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.

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