Notes on Artists who inspire us…
Six artists from Bristol and the South West met up on a Sunday afternoon for a lovely and stimulating art walk.
We started with a little creative exercise. Five went up the tower of the Clifton Observatory to view the Camera Obscura. It’s a dark room, with a convex lens and sloping mirror installed on top of the roof. On a sunny day, light is refracted and reflected downward onto a dished screen. The Bristol Obscura is a famous one due to the amazing panoramic view of Avon Gorge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We took it in turns to run about the grounds, avoid being run over while crossing the road, hiding behind trees and crossing the bridge. Others in the Camera Obscura were tasked with trying to find them. Like a stupid game of Where’s the Wallies!
This started a conversation about animations or installations that could potentially happen here – we dreamt of women in red dressing standing out against the grey and green of the immediate environment, dancing among the trees, running along the bridge, abseiling down the cliffs. Links were made with the Clod Ensemble’s Red Ladies, which have painted similar but perhaps less potentially dangerous images with performers in red. And with Brenda Waite who created a magical site-responsive dance piece on Brandon Hill in Bristol, called Brandon Hill Series. This was viewed from her kitchen window, which overlooked and framed the hill beautifully. Brenda wore a long, flowing dress and danced to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, to the consternation of people eating sandwiches on park benches and to the delight of the audience in her kitchen, who listened to the track played on her old tape machine when her alarm clock went off. This remains one of my favourite performance experiences of all time.
Afterwards we went on a stroll around Clifton Downs and chatted more about artists who inspire us…
We talked about a number of eccentric performers, who were admired for their distinctiveness, who stood out from the crowd and took life by the horns.
First up: Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian-American actor who was the first actor to play Dracula in a film and for which gained world-wide fame. In his lifetime he was admired and abhorred in equalmeasure for his mannered performance style but was generally hailed as the King of Horror. He almost turned himself into the Dracula stereotype, plagued by addition with a string of relationships with glamorous women and even buried with a Dracula cape costume.
Drako Oho Zarharzar, was an eccentric artist who started off as a dancer, became a muse to Salvador Dali and in later life was a well-known feature of Kemptown, Brighton. He was highly tattooed and painted and was the subject of an extraordinary film by Toby Amies, The Man Whose Mind Exploded, which explores Drako’s amnesia due to a series of accidents. You can see a clip of the film here.
Ian Smith, the well loved and very missed showman and performance artist made Brighton and Glasgow his artistic playground and travelled the world with his peculiar brand of mayhem through the company Mischief La Bas, co founded with Angie Dight. His playful and absurd attitude to life was summed up in his funeral, which saw a pair of plaster feet extending from the bottom of the coffin. You can find out about the Festival of Ian Smith held in his honour in 2015 here.
We considered all things miniature – via the entertaining and poignant images of Slinkachu, He works with miniature model train set characters, which he arranges, photographs and often leaves on the street. The street-based side of his work aims to encourage people living in cities to look more inquisitively around their surroundings. Stompy from Dot Comedy is currently developing The Small Wonder Tour, a guided tour with installations of model people in compromising positions.
Willard Wigan, based in Bristol, makes micro-sculptures that are invisible to the human eye, carved from grains of rice, sand or sugar. He takes himself into a trance when working and his creations often take months to complete. Now there’s commitment for you! You can find him presenting a TED talk about his work and process here.
We talked about the Welcome To Hell demonstration that happened in Hamburg around the G20 summit in July. This consisted of hundreds of activists covering themselves and their clothing in clay, which gave them the appearance of a community of zombies walking towards disaster. In unison removed their outer clothing and washed themselves down to reveal the colourful spirit within.
This was co-ordinated by the German collective 1,000 Gestalten (1,000 figures) and provides an inspiring model for demonstrations that can often miss the extraordinary impact that big images can provide. This conversation was in the air in last year’s For the Love Of It, which took the theme of Opposition and therefore considered activism.
Ending up in the middle of the Clifton Downs, we talked about Richard Long, the landscape artist who was born in Clifton. He made a piece of work here in 1964 called Snowball Track, made by rolling a snowball through a thin covering of snow, to reveal a muddy trail. In 2015 as part of a retrospective exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery, he made another trail called Boyhood Line, marking a regular journey across the Downs, picked out in limestone.We all agreed that he’s an inspirational artist who has opened up thinking in what art can be but that his pieces perhaps work better in environments that are more ‘epic’, less scarred already by suburban stuff in which his marks are less apparent or strike less of a contrast.
Lastly there was a moment to celebrate the work of ‘rock and roll vagabond’ Ian Dury. He contracted polio aged 7, which led to muscle weakness and loose limbs, especially on his left side and despite the difficulties that this presented him with he became an extraordinary artist – he was a graffic artist and art teacher, an actor on the stage and in film, and of course lyricist and vocalist. No-one would deny he was a flawed characterbut he lived life to the full and provided a tremendous model for positive thinking.
On reflection, given that all but one of the party were women, it’s interesting to reflect that all of the independent artists mentioned only one is a woman. There’s food for thought. But on an optimistic note, I’ll leave you with….
Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3
Some of Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good Golly Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley, add nanny goats
Eighteen-wheeler Scammels, Domineker camels,
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy
Being rather silly and porridge oats
A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You’re welcome – we can spare it, yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on forty, no electric shocks
The juice of the carrot, the smile of a parrot
A little drop of claret – anything that rocks
Elvis and Scotty, the days when I ain’t spotty
Sitting on the potty, curing smallpox
Reasons to be Cheerful – 1,2,3…
Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3
Health service glasses, gigolos and brasses
Round or skinny bottoms
Take your mum to Paris, lighting up the Chalice
Wee Willy Harris
Bantu Stephen Biko, listening to Rico
Harpo, Groucho, Chico
Cheddar cheese and pickle, the Vincent motor sickle
Slap and tickle
Woody Allen, Dali, Dimitri and Pasquale
Balabalabala and Volare
Something nice to study, phoning up a budy
Being in my buddy
Saying ‘okey-dokey’, singalonga Smokey
Coming out of chokey
John Contrane’s soprano, Adi Celantano
Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3
Reasons to be Cheerful – 1,2,3
Yes, yes, dear, dear, perhaps next year, or maybe even never…in which case…