Monday, 22 June 2015

Personal History at the V&A

When I first came to London in 1982 it was as a music student playing the viola at the Royal College of Music, round the corner from the V&A. Many years later, I discovered I was dyslexic, but at the time I didn't realise that there might be some reason that no matter what I did, no matter how much I could hear and understand, I could not progress in studying music theory.

I used to go then to the V&A, instead of the RCM, when I was supposed to be at a theory class. I didn't understand then about why I was enacting my resistance. I loved to find myself at the ceramics, seeking out the funny distorted ones - especially Venetian Renaissance and 18th century British. They cheered me up. They made me laugh. They still have that effect now.

I have a great great love of museums, and as soon as I get past the initial congestion of desks and shops and people, I am there, in a place in my mind I absolutely love to be.

I love the floors, the space, the height. I love the marble and the sound footsteps make along the corridors.

I love the solidity of these places, the reasons they were built. I love the context, no matter what they show in this fleeting generation.

The patterns in stone and wood underfoot to out of sight.

I still have the same desire that I did as a child, to still be there after closing time and have the place to myself in the moonlight, getting spooked by the shadows of suits of armour, running wildly along the corridors, having access to those doors marked "staff only" and discovering there storerooms and attics full of mysteries.

I've always imagined having a home there, a flat, perhaps in one of those mysterious towers, covered over with glass, the whole roof my garden.

Ah. Every time. I walk along staring at the floors, wondering at the people who have worn away the stairs.


From a previous project at the V&A, during my MA in 2011, I drew in the V&A with a UV pen and luminous paint - a sort of invisible intervention.

When I think of the V&A, the Kelvingrove in Glasgow which was the museum of my childhood, museums in Prague, Manchester, and so many over the years I have visited, I get such a sense of the very stone, the glass, the big way light streams in through high windows, and I feel a connection to streams of people in the past and the future, passing through these places, all concerned with the best of humanity. 

Jonathan recently started a thread in the forum, "Are museums our new churches?" Although that conversation has yet to take hold there, my simple answer to that is yes. They are to me. I have known this for some time. There is something so moving about multitudes of people devoting their life to art and craft and culture.

And so for the project a few ideas collided at once. My influences are museums, and the V&A in particular, and space/line. Tomorrow I am going down to the V&A to trace my lines of presence there. I will have in mind all those sensibilities about stone and museums and what they are to me. 

I will take a UV pen and some luminous paint, and trace my journey, my thoughts, within the building. I will touch with my fingers, leaving a practically invisible trail, that will exist only in a certain visual spectrum, usually unavailable to humans in normal light and unaided. Already when I think of the V&A in this context I imagine it flipping in and out of perspectives as if I can see it made of glass or see its architectural blueprint or matrix.

I know this raises other issues - it is an invisible intervention, like being an even more elusive Banksy. It could be seen as some political statement, or comment. There are issues of vandalism, but even if I had the Louvre to myself, invisible ink and impunity, I'm sure I wouldn't scribble an invisible moustache on the Mona Lisa.

Okay, it is a wee bit subversive, but invisibly so. I have my own internal rules of what is permissible and acceptable. There are things I do not approve of in public art - manipulating people and ruining things. I appreciate the projected images because they completely change the context of the object. My idea is also ephemeral, admittedly invisible, but has the potential to add a layer of context. 
Perhaps I will touch what I would normally touch, handrails and so on. Perhaps I will lay my hand on plinths and available bits of statues - there are some touchable there. Perhaps I will leave ghostly disembodied handprints, shining in negative. Or more likely I will trace my substance along the edges, cabinets, highlighting line and tracing out the skeleton of the building, leaving my signature to fade into the molecules of the stone as much as my presence or that of the streams of people past and present.

I don't know what will happen there exactly, what I will feel moved to do or what turns out to be possible there. My intent is to consider line and space, and what they mean, and have a different experience of this fond museum - we are all part of places we frequent and participate in, for a while at least - places are comprised of many elements, including their inhabitants.

Who are my audience? Perhaps no one. Perhaps when they turn off the lights at night a security guard will look twice at a corner, thinking he sees an apparition. Perhaps it will be obvious, and the place will be filled with glowing crisscrossed scribbles, leading them to replay the CCTV, and to me, and to prosecution.

I am used to being surreptitious with a camera. I will, and have, waited for hours for the right reflection or shadow to pass by rather than interfere with or manipulate people. A past tutor used to accuse me of sleight of hand, because I found myself unwilling to reveal. I am not deliberately secretive, it's just that I concentrate better alone. The onlooker. 

To see all the traces between people, the invisible streams and pulls of connection, of repulsion and attraction. The psychological lines drawn between us.

I believe in the invisible aspects of art, the subliminal.

I am interested in the way insects see things, on a totally different visual spectrum. I like the idea of the security beams you spray on to see. I am also thinking of those projects which map what the eye actually looks at in faces and paintings. Perhaps if could we all construct our individual V&A through our sightline, we would create fantastic structures in different planes and dimensions. I am tracing my own psychological or art trail.


please do not touch

I am halfway through my V&A venture - drawing the museum, mapping my presence. Devoting a day to a particular quest enhances certain aspects of everything - the journey, people I pass, what I notice. This is all about the journey really, because it is about the intent. Behind the scenes. Art is very much about behind the scenes, the process, although for me the process is not the work. I do love these days when I go out as an artist, my artist hat firmly on, my artist eye in. I can let other thoughts and considerations go and fully allow the artist to take the lead.


