Didactic Display: The importance of personal experience

Information hungry, the way we live revolves around what we know, how quickly we can collect information and how much information we can retain; this is true of the way we consider education, the way we live socially and the way we encounter the world. This also very appropriately describes the way we view art. Encountering wall texts, audio-guides, guided tours, information booklets, catalogues, not to mention the usual amenities such as artist’s names, titles and mediums, upon entering the vast majority of art galleries we are faced with fixtures which in terms of knowledge and understanding leave few stones unturned. Although what could be considered the current standard curatorial method (a didactic approach to viewing art) allows a viewer an impressively comprehensive theoretical understanding of a particular work, it does not seem to invite more creative approaches to the process of mediation or understanding. Such a heavily didactic approach to information greatly reduces the probability of a viewer forming any sort of personal or emotional connection to a work. People don’t fall for a Rothko because they understand it.


In Wonderful uncertainty a text by Raqs Media Collective, they write: ‘people bring their own histories, memories, scars and desires to bear on any work they encounter’. Surely the more prescriptively one is fed a work of art, the less one is able to bring of one’s own and thus is supposedly far less connected. Colours, shapes, objects etc. all have there own cultural and social associations, layers of representation or ‘meaning’ which we bestow upon them.  However, often colours, shapes, objects, etc. are also inexplicably tied-up with personal association, representation and emotion. When one experiences a work of art, one undoubtedly experiences the work from one’s own individual viewpoint of the world.


Suzanne Lacy in her publication Mapping the terrain: new genre public art talks of engagement in terms of particular artworks, within the text is a diagram depicting what Lacy refers to as ‘rings of engagement’, which in concentric circles transform the notion of different audiences into a diagram representing different groups’ levels of interaction with a work of art, and their importance insofar as the works existence. Lacy states that the ‘innermost circle represents those without whom the work could not exist’, the outermost circle being ‘audience of myth and memory’. I suppose, the question this poses (at least to me) is whether one could consider the perspective of ‘the audience of myth and memory’ as either part of the inner circle or a different diagram completely, as although yes, the work could exist without their perspective, the work from their perspective could not exist without them. Without a specific viewer having gone through an individual process of mediating a particular piece of work, their ideas would have never been realised. It’s arguable that works of art exist as a multiplicity of individual interpretations and understandings (of which the artist is one), in which case, the individual experience is of extreme importance and the work couldn’t exist without each and every viewer (in whatever capacity that may be).


Additional information in which I am including titles, mediums, descriptive and/or explanatory wall-texts, etc. is just that – additional. The information, at least that which is crucial, is unspoken and present in the work itself. Looking for more, it’s easily forgotten that these often over-didactic methods employed by the gallery are not the only place to search. It’s important not only to understand what the work has to offer but what one has to offer to the work – experiences, memories, emotions which ultimately one has in common with the work are as, if not more important than any conceptual understanding on the part of the artist. When does information or understanding become counter-productive?


Do we really engage with a work we are told everything about? There are most certainly works that more effortlessly lend themselves to a more fluid, creative process of mediation. Just as there are works which it is much more difficult to engage with in this way, of which conceptual art proves particularly problematic. How can a work’s conceptual ideas be explained, whilst still allowing the space for a viewer’s personal thoughts and feelings to manifest? It is, I suppose, important that conceptual understanding, in terms of the artist’s understanding of their own work, is presented in some way and in that sense, a didactic attitude towards the work’s meaning is difficult to avoid – but do we really want to close off the possibility to the artwork’s full potential? Do different varieties of work require different levels of mediation and do some works in particular require there to be a more open, more fluid form of viewing?


Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled 1989-1990, a stack of endless sheets of printed paper, along with Dominique Gonzalez-Forester’s Tapis de Lecture (Reading Rug), a carpet on which an ‘L’ shaped stack of books sits waiting to be read, are both works which invite a participatory viewing.  Both works surround specific conceptual meaning with an aura of ambiguity and in this sense encourage the viewer to engage in a deeper, more intrinsic encounter with the work. Gonzalez-Torres’ paper-stacks, which are intended to be taken one by one, by the viewer and are constantly replenished by the gallery, are a heavily conceptual body of works and yet in their minimal forms, do not necessarily dictate the experience or understanding of the individual. Inviting the viewer to engage in an act seldom acceptable in an art gallery in both touching and removing the work, the viewer is offered another rare opportunity of experiencing an original work of contemporary art (or at least a piece of) in their home. Tapis de Lecture is entirely different in its methods of non-specificity. The foundation of its bibliography being Gonzales-Forester’s practice; the books are ones commonly referenced within her work. Despite the specific nature of the selection of material, what the viewer (or reader) chooses to read is completely up to the individual. A viewer could read the entirety of information present in Tapis de lecture and yet their thoughts, ideas and connections between documents would be completely unique to that of Gonzales-Forester’s. Whether viewers read at all is, I suppose, dictated by the situation they might find themselves in; participation is more likely to occur if some level of participation is already taking place. As I have already attempted to establish within this text, current methods of curating and viewing art often stand in the way of the potential for a more engaged, creative experience, and this is true also of physical participation.


At the 2014 Tate Summer School Jenny Dunseath gave a talk specifically focused towards making; she had her audience/participants occupying their hands molding plasticine and their mouths with the act of chewing gum. Dunseath who sculpts and has a particular interest in idiosyncrasies and processes of making, had her audience fiddling and chewing whilst following various instructions. As her audience/participants became increasingly involved with their own process of making she spoke about an array of works, ideas and theories by both herself and other practitioners.  She reeled off huge amounts of of information, including information about her work as an assistant to Antony Caro – making remained at all times the theme of her monologue. It was both my understanding and that of all other audience/participants that we experienced a point at which we had stopped listening to what Dunseath was saying. Discovering an inability to sculpt with the plasticine, follow instruction, chew gum and listen to/digest information, there came a point at which each audience/participant sort of ‘woke up’ in a panic that they had failed to take notice of what Dunseath had to say. Thankfully Dunseath reassured her listeners at the very end when she spoke about the importance of the talk/exercise being in the process and experience that each individual had had with their materials (plasticine and gum) and that learning was intentionally taking place through the physical process of doing and not listening.

Fresh from NUA

Every summer the studio spaces within the historic St. Georges Building of Norwich University of the Arts, which houses the creative activities of its resident fine art students, is cleared. The messy, productive and often quite chaotic spaces find themselves stripped bare and revamped in order to house work (of the graduating students) in a much more purposeful manner.

Shared working environments, such as shared or artist-run studios (the kind one accepts rather expectantly as a student) provides a fascinating environment in which to work; immersive and diverse, these working environments are the ideal breeding ground for creativity. To see such unrefined creative activity translated into such an eloquent display of emerging talent is utterly refreshing and in this sense NUAs 2014 Fine Art Degree Show does not disappoint; an absolute assortment of artistic practice, work throughout this show spans the traditional to the Avant-garde, challenging notions of artistic practice, ways in which work can be made and ways in which making itself can be thought.

Shared studios are the catalyst for creative discourse and dialogue; shared conversations, common interests and communal discussion are echoed through the display of work. The show is not themed per say, although making ones way round one is aware, in a rather poetic sense, of conversations that have taken place between practitioners and dialogue that is taking place between work.

