Thursday, 23 May 2013

'BODYING FORTH'


video


A Man on a Bridge_Bangkok


a collaborative project by Gérard Mermoz & Kuhn Songkran 
H Project Space .  H GALLERY . Bangkok
3 October-2 November 2013.

Whereas the section EXHIBITION provides a visual catalogue of and  windows onto the exhibition, the section ENCOUNTERS ON THE BRIDGE provides a diary of our encounters with Kuhn Songkran (The Man on the Bridge), and of my attempts, with the precious help of Job, student in Communication at King Mongkut University, Bangkok, to communicate with him: replacing language with a playful dialogue with/through objects and gifts, and later through painting, in a spirit of conviviality

During the exhibition I used the gallery both as a studio and as a exhibition space: to add new artefacts, and to welcome and interact with visitors. 




My grateful thanks to:

Brian Curtin, curator of H project Space, who provided hospitality for the project at H GALLERY, Bangkok. 

Nigel Power, for supporting the project; for permission to use a studio at King Mongkut University and for the opportunity to discuss the project with students and staff.

Akararath Songwattanayothin (Job), for his precious assistance and interest in the project, and for helping bridge some of the gaps during our encounters with Kuhn Songkran. 


Arts Council, England, for supporting the project and making it possible.

Kuhn Songkran for inspiring this project.


Contact: gerardmermoz@hotmail.com



CELEBRATING CREATIVITY FROM THE MARGINS

from 'I  -  It'     
   to     'I   -   Thou'

'But this is the melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It'.

Martin Buber, I and Thou.




Songkran



View from the bridge 



THIS IS THE ETERNAL SOURCE OF ART: A MAN IS FACED BY A FORM WHICH DESIRES TO BE MADE THROUGH HIM INTO A WORK…

(…)

I CAN NEITHER EXPERIENCE NOR DESCRIBE THE FORM WHICH MEETS ME, BUT ONLY BODY IT FORTH…'

M. Buber, I and Thou.




The man who experiences has no part in the world.
For it is 'in him' and not between him and the world that the experience arises.

The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter. 
For it does nothing to the experience, and the experience does nothing to it…

Buber




CONTEXT

The Project focuses on the maker 




and the making 




of enigmatic and enticing objects, that fit under the category of ART BRUT or OUTSIDER ART, or as a grass-root ('organic') version of ARTE POVERA — but which, by their very nature, and given the context in which they are produced, offer a different kind of exemplariness… 


During my stay in Bangkok I hope to be able to meet the person who makes, then discards, these objects — as soon as completed — and, to some extent, bridge (however tenuously) the insuperable gap that separate us, and find a ground for sharing in our common humanity.

As the quotations by Buber indicate, the project resolutely situates Aesthetics under Ethics.


I shall, of course, attempt to make sense — to some extent — of what is happening on the bridge; but through empathy and solidarity rather than through anthropological or sociological enquiry.

Who knows? Our interaction may also humanize what started as a one-sided and 'contrived' (unsollicited) collaboration…

I am very aware that I shall need to tread carefully, in order to avoid any form of appropriation or patronizing. 


Stepping out of INDIFFERENCE — with respect to an individual with whom I/(we all) share a common 'humanity' (irrespective of our social status); and, in my case, an interest in making things — seems preferable to turning our heads away and abbandoning him to his 'fate'...; buying a good conscience by offering him, occasionally, alms of money or food…


The possibility of failure can not be ruled out at the planning stage [from the UK]. 


The result of our first actual 'encounters', in October (when I gave him some new clothes and took his portrait), suggests that some communication (however fragile, tenuous and asymmetric) is possible — across the enormous social and cultural divide — through FORM, if we can 'body it forth'


Comments in the gallery, comments from readers of the blog and personal exchanges with friends and colleagues support this conclusion. 


See section 2: Encounters on the Bridge.


* * *


THE SUBJECT (2012)

A homeless individual (both hero and victim of MODERNITY and PROGRESS?), who lives, destitute, in the margins of society, at the heart of an affluent district of Bangkok; on a foot bridge: his adopted 'home'; suspended between a busy highway and an overhead railways (BTS):






The view looking down from the bridge 

where he spends much of his time sitting, watching intently the traffic on the dual carriage-way, below:









Bangkok July 2012

At no time, during my second visit to Bangkok, do I see him interact with others; except as the occasional recipient of alms or, more often than not, of passers-bye's indifference or, perhaps, pity or bemusement'…

(It is impossible to read what goes on in people's mind).






