Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Art's own currency

The process of creating an artwork is in part agonizing, the exhibiting of artwork thrilling and the dismantling of artwork from an exhibition painfully hard to bear.

A while back my sister Rachel and I were talking about the ‘currency’ of art. Artists invest time, money, energy and thought into creating works in a totally disproportionate amount to the time, money, energy and thought the work seems to generate. My artworks, at this early stage in my career, spend more time in boxes and scattered across the floor and walls of my studio that on view to be seen passing members of public. I’m not disappointed, by any stretch of the imagination, with my progress as an artist over the last two years. Nevertheless, even if I were to secure exhibitions every month, most of my work would still be tucked away in unseen corners of unoccupied spaces.

Yesterday I spent nearly 7 hours on trains and tubes journeying to Worcester and back to collect my artwork from the Worcester City Museum and Gallery. Just days ago the work was hung at eye level, carefully accounted for with a purpose built frame to create depth between the work and the wall and non-heat strip lights wired up to present the work in it’s best light (literally!). In contrast, yesterday the work say rather disappointingly on the floor, propped up against the wall with a dismantled frame next to it, looking out of place as the next show begun to take form around it. This two month show has been my longest exhibition yet but still it inevitably comes to an end and the work gets stowed away again.

To make matters worse, barely having recovered from carrying an old steel window (heavy!) on the train from Worcester to London (Mike met me off the train and got the window the rest of the way to South Ealing, legend)today I had to dismantle my exhibition Of no fixed abode’ from Watford Museum. Timings were never going to be easy. The timetabling at the gallery isn't set up for the large scale installations that I produce (and I'm so glad they didn't let that act as a deterrent to me exhibiting - all in all I found Sophie Ronson and the Museum staff totally and wonderfully accommodating!). My exhibition had to come down at the earliest today and the next show opens on Thursday evening. I assumed that I'd have today to dismantle the exhibition and the new exhibitors would be in on Wed and Thurs setting up...

But I was wrong. By the time I arrived at 1:30 (having finished work for the morning), the next exhibitors (from a local education institution) were already in installing student’s work around my artwork, even having moved some of my work out of the way. I said hello, but barely got a grunt in return. Perhaps they were unhappy with the inconvenience of working around an artist. Whatever it was, I wasn’t hugely comfortable with the situation.

I feel like I’m usually a fairly gracious person but the new exhibitors didn’t acknowledge my work as anything more than an inconvenience – to my mind, the ultimate disrespect. When one of them asked to start taking my wax bricks off the walls at one point I essentially said no, that it was too fragile and I would do it myself. Kelly (the events officer for Watford Council) and Lindsay (museum staff) were fabulous, however. Kelly I hadn’t met before but I felt instantly like she had an understanding of my objects as artworks and so was comfortable with her helping to dismantle the work which she did with due care and attention to detail. It would have been much sadder for me pulling apart the installation if I hadn’t been so guarded and therefore distracted by the new exhibitors.

In the end I was quite happy to get out of there as fast as possible – as my work came down and theirs went up, the space I’d grown so familiar with over the last month was quickly transformed into an unrecognizable space… and at that point I couldn’t get my work out of there fast enough.

Huge huge thanks go to Sophie Ronson and the Museum staff, however, for all their help, patience, understanding and respect for my work. The process of installing the exhibition, all the exhausting, was positive thanks to their willingness to 'take risks' and accomodate my ideas. I would happily work with them again.

All that was left:

Watford Observer


The local paper ran an article on my exhibition. I was going to scan it to put up on here. When it came out, a few hours before I was heading to catch a flight to Belfast for a friend's wedding, I scurried into town and bought up 5 copies. I knew I wanted a couple for my portfolio and thought that Tim Stock (curator for the exhibition) might want a copy for his. Then I was going to send one to mum and Dad and one to my grandparents - it's the sort of thing grandparents love, or so we all think.

Recently I've been struggling with how open and honest to be on a public blog. I'm not sure how to open up reasonable insight into the genuine peaks and troughs of being an artist without being transparent...so I suppose here goes.

I was disappointed with the article.

The article makes me feel a little misrepresented. For example, is it really fair to actually say I grew up in a war zone?

