ArtRooms London 2018: An exploration of Human Experience and Responsibility
Working with Artrooms London 2018 as a curator and member of the selection committee has been such a wonderful and inspiring experience. The meaningful connections made span the globe and have only enriched each others work and lives. Here is my essay published in the exhibition catalogue and also on the Artrooms website (https://art-rooms.org/).
The nature of human experience has been alluring and provocative to artists throughout the centuries. The history of intellectual and artistic exploration of this subject has time and again proven to be both excitingly fruitful and simultaneously ephemeral and intangible.
Each of the artists I have worked with for Art Rooms London 2018 has opened my eyes in new and unexpected ways. They have taken me to different worlds of understanding. Each artist very distinctly demonstrating the way in which they experience the world and their relationship to it.
This has been an exciting journey of discovery for me and one I am gratefully privileged to have undertaken. I would like to now introduce to you the ten artists I have worked with, each with an inspiring vision and transformative skill. Allow yourself to be transported into these worlds and ways of thinking and you will leave seeing everything a little differently.
Meng’s work hovers in the liminality between figuration and abstract gesture. This ‘oscillation’, is concocted from his marrying of components that would usually seem at odds with each other. He works to “draw out the specific moment when comprehensible figures and forms immerge from amorphous mass”.
As you move through the artworks, familiar gestures of human anatomy emerge from his dreamscapes. His work is always borne out of fiction but maintaining a corporeal quality. The effect- a powerful and rich imagined mixture of disconcerting dreams and clinical reality.
Painting with traditional Chinese painting techniques enhances the believability of the forms. The traditional and earthy textures provide a natural and tangible suggestion of the liquid and sinews of our own anatomy. We want to believe in the new worlds his work opens to us.
His work transcends us to a privileged position, a portal to new ways of seeing our own reality – like peering through the lens of a microscope for the first time. He makes us see ourselves within his fiction. It’s beautiful that something can feel so intrinsic to one’s self and be born out of a fantasy.
“Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it.” – David Hume
Shivangi’s work is concerned with her relationship to environments, and specifically that of the city. She cuts through the bustling repetition of everyday city life in the simplicity of her work. She encourages the viewer to pause and reflect on their movements and reactions to space- a twenty-first century Flâneur. Her city movements are conscious but unplanned, experiencing everything with a curious gaze.
It is through her body that Shivangi absorbs the space around her, like a lens for a focused and almost meditative sensory exploration of her surroundings. She speaks as if this is both a serene experience and confrontational and neither positive or negative; just an open and honest exploration.
“The body and the space supplement and define each other. I confront the city with my body. My legs measure the length, my hands touch the objects, my gaze wanders around the space, my body feels the temperature, my nose smells the surroundings and ear listens to the sounds.”
She translates her multifaceted relationship with space into her two-dimensional surface giving room for the mental response just as much as the physical.
The use of repetition of the female form makes us question the idea of the individual and how they relate to the crowd. Breaking down the bustle of city inhabitants into a rich tapestry of individual experiences, thoughts and sensations.
She questions modern life and brings forth the individual humanity out of the blur of the vascular city.
Jessie is inspired by mountains. She lives within the Austrian Alps and is always exploring the environment. She sees herself primarily as a painter of light and shadow and of the fluctuating weather atmospherics. Her work can be serene and quiet, but also moody and dramatic all at once.
Her aim is not to present the mountains in a hyper-realistic way but in the way that she experiences and relates to them. Expressing how they speak to her and how they relate to her own life experiences “…like painting the soul of the mountains.”
Jessie paints on an un-stretched canvas, revelling in the imperfection and randomness in its materiality and behaviour. This mirrors the seeming randomness of the mountains own composition and the ruggedness of their appearance. Her work is not an idealised celebration but a raw, rugged and respectful translation of their essence. They are beautiful but with a dark and dangerous side that is strong and commanding.
She uses a variety of materials like charcoal, graphite, ink and acrylic built up in a complex fashion like the palimpsest of weathering seen in the mountains surfaces.
Today she works in almost monochrome, with the addition of coloured hints. However, her work is ever evolving just like the ephemeral mountains environments that she is inspired and repeatedly drawn into.
“Art is a basic human need, a basic human activity, it is what makes us human and offers us the tools to become ourselves. In a time when we are mad by the lure of false desires and the promise of objects of consumption, art can be a free and open space of experiment and experience” – Anthony Gormley
Kuniko is a Japanese artist who began studying traditional Japanese wood carving techniques and throughout her career has infused this practice with new technologies such as laser cutting.
The individual components of her pieces have perfect clean edges but when put together they evolve into beautiful undulating natural forms that seem to grow and wrap around their soundings. The forms are suggestively naturalistic but undefined. Therefore, viewers can have very different impressions of them from strong shells and tree bark to delicate beetle shells and wings.
She is fascinated by the life and journey of her materials: paper, leather and fabric. Sustainability and other environmental concerns influencing her choices. For example, how paper begins as a tree before being transformed into a manufactured product. She is conscious to continue this journey regularly using recycled materials and rekindling their raw nature through remoulding them.
