Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Empty Shops

In the heady days of the sixties, with ‘happenings’ and impromptu exhibitions in far-flung redundant industrial buildings that then no one wanted, the artistic enterprises survived in a mad mix of experiment, innovation and indulgence. Even London’s Roundhouse, then run down and dilapidated, was occupied by avant-garde performance and arts groups. The hard-edged eighties brought an end to such freedom. Today the situation has shifted again. The ‘credit crunch’ has resulted in many empty shops premises as retailers have been forced out of business by the economic downturn.

All of which makes the recent pronouncement by Hazel Blears, Communities Secretary, about proving funds to help people to temporarily convert such empty shops into such things as ‘community projects’ or even short-term businesses, too good to bypass. As temporary art places – for the whole range of visual arts – they could be effective in moving art/craft out of the gallery and into the High Street, introducing the work to a new audience. Galleries brighten up the street, avoid grim-looking and depressing empty premises, and are a good thing all round.

Check out the website:

Report any success or comments.

Breath of the Spirit

‘The work of the artist’, wrote John Maynard Keynes when setting up the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946, ‘is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him.’ It is a thrilling assertion of the idealistic role of the artist in a modern, civilized society, evoking an unfettered freedom that is both inspirational and challenging. Today, such high-minded views may seem out of touch, too idealistic for a more earth-bound society, yet they still convey some of the key aspects of the life of the artist. ACGB did not specifically include the crafts in its remit, though it did not preclude it. Retrospectives of Bernard Leach and later Lucie Rie were mounted at the Arts Council’s London gallery in the 1960s. The crafts came under the Board of Trade and received government support for its ability to generate income and, more importantly, exports. What if ACGB had consciously embraced all the visual arts rather than focusing on painting and sculpture? Craft would have developed in a different way, maybe freer from the ghetto many see it occupying. The ‘breath of the spirit’ is there but sometimes it takes some finding.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Porcelain Project

After sitting through one and a half hours of The Porcelain Project at the Barbican Theatre last night I doubt if I will ever look at a porcelain – or, in this case, a bone china vase – in the same way again. The Belgian dance/performance group Grace Ellen Barkey & Needcompany filled the stage with hundreds of porcelain objects, mostly abstract-type vases but one or two teapots. The six dancers, some wearing what looked like space saucers, danced around, lifted up, moved and occasionally smashed pieces of the porcelain forms. The tale, of couplings and uncouplings, involved much simulated hetero and homo sex as well as much interaction with the porcelain. The soft tinkling of china fragments gently bouncing off each other was pure magic, as were some of the sequences. The strongest of these were the couples, where inventive choreography created both sensuous and crude interactions. Perfect timing, close contact and controlled movement conjured up the power of human relationships.

With no identifiable narrative, other than images of the real and the imagined, The Porcelain Project moved from sheer delight to moments of ennui. Within the performance I am still working out the role of the porcelain, though responding to its fragility and strength, its pure white translucency and its often phallic shapes seems relevant. The mixture of the surreal, the absurd and the silly made for a memorable, if over-long performance, but as Grace Ellen Barkey notes, ‘the spectators themselves have to decide the purpose of it all’.

As an alternative to the merry junketing at the International Ceramics Festival, Aberystwyth, I think The Porcelain Project could well find a place in the programme – a welcome broadening out of our understanding of the interconnectivity of the arts.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Shakespeare in Clay

The hunt to find an accurate image of the Elizabethan wordsmith has taken on a new urgency. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently put their faith in a portrait of what it claims to be the ‘only authentic image’ of the great man. Hot on its heels comes a recent find of a 16th century fragment from Beauvais featuring the image of a man with a ruff (above), found on the site of the Tower Theatre in London. Shakespeare is known to have performed at the theatre between 1594 and 1597, and Romeo and Juliet was probably premiered there. The pottery fragment, with its crazed glaze, could be almost any male of the period but whether the bard ever got to Beauvais and impressed the potters with his skills seems unlikely, but it’s a good story. Shakespeare, Shakespeare, wherefore art thou Shakespeare?

Leeding the Way

When I was in the middle of writing my biography of Bernard Leach, the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds organized a conference on twentieth century sculpture for which contributions were requested. When I suggested a paper on Leach as a sculptor, after a long silence the convenor, clearly embarrassed, said that the view was that this topic would not fit the agenda. That was nearly ten years ago.

It was with something of a surprise, and with great pleasure, therefore, to see in the recent copy of the Henry Moore Institute Newsletter (April/May 2009 Issue No. 83) that two of the fellows appointed 2009/10 are to develop research projects on aspects of ceramics. Independent art historian Simon Ford is to look into ‘Sculpture in a Purely Abstract Form’: William Staite Murray and Modern British Sculpture. Ford will examine the work of Murray and ‘document, contextualize and interpret his many connections with the sculptors of his day’ with the aim of demonstrating that ‘pottery played a key role in interwar debates about modern ands abstract British sculpture’.

Jeffrey Jones of Cardiff School of Art and Design, UWIC, is to consider ‘The Relationship of Sculpture to Pottery in British Art from the Early Twentieth Century to the Present Day’. His argument is that at certain periods the interests of sculptors and potters in Britain have either overlapped or come into sharp focus. ‘My research will use case studies to track and interpret these relationships in order to provide an historical; context in which the work of contemporary practitioners can be better understood and appreciated’.

I hope they are talking to each other.

Equally surprising is the announcement that the Leeds City Art Gallery are to explore the close relationship between ceramics and other art forms. A small display will set twentieth century ceramics alongside sculptures from the collection. The majority of the ceramics are from the 1970s and 80s, and include work by Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Elizabeth Fritsch and Martin Smith as well as more recent pieces by David Roberts, Dan Fisher and Nicholas Portella. The collection, stored at Lotherton Hall, has rarely been shown. The ceramics will focus on the ‘vessel’ and will be shown alongside sculptures by Paule Vezelay, Nicholas Pope, Richard Long, Stephen Cox and others.

Someone in Leeds clearly has their finger on the trigger.