Unmonumental Catalogue Essay Writing

                                               OLDER WRITING PROJECTS

​2017: Studio Ruins: describing 'unfinishedness'. Journal article, in Robertson, F. & Roy, E. (eds) 'Multisensory Materialities in the Art School’, Studies in Material Thinking 17, Special Issue.

With creative practices things go wrong, work is ruined, and projects remain unfinished. Paradoxically, since failure is a matter of enhanced appreciation in the arts (e.g. Samuel Beckett’s ‘fail better’), neither ‘wrongness’, ‘ruination’ nor ‘unfinishedness’ means what it says. Building on the topographical encounters of fine art studio teaching, this article explores the intersection of ruined work, incomplete creativity and disarticulating sensations. While Jason Rhoades’ messy installation art in a public gallery can evoke (like a 2005 account of abandoned factories by Tim Edensor) a problematic romanticization of unfinished and ruined work, I argue that other less recognized forces are in play. In the privacy of art school studios, monitoring ‘health and safety’ procedures challenges all evocations of aesthetic spectacle and poetic vision. This amounts to an alternative topology of ruination that relates to Caitlin DeSilvey’s 2006 descriptions of agricultural decay. Because a creative struggle is more like daSilvey’s material confusion than Edensor’s romanticized disorder, my article considers four further theoretical ideas in order to place studio ruins at the service of practice-based research in art schools—the muddle of ‘mingled senses’; the complicit character of ‘criticality’; the ‘stupefying’ consequences of study, and the tactical defeat of ‘decreation’.

2016: The pleasure of the holder: media art, museum collections and paper money. Journal article, International Journal of Arts and Technology.

When the artist Julian Rosefeldt exhibits video projections of cast Græco-Roman sculptures, exhibition-goers experience a crisis in resemblance and equivalence between a gallery installation and museum artefacts. On the face of it media magic seems to supersede, even eliminate, the experiential force of collection-holding. This article compares media and artefactual exhibiting practices by combining semiotic analysis, art theory and Georg Simmel’s sociology of money. In the late 18th century, as European museums began to display plaster reproductions of Classical sculpture and historic architectural details, economists worried that paper money would sever the representational force of monetary signifiers from the intrinsic value of the bullion they signify. Perhaps Rosefeldt defers promises like a banknote? Perhaps museums postpone the ‘pleasure of the holder’ like a bank reserve? In both cases, this article argues, the technologies of reproduction and repetition (old and new) tell us a great deal about the semantics of objects.

​2018: Other Storeys: studying contemporary art with Indian literature in the long 1960s. Book essay, in Jadavpur University 60th anniversary commemorative volume on literature and the other arts.

[slightly abbreviated extract]

There is a small pencil drawing on the table before me. I teach in an art school that lets me use a ground-floor campus studio as an office. This space is known as the Paper Studio because it houses the machinery and equipment needed to instruct students in the techniques of high-quality paper making. Not one colleague who visits me here has yet identified what the drawing is, even though they are practicing artists and art historians. Nevertheless they admire it and I am touched by their appreciation. This small sketch on A4 paper is a sequence of rectangles that sit on top of one another like the stacked-up storeys of a building. The arrangement looks like abstract art. One particular response, however, interested me because it loosened the grip abstraction has on our interpretive imaginations and, as a result, opened the debate that prompted me to write this essay.
The discussion I am about to describe took place in 2014 as the artist-academic community at my University waited to hear the results of a nation-wide audit of their research activities. This test of our accomplishments as a group of practice-based researchers was to include for the first time a new category of assessment: the “impact” of our projects beyond their immediate academic setting. Never before had so much attention been given to the evidence we could provide that our artworks had, in their role as demonstrations of innovative thinking and cultural engagement, changed the quality of people’s lives. Surely, everyone had said, the Department of Arts will be good at this. After all, their research involves public exhibitions. We artists, in return, were not so sure. That which is exhibited goes out into the world and, from this point, who can act as oracle for that journey. Who can know where things end up and what happens to them. How could an artist who draws intuitively, with open-ended goals in mind, summon evidence of (or even make a clear case for) cause and effect.
In the context of these speculations a colleague and I debated the real-world fate of works of art made on paper. After all, drawings exist as artefacts. They can be treasured like a past lover’s letters, but they are also as disposable as last week’s newspapers. Looking around the Paper Studio our conversation turned to the small abstract drawing on the table. “That looks like a house”, my colleague said, volunteering the first representational interpretation I had received. In fact, she continued, “it looks like an elevation of the house in Neel Mukherjee’s ‘The Lives of Others’”, a novel which everybody was reading at the time. I did not see it at first, but increasingly enjoyed the idea as some rectangles turned into floors, then others into walls, and finally, as it from nowhere, an image of a tall house that could well be in Calcutta fell into place. Three years later, as I start writing this essay, my colleague’s interpretation helps me picture the central architectural motif of a wonderful novel whose author is a graduate of Jadavpur University, the institution we are celebrating in this volume. The drawing, a modest scribble really, not only tolerates interpretive references to this fictional house, it also situates (quite literally “outlines”) generational tensions just well enough for it to function as an aide memoire for Mukherjee’s richly complicated tale. 