“By exploring the possibility of materials and their unique properties, I allow the materials to speak and embrace abstraction.”
The underlying drive for her work is to explore the connections between nature and humanity. How we manipulate and perceive material and form around us.
Jake Lee creates his own dreamy dimensions and surreal landscapes using collage. He carefully dissects magazine images and illustrations reminiscent of the modernist visual styles like that of Dadaism but with a twist of 1950’s exploration and science fiction. He creates his own reality by escaping the rigid framework of existence to find a space that is more truthful to him than those confined to the framework of reality. Striving to depict what he sees beyond the physical world.
In his 20’s Lee found himself with cases of magazines, notably that of national geographic. The pages were bursting with inspiration for his dreamscapes. His works are a manifestation of his own dreams and thoughts, in which he questions the theoretical constructs of life and reflecting on his own social, political and environmental experience’s.
He describes his work as one of opposites where he interrogates the boundaries between disarray and harmony, deeply thought provoking and alluring.
Working with Jake has been a delight. He is so enthusiastic towards immersing the audience within his own realities and it has been very exciting to use paired sound clips with each piece for a truly transformative journey through his exhibition.
Yuet Yean Teo
Yuet Yean Teo’s ‘Swing’ series is rich with meaning and symbolism. The act of swinging is often seen as one of play, and not that of serious travel. You may move back and forth in the liminal area between falling and flying, but you are also rooted to a fixed spot.
However, she harnesses this device to express how she feels about her own relationship between tradition and modernity. Her woodblock colouration and style reminiscent at times of the masters like Hokusai while her injections of painterly gestures, drips and splashes pull us back into contemporary art. She defines her painting style as a fusion of traditional Chinese Painting ‘freehand style’ or ‘literati painting, with western oil painting techniques.
In the 21st century many of us similarly feel that we are traveling on a swing, rooted by their own sense of self but pulled back and forth from tradition to modernity; from work to pleasure and countless other examples. Finding the midpoint is often not an idealistic balance but a swing back and forth over that middle threshold according to the moments demands.
The swinging figures in her pieces are very active, they contort and flex their body to induce the pendulum movement. They are all very involved in keeping that momentum going.
Her works are also deeply inspired by the Chinese concept of Ying and Yang which relate to traditional Chinese belief of the circle representative of the sky and the square representative of land. Even the shapes of her pieces are symbolic of symbiotic opposites.
Her work is a narrative on how she sees the world and her journey through life.
Jerome Chia-Horng Lin
“I love to create that which calls into question our perception of reality and of ourselves.”
Jerome had been a practicing and well-established artist for some time before he began his ‘Water Project’. He tells of a time when he was traveling with students on a tour bus. The rain was falling on the window that he was peering out of. As he peered out into the world he found it transformed through the vivid sparkles of light contorted and bent around the droplets on the glass. The beauty in that moment has fuelled a long project where he has become fascinated by the effects of light and colour on liquid. He celebrates the beauty in something that is so simple to our everyday lives but so crucial and necessary to sustain all life.
“The deeper I tap into the topic, the more discovery I obtain via the process. Water represents the magic substance to communicate between material and spiritual world. I create art using the concept to depict many content I want to convey. It lasts more than I think. I still enjoy ideas about water. For me, it’s about the self-awareness and the conversation with the outside world. It’s the core of my water project.”
Yuki blends the delicate material of paper with a bold and thoughtfully confrontational graphic style. She overlaps text with imagery to question our perceptions of self. She sees the power of words to be extremely evocative within her visual messages. Words for her have a unique power, they “…are beautiful and cruel. They have the power to save, change and kill people”. She describes words as powerful tools that are sometimes underestimated and misused. But that there is an optimism that we can change ourselves by choosing to use them well. It is an impowering statement of human opportunity, but one that comes with responsibility.
Eyes are often portrayed across cultures as portals to the soul, Yuki replaces them with words. This elevates the power of the word but also de-personalises the subject so that it could be anyone.
“If the words in the artwork personally resonates in your mind, the person in the artwork can be you.”
“You should not play with the fire or you will get burnt”
Kaori’s grandmother used to warn her while she was lighting the incense in their family home. It was in early 1970’s at the end of summer in Tokyo; we did not yet have air conditioners, but each household had a TV, washing machine and bright fluorescent lights in every room. The smell of the incense lit to deter the mosquitoes filled the room as an electric fan slowly moved the air. But I was not paying attention to her, toying instead with the matches, lighting one at a time for no reason.
“The fire has a compelling attraction. It is not only beautiful to look at, but also it has the power to destroy.”
Kaori’s work emits a warning to us all, that thinking we can harness and control such powerful natural forces as fire is a hubristic endeavour. She sees our existence balanced on a knife-edge. That we blindly toy with our own mortality through our consuming behaviours and hubris towards harnessing the power of nature.
This series of work by Homma is born out of her concern and struggle in dealing with the notion of imminent catastrophe, and the invisible threat in the landscape of post-2011 Fukushima Nuclear Fallout Disaster. She is interested in expressing human fragility. Her work is not simply lamenting the fleeting human existence but also questioning our inability behaviour and responsibility to the world and each other.