This photo (above), taken a few days before my departure, shows him after a make-shift haircut, sitting on the yoga mat I gave him; an improvement on sleeping onto the concrete of the bridge, as he was before:







Watching the traffic (but is it really the traffic he is so intently absorbed in watching?) from the foot bridge, or sitting assembling found objects that he gathers, seem to occupy his time on the bridge…






The changing expressions on his face suggests that watching the traffic may, in fact, triggers other thoughts, and takes him into other worlds, beyond our imaginings; beyond the literal perception of moving vehicles: cars, buses, scooters, van, taxis, etc. — allegorical version of Ballet Mécanique — We will never know.

Seeing him stare in space, I cannot help but acknowledge the remarkable ('heroic', from my privileged perspective?) resilience of that man/person in the face of adversity; a strength that I know I could never muster — if put in the same situation — and which, for this reason, seems 'exemplary'.

From this example, I feel, I/we may learn, if we step down from our confortable bourgeois pedestals:




My ('our' if you accept the invitation) encounter with him invites us to reflect upon, and challenge, some assumptions and expectations that we have acquired (settled with) through years of living PRIVILEGED LIVES, and through CULTURAL CONDITIONING.

In 'I and Thou', German philosopher Martin Buber warned us about about the process whereby, through our own forms of relating, 'every Thou in our world must become an It'

This inevitability is not an absolute; but the direct consequence of our passive acceptance of the fact.

Although 'The Man on the Bridge' does not beg, but awaits alms, I — with a few other passers-bye — regularly give him small amounts of money to buy food, which he gratefully accepts with a greeting. 


BREAKING THE ICE: 

One day I stop to give him one of my shirt (a memory of St Martin, from a long lapsed Christian? a Farang 'making (secular) merit' ? [without expecting any gain for his future life/lives? One is enough for me, thank you very much!]; which he seems to appreciate; and wears a couple of days later.  
To perform this transaction, I kneel in front of him (to be on the same level), and ask him (with sign language) if I can take his portrait/picture, as a way of 'breaking the ice'…





On previous occasions, when crossing the bridge, I had noticed that he was making 'things' ['assemblages'] with found material — making them one at a time — keeping the 'work in progress' around his neck; like a necklace or an amulet [partly visible on the photograph above, behind the new shirt] or suspending it on the railing (canal side).

Respectful of his privacy and careful not to disrupt his peace and the continuity of his existence, I ponder over his present and past lives… 

and wonder if there is anything appropriate that I could do to alleviate his tragic condition without disrupting his hard-won (fragile?) equilibrium.


(enters the Good Samaritan?)



The tattoo of an anchor on his right arm, suggests that he may have, once, been a sailor…



Transitional Objects  .  Potential Space

(Winnicott, Playing and Reality)



First conversation/collaboration?


One day, I notice, tied to the railing, evidence of what may be a new construction in the making:





To instigate  an indirect dialogue, through objects, I gather a small, bunch of plastic colored straws and other material that I either found in the street or acquired with drinks, and attach it to the railing — as an anonymous 'gift':






A couple of days later, I notice that the material I left has been incorporated into a new 'composition', hanging from the railing, on the canal side, invisible from the bridge (perhaps to avert the street cleaners' attention/interference?):







To prevent it from being thrown away by the maker or by the street cleaners, I take/'rescue'/'intercept'/'collect' the piece; the first I shall ever be able to see in 'mint condition', without the patina of years of exposure to the elements, dust and else, accumulated on the concrete platform, below.


REWIND…


Earlier on,  looking down from the bridge, I had noticed one of his finished constructions laying below among an accumulation of rubbish, which paradoxically resemble the material he uses for making his constructions. 


There is a paradox, here, if he throws away his 'art material' (if, indeed, he does), as well as his 'works'. 


(unless this 'discarding' is the 'tidying up' work of street cleaners or his own form of archiving).



A colleague who crosses the bridge on a daily basis, and sees the man making his constructions, tells me that street cleaners regularly brush over the material that the Man on the Bridge collects and saves to make his 'works': 



Tying his 'work in progress'  to the railing (keeping it off the ground and out of sight, on the canal side) may be a good way of averting the street cleaners' undescriminating cleaning impulse…



ARCHAEOLOGY

Since the platform, below, is inaccessible (surrounded by the water of a canal, a metal fence and continuous traffic), I improvise a fishing line by re-shaping a paper clip into a hook, which I attach to a rubber band, and a bolt (for weight; to be able to cast the line); then, finally, to a length of string, to try and retrieve one of the  discarded constructions:




under the bemused gaze of two passers-by:





The device works and I succeed in catching and lifting the construction after only two castings of the line. 

