The Weight of Absence

Ssshhhhh (c) Susan Francis

Ssshhhhh (c) Susan Francis

And the final interview in our short series, a discussion with Susan Francis. Susan is very active in her practice. She is currently involved in the touring exhibition Cicatrix, is artist in residence at Solent University, and is working on a commission with 5x5x5 Creativity which is supported by Bath Spa University. I’m very pleased she is part of RECURSIVE.

I recognise the fragile and precarious place from which Susan draws inspiration. It’s a place of transience, persistence, aggression and silence, encompassing the full range from positive to negative in human experience. It’s a place of innocence which has been compromised. Susan says,

“The two works [in this show] derive essentially from the momentary, that which, at their point of inception, were already a fleeting history. Process and presentation allows first the artist and then the viewer to lift them from their transitory lifespan, dissect and linger over their context, removed from the confines of linear time. I am interested in these fleeting moments, mundane and transitory. Not with the emotional eye of the related, but with the detached gaze of the observer. Presentation, or whatever it is an artist does, is simply an invitation to take part in that exchange.”

  1. You often stand outside of the subjects of your work, as a voyeur watching and observing. Why do you take this position and what role does it play in thinking about your own experiences? Do you worry that viewers may assume these are your experiences?

I suppose I haven’t intentionally taken the role of the outsider in my work but rather I feel I have naturally transferred to this position as my work has developed. It stems, I think from a range of stimuli. I grew up in Belfast in the 70’s where, despite the Troubles playing out around us, my parents kept the door firmly closed on sectarian politics and divisive cultural traditions, a step which, although taken in good faith, perhaps denied us the almost tribal sense of belonging shared by some of my peers. We neither fitted the cultural, educational or ancestral norm. We purposely took the position of outsiders.

Also I have a great draw towards narrative in my practice and every narrative, of course, requires a narrator, a position which permits a certain safe distance from which to view more subversive or emotive subject matter.

Thirdly, progression into video, which runs alongside the objects and installation, has very much allowed me to step back into the position of the voyeur, in a sense allowing me to join the onlooker behind the lens of the camera. It is a position I enjoy.

Do I worry? No.

  1. Is there a big difference in your mind between the work you produce with objects and the work you produce in film? Are there commonalities? And what makes you choose one medium over the other?

I can understand why this seems an obvious question to the onlooker, but as the artist, this dichotomy never really features in the process of making work. At any one time in my studio, the floor and shelves are full of objects, materials, sketchbooks full of scribbled ideas and the computer full of images, sound excerpts and gathered footage, all of which feed in and cross over within the themes I am exploring. At times film will progress to working with objects and vice versa, or, at times, remain entirely separate.

Commonalities come down to the working process, the weighing of absence against presence in installation, object against space and likewise in film, image against blank screen, sound against silence. The balance of these elements for me is critical and it is this balance that concerns me both on and off screen. But each work chooses its own media.

  1. Is repetition important to your work or your working method? If so, does this cause you to repress aspects of your artistic intention or does it liberate your intention?

Repetition manifests itself practically in my work less so recently I suppose but continues to linger more so in the development of a conceptual language. A background in the Protestant church (my grandfather was a vicar in the Church of Ireland) has led to an early relationship with symbolism and the transformative role of repetitive liturgy as a vehicle to understanding, so in a sense, it is a structure I am comfortable with. It has, however, the potential to bring about stagnation and I do recognise, as you say, how the use of repetition could so easily slip into a repressive force as much as a liberating one. As such I use repetition with great care and a certain amount of trepidation in my work. Recently I have been dipping in and out of Bourdieu’s Distinction which illustrates just how locked we our within the historical and social framework we were born into. At our most basic molecular level we are, after all, the product of repetitive creative structure so it seems only natural that we should create in this vein. Using it as a process to propel us forward however is where the secret lies I guess. Participating in this show will no doubt encourage us all to examine our relationship with repetition more closely which I’m looking forward to.

Clever Cow! (c) Susan Francis

Clever Cow! (c) Susan Francis



If feminism posed a question, it wasn’t ever just a question for women

Treasure (c)2012 Simon Fell

Treasure (c) Simon Fell

“…on byways he seemed hardly to know, or not at all, for he went with uncertain step and often stopped to look about him, like someone trying to fix landmarks in his mind, for one day perhaps he may have to retrace his steps, you never know.” Samuel Beckett from Molloy.

This quote by Beckett marks the trepidation of navigating change. These same uncertainties confront contemporary masculinity and exploring the state of masculinity lies at the heart of Simon Fell’s work. Simon says, “Through sculpture and drawing I reflect on what it means to be a male artist in a diverse and fast evolving culture where masculine roles have changed much faster than the scripts that used to support them.”

  1. What has changed for men that is no longer supported by traditional scripts? Are these changes a liberation or an oppression leading to repressed emotions?”