The medium that Kaori uses is closest to a Japanese scarlet letter writing technique called Aburidashi, more recently coined “fire etching” by the royal academy.
The process involves composing an image with lemon on paper which only becomes visible from the subsequent burning of the page. Her works are born out of their own compositional destruction.
“The key for me to use fire is not as a ‘natural’ process but rather silently violent process which we may not see on the surface but causes damage within the structure of paper itself. “
Kaori’s work has an eerie and ephemeral tone to it, the images appear calm and void of movement but so clearly full of the echoes of life and recognisable modern living. She has grappled with the idea of her work being ‘beautiful’ which has caused her work to sit in a state of haunting serenity.
“I do struggle with the notion of beauty which haunt my works, and always have an urge to go step further to destroy my works, but I am not ready to let it go as I think this precarious and dangerous mixture of distraction and beauty is where the reality we live… but we also see beauty of humanity flickering often in unexpected places.”
She explains that humans have always played with fire. That we are drawn to it due to the virtue of being human, our curiosity and innate creative drive to investigate and invent. She sees this intrinsic part of our own makeup as having driven us down a path of destruction. We have used fire to invent some wonderful and some deeply terrible things.
“On 16th July 1945, in a remote part of New Mexico, under the codename of “Trinity”, the first ever nuclear device was detonated. And, as you all know, Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed shortly. If the story had ended there, we could happily be closing this discussion here and now. But even after witnessing the devastation of two cities where at least 200,000 people’s lives were abruptly taken, somehow not only did we not stop and think before investing more in this suicidal weapon, we have managed to ensure the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. As a result, we now have this incredibly dangerous and problematic “fire” 1000 times bigger than Hiroshima bomb. Literally thousands of them.”
She admits that she herself did not listen to her grandma’s words of caution during her childhood, and that her work may be also sadly prophetic to future pain and destruction after warnings not acted upon.
“The problem for me, as a little girl in early 1970’s in Tokyo, was that we had never experienced war, and we enjoyed the flawless supply of electricity for our house, refrigerator, washing machine and TV. The transport was seamlessly run and there was absolutely nothing to suggest that we should not take it for granted. Every possible advancement of technology was there for us to take, including the nuclear technology.”
For Kaori the feeling at this time was that the bad nuclear technology was now made “good” through new technology and had been harnessed to spread peace and affluence in the world.
“With the advancement of technology, we thought freedom was ours and playing with the “fire’ was not something we worried about. Tokyo was a buzzing city with light irradiating as though each corner of the city was Piccadilly Circus or Time Square. No one ever talked about how many nuclear power stations were operating to supply our endlessly lit beautiful experimental disco nights. We were all too busy – falling in love, falling out of love, making art, and living.
And yet, I knew something was askew. As a young art student in 80’s, I used to question our over-consumption of resources and worried about my artwork adding to the burden on the already-going-out-of-control world ecosystem. I made artworks with great care by choosing recyclable and non-toxic materials, often dealing with subjects relating to these concerns. Tokyo’s endless nights of lights and parties also worried me. But even with my questioning mind, what happened at Fukushima in 2011 was totally beyond imagination. We never thought anything as bad as that was going to happen to us. The bad things belonged to the past, or somewhere far away like those troubled parts of the world – but never us.
Mr. Kan, who was the Japanese prime minister at the time, disclosed later in a BBC interview that, at one point during the crisis, they were thinking of evacuating Tokyo itself. It is completely mad to even contemplate to dislocate a world major capital city with 13.5 million people and all the financial/political headquarters within it. Anyhow, they did not move Tokyo in the end. Nearly 165,000 people were evacuated from Fukushima and nearby regions and still, to this day, 5 years later, nearly 100,000 are living as evacuees.”
Kaori’s work and the events that have fuelled her work serve as a powerful reminder to the responsibilities that we have towards ourselves, each other and the world that we live in. Sometimes it is easy to ignore these responsibilities, but the consequences can be tremendous for us all.”
Chitra grew up in India she moved to the UK to study where she first discovered print making and feel in love with the medium. Much of her work us rooted within her Indian upbringing. She sees this reflected in the use of colour as a metaphor and landscape as an allegory.
Her works use ancient Indian locations, the layering process of screen-print transforms them into landscapes with a “life and logic of their own”. She sees screen-print as a medium of limitless possibilities through how the colours are layered and interact with one another. The medium also offers a distinct ability to layer tone, line and texture. Her works may mainly be concerned with architecture, but she allows nature to creep into her compositions through the inclusion of leaves and other found materials.
“At its heart, these works embody deeply felt responses to colour as seen through the eyes of India.”
To close this corridor of exploration, discovery and epiphany brought to us by the artists of this group I would like to invite you to contemplate your response to each of the rooms. I have found that working with this collection of artists with experiences and cultures spanning the globe has been refreshingly readable from my own experiences. It has reminded me that even if we seem worlds away from one another we still have out humanity and our curiosity in common.