Later on, that evening, I photograph it,  its two sides, on a sheet of white paper.
This process reveals the rich variety of colors and textures and its complex organic structure: urban foetus? secular fetish?



click this (and all) image(s) to enlarge



The photograph highlights a quality and lack of self-consciousness and preciousness, rare in art works made by professional artists. 

This construction does not seem concerned to produce a form for its own sake, or to communicate a message to others, but rather displays the meticulous — and enigmatic — process of its own making; letting us surmise about his intentions and motivations.

The material he uses is freely available and of no value to those men who coomb the streets daily,  in search of material that can be sold to recycling companies.


Several days  later I re-photograph the piece:


              
The construction is rather enticing, and the possibility that it was (deliberately) discarded (if, indeed, it was) as soon as completed, suggests that its raison d'être is not primarily visual or artistic — in an object-led way and a commodity sense — but belongs in a different dimension:  not 'Outsider Art', but outside of Art, Commerce, Competition…


The 'human dimension' of that experience, which could easily be appropriated and re-defined as 'Art Brut', 'Outsider Art', etc. is what interest me, here — as an artist and as a human being. What the project will attempt, in non-reductive ways, is not to 'understand' the 'works', but rather to better empathize with the maker.
  


PHOTOGRAPHY AS NON REDUCTIVE INTERPRETATION

Re-photographing the 'object' against a white ground makes the object and the process of its own making more legible.

Beside contributing colors and textures (materiality) to its visual appearance, the material (things, fragments) it is made of, cleverly provides the means of binding and holding its components together as well.

Further examination of the assemblage suggests that an inventory of what each construction is made of (treating it as anthropologically significant urban litter) could be used to devise alternative typologies of urban waste, that, in turn, may be used to develop micro maps of the city and of the activities that take place within it; and perhaps also its future, in the manner of the ancient Etruscan  haruspices… 

This symptomatic reading of the material these 'assemblages' are made of may, thus, open — at micro level — perspectives that may build bridges with Michel DeCerteau's investigation of the Practice of Everyday Life and Baudrillard's critical  reflections in System of Objects and other texts.



SECULAR FETISHES  .  TALISMANS?

Another 'abandoned' construction, which lies under a thick coat of dirt and dust bound by less appealing substances, blends with the concrete greyness of the platform, below, and strangely reminds me of tribal (Dogon) fetishes I have seen, coated with a thick crust of blood and millet from years of ritual offerings, which gradually erase their human form: 



THe object used on the invitation card (before cleaning)


BEYOND INTERPRETATION


'To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover'




'In bodying forth I disclose. 
I lead form across — into the world of It
The work produced is a thing 
among things, able to be experienced and described as a sum of  qualities. 
But from time to time it can 
face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form'.



BREAKING THE ICE, AGAIN…

However problematic, asymmetric and short-circuited by social, economic and cultural differences it may be, the dialogue I plan to instigate when I return to Bangkok in September 2013, will need to be mediated by a sensitive Thai speaker/s; by gifts, and also by using body and sign language; as during one of my early encounters with him, when alms to buy food were given.

Most importantly, it will be facilitated by divesting myself of any sense of superiority associated with being an artist and coming from a privileged background.

(There is a secular relevance to the teaching of St Francis of Assisi…)


BACK ON THE BRIDGE

Kneeling, smiling and using signs to ask whether I could take his portrait, prior to taking it, seemed to break the ice and light his face up with a surprised smile; an 'opening' up to — or at least acknowledging — the (friendly) presence of a ('familiar'? but unknown and intriguing) stranger:



From then on, I give him alms for food every time I see him; but have no means to establish whether or not he recognizes me.

Careful not to disrupt his peace and the continuity of his own existence, I did not try to communicate with 'forced', loud and expansive signs, but simply wondered about (and enpathized with) his present and his past lives.


READING SIGNS

The tattoo of an anchor on his back suggests that he may have been a sailor, in a previous life…

What happened  in between?

When recently questioned, he told us that he had never been on a ship.


CONFRONTING & BRIDGING AN INSUPERABLE DIVIDE?