One such conversation may implicate craft or craftsmanship, work across the breadth of the show appears to be heavily involved with its own making and visually demonstrating such processual activity. Davide Lakshmanasamys Untitled, standing authoritatively on the upper landing, is a stunning example of craftsman-like methodologies of making. Positioned domineeringly, the immensely strong and exceptionally certain characteristics of  Lakshmanasamys work sits in tentative contrast aside the ever-in-flux curatorial compositions of Michaela DAgati. DAgatis installation, which is not titled collectively, but lists each work individually, calls into questions contemporary drawing practice. Through processes of hand, mind and eye, elements of her work gracefully and purposefully negotiate the space in which they reside. Through the interaction between the objects and their space, the physical presence of the space itself is brought to one’s attention, one becomes immediately aware of certain characteristics and nuances of the space shared by oneself and the work. In dialogue with the spatial occupancy of DAgatis work, Francesca Cants Moving Hinged Screens, which invite participatory activity, cleverly ensue the negotiation of space by means of a viewers interaction. The four hinged wooden structures, which frame semi-transparent windows, are intended to be moved; the work either finds itself repositioned in which case the mover defines the space they are in, or remains in its current position, where the structure defines the space and how one might negotiate it.

Davide Lakshmanasamy

Davide Lakshmanasamy


When I Remember, a work by Emma Jones, sees photographs from her childhood reduced into single colours, papers are printed in these autumnal shades and are then folded to create a constellation of origami-like objects which weighted to a single point seem to float upward like a procession of ascending lanterns. Like in Jones work where meaning is subverted behind a fairly minimal faced, Helen Pifferos, a work comprised of two large canvases, becomes an almost political stance against knowing in terms of viewing work. Behind a really rather physical making, involving as much the removal of paint as well as its application, a very visual façade invites contemplation and reflection.

Emma Jones

Emma Jones

Giles Basons Pari Passu, which quite plainly has involved a meditative and tranquil process of making, invokes the same in its viewer. Its utterly subtle, elegant appearance boasts meticulously and lovingly carved ash wood. The works concrete bases are imprinted with wood-like grain and each one, beautifully sculpted by hand, takes on a life of its own as an individual. Staged in front of a large glass window, Basons work coexists with nature and stunning natural light. Although logic tells us, that these sculptural forms have been whittled down to their current physical presences, they appear very much to have manifested naturally from seedlings, even their concrete bases taking on an organic quality with the subtle wood-like textures engrained in their surfaces.

Giles Bason

Giles Bason

In the work of Adam T. Burton, whose digitally made film Those Personal Machines of Transcendence is intentionally disrupted to give this difficult-to-view media a certain amount of tangibility, the materiality of what Burton creates is very much at the forefront of his practice; HD footage is paired with animated light bleeds and virtual camera faults and gives the impression that Burton is working with a media much more physical than is actually the case. The footage sees Burton returning to his hometown, a place he left at the age of 19, where he shoots an array of eerie scenes in which images of the 70s housing estate in which he grew up, seem not to move at all. The film is not made nostalgically, lovingly or emotionally, instead Burton seems to demonstrate a disconnect between himself, his camera and his subject. In the gallery, Burtons work is viewed initially through the semi-transparent views of Alana Webbs Oculi, Formulation I, in which the traditionally city-scape is completely transformed; windows photographed by Webb whilst exploring the city at night induce our most voyeuristic and inquisitive nature. Unlike with Burtons work, Marcia Xs The Gonzo Museum of Ethnology presents: Diasporic X, also introduces the viewer into new surroundings. Traveling back to Puerto Rico, a place that X hadnt visited in fourteen years, she has retuned with her memories. Whilst immersed in Xs work, one does not find oneself in a recreation of Puerto Rico itself, but an installation in which she curates an identity for herself; one which draws on cultural and social idioms, one which stands against the notion of having an identity created for her. Invited to play dominoes with X, she invites the viewer (and people from other parts of the world) to connect with her, in the same way that friends and family connect in Puerto Rico, through the playing of dominoes.

Alana Webb

Alana Webb

Elyn Middleton in her work Look Up Look Down Look all Around, removes a section of the gallery wall to allow one to peer through, not only to the stunning view through the window behind but to the original and paint spattered wall of this historic building. A glimpse which is mirrored and balanced with subtle material gestures; steel rods balance precariously in the space between the original wall and the much newer gallery wall, small rectangular pieces of painted wood are positioned matter-of-factly on the floor and a box-stool which becomes part of this rather curatorial arrangement has the much more practical role of allowing one to see.

