Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cushla Donaldson raises some curious questions

about the word "project".....

Dear John,

I am very much enjoying reading your blog. It allows me to keep up with what is be produced at home and some of the debate and critisim around it, which has spilled over in to converations I have with my friends. So it seems it is performing to its mission statement.

I have found that I would like to make a comment. Not on any particualar topic or exhibition but concerning the use of a particular terminology that has been used more than once in the writing on the blog. That is concerning use of and around the term "project".

It was some time ago a fashion to term the general practice, and even the "themes" or research of a single artists practice by this phrase. It was often used for the function of reduction by the interviewer, critic or artist themselves. Two fictitious examples would be:

"So would you say your project is linked to the other artists in that it is research based?"

"My project is grounded in the formal qualities of the objects that surround us daily."

I sense, from my general discussions and reading that it has now, fortunately gone out of fashion. Perhaps from overuse by those, who on more in depth questioning couldn't expand successfully on a reduced "project". Or perhaps, I would like to think, it's temporal, closed, lightweight and vaguely dismissive connotations could not stand next the practical, visual qualities of the term "practice". Or perhaps even "life's work". As an aside I don't think I have, nor will, see a sentence beginning with "Munchs project was..." Nor would it be possible or correct to say "Kippenbergers project…" unless you were about to say "Kippenberger had a multiplicity of projects unlike other artists with their single projects". I'm sure as an arts writer you can see that this not only lazy, but also incorrect and where I'm going with this.

I have avoided using the specific examples I have found, as it is an issue of wider concern and not one of personal techniques or vocabulary.

Best wishes,

Cushla Donaldson


John Hurrell said...

Without reaching for a dictionary or thesaurus, this is what I intend it to be.

I think of "project" as between a practice and an exhibition. An artist's practice might involve many separate projects, each with its own thematic focus but which might be drawn out over several exhibitions.

A project has its own variety of research content, but that area might be explored within different permutations for separate shows.

eg. Gordon Walters investigated several different projects, one of which involved korus and from which he developed many different exhibitions.

Maybe I'm talking drivel? If you reckon so, tell me.

cushla said...

Thanks for responding so promptly.
So what I think your saying is that a project has a start and finish. Is when a "thematic focus" slips from direct view where you are saying the project ends?

How do you define the beginning and end when an artist may, and often does, both visibly and occultly return to previous interests and subjects at numerous points over their lifetime. How do you term the project when it reassumes some visibility? Is it a new, old or the same project? Or is it dependant on the level of the thematic focuses' visibility?

Work made today leads to and feeds future work. So does this "Grande project" of the artist conclude ultimately at the artists' death or at the point he/she finally ceases production of work, therefore all the little non-linier or linier "projects"? Or when a signature "project" ends?

The artist may also combine different "projects", I assume, by your definition. What happens then? Do you focus on the most important one? The first one? The most sensational one? Or do you start dividing single works in to varying projects? Similar to Art Historical cross referencing e.g. Picassos "Old Guitarist", Blue (linier)"project" and guitar (non-linerer)"project".

There is also the importance of experience and the build up of that in a practice, which eventually allows for seemingly carefree and breakaway gestures. Must they be the start of a new project to be dug into and "uncovered"? "Explored"? Or can there be standalone pieces of work that seemingly defy any existing project?

What do you perceive the difference to be between your definition of "thematic focus" and a "project"?

By your Gordon Walters example am I correct in understanding you mean the "koru" was an existing "project" which he independently investigated?

So one could say from your explanation and example:

"Munch investigated several different projects, one of which involved representing his fear of Women which was alongside, informed by and includes the work from another of his projects, exploring the death of his sister."

Do you understand my concerns?

John Hurrell said...

Well the first thing to realise is that the old modernist approach to looking at any artist's work was treating it as a brand for a persona, a marketable Self that was cohesive. In that sense it was mainly one 'project', so that in shows the individual works displayed incremental changes. They were variations on a theme that could be 'read' by any observent viewer using an easily grasped context that was set out.

Today things are different. Many artists reject that sort of self-control, deliberately jumping all over the place, trying out different projects that often are entirely unconnected. They relish a sense of fragmentation.

As you point out, 'projects' as I've described them, can spring out of one artwork, or one group of artworks, and go beyond one group of exhibitions. The terms slide around. Things can evolve unpredictably.

However when you discuss Munch, remember in his mind he was not thinking in psycho-analytical terms, he was not conscious of those levels. Projects are about the intended focus of the artist, their readily apparent concerns.

cushla said...

Hi John,
This will probably be my last response as I feel I have quite convincingly made my arguments and my aim was to bring, what is in my opinion, this unconvincing, vacuous and stale term in to question. I have limited time to commit to answering what I perceive to be half formed arguments, and will leave it to your future experience of reading and discussion to perhaps retroactively elucidate my points.
By your response you have highlighted my main concern with this term. I hoped you would pick up on it by the examples I used, I'm sorry I wasn't clearer.

I feel this relatively 'new' use of the term covertly participates in art market(ing) activities that are hoping to find a way of packaging sections of artists' practices. Darker than that is the way, by this term, it is sold as a true representation of what occurs in a contemporary artists practice and life. If you could name me some of these happily out of control, all over the place, fragmented artists making great and vital contributions with their various spontaneous projects, I'd love to meet them as they sound a bit like the mythological old school drunken painters and a lot of fun.

