The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly; Art, Morality, and the Post Postmodern.
Transcript of a performed conversation between Ruth Barker and Niall Macdonald held at The Lamp Tavern, Birmingham, hosted and commissioned by Self Service, Birmingham, as part of the 'Pub Conversations' series.
Hello and welcome. Introduction from Greg
RB –When we were asked to take part in Pub Conversations, we were given a lot of freedom about what we wanted to talk about and how we wanted to say it. Because the project is so unique, and because we are the first speakers, we didn’t have a lot to go on. So we’ve had to make it up as we’ve gone along.
We’ve decided to keep quite literally to the ‘in conversation’ bit, and so we’ve mapped out an area of interest that both our practices touch on, and which is something that we’ve discussed in pubs before. The difference is that this time we’ve got some pictures, some poems, and even some songs for you.
We’re going to start by introducing our work and then we’ll use that as a way to start to talk about the idea of Morality in relation to art. We’ll do that in quite a broad way, using examples from literature, visual practice, music and maybe even from film. The conversation will be quite wide-ranging, but I hope it will keep some kind of internal logic. It’s also a very personal view and like any decent pub conversation it may involve some lies so don’t quote us.
Can we start just by raising a glass, and saying Cheers. Here’s to art and here’s to pubs, and here’s to art in pubs.
So, Niall, if I can start the ball rolling, I’d like to ask you about your work, and maybe to get you to show us some images. Can you talk a bit about your practice and background in relation to this question of morality?
NM – It’s probably important to start off by saying that my understanding of morality is very much tied to my experience of place and my particular cultural background. I grew up on a small set of Islands called the Uists, which are part of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. What’s important in this context though is the question of religion.
The islands are very traditionally religious in that particularly staunch rural way. The North Island is free Presbyterian and the south island is Roman Catholic. My mother came from the South Island and my father from the North so I spent Sunday mornings in one church and Sunday afternoons in another. Just to make this clear, as individuals my family are not particularly religious, and I myself have never been religious, but what I find is that the culture in which I was raised has in many ways defined my imagination, my sense of humour and the language that I use to describe and discuss certain ideas. There is knowledge at the back of your head that will always exert an influence on you, regardless of your particular political beliefs. And I don’t see this an anything to do with psychoanalysis or theories of the unconscious. I think it’s more apparent than that, more classically ideological perhaps.
So my work, generally, addresses those ideas of cultural influence. There is a degree of autobiography involved, but only really in the sense that those formative experiences lead on to other, more culturally significant ideas. For me, that’s one root to my practice but that space has generated an interest in things such as symbolism, the aesthetic of morality, in dysfunctional moral systems, in fables, in testing metaphysics, and, in general in the ways in which culture can still, in may ways, define one’s imagination, even though we live in globalised world.
I want to show you some images of the last exhibition I put together, which was in an artist run gallery in Glasgow called the Project Rooms. The show was called ‘Our Old Subtle Foe’, which was a quote from a John Donne, who was a metaphysical poet writing in the 1700’s, and what interested me in his work was the way in which he used the language and imagery of metaphysics and devout Christianity to describe and examine really very base and core human drives such as lust, passion, ambition and a certain morbid obsession with death. There is a constant struggle between the individual and the ideological and maybe you can see Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate, and Nick Cave, the Australian singer and songwriter, as a contemporary equivalents in the way that they have used the poetics of the Old Testament to describe a form of failed modernity. So they were some of things that I was thinking about.
This is a solid plaster sculpture of a whale’s vertebrae bone. One of the fins was amputated and the piece was partially covered in white acrylic spray-paint, so that some of the imperfections of the structure could still be seen, like the rust stains which bled through from the steel armature. I see this piece as a form of broken and disrupted symbol – I wanted to give it the weight and sculpted viscerality of an religious icon, like the carving of the Virgin Mary, but - maybe like part of a plane wreck that washes up on shore - has a form of brutal distance to it. I was also looking at Italian fascist sculptures at the time, and trying and get a feel for the relationship between the object and the ideology, the propaganda which surrounds it, and as a result I’ve titled the piece ‘Victory over the Ocean’.