The NUA fine art degree show is also quite heavily involved with more theoretical discussion; the catalogue brings aspects of contemporary art practice into question boasting the work of artist Cornelia Parker who demonstrates her playful methods of making and a conversation with artist John Wallbank focused on the subject of process. The theme of accessibility is discussed through a text comprised of the ideas of artist Jo Addison, writer Victoria Mitchell and curator Marcus Dickey-Horley, whilst Mark Wilsher through his text Dont Stop, talks of continuing practice after art school. Conversations and dialogues are formed and cemented with the presence of research and resource material from each student artist and a well-informed resource area attempts to expand on dialogue with its audience around potential of art practice today.

The Degree Shows at Norwich University of the Arts open on 1st July and runs until July 8th; they boast many more incredible works and talented practitioners.

Photos by Joseph Doubtfire.

Practice and Pedagogy: the Problem of Knowing or Not Knowing.

Joseph doubtfireEducation’s purpose is to produce knowledge. ‘Art school’, which now seems a slightly archaic term, is supposedly the ‘artistic’ catalyst for such production. The debate as to what ‘artistic knowledge’ is exactly is not absolutely definitive; it therefore comes as no surprise that as debatable are the methods of its production – the ways in which art is ‘taught’. James Elkins’ book Why Art Cannot be Taught, as its title suggests, challenges the notion that art is a teachable subject and draws on several problematic aspects of the pedagogy of art. Elkins illustrates the difficulty that the idea of teaching art poses. Teaching art, he states, which implicates teaching the making of art, is not something learnt in the same way as that of an academic subject and does not pertain to that of conventional knowledge or understanding.

A fine art education is particularly difficult to comprehend, as although the student leaves with a degree and technically is qualified, what the student has learnt must, must it not, be fairly different to that of any other education, particularly insofar as that which is learnt artistically or on an artistic level; thus a clear dichotomy between two kinds of knowledge is evident. Craftsman-like skill, conceptual understanding, the manifestation of idea into object are all, I suppose, involved in and yet removed from that which artistic-knowledge is. For example, if one were to label artistic-knowledge quite simply as ‘material understanding’, with the artist becoming a craftsman-like figure, then the ‘idea’ or conceptual understanding of the work is rendered unimportant, or rather an unimportant part of that which the artist or student-artist knows. Whereas one cannot possibly separate ‘idea’ from the making of art, without a preconceived idea (or thought) one could not possibly make art if in fact the ability (or knowledge required) to make art is the most definitive label one can bestow upon that of ‘artistic-knowledge’.

Understanding (or not understanding, as the case may be) that which artistically is learnt, which one might describe as artistic-knowledge, results in an ever more challenged notion of art education – if what is known artistically is indescribable (even unknowable), how can it possibly be taught consciously?

In a contemporary art education learning is not limited to that which is known artistically -programs of fine art education involve the theoretical, historical, philosophical and the curatorial. The student is taught several skills often employed by working artists, skills that intentionally are transferable and applicable to other areas of work or study. Such skills exist as part of an art education due not only to their relevance and necessity to work successfully as a practicing contemporary artist, but because an art education was lacking a measurable way of producing knowledge. An art education must serve the purpose of education and as a result, must meet the expectation that the student leaves qualified.

