Monday, 12 April 2010

Trouble At Mill, Part 5: Proceedure

This is a very short, quick post to say that I have now filed a formal complaint to Bradford Museums and Galleries. My email and attached letter have been received and read and I've received a sort of 'holding' reply, saying that it would be looked into as 'a matter of urgency.' I suspect the writer may very well feel a sense of urgency. I would in her position, but I have a feeling she's going to find a colossal amount of resistance. I know the curator / exhibitions officer did. I have a feeling that Cliffe Castle has been the way it is for donkey's years and they damned if they're changing anything.
I, meanwhile, am investigating Article 19 which, in 2008, launched Artist-alert, to support artists around the world who are being threatened or whose work is being threatened. Most of these artists are in real danger. I am not. No one is sending me death threats. However, Article 19 is interested to hear about all instances of censorship and understands it to be indicative of a potentially threatening situation or emerging situation.
In their own words:
'ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works around the world to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.'

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Trouble At Mill, Part 4: The Fog Thickens - The Full, Uncut, Story

It is April 8th. Shattered has been in Cliffe Castle, Keighley and open to the public for a little over two weeks now. I said I was cautiously optimistic about the censorship of Princess Hymen and, as it turns out, both caution and optimism have proved well founded.

Princess Hymen, I’m happy to say, has been included. About this I was optimistic. She is not, however, visible from all angles. About this I was cautious. The viewer can see only one side of her. Below, pictured with me, is what is visible. To the left is the side you can’t see.

As I said in the piece two posts below, I was advised that PH would be excluded on grounds of, ‘the title and clear vagina imagery.’ In the second email that I wrote to the curator I observed that neither of these two ‘reasons’ given are, in any real way, reasons. The reason is, surely, something to do with the way they understand their audiences. Such decisions as these are usually taken on grounds of either morality, or decency. The fear is that someone or some people will be offended. But, to date, no reason other than the one quoted has been offered, or not officially anyway. I have not been included in any discussion and it is only because I pointed out that they had used an image of PH in the publicity literature and suggested that they didn’t know what the pot actually looked like at all, that it was agreed that the she should, after all, be included.

When we started to install the pots, I remarked to Dale, the conservator who was working with me, that PH was the one that ‘they’ had wanted to withdraw and, given that no further discussion had been had, beyond the concession to include her, it might be best to display the ‘least controversial side.’ This remark depends, of course, on who is defining the controversy. I pointed out that there was no vagina imagery and that what the image concerned was based on an Ingres painting which includes a peacock feather fan, (see below). To this he replied that there was a ‘very conservative mosque’ in Keighley. This is point where the Yorkshire fog thickens. I had until this point, heard nothing about a mosque. I didn’t really want to take the discussion any further with Dale because it was not the moment and, anyway, he is the conservator, he has nothing whatever to do with exhibitions policy. At least I don’t think he does. He continued, though, saying that it wasn’t the imagery they objected to, it was the writing…’They thought you were being critical of their culture.’

I politely observed that, in this particular piece of text, I was critical of British and American foreign policy and the double standards in some UK public services which are passed off as a response to multiculturalism even though they’re manifestly an example of racism. ‘I know,’ came the tired reply.

We did leave it at this point and I resolved to take up the issue with someone sometime, but not before I left Keighley and not before the opening. The priority, I felt, was to get to pots safely positioned and the pieces in place. Given the obstructions I had already encountered, (see post below), this was a tall order in itself. I had no intention of adding to the already demanding and nerve wracking nature of the work, besides which, I still had to work out who on earth I should be talking to.

I still have not, at the time of writing this, broached anyone at Bradford Museums and Arts but I am gearing myself up to it. The reason it is taking so long is that the situation I am attempting to deal with is so unclear. Is there a mosque involved or not? Is this, as I suspect, a ‘let’s blame the Muslims’ way out of an embarrassing impasse? Has anyone actually asked anyone at this mosque what they think? I doubt it. Does this mosque community regard itself as conservative? What constitutes 'conservative' in this context anyway and can it be considered representative of the population of Keighley? I chatted to plenty of Muslim girls while waiting for bus, they didn't strike me as even slightly conservative. So what was the original objection? Some kind of bourgeois misogynist exercise in protecting the lumpen proletariat, poor simple-minded souls that they are, from the decadence of the metropolitan arts? Well it would certainly be in keeping with nature of the Castle but why bring artists in at all in that case? Why have ‘museum interventions?’ And whose exhibition is this exactly – mine or theirs??