There was also this elongated wooden structure, and this is basically a doorframe being propped up by an almost ridiculously long support. This piece was also partially covered, but this time by a form of roofing tar, a black liquid rubber, which dripped down and over the surface of the wood. I was thinking about this piece as a twisted, absurdist take on some of Janis Kounellis’s doorframe pieces, there is a material sensibility in Kounellis’s work which really interests me, but it is something that I want to manipulate rather than emulate, so to speak.
At the back of the exhibition was this smaller piece, and this is a portrait of me as the pope, and I commissioned that from a Glasgow based painter. However, this piece was a way to bring some of those ideas together, and to have this character at the back of the exhibition, making this gesture and perhaps trying to bless the work, something like that. Also, I think the work plays with that old idea of art as a substitute religion, but looking at that in this age of religious fundamentalism – and Christian fundamentalism is included in that age.
Finally, turning round in the space there was a series of 4 quite clinically framed text pieces. Each work was a different piece of metaphysical poetry, which was distorted by being run through hotmail over and over again, so that the html code began to disrupt the flow and the meaning of the text. There is a glitch in the software where for a split second you can see the computer code before it’s translated into neat text – and I was trying to manipulate that glitch by using these pieces of poetry as a form of raw material to experiment and mess about with.
In earlier pieces I tried to get closer to a kind of raw sculptural process, again after thinking and looking at the Arte Povera movement, and I think the consequence was much more ritualistic than I expected. This is an image of a tower that has been made out of equal lengths of wood, which I slowly and gradually burnt over an open fire to give as close to an even surface as possible. I had thought about it as a funeral pyre that had been stopped and extinguished half way through the ceremony. The main thing that is missing from the documentation is the smell of the work. I had extinguished the lengths of wood in water so that they were slightly damp and so that the smell of charcoal was really strong – it had the smell of walking past the remains of a house that has just burnt down.
This piece was also interesting to me because the sculptural process was always just outside of my control. With the pyre, I was using fire to sculpt the wood and apply a texture but the detail was more to do with the laws of chaos and of fractals than any determinable sculptural finish. This piece was much more performative in that respect, there was a tangible distance between the action of their making and the event of their presentation and that was something that I wanted to open out and address.
I began writing short, semi-abstract fables, because it seemed to me that the fable, like the parable, is fundamentally concerned with the space between action and consequence, they are there primarily to guide people through that conundrum. These are ongoing and have appeared in exhibitions in a number of different ways. Sometimes they offer a commentary on the objects or they describe part of the production process in a Laurence Weiner kind of way, and other times they expand on what I’ve been thinking about and offer another way into the work.
So really, the important thing here is that my understanding of morality is grounded in religion, and the language that I use is also from that root, or relates to it. This though, I think, is very different from your understanding of morality, so could you take us through some images of your work and talk about how you see that relationship.
RB – Yeah okay. First off, morality is a difficult question to pin down and I’m quite aware that we haven’t defined it in any way, which I think is actually quite a useful thing. I don’t come from a religious background and so the things I associate with questions of morality are very different to those that you’ve raised, and maybe it’s hard to articulate the crossover between them.
I’m going to start of with some older work and then progress to some more recent stuff.
In the summer of 2003 I was invited to take part in a project in which a group of Glasgow-based artists who were all making ‘small p political’ work were asked to do a residency in the Scottish countryside with a group of artists from Israel. During the day we made work, but there were also seminars and visiting artists, and then in the evenings we cooked and ate together and got drunk. It was a difficult project in many ways but it opened up a lot of questions about our understanding of morality in a far more immediately political sense, in relation to place and history.
I made quite a few pieces during the residency. One of the most oddest aspects was actually the site we were staying in, directly overlooking Faslane and Coulport military bases. It’s an odd place to make work, because it references a time when art was seen as happening away from day to day life, in isolation from questions of morality, and yet, as you can see, it is still as affected as anywhere by the political realities of the day. I became quite interested in looking for Trident, trying to see one of the submarines that we knew were going up and down the Loch there.
This is a still from a video called Looking for Submarines, which was later shown back in Tel Aviv along with this text. And this is another piece, called Bee Released Over Loch Long.
