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The Art/Audience Divide: Where Is The Line?

So it transpires that I’m really fascinated with how weird people are in art galleries – and I don’t just mean that one variant on the fantastically dressed old man that you always end up seeing whenever you go to a big show (although those guys are definitely worth talking about too). What I mean is that the way that we act when we’re in a space for art is really quite peculiar. For one, you’re normally faced with a weird mix of people: the art student sketching in a corner; the people having a frankly too-loud discussion about their opinions on the work; the school kids on a trip that don’t really want to be there and pass through without really looking at anything; and those who have been stood staring at one thing for as long as you’ve been in the room and almost definitely after you leave. People squat, sit, peer, photograph. Sometimes they lie down. Sometimes they laugh a lot. Sometimes they scratch their chins and look pretentious. It varies.

Last week in London I saw some fantastic things in art galleries. Not all of those things were the art I was there for, and some of them weren’t intended to be art at all, but as I was stood watching the art and the people around it I sometimes wasn’t sure where the art stopped and its audience began.

In the White Cube – a bright, clinical space, where the polished concrete floor is posher and shinier than concrete has any business being – was The Illuminating Gas. The show by Cerith Wyn Evans was just as bright and clean as the exhibition space, with neon tubing sculptures suspended from the ceiling, and palm trees on turntables rotating so slowly that their movement was only discernible if you knew it was happening and you stood still staring at it for long enough. The revered hush that the space engendered was overpowered by an eerie fog of noise generated by a sculpture formed of a number of glass flutes sounding at varying pitches hung in one portion of the room.

Cerith Wyn Evans at White Cube (Image by Rebekah Prentice)

Cerith Wyn Evans at White Cube (Image by Rebekah Prentice)

The whole thing was quite atmospheric, and very impressive, with twenty or so people milling around the room, circling the artworks. As I was readying to leave, in comes a young mother and her baby – not completely unheard of, but not the most common sight in this kind of environment. I watched them for a moment, smiling, as is my general reaction at the sight of a baby. The mother pointed to the bright lights of the installation, which the child had not yet noticed – his eyes widened, he looked back to his mother and grinned a gummy smile. Then, something wonderful happened: the child’s mother put him down in the centre of the room, amidst the milling guests and the spinning trees.

And how wonderful it was to see a baby, probably sticky and dribbling, crawling around on the floor of this pristine, polished gallery; the space’s peculiarly ethereal flute sounds now punctuated by the slap of chubby hands and knees on polished concrete. The young invigilator – who had apologetically told me earlier that I couldn’t sit down in the gallery, although because it was only his third day of work he had really no idea why – looked on bemused, clearly torn on whether he should allow the moment to unfold, or try and maintain some sense of reverence in the space. It was fantastic, and I thought to myself that every slightly pretentious art gallery should come with its own absurd, sticky, performance art baby to remind everybody that art isn’t just to tilt your head and scratch your chin at.

But this was not the only thing I saw as I was making my art gallery rounds.

The Ai Weiwei exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts is a poignant show, as could be expected from an artist and activist whose works form around concepts of Chinese politics and human rights – especially one who has been imprisoned, beaten, and is under constant surveillance by his government. The show has been extremely popular and extremely busy, prompting the Royal Academy to extend the opening hours of the show in its final four weekends.  It holds a number of works – some developed new specifically for the exhibition, some well known: including the photographed performance of his famous 1995 work Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn.

The space was crowded when I was visiting. There was a lot of dodging and trying to not be in anyone’s way, whilst not stepping over the white tape on the floor – demarcating how close you could get to the artworks before you were too close. The room that contained Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn was especially crowded, with little floor space to occupy that wasn’t covered by ceramics, and much of what was available was being used by a class group, maybe around 13 years old, on a school trip.

Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy of Arts

Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy of Arts (Image by Rebekah Prentice)

As I was looking around, one of the girls stood in front of the centre of  the photographic triptych and proceeded to drop their notebook, mimicking the actions of the artist  behind her. This performance then apparently caught on amongst her peers, and suddenly a whole pack of them were crowding the space in front of the images, lining up in little groups to drop their not-Han-dynasty-urn notebooks, photographing and rephotographing each other, each to get their perfect picture. They were definitely in the way of a lot of people for a considerable period of time, and irritating a lot of them. One visitor eventually asked them to please move along and let other people look at the art, but I thought – and I hope I wasn’t the only one – that the whole surreal experience was fantastic.

