This installation evidences the journey from a fortune cookie message to life-changing surgery, and everything in between: the artist playing detective, his documenting the truth or otherwise in seven palm-reading predictions and his contacting long-lost relatives from across the world…
My work is concerned with multiple approaches to narrative: autobiographical, fusing fact with fiction, constructing identities, and old-fashioned story-telling. It embodies my ultimate ambition to re-engage with creativity within my own practice after half a decade teaching in secondary education, through the ATMA experience.
An overriding focus has been to bring an end to the syzygy – “a yoking together of opposites in which the two elements remain distinct” (Middleton 1999: xiv) – of the two different roles I perform daily as artist and teacher, and to resolve the conflict I have experienced within these competing identities. In my writing I have often likened these tensions to the dilemmas faced by a super hero and his everyday alter ego, especially when trying to keep the ‘other’ identity secret, perhaps because “after all, western literary conventions stipulate that plots should have heroes” (Skultans, 1998: xii).
Documentation had a significant emphasis in my first year of the ATMA programme as I explored multiple avenues of enquiry triggered by the catalyst of a fortune cookie bought in a Chinese restaurant. My explorations embraced myth and rumour, street art and interventions, online ‘confessionals’ mixing fact with fiction, and undercover visits to fortune tellers, noting similarities across the seven readings I obtained, just like the work of Francis Alys.
Platt (2010: 50) believes that “Alys is a kind of story teller”, whilst Observer critic Cumming (2010: 37) also captured a spirit in Alys’s work that has inspired elements within my final show, with the title of her review of his Tate Modern retrospective A Story of Deception which stated that “it’s all perfectly pointless, but completely captivating” and “…both heroic and absurd. His art is so often poised between the two.”
I believe that my own work (once described as playful yet sincere) sits in a similar position, and shares some common themes with the ‘actions’ Alys has performed. Therefore, when it came to discussing and presenting my ideas, justifying those ‘actions’ needed careful consideration.
One of the major outcomes of this course for me was the introduction to Bourriaud’s seminal writings on ‘relational aesthetics’ (1998) and more recently, the ‘alter modern’, which were very influential when I began outlining the theoretical perspectives underpinning my work, particularly at the start of year 2 when, having resolved the first stage of my enquiries, I took some time before embarking on the next stage of the journey.
This period of reflection and research introduced me to the history of conceptual art, within which “there is an explicit emphasis on the ‘thought’ component of art and its perception” (Marzona, 2006: 7) and this helped me realise that my own recently exhibited conceptual art (which, after all, “can be almost anything” (Wilson & Lack, 2008: 52)) fitted the definition relational aesthetics (2008: 183) being as it was, one of “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” and seeing “art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers [giving] audiences access to power and the means to change the world”.
Similarly, we had Barthes’ seminal 1967 essay The Death of the Author, which itself began to influence the way I wrote my blog entries, my involving people around me in my work, and ultimately, the title of this final submission, after my introduction to it. Furthermore, as this new knowledge then informed my next projects, continuing the theme of the narrative, it helped to develop through my work a personal approach I call ‘relationship aesthetics’ which speaks of the complex and plural inter-relationships with loved ones, strangers, lookalikes and name-a-likes that feature prominently in my work. One of the ways I did this was to ask people to suggest doubles for me, another, the unusual residency I undertook on a social networking site, fabricating familial links while surveying participants for potential coincidences / shared experiences.
The only real answers offered by this period was the realisation that I had unwittingly created an alter ego and thus, identity and personality became the focus of my final investigations, including how we see and are seen. I chose to enhance my own sight also – this seemed a natural progression because vision has played a part in every stage of my journey, whether it is seeing the future, reflecting back, noticing similarities, cases of mistaken identity – the double take – or, now, eye surgery, a form of Body Art, the ultimate artistic practice.