It was a difficult and morally challenging residency. It was a period of real questioning and perhaps that’s no bad thing in that it turns things upside down.
These are images from a series of works that are all looking at the idea of Antarctica as a notional place. I began to see a human relationship to notional place as being behind a lot of other conversations, and a lot of quite ‘difficult’ ideas began to consolidate for me really.
Antarctica as I saw it was all whiteness, and the landscape of the ice is almost an internal landscape. It’s a vision of nothingness, and so perhaps that’s almost like a vision of the abject, or of death because it’s essentially a loss of recognition. Antarctica is a landscape that reflects back what we show it. We show it the eve of the First World War and it shows us Captain Oates with his final sacrifice. We show it aspiration and the first man on the moon, and it shows us a pristine wilderness. We show it climate change, and it shows us the melting of the ice-caps. Antarctica also is a place of exploration that has been omitted from a lot of post-colonial theory; it is a continent with no indigenous inhabitants and so it has kept that romance of discovery that often seems so culturally grotesque now. When Europeans arrived in America or Australia and claimed to have discovered it despite the fact that it was already populated, they were imagining Antarctica in some way, which really was unseen by human eyes. Antarctica is an icon of the sublime because it is an icon of inevitable and irreconcilable failure, and the classically deferred image, of seeing almost entirely receding into the whiteness.
Floating Ships Sunk With Paper
These are significant because they represent the last moment before obliteration, where the ship is irretrievable lost, but the mast remains to make that loss visible.
Mount Scott, Antarctica, drawn over a period of three months and erased when almost complete.
Scale Model of a 300 Mile Section of the Transantarctic Mountains, Cast in Ice.
The ice melted over the course of the exhibition and because the environment was sealed, a kind of microcosm of a weather system developed, with ice shelves and bergs, precipitation, and mist.
‘Shooting in an Empty House’
This was shown in County Hall Gallery, in London. On the wall are two framed pages from a play I wrote. You can read the title page with the list of players, and the first page of act 1 scene 1, which really is almost all scene description, the first line of dialogue is actually the last line on the page. The play is a dramatisation, in the form of a tragedy, of some of the ideas and processes that occur through the making of a piece of work.
On the ground in front there is a glasswork designed to contain a miniature aurora australis – not a reproduction or a lightshow, but an actual miniaturising of the conditions which occur to make the aurora, the Southern Lights, appear.
The work is located in the viewer’s own desire for proximity to the phenomenon, and desire to contain it. The glasswork has a flaw which prevents it from working and so all you’re left with is a desire, which is a little bit poor or tawdry because you realise the immensity of the thing in its own right. There’s an elecro-magnetic force that can light up the whole Norwegian sky, set fire to the heavens, and yet you wanted to see it in a jar.
My work is very much about fragments along a train of thought.
About a year ago I stopped making work that came from the Antarctic continent. I started thinking about something else and so the work changed.
The Greenwood is almost an inversion of the whiteness and absence that I’d seen in the image of Antarctica. For me the Greenwood as a space is about the tightly packed, the dense, and the mutable, where nothing is what is seems and because there is such an excess of information, none of it is to be believed. The Greenwood as an image encompasses anywhere from Sherwood forest to the woods of arcadia because it is at heart a place of transformation, metamorphosis, and the inversion and blurring of distinctions; between hunter and hunted, human and animal, god and mortal, outlaw and king. The Greenwood is alchemical in its capacity to alter or deceive – Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an obvious example of that.
This was shown in Gallery Sowaka, in Japan, and it was called Woodwose, which is an old English name of a kind of wild man figure almost. It’s a figure again which is very indistinct and that mutability seemed quite powerful. Even the name changes, being Woodewose, Woodwo, Wodwo, Wodwise. There’s something hard to define within the shapes of the trees, and we can’t even tell if its malevolent or just another image of ourselves. This is the same technique, it’s a foliage pattern cut from salvaged industrial rubber, but reworked in several different ways.
The image of the hanged figure is another recurring aspect of this work. It’s a very sculptural image in some ways, because the weight of the form becomes so grotesquely visceral, and of course it has an overt association with violent and untimely death, not least through lynchings in the deep south of America - and other places - mob justice, and the Nazi and Stalinist death-camps. The dog images also have a relation to that. There’s a question of anthropomorphism, and the graphic depiction of these deaths. I work using woodcuts that I produce so that the detail of the image isn’t visible in the final print. Almost like a grainy photograph.
