Hannah Rickards and Roelof Louw at Modern Art Oxford

To enable me to fix my attention on any one of these symbols I was to imagine that I was looking at the colours as I might see them on a  moving picture screen.

What prompts someone to go to see an exhibition by an artist who’s unknown to them? Is it the reputation of the curator or the organisation(s) promoting / hosting the exhibition? Is it visual intrigue, perhaps an image, or a poster? Is it a layered decision… appetite whetted as one reads on, and then makes a decision? I guess it probably depends on the individual, and the power of the ‘prompting’ stimulus/stimuli.

I hadn’t heard of Hannah Rickards before, but I was intrigued as I’d met Paul Hobson who’d told me that this insertion into the programme was his doing, and he’d worked with her before. I was surprised by the relatively ‘last minute’ nature of this show by curatorial standards (knowing that so many exhibitions can be about three years in the making). So who is this Hannah Rickards, and why has Hobson so confidently nailed her colours to the Modern Art Oxford mast?

When I saw this ‘promo image’ of Rickards’ work, I was vaguely intrigued, but I wasn’t moved…

Hannah Rickards

Hannah Rickards

However, when I read on the Modern Art Oxford website that Hannah Rickards  is drawn to natural phenomena such as birdsong, thunder, mirage and the aurora borealis, which she examines through spatial works that take the form of moving image and sound I realised that there had to be more to this show than two dimensions, more than monochrome lines and text – there had to be colour, sound, movement, physicality of some description, there had to be leaps of imagination… I was intrigued, I was there, and I left sold.

It seems that Hobson and Rickards share common ground in their approach to life, both individuals with one eye on the bigger picture and all that it might entail whilst simultaneously delving deep into the microscopic detail of specific subjects. The Modern Art Oxford website explain that,
“Rickards’ scrupulous and investigative methodology involves the detailed deconstruction of her chosen subject. Breaking sounds or physiological occurrences down into minute parts for individual examination, her intense artistic gaze scrutinises each particle of information from a number of angles before reconstruction and eventual presentation.”

Bringing together Rickards’ important works to date in an interwoven configuration that spans all of the first floor galleries the exhibition is like taking a walk in the countryside in that it’s a personal exploration, the route isn’t dictated, but there are paths and physical markers to negotiate, and what you see and hear will entirely depend on what you’re open to seeing and hearing.

I didn’t find all of the work captivating, but I did find most of the work captivating, and the transporative experience of visiting the exhibition was, in itself, a truly fabulous one – meditative, reflective, a journey of heightened, transitory sensory experiences. If I could have thrown my arms around this show and licked it, I would have done… but it’s just too big; conceptually bursting out beyond the walls, floor and ceiling of the gallery spaces – it’s enormous, a truly immersive experience!

The light changes as one climbs up into the first floor galleries. Rickards has installed coloured gels in the space adding a heightened sense of dynamism to the light and visitor experience. I found myself questioning, doubting my own perceptions as my pace slowed, and I found myself moving cautiously around a room that was behaving in a way that I had never noticed before, yet it didn’t appear to have fallen pray to significant interventions, not to the scale by which I was being moved, anyway. Like land art, but inside.

Rickards comments on this phenomenon of articulating (or not) experience that she explores,
“Everything within this exhibition is to do with an uncertainty in language and how we might try to articulate a relationship to something beyond us in the world: musically, verbally, gesturally.”

Hannah Rickards - installation shot

Hannah Rickards – installation shot

Her new work, Right here and then nothing anywhere else.  (2014), is a great example of this. Merely a descriptive tick chart. It reminded me of my English Literature teacher at school, Dr Foster. I recalled him discussing imagination and compartmentalisation with us. The way in which adults feel more comfortable (and therefore strive to) pigeon hole, whereas children haven’t developed a system to do this, and as it doesn’t really seem natural, as very few things in life fit neatly in their place, it seems like a ludicrous exercise, yet it’s one that we increasingly find ourselves being asked to conform to through life.

