Artist-in-Residence: An Exhibition Enhancement and More

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Art Installation consisting of Green Discs in a Winter Forest

Epiphyte (2008), Claire Anna Watson, Artist-in-Residence
Saksala Art Radius, Vanha Sahantie (public street), Haukivuori, Finland
© Claire Anna Watson

Claire Anna Watson, Artist, Writer and Curator, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Australia ● www.bundoorahomestead.com

Dynamic Immersion: Artist and Audience Together
Placing Residencies Within Exhibitions

Artist residencies are often considered to be a time of intense solitude and focus. There is generally the opportunity to network with other artists, but ultimately there is no semblance of an audience. They are usually populated by artists wishing to be exposed to a new culture and time away from their normal routine.

As an artist I have undertaken a number of international, traditional artist residencies. My practice encompasses video, sculpture and installation, but it is the sphere of Public Art—the idea of my artwork reaching the widest possible audience – that excites me the most. My work Epiphyte, created during a residency in Finland, is an example of this. Presented in a public street, hand-grafted cabbages on a birch tree plantation were a surreal addition to an otherwise sleepy township. The idea that art can reawaken visitors, whether they are in public spaces or gallery settings, is one that continually fuels my practice as an artist and a curator. As a curator, I am keen to expand the viewer’s experience and interrogate the viability and currency of the static white cube exhibition format. Integrating residencies within exhibition displays arose from two key questions: How can public programs associated with exhibitions engage new audiences whilst staying true to the curatorial framework? And how can art galleries be dynamic spaces and not passive mausoleums for cultural objects.

Artists are, by and large, intriguing people. They are creative thinkers who see the world through a different lens. One of the fascinating things about great art is surely the artists who make it. As a curator, it is a privilege to work with artists and get to know them – it is a privilege that I believe should be shared.

In this paper I will discuss artists-in-residency projects presented within three exhibitions that I have curated for Hatch Contemporary Arts Space (Banyule City Council) and Bundoora Homestead Art Centre (Darebin City Council), including HomeReframing Craft and Domesticity, which won a Museums Australia Award; Seventh Skin;and Under Construction. In the exhibition Home, the rooms of a house were set up with handcrafted furniture and furnishings, utensils, and artisan wallpaper delineating the different rooms, such as a laundry, nursery, kitchen, bedroom and so on. Seventh Skin articulated the fascination artists have with disguise and theater and its relationship to the human condition, whether presented through animal or human forms. Under Construction invited artists to make new work over a two-week period during which visitors could watch the making process and chat with the artists while they developed their projects on site. Artist Claire McArdle continued on as the artist-in-residence for the entire exhibition, developing a substantial new body of work.

So, what does an artist-in-residence embedded within an exhibition mean? The role is not scripted; it is not necessarily a negotiation. It is an interstice, a junction – a point where an exchange takes place. It can be benign, challenging or even uneasy. The art is subject to the mechanics of the institution in which it is presented, so it is hard to argue that it is strictly democratic, as each institution has its own culture, ideals and parameters for selecting artists.

I selected each artist-in-residence based on the resonance of their practice with the curatorial framework of the exhibition being presented, and with the hope that the artist and the audience would develop a dialogue without mediation or interpretation from me as the curator. I hoped that the themes of the exhibition would be interrogated through a live and participatory framework.

Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has stated: “I do not want to do an interactive work. I want to do an active work. To me, the most important activity that an artwork can provoke is the activity of thinking. An active work requires that I first give of myself.”1

Giving of oneself is key here. If you are experiencing an exhibition, some of the questions you often will pose to yourself include: how was this made? What is the artist trying to communicate? Why did they choose to make their art that way? Why are they interested in that subject matter? As an artist-in-residence embedded within an exhibition display, you can genuinely give of yourself and provoke the “activity of thinking” in viewers, by means of conversation. The paradigm actively erodes the distinction between institutional and social space; the artist becomes a living embodiment of Hirschhorn’s notion of an “active work”.