​2015: Stilling the flow of signs: creative action and the discontinuity of the museum archive. Book chapter (with Sachiyo Goda), in Paschalidis, G. & Yoka, L. (eds) Semiotics and Hermeneutics of the Everyday, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp 176-192.

​2013: Becoming an artist-in-residence: the ‘mobilities’ of Christopher Jones. Catalogue essay, in Unmonumental – Christopher Jones, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Northern Print, pp 3-9

​2012: Contemporaneity: having been there. Catalogue essay, in Dorsett, C. & Stewart, M. (eds) Cast Contemporaries: artists respond to the completion of the Cast Collection Project, Edinburgh School of Art, Newcastle: Arts and Social Sciences Academic Press.

2012: Safe Houses on enchanted ground. Catalogue essay in Sian Bowen and Nova Zembla: Suspending the Ephemeral (Rijksmuseum), Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum in conjunction with Research Group for Artists Publications (Sheffield).

​2011: Things and Theories: the unstable presence of exhibited objects. Chapter in Dudley, S., Barnes, A. J., Binnie, J., Petrov, J., & Walklate, J. (eds) The Thing about Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation, London and New York: Routledge.

2009: Making Meaning Beyond DisplayChapter in Dudley, S. (ed.) Museum Materialities: objects, engagements, interpretations, London and New York: Routledge.

2008: Glimpsing the ArchiveEssay in Bacon, J. (ed.) Arkive City, Belfast: Interface University of Ulster & Locus+.

2007: Exhibitions and their PrerequisitesChapter in Rugg, J. & Sedgwick, M. (eds) Issues in Curating: Contemporary Art and Performance, Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books and University of Chicago Press

As someone who both reads and writes a lot of catalogue essays for contemporary artists, I was intrigued to find instructions online-- on E-How, of all places-- for writing one. (I confess that I have come to rely on computer queries for everything from converting centimeters to inches to recipe substitutions, like milk soured with lemon juice for yoghurt, or instructional videos on, say, regrouting a countertop or installing a faucet.)

The E-How directions for writing an essay seem at first glance to be as direct as those for home repairs. Still, the devil is in the details, as the expression goes. Experience has shown me that it is one thing to watch someone effortlessly sweep fresh grout into those tiny cracks between tiles and entirely another to manipulate the stuff yourself. But I digress.

The instructions for essay writing suggest beginning with biographical detail, such as“facts about the artist’s birth and early upbringing, education, exhibition history and any awards she might have won. This should be easy to summarize by researching details of the artist’s life online.” Right. This will be simple because the Internet is such a goldmine of accurate information about the formative experiences of most artists.

The next step is to evaluate the artist’s work to date, in order to identify “some major turning points in her career,” as well as a consistent theme. “Analyze that theme. This is the fun, subjective part. You have already presented all the information. Now it’s your turn to make your own contribution to the artist’s work.”

This is the fun, subjective part. Fun, maybe-- though honestly, that isn’t exactly the word I would use. I might lean towards enjoyable, interesting; challenging. But subjective? Not if you are doing a good job. Why, I ask myself, is it that when Civilians* talk about analyzing and evaluating art, the same idea nearly always surfaces-- that such discussion lacks objectivity and inevitably veers off into some kind of thickety underbrush of creative flights of fancy?

Catalogue essays are not about making something up. They are about finding the clearest way to describe and explain. The catalogue writer opens a door, makes the viewer’s experience of the work more meaningful and satisfying, and puts the work in a context that helps it to be understood and appreciated.

Oh, I almost forgot: in the E-How instructions, the last thing the essay is supposed to do is to draw a conclusion by synthesizing objective fact and ‘fun’ fiction together in order to “make a lasting impression on the reader’ – but of the artist’s work, rather than your prowess as a writer. Well, of course. Isn’t that the whole point?

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