Hello, Art

In August challenge
August 2, 2009

Off to Vyner Street in East London today with my friend Miki to look at Art. I didn’t know until today that this street is full of pretty much nothing but art galleries. Not the Cork Street “how much for a late Lowry” kind of gallery but the new, funky kind of gallery where they exhibit things which make you think “is this art or did someone just spill a bucket of paperclips on top of a soiled mattress by mistake?”

Actually, that’s very unfair of me.  I never would have gone to these exhibitions without Miki’s suggesting it, and many of the things we saw were very fascinating.

We started at Nettie Horn Gallery, where some wonderful bubbled images by Abigail Reynolds suggested that a papery timewarp had broken out in the middle of tourist landmarks. This doesn’t look as good as it did in real life – much of the beauty was in the 3D effect.

There were also crazy, beautiful pseudo-maps by Emma McNally, which could have been star charts, or geological maps, or surveys of ‘the bombsite after World War 3.”

The most striking thing we saw at Nettie Horn was a little house made of stuck-together, sawn books, by Rosie Leventon. This, I have to say, is a case where I think the artist really hadn’t appreciated the meaning of her own work. We stayed in the room with the book-house for a few minutes, during which time everyone who came in had an instant, audible reaction. There were gasps, people going “wow” or “huh”.

This is what Rosie said about this piece in the handout:

“Made mainly with romantic and other novels, Leventon’s tower block refers to suburban social housing – symbolising a space where large numbers of people gather without however being able to see, from an outside observation, any traces of life other than small spots of light.”

Which I don’t think, all due respect Rosie if you ever read this, is what it was about at all. It was about books: how we respond to them, how we feel about them, what the symbolic power of them is. Books are beautiful, all lined up next to each other. When I first saw the house my instinctive reaction was: “oh, that would be lovely, to live in a house all made of books”. But then, when I saw that the books had been sawn up and glued together, couldn’t be read, I began to feel weirdly horrified.

I realised that I relate to books as friends [even more so because some of the books in the house *were* written by people I know, like Toby Litt and Tash Aw] – I get a warm feeling when I see books that I remember, have read, have loved. To see them unreadable, ‘dead’ was weirdly like seeing mutilated photographs of my friends.

Books are important – to me, to society – it’s very disturbing to see them treated as just a pile of wood pulp, even though I know that’s what they are.

So, I went to see some art and had a response to it! Miki, who’s doing an art degree, says that this means both the visit and the art was a success.

We ended up at the Dialogue Gallery, which was exhibiting an installation by Gerard Mannix Flynn dealing with the decommissioning process in Northern Ireland – essentially a room carpeted with shell-casings, with wooden rifles on the walls.

The room itself was strangely haunting – walking on crunching shell-casings I couldn’t help reflecting on how many bullets are created each year, how many people are shot with them. But in this exhibit, the best part of all was the artist’s statement, which I’ll quote from here:

“As human beings we are constantly trying to deal and come to terms with internalised trauma. Being unable or unwilling to resolve certain issues, we cling even tighter to them and, though we yearn for peace and rest and progress, we can’t seem to let go of that which threatens to destroy us.

“What is it like to walk away from conflict, to put your weapons beyond use? To dwell upon all the years committed to the never ending cycle of fright, fight, flight….

“Letting go is always a process of loss, a process of grieving. The dawning realisation that you cannot retake what you’ve reconciled to let go of. And the final slow acceptance that it is no longer of service to you anyway.”

I loved that. A carpet of shell-casings as physical representations of all the things we’ve done to ourselves and to others. Weapons which we have to put down. Beautiful. Art: would do again.

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