6 October 2012

Contemporary Spider Webs

vija celmins web 1

Let’s put our ‘contemporary art’ hats on and take a look at the spider web drawings of artist Vija Celmins.

This may be a useful exercise not only because we can impress friends and family by referring to an internationally recognised artist when next marvelling at a real spider web (ie. “Ah yes, a similar structure to that drawn by Vija Celmins” or “Ooo just like a Celmins”), but also I think the enjoyment of a garden can be mightily enhanced if viewed with the eyes - and mental processes - of an artist.

This artist, a woman born in Latvia and now living in the US, specialises in drawing minutely detailed copies of photographs principally using charcoal and graphite, and various printing techniques. She drew the photographs of the stars I used to illustrate the last post.

These spider webs in this post were not drawn from life. She didn’t sit outside for hours on end or even take her own photographs. The photographs she copied were discovered in a natural history museum. ‘What is the point of that?’ you may ask. A proper artist finds their own material; especially nature artists who trudge out in all weathers, sketch book in hand, searching for the beauty or strangeness of the natural world. They are meant to make their own observations and judgements which they then present to us for our passive enjoyment. But this is where we have to come to terms with the Contemporary, or Modernist, take on art.

It is not the subject that we are meant to study but the work itself.
This is a copy of a photograph of a web. What did the original photographer do? He selected and framed, applied the human mind to an object that was made by a creature who knows nothing of humans and cameras and abstract thought. The act of taking the photograph transformed the original object from what it was to something different. By copying this photograph (which actually she found printed in a book – another step away from the thing that existed) Celmins highlights all sorts of ideas about time and existence and reality and materiality and the human need to capture and define and .... loads of stuff like that (goodness, I’m glad I’m not writing a proper essay).

One of the concerns of modern art is how the 3 (at least) dimensional world can be represented on the flat 2 dimensional surface of a piece of art, be it painting, drawing, or photograph. Some of Celmin’s drawings are made with charcoal and graphite. If you were to see them in a gallery (the Tate for example) you would be able to make out the individual strokes made by the charcoal. This is something the Expressionists (god, I hope I’m not teaching any of you to suck eggs – actually I know I am) were doing with their daubs of colour. This encourages the eye to look at the surface of the canvas as well as the false reality of the scene depicted. You become aware of the object in front of you. It trips you up. You were initially willing to play the game – to agree that is indeed a pretty lady with a parasol on a sunny hillside, or in this case a spider’s web. But it’s not. It’s a bit of paper. Your mind has been caught being clever.

Here is a concept I think might be useful when you are next wandering round the garden. When you see that web or leaf or flower catch yourself thinking ‘web, leaf, flower’, then look again. What actually are you seeing? What is a web?

vija celmins web 1

Yes, what is a web? Now we’ve accepted we are looking at a created object, not a picture of a particular web, we can ask why the artist chose this subject. It’s not a matter of saying, ‘that’s nice’ or ‘there’s one just like that in my garden.’ Ask questions of the subject.

A couple of quotes from Celmins show she knew spider webs elicit an emotional response from many people:

‘It’s an image that’s got a lot of associations with it, which I put in this very cold, scientific kind of dressing that I like to put my work in … you know, just the facts. I was seeing whether I could put an image that’s so charged emotionally in this kind of context.’

‘Also, it was an emotional image that would draw people in, so the carefully accounted for space was contrasted with an emotional melancholic image. You know, I like that combination of contrasts - a sort of double reality.’

Each individual can spin off lots of ideas associated with webs, and they will be specific to them and their own experiences so I won’t try to list them here. The point I want to flag up is that however controlled or scientific we try to be we also relate to the world unconsciously. And, inspired by the techniques of contemporary art, we will only know what lies hidden in our depths if we question ourselves.

vija celmins web 2