Aesthetic Silence

In his book Audiovision Michel Chion describes a scene in a war film in which a child is run over by a tank - is it a tank? Or even a war film? It doesn't matter. what matters is the sound. He describes how the footage of this child being run over is accompanied by a terrible sound effect, added in post-production which gives the impression to the viewer of the childs head bursting under the weight of the vehicle. The reality is that the sound it made by a watermelon being squashed. But the result, when combined witht the film is intensely emotive, sensorial, visceral. Viewers recoil from the scene, disgusted by what they see/hear. Curiosly, when the sound is removed, the film itself has none of this upcloseness created by the sound effect. the action is remote, intellectual, visual. The viewer understands what has happened, but is not brought so close to the physical, sickening reality of what they are witnessing.

In this example, used by Chinon to point to the fact that the reality of film is created as much through the audio as the visual, I begin to see a more profound division between these two aspects of film. The 'reality' of which Chinon writes is not what concerns me exactly, but certainly this combination of sound and vision impacts on the way any film is experienced. The sound brings the action close-to, makes the image thick and visceral; physically affecting to the viewer. Sound removed, the moving image has a markedly different quality. Soundless film (rather than 'silent film'), it seems to me, is characterised by a strange detachment, or distancing of the viewer from the relaity of the action. The image flattens and the visual itself becomes the focus. No longer a transparent, unnoticed surface which opens like a window onto the action which it depicts. The experience for the viewer is one of the visual surface. An aethetic view rather than an experiential one. And with this separation I would like to suggest comes a different type of interpretation - intellectual rather than emotive or sensorial.


When talking about my work it is opposition that I always come to. Materiality/unmateriality, material/intellectual, looking/touching, the real/mediated. But what use do these oppositions make? It's a bit 1st year undergrad right? Post-structuralism 1A: the existence of the other within the one, or something like that. What, I'm sure, began as a serious and radical shift in thinking in the 70's is now a convenient convention of critical theory, made vague and simplistic by over use and over simplification.

I'm worried about falling into this trap. It's easy (or easier) to use the same types of language and familiar concepts when talking about the work one makes. Superficially as well, it makes your work look more coherent than perhaps it might otherwise seem. By choosing vague and simplistic terms the work itself can be fairly haphazard, even thoughtless in its specific realisations whilst maintaining the veneer of forethought and planning - that scientific, empirical, philosophical aura one is expected to imbue the work with in order for it to be worthy of consideration.

But the work, those items of art making deemed substantial enough for the title, is perhaps more interesting in its subtleties, its idiosyncrasies, its surprises and unexpected glitches, imperfections and spontaneous machinations, than the writing allows. And this is the position I find myself in as I write this. Because without the overarching vagaries of the 'artistic practice' under which I labour, there swells the emotional turmoil of the directionless mind. I have heard other artists talk in terms of having a 'period of experimentation' before 'reigning it in' or 'bringing these experiments together'. But as sensible and rational as this sounds, what does it actually mean. Does it mean spending a couple of months pissing about? Does it mean procrastion until the deadline of the next show becomes close enough to provide some focus, does it mean learning some new skills? It seems to me that what is suggested most of all by the opposition of experimentation and the later reigning of it in, is that one is characterised by dispersion, the other focus. One proliferates the other makes decisions. But in practice is it really possible to create for oneself, through sheer force of will and rational justification, to separate out these types of work? If it is I am yet to find it. In many ways I would like to be a machine. And to be able to separate these things up, to be rational enough to make plans and stick to them, to follow ideas through till the bitter end, to not get swayed or influenced along the way by anything irrelevant to my process. But it's just not like that. Stuff comes at you and to you at different speeds, at different times and in different ways. I am continually being taken off track by whims and by small moments of inspiration and excitement. I am easily excited when encountering new things and often grow quickly tired of ideas which at first seemed to sparkle brightly in my imagination. That is not to say that I am entirely adrift. In some sort of schitzophrenic drift. It's just that, what I have been encouraged to call research, practice and theory, are (despite what they tried to maintain during my degree) separate and distinct modes of operation. What I mean is, although they are all doubtlessly useful in building and maintaining a career as an artist, they require different types of concentration, thinking, movement and imagination and they tend to pull the work as much in different direction as along a course. Let me try to get past this stifling cliché. What I mean by pulling the work in different directions is that they suggest different things that one might do. Different ways for the physical art work to be made, thought about, conceptualised, publicised, and written about. As if all the discoveries slight or significant burrow out from the core fo the work in different direction at any one time. Rather than a straight path the temporal development of the work is continually splintering. It could go in any direction at any time. And I suppose it is one of the jobs of the artist to continually keep check on these many possibilities and the decisions being made. But that, I find, is a hard thing to do. And so this business of being an artist, this trade (in the language of my tax return) is one which is continually uncertain until such time as that deadline approaches, when decisions are made and carried out, as much through necessity as design.

But where was I? Oppositions. Vagaries. Indecision. It isn't sounding very glamorous right now. Nor is this ‘art practice' looking like a very convincing business model. Uncertainty and hesitation, in business as in politics, is fatal. The market moves too fast, confidences easily lost. These worlds are all about decisiveness, ruthlessness and single-mindedness, in sharp contrast to the imagined world of scientific empiricism. Slow, methodical and logical. So where the hell does this leave the artist? What life model can s/he occupy? And let's be fair, this is more of a life than a job. How can success be acknowledged, how can progress be articulated? Let's reach for some well worn pieces of language, the old concepts which give an impression of knowingness, empiricism, clear decision making and expected outcomes. No? Too cynical an omission? Perhaps you’re right.

Let me try to write something which is honest about my work. Which does not try to justify its existance, which does not aggrandise decisions which I did not come to logically, or to raise the market value or academic significance? I'll try to describe what's happening as straightforwardly as I can, without using tired phrases, metaphors or conceptual frames. Here goes.

I think that the work I am making at the moment (and by this I mean projects or ideas which began perhaps as long ago as a year but which remain present concerns and will continue to be worked upon for some time) can be split in to three groups for the sake of clarity, and which correspond loosely to different media.

Firstly there is video and film. Moving image work. The second are small sculptures or maquettes which I have been making to photograph and to film (and in this way this second category overlaps significantly with the first. The third and final are larger sculptures, which have been made of papier-mâché and painted, but with which I am now working with clay and plaster. Besides these there are also paintings and drawings which tend to deal with imagery taken from the work already mentioned, but which are not numerous enough to deserve an entire category of their own.

A characteristic of all my work to date, and one which I am trying to work against, is that it tends to be messy, uneven, to have a hastily constructed look that shapes are amorphous, blobby, that surfaces are thickly textured. Whereas before I was most excited by excessive and effusive techniques of making and performing, now I'm trying to be more neat, more considered in what I make and how I make it. More slight in gesture, less obvious (and by obvious I mean physically obtrusive or calling for attention rather than conceptually glib (although the fear is that one equates with the other).

In my earlier videos I used a lot of frantic camera movements, hand held, filming myself doing things. I dressed as a monkey and made monochrome paintings. To compliment the frenetic camera work I made effusive and violent actions, slapping paint onto canvases with my hands. Somehow the visceral quality of the digital video, which can seem very close up and engaging fitted with the dramatic action that it captured but was in many ways involved in. My latest film project (I call it a project because I made a video in the summer but am not entirely happy with it and want to reshoot it) focuses more on the objects and materials of my attention than on me as the subject of the film. Although in the earlier films I had been creating paintings, these in themselves were secondary to the action of painting. In the recent video the action is secondary to the visual effects created as i make arrangements of small objects in front of the camera, moving it around to make unusual framings, or exploring the textures of the objects by bringing the camera very close to them. This video holds in its execution one of the central questions of the current work (although I must admit it is only now I write this that it seems central). The question has to do with performance. I made performance for several years before turning to video and later sculpture. In retrospect the transition when something like this: from theatre to performance art to videoing actions to making props for films to these props becoming things in their own right. What is interesting is also a shift in what I want. Video, with its clarity of image, its gourdy viscerality and faithfulness was an obvious media for translating the physical, bodily aspects of performance. The emphasis now shifts away from the actions preformed, towards the visual qualities of the objects captured by the camera and more and more I am tempted by film. Silent, highly visual, removed from the brashness of video. This shift is the central question. Many of the sculptures I made at first were large, bulbous and coated in thick layers of gloss paint, in an attempt to keep the visceral quality of film. To me sculpture is a puzzle and because I came to it through making it was the performance of creating something which I found exciting. But then, when this process is over and the work presented where is the performance? No matter how physically affecting the materials used or the violence of the process which created it, the sculpture stands inert, silent. It has a spatial aspect and in some ways is tactile and temporal; it is experienced in time and the texture of the surface and size in the gallery are undoubtedly physically affecting to the viewer. But still the work remains silent and unmoving. It is a major shift. In my video and performance everything is very present. The sculptures are, by nature, more ambiguous and enigmatic, in the same way that silent film can be. It is this silence that I am most intrigued by, but which is the most troubling for me and the ways in which I understand what I do.

Because these new works do not say anything, have no voice in which to justify their existence, they are much more troubling. Because they do not move it is harder to distinguish in what ways they perform. But I return to the silence. It is this, more than any other conceptual notion that distinguishes sculpture from performance and (silent) film from video. This seems to me now the one distinguishing factor. Silence. How to deal with silence. Perhaps it is only through silence that one comes to the purely visual or aesthetic. But then, cannot silence make time stretch out, be felt ever more keenly? I think I must be brave to enter into this silent world. Where the work neither says anything, nor makes a move.

I will write more about this.