The Strangeness of Modernity: ARTiculation Folkestone Regional Heat

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ARTiculation Regional Finalists and artist Richard Wentworth

By Hannah Laws, ARTiculation Alumni 2016

On Tuesday 7th February, the Quarterhouse in Folkestone was host to one of the many regional heats for this year’s ARTiculation Prize adjudicated by Richard Wentworth, artist and former Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art.

Six students participated in a fight for first prize with a variety of talks including female self-portraiture, futurism and a phenomenal feat in history; travelling to the moon. To which our first speaker, Carlo Villa, explained that his chosen work of art, ‘The Moon Museum’, was a small ceramic tile that featured tiny pictograms, similar to the works of famous artists at the time who’d put their stamp on the art world, such as Andy Warhol creating interpretative graffiti. He then said that when America started sending people off to the moon, it was a ground-breaking enterprise, as nothing quite like it had been achieved before, and we as humans had only travelled to different countries, let alone into space. But on talking about sending astronauts to the moon, he explained it as, like many heroic achievements throughout history, that they were reaching for something that was just out of their grasp, but they accomplished it. Meaning that whatever humanity has tried to do, they have properly thought it through and worked to their utmost abilities to get it done and they have. But something has really stuck in my mind on hearing Carlo’s presentation, was when he said, “Art is our new religion, museums are our new cathedrals,” almost stating that art has taken over our society by storm and pushed religion, a precursory state of being almost, to the side to make way for a new cultural obsession; art.

The second speaker of the afternoon, Alayo Akinkugbe, spoke of ‘Portrait of a Negress’ by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, and discussed the contrast between the context of the painting, and the roles of black women in society at that time. Alayo related the painting to the liberation of slaves and a feminist movement in France, saying that the painting was “outstanding and empowering” because of the way that the negress is depicted. Draped in white cloth shows an essence of purity, contrasting with her dark skin, the three main colours of the painting, red, white and blue, symbolising liberty, equality and freedom in French culture. But what really interested me, was when she spoke of The Holy Virgin Mary, which was contrary to many depictions of the divine lady, as she is black. Alayo stated that generic versions of the Virgin Mary are in fact, “factually inaccurate”, as she lived in Israel and would have had darker skin. It amazes me how art can sometimes be so warped, and that the world has generally been taken over by white artists and paintings of white people, but now black artists are seen more regularly and with less negativity towards their work and the art world is becoming host to a whole new range of works.

The first of two presentations on Frida Kahlo, was given by Eve Rowland, who spoke about ‘The Broken Column’, a self-portrait that encapsulated Kahlo’s immobilisation from a brutal traffic accident at just 18. Eve spoke of how Kahlo’s self-portraits were about how women controlled how they were perceived in society, Eve said that this “paved the way for other female artists”, which it has, especially as women in the early 20th Century were still treated as second to men, even today they still are, but society has advanced in the past 50 years and given women more opportunities, and it’s people like Frida who helped to shape the modern day world and meant that the women of day are more involved in society.

Next up was Josephine Johnson who talked about Francis Bacon’s ‘Triptych May – June 1973’ which showed the suicide of his lover George Dyer, before, during and after the event, in Bacon’s vision. She explained that contrary to Bacon’s previous portraits, it was painted with much softer and fluid tones to create a sort of empathetic emotion towards it. She also compared it to Battleship Potemkin when an open-mouthed woman gets struck down by the soldiers in the Odessa steps sequence, Bacon’s painting showing Dyer’s “prominent, grotesque mouth” as Josephine puts it. She then explained that the view within the triptych shows Dyer in the doorframe of a hotel room, giving the audience a good look in, creating a feeling of vulnerability because everyone is gawking at him like he’s an alien. She even quoted him by saying how he “felt that demons, disaster and loss had stalked him.” Interestingly, Richard asked Josephine if she’d seen the recent documentary of Francis Bacon and his work and asked if she would criticise it, to which replied that they presented him rather negatively.

On the topic of suicide, our next speaker, Anastasia Karamzina with ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ by Frida Kahlo. In contrast with the triptych, this painting took a slightly more vertical approach, as well as a more substantial form, differing from the blurred nature of Bacon’s work. Anastasia highlighted that the image “took our thoughts away from death” through the cloudy strokes of the image, in addition to the still pose of Hale’s body and also the calmness in her face, Anastasia explaining that Hale’s decision of self-murder was justified and unchanging. But then, we are drawn to the bottom of the painting where the blood streams down there is “death staring us in the face”. She also made an interesting comparison with other works depicting suicide by showing us that general works show an angel or other religious figure or aspect, showing that suicide has been prevented with the help of God, however in this instance there was no divine intervention.

After enduring some moderately depressing themes, I shall now bring the mood back up again with the last speaker’s upbeat presentation on Giacomo Balla’s ‘Street Light’, a somewhat futuristic painting. Although keen to talk about the wonders and benefits of Virtual Reality, Edward Lee spoke of the innovations of history through Balla’s Street Light painting. He started his talk by saying that throughout history, we have conquered outdated achievements with more modern ones, we keep outdoing ourselves. With Street Light, he showed us that the painting was a revolution of its time, as the lamp that was the ultimate focus of the image, shone infinitely brighter than the moon behind it, showing that the man-made lamp had overwhelmed the moon, the lamp being “a symbol of innovation”, whilst also resembling a divine being almost. But he ended his talk by saying that humanity is always reaching for the next step and quickly establishing more advanced technologies to replace the old-fashioned ones.

So, all in all, some interesting presentations, well worth the listen, as Richard concluded, he said that there were some “astonishing presentations” and that it was an utter pleasure to hear them all.

While Richard was deciding who he felt deserved the prizes, I managed to sneak in some interviews with the speakers themselves about their experience in the competition. Edward and Carlo thought it was fun, Eve thought it was an enjoyable experience and that it was good to have more females interested in art, as she feels the art world is dominated by male artists. Her friend was also keen to offer her opinion and thought that it was fascinating to have a variety of speakers and that they showed quite personal interests. Alayo found that it was a good way to learn from other people, as did Anastasia, because you can listen and understand people’s passions. Anastasia also said that she would “never regret the experience”. And finally, Josephine told me that it was an amazing opportunity, a great skill to have and she enjoyed talking to people and would recommend it to other young people.

On Richard’s arrival back, he gave feedback to all of the participants and said that their presentations were engaging, among other things. He also gave a few general comments, which are as follows: “we’re very lucky to be in your conversations,” “you all understand the strangeness of modernity,” “it was a pleasure to witness what you’ve done,” and, talking about the works of art that they presented, “you make them real for us”. He then announced his chosen prize winners. He gave 3rd place to not one, but two students, Edward and Josephine, 2nd to Alayo and 1st to Anastasia.

On interviewing Richard afterwards, he explained the reason behind his 1st and 2nd place decision, he felt that Anastasia had a “different form of communication” compared to the other students, and Alayo had a tenderness to her presentation. I then asked if his decision was down to personal preference of what was being spoken about, but he said it was not and he felt that he connected with Anastasia in the way that she presented to him and that it was all down to confidence, swaying his choice to give her 1st place in the competition. He then said that he “won’t forget any of them” because they were all so engaging.

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