Thursday, December 20, 2012

On writing artist's statements

For many of my fellow art students, writing was their least favourite thing ever. I mean, there were essays that had to be produced; and theses, which caused many sleepless nights, but the most difficult was the statement that had to go with your studio work. It had to say all you needed to say, but within a hundred words, two hundred maximum.

Many of them, who when speaking were highly articulate and extremely clever at explaining their work to a tutor or visiting lecturer, would get sudden amnesia when confronted with a black computer screen. They could not write a thing. When speaking about their work, or about a particular artwork in general, they were insightful, articulate, imaginative and very thought-provoking, but when it came to writing the same thing down, they couldn't string two words together. I mean, a friend of mine who is a Mum and marvellous at explaining things to people, and a very empathic individual, says it takes her 3 days to write 500 words. I've just taken about five minutes to write about 150 words. I could have padded it out and actually spelled the numbers out, three, five hundred and one hundred and fifty. I am very lucky in that I have no trouble whatsoever with writing - but it's the lucid charting of my thoughts and distilling them into something coherent and, more importantly, relevant to the work I'm making, that's my problem. Because I can express myself so easily and fluently in writing, I tend to deviate from the point.

And now I have to make a confession: I hated my degree year thesis. I lost my train of thought early on when writing it, and was not at all happy with the end result, but it was done and I could then concentrate on my studio work. Ironically I was much happier with my diploma thesis, I still have it in my computer somewhere. But my degree thesis, I might actually go back and rewrite it. See, a huge part of the problem is that when you are in the process of making art so intensively, it's really really difficult to step back and look at it from a 'journalistic' perspective because you are so involved in making it, and have to have something for the next assessment date, and for your end-of-year show. Half the time you haven't figured out your direction yet, so how on earth can you possibly write with authority about something that hasn't yet become consolidated in your head?

Much of what we as artists create comes from our subconscious and our visceral reaction to something of the world around us, which we have to somehow turn into some kind of analytic examination in order to come up with a statement. What it - that which we are in the process of creating - is has first to be identified, and then broken into components, and examined again. And then there's the emotional reaction to what it is you discover. And you have to find the verbal language for all of this.

So how does one come from that described above, to a coherent, concise statement that provides insight into the artist's oeuvre or piece?

I think the mistake that many of my fellow students were making was thinking that they had to get the finished product - i.e. a coherent and concise distillation of the work or process or piece - the art, if you will - that works well as a statement. What they were forgetting is that for the statement to reflect the art is describes, it must be created in a similar manner to the art it describes. 

In other words, you outline, doodle, sketch, turn things around and up-side down, play with visuals and ideas, paint it, tear it up and reconstruct it, copy it over and over while changing bits as you go, figure out what's strongest about the piece, and how to use the weakest parts to enhance it, paint it, scraped away the excess paint, paint it again, put it away for three days while you focus on something else .... etc. You edit when you make work anyway, so you'll draft your statement the same way.

And as you go, you can record what you have done in writing in a journal. Or a blog. Which you can share and present to your tutors as part of your assessment - by prior arrangement, of course. (Limerick Art College was VERY into using technology to make and promote art. This was BEFORE Facebook and Twitter and all of those things. I am divided between 'oh the value of hindsight' and 'nice that the rest of the world has caught up' ;-)....) But the real usefulness of this is that at some point you can go back over it and start using it to construct your statement.

And here's where the 'journalistic' aspect comes in. You simply start by asking some open questions about what you have done so far. Your questions start with:

What
Who
Where
How
When
Why
Which

You don't have to use all of those words, and you can use each one more than once.

For example:

What am I looking at/reading/drawn to? What am I looking for, specifically? Why am I looking at this? Where am I looking? Where is this taking me? When did I stop looking at A and start looking at B? Why did I change what I was looking at? How did this affect what I have been doing/making in the studio? How am I reacting to this work? What does it make me want to do? Why do I want to do that? What direction is this taking me?

Etc.

You can also start by asking yourself 'why am I drawn to this particular subject matter?' This might actually be the crux of your work.

It might take you a few days to answer one question, or you might be able to answer several questions in one day, but as you find your answers, it's a good idea to NOTE THEM DOWN IN YOUR JOURNAL or in your blog.

Keeping a journal has several benefits: first of all, you're recording what you make and how you react to it. Second, and possibly slightly more important: you are getting valuable practice in expressing yourself in writing. This helps so much when it comes to transferring that wonderful articulate way of expressing yourself orally to black and white on paper. Plus it can also be extremely useful when it comes to writing your theses.

When you have your information, then your focus changes from recording to sifting through your notes to figure out the milestones, and what led to you produce what you have produced. You make a list of these. You think about how these fit together, if even all of these are important in the overall work, and you edit out what you feel does not really play a part in the finished work. This can take time. But it will also save you lots of time and gain you more sleep. And also, it's easier to be more objective about how you got this particular process started, six months later.

Now, I can't tell you how to put your final statement together. You have the information, you and only you are intimately acquainted with what went into creating the work. You can start with a quote from your initial source of inspiration if you wish, and follow on from that. You might need to make several versions of it before you come up with something you like - this is fine. You did the same when making your art.

But know this: as you continue making art, your statement will evolve along with your artwork. It should - after all, your statement is supposed to reflect your art, and possibly provide some insight, but certainly encourage the viewer to really look at the work.  Don't explain too much, just say enough in your statement to that the viewer has room to draw their own conclusions. As their involvement is not the same as yours, ultimately their relationship with the work will also be different. Allow for this. You want them to engage with it, and don't ever forget that while their involvement with the work is different to yours, they are interested enough in art to come look at it, and intelligent enough to form their own conclusions. Your statement can give them some of the information they need to do this.

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