Putting their subjects into sharp focus, each of Rickards’ works breaks down the auditory, visual, or spatial relationships of its subject into minute parts for individual examination.  And this amused me, in a giddy way (giddy in the case of Thunder, a musical transcription and performance), the experience becomes so heightened, so intense that it’s thrilling; then one returns to the act of pigeon holing – how can one pigeon hole a sensory experience… or something!?

Visitors will encounter a piece of work with an incredibly long title, The sound I think it makes is, is that whispering sound, to me it sounds, it sounds almost, um, uh, what’s the word I’m thinking? Um, like historic, not historic, but, um, oh: a legend, it sounds like a legend, you know, when you think of a legend or something way back in the past you get that, that, it sounds like that to me, like this legend or somebody’s, this whispering sound: it’s a legend. The work is as much a three-dimensional object, a sculptural intervention and a light prism as it is a three-channel audio and video installation. As alluded to in the title, it can be virtually impossible to eloquently describe an experience sufficiently… it comes easier to poets, yet is the exact opposite to what lawyers do in a world where there is no room for nuance.

Yet, sometimes nuance is everything, you’ve just got to open yourself up to the intangible possibilities of it, and free yourself to wallow in it. This is an exhibition that deserves time, repeat visits in different weather conditions, repeats visits when you’re in a rush, and when you have all the time in the world. And isn’t that the wonderful thing about publicly funded exhibitions in the UK – the efforts of a team of radical gallery staff enable us to make these repeat visits FOR FREE!

Hannah Rickards - installation shot

Hannah Rickards – installation shot

… and as Modern Art Oxford approaches its 50th anniversary on Pembroke Street, we are reminded that this is exactly what the gallery has been doing for half a century. Step back in time to 1969 when conceptual artist Roelof Louw created his seminal installation Location, a continuous black rubber band stretching horizontally around the four walls of the Upper Gallery at Modern Art Oxford.

Location by Roelof Louw

Location by Roelof Louw

The exhibition opened to mixed reviews in ’69. Whilst conceptual art, performance art, and work of this interactive nature was becoming increasingly common-place in major cities in the Western world, it was quite a radical move for a regional art gallery, and apparently not everyone in Oxford was ready for it – hopefully this isn’t still the case!

Yet Louw’s critically acclaimed early work became renowned for its complex relationship between physical space, sculpture and viewer, as seen in Pyramid (Soul City), a carefully constructed pyramid of 6,000 oranges which gradually disappears as visitors help themselves to fruit (go on, take one of your five a day!) re-installed (with fresh oranges) in MAO’s Project Space.

This Roelof Louw archival exhibition was unearthed by PhD student, Hilary Floe, upon the revelation that Hannah Rickards’ work was going to be on show, and the two bodies of work chime perfectly. The Roelof Louw work forms part of a review of the history of exhibitions at Modern Art Oxford that will lead up to the 2016 anniversary.

Me helping myself to one of my five a day

Me helping myself to one of my five a day

I went to see this exhibition on a cold, grey day feeling a bit miserable, and sorry for myself – I left elated, with a spring in my step, loving life, nature, art, and the fact that this gift is free.

The Hannah Rickards exhibition continues until 20 April 2014
The Roelof Louw exhibition continues until 6 April 2014

Nothing in Art

On Saturday I attended a symposium entitled Nothing in Art organised by the Contemporary Arts Research Unit based out of Oxford Brookes University. The symposium was split into two parts, and I attended the earlier one (a pre-arranged dinner date prevented me from staying on), which saw CARU bring together artists and researchers from an array of disciplines and international backgrounds for a day of presentation, discussion and performance on contemporary art and music, theatre arts, anthropological study of art, and writing in art in the Green Rooms, Headington Hill Hall, Oxford.