Walking here, on the tube, arriving, the imaginary visual flipping effect is full on, as if one can see the architectural drawings, the blueprint, the scan, the computer model. Usually I enjoy imagining a thing rendered differently - it's like a reminder of what a thing is to see it or imagine it sketched, photographed, painted in oils, smudged in watercolour, style upon style. That's probably one of my favourite pastimes. However today it went quite far and was a little disconcerting, like having scifi or terminator-like computer glasses that won't switch off.



I have been tracing and smudging my way along edges of the V&A, luminous paint and ultraviolet ink on my fingertips. I thought it may push me out of my comfort zone, but it hasn't really - it feels much like I tend to anyway when I am looking at things and photographing - hoping the group of students or whoever will pass on so that I can have the place more to myself. I am very conscious not to ruin things, even invisibly, and am keeping to the edges of things mostly.



It is making me more aware of the barrier of glass between me and the precious object. I can place my hand in a certain way and photograph it as if I am touching the gold. Ownership.

A woman beside me in the cafe has spent some time dragging extra chairs to her table. She is still by herself. It is as if she is waiting for invisible friends.


I brought with me a little UV torch to see if the pen would show up - it doesn't in this light, but as I tried, I noticed how it lit and altered the objects inside the cabinets. Thoughts stir of benign ways to alter the objects - contribute to them.



I was also very struck today by very ornate enamelled miniature portraits, encrusted with jewels, once a treasure and lover's keepsake. Unknown man, unknown woman, over and over. Unknown. It seemed the saddest word in the world.


All day I have been thinking about how art, when it is shown and disseminated, must matter to people. It must refer to more than itself. It must matter to people in the way that a novel or symphony or a film does, contributing something to the understanding or experience of life, directly or indirectly, deliberately, or deliberately by default.


Art can do this. I am currently surrounded by art that speaks on many levels. Some objects are now rendered precious and given new significance by weight of their age and their provenance. The context of museum, of gallery, frames and adds layers of meaning to a thing once produced for a completely different reason. Much in the V&A is domestic, religious, industrial. Nothing is made specifically to go into a museum. Yet as soon as our fingers leave making a piece it already ceases to be contemporary, and joins the flow of the context of time.

please touch


Drawing the V&A, using its edges as my template, my exploration of line did not develop much further than the initial imaginary blueprint I had started with - seeing through the bulk of my surroundings as if they are made of glass, or as if I can visualise its matrix. 

I was much more drawn in through layers which overlay and overlap the surroundings and objects. Layers of context film the surface of the museum, visible and invisible, obvious and implied. I am interested in the layers of glass, the reflections, the relationships between the viewer and the object - the layers of time and context, and how time recontexualises items. I felt rich in ideas in how to subtly add more layers of context and meaning to objects by lighting and shadows, projection and juxtaposition.
At the V&A I ended my visit in the shop. Ah, the politics of stuff, the desire. Suddenly accessible, sumptuous exhibits are now available to have in one's own museum, to wear, to own. I resisted temptation, but temptation it is. I am interested in the entire gallery and museum experience, including the facilities, the shop, the merchandise, as consumer and artist. 

Subtle and partly visible, or drawing on a subliminal level.

Everyday things that are now treasures.

The museum, as a building and as a confluence of people and ideas. Years worth of tracings from people passing, all in the pursuit of culture and an internal experience.

My own presence as an artist, participating, drawing, looking, privately, secretly, but in full view.


In 2012 I attended a seminar at the V&A about their residency programme. Looking back now at what I wrote then, I realise I have felt like an artist in residence there for some time - now covert - then I said ghost residency.

I listened to all this rather amazed, with the growing feeling that I am already doing some sort of ghost residency there, and have been for some years. I actually have quite a long connection with the V&A, from when I first came to London as a music student in 1982, at the Royal College of Music, which is just around the corner. I passed the V&A on the way there every day, and often went in for a wander. In fact, I remember going there instead of some music theory classes when things got difficult. I would hope to get lost there and come upon sections by serendipity. Of course that always happens. Cabinets of enormous keys, suits of armour, dusty statues. I remember especially enjoying the large ceramic bowls and platters from Venice and Florence of the 14th and 15th century. At the time I was diversifying into Renaissance music, learning the Viol, playing in consorts, and learning about that culture.

It was so fascinating to see these grand objects, which would have been in use and on display, familiar to the characters I was reading about and whose music I was recreating. I found it comfortingly hilarious to see how occasionally the firing techniques distorted the faces.

On and off over the years I have visited often, sometimes with the same intent to wonder, sometimes for an exhibition or purpose, or to spend time with people. I took my children when they were still young enough for me to drag to such places. And as an art student I took photographs there, spent time thinking and writing - something I also did within the MA, as I have written about before.

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