Postcard from Cambridge
Kettle’s Yard really does have a landmark history of enabling artists to work with collections. Way back in 1993, a group of artists produced work in response to the house – including Richard Wentworth, who took a liking to ceramic plates atop the piano – for the exhibition ‘Artists in the House’. More recently, in 2008, filmmaker Jayne Parker collaborated with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze to produce an exquisitely stark trilogy of films set in Kettle’s Yard among art objects from the collection. Lukoszevieze performs graphic scores, improvised gestures, tapping and brushing the instrument, quietly speaking to it, while Parker scrutinizes the objects as if willing them into being – an elegant Lucie Rie quavers with vibrancy; Rodin’s Eve is caught listening. The 2012/13 Associate Artist programme is the gallery’s most recent pairing of the collection with four artists: Matei Bejenaru, Matthew Darbyshire, Lorna Macintyre and Jeremy Millar, each of whom was commissioned to produce new work in response to the space.
Operated as a faculty of Cambridge University, Kettle’s Yard comprises two main elements: a gallery and education space, and a large house with an incredibly tasteful collection of early to mid-20th-century painting, sculpture, pottery and furniture. Presented in its original domestic setting, the collection is that of Jim Ede who, after quitting painting at Slade in the Professor Tonks years, worked for many years as a curator at Tate, developing friendships with Ben Nicholson and David Jones, before moving to Cambridge in 1956. Ten years later, Ede bequeathed his collection to the university, continuing to reside there for a further six years while it opened as a museum. This generous spirit of hospitality continues today: visitors ring the front doorbell (an actual bell on a string!) to gain entry, store bags in the cupboard opposite the staircase, can sit in chairs, thumb books, even touch pottery away from the easily evadable gaze of invigilators…
The last decade has seen a marked increase in opportunities for artists to work with collections in public galleries and museums. Supposedly less encumbered by institutional politics than other permanent staff, in this role artists open out collections, providing new experiences by reinterpretation of a collection’s character, culture and heritage. This way of working does not necessarily preclude the production of new work, but it certainly favours research-led approaches, and mirrors a tendency towards the artist as selector and arranger. The practice of each of this year’s associate artists, but in particular that of and Jeremy Millar and Matthew Darbyshire, can be characterized by a fascination with research and object arrangement.
Last month, major work commenced on the development of a four-storey expansion to the Kettle’s Yard gallery, consequently the Associate Artists’ work was constrained to an awkward quarter of the usual floor space. Interpretive wall texts, mounted askew, were positioned too far away from the work, referred to unseen objects in the house, and to work on a blog – that now-mandatory platform for residency artists to show what they actually do. Next to the presence of Darbyshire’s and Millar’s works in the space, Bejenaru’s and Macintyre’s diminished.
In An Exhibition for Modern Living (2010) Darbyshire arranged, among other things, oversized crystal vitrines, a repro Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and pink Union Jack toy elephant, on a discreet IKEA shelving unit-by-way-of-Le Corbusier. Certainly I see how, to quote Tom Morton, they might appear to ‘braid their very different orders of taste, authenticity and meaning into an unpickable Gordian knot’. In furniture outlet villages, in diagnostics warehouses off motorways, or on high streets across the country, this braided knot is truly unpickable. In the art gallery it looks like parody – a connoisseurial disentanglement, an assertion of taste. Is this not one more way for art consumers to assert their superiority from consumer globular molten-solder forms of ballroom dancers from Next, or, for that matter, repro Egg chairs? (Darbyshire’s conscious or otherwise dialogue with Duchamp proceeds from a different position on taste. Asked by Pierre Cabanne what determines the choice of readymades, Duchamp explained that it is ‘always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste’. Mechanical drawing and ‘indifferent’ selections evaded categories of good or bad taste.) It is worth noting too that the critic Clement Greenberg’s polemic against kitsch was not simply elitist, it was political too – a diagnosis of a dangerous phenomena he equated with facism that ‘removes the distance between the representation and the thing represented [threatening]… the loss of the subject in the object’.
