Saturday, November 8, 2008

recipes for interpretation

as mentioned in my previous series of posts, i have been having a very interesting conversation with a friend about my recent installation. more importantly, it has also become a discussion about interpretation and the responsibility of the artist. here is more of the ongoing dialogue (as in the previous posts, his text is italicized and mine is in wine. or burgundy. or alizarin crimson. or whatever colour this is):

It's really interesting for me to hear the response of an artist whose work has so many layers. I often see work [where there seems to be] no link or point. It makes me wonder if there even is a point. i think that sometimes the point is really the artist’s self-expression (the art is about the artist), and not about communication. that kind of work quickly bores me. then there’s art about art, which is often intellectually or conceptually interesting, but sometimes doesn’t have much beyond that. and sometimes the point is so obvious that there isn’t much more to it. and then there is work that is more layered or resonant. Your work is clear that there is a point, it was more an issue of how to interpret it - for me. yes, i do have a point – or rather, points - but the point is not so much a single meaning as it is the activity of interpretation and paying attention to that process. it’s really more about thinking about certain ideas as opposed to “getting” my one specific point.

How do you approach interpreting art? I tend to think that it's important to understand what the artist is trying to communicate so that you can 'hear' what he is saying. well, that is the act of interpretation - "hearing", or rather, listening. gardner has some basic steps for interpretation, which involve working from observation to interpretation. you withhold your opinion until you’ve simply spent time looking at the physical and visual elements of the work and trying to find connections there. we often simply jump right to [our] meaning, and we haven’t really spent time to see what the work is about. in other words, first describe the work: materials, layout, relationships between elements. describe the images, colours, text. think about what they represent symbolically. what are the relationships between those elements? then start to explore whether there are connections or contrasts between those elements and content. that’s where you really start to involve yourself in what the artist is presenting or, more accurately, what the work gives you. after that you can state what you ‘like’ or don’t like, what you think the work is about – but it is then based first on what the artist has done, and then [lastly] what you think. which is, I think, the proper order: work first, viewer/ reader second.


You seem much more flexible in your approach. well -- i do expect the viewer to do the work of looking at the image, interpreting it both culturally and personally, and to find those connections between images and text, between separate elements, and ultimately to themselves and how they see and experience the world. i’d like to think that i’ve given the viewer enough to work with so that they will explore the issues i am interested in. if what you mean by “flexible” is that i give the viewer a lot of power and agency and responsibility to find meaning in the process, then i would agree. if by “flexible” you mean that the viewer can read out of the work whatever they want, i would disagree. i don’t think that option is really available because the work is clearly about specific ideas (which isn’t the same as “points”).

I suppose if the artist has a specific point to communicate, he is responsible to make a clear statement (has he failed then if his work is misinterpreted?), if the artist’s intention is less specific, than the work can be more abstract - more open ended. yes, all aspects of the work (or as much as is possible) should point back to the content. that’s why it’s about more than simply “expression”, or “feelings”. or therapy. This is pretty new to me. People often will misinterpret art regardless, as everyone (or most everyone) sees life through glasses tinted and scratched from their past, so I guess the artist should only be responsible to create the art as true to his vision, and people will see the truth the artist is communicating if they are in a place to accept it. What do you think?

again, i think the artist’s responsibility is to convey their message appropriately. that means they’ve considered: materials, scale, visual elements (such as composition, colour, line), placement of the objects in the space, and the context of the object when it’s released into the world. they should consider their imagery and how it ‘reads’ in their culture and their intended context. if they’ve considered those things, they can be pretty confident that there will be a ‘direction’ to the work, and that the viewer will have a better opportunity to engage with and understand the artist’s intention and the work.

on the other hand, it is the viewer’s responsibility to look at the work and let it reveal what it is about. when looking at the work, you don’t impose your interpretation first – that’s not about the work, that’s about you. the viewer has to take time to look at the work and to let the work “do its thing”. it is crucial that an artist, especially a christian artist, is declaring Truth, and using all the elements to convey the meaning and intent of the work. of course, it does help if the viewer is “in a place to accept” or receive the work. then again, i also think that is more of the emo/ touchy-feely experiential art language that is counter-productive to engaging with the work. looking at art may involve an emotional response (and hopefully it does), but it is more about engaging with ideas, and that means that one can engage with any work regardless. ideally,anyway.