After little by way of an introduction to the day from CARU’s event organiser, the day kicked off with a presentation by installation artist and sculptor Roger Perkins who introduced himself as the curator of History of The Greenham Holiday Resort, a museum telling the story of Greenham Common, which he proceeded to  describe laboriously through a slideshow of images, an animated panorama of the interior of the museum building, and a video.

Perhaps naively, I was ignorant to the historical significance of Greenham Common, I wasn’t familiar with Roger Perkins as a curator or artist, but I did think that the post WWII Butlins style holiday camp concept sounded pretty plausible. What I was struggling to believe, however, was  the extent to which Perkins was going to to describe this museum, the seriousness of his delivery, and his place in relation to this symposium. As my suspicion/curiosity heightened I turned to the leaflet (as I do when I find myself looking for guidance in museum/gallery environments)  that he had handed out to members of the audience at the beginning of his presentation. The leaflet was in-keeping with the look of the museum – a bit shit in a dated 1980’s kind of over-loaded graphic, text-heavy way. Turning to the back page I noticed the ‘museum’ had been supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, ACE, Corn Exchange Newbury, Greenham Common Trust, and New Greenham Arts. The penny dropped. This wasn’t a bone-fide museum, this was an installation, and Roger Perkins is an artist presenting a project in character (I think).

We reached ‘Any Questions?’ and my suspicions were confirmed. An interesting project and presentation about truth and one’s willingness to accept without question. Perkins’ contribution to the symposium was entitled, What you see is what you’re told. His website states,

What we believe and hope to be secure is, in fact, illusory. 
But we are very good illusionists.

It turned out to be an apt and well-placed introduction to the day, and Roger Perkins is indeed a very good illusionist. The work had parallels with Ray Lee‘s fantastasic Ethometric Museum (which featured in an adapted form at the Musical Technologies: Old and New LiveFriday that I co-curated at the Ashmolean with the very brilliant, and very lovely Professor Eric Clarke, Heather Professor of Music at the University of Oxford – a career highlight for me!).

Next up was Oxford-based musician Malcolm Atkins, who I’d met previously through his involvement with Oxford Improvisers, his ‘set’ was billed as Why Morton Feldman is good for nothing. Again, my ignorance prevailed – who is Morton Feldman? Fortunately for me, Atkins had predicted such ignorance might exist in the audience and provided an introduction by way of a captivating performance of Morton Feldman’s compositions alongside Atkins’ own inspired by Feldman, and that of another composer also inspired by / responding to Feldman (I didn’t catch who the other composer was). Simultaneously the audience was drip fed contextual information about the life and work of Feldman on a projector, which was performative in itself as quotes and dialogues dripped onto the screen one letter at a time. We later learnt that this timing was more by accident than design as Atkins had ‘rehearsed’ his presentation using a PC, and the Mac he was using during the presentation/performance was set to a different speed. Regardless, there was a silent synergy that worked, somehow . The gaps in between (the greatness of nothing) were what the presentation was all about, after all – subconscious improvisation in action!

I have to confess that when I learned that Morton Feldman was famous for a six hour-long string quartet performance I wasn’t entirely sure how I might manage Atkins’ 35 minute presentation/performance. But it went by in a flash, and was probably the part of the day that I enjoyed the most,  for all it was slightly disarming. In a 1982 lecture, Feldman noted: “Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?”

Just as Feldman did so Atkins allowed nothingness in, and enabled the audience to take time out to concentrate on it, acknowledge its beauty and preciousness.  It was a meditative experience, and I found myself fighting the urge to read the text that we were being presented with – fighting the urge to simply be empty.

