Tuesday, 16 December 2008

From Coventry with ambiguity

Still to-ing and fro-ing. Slept a mere two hours last night, set the alarm for five am, got to the station by 6.15, bought the ticket, waited twenty-five minutes for the train listening to Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, train comes, change to Ely, wait another half an hour, hop on train to Birmingham New Street, thence to Coventry. JS meets me there and we walk about fifteen minutes to The Herbert Centre, where I find my Power Point Presentation is utterly vacant. Empty. Zilch. I strive quickly to prepare another at the suite of computers there using internet image sources, but that doesn't work either, so come 12.30 I am in the lecture theatre with no visual material, to talk about the work of artist Ana Maria Pacheco. So OK, I'll just talk for about forty minutes and ad lib my way through, and because I am good at that sort of thing, and know AMP's work well, it all goes remarkably OK, though I am constantly asking the audience - about 25 to 30 people - to imagine this and that, every so often opening the book I wrote about AMP and showing pictures to them. Of course it would have been better with slide images, they know that and I know that, but I strive to give value. In any case the whole subject is exciting, bursting with life.

Everyone seems generally happy with this odd blind-tasting of a lecture, then we go and see the exhibition where the centrepiece is this:

It is Man and His Sheep, the polychrome group of carved figures of 1989, the work that first witched me. Those are real teeth, and the eyes are of agate. The figure in the swimming trunks and swimming cap - but it is more Egyptian than modern - is the Man, and those plainly-dressed, cloaked, middle class women are the Sheep. They are life-size. Their clothes are hacked and gouged with chisels, but their faces are polished and seamless. They have lost, wicked, hopeless, intrigued, familial faces. They stand about not quite knowing what to do, but the leader in his swimming trunks holds aloft his ram's head staff and you know he can command them.

This is a narrative, but it is one I am making up, as by invitation. It is not the narrative given, because the narrative given is not fully given. It is ambiguous. Those large heads, narrow shoulders, short arms and delicate feet and hands, suggest childhood, but the faces are ancient and adult. Is the leader in fact leading? If the title were not Man and His Sheep would we think of sheep at all? The women don't look like sheep. The title too is simply an invitation.

Everything is given but nothing is explained. That's how it should be. That is the secret of its power. The whole is in fact magical theatre, solemn, frightening yet absolutely still. Nothing there to harm you. The group sings silently. It is a kind of growly nachtmusik they sing. In the dark - and I suspect they should be seen in the dark - they'd loom at you like fun-fair figures. They are, like most fun-fair figures, the marriage of the baroque and the naive -fetishistic. And I can say all this about them because the group springs one into words that spring as naturally as plants do.

AMP's later work is more didactic, more codified, less blunt. It is, in my opinion, weaker for that, but that's just, like, my opinion, man. In the eighties and nineties she was making startlingly original art of great scope, something way beyond the smart kids Emin, Hirst , the Chapman Bros and the rest. Not only sculpture but painting and print and book and drawing, all wound together around motifs that surface and vanish only to surface again. They are singing works, the best kind of work.They fill the world. They don't kill the space around them as friend SF says about work by Hirst, they make the space denser, which is the way I like it. That is what visionary / instinctive ambiguity does for you. It thickens life.


Poet in Residence said...

They are looking at each other as if they are about to follow the leader, as sheep do, but the one at the back with her hand to her mouth may not follow. She has serious doubts about this leader with his ram's head staff and his bloodstained arm. She fears, not for herself, but for those other sheep, those lambs almost, who will follow him. But will the leader notice her absence and will he return for her and bring her, as it were, back into the flock. The answers seem to be yes and no, in that order. It's very good and evil.

Poet in Residence said...

For me, it's much stronger and far more sinister than what I call Hirst's famous shark in a bottle I have to add.

George S said...

The evil is hard to isolate but it is in there. It doesn't dominate though, but is simply woven in with everything else: humour, lostness, anticipation, nostalgia...etc.

Poet in Residence said...

As you say its evil is 'woven' in to it. A good word choice since we are dealing here with sheep. It's found via the red/black motif, the blood and shadow effect.
You first notice the obvious reds, perhaps the sharp spear of the red stick, then maybe the leader's undershorts, his bloody arm, his red nipples and then you find the red on one of the sheep, the one with a red scarf, it looks almost as if she has had her throat cut. It's damned good.