During his Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4, when Grayson Perry was asked to explain how one knows if something is art his first response was “that if it is in a gallery it is art”. But what if is not in a gallery?
In the last week I have seen some fascinating art both inside and outside galleries. Most of my experience of working in the arts has been in non-gallery locations, so it’s not surprising that the three things that I enjoyed the most and for very different reasons, were in public (or semi-public) locations. Each context appealed to a mix of audiences and all enjoyed their experience. The three works I refer to are (texts taken from publicity):
- A Concert for the Birds by Annika Kahrs – commissioned by Situations as part of Bristol Arts Weekender
“Annika Kahrs invites you to take a seat amidst an audience of songbirds for an enchanting recital of one of Franz Liszt’s best loved piano solos. Staged in The Lord Mayor’s Chapel, one of Bristol’s oldest and most intimate chapels, the birds will take up residence among the pews and listen to hourly performances, hearing the piano in imitation of birdsong with trills and tremolos resulting in an artful piece of musical story telling.”
- Park and Slide by Luke Jerram – part of Bristol Arts Weekender
“Park and Slide is a water slide installed on Park Street in central Bristol, enabling people to navigate the city in a new way. This massive urban slide transforms the street and asks people to take a fresh look at the potential of their city and the possibilities for transformation.”
- Miniature Museum at Newark Park (National Trust), nr. Wotton Under Edge – part of SITselect by SIT
“Miniature Museum is an interactive merge of museology and art that adapts to different locations. The Cabinet installations combine digital media, steam-age engineering and delicate attention to fabricated detail. Miniature Museum throws light on fact and fiction of a little known legend. Travel from Tudor times through a collection of curiosities, and find the mysteries of a medieval hunting lodge unraveled.”
How those works are experienced is contextualised by their locations, funders and hosts. Situations commissioned Annika Kahrs for the Bristol Arts Weekender. I’m not sure how that specific work was funded, but Arts Council England, Art Fund, Bristol City Council, Blink Giant Media, Bristol Ferry, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Clifton Hotels, Frameworks and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation supported the Weekender project. Situations have an excellent profile in contemporary art commissioning in the public realm. The songbirds were brought in by a local group of enthusiasts and were tended and stewarded by volunteers and veterinary students. It was a wonderful experience for visitors – people chattered and took photos as they viewed the caged songbirds. When the pianist began her concert the audience became respectfully quiet to listen. The birds lowered their singing dramatically, but did heckle occasionally at parts of the musical score. Interesting to me that the professional musician commanded quietness and respect from the audience, yet when the birds sang no one whispered or kept their volume down. So it alternated between being a fairly raucous social space into a concert space. Because it is presented by Situations, we know it is art.
Outside the modest Chapel on Park Street – on Sunday – the audience was very different. Throngs of people lined the closed-off busy street, drums were thumping, people marching, music and food-sellers jostled for space to watch the participants take their turns. The media coverage was huge. Luke Jerram initiated Park and Slide himself and conducted a crowfunding appeal to pay for it. Bristol City Council helped to make it happen. So the public paid for the slide and were in attendance on the day in a big way. For safety and logistics reasons, tickets were available on application – only 300 available and nearly 100,000 applicants. People power. Safety was ensured by a large group of volunteers. When Luke spoke to the BBC live as they installed the side, he asked himself the old chestnut question to camera: “But is it art? I have no idea, it’s not for me to say”. The same day Jeremy Deller, who was giving a talk in association with his show English Magic at Bristol Museum, referred to Luke’s work during his talk. This was repeated on Twitter by Situations:
When told about this comment Luke responded “it’s because I originally come from Stroud – land of cheese rolling!” Deller’s work is renowned for his folklore projects, so this was a playful and pertinent comment to make.
Over in the Cotswolds, in the land of cheese-rolling, in an entirely different context, you will find Tara Downs’ and Bart Sabel’s Miniature Museum: Ozleworth Cabinet of the Gylde. They are showing as part of the Select Festival, run by SITselect and hosted by National Trust at Newark House. They received a grant from Arts Council England towards it. The Cabinet explores textiles through an indirect route – that of storytelling in response to an image of a dragon that can be found throughout the building, but most obviously on the weather vane. They create enchanting automata that tell stories – some fact and some fiction. Their rigorously thought-through narrative relates to gold dragon scales pulverised with saliva, then mixed with old mans beard to create a golden thread. Textile art with a twist. It is beautifully installed into a valuable cabinet belonging to the house, so the levels of interaction are defined by the limitations that imposes. Visitors to the house have been delighted by this art work – a different demographic to those sliding down Park Street or enjoying the Performance for the Birds – but significant in that it introduces the National Trust visitors to fictional narratives. The question as to whether or not it art is not asked there, because it doesn’t matter so much to people.
And why should it matter anywhere? I recall working with a geologist who had been amazed by how angry people get if they don’t like a piece of art. He was baffled by this, pointing out that if enthusiasts were in some way disappointed by geological finds in some way, they didn’t rage about it. For some reason we get very emotional about art we don’t think is really art. Which is possibly why it is so important to us – because we care. We become emotionally involved with art so are prone to being moved by it. It’s one of the reasons we need it.
As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the contemporary art world can get very bogged down by it’s preference for obscure language and deeply conceptual work. All three of these works can be analysed and discussed on many levels. But the important thing is the experience of the visitors. Luke’s slide is successful because it does not appear to be conceptually loaded – but it does raise some fascinating questions about accessibility of public places and how we use our cities. Annika’s birds engage people in another way – living birds en-masse are intriguing, stunning to look closely at, shocking in their aural volume. There is a deep well of thinking lingering below the surface of this seemingly simple interaction. And the same goes for Tara and Bart’s work. Museums have a culture of’ don’t touch’ and a compulsion for facts, but this work goes further. It uses facts and local history to weave new stories that are a joy to discover.
I enjoyed all three works equally. I have images here of two of them. I don’t have photos of the birds, because for me the sound of the birds and the music was what found most enchanting, so that’s in a sound file that lulls me to sleep at the end of a long day, after walking miles through a city to see art – and it was all a great experience.
Whether it was art or not is irrelevant.