Propositions - Art Monthly, July/August 1997
Cairn Gallery Nailsworth June 6 to July 12
In his text entitled 'Some Alternatives to the White Cube', Cairn Gallery founder, Thomas Clark, talks of 'a space flooded with natural light, a space where many acts of attention have contributed to the stillness ... a space which has been ordered and re-ordered many times but where no order is thought to be absolute ... a space where things are allowed to be themselves, as simple or difficult as they need to be ... a space for participation rather than appropriation ... a space in which we can find an adequate response to whatever is presented to us ... a space like a clearing in a wood ... a space in which we relinquish everything we know, in favour of everything we may encounter ... '. Published in conjunction with Coracle and workfortheyetodo, two spaces and initiatives which anticipated and share Cairn's aspirations, the text amounts to a manifesto on the experience of art.
It is not surprising, then, that the current show is part of a series of 'Propositions' in which artists are each allocated a room in the gallery to suggest ways of relating to the world. A definition of a cairn is 'a heap of stones, an indication of the way, a small contribution to a mountain'. The gallery is itself a proposition: situated in a series of first-floor rooms which obviously had previously more utilitarian uses, it is a space apart from the busy street. Notionally and geographically apart from the art scene, it declares itself as a meditative and philosophical space in the middle of the rolling Gloucestershire countryside, to which a kind of pilgrimage has to be made to encounter the work.
Gladstone Thompson, Martin Creed and lan Whittlesea each responded to the specificity of place, not by being site-specific per se but by enhancing that which may usually be taken for granted. 'I like the fact that no matter how involved I get in the process of making art, the end result remains anonymous, corresponding to an attitude rather than a personality ... ', says Thompson, 'Art is about trying to make something that is equal to the thing you most admire'. The artist made maximum use of the dramatic shifts of natural light in the room his work occupied. Characteristically, he mounted a sheet of perspex on two wooden battens attached to a wall adjacent to one of the windows; the size of the perspex corresponded to the dimensions of a window in his own house, as if transposing a long and continuous contemplation of one specific environment to another. Depending on the direction and amount of light entering the room, mostly from a higher placed second window, the perspex screen took on either a ghostly, evanescent, shimmering presence or became a reflector of the immediate environment and those within it: as much a window onto the world without as onto the world within.
In the adjacent room, Martin Creed showed Work No 131, 'a doorstop fixed to a floor to let a door open only 30 degrees'. This hindrance to the physical act of opening a door and entering a space has the opposite effect in that it enforces a more acute awareness of where one finds oneself - an articulation of the threshold which opens up perception to that which is already there rather than going in search of the obviously spectacular. Creed, it seems, believes that there is already enough stuff in the world, without the need for additions. One of his better known works is a print with the inscription 'the whole world + the work = the whole world'.
Ian Whittlesea's works make reference to places beyond the gallery space in order to invite contemplation beyond its walls and, in turn, a heightened sense of that moment through the work's materiality and presence. Previously, he had shown his series of studio paintings at Cairn, evoking the agendas, concerns and aspirations of four visionary artists - Marcel Duchamp, William Blake, Mark Rothko and Gordon Matta-Clark - through canvases uniformly inscribed with the addresses of studios these artists once occupied. In another series of works, contrasting locations were similarly alluded to: a desert, a cave, a wilderness, a cell. The specificity of each place is emphasised by absence, conjuring up a more vivid relationship with the present through desire.
For 'Propositions', Whittlesea created an installation entitled The Light from Fiona Banner's Studio. 'On Friday, the 4th of April 1997 at 2.15pm, the level of ambient light in Fiona Banner's studio was measured at 2800 lux. This work allows the owner or exhibitor of the work to recreate this level of light in a space of their choice'. A cluster of five ceiling-mounted lightbulbs recreated the required amount of light, accompanying the above explanation signed by the artist and Banner. On an adjacent wall, a text recited 'four qualities of mystical experience' as defined in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience: 'it is passive, it is illuminating, it is transient, it is ineffable'. In its combination of a tribute to place and friendship, together with a tongue-in-cheek reference to a big name artist (complete with signature), the work manages to be humorous, lyrical and spiritual at the same time, while remaining true to a set of circumstances.
'While we search for a practice that will deliver us to ourselves, the plenitude of things, their colour and flavour, arises from a lack of self-obligation. Their stillness is a criticism of life.' (Tom Clark, 'Cairn Gallery/Still Life', text for Life/Live catalogue, Paris and Lisbon, 1996-97.)