What would Ai Weiwei have thought to have seen this unintentional impromptu performance? Would he have hated or loved their flippant engagement with the work? What were the girls thinking as they imitated a controversial, conceptually loaded artwork (not that this, by the way, is the first or the most drastic case of imitation). Probably, they weren’t thinking about the symbolism of their actions at all and were just quite excited about the prospect of a cool and fun new profile picture – which I don’t think is anything to be criticised. Whatever those girls were thinking, they were engaging with that artwork in a fascinating way which was no less valid than the engagement of anyone else in that room at that or any other time.

Audiences in art galleries represent the outside world, and an imperfect reality that is otherwise removed from the immaculate space of the gallery. They are uncontrollable factors in what is usually an otherwise meticulously designed space, giving the art purpose. Because, except maybe besides being cathartic for the artist, what is art without an audience good for?

There is value in being alone in a gallery, having an undisturbed experience of the art, but I think it is all the more fascinating to have, as well as your own experience, the experience of others in your view as well. I’ve found myself thinking equally about these two incidents as I have the art I went to see, and I don’t think one train of through is more important than the other – they’re complimentary, symbiotic, as the art and its audience are.

Next time you go to an exhibition, after you’re done looking at the art yourself, I suggest looking at everyone else who’s looking at the art too. You might see something great.


Written: Rebekah Prentice

James Moore – Hip Hop and Oppression: A Voice for the Underdog?

Since its inception, hip-hop has given a voice to the racially oppressed minorities of America. The popularity and overwhelming success of N.W.A turned five penniless, angry teenagers into megastars. They came from Compton, California, an area notoriously known for the Bloods and Crips gangs, who were responsible for much of the violence in the area. N.W.A released their second album Straight Outta Compton in 1988 to responses of praise, and for others, anger and fear. Their songs caused a rift in the American public, notably the track ‘Fuck the Police’ which got them a letter of disapproval from the FBI, as well as bans being issued to prevent the group playing venues. On the surface, the song seems like a harsh critique, but it becomes clear why N.W.A expressed such discontent with authority.

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Critiquing Eva Sajovic in Hidden Presence: complications with the socially engaged artist

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Untitled – Eva Sajovic



Untitled – Eva Sajovic

There are many socially engaged artists working today. Being socially engaged means to be concerned with the struggles and strains of society, whether that is of a society close or far from you, and to be an active part in attempting to change or shine a light upon the situation; however, the addition of ‘artist’ to the title of socially engaged brings a barrage of complications and issues.

Considering myself to be a somewhat socially engaged artist (or at the very least a socially concerned member of the public with an interest in art), I’m aware of the moral tight rope on which an artist can stumble when it comes to the controversial topics social engagement can lead to. The negatives and positives of creating socially engaging art have come to blows with Eva Sajovic’s work in Hidden Presence, an exhibition as part on Cardiff’s Diffusion Festival: Looking For America.

Hidden Presence contains a variety of photographs and art by Sajovic and Julian Germaine, exhibited inside the lavish, but ramshackle Customs House: a usually abandoned space , but temporarily occupied specifically for Diffusion. The show is themed around subtle ideas of modern slavery, particularly that in Britain (which really does have extremely tenuous links with the festival’s bewildering American theme, if any), aiming to bring attention to its existence in the modern world. The public’s general knowledge of slavery is usually based in a historical sense – of black men and women imprisoned in forced labour – but modern day slavery is far more of an elusive crime, hence the exhibition’s Hidden Presence title.

In particular, I wish to focus upon Sajovic’s work with young women involved in sex trafficking and slavery, specifically with girls removed from the sex industry and rehoused at a rehabilitation centre in Chepstow. What exactly happened to them, and who exactly they are, the viewer does not know; their identities and stories purposely kept anonymous. We as the viewer are only aware they are there to recover.

On the surface, the show is an innocent attempt to give these girls a voice, and to bring attention to Britain’s modern sex trade, an issue communicated poorly throughout the country and the world. Sajovic has exhibited drawings and collages the girls themselves created in a display table in the middle of one of the cold, dark rooms of Customs House, with large, unframed portraits of girls, three with their backs turned to the camera, displayed on the surrounding peeling brick walls. It is a worthy undertaking to bring sex slavery and the dangers of sex work into the public eye, however, something about staring across at the large, somewhat unremarkable portraits is uncomfortable. My day had been filled with visits to the spaces occupied by Looking For America, a topic I was not alone in finding fairly unexceptional and rather forced, so at first I decided I was simply in the wrong mind set to understand the work. However, after much discussion between peers, there came a much more sinister conclusion.