I do not wish to liken my work to that of Orlan or Gina Pane, but in my efforts to fuse the two different sides of my personality (or appearance, namely always wearing either glasses or contact lenses) I discovered links with others, such as Mark Wallinger’s 2000 Credo show at Tate Liverpool, concerned as it was with notions of vision, plus the likes of Magritte, Escher, Calle… indeed, many artists from history have been concerned with eyes and looking. Damien Hirst (2001: 86) spoke of being terrified at not being able to see out of ‘these two f***ing little holes’ and believed that “art’s about looking. People don’t look. Artists make people look: look at what you know; question what you know…”
This resonates with the themes underpinning my work because, having spent two years looking closely at the daily events of my life and their meaning, now I can see better than ever, not just the ‘other’ but also myself, and have shared the story of this dichotomy with everybody, proving that “the process of self-identity is a leap into a narrative that employs seeing as a way of knowing” (Phelan, 1993: 5) and that “the physiological understanding of vision, like both the psychoanalytic conception of the
gaze and the technologies of aesthetics, is also a theory of loss and distortion” (Ibid.: 14) which is why, having identified his ‘twin’, the artist will not exist after this exhibition.
Therefore, the politics of the location for my final installation were very important. Wanting closure to the story, but to keep some of the mysticism and uncertainty, I felt much more confident curating the space this time around, compared to when I was ‘halfway to paradise’ in 2009.
Just as galleries and museums are increasingly aware of their audience, so have I become, this year not just of the public but the internal and external assessors, and so planned an interactive display accordingly. It was heavily influenced by a room in A Story of Deception, and Sophie Calle’s 2009 Whitechapel retrospective, which I had used as a case study for an earlier module.
Meanwhile, the idea of publishing a book which explains the objects and images that feature within the space was a natural progression from the narrative developed over the past two years, cemented by a visit to Lindsay Seers’ submission to the current Persistence of Vision exhibition at FACT, It Has To Be This Way (2009), which is accompanied by a curious paperback novella apparently written by one M. Anthony Penwill.
My book is an edited version of my website which partly summarises events, though leaves things open enough that the viewer must do some ‘looking’ themselves, question the subtext, and take on the role of the detective, piecing together clues from (seemingly disparate) objects and images after reading the full story. It encourages participation in the display, and gives viewers something to take away and digest, when they can involve themselves in the narrative further by visiting the blog for further instalments, or even start their own – as Skultans suggests (1998: xii) “many people with eventful lives have little to say about them” and whilst mine may not be the most dramatic, documenting it (and my alter ego) has certainly made the past couple of years very exciting – the artist will be missed.
Meanwhile, the ringing telephone and miniature fortune telling booth are other interactive elements to engage the audience, and the involvement of my colleague, friend and lookalike Paul at the private view is a scaled down version of the performance I had planned before the University’s policies meant we had to rein in our ambitions.
His appearance is a reference to the recurrent themes of the alter ego, synchronicity and mistaken identity, and a ‘playful yet sincere’ attempt to confuse the viewer, making them question what is real and what is not, thus referencing several works of art and popular culture, the most relevant example being Dostoevsky’s The Double, in which, according to Chizhevsky (in Wellek, 1962: 129) “the double puts with extreme power the question: will the individual discover a new stability and a new life in absolute being, or will he perish in nothingness?”
This resonates completely with my situation, in which those separate lives of the artist and the teacher should hopefully merge from now on, because the whole theory of the doppelganger is that when someone is confronted with his ‘double’ it is a sign that his life will end, thus, the two cannot continue to co-exist.
Barthes, R. (1977 Ed.) The Death of the Author (from Image, Music, Text), New York: Hill & Wang.
Bourriaud, N. (1998) Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Reel.
Godfrey, M. (ed.) (2010) Francis Alys – A Story of Deception, London: Tate Publishing.
Hirst, D. & Burn, G. (2001) On The Way to Work, London: Faber & Faber.
Marzona, D. (2006) Conceptual Art, Cologne: Taschen.
Middleton, T (1999) An Introduction to The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, London: Wordsworth.
Penwill, M. A. (2009) It Has To Be This Way, London: Matt’s Gallery.
Phelan, P. (1993) Unmarked – The Politics of Performance, London: Routledge.
Skultans, V. (1998) The Testimony of Lives: Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia, London: Routledge.
Wallinger, M. (2000) Credo at Tate Liverpool, London: Tate Publishing.
Wellek, R. (1962) Dostoevsky – A Collection of Critical Essays, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Wilson, S. & Lack, J. (2008) The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms, London: Tate Publishing.
Platt, Edward (2010) ‘Telling Stories with a Life of Their Own’, Tate Etc, Issue 19 Summer 2010, pp48-55.
Cumming, Laura (2010) ‘Art’, New Review Section, The Observer, 20 June, p37.