I think everything has changed and continues changing for men. Work, relationships, fatherhood have all changed. I suppose I would identify change of all kinds as a challenge to traditional notions of masculinity. The most obvious change is to the work men can now expect to do and through that the role they can expect to play in their families. Women have changed so men in relationships with women have had to adapt. Childcare can no longer be assumed to be exclusively a woman’s role so men have to consider what kind of fathers they want to be, what kind of relationship do they want with their children. Can they be fathers in the same way their fathers were? It’s doubtful that [script] would even be possible now.

The scripts are not written out anywhere but they are continually rehearsed and replayed throughout our culture and in our families but above all in our own minds. It is extraordinary how persistent the myth of the hero is for instance. Although no adult seriously believes in James Bond, [but] as an example of a man who gets results through sheer determination, individual heroism and disobedience in the face of brutish bureaucracy he means something serious for men and boys. Although he inhabits a simplified world where good and bad are clearly signposted (and women do as the script tells them) there are aspects of him that are admirable and are taken seriously. Heroes such as Bond are hyper-effective in all they do, whether it’s killing baddies, seducing women, saving the world, they get it done, they get their way, they usually get it the first time too. For men dealing with the complexity of real modern lives this is refreshingly simple and it’s made to look both straightforward and even logical in the context of the movies. Woe betide any man who tries to use this as a model for any aspect of his real life. I think these stories are like myths, they keep alive the men of the olden days when life was simpler and men were simply – men. That is no longer possible, men are now complex as you have to be to survive in a complex world. I do believe men, like women, need liberation from ridiculous and out dated expectations. I think you have to find out what is really driving you especially when it’s driving you mad and the chances are it’s something you repressed or compromised earlier in your life and that could come from your own need to survive in your family or from what your family needed from you.

  1. Your work appears to have a solid connection to your own history. Is your work largely autobiographical or would you consider it more a philosophical view on the male condition? What role does repetition play in those views?

I think my work is subjective, in that sense it’s autobiographical. I think objectivity is currently over-rated in art as it is in the culture as a whole, as if science is the only viable model particularly in education, personally I think this is a passing fashion and we will move on to something much more humanistic in the near future. I also think the mind is a fantastic resource and that creative thinking is what is most likely to get you out of a repetitive rut.

In my ceramic piece ‘autobiography’ I turn mass production, where every product is identical, on its head by producing nine vehicles as varied as possible in character where the only constant is a set of four wheels. Ceramics is often a mass production material, the potter’s wheel is an early form of mechanisation but in the West now pottery tends to represent the hand made and individualistic and it has been adopted as a symbol of the pastoral idea of country living in the city – the good life. To me this is a pitfall that artists need to avoid, although it also creates rich pickings in terms of satire.

I find I have a limited appetite for real life repetition; I always want to try variations on a theme rather than stick to one version. I just made a limited edition figure cast in aluminium but even that comes on a ceramic base and each base is different. Personally I think recursion (where what you learned first time round gets incorporated the next time), the human version of repetition, is only really possible for machines.

  1. Is the male condition a valid subject in a post-feminist era? What are your thoughts on the male condition and post-feminism?

Well that is a question and a half.

Yes it absolutely is a valid subject. If feminism posed a question, it wasn’t ever just a question for women. Anyone who can address the questions posed by feminism for men and boys should speak up, I think it’s urgent and an exciting area for new work in any context. In my experience there is a whole spectrum of responses among men to feminism including a lot of paranoia, anxiety, and aggression, while I can understand this it is not the way to develop new ways of being male in a changing world. I think the task of reviewing what it means to be a man is already under way and has been for some time, the trouble is that it’s not much discussed nor organised on a large scale and the media almost always reduce it to a joke. This is why the issue that is being used to headline men’s issues is the high rate of suicides among young men in the UK, which is clearly a serious matter. This is just one reason that it’s a good time to think about and celebrate the positive aspects of belonging to the male gender and work out ways to deal with the negatives that are associated with being a modern man.

Karparc (c) Simon Fell

Karparc (c) Simon Fell




The External Authority

Father and Son (c)2014 Ant Pearce

Father and Son (c)2014 Ant Pearce

An imprisoned existence is probably not the way most of us see our own lives, but Ant’s view that “man is condemned to exist imprisoned” is not far from the mark when we consider the struggles involved in attempting to live life on our own terms. There is always a barrier to achieving this end. Interpreting Freud’s Id, Ego, and Super Ego structure, Ant’s work centres on the outside restrictions imposed from childhood by the ‘external authority’. Also influenced by the writings of Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus, his work presents the notion “that the omnipresent external authority is what brings about man’s aberrant destructive behaviours.”

  1. Your External Authority series is an elegant expression of Freud. Can you tell us how your method of thread drawing helped you to convey such a complex psychological concept in simple terms?

