) overlapping phenomena. My understanding is that this state is more of a mental fatigue than a physical one although walking, bending and stretching can contribute to overall tiredness.
One of the contributing factors is satiation: boredom caused by a decrease in attention because of repeated exposure to similar stimuli. Information overload where the viewer finds a decrease in their ability to process information because of an overwhelming amount was also credited. Similar to this is a phenomenon called ‘object competition’: ‘The object competition effect can be defined as a decrease in attention resulting from simultaneous presentation of multiple stimuli.’ (Bitgood, 2009). Objects compete for attention with other objects. Perhaps this is similar to the stress many people feel confronted with in supermarkets when there is so much choice the experience becomes stressful. Interestingly Bitgood also mentions the peer pressure and stress we feel in an exhibition/museum environment to respond in a ‘correct’ to the exhibits. Do we worry that we haven’t spent enough time viewing an artwork, feeling that we are being judged by others?
The writer Victoria Coren-Mitchell describes her experience of this self-consciousness in art galleries and the worry that she is not appreciating art properly, in an article in the Guardian: ‘I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about.’ (Coren-Mitchell, 2016). I believe this feeling that art is for ‘others’ and can’t be enjoyed without prior specialist knowledge is not unique to the author and is shared widely by the public. Coren-Mitchell also states that the best thing about art galleries is ‘the cup of tea afterwards. Its taste is improved by a sense of achievement, of a well-earned rest, of something done.’ By placing my sculptures in a park, a public place without the connotations of a white gallery wall I hope to remove this self-consciousness. My aim is also to alleviate the feeling of worry that the art is not understood and communicate that art is for everyone, not just a select minority. This is an attempt to shift our perspective of seeing art as something you ‘do’, as an action, to a more present orientated perspective of ‘being’ with the artwork in an environment. In galleries we are so often moving on to the next painting, the next room or space that we do not experience much art in stillness.
Feeling judged by others when interacting with art can be stressful; what about stress caused by too many decision making processes, even if they happen to be trivial? In his talk ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz describes how ‘we mistakenly believe more choice evaluates more freedom therefore better welfare’ (Schwartz, 2005) but studies have shown that in fact, the opposite is true. Too much choice can be detrimental to our wellbeing. Firstly it produces paralysis and secondly as a result we are less satisfied with the result of the choice. In today’s enormous shopping complexes, the chaos of brightly coloured objects and choice can be overwhelming. Uniquely, in ‘Tiger’ stores in the UK, the shopper is fed around the shop in a one direction maze, limiting the decisions that must make about which direction to move. The Danish Flying Tiger store website states that the ethos is of the store as a ‘treasure hunt’ or ‘a playground’ which encourages surprise encounters with objects as you turn a corner. I don’t know if the intention was to limit the choices we must make but it certainly changes our shopping experience.
By having a small number of artworks, on and around which people can sit, eat etc. I hope to encourage a deeper connection with the individual sculptures because there will be less choice of things in the environment to focus on. I want the public to feel something of the deep connection I felt with a particular painting on a college trip to Brussels Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago. Since sketching was not allowed upstairs, we spent most of our time on the ground floor hall where there were only a handful of statues and large paintings with large open swathes of space between them. As a result, I spent a huge amount of time in front of a single particular painting called ‘The Fountain of Inspiration’ by Belgian symbolist painter Constant Montald. As a result I felt an unrivalled appreciation and connection with the painting and painter which has left a memorable imprint. Sitting still is underrated. ‘It’s only when you stop moving that you can be moved in some far deeper way’ (Iyer, 2014). I hope to encourage a similar spacious and calming environment around my installation so the sculptures can be experienced intimately from the inside out: ‘By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere’ (Abram, 1996, pg.49 or 270).
Considering in more depth the space in which these sculptures will be exhibited, I have researched the philosophy surrounding Japanese Zen gardens which emphasise minimalism as well as balance between human control and the wildness of nature. This might be viewed (phenomenologically) as balance between human and non-human agencies. In ‘A Brief History of Curating’ Anne D’Harnoncourt describes the curator’s desire ‘To give people contemplation space – a space that would be both beautiful in itself and lead to interaction with the art.’ The environment sets the scene for the artwork so it is important for my purpose that the space aids contemplation. Works of art extend into their environment.
The courtyard in the centre of the Victoria and Albert museum in London is a good example of a space that creates a sense of restfulness and help give visitors a break from the huge amount of information they must deal with in the museum itself. The open green space has a large but shallow paddling pool in the centre. As a result the paving stones do not go directly through the middle of the courtyard from one part of the museum to the other via the quickest route. Instead, the visitor must walk around the circumference, thus slowing down their pace. We only notice the language of space when it has been abused (Lawson, 2001, pg.6) similar to how I described earlier in ‘Tiger’ shops. How then could I slow down the pace with which the viewer encounters my installation, slowing them down and bringing them an awareness of space and the present moment before they are even close to the sculptures? I might place the sculptures on a small island surrounded by shallow water where you must reach the centre by means of a one way pathway that runs circles around the middle.
An alternative to displaying the sculptures would be to house them in a pavilion like structure. This way levels of interruptive sounds from the outside e.g. traffic and building work could be controlled. At the Kroller Muller Sculpture Park in the Netherlands, an ambiguous structure called the Rietveld Pavilion (so called after its designer Gerrit Rietveld) houses a number of Hepworth’s sculptures. But perhaps ‘houses’ is the incorrect word since the pavilion itself has neither inside nor outside space. Instead it is a series of walls and alcoves, a structure that has no interior or exterior. This idea of blurring boundaries between inside and outside space has much in common with traditional Japanese homes and tea houses which promote a closer integration of humans and the natural world.
Encouraging looking at art from an ecological perspective is more important today than ever. Abram (1996, pg.28) describes our society’s current disconnection from the natural world: ‘To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence-by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.’
In summary my proposal is for a phenomenological installation which promotes a closer relationship with ecology and environment. I hope that through the presentation of the artwork considered as an experience in a meshwork that includes space, time and environment, the audience’s perception of themselves in relation to other objects and beings can be challenged. My intention has been to design an anti-museum fatigue experience whereby the audience, after experiencing the artwork feels an improvement of wellbeing because of a sense of participation in the present moment. I believe that this experience would promote a space for meditative and healing stillness in our otherwise hectic lives.
Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon Books.
Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.
Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the Rocks – The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden. Chicago, Ill. : University of Chicago Press
Bitgood, S. (2009). Museum Fatigue: A Critical Review. Taylor and Francis Group, pp.93-111.
Bowness, A. (1966). Barbara Hepworth: drawings from a sculptor’s landscape. London: Cory Adams and MacKay.
Coren-Mitchell, V. (2016) Yes, great art. Can I go now? The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/04/art-bores-me-glad-other-people-like-it [Accessed 01. 12. 2017].
Djikic, M. (2014). Art of Mindfulness: Integrating Eastern and Western Approaches. In: Ie, A. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons, pp.139-146.
Honore, C. (2005). In Praise of Slowness. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/carl_honore_praises_slowness
Lawson, B. (2001). The Language of Space. Oxford: Architectural Press.
Obrist, H.U. (2008). A Brief History of Curating. Zurich: JRP/Ringier.
Putnam, J. (2009). Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium. London: Thames and Hundson.
Smith, T.E. (2012). Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York: Independent Curators.
Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice
Wellesley-Smith, C. (2015). Slow Stich: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art. London: Batsford.