In this post, we will elaborate on the following themes:
- Collaboration as a response to a false dichotomy: ‘Individual vs. Public’.
- Collaboration as a response to the myth of the lone artist/lone subject
- Collaboration as a way to create new languages.
How it all started…
This collaboration started when we met at a conference organized in UcL by Aperture, ‘Landscape Art and Archaeology’, during which Lia presented a previous collaborative work called ‘Biface Graphy’.
We immediately sensed a common ground in our approach to Landscape, and James Dixon’s invitation to participate in Public Archaeology 2015 was the trigger to start a project together.
It took us a while to establish the modalities of our collaboration, during which we went on long walks in the outskirts of London, continuously elaborating upon these during my periods of absence, when fieldworking in China, through Skype conversations and a lenghty correspondence…
Our understanding of ‘Public’
We were much inspired by a recent symposium taking place in Whitstable, Kent, during which a session was devoted to the status of beaches and the definition of what is ‘public’, or ‘for common use’.
Here, ‘Public’ is understood less as an audience than as a conception (from the ‘Beaches’ symposium : Translations are by Geoffrey Samuel (Kent Law School), as presented during the ‘Beaches’ Symposium, September 2015. His chosen exerpts are from the Justinian Code as well as its 18th century reformulation.):
- ‘Some things in natural law (naturali iure) are common to all men; some things belong to towns (universitates); some things to no one (nullius); but most things belong to individuals acquired on different grounds. And by so natural things in common are: air, flowing water, and the sea together with the seashores… (Digest of Justinian, Book 1, Title 8. MARCIAN, Institutes, book 3)
- ‘The skies, stars, light, air and sea are things that are so common to all in the society of men that no one can become their master nor deprive others of them. The rivers, river banks, beaches and main roads are public things…, which belong to no individual…’ (J. Domat, Les loix civilies dans leur ordre naturel. 2e ed. 1965; Nouvelle édition 1735. Preliminary Book, Title III, Section I)
- Things that belong to everybody through natural law: By natural law (ius naturales), the rivers, the sea and its shores belong to everybody (communia sunt). The seashore is public (publicum est) rught up to where the tide reaches. (Robert Joseph Potier, Pandectae Justinianeae in Novum Ordinem Digestae, De Diversis Regulis Juris Antiqui, Libri 50, Titulum 17, Psis, 1825 edition (first published in 1748)).
Apart from recognizing the grey zone occupied by beaches in law, the discussion which followed brought forward the ideas of accessibility and ‘recreational use’, both concepts we will keep exploring in the following month.
Here we stick to the first idea I recall from James Dixon’s description of the project: Public archaeology as collaboration between an archaeologist and a non-archaeologist, a specialist and a non-specialist.
- We do not have here a single specialist speaking to an abstract “public” , but rather a one-to-one correspondance drawn between disciplines, and an attempt to ‘write together’.
- Indeed, Rupert brought Lia to the London periphery, introducing her to his reflexions on public space and the margins, and that is how we were able to extend this towards the Kent coast. As for Lia, she was able to invite Rupert to Southwest China, and he could reconnect his previous theoretical and practical research to it.
- Most recently, because most of our sites happen to be located in Kent, our work triggered interest among a local community of academics and residents in Whitstable, Kent. In this occasion, we realized how much knowledge and experience there was in the everyday experience of people living along and near the beaches.
- Although none of our sites are contested, as compared to the issues of beach privatization and struggles on refugees’ detainment centers in Dover, our contribution provided grounding and connections to direct, material action within the event.
Our sites are not contested, because they have been abandoned by the Heritage industry and ‘already covered by Virilio’s 70s writings, but they still exist and are open for potential walkers. ‘Recycling Heritage without Value’ thus became our motto, be it for the Kent Forts or for the Rock-cut Caves of Southwest China.
Our previous respective practice:
Lia’s artistic/academic practice: The Calligraphy-Painting-Seal Carving Tripod and its Gradation From Public to Private
In 2007, I was brought to China by the arts of tracing lines in ink (calligraphy) and in stone (sigillography), first as a visiting student in China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou, and later in Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chongqing. As I came from Belgium as a former bachelor in architecture and anthropology, questions on how dimensions are perceived and rendered, versus what they ‘really’ are, out of transmitted culture, out of human strategies, kept feeding my practice. The arts of the brush and chisel appeared to me as a missing link to another dimension, a hidden door, half-opened, the key to a peculiar balance between nature and culture. On the other hand, the painters’ detachment from the very nature they continuously praised, stunned me : paper and ink appeared all the more surreal, as capture tools serving highly cultivated glances on an unconceivable wilderness, out there. My leitmotive thus became to solve this divorce between Matter and Sign.
‘Biface graphy’ (2009-2013) was an experiment in Contemporary Calligraphy between myself and Professor Zhang Qiang, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. During this 4 years of fusional research, on a nearly daily basis, we practiced calligraphy on both sides of a silken screen, running between us as a ever-mobile screen. What was initially a readable script or at least a concerted composition, became an organic and cursive shared language. The result of our interaction was then displayed in Monumental installations in landscapes and public spaces. This work aimed to revive the combinatory principles at the roots of Chinese script, and the distorted symmetry of the calligrapher’s gesture, each of us behind both, and simultaneously, a writer and a reader.