The idea of an artist-in-residence embedded within an exhibition is not necessarily ground-breaking, nor is it commonplace. The idea of considering the work of art as a potential trigger for participation is hardly new – just think of Happenings, Fluxus and performance art from the 1970s.Indeed, as Claire Bishop pointed out, when the Palais de Tokyo opened in 2002 it was physically visible that this exhibition space was more about the gallery as a laboratory – “a site for contemporary creation” – than a simple white cube.2 Of course, this space was guided by Nicolous Bouriard, who is known as the founder of relational aesthetics, which ultimately is at the heart of the concept of embedding residencies within exhibitions.

Bishop summarizes relational art: “Rather than a discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends its context, relational art is entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience.”3 Yet I would argue that relational art could still be missing the artist’s voice. Whilst it may be “open-ended”, and present “works in progress” – works that may even be interactive – how many times have you walked into an art exhibition, interactive or otherwise, and still not seen a single artist? Where is the artist’s voice? Maybe their voice is shared via didactic panels or one-off events where they speak to an audience, but what about a sustained relationship with the artist and the audience across time?

I am interested in how the experience of meeting an artist within an exhibition format resonates with an audience. Is it simply a postmodern spectacle, or is there something to be said for a live dialogue with no preconceived notions of what should, could, can or can’t be said, explained or divulged?
Unlike the examples of relational art, it isn’t really the work of art that is the trigger here for dialogue; it is, in fact, the artist embedded within an exhibition, and that is an important distinction.

The first artist-in-residence that I coordinated was Eddy Carroll for the exhibition Home Reframing Craft and Domesticity, held at Hatch Contemporary Arts Space in 2013.

Four women at a craft table

Home: Reframing Craft and Domesticity (2013), Eddy Carroll, Artist-in-Residence
Curated by Claire Anna Watson
Hatch Contemporary Arts Space, Banyule, Australia

This exhibition explored the resurgence of craft in contemporary art practice as well as our relationship to our most intimate and treasured environment – our home. Media included ceramics, jewelry, furniture, video, wallpaper, sculpture, soft furnishings and a uniquely decorated home-baked cake adorned with an edible photographic print.
Home featured 84 works by 54 artists and artisans, bringing together works from the City of Banyule’s Art Collection and crafted pieces from designers, hobbyists and practicing artists from across Australia.

For six weeks Eddy had her studio set up in one of the gallery’s rooms and the public was invited to come and witness her creative process. From a curatorial perspective, an exhibition based on the notion of domestic crafts meant that having an artist as part of the exhibition, stitching and embroidering on site, enhanced and enlivened the visitor experience. It was tremendously clear that her personality was equally as important as her work in making this residency a success. Eddy was highly personable and naturally welcoming of all walks of life.

During her residency Eddy worked on an ongoing project of creating forty textile hands, exploring stories, myths and traditions. The result was a highly engaging, embroidered and sequined work. Gallery-goers were invited to enter her studio space to see the work in progress and discuss her practice with her. Audiences were thrilled to see what took place “behind the scenes”.

Eddy reflects: “The residency opened up the intimacy of my practice to other people. The dialogue became less about me and my practice and more about where other people were at in their own creative process. It also opened up greater ideas of what it is to make art, why it is we make art and how and where we do so. The whole process was very fluid. I felt at times both vulnerable and open, which ultimately helped me to grow in confidence as an artist and person in the world.