The thread drawings came about through experimenting with the materials over 3 stages. Once I had developed the technique to a level I found interesting I needed to find something to associate the result with. Having studied aspects of Freud’s ideas regarding the model of the human mind during my MA dissertation I felt that the two seemed to match. It was a case of working backwards, finding a viable explanation to back up the visual work rather than coming up with a visual solution for a specific set of ideas, as is so often the case.

  1. In much of your work you deal with the ‘external authority’ as the controlling force of our desires and behaviour. Where does personal responsibility and choice come into that dynamic?

I do not believe it is my place to comment on an individual’s personal responsibility and choice. That is the responsibility of the individual. I simply try to observe and reflect.

  1. Much of your work seems to question underlying issues and motivations in human activity. What are your thoughts on repetition and repression?
Blue Shark IV (detail) (c)2013 Ant Pearce

Blue Shark IV (detail) (c)2013 Ant Pearce

This has been the most difficult question to answer, or at least the one I had to think about most. I read the words “we repeat because we repress” but struggled to understand them. Having discussed this, with a trusted friend and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, in relation to my own behaviour as well as behaviour documented by Freud regarding children in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, I have concluded that repetitive behaviour is driven by two main principles – firstly that the result will be different from the last time, and by that I mean what is ‘desired’ in the mind of the person repeating – this seldom if ever happens. Secondly and more importantly, it is about control, or the ‘illusion’ of being in control and moving through a state of displeasure to a state of pleasure. The only aspect of my work which I see that touches on ideas of ‘repetition and repression’ is this ‘illusion’ that we as human beings are in control of ourselves, let alone anything else, and the inevitable fact that we will return to a state that is inanimate.


Something Human Inside

An Elderly Rose, (c)2012 Hitomi Kammai

An Elderly Rose, (c)2012 Hitomi Kammai

This month in the lead up to the opening of RECURSIVE October 9th, I’ll be posting short interviews with exhibiting artists Hitomi Kammai, Ant Pearce, Simon Fell and Susan Francis. We’ll explore some of the issues involved in their work related to repetition.

Feel free to leave a comment below, we love a good discussion!

Hitomi’s sense of wonder is manifested through the tension between opposites in her work, what was destruction turns to emancipation. Inspired by her own life experiences, Hitomi creates simulations of a lived reality presenting a poetic view of simulacra through her work. It is through this repetitive dialogue with opposites and simulation that Hitomi looks for humanity; in the dichotomy of who we project ourselves to be and our true nature.

  1. You say in your artist statement, you want your work to entice people to explore the universe of the artificial. What is in that world you want people to find?

My works are a description of human existence. In my works, people can find my surprise and wonder about ourselves. We live in an environment surrounded by human-made objects and thoughts. Even nature is modified by us. Living in this circumstance, it seems to me we construct enormously. Yet, everything is actually about to disappear in a moment. So why do we do it? It’s just how our existence is. In the end, we are also a part of nature. We are made to live our lives as much as we can and burn our energy till we die just as the other animals do.

  1. How do you feel about simulation? Do you think it is necessary or has it separated us from nature and ourselves?

[It] helps people to understand nature. For example, when I paint a face of a model, I need to know that less details can be seen in the shadow part than in the lighter side. Without understanding these facts of how the nature is made, the painting does not [come] close to a realistic appearance. But in terms of art practice, I don’t think it is necessary. Of course we love nature. But nature is not only art. It seems to me the traditional education of studying paintings that are copies of nature is killing the originality of students. I used to do several hundreds of still-life and nude paintings. When you paint the same objects, your hands come to remember all the process of putting this colour here, that grazing there, and so on. Because of doing too much of it, it made it difficult to get out of these decided ways of painting. I studied them more than 15 years ago but I still don’t think of painting models again, as I feel I could not paint free from what I have been taught.

  1. Your work is quite various. What would you say is the common link?

It’s the result of my passion to look for an always better artistic expression. When a series of works achieves a good quality, I think how I can make my expression even greater rather than continuously making the same works. If you look at art history, you can find that artists who had plenty of creativity renewed their expression several times in their artist life.

However, the theme of my works is always “Humanity”. Some works do not look like that apparently, but if people pay attention then they can find out that my works always contain something human inside.

For instance, my film titled “ecstasy” was first set by the given subject of eroticism during a film-making workshop. I wanted to shoot something different from the others. So I decided to describe how the feeling of eroticism occurs from a scientific point of view. I chose to film light bulbs that are man-made curious objects and give me electric inspiration. By using light bulbs, I thought of showing oestrogen and progesterone, hormones that produce the feeling of ecstasy in the mind. I continued working with the film after the workshop was finished. Initially, it was only some images about an encounter. But after two years, it evolved into a whole story of desire and love.

Hello, (c)2009 Hitomi Kammai

Hello, (c)2009 Hitomi Kammai