That dull