The project attempts to bridge the enormous, social, economic and cultural divide, between ourselves and this 'Other' (that we encounter everyday and block out of — or keep in the margins of our consciousness); reinforced by the barrier of language and the gap opened, on the one hand, by the vicissitudes of a life marred by tragedy (that may have affected his 'sanity'), and, on the other, by our privileged destiny as members of the affluent society. 

I anticipate that the project may end up as a series of tentative and doomed attempts at bridging these gaps, for good intentions alone do not change the world. Taking stock of the experiment, will no doubt provide material for reflecting about boundaries and how they may be bridged.

Can these fragile attempts avert transforming this 'other' — A Man on a Bridge, in Bangkok — into an 'IT' and retain his identity as a 'THOU'? 

This is the stake of the project.


SCHEDULE

Work in Progress will be presented between 3 October and 2 November at H Project Space, H Gallery, in Bangkok and will be documented simultaneously, on this blog, [http://amanonabridgebangkok.blogspot.co.uk/],    

which will both document and extend the project by other means, indefinitely.

The project will start with an installation in the two upstairs rooms of the gallery. It will consist of, initially,  four 'assemblages' presented in the form of a memorial; inviting visitors to ask the questions: 'What is this? What are we looking at? What are we seeing?'

Go to section: EXHIBITION.



Do leave your comments below or in the exhibition section (preferably constructive).

Thank you…


Gérard Mermoz

4. EXHIBITION





A Man on A Bridge_Bangkok is an artistic project which presents the activity of a man who lives in the street, and owns little more than the clothes he wears, but makes intriguing assemblages with fragments of discarded objects that he picks up in the streets, and transforms into enticing artefacts, which he discards as soon as completed.

For Songkran, it is in the act and process of making them that the objects acquire their significance; not from any material interests that he may gain from exhibiting or selling them to collectors.

For us, however, it is through their FORM that they acquire significance.

The other side of the project consists of a series of encounters with Songkran, on the bridge; in an attempt to bridge the insuperable gap that separates us.

Exchanging the methodology of anthropology — including that of visual anthrology — and its search for 'scientific' meanings and facts, for an experiment in DIALOGUE, I opted to explore possibilities of communication without words: using objects and play in a spirit of conviviality.

This part of the project is documented in section 2 of this blog: Encounters.


INSTALLATION

Displaying Songkran's objects in an Art Gallery may be misleading; for the intention is not to promote them as art objects (under the heading of 'Art Brut'), but to present them as a form of VISUAL EXPRESSION taking place OUTSIDE of 'ART'.   

The  sympathetic domestic architecture of H Project Space, at H Gallery, lends itself to 'revealing' this secret practice: to celebrate human creativity in the margins, on a par with the work of professional artists, situating it discretely in relation to the history of art.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I thank curator Brian Curtin and H for giving hospitality to this project, that celebrates human creativity and resilience outside of 'Art'; and the Arts Council, England for funding the project.


ANTICHAMBER: SYMBOLS OF 'ART'

References to the History of Art are made through the inclusion of symbols of 'Art': a frame, a palette, a still-life painting, a typographic case… presented either as objects or as photographs of these objects.





At the top of the stairs PHOTOGRAPHS of 


a still life by 19th century Florentine painter Michelangelo Meucci: 





an antique oval frame similar to that used on the Meucci's still-life [the actual frame is used in the next room to 'frame' one kuhn Song-Kran's assemblages]:







the same frame as it was wrapped by the seller [with a newspaper motif reminiscent of Cubism]: 






and two compositions that are displayed in the next room:



relic




casket


provide a deliberately enigmatic INTRODUCTION in what may be described as an ANTCHAMBER, where themes are discretely alluded to: Languages of 'Art', the 'frame' as valorizing factor,  'painting' as priviledged artistic medium and the assumptions that such conventions induce us to make when looking at 'works' of 'Art'. 

A miniature portrait of Song-Kran and one of his collages announce the Man and his works:





Installation view Thursday 3.10.2013



Two framed photographs act as a focal point as one enters the room:






as if in a MEMORIAL:






All the other elements gravitate around them.




Initially, the exhibition was going to present four constructions or assemblages made by Song-Kran, the 'Man on the Bridge'. There are now five; for an extra one was collected when the exhibition was being set up. More may be added during the residency; presented as archaeological find rather than staged like the other four.

The staging of these assemblages is intended to act as non-reductive INTERPRETATION (in the form of 'open' visual heuristic fictions, which recall either

precious artefacts (jewels in a casket):







a modernist painting, inspired by the tradition of still-life, as re-interpreted by Cubism and Dada:






but also talismans, amulets and the cult of relics:





A fifth one retrieved at the time the exhibition was being set up  is simply laid down on a low plinth, as itself; offered for what it is:





Interpretation is provided by visual meansphotographs, photomontages and actual objects (a typographic case, an artist palette, a modern acrylic storage box and an antique oval frame). 