This is my most recent, and again the work has shifted a little, and it’s not so deeply rooted in the Greenwood any more. Language has always been at the back of my work, and so has an interest in the landscape of death and what that might mean. Perhaps death is the final a-moral state and that’s why I find it such an interesting position.
NMD – Do you think your work is less personal than mine, in that case?
RB – Not necessarily. A lot of my practice is still very intuitive, I think because I’m interested in this question of language as a tool, and that there are limitation to that tool. For me, the ‘unsaid’ or the ‘unsayable’ becomes very important as both a way to generate the work, and a way to understand it. In the case of that last exhibition, an example might be the plaster casts which in a way came from a friend who once told me that empty boxes mean a lot to her; she has a cardboard box, which came to her after her brother died. The box says ‘tres fragile’ on it in his handwriting, and it became incredibly potent because of that. The box became meaningful in a sense that it is impossible to consolidate into language because it is such a fundamental and bodily image of loss. The vacancy of that box, and its blankness, and its very inability to contain the emotion that was being put into it is very articulate.
NMD – But you use a non-linguistic materiality to discuss ideas that are external to you, like language or philosophy. In my own practice, I usually start off from my own cultural background and work from there, so it’s more about how an ideology plays itself out through an individual’s experience. It’s appropriate then that I am that individual, whereas your work is more about the observed. The external.
RB – It’s funny then, in relation to gender politics, that we can make that distinction between our work because I think traditionally there’s been a view that women artists make work about themselves or their own female experience, while male artists make ‘objective’ or overtly critical work.
NMD – For me the distinction is between autobiography as a source rather than a justification for the work. Autobiography as a form defines itself. You know what its about and don’t question its structure. In some works I’ve tried to turn that on its head and use autobiography as a form of self-obliteration, going over things and telling stories as a way to get rid of them almost. It’s like trying to exorcise your own ghosts. Whether that’s gendered or not I’m not sure. Autobiography has for a long time been quite gender non-specific.
RB - In that case, do you see your role as an artist – or your persona as an artist – as some kind of an ‘everyman’ figure to those particular experiences you were describing. When you speak about ‘self obliteration’, do you feel that it’s almost a totemic practice in some way? That you might lose your identity through using it to represent something greater than your own singular experience? If so, is that a moral question in some sense?
NMD – It’s really a question of trying to understand your past experiences - asking whether they are useful to you or whether they stand up to your beliefs. If we talk about ‘identity’ in that way, then identity becomes something that will always be in the process of construction – and that involves an equal measure of destruction. The fact that I came from a very religious culture and community, is interesting to me because I find religion such an important question now, it’s an age of fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism has to be included in that.
RB – My own background is far more piecemeal in a way. I don’t feel that I have a singular experience or ideology to break down or question. Biography is always illuminating but perhaps it’s not as important as intention: what do you want your work to do? In relation my own work, part of the desire there is to undermine certainty or assumption; that language, for example, is not a given – it’s constructed. Language is not the same as experience - or thought for that matter; it has to be seen as a structure in order for it to be seen as a tool. To return to the work I showed at the beginning, this text is a response to a passage in On Grammatology by Derrida, where he’s discussing a perceived relationship between speech and written communication. As I re-address that question, I’m really asking whether neither speech nor written language might be the sole apex of communication. Again the material or the physical becomes important again, those inexplicable or illogical associations that create meaning in quite a different, but no less incisive way.
NMD – That argument really reminds me of quite a recent book by Terry Eagleton, it’s very simply called ‘After Theory’ and I think it was written in 2005. It’s mainly about the critical impasse reached through post-modernism, that something has to happen after the huge effort to fragment history, culture, philosophy and experience. In many ways, all those disciplines had gone as far as they could go. Through postmodernism ideas of truth, experience and positionaility, were so undermined that any questioning of what was called grand narratives like ‘history’, ‘religion’, ‘politics’ or ‘language’ – or morality (secular or faith based) – were simply ridiculous. Questioning all that and critiquing it, is not returning to those narratives, it’s about asking how you can possibly re-engage with them because they do, explicitly influence behaviour, personal and political. I suppose my own answer to that is through this critical biography that I’ve spoken about – that after having digested so many forms of theory, the only place to turn is to solid experience and then to work outwards from there. Maybe all that actually means is that you need a firm base to start from if your arguments are going to stand up.