Turning to the display of Shattered itself. Yes, it does LOOK fantastic. But…Decoration is a primary narrative tool for artists. It is used variously to subvert, to satirise, to generate social and political commentary and critique, it is used as parody, a kind of self-irony, its own function to embellish and to charm is turned on itself and used to tell difficult and wretched stories, those for which metaphor must be found. Here, in the showing of Shattered at Cliffe Castle, the decorative nature of the work really shines, but it has been robbed of meaning, its stories have been brutally silenced. Or they have for the time being anyway, unless and until I can change the situation. Shattered is a response to women’s stories of surviving sexual violence – yet again, these stories have been suppressed, sanitised, violated.

Just before Easter, a few days after the show opened, I received a copy of a letter sent to the head of Museums and Arts at Bradford MDC complaining that the work could not be properly seen - much of it, he complains, is obscured. The writer is the Rector of Bolton Abbey, the father of one of my best friends, with whom I stayed while installing Shattered. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. I had no idea he felt so strongly about this. I was astonished that he had written. I was astonished and pleased but also saddened that he felt the display amounted to an ‘assault on their purpose.’ He had been able to find the meaning, purpose and narrative of the work from reading the catalogue but not, of course, from looking at the show itself.

So, I hope to find at least some remedy to the above situation by providing explanatory notes for the audience. I am, once more, cautiously optimistic but I’m not as optimistic as I was though. There is a nasty whiff of that suppressed, buttoned up, bourgeois violence hovering over Cliffe Castle – but let’s just hope I’m wrong.

I don’t expect the red carpet treatment. I don’t expect anything much, but I do expect at least a modicum of respect, of acknowledgement, of understanding and of appreciation for the work I’ve done, the effort put in and the many years research and experience that goes into a work like Shattered. I know that the cost of travelling to the museum and the time spent installing the work is done at my own expense. I do expect some appreciation of this however. I got a thank you from the curator and an enormous amount of support from Dale, the conservator, but from the others I got a mix of anxiety, grumbles and outright hostility. This is inexcusable. On the matter of money, the only opportunity I get to receive any revenue from this kind of show is through the sale of catalogues. This too was obstructed. Far from facilitating their sale, I was asked to provide complimentary copies - at my own expense of course. Given the paucity of response from the staff at both Cliffe Castle, Cartwright Hall and the department as a whole, it seems that the least they can do is to show the work and its narrative fully and honestly. Make no mistake, I am a very minor artist with a very very slender reputation. Cartwright Hall, however, is a Museum with celebrated international reputation and should be able to treat all the artists it works with respect no matter how magnificent or lowly we might be – or why bother inviting us at all?

There is much to learn from this confused mess of clandestine gossip, deceit and dishonesty. There are also some significant issues that artists might want to consider about the vexed question of museum interventions. For me the main one is, as stated above: whose exhibition is this exactly – mine or theirs?? Originally, back in November 2007, I sent an exhibition proposal which was, as I understood it, accepted. So I thought it was my exhibition, hosted by them, and therefore, as with all exhibitions, a joint venture – but an agreed joint venture - a collaboration. The answer to this should help to provide a pathway to the answers to many of the other questions. For the time being, however, this show would appear to be theirs and very little to do with me. I am, as I said earlier, the ‘necessary evil,’ the inconvenient artist, there to service the museum. I really should have known my place and stuck to the tradesman’s entrance.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Trouble At Mill, Part 3: Breaching The Ramparts

Front entrance and tower of Cliffe Castle

Five Giant Pots Take Trip Round England

On March 23rd Matt Fairley came with his truck and crane to collect the pots - all five of them - in their telephone-box sized crates, which stand upright in the back of a van or, as in this case, on an open wagon attached to the truck. They were strapped in and covered with tarpaulin and, to the best of my knowledge, made an uneventful journey to Keighley from London via Salisbury and survived several torrential storms en route. I learnt that, collectively, they weigh about a tonne. I have also learned from this experience that their packing system is pretty secure. The trolleys still move about a bit when inside the crates, so need to secure the wheels better and allow for upward shock which I think is still rattling them a bit and causing the odd one or two pieces to come adrift during transport but, considering the distance they travelled and their oddly circuitous route, they did brilliantly.

