A new exhibition at the Exeter Phoenix explores the way that artists operate within networks. The work of 12 artists will be presented within the format of a garden. Here, two of the participating artists, Volkhardt Müller and Gabrielle Hoad question each other about the ideas and processes leading up to the show.
VM: Four invited artists will each curate their own work and that of two colleagues of their choice in relation to eight other works, and all of it on a very low budget. Could you give us an insight into what has happened so far in response to that task?
GH: Matt Burrows (curator of Phoenix Galleries) has tasked us with putting together an exhibition that doesn’t look like a traditional group show in a white cube space. I think his intention has been to create a little bit of chaos and a few surprises.
For a start, we’re not a coherent or united group of artists. Creating a meaningful exhibition from the work of 12 diverse practitioners is a complex task and one we haven’t had a great deal of time to address as a group. It’s been challenging to co-ordinate busy diaries that include family responsibilities, paid work and other creative commitments.
We made an early decision to use ‘the garden’ as a theme to tie the work together, but I don’t think any of us yet know exactly how this will play out. So, in many ways, this is more of a creative collision (of ideas, artworks, objects, personalities) than a collaboration!
GH: What points of connection do you see between the notion of a garden and our exploration of artists’ networks?
VM: Networks should enable artists to survive and thrive. An environment that enables the germination of thought and is supportive of process resonates well for me with the idea of a garden.
Our garden approach is a way of openly acknowledging process, negotiation, improvisation and circumstance. Visitors will see the works of 12 artists packed into a relatively small space. Trying to pretend that there is enough room to achieve a clinical presentation would seem unwise. It’s more promising for the connections between the artists and their works to be developed and alive.
For the people involved it should be a way to get to know each other. If it turns out to be messy, that‘s fine with me. Our shoe-string budget makes for a realistic contemporary setting – keeping it real shouldn’t be too hard as far as I’m concerned.
GH: You’ve talked about the garden as a utopia, a reflection of an ideology. Could you expand on this?
VM: I think gardens are inherently utopian, not just because of the recurring desire to reconnect with a paradise lost, but also because they are in a constant state of transformation and becoming. Because gardens are linked to an idea, and a human will executing it, death resides within the garden too. If we define a garden broadly as land that is managed according to a specific set of principles, the idea suddenly extends to landscape and more abstract concepts such as home or country. For example various wartime posters chose the rolling hills of Devon as a backdrop for patriotic appeals.
There are a number of historical garden themes, elements of which can be found all around us. For example, the enclosed garden from medieval imagery is a symbol of Mary’s fruitfulness and virginity; its elements and plants are carefully chosen for their religious symbolism. The enormous baroque gardens of Versailles show a human will to dominate nature while demonstrating the worldly power of the king.
From the 17th century onwards the English upper classes have modelled their grounds as an expression of their status, ideals and aspirations. The ultimate manifestation of wealth and status in Britain is still physical space, be it urban or rural. The old saying ‘My home is my castle’ (and not chapel or temple) shows a will to protect against a hostile environment and an awareness of the fragility of ownership and the status that comes with it.
VM: How do you feel about the theme and ambition of the show and how does it resonate with your ambitions?
GH: It resonates strongly. During the past 12 months I’ve been very focused on trying to strengthen connections that reach beyond my immediate geographic area. Organisations like Exeter Phoenix and Spacex do a great job in linking Exeter to the wider contemporary art world, but they need support from the ground up. An exhibition like this, that taps into grass-roots artists’ networks, is also a great way of making those networks stronger and more tangible.
VM: Are there any other themes emerging?
GH: There are lots, but I’m particularly interested in those aspects that reflect the wider challenges artists’ encounter in their careers, such as making a living, supporting each others’ practice or negotiating with institutions.
For example, there’s a strong will within the group of originating artists – born partly out of necessity – to leave many of the decisions about this exhibition to the final stages. It’s exciting but also a little scary for me, as I’m more comfortable making clearer plans and thinking things through in advance.
Then again, even well-organised group installations are notorious for the arguments they create over territory and resources! They are a kind of microcosm of the real-world issues of competition between artists.
GH: How important is networking to you personally as an artist? How does it impact on the way you work and the type of work you do?
VM: There is a corporate idea of networking that involves pitching with great precision and conviction to somebody of strategic importance. That mercenary card-swapping approach to networking serves a very particular mindset and circumstance and I rarely operate on that level.
Spending much of my time between being a father and being an artist I don‘t have the resources to do a great deal of socialising, which is part of most networking efforts. I am lucky to have an intelligent partner who can give valuable feedback on my ideas. Saying that, throughout my working life I rely on human relationships. I constantly develop them and they are incredibly important to me and my work. These relationships are all about being genuinely and mutually interested in what people do, say and think, sharing generously, receiving generosity, and keeping loads of mental notes.
VM: In the context of this exhibition, what do you see as the relationship between curation and arts practice?
GH: The roles of artist and curator are increasingly blurred. While arts institutions continue to employ specialist curators, who select art on behalf of the organisation, more and more artists are doing it for themselves.
Nexus is an odd and interesting hybrid – a (partly) self-curated show in a host institution that usually runs curated shows. The Phoenix has a way of doing things, its own agenda; it has to be rigorous in relation to issues such as accessibility, and health and safety; and it has to think about how it will present this exhibition to the public and encompass activities such as education.
So, to some extent we are ‘playing’ with the notion of the self-curated show. We must approach the work with respect and its presentation with integrity; we must also have consideration for the eventual audience. Yet, to me, the real point of Nexus is the process. I would hope to be more aware than usual about the relationships that surround ‘putting on a show’ and to allow that awareness to come through in the visual presentation.
GH: Nexus is described as having evolved through a process of negotiation and cross-fertilisation, as well as serendipity and friction. Can you say more about how you hope this process will continue after the exhibition opens?
VM: At this stage I can see a series of conversations and exchanges, as well as an eclectic mix of artwork that wants to be contextualised. I am not hoping for a resolution or a finished set-up, but I do hope that we will all find the time to attend to it just enough to keep it shifting throughout the exhibition period.
I also hope that in the process we can make connections and create meaning beyond our current imagination. I have noticed that some artists are more attached to the idea of dramatic presentation, others are happy with the notion of chance encounters and discovery. I am basically just curious how it is going to work out.
Nexus is at the Exeter Phoenix Gallery from Friday, July 16 to Wednesday, September 1.
• Eye Opener Discussion: Wednesday, August4 , 10.45am. FREE. Places must be booked in advance from the Box Office: 01392 667080. A sociable, half-hour gallery-based discussion on the current exhibition.
(image: Francis Ives 1 M)
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