As I break the article down, it’s actually the bits about the evacuation that I really cringe to read. Maybe that’s no one’s fault – just the reality of a journalist trying to represent an intensely personal experience, based on one conversation, that is so far from the experience of most British citizens that it is impossible to represent if from the same perspective this third culture, missionary kid, teenager lived it.

It’s not true that I don’t remember feeling any trauma at the time of the evacuation – my response was in answer to a leading question! I only meant to say that you have to shift your perspective to that of a 13 year old who has spent her entire childhood in less than ‘stable’ political environment. Things that seem dramatic and shocking to the average British teenager were somewhat more commonplace to me and my three siblings and to our friends. But of course, we were all deeply upset driving through burnt out villages, where school staff live, in an armed escort en route to the airport and, waiting for the emergency flights to take us away, seeing smoke rising in pillars from the city centre.

It is probably true, however, that at least at first I didn’t feel that ‘displaced’ by our trip to Australia; perhaps that is what I meant by things ‘seeming dramatic’ to kids who grew up in the UK. We had little understanding or expectation at that point of the severity and longevity of the situation.

So, living as refugees in Australia didn’t “feel traumatic” in the sense that one might assume. We weren’t living without shelter or food and we weren’t injured or without medical attention when we needed it. I suppose the ‘trauma’ was subtle (our living conditions may have even improved, as refugees) that it feels like an untruth to call it so.

Watching CNN news each day to see if they featured the situation in Ambon, desperately hoping they didn’t, was difficult. We were told if no incidents occurred for a certain number of weeks then it would be deemed okay to go home. So we children watched the news each day, counting the days where Ambon wasn’t featured in the headlines. Each time Ambon was featured, we had to start counting from day 1 again. That was a ‘trauma’ I recall as it slowly dawned upon me that going home was being more and more unlikely.

The overwhelming mass of ‘orang barat’ (westerns) walking around probably threw us all (adults and children alike) into culture shock…but to a kid who lives between cultures and moves frequently, culture shock isn’t usually deemed ‘traumatic’ (though with retrospect, it probably is a kind of trauma).

*The hardest thing was leaving friends behind. You’ve somewhere to escape to and they don’t.”* - That feels like the truest thing in the article. Leaving neighbours and friends behind devastated me. I understood, even age 13, how ‘unfair’ that situation was. Furthermore, when you know your purpose (as a family) in a country is to serve the community in Jesus’ name, escaping the break out of war when others can’t is painful. To this day it makes me cry.

The rest of the article is fair actually – apart from the reference to Lancaster. I suppose yes I did ‘identify’ with a couple of the people in the homeless community, but I wouldn’t want that to be misrepresented as me having developed friendships and earned trust with them – it’s my dear friends Jess and JC who have done that.

For now, 5 copies of the article sit rather lamely on my dining room table. A copy hasn't been posted to either my parents or my grandparents. But perhaps the article is more fair than I first gave it credit for. In one sentence I’m quoted as calling the evacuation ‘not traumatic’ and the next living in Australia as a refugee as ‘traumatic’. Both comments left me feeling misrepresented. Maybe the whole thing was more unsettling that I like to admit and I’m confused by how to represent my experiences to people who, by no fault of their own, can’t relate. Perhaps the whole situation was deeply traumatic, but I feel a sense of guilt in admitting so, since we, the ‘orang barat’, were the fortunate escapees with other homes to flee to. What then of our friends left behind - who gives voice to their, much deeper, trauma? Perhaps I should.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Of no fixed abode - installation continued

Sorry if this is too many photos - better than too many words I feel.

The completed installation

Taken from inside looking out

boxes gallore - literally

Until today - drama struck! I went to the gallery to meet some school children to talk to them about my artwork, to find that the back wall had collapsed. I think I kept cool quite well, but I think it's fair to say I'm a little bit gutted.

No time to fix it now... but more than that, it seems to make sense to me. Here is the text I wrote, this afternoon, after finding it this morning:

The back wall of the installation where the artist has constructed a house from the wrappings of cardboard boxes has begun to collapse. The artist has allowed and embraced this as a natural progression of the installation.

The artwork began as an attempt to literally construct a house out of her experiences of constantly moving between houses; the hollow boxes acting as ghost-like echoes of each time the artist has moved house.

The collapsed back wall is a poignant reminder of just how fragile Hughes’ experience of home has been. It reflects a familiar struggle for the artist in trying to rebuild and reclaim lost homes.