These rather than words are used to contextualize and interpret the objects in the form of visual hypotheses which invite creative extrapolations rather than proclaim authorial or curatorial meanings.


In a series of photomontages each of Songkran's assemblage is shown overlaid on a still-life by Michelangelo Meucci. 

The intention, here, is to explore formal analogies and to suggest convergence, in the absence of influence and of any intentionality.

It is as if the History of Art had been caught up from the margins, by chance:





These superimpositions are surprisingly non-disruptive as lines, colors and forms blend harmoniously…





An acrylic box used by collectors to store their amulets and other miniature collectables is included; with samples of fragments collected in the UK as parting gifts for Song-Kran, the Man on the Bridge:







OBJECT . IMAGE . TEXT

PHOTOGRAPHY is not used here merely to document, but rather to interpret and to help us engage with the works by making them more legible.

The photographs are no so much representations 'of' the objects themselves [conjuring up, as if by magic, their presence] but rather materialisations of discrete acts of looking by 'receptive beholder'*...

* See the three quotations by Buber at the start of the blog.




TEXTS

Four short framed texts by Martin Buber highlight some propositions with which the exhibition and the project converge.

The first warns us against the constant danger of objectifying the 'other':







The others pose the problem of form in different aesthetic terms from those of often over-intellectualized post Post-Modern theories, advocating a form of empathy described by Buber as a 'bodying forth':





and warns us against letting rational conceptualisations quantify form (and in the process reduce it to mere data); advocating, instead, more intimate ways of implicating ourselves in our engagement with FORM:









A comment left yesterday in the gallery by a Thai artist reads:

'I 'm not sure if the object is a necessity for that man or that man is a necessity for that object'.


Today, a visitor from Scothand noted

'if you look closely at the detail of any man's life it is beautiful'.

Visitors seems to be moved by the story and by the 'works'.


STAGING THE OBJECTS

The staging of the objects, in the exhibition, deliberately make them look precious: to valorize them as human expression, but without turning them into luxury art objects for sale.

One visitor (mathematician, I am told) remarks upon seeing the objects: 'this is not my taste'; as if taste was relevant.

Must taste and arbitrary opinions over-ride our responses to form?

I point out that taste is irrelevant here, but this observation does not seem to help the person to reconsider
the 'works' from other perspectives (as the expression of an incontrovertible 'thou')…

Being around when visitors come to the gallery makes me aware of the difficulties in using a gallery (and the expectations that people bring with them) to present these objects.




Looking at 'art' through personal taste encourages indulging narcissistic impulses rather than critical exploration of differences .

At least being in the gallery enables me to outline the context, to prevent visitors taking the objects is to their 'face value': in the light of their taste; reducing them to mere ORNAMENT.

I wonder whether visitors can be expected to suspend taste when looking at these objects, or whether taste will always over-ride perception.

There is a limit to what the curator can do to faciliate engagement with the works.

Especially in the light of Buber's remark:

'But this is the melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It'.

TASTE is irrelevant here, for the 'WORKS' are presented as expressions of HUMANITY, from a perspective which situates AESTHETICS within ETHICS.

Seeing implies a silent DIALOGUE.

One visitor's comment senses it:

'Humanity
Creativity
Spirit
Aspirations
Escapism
Survival'

On my way to the gallery, yesterday, I retrieved another assemblage. 

It now lay on a plinth: still-life of URBAN FRAGMENTS

I wonder if photographing it will make it more legible, as happened with the others. I refrain…

For this exhibition, it will not be 'framed'/interpreted; but just left there, on a plinth, like a fish out of water…


PHOTOGRAPHY:

The exhibition proposes that photographs are not so much representation 'of' an object or event, but rather a phenomenological trace of a way of looking at the object/event. Its function is essentially heuristic.

Looking at a photograph presupposes enough humility and generosity to acknowledge the hospitality of a welcoming act that enables us to see the world through another person's eyes, sensibility and mind.

By enhancing the visibility, readibility and legibility of Songkran's assemblages, photography, here, mediates between Songkran and the beholder, via the object.

Students from Bangkok University:






From King Mungkut University MA course in Visual Communication:




A wall of blank cards invites comments from visitors:











Some comments: