Author Archives: clairegulliver

Measuring Tanks and Tablecloths at Plymouth Arts Centre

Tanks and Tablecloths is a long-standing research collaboration between artists Lizzie Ridout and Elizabeth Masterton. Their research examines the parallels between military and domestic spheres. In particular, the artists suggest that the regimentation and control so fundamental to life in the forces is echoed in the work of the home-maker; characterised as it is by regularity and repetition in its efforts to keep the domestic machine running.

For me these ideas inevitably raise questions about gender and perhaps about futility and necessity, but this exhibition steers clear of these more predictable themes. And while the parallels between military and domestic are not an entirely new subject, Tanks and Tablecloths offers a series of original and surprising dialogues between the two worlds.

Fig. c The Measure of a Man III [Worth His Salt/Test His Mettle] 2015. 350g Plymouth Sound sea salt on brass

Fig. c The Measure of a Man III [Worth His Salt/Test His Mettle] 2015. 350g Plymouth Sound sea salt on brass

Ridout and Masterton explored the extensive archives of Devonport Naval Heritage Centre (DNHC), gaining special permission to integrate historic artefacts alongside their own new works at Plymouth Arts Centre. The contact with the centre’s volunteers and original objects has given Tanks and Tablecloths with a warmth and humanity that complements the pared-down presentation, hovering appealingly somewhere between community history and the white cube.

Underpinning the exhibition is the idea of ‘measurement’, prompted by the artists’ observation that many of the artefacts in the naval archives were concerned with establishing consistency and determining quantity: from mess utensils regulating portion size to systems of recording damage to both personnel and ships. These artefacts form part of the exhibition dialogue.
Ridout and Masterton use the analogy of the mythical Three Fates to explore the way that a person’s life is divided, measured and determined by time: The three deities spinning, measuring and in the end cutting, the thread of life (perhaps like some kind of reverse umbilical clamp). These three fates shape the exhibition. So, in Clotho (The Spinnner) the wool from a standard issue navy pullover is disassembled and spun into rope, while a ball of wool from another naval jumper is wound alongside 940cm of 35mm orthographic film, the content of which (if any) is, for now, unknown.

Fig. f Things That Were, 2015; Things That Are, 2015; Things That Are To Be, 2015. CNC Engraved Traffolyte

Fig. f Things That Were, 2015; Things That Are, 2015; Things That Are To Be, 2015. CNC Engraved Traffolyte

In Lachesis (The Allotter) the arbitrary (outside the individual’s control) and fragile nature of life is evoked. The section is anchored by a splendid typewritten label, found with the historic artefact Fig F: Scales: a short piece of old-fashioned museum labelling that reverberates with almost Shakespearean import in this context: ‘This balance is an accurate and expensive instrument. It must be treated with great care’.

A particularly powerful piece in the Lachesis section is Fig c The Measure of a Man III [Worth his Salt/Test His Mettle] (pictured), which comprises the exact quantity of salt in an average man (350g) placed upon a brass plate. Crystallised by the artist directly from Plymouth Sound’s naval waters, the work analyses and reduces life to a quintessence of dust.

Moving into Atropos (The Unturning), the mood becomes more menacing. From the naval collection, huge, brutal cutters for some unimaginable task are immediately jarring and openly suggestive. A ghostly film loop, Quercus Regius: 00:58-01:29 for which the artists blindly (like the Fates) unravelled, measured and cut thread onto light sensitive film, evokes a transmission signal lost; a terminal failure of communication.

From the title of Quercus Regius: 00:58-01:29 we know that the precise measurement of time is as significant here as it is elsewhere in the exhibition: The animated duration of the piece corresponds to that of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, a warship built in Plymouth’s Devonport docks.
But we don’t know this particular symbolism unless we read the exhibition leaflet. Ridout and Masterton are interested in how you tell a story, or give information, without words. Ridout explains: “We didn’t want captions. We didn’t want people to spend more time reading captions than looking at the art”. It’s the perennial problem for anyone involved in presenting contemporary art.

Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) (pictured) is a case in point. This piece comprises a 150 broadside sheets, digitally printed with continuous black lines on 55gsm newsprint. So accustomed are we to a literal and linear way of thinking, that it seems at first a subtle, quiet work; a strangely mute newspaper.

Fig. d Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) 2015. 29.7km line on 150 broadside sheets. Digital print on 55gsm newsprint

Fig. d Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) 2015. 29.7km line on 150 broadside sheets. Digital print on 55gsm newsprint

The exhibition leaflet explains that, in its complete edition of 150, Belli Dura Despicio (Broadside) depicts the 29.7km broadside range of HMS Warspite. This is information and not to be confused with meaning. But having it deepened my experience of the work and then liberated me from it by giving me permission to make the leap, like an artist, into a different way of thinking.