The argument that we have moved so far forward from the artist's work being treated as a brand for a persona is naive at best. Many artists now commonly explore strategies against this and it is still seen as a concern to be negotiated. Overtly the practices of, for example, Et al, the Atlas Group and Cindy Sherman to name a few and covertly as a staple artistic concern involving identity and the anxieties around that.

I would propose that perhaps what you view as these "projects" might in fact be a conscious or unconscious negotiation by artists out of the term itself.

I understood, by the definition you previously gave, that you believed "An artist's practice might involve many separate projects, each with its own thematic focus but which might be drawn out over several exhibitions." I am unclear as to how that rejects the "old modernist approach to looking at any artist's work was treating it as a brand for a persona"? Are you now saying that these "projects" now take the place of persona? That artists practice is a mere conduit for projects?

A cursory look at any artists retrospective will find that it would be impossible and meaningless to present it with a category of happily schizophrenic projects as a curatorial framework. It might be interesting to try but I seriously doubt such a practice exists and I suspect the result would probably not do anything to explore the artists practice over a lifetime. That is where the skill of a good curator comes through at its best, highlighting the darker tendons and mysterious hidden between seemingly disparate preoccupations. I would point you in the direction of the 2006 Bas Jan Ader exhibition at the Camden Arts Center or the current exhibition of William Blake's' work at the Tate Britain.

So this magic bullet term "project" by your definition stands as thus:
- In "modernism" artists only had one, now you can have many of them.
- They are between an artists practice and an exhibition.
-Each "project" holds a thematic focus that can be drawn out over several exhibitions.
-Each "project" has its own variety of research content, but that area might be explored within different permutations for separate shows.
-Many artists now jump about happily and knowingly trying many of different unconnected ones. Loving the fragmentation and disconnection.
-The term slides around.

...Well to the final point I would wholly agree. But to what purpose?

As a footnote I would wonder whether you have thought through your statement re Munch. True that Psychoanalysis as a science, if it can be called that, was in it's infancy during his lifetime. But to imply that he was not conscious of the possible affectual communication through his mediums of his physic anxiety is just basically incorrect. His evolving palette and refinement of technique over time give us clues as to his very conscious and skilled representation of his inner life. This can be seen in the evolutionary repetition of subject and scene in varied mediums. He was obviously not a totally disconnected outsider artist with no control. He was among other artists exploring similar areas at the time, as you know I'm sure.

However it is nice to know you think the work of these happily fragmented artists using "projects" are totally laid bare in an instant by this new "schools" intention of focus and readily apparent concerns. We can all sleep easy.


John Hurrell said...

I'm puzzled why you dislike artists using the word as it doesn't seem inaccurate and is clearly not the same as 'practice' which is the vocational process of making work, the total much bigger entity. 'Project' is a bracketed and cohesively united set of facets within one endeavour, and artists like Kippenburger or Trockel often have several on the go which are not linked. German artists it could be argued, often like to do this.

cushla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cushla said...

-I've covered this John
-To state that Kippenburgers or Trockells interests are/were not linked to each other is as I covered, a closed reading.
-Kippenburger has nothing "on the go" except his legacy as he is now deceased.

Best, Cush.

John Hurrell said...

I'm intrigued that the P-word can generate such hostility. The notion that its use might be about the market is a possibility. You obviously think the idea of the divided Self is irrelevant.

Be good to hear other readers' views on this?

cushla said...

I apologise if I've come across as at all hostile John. That is not my emotion. My feelings, if they are relevant, would be explained as ones that go along with the action of vigilance.
I think the exploration of a divided self is interesting. That is part of my argument (refer above).
Now I really must leave this as I am quite busy and your style/manner of "debate" has left me less than confident regarding your motivations.

John Hurrell said...

Tell us more about this 'action of vigilance' Cushla. It sounds so loaded. Does it relate to why you find the current use of the term 'project' so objectionable. I'm trying to grasp the ideological underpinnings behind your thinking here.

I know you are - according to Google - an 'Exhibition Analyser', but what does that involve? I don't mean to be crude or personal, but what is the relevant politic behind that term linking to what we are discussing here? Are you some sort of freelance HR person who supervises curators? And are artists meant to jump into templates that curators provide, click their heels, tug their forelocks and salute?

Are my motivations made more 'questionable' and less deserving of 'confidence' if I ask you these questions?

..... said...

I used to do projects at school in a special book with carefully lettered headings that I had to colour in with 'felts'. A project often related to observable facets of nature and had a quasi-scientific aspect. One memorable project involved an old glass milk bottle and a flower bulb; I was quite scared of the size of the roots in the bottle but this was possibly exaggerated by the magnifying effects of the convex glass. It was very beautiful when the bulb flowered brilliant yellow against a clear spring sky. I drew it and coloured it in. Then I grew up.

cushla said...

ohn dear... I don't mean to sound patronising but you don't make it easy! You are quite a laugh though and will defiantly look you up for a pint (or probably at an opening right?) when I am next at home.
The "exhibitions analyser" if you click on it lets to a site called "". It rates artists exhibitions and gives them a rating worldwide. They have analysed my exhibitions in London. Before you ask/state, most everyone is on this database and it is not requested or voluntary.
If you look a bit deeper on Google you will find I am a NZ artist based in London.
If you want some reading references, write (I assume you have my email logged) and let me know. I am kind of over this cause now we are off the point and I think I was quite clear.
It's not the questions John, I just used to different, perhaps more old school, form/style of debate.
I love ....s' story. I remember something similar and I think in its' narritive moves faster to say what I was trying to. Funny how storytelling can do that.
Best, Cush.