Of no fixed abode

I ended up showing 6 different artworks in the show.

The most dominating was a large scale installation. Here are some pics of it from beginning to end (I need to dig out the drawings from when we were planning it too - they could be interesting).

This is the model I produced to run the proposal by the gallery and to help me visualise my idea. If I'd known how long the real thing was going to take, I would have spent less time on this model!

I thought I was doing well with production at this stage...how little I knew!

Wrapping boxes! A time consuming activity, so I discovered.

Getting this far took me to Saturday evening. The gallery was shut Sunday and Monday, and I was working in the mornings Tuesday and Wed and Thurs - which essentially left me with 3 afternoons to complete the installation. And so box making began in ernest, every hour or every day for the week that followed.

I would literally have not finished it without the help of friends, like Chris Sharpe, Jon Tan, Bob Wallington, my brother malcolm, YPF (the church youth group, more about that later) and of course, my boyfriend Mike Green.

For the best part of a week I literally missed I think every lunch, working straight through...

By wednesday night (less than 24 hours before the opening of the exhibtion)... I was still short boxes. That's when Wallo (youth group leader) and YPF (church youthgroup) came to my rescue like multiple nights in shining armour.

I'll have to get a pic from one of the lads - but what a heart warming sight: For an hour and a half on Wed evening, the youth group 'made boxes' for me. 41 they produced I think - and it turned out to be EXACTLY the number I was lacking. A good story... I feel.

Of no fixed abode

What a journey is has been, preparing for my first solo show. I hardly know where to begin. I didn't want to put pics up etc before the exhibition opened because it's easy to become de-sensitized i think but the counter side of that is that now there is a lot to tell.

First, here is the press release from the exhibition.

For most of us our notions of home are of the secure, fixed sanctuary that acts as the base for our everyday lives, both physically and emotionally. We often have a clear image of its function, which extends to its construction: the memorable intricacies and peculiar facts about the physical building. Do we take home for granted? What if it wasn’t so permanent?

‘Of no fixed abode’ presents a selection of work by artist Fiona Hughes, who has been artist-in-residence at the Royal Masonic School for Girls, Rickmansworth. With that coming to an end in August, this exhibition acts as a conclusion to her two year working residency. Rather than each work existing independently, ‘Of no fixed abode’ shows them working together as an exchange of ideas or shades of the same story. Divided into three areas, the first and largest greets us with a line of tiny wax bricks. Hollow and individually handmade, each brick is fragile and susceptible. They draw a fragmented landscape (we only see parts of buildings, nothing complete or whole) that is so familiar it could be anywhere but in that skyline. The lines echo those of the sketches of abandoned buildings, drawn with tape. Cardboard castings of bricks build the corner of an unseen room, and castings of the inside of boxes themselves lay out the beginnings of a floor plan of another. Perhaps the most dominating aspect to the room is the facade of a brown paper boxes. Here, Hughes has constructed an adult-sized Wendy house within the gallery from the same materials that we pack up our homes into when the time comes to move on. The empty, simplified boxes of different shapes and sizes become the very bricks that build the notional stability of the home. But instead of being comforting and secure, the walls feel strangely oppressive and at the same time temporary. In the last space sits a series of houses, partly constructed/destroyed. One fits within the next, describing a sequence of homes, each built upon the previous.

Hughes’ life has been a series of moves. Although born in the UK, at six weeks old her family flew back to Indonesia where her parents had been up until the birth. Her biography traces frequent moves between villages and towns, between Indonesia and the UK. Significantly at the age of 13 her family were evacuated from their town due to an outbreak of war; their then home was burnt down in the fighting. Now living and working in the UK, Hughes has been deeply influenced by her unconventional ideas about home. For her the experience of home has usually been temporary, a times constantly living out of boxes, where the boxes become more of at home than the building that they are in.

Tim Stock, 2010

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bath - Here today gone tomorrow

Here is an image of my work in exhibition Here Today Gone Tomorrow as part of Bath's Fringe Art festival. The exhibition was dismantled today and tomorrow I'm getting a train to Bath to collect the work.

I was really pleased with the exhibition - full of really interesting work.

An artwork by Michael Coombe stood out to me... I'm going to follow up getting in touch with him.