recipes for conversation (part 3 of 3)

"you are already infected"
I don't suppose this is what you mean but this one really strikes me as how we have broken down what it means to be human into purely science. The lips - showing love (the kiss)- are dissected into exact dimensions. The fact is that being human is much more than science can show. Infected with love (to actually be human and not wholly empirical), i suppose.
nice. i was also referring to words, and language and how they wound us. not just the off-the-cuff remark, but also the carefully measured cruelty of words. it happens at the smallest, most intimate, most basic levels.


"all i have to give you is my weakness"
The human heart shows how fragile we are. The heart contrasted with twine, contrasted with rusted chain, shows that despite the different faces we may put on, it's all weakness - or compromised strength in the case of the chain. It's all we have. [my partner] and I talked about this one a bit. The images of the heart with rope and chain really emphasizes [the] frailness of the heart. and its complexity – “the [human] heart is desperately wicked” is really about our willingness and determination to deceive ourselves and find the ‘easy way’. those chains, connections, knots can be difficult or easy to deal with, but there is a lot to deal with…

"the failure of language"
I can't tell what the drawing is. it’s a bound and suspended rock (or similar object). With that in mind it's hard to relate the comment with the book (a fairly clear symbol of language) and the drawing. I guess the link between the book and the statement must fall in the drawing, but i don't know what it is. there is an implied violence – again referring to how we use words, ideas, knowledge, authority. words (and knowledge) can be contained or released. i may need to clarify the image…

The exhibit as a whole...is powerful. I am impressed. Thanks. I’m glad for your help, but I’m really glad you have engaged so honestly with the work. It was a good exercise to sit down and go through your work like this. I have a short attention span and so I actually got a lot more insight out of your installation by sitting and working through them individually. Is it lame to ask an artist to explain what they intended? I don't know. I don't suppose i should care. I would like to hear your intent. stay tuned -- i will declare my intent.

recipes for conversation (part 2 of 3)

"The last word is Joy"
I may be way off base with this one. It seems like the feet are those of christ on the cross. That with the flames of hell is a tragedy, but it all ends in Joy. nice reading. they could be his feet, but they could also be feet from someone jumping, leaping, diving. they’re active. again, the flames could be passion, or energy, but the consuming aspect is also there to discover. fire consumes. judgement consumes. joy consumes. of course, from an eschatological standpoint, when christ returns, it will be joy. every tear will be wiped away.

"You have lost the power of astonishment at your own actions"
I like the statement. I think the eyes show how what i do is done subconsciously for others. I'll do things to gain approval of others without regard to my morals degrading. The ladder...I don't know. well, there’s the cloud of eyes – we’re being watched (which may or may not elicit a positive response) by a cloud of witnesses, by people, by G-d. the ladder is a little more abstract, but think of it literally: ladders are used to ascend or descend. the question is, what will we do in response to the recognition of the effects of our actions (and words)?

"First, we sing"
I don't get it. songs, expression, creativity, worship – this is where freedom begins. where healing starts. by getting the words out. singing the pain, joy, hope, fear. the hands represent community, healing, worship. the bells are declarations, markers of time, announcing.

"Bless├ęd is the one whose heart is set on pilgrimage"
The bed-frame reminds me of an old children's movie, I can't remember what its called. It had a bed-frame like this that could fly. The picture is a silhouette of a man on a cliff, but the silhouette being made of birds flying shows the man's heart, or desire for direction and a cause to work toward. it’s also right out of the psalms.