The portraits are sexual. Stood with their backs to camera, the girls’ identities are safely hidden, but their bodies are not. The viewer, faced with no one to stare back at, is instead inclined to notice the romantic way in which the girls’ hair moves with the wind, inclined to notice the shape of breasts and hips, of exposed flesh and curves – traits long portrayed by artists and cultures alike as womanly and erotic. You are forced to notice, left with very little but their bodies to observe and remark upon. And how dare I look upon them like sexual objects. After everything suffered how could it be so easily forgotten that these women are not for consumption!

Despite any anger felt, not an inch of me believes Sajovic’s intention is to sexualise these girls. However she without a doubt has, and these women should not, and cannot, be looked upon in this way anymore. It should seem obvious these women are more than their bodies, but the viewer cannot see it – the viewer is in fact encouraged not to. This is only further emphasised by an old wooden pallet on the floor, sporting a two foot high stack of A3 posters of one of the girl’s portraits. A sign next to it says ‘Free, please take one’. There are hundreds of them, all of the same image, printed on cheap, flimsy paper, easily creased and torn, easily thrown away. This does nothing but make it worse; this girl is no longer human. This girl is consumable. This girl is disposable. And this is surely contradicting exactly what Sajovic wishes to express.

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The posters available at Hidden Presence, Customs House

It seems such a careless thing to do that I question whether Sajovic has attempted some kind of cruel irony, as if she’d like you to feel guilty as you pick up a poster, or cast your eyes over the shape of the girls’ bodies, as if to show you the way we look at their bodies as wrong and uncomfortable. That intention has gone far amiss, but even if irony was the original aim, it would bring into question Sajovic’s ethical practice when working with the girls – something also often controversial with the work of the socially engaged artist. An artist working with a community or group of people often confronts the problem of giving back: what can their artwork do to positively impact the people they have worked with? We were assured while visiting the exhibition that the girls were enjoying working with Sajovic, but the work in its exhibited state does very little to help in the public eye. The work does not encourage me to research into Britain’s sex slavery or urge me to help correct the injustice done to these girls. I can only stare at them, I feel very little; this is not giving back. Does it then even warrant being exhibited?

Sajovic is not yet done working with these girls, which gives hope that this was just a clumsy, hurried mistake in a project not yet fully thought through – an impression given off by the festival’s Looking For America theme as a whole. If Sajovic’s intention is to help these girls, and others still trapped in sex slavery, focusing the camera upon the already over sexualised female form will do nothing. These girls are people, and they need to be reminded that they are – we need to be reminded that they are. The camera, with its tendency to beautify and objectify, is not the means in which to do this.

However, if Sajovic has reminded me of anything, it is that art has power, and that we, as artists, have a burdensome weight on our privileged shoulders to use that influence wisely and correctly. There are a thousand questions to be asked about the moral and ethical practice of the socially engaged artist, ones that will more than likely never have an answer, but there is always potential to create art that can change the world for the better. Sajovic has made mistakes here, but she has heart and she has care, and therefore there is potential for this project to do justice to the girls, to evoke such a response to the viewer that public opinion may change and situations may be amended or improved. This is after all the intention of every truly socially engaged artist, and one that art has all the means to achieve. I look forward to seeing how Sajovic’s art will reach this point.


Written: Rachel Lucas
Edited: Rebekah Prentice

Second year field trip along the River Usk

To kick off our live brief based around the River Usk, we second years went on a field trip on October 24th. This trip included several stops in and around Newport, and we began by meeting on Caerleon campus before heading off in our cosy minivan. It proved to be a fun and inspiring trip, despite the typical Welsh weather that we had for most of the day.

Image by Emma Daly

We began with a short drive and a brief stop in Goldcliff along the Wales Coastal Path where the Usk flows into the Severn Estuary, before returning to Newport to visit the Transporter Bridge. The Bridge is a remarkable landmark and arguably the most recognised symbol of Newport. It was built in 1906 and is one of the few remaining transporter bridges in use in the world.

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Second Year “Make” Project

Second year students recently completed their first project of the year – Make. This was a studio based project that asked students to physically make an object. With an emphasis on experimentation and playfulness, there was no limitation on what could be created.

Created by Macarana Costan

Created by Macarana Costan

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