My landscape paintings are a more formal research, exhibited in more traditional gallery environments, on the art of ‘Mountains and Water’ (shanshui 山水), realized with pigments collecting in sites around China and elsewhere. As the matrix for all deeds, all perceptions, from which both script and artefact are extracted, which they mark, and to which ultimately they return, landscapes remain a crucial resource for the currently blooming movement of contemporary ink painting. Indeed, contrasting with historicized, conventional references to nature, the shapes of nature are concretely contained within the brush, sealstones and the ground pigments.
My practice of seal carving is more interpersonal and private, but embedded in traditional practice. Seals are a token for individuality, a needed object in today’s society as it was in past times. It used to be a token of authenticity and agreement starting from the Bronze Age, but it became an end-product of the urban conglomerate of individualities in Premodern times. Also, seals are a door to the deep layers of literati art, conjugating the arts of calligraphy and painting to the crafts, from which they were divorced at an early stage. Finally, seals are a receptacle for archaistic endevours, a companion for the antiquarianist, a way to make his own activity relevant, and to resume his knowledge of past forms, styles, gestures and techniques.
In the last year, I have directed my efforts towards formulating cross-cultural definitions of seal carving practices, with the co-foundation of a Seal Carving Society coined ‘回’ with Sachie Uzawa, based in Hukan Studio, Beijing City, China, and the establishment of an Ex-Libris studio coined ‘Superexlibris’ with Jan Witek in Warsaw, Poland.
Rupert’s previous work: urban margins
Rupert’s work deals with the relationship between landscape, materiality and the creative subject. He focuses upon margins – wasteland, drosscape, friche, terrain vague – to interrogate and challenge conceptual categories such as nature and culture, landscape and subjectivity and how the hybrid nature of these concepts emerges from the fringes of both landscape and identity. In his artistic practice, materiality and process are central, how the embodied subject becomes both distinct and indistinct from the landscape through the acts of exploration and making. His approach produces artefacts and photographs, but these are presented not as representations or records, but rather as momentary accretions in an ongoing process. They are often made from fragile materials, gypsum based 3D prints, paintings on glass, plaster or temporary installation, emphasising their transient nature and ensuring that they will have no long term material legacy. The objects and artefacts themselves however, use a formal language of permanence, cubes, hard lines and edges, maintaining a tension between transience and the human desire to persist.
He uses approaches familiar to early geographical fieldwork, embedded in the field, experiencing the landscape and interpreting through visual and bodily interrogation. This is brought into alignment with a contemporary focus upon the subject-landscape relationship, processual and material understandings of landscape and subject, nature and culture.
Two examples that are relevant to our collaboration are work that I made for an exhibition at MoDA, Middlesex in 2007 and an exhibition at the CUBE Gallery, Manchester, in 2010. At MoDA I presented an installation that drew from the architectural language of dwelling from early modernism and the industrialised decorative arts of the late nineteenth century. This work put modernist ideas of the permeable envelope, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, into tension with late Victorian domestic interiors, which might be seen as ‘cocoons’ from the industrial world. The hearth was used as a central motif, but was inverted such that the recessed surround led not to a vertical chimney but to a horizontal cave. Here ascendence was conflated with retreat, modernist purity with funerary monument.
At the exhibition at the CUBE Gallery, I presented architectural models of abandoned structures and paintings of thresholds, diagrammatic and very flat, painted on glass. The architectural models used the material language of architectural presentation, clean, white 3D prints, but the formal language of briccolage and dereliction. Materially these models are very fragile. The glass paintings are really very thin reliefs, layers of acrylic paint, applied then cut with a blade and peeled and more paint added from behind. Again, this work played with the slickness of architectural presentation whilst using very craft and tool based techniques of production. In both pieces the relation between flatness (the flat layers that build up the 3D print, the glass) and material volume were important, the process of production in relation to the appearance of the artefact.
As with the work with MoDA, the process of production was both expressed and hidden by the artefact, a series of inversions coming to rest in a material object.
Developing a common language, but not only formal:
Common underlying currents in our respective creative practices include an interest in components of the formal syntax of architecture (pillar, hearth, treshold, cave,…) and how they generate symbols.
Both our practices extract and recombines such formal elements, of which the ‘Recessed Door’ is a crucial example.
As you will see more of this in the days to come, here is an avant-goût of what the early steps of our common practice consisted in, with mostly collected objects, sketches, etc.
Through a repertoire of gestures – adding, substracting, moulding, printing, piercing, digging – we (cor)respond to the solid forms we find and the natural processes of erosion, ruination and wilding that fragment them.
Finally, there is the relationship of all this to the archive. We are bringing language into this with the ideas of constancy, reproduction (through inversion and repetition) and tradition. This language will have to be combinatory, in the way divination is, rather than producing fixed enoncé/utterance.