The idea of art as a qualification is challenging in itself, a notion that is further problematised when one considers an art qualification in relation to other (particularly academic) qualifications. It is possibly the implementation of theory and history that bridges the gap between that which is learnt as a result of an academic education and that which is learnt as a result of an artistic education – the uncertainties of what artistic-knowledge (or the ability to make work) is alongside the implementation of art school into the realm of the university and academy (a motion which has drawn an unspoken parallel in the sense of the production of knowledge) created the need for an ability to measure that which is learnt – the student dissertation is an example of that which is measured within either variety of education. The qualified artist quite obviously does not know the same as the qualified scientist, either practitioners breadth of knowledge may overlap, but what it is that either knows can never exist on a parallel level, as either has different skills and abilities (one might go as far as saying that one has the ability to make work and the other does not, although there is without doubt exceptions to this rule). The type of knowledge produced by either academia or art seem incomparable, although theoretically exist on the same plane; a BA (Hons) degree in either fine art or in Science technically have the same academic value.

Joseph doubtfireSeparating that which is learnt artistically from that which is learnt theoretically, philosophically, historically or curatorially is challenging, if not impossible. These are factors that have become wholly engrained within an art education but also the way in which contemporary art is practiced and the way one thinks about practicing art. One might argue that making art is inclusive of simply that – making, and that practicing art and the knowledge one gains from such activity is separate from that of theory, philosophy, history or even the curatorial. But to understand the relationship between these ideas and the making of art, one must imagine the academic and the artistic as two separate entities – what would art be without theory, history or philosophy?

So much a part of the way contemporary art is made is understanding what it is that has been made – the way in which a particular work performs. We not only attempt (and are taught) to understand what it is we have made, but so often that understanding is relative to particular theories and/or histories. The emphasis on knowledge-production, not as opposed to, but in addition to the production of visual art has meant a dramatic shift in the seriousness of an art education. Theoretical, historical, philosophical (and to some extent, curatorial) aspects of studying art, no doubt became a more integral fixture and are parallel to the introduction of art into the syllabus of academic institutions and the translation of many art schools into art universities. Programmes of study such as the Master of Fine Arts and the practice-based PhD are examples of ways in which the pedagogy of art has moved to exist more in accordance with ideals of the academic. Practice-based research, which programs of study such as the Master of Fine Arts and the practice-based PhD are involved with, attempt to produce knowledge (in an artistic sense) which exists in problematic correlation with that of scientific or academic knowledge, although is not in opposition completely.

What artistic knowledge is, is hugely challenging, therefore as challenging is understanding exactly what it is that an art education teaches its students – what the student learns. Artistic knowledge,which we know to understand as knowledge, which allows the artist the ability to make work, exists in a wholly individual sense – the knowledge required by the artist to make work is dependent and interchangeable on that which the artist wants to make/is making. Art education no longer concerns itself with the teaching of traditional craft to an entire class (or year) of students, therefore it’s necessary for the education that is delivered to be as diverse and wide-ranging as its students and the work they produce. Presumably, this need for diversity is where the dialogical and conversational methods of art education have stemmed from – with a personal tutor, group critiques etc, the education is more or less personalised to that of the individual.

Self-motivation and self-driven practice (and by extent, learning by means of one’s self) are the basis of the current pedagogical method, which is employed as a pivotal role in the way the student-artist learns (and is taught). The implementation of student-lead learning, or really, the eradication of lecturer-lead learning challenges the idea that the master knows more than the student. The course if nothing else, teaches its students to problem solve. Dialogue and critique employ the notion that the artist or student-artist knows the most about their work, but benefit from an open dialogue surrounding it. The idea of looking at other art is the method employed to allow the student an understanding of how to position themselves in regards to contemporary art. Although theoretical, historical and curatorial understanding is commonplace within most art education on and above a degree level, the rhetoric of an art course is making, this is easily overlooked. An art education is, at its core, an allegorical, microcosmic view of working as an artist – the idealistic student routine goes something like; wake up, make work, sleep, wake up, make work. Yes, there are lectures and seminars, talks and course meetings; the fluidity of practicing art is made rigid with such activity, not to mention the requirements of the course (such as grading criteria). The student-artist writes and thinks but above all they make-work and they learn to understand how they make work, what it means to make work, and what that knowledge means.

Joseph doubtfire