RB – It’s important to me that not everything has been fragmented, or can be, or should be. That things like blood, death, horror, and loss are real, and that their reality is not relative, and not dissolved by postmodern ideas. Perhaps that’s where morality does come in – although that’s a very unfashionable things to say – that maybe there is such a thing as atrocity for example, and it doesn’t matter where or when it happens: it is real.
What I feel criticism lacks perhaps, is an honesty when it comes to viscerality. Julia Kristeva tried to get close to it but she still neutered something kind of essential by translating the idea of viscerality into the language of criticism.
Maybe what I’m talking about is that discourse can only ever get to a certain point, because it stops where words stop. Maybe that’s why I think visual art is so important, because we can get past that limitation by making things: real things that exist and have weight and are solid new things in the world.
Art can sidestep the question of discipline within discourse because in many ways it’s a structure that has no edge. Art isn’t confined by any one form of communication or a single method of representation. We have everything open to us, from sound work to image-making to live conversation to scent-based work or performance. There are no givens for us as artists, and that gives us an amazing flexibility. We’re very lucky. Theorists have to make do with a pen and paper. Or a laptop these days, I guess.
NMD – When you talk about that tension between the linguistic and the bodily, it makes me think of John Donne. That might sound like quite a step, but I guess that in trying to talk about very physical things – sex and death mostly – he has to be very political in his use of language. The vocabulary he can use is both given to him, and prescribed by, his immediate context: Donne couldn’t use any other language at that time to express those ideas, so in that sense he’s constrained by historical realities rather than anything so academic as discourse. But the other point to remember I think, is that Donne is also very self-knowing in his choice of language and the restraints which he puts in place.
RB – I think that kind of self knowing ‘voice’ Donne makes use of is really key in terms of this idea of morality in it’s various guises. Perhaps we can come back to it later on, but it is worth thinking about in relation to the question of how the morality of the artist can co-exist with or be understood even, in relation to the morality of the time.
[address to audience] I think we’ve got time take a break and play a song now. Its just under 10 minutes long, and its another example of an artist whose work touches on these questions. This is O’Malleys Bar by Nick Cave, and like the John Donne extract there’s a kind of fire and brimstone, Old Testament feel, but this time its put together with a very 20th century murder. That tone is still there, though, and that very self-aware, very knowing position. I’ll play the song, and I’ll put the lyrics up on the screen.
[O’Malley’s Bar. 10 mins approx)
NMD Nick Cave, I think, takes us very directly to questions of morality, both from a narrative point of view (as in ‘what is the lesson of this song, what are we being taught’ in a way,) and from a point of practice (what does it mean for this songwriter to sing this song at this time). For me, its a reminder of Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky and the strangeness of your position as a reader spending time with a murderer and almost liking him. There’s an admission there that murder is everyday and that it’s not transcendental. That’s murder may be the end of one life but its just a single episode in the life of another. That becomes is the moral question at the core of the book.
RB – One thing I’d like to bring up here is maybe the morality of imagination. What is the moral state of a writer imagining a murder? What does it mean to imagine the unspeakable? Almost in the sense of a ‘thought crime’.
When Lucretius talks about imagination, and he explains the process in relation to perception. When we see an object in the room for example, Lucretius believed that light from the object is moving into our eye, allowing us to see it. This light is what makes the object visible, and he describes it almost as a ‘shade’ or a ghost of the object, which is projected towards us. When we imagine something, when we ‘see’ an absent object, Lucretius imagines the same process slightly dislocated. He suggests that a ‘mental image’ occurs when light is beamed from a far-distant object to enter our eye by sheer chance. How does he explain the fact that we can imagine ‘impossible’ objects or scenes? He gives the example of a centaur. When we ‘see’ this mythical creature in our minds eye, we are actually reading the shade of a man and the shade of a horse that arrive into our eye separately and overlap to give the impression of a man-horse.