“The visitors to the show who stayed to talk with me shared with me a side that perhaps visual artists don't get to experience once their work is installed. This intimacy is what I felt most surprised by. It was often tender. There was elation or curiousness, and sometimes bewilderment, yet it was always engaging. I felt very moved on a daily basis by that.  I definitely think there is more engagement to a theme when there is an exhibition alongside a residency. There is a greater focus and more of a continued dialogue.”4

Artist John Gosper was the artist-in-residence during the exhibition Seventh Skin, which was also held at Hatch Contemporary Art Space in 2014. The selected works for this exhibition included photography, printmaking, jewelry, sculpture, video and textiles, and explored the way the human and animal form can be embellished to either disguise or reveal aspects of the human condition. The artists in Seventh Skin reminded us that we are multifaceted beings, and invited their protagonists (both animal and human) to parade in clothing and adornments, which served as either shields of armor or layers of intrigue and mystique.

Woman performer in costume

Bearded man at worktable with clothing and fabric

Seventh Skin (2014), John Gosper, Artist-in-Residence
Curated by Claire Anna Watson
Hatch Contemporary Arts Space, Banyule, Australia
© John Gosper

Gosper’s practice explores the idea of a theoretical future where biotechnology has allowed fashion to fetishize obsolete elements of the human body, such as skin. He says: “My work exists within the parameters of costume/dress, contemporary dance/performance, film/photography and sculpture/installation. It is a conglomeration of all of these disciplines.”5

During the exhibition, he invited visitors to explore the body’s movement through a participatory exercise. Visitors chose from various prosthetics to wear, chose a soundtrack and moved for the camera. Gosper notes: “The best thing about the residency was the experience of interacting with an art-going public and receiving their response to me and my work. It was a great experience in terms of experiencing an art-going public. This is an audience I would not normally interact with in real time. So it was fun to witness the varied personalities and willingness to interact. In comparison to a more traditional residency, you aren't connected with a lot of equipment and workable space. But you are also less lonely with people constantly coming through the space.”6

Woman seated at table with two details of installations

Under Construction (2016), Claire McArdle, Artist in Residence
Curated by Claire Anna Watson

Under Construction had at its heart the desire to embed artists-in-residence within an exhibition. Presenting disparate practices and areas of research, the five artists and collectives were each allocated their own gallery space where they actively constructed new work, all whilst under the watchful gaze of visitors to Bundoora Homestead Art Centre. The gallery shifted from a traditional exhibition format into an active laboratory marked by deliberation, making and messiness. The artists activated the exhibition space, opened channels of communication and conversation and encouraged the development of new networks.

Claire McArdle notes: “No other residency I've done has been open to the public. It was great to have people through. You received different perspectives on the work that you don't normally.”7 Claire researched the history of the building and was drawn to a story about a damaged leadlight feature owing to a construction worker who dropped his hammer through the glass. The original piece (since replaced with a flat color) was thought to be the outline of a parrot. Her hand-carved wooden hammers, featuring an array of parrots created throughout her residency period, were a source of great interest to visitors, successfully bridging contemporary art practice and the tremendous and varied history of the Homestead, which was built in 1900.8

All of these residencies resulted in a more integrated experience of the production and presentation of visual art. The audiences were exposed to all facets of visual arts culture and the artist remained central to the exhibition framework. The exhibition themes were articulated in a more comprehensive way through the first-hand engagement with the artist creating new work in-situ. By immersing the artist with both the audience and the exhibition, a dialogue without any mediation or interpretation from me – the curator – developed and the themes of the exhibition were interrogated and explored through lived experience.

 
Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Bundoora, Australia 
© Claire McArdle 

[1] Thomas Hirschhorn, quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (2004): p.76. The text cited by Bishop appears originally in Common Wealth, ed. Jessica Morgan (London: Tate Modern, 2003), p. 63.

[2] Palais de Tokyo promotional materials quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (2004): p. 51.

[3] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (2004): p. 51.

[4] Eddy Carroll, e-mail to author, January 14, 2016.

[5] John Gosper, Artist Statement, 2014.

[6] John Gosper, e-mail to author, February 16, 2016.

[7] Claire McArdle, e-mail to author, June 28, 2016.

[8] For further information about Bundoora Homestead, visit www.bundoorahomestead.com.