For all it may sounds slightly ridiculous (Mum, Dad – if you read this!) I genuinely reached an altered state of being during that 35 mins, a state that would have been disquieting had it not been such a treat. It was a state that yoga has never enabled me to access – the closest I’ve ever got to is was probably in 2007 when I was amongst the first to sign up to watch the sun rise in James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Interestingly, and on the meditative front, I then learnt that one of Feldman’s best known pieces of music (Rothko Chapel) was inspired by, and written to be performed, in Rothko’s chapel whose mission is…“to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”

Rothko Chapel

I also learnt that Feldman’s practice was influenced more by visual artists than it was by musicians, and that he spent more time going to museums and galleries, than he did going to recitals. I’m a Morton Feldman fan, and I’m incredibly grateful to Malcolm Atkins for the introduction!

This was followed by, And you said nothing, a very moving and captivating performative presentation by performance artist and theatre maker Stavroula Kounadea.

Stavroula Kounadea is a friend, not a close one, but someone I know, so I’m going to refer to her as Stav – as ‘Kounadea’ feels a bit weird. Anyway, Stav is one of those people whose eyes really look at you. You meet her and feel examined, not in an uncomfortable way, but a way that leaves you in absolutely no doubt that she is attentively, actively listening to you and logging your every word. She is someone that has a profound, perhaps innate or studied (I’m not sure which, I don’t know her that well), understanding of the art of communication.  She talked about expressing the inexpressible through silence and the (Harold) Pinter Pause. And she demonstrated her mastery and understanding of the art of silence, or the everything of nothingness, as she swapped places with the audience and introduced us to an Audience with Stav  as she stepped onto the ‘stage’ and exchanged our eyes for hers. She left the rapid-fire conversational delivery that I am more used to behind her and suspended her audience in the silences that say so much, leaving us hanging on her every poised, and precise word.

Whilst it would have been weird for her to break or to finish And you said nothing with questions, answers or observations (she simply left us in silence, with our own thoughts, of course), she describes her work on her website ,

“I am convinced now that what motivates me to create work that is live and performative is the magic of communicating with other people. The moment when you-the performer, the idea that until recently was just in your head, and all these people in the room actually coexist in reality. It’s almost surreal.

… I like creating work that is vibrant, fresh, witty, thought-provoking and entertaining. I like having fun when creating a piece of work.”

Filling the gaps that Stav left us suspended in, and leaving the audience to decipher an audio visual web, speaker number 4 was Austin Sherlaw-Johnson, who left me bemused… and a little confused. Read a bit about his practice on Nicholas Hedges’ website and see one of his performances at Audiograft 2013 here.

Social Anthropologist, Paola Esposito, introduced us to becoming nothing in butoh dance through her research topic, the anthropological significance of butoh, an avant-garde dance form that emerged in post war Japan, in contemporary Western society. As a concept, I think butoh dance is fascinating – heightening levels of consciousness, becoming physically and psychologically present in an environment, loosing one’s ‘self’ to such an extent that one begins to blend with one’s environment, a place of non-being, a transition from centric to non ego-centric perception.

You know when you want to reall

You know when you want to really like something, and feel that you’re perhaps just not giving something the attention it deserves!? Well, I found this description of butoh on the Sadler’s Wells theatre website, and I tapped butoh into YouTube. I’ve had a read, and a look, and a think… and I think it’s fascinating, and I get it, and I tried it under the instruction of Esposito… It’s just not for me – I didn’t find nothing there, I struggle to find nothing in yoga – horses for courses I guess, I’d be a busy girl if I was into everything I encounter!

Last but not least was the magnetically charming Veronica Cordova De La Rosa who has secured funding to create a bi-lingual (Spanish/English) on-line art journal for creative writing that is as relevant in her homeland, Mexico, as it is here in the UK where she is based. Vibrations is an online space, so effectively nothing – that intangible cyber space that we find ourselves relying on so heavily, for international creative reflection and exploration, and the intention is to ‘publish’ from the site three times per year – read more about it here.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to take away from a symposium about Nothing in Art. A few days later I remain full of gratitude for being able to attend such a fascinating day, free-of-charge, that exposed me to the vast array of nothingness that exists, and the ways in which different artists magnify and manipulate it. A glorious day very well spent!