At Kettle’s Yard, Darbyshire presents seven works titled Untitled Object Arrangements. A nobbly translucent pink Buddha head from Darbyshire’s 2008 installation Blade’s House stands atop a sculpture modeling stand. A knee-high ersatz privet in a neat aluminum pot is well-defined against the white of the gallery wall. An uncannily large frosted wine glass – presumably its only function decorative – humorously perches askance on a ribbed black organic form that appears more substantial than it probably is. Darbyshire works with no physical material from the museum’s collection, instead reinterpreting only formal arrangements, gestures, of existing art works and their arrangement on plinths – Brancusi’s cement cast of Prometheus on the surface of the piano, a Gaudier-Brzeska bronze on a wooden tree trunk. His objects and supporting plinths are all contemporary mass-produced; their formal arrangements, however, are borne of Ede’s connoisseurial, quality touch. Darbyshire’s art is one of selection, arrangement and display. If it imitates life, tending to fall short of it, the fascination of his work at Kettle’s Yard is in the way it activates and transforms something as ethereal as Ede’s gesture. The conceit of emptiness and neutrality in the title Untitled Object Arrangements casts Darbyshire’s objects as conduits for this touch. The absence of Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska makes it even more strongly felt.
Millar last worked at Kettle’s Yard two years ago as the curator of the superb touring show ‘John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day’, an exhibition of the composer’s prints and drawings that followed chance operations to determine a different layout at each of these venues. This time, Millar is the only one of the group to show work in the gallery space, bringing together a pre-existing work and found object from the collection, as well as intervening in the house, affirming his avowed intention to draw attention to the ‘stuff’ around Kettle’s Yard. Nor is the stuff ‘around’ Kettle’s Yard necessarily in close proximity. In the house, placed on a hardwood tray beneath a small painting of flowers by Christopher Wood, is a female pine cone taken from the garden of Austro-Hungarian architect Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller. The pine cone bridges time, space and place, suggesting affinities between the domesticated Modernism of Loos’s villa in Prague and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridgeshire.
Millar’s main work in the gallery is his most compelling, encouraging all kinds of relays and returns to ‘Every Day is a Good Day’. Titled Preparations, the HD video work dates back to a period of artist-curator’s full immersion in Cage-ernalia. In the gallery we hear it before we see it – a fractious perverted-sounding ethnic music soundtracking the other associate artists’ works. The title refers directly to Cage’s instructions for the arrangement of various objects inside the piano for his suite Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). ‘MUTES OF VARIOUS MATERIALS,’ Cage writes in his instructions, ‘ARE PLACED BETWEEN THE STRINGS OF THE KEYS USED, THUS EFFECTING TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE PIANO SOUNDS WITH RESPECT TO ALL OF THEIR CHARACTERISTICS.’ A list details materials to be used: screws, medium, long and large bolts, furniture bolts, nuts and bolts, rubber and plastic… And a schematic hand-drawn diagram shows their point of application.
Performing a piece from Sonatas and Interludes in Millar’s Preparations is the pianist John Tilbury – student and friend of Cage and member of visionary experimental outfit AMM – whose 1975 Decca recording of works remains a benchmark. Tilbury, responding to Cage’s claim that his piano preparations were ‘chosen as one chooses shells on the beach’, writes in the sleevenotes of his recordings that Cage probably ‘simply selected his preparations from the junk he had lying about his apartment and in his pockets’. As a young man, Tilbury admits, he had followed Cage’s instructions precisely, later allowing space for interpretation as he gained in confidence as a performer.
Millar films Tilbury performing in his coastal home in Deal. Framed pictures hang on the wall in the background. Seagull cries outside mix with the room sound inside. And yet, despite this homely setting, Millar never turns the camera on Tilbury. Sound remains uncannily sourceless (that very quality of sound presence Cage’s contemporary Morton Feldman sought): the man is absent in appearance, yet present in sound. In diminishing the man, Millar sets up a situation where Tilbury’s choice of objects, which according to interpretation material ‘look as if grabbed from any shed worktop’, are proxy for the man himself. Millar knows it isn’t this straightforward. These objects are of no great significance, and yet their selection is considered; they achieve specific qualities of sound. Between strings dumb objects quiver vibrantly. Preparations makes an allegory of the potentially radical transformation of everyday things, while also exploring the complex historical relationship between freedom and control in improvisation. Millar is a conceptual dandy: no detail of significance passes by unchecked. His extraordinary eye for detail is what elevates this work beyond mere documentation: rhythmic cuts syncopate with the beat of the music; precise framing (I have mentioned Tilbury’s absence) creates meaning by juxtaposition – the manufacture date of Tilbury’s Steinway helps us imagine the canon Cage was playing against; I can only assume the particular duration timecode of 12.42.03 refers to a significant date for Cage or a multiple of 4’33. Made at the height of Millar’s involvement in ‘Every Day is a Good Day’, Preparations is a fascinating insight into what constitutes research for an artist-curator. His is also a practice perfectly suited to working with collections, where a command of seemingly peripheral everyday ‘stuff’, gathered and aligned in an artful manner, helps us see remarkable things.