"resistance is a difficult practise"
I looked up "practise" to try and see why you spelled it like this. It's a verb specifically, while practice could be either a verb or a noun. Using that spelling is great. It emphasizes the fact that it's an action. and I do try to be specific in the words we use – thanks for taking the time to look into that. i try to have those deeper layers for those willing to go there. really. words are important. it matters which words we use. I don't know if there is a significance to the object in the picture, but you can see the line between two opposing forces. This with the picture of the man bracing works to illustrate the difficulty of practising resistance. the whole idea of shaping something out of a resistant material (whether stone or man’s heart) is part of it too. the carving is a storm, with waves, and a whirlpool. think jonah. think turmoil.

recipes for conversation (part 1 of 3)

as noted, my exhibition is finished. i will be receiving the documentary materials for the exhibition in the next week or so, and i am intrigued to see the comments left in the guest book. in the meantime, i have been having an interesting conversation about the installation with a friend, and i've asked permission to post some of that discussion (and in no particular order). i would definitely be interested in other responses to the images, texts or installation whether you have seen it in situ or here. anyway, i am always interested in viewers' responses and questions, and i appreciate the opportunity for discussion (my friend's comments and questions are italicized, mine are in colour):

hey __,

thanks for the responses. i think there are some very interesting readings here. i will give some of my thoughts about these pieces.

ultimately, the piece is about communication, and how communication is difficult, and how language can be used poorly or cruelly or well.

it’s about how we use knowledge, and how words (and ideas) have power. it’s about what we choose to communicate, or not.


the piece is also really about relationships – between people, between ideas, between words and meaning, etc. the texts also refer to what the artwork (any artwork) actually does - they describe the relational activity that goes on between viewer/ reader and the work in the process of interpretation, as you’re looking and thinking. there are comparisons and equivalencies, but there are also contrasts.

I've been looking at your works, and here are what i get from them:

"you prefer comfort to wholeness"
I really like this one. Me too. People will often avoid issues in their life because of pain that they may need to face to overcome it, even though they would be a more whole person after facing their issue(s). The picture looks like the skeletons are tucked in, trying to feel luxurious with their things, while they are in fact dead. I'm not too sure how the knot fits in, my best guess is that the strength of the knot comes from it's tightness - uncomfortable. very nice reading. the knot also represents connection (an unhealthy one, perhaps?) and to echo the relationship between comfort and wholeness. they look the same, but they’re not.

"make a hole in silence"
I don't get this one. Lions are often associated with royalty, which ties in with the crowns, but from there....these things also represent authority, and therefore the authority to speak into things, to speak into silence, to take control and exercise your power. and words are often the first way people do that. that’s how the prophetic functions, in the sense of brueggemann's "prophetic imagination".

"I remember how it feels to be adored"
Not too sure. I guess drawing from my experience, and relating that to the drawing, I would always feel vulnerable (as the man is naked) as though I want to keep people feeling this way (to gratify my self-worth) but that at any moment they may see the truth of who I am - which relates to the flames; scared that things may get out of control. that being said, the flowers don't seem to fit in with that. there is that, but there is also the idea of longing, of missing the feeling of being adored. passion, love, romance, even desire.

"Why not just say 'lover'"
Another one I appreciate. People won't actually use words to communicate how they feel about others. There is an idea that if I say "I Love You," I give the other person a trump over me. That my frank honesty gives something to others that people can hold against me. Instead I use body language. To communicate what I mean without committing by actually saying what I feel. It's foolish. On a personal note, I've been to a few funerals and it seems so silly for people to get together after someone is dead to say how you really feel about that person. I always wonder at funerals "Did he know you felt that way about him?" There would probably be a lot a value in honestly telling someone what you think of them while they are alive to appreciate it. right. pretty straightforward, i think. once again, it’s about using words, the right words, perhaps even provocative words. again, there’s passion here (that image could be interpreted various ways – it’s from a worship conference brochure, but it looks sensual, or even sexual), but there are also different ways of saying “lover”.

recipes for kneeling: the video

well, recipes for kneeling has been unplugged, dismantled and packed away so if you didn't make it down to the fringe gallery you can still get a sense of it by watching this video, made by my wonderfully talented friend larry.

video