Two pots arrived unscathed this time, two only mildly scathed and one, Dancing, with one giant piece adrift. This poses a problem: its immense weight and height, combined with its inherent precariousness, make it extremely difficult to reposition correctly. Thankfully, god invented conservators - Dale Keeton in this case - who settled the piece to exactly the right place and pretty much saved the show.

Shattered still wrapped in grand Victorian drawing room

From Tardis To Toad Hall And A Journey Into Wonderland

I'm beginning to think that Wind In The Willows is in fact some great satire on life in the arts in the 21st Century. Time and again I find myself in Toad Hall type situations with a cast of characters which almost always includes The Badger, The Rat, Toad, and a collection of extras from Alice in Wonderland and, this time anyway, from Beatrix Potter - appropriately. A more Toad Hall kind of venue than Cliffe Castle would be difficult to imagine. A mighty, late Victorian pile outside Keighley, away from the hoi poloi, it was built in 1828 and later acquired by the Butterfield family and rebuilt in the 1880s to a much grander scale to display the wealth and status of textile magnate, Henry Isaac Butterfield. It was at this point that the lavish chinoiserie and twirly french furniture, grand romantic landscape painting and marble copies of Cuipid and Psyche moved in. Toad would have been in his element. Sadly however, Toad, on this occasion, was not present, unless I've mutated into Toad, but I think I was closer to Svetlana, who's really more of a weasel and who also belongs there too in a way - see post for August 2009 - and I was very much missing my co-stoat/weasel, Hossein, my much valued helper at these times. I certainly felt consigned to the tradesman's entrance - a 'necessary evil,' the inconvenient artist.

I arrived in Keighley Castle the same day the pots arrived. We started to unpack immediately and move them into the SENSATIONALLY, almost absurdly lavish, 'grand Victorian drawing room,' all recently restored to its former glory. The manager of the Castle, we'll call him The Badger, did not seem pleased to see me. He seemed even less pleased when the five pots were rowed up in the splendid room dressed in their bubble wrap and he began to fume, visibly, when a million polystyrene baubles escaped and multiplied all over the grand Victorian parquet floor. By the time the bubble wrap started to come off - and this is when the condition of the pots really becomes apparent and the pieces start to leap out all over the place - I really thought he would spontaneously combust.

Cliffe Castle, through the trees, late March 2010 with bank of crocuses

A moderately large piece from the upper reaches of Dancing was the first to part company with its pot and fall crashing to the floor where it broke into a million tiny shards and frightened poor Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, the exhibitions organiser, half to death. I'm really more frightened of people getting injured and, in Cliffe Castle's grand fancy rooms, I feared for the furniture too. By this time, I really thought I was dead meat – the Badger was baring his teeth and snarling audibly. He then demanded and audience with Dale, (Ratty), and Mrs Tiggy Winkle and thus deprived me of the help I desperately needed to the extent that he seemed to be sabotaging the show - which would have been an extraordinarily self defeating act but there's no accounting for public sector Badgers, they're a breed unto themselves. Word on the gold-plated, silk hung rococo(esque) corridor is that people are in line to lose their jobs in the Bradford museums and arts department. Taxidermy, I suggest would be a good solution. There is a very fine selection of stuffed beasts in the ballroom. One more would never be noticed, surely.

Perhaps Mrs Tiggy Winkle suggested it. She told me she’d ‘had words.’ With the Badger. Whatever passed between them I shall never know. I know only that a curious transformation occurred the next day. Inexplicably, the Badger was suddenly overcome with paroxysms of joy. The show, largely thanks to Dale-the-conservator – looked FABULOUS and the Badger knew it and showed it to visitors on open day with considerable pride.