Tanks & Tablecloths: Chapter Two, in collaboration with Devonport Naval Heritage Centre, is at Plymouth Arts Centre until 13 June 2015.
Lizzie Ridout is one of nine artists and a filmmaker making new work as part of Bideford Black: The Next Generation: an exploration of the rare north Devon pigment, Bideford Black: Bideford Black Blog
Bideford Black: The Next Generation opens at Burton Art Gallery, Bideford, Devon on 3 October 2015.

A few words in defence of Christmas cards

Now is that time of year when I consider doing something morally dubious. I start to think about writing some Christmas cards.

I’m not sure exactly when making a charitable donation and giving Christmas cards became ethical opposites, but I do both and it makes me feel sad.

It’s false, of course; in the heady rush of festive consumption, a handful of cards is but a drop in the ocean, a financial and environmental footnote. Is the real issue actually the fact that writing cards is a bit of a bind? In these busy days, is it easier to give money than time?

And are cards even relevant in today’s super-networked digital age? Well I think so, yes. A flash of colour, a quiet space, a personal good wish. These small physical tokens bring joy and reconnection into our homes at a time of celebration and reflection. Writing cards means slowing down, clearing a tiny bit of headspace for those around us.

So here’s an idea: Why not make a gift to charity or invest in a creative start-up AND send some Christmas cards?

If you’ve time and talent (and if you work in the arts), get creative; make a card, even a digital one. If you have neither, a handwritten card is still a treat. Pick an image that speaks to you, or to the recipient. Make it personal. Perhaps consider sending a card to someone you don’t even know – someone in prison, in a hostel for homeless people, or a residential home.

The price of a card, a moment’s time, a personal connection. Are these actually our century’s scarcest and most valuable gifts?

Right, I’d better get those cards written. Just don’t tell the ethics police.

Artists announced for Bideford Black: The Next Generation

Flow Contemporary Arts in association with Claire Gulliver is pleased to share the names of the artists and film maker selected for the Bideford Black: Next Generation commissions for Burton Art Gallery, Bideford, Devon.

The artists are:
Tabatha Andrews (Devon)
ATOI (Cornwall)
Luce Choules (Henley on Thames)
Corinne Felgate (Dorset/London)
Neville and Joan Gabie (Gloucestershire)
Littlewhitehead (Lanarkshire)
Lizzie Ridout (Cornwall)
Sam Treadaway (Bristol)

The project film maker is Liberty Smith Liberty lives and works in London and went to school in Hartland, near Bideford. She will be creating a documentary film to record the artists’ progress over the coming year.

We welcome The National Trust and Ian Cooke of The University of Exeter to the project and thank them for supporting the artists in their research and development phase.

An exhibition of the final works will open to the public in the autumn of 2015.

Bideford Black is a unique pigment found only in Bideford, Devon, UK. Bideford Black: The Next Generation connects the heritage of the area with the tradition of using it as an artist’s material, commissioning and documenting its use by contemporary artists, developing a greater understanding of this rare material in a contemporary artistic context.

Bideford Black – The Next Generation is a Burton Art Gallery project produced and curated in association with Flow Contemporary Arts and Claire Gulliver. It is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Follow the project blog:

Flow Contemporary Arts
Claire Gulliver

Innovation in Art

I’ve just discovered this blog through this brilliant post on innovation in art


What is innovation in art? This is something I’ve circled in my other posts, for example:

Now I’ll try addressing it a little more head-on.

All art contains both innovation (unfamiliarity) and convention (familiarity). Some artworks are so familiar as to preexist themselves. I didn’t like Andrzej Wajda’s recent film Katyn (2007), thinking it nothing more than a string of war movie clichés (this time in Polish). Its being unoriginal and predictable annoyed me; I might have walked out (or fallen asleep) had I not gone to see it with a couple of friends (who for the record both really liked it). And I felt as though its unoriginality trivialized its very serious subject matter, the Katyn Massacre.

On the other hand, some artworks are so radically different…

View original post 3,045 more words

A quick thought on disintermediation

I hugely appreciated Russell Willis Taylor’s rallying cry at No Boundaries 2014 for all sorts of reasons. She is a wonderful, passionate and lucid speaker who had me cheering her words. The question of disintermediation, though, is an interesting one. I think it’s a mirage. We like to believe that social technology takes out the middleman, enabling direct and authentic communication. But technology is precisely a mediating structure. The trend towards apps and mobile operating systems locks down ever more of our own ability to shape our interactions. Communication is increasingly squished and constricted through off-the-shelf corsetry – Facebook’s depressing ‘Like’ function being a case in point. Technology does incredible things for communication across geographies and cultures – No Boundaries was a superb example. Away from these advanced set-ups though, it increases the scope and diversity of reach of communication but not necessarily its depth, quality or authenticity.

Why we must re-balance our cultural capital

I’m a little late to the ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ debate. A couple of weeks grounded by temporary illness certainly focuses the mind on questions of travel and access to culture.

To Maria Miller I would say that, yes, regional audiences should and do want to experience the best art in the country through regional touring by the nationals. Regular engagement with ambitious work from throughout the UK and beyond keeps art refreshed, challenged and stimulated everywhere. And, by the way, these important partnerships cost regional organisations too.

But regional artists and arts organisations equally want a fair chance to create the best art in the country. Not to do their own parochial thing, but be critically engaged, to work with the best regional, national and international artists and companies, to bring outstanding work to the national stage. Regional artists and organisations want a fair chance to be the best in the country.

Powerful art is rooted in experience, diversity and dialogue. Experience is unique, nuanced and complex, shaped by geographic, cultural and economic context. This is what keeps art as a conversation so rich, so alive, so necessary.

There is little that is artistically inherent in London that enables it to create the most compelling and exciting art.

While Arts Council England and philanthropists invest, local authorities, in most cases, cut. London’s monopoly is on finance, not talent. The preponderance of the best organisations in London is a product of the UK’s economic distribution, not the distribution of its artistic talent. And art is the poorer for it.


An individual predicament and a sector challenge: the freelance conundrum

I may be about to contradict myself.  In so doing, I may also risk the wrath of an artist or two. I apologise now.

Last week, I touched upon the ongoing woes of the individual artist, and the risk of conversations going backwards in the absence of strategic leadership from a decimated Arts Council.

I’ve been thinking about role of independent freelancers in the contemporary visual art sector. The challenges we face are frequently those faced by individual artists;  in a system in which concentrates finance within organisations, our agency is constrained.

Artists’ predicament is nothing new.  What is new, is the growing resource of independent project leaders and managers, curators, producers, arts activists, advocates and consultants.  It’s spurred, of course, by changes in the arts ecology; changes that have resulted in smaller, fewer organisations and less organisational employment.  It’s a vibrant resource pool that contains huge potential for free and independent thought, challenge, innovation and critical leadership.

Thankfully for myself and 20 others, I’m taking part in a groundbreaking programme which recognises just this. The Visual Arts South West Leadership Programme (VASWLP) is pioneering because, alongside its desire to build strong leadership within and for the contemporary art sector in the South West, it sets out to promote the role of the ‘established freelancer’. Its insight should be applauded.

Many of the participants in the VASWLP are freelancers. Many are micro-enterprises. This is surely a sea change. Of those who, like me, are partially employed, all place at least equal emphasis on their independent freelance practice. What, if anything, should we infer from this?

Our programme leader has commented on the unusualness of having a room full of individuals and independents discussing vision and mission – for themselves and, more importantly, for the sector as a whole.

In the new world, what can an individual freelancer be?

What deep structural changes are needed in the sector to support and unlock the new, modern way of working?

It’s something to which I plan to return.


Google, the demise of the Arts Council and the trouble with visual artists

Interesting day at the CVAN / Google Knowledge-Sharing event yesterday. On one level, it sometimes feels as if the contemporary visual arts sector is having the same conversations we were having with ourselves when I first started out at South West Arts in the late 1990s:  There are particular challenges faced by a visual art sector comprised, ultimately, of individuals rather than large organisations. Whether one is a supporter of the Arts Council or not, the demise of a strategic leadership layer following cut after cut has impacted upon visual artists more than any other creative practitioner. Isolated and under-capitalised, our conversation risks going backwards. And yet there is an inherent liberating resilience in surviving as an individual.

And so power shifts, from the publicly-funded monolith to the global corporation. Yesterday’s presentations from Google were energizing, not for their technical wizardry or their mastery of the internet, but for what we learned about Google as a company and a phenomenon. Clearly the company has the pick of some of the most diverse talent from Europe and around the world. Moreover, it has the courage to recruit those individuals, to nurture them and to give reign to their individual creativity.

We need Google to pay its tax and we can learn from it too.

Much of the day’s discussion focused on The Google Cultural Institute and The Google Art Project – initiatives that have done much to democratize the experience of historical and modern art. The challenge now is to develop the technical, linguistic and above all financial models to enable new media and the ephemeral, intellectual and experiential artistic practice of today to be shared richly and globally.