Study Visit – Nottingham Contemporary

Today I visited the Nottingham Contemporary on an OCA Study Visit. The day consisted of visits to two major exhibitions and a brief opportunity to take part in a symposium entitled Shimmering, Shining, Vomiting, Glitter (The Poetics and Politics of Disgust). Catchy, huh?

The first, and most relevant exhibition, was a retrospective on the work of ASCO, a group of Chicano artists who were active in Los Angeles between 1972 and 1987. The other show was a mixed-media piece by Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer, called Let’s Make the Water Turn Black. This work is a computer controlled collection of 70 individual sculptures that are designed to be viewed as a single instrument. Apart from today that is, as the computer was broken and so it was a lifeless collection of theatrical junk. You can see how it should look on YouTube.

Last night, I wrote the following in my journal as I prepared for the visit:

I’ve now spent 3-4 hours preparing for tomorrow’s visit and so far have only covered the ASCO element. Slowly, I have become more familiar with their work and what the group were looking to achieve, their styles and their bravery. I’ve spent 10 minutes or so on the Geoffrey Farmer work and don’t feel compelled to dig further.

I have taken time to study ASCO for 2 reasons. Firstly, to try to get the most from the visit, but also to not look entirely stupid in the group of my peers who I’ll be meeting for the first time. I have already written elsewhere in my learning log about my reservations and apprehension when discussing art. To dive straight in to a visit like this so early in my studies, with its discussions and symposium, will be a challenge although I realise that it is not something I should be worried about; it is partly the reason I’m studying in the first place. I hope I’m not the only ‘newb’ and I understand the ‘visual language’.

On the subject of discussing art, I tried a re-assuring conversation with my friend David the postman, although he isn’t my postman. I told him that I felt my previous engineering studies came more easily – I could explain that if I did x, y would happen. I explained that the subjectivity of art was difficult to come to terms with… At which point, he dusted off his literary degree and explained that ‘in art you can prove anything. All the information required to prove any point of view was contained within the artwork. I cannot prove that an inch actually measures 25.4mm’. I’m still coming to terms with his explanation and look forward to discussing this further with him.

Anyway, I met my fellow students and our tutor for the day outside the stunning building that houses the gallery. It was celebrating it’s 4th birthday – there were cupcakes. They were a friendly bunch, with 5 of the 6 being photography students, ranging from me in my first couple of months, through to a gentleman who was well into level 3. The 6th member of our group was a painting student. After a quick run through of the day’s itinerary, we had an hour to view the two exhibitions.

Nottingham Contemporary
Nottingham Contemporary

The ASCO show covered their range of media from photography, film, printed material through to paper dresses. It was great to see so many of the images that I’d read about during my research but not been able to see. It is not often that Google is beaten, but several of the pictures I’d read about weren’t available on-line. Of course, the ones that I had seen were so much more impressive when viewed in the printed form and despite some average lighting, the show looked superb. I was surprised to see the inclusion of the paper fashions – these were created by Patssi Valdez many years after she left the ASCO group, but it provided a tie-in to Nottingham University and probably played a part in the rest of the show appearing here in the first place.

One of my favourite examples of ASCO’s ‘No Movies’ was Pistolwhippersnapper (movement two). The pictures were supposed to look like stills from movies that were never made. As Harry Gamboa Jr, the creator of this image said, they were ‘perceiving life in a cinematic context’. The diptych leaves us wanting more. We want to know what has happened to bring us to this point. And what happens next. As such, the pictures are a success.

What I still don’t understand having seen the show is how they circulated this work in the days before the internet, and if they were successful in their aims. These pictures were part of a protest against Hollywood and the lack of Chicano faces in their films. ASCO created these images, designed as advertisements for films that didn’t exist, but who saw them? A display case showed invitations and flyers for a performance that the ASCO collective were giving in 1982. The simple, typewritten note looked extremely old-fashioned.

Another example of the ‘No Movie’ is the Asshole Mural that is a play on the traditional Mexican mural tradition and the Hollywood filmset glamour, in an excellent composition. As I was looking at this picture, two people came in to the gallery and stood alongside me. One said to the other ‘look at his jeans’ and received the reply ‘is that a sewer?’. This captured exactly a thought I’d had that the exhibition would have been hard work if one had not researched it beforehand. To walk in off the street and see these images ‘cold’ would have been tough going. Without understanding the context, it may have appeared a set of fairly average photographs (with a couple of exceptions). This was something that our group would discuss later over coffee – should a picture be able to stand up on its merits without this prior knowledge?

The show was presented in two rooms, that I managed to view in reverse order. The first part of the show generally concentrates on photographs of the group’s performances whilst the second is more about ‘No Movies’. There are screens showing a mixture of footage from ASCO’s performances (which were very good) and their short films and fotonovels (which I didn’t care for at all). A separate room showed a specially commissioned film of interviews with the ASCO members.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and found much of it fascinating. I see few links between it and my work, although it did address a couple of topics that I am interested in. ASCO preformed in public space, creating their works in a ‘hit and run’ style on pavements and traffic islands. I am interested in the idea of reclaiming public space for the public, particularly parts of it that have been given over to motor-vehicle infrastructure and it is something that I’ve explored in my photography previously. I was also fascinated that LA itself was the fifth member of the group, providing the stage for their performances and the backdrop for the photographs.

A line used in a drawing in the second edition of Regeneración (a political and cultural journal for LA’s Chicano community, edited by ASCO members) reads Shimmering, Shining, Vomiting, Glitter  and provided the title of the two day symposium that we also had the opportunity to visit. Any confidence that I had gained through the day by being able to explain my enthusiasm for the ASCO work was shaken as we spent the next hour listening to two speakers. The first offered her interpretation of the work of Paul McCarthy (this link probably best avoided if you’ve eaten recently)  and his ability not to be sick despite force-feeding himself raw ground meat, before local writer Wayne Burrows gave us his ‘fabricated lecture’ entitled Convulsive Beauty. I made my excuses and left to spend a little more time in the ASCO show before catching my train.

In summary, my first study visit was most enjoyable. The time spent in preparation led to a much greater enjoyment of the work. Meeting my fellow students in a setting other than an on-line forum was valuable and gave me confidence that I can express my appreciation (or otherwise) for such work. I look forward to my next similar opportunity and would encourage my fellow students, no matter how ‘green’ to attend any study visit available to them.


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