Wide Open School with Mark Wallinger

8 Jul

“It’s not really about drawing history” said Mark, munching on a sandwich, as we settled in. “I thought you could draw this rather complicated still life”. And he pointed to an arrangement of chairs, tables, chess board, flowers, lamps, with a small toy pig balanced on top.


The complicated still life

This was an experimental art class as part of the Hayward Gallery’s innovative Wide Open School programme this summer. I was wondering how the Turner prize winner and bear impersonator would cover the advertised programme ‘Drawing through history: from Alberti to Pixar’ in two three-hour sessions and the answer was he wouldn’t, at least not in a conventional way. He set the lucky twenty of us tasks covering observation, drawing from memory, collaboration and learning from others, and communication. Not a bad set of lessons for drawing practice at any point in history.

Mark took us through films and images of his work, discussing sources of inspiration like the politics of the time, and how the works were realised. This included such nuggets as his being moved on at London City Airport after unauthorised filming for ‘Threshold of the Kingdom’ (what else can an artist do when refused permission?) and Mark trapped in an orgy of bonobo monkeys in Berlin zoo, while researching for his 10-days-in-a-bear-suit-piece, Sleeper. An unsolved mystery was a second identical bear that appeared on one of those ten nights, which pined through the glass, but never returned.

Mark Wallinger life drawing (IPad, ArtRage)

We did life portraits of Mark, as he modelled while answering any questions we had for him. This was a strange exercise. I realised afterwards I didn’t really hear a fraction of what he said because I was so lost in my IPad drawing. I asked him a question myself about perspective, which he refers to a lot. He said the things that most art history says about the moment of the Renaissance, Brunellschi and the renegotiated position with god, but there was also a more personal sense, in that he had always been fascinated with how pictures appear to spring out from the vanishing point, like a source for the work, and he’s made two pieces that play on this idea. Frustratingly I forgot what they were as I was concentrated on the drawing at that moment. I’m hoping someone else will blog on these insights as I was vaguely aware of some interesting comments, particularly around the need for drawing skills for contemporary conceptual artists. This was the juxtaposition about these two classes, in that he set us exercises with pencils and charcoal but his own art is in other media, although I did hear him say he’s always drawing in notebooks so maybe this is the implicit takeaway lesson.

The following day we all stuck our drawings on the wall. Real variety in the class and some very fine sketches. Mark commented on some. I was pleased he seemed to be impressed with my iPad piece, done with the ArtRage app, which I had printed out. I think he was surprised that the ipad tool had ” a real semblance of drawing” as he put it. I would say it is drawing.

The second day was a series of group tasks and a fun variation of drawing guessing games. Mark had previously been a tutor at Goldsmiths so was quite comfortable in this studio class session. He was full of good humour and it was a great opportunity to have such access to a high profile artist, especially for the £20 ticket price.

Mark, next to our group effort from memory, while he had left the room

Wide Open School is a great pedagogical model. I will be working with colleagues on experimental short courses in our Brighton Fuse project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (www.brightonfuse.com). We will be working with entrepreneurs and creative techies from the Brighton digital-creative cluster together with academics to try some new forms of learning and teaching and this experience of wide open school has given me another source of inspiration.

You can follow me on Twitter: @jsapsed)


Looking at the Festival through glass, not a glass

24 May

I’ve noticed a trend in the 2012 Brighton Festival: it was the year of looking at actors through glass.

The Rest is Silence- photo by Jim Stephenson

First I saw Interiors at the Theatre Royal, where you peer through a window at a dinner party scene. You can’t hear the actors speaking, but you can see their gestures and expressions and a ghostly woman is on our side of the glass narrating.

Interiors by Vanishing Point- photo by Tim Morozzo

Last night I saw Dreamthinkspeak and their interpretation of Hamlet ‘The Rest is Silence’ in a warehouse in Shoreham.

The audience is in a large room surrounded by walls of video screens and glass, behind which the actors deliver the big Hamlet speeches, wrestle, canoodle etc. interspersed with video on all sides and above. It was a test of peripheral vision to keep up with the action.

Land’s End was a production in the old municipal market, by Bart Baele Yves Degryse. Instead of looking at the actors through glass some are shown on life-size plasma screens that are wheeled around and interact seamlessly with the two live actors who made the trip. In this case the video screen characters were in positions of legal authority, judgement and enforcement, while the two live actors were implicated in a murder. You tend to warm to the two that were present in spite of their crime.

Why this trend? Producers are putting up glass barriers between the audience and the players. It has the effect of making theatre more like watching YouTube or television. We watch the action in windows, although we cannot pause it, or rewind or fast-forward. We are settled into the comfortable distance of the voyeur. Sometimes they give us blankets to snuggle in, as in the municipal market.

Lands End from Brighton Festival website

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirzig wrote about the difference between travelling in a car, where you see the world through windows, like a picture, whereas on a bike you are in the picture. Usually in these productions there is a moment where one or two of the actors turns towards the audience and seems to see us; they are shocked and we’re all feeling a bit intrusive, then they turn away again and forget about us. For the most part we are not in the picture.

DreamThinkSpeak’s Hamlet was quite different from the production at the Young Vic earlier in the year where the audience were up close and personal, with no stage as boundary. My friend in the front row felt a few specks of Michael Sheen’s spit and sweat as he charged around as the loopiest of Hamlets. This was engaging and overawing. By contrast at DreamThinkSpeak there is a strange comfort at watching a sword fight a few feet away behind a window, it puts you in a more reflective role, like being a pundit on Match of the Day analysing the game objectively away from the emotions of the moment. This was also a marked difference from DreamThink Speak’s Before I Sleep in 2010, where actors were talking to individuals in the passing audience and trying to sell them things in the department store scene. I heard some of the audience thought it was real and got a bit upset. Maybe the distance of the glass or the screen is so familiar to us now we find face-to-face drama overwhelming.

Screens and windows won’t be going away and neither will unmediated ‘contact’ theatre. These three clever productions showed some ways they can be used to captivate the audience. To the players, of course, it’s us who are in the window.

Hello world!

24 May

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