Clearly this view of the imagination is entirely a-moral. Lucretius would say that we can’t help imagining a murder say, or a rape, any more than we would be culpable of seeing a violent act committed unexpectedly before us on the street.
As the physical understanding of the processes of the eye and the brain have advanced, we now know that the eye does not work like that, and that there is a degree of control over our ability to imagine. For a mentally healthy individual to imagine a horror in great detail, deliberately, calculatedly, as Nick Cave does to write O’Malley’s Bar, or the Chapman Brothers do in their work - is that wrong?
For most people I guess it’s a moot point because nobody else would ever know what they were imagining, but artists’ imaginations are often public. It seems an inversion of how morality is often discussed in relation to art: usually we hear about it from the viewer’s perspective, rather than the artists’. Think of Lolita, for example. Usually, a discussion of Lolita focuses on how the reader identifies with Humbert Humbert, the child abuser, but maybe it’s good to ask how Vladimir Nabokov, the author, was able to imagine Humbert.
NMD – That question is complicated though, by the idea of persona: the voice in the work may not be the voice of the artist. We can’t assume the language of a piece of work to be utterly ‘sincere’, because there is always the figure of the narrative to consider. It’s interesting that in Lolita, the validity of a narrator is deliberately questioned. Nick Cave also uses this trick quite often in his songs, especially the most violent or brutal ones. But you mentioned the Chapman brothers, and I’d have to ask whether it is as easy for a visual artist to employ persona in this way to set up a distance between themselves and the work, a distance that perhaps gets them off the hook as far as moral questions are concerned. With the Chapman brothers, maybe the most interesting thing in relation to our topic, is the broader idea of ‘shock-art’ and the deliberate attempt to outrage by representing pre-pubescent children with genitalia for faces for example. If we look at that gesture in terms of morality then the significance might be in giving a physical form to the paranoia and fear that is generated around paedophilia. Then again they might also just be try to stir up trouble to get media attention. We have to see the black humour underlying a lot of this work though. Where authors and songwriters use persona, artists often make use of irony.
RB – Why do you think that artists get such a hard time when they depict morally reprehensible subjects? Why does the general public often seem to feel that the grotesque is an unsuitable area for artists to tackle? Perhaps to many people art is still about beauty in some way. Perhaps the problem is compounded by the fact that in addition to seeing art’s function as the donor of visual pleasure, there is a perception that art should memorialise the noble or the notable. If an artist depicts the ignoble, there’s a clash of perceived intention.
When an artist like Marcus Harvey paints a portrait of Myra Hindley using children’s handprints as a markmaking device, the work is attacked and vilified as abhorrent. It was seen as morally wrong to depict Hindley in art, even though the same image had been on the front cover of every national newspaper for weeks without causing upset. There was nothing therefore in the image itself that was problematic for people: rather it was the framing of the image as art that caused the problem. The public sees art as pleasure, rather than a structure that can question or criticise: arts budgets for example are often tied into ‘leisure’ funding, which is something that I find quite interesting. I think there’s a lot to say for art that is unpleasant, or difficult, or challenging, but that’s something you really have to fight for, I think.
NMD – In Scotland there’s a huge emphasis on art as a socially regenerative activity. Millions of pounds are being spent on projects that immediately assume that art has a purely positive effect on people; that art is in someway essentially therapeutic, and necessarily morally ‘good’. I’m not saying this in order to denigrate that work because there have been some fantastic projects undertaken, but my point is that if we are going to talk about art as a social tool and perhaps even as a form of catharsis and self-expression, then those ideas have never only been tied to morally unchallenging and easy images. Since the birth of Tragedy philosophers have argued over how graphic and brutal forms of representation and narrative can be good for society. The quick answer to that is that you need the bad with the good, the horrid with the angelic. But let’s not focus for too long on art as social therapy.
RB – At the end of the day artists have always felt the need to address subjects and ideas that are challenging. The world we live in is not a morally simple one, nor will it ever be. If art is to have a meaningful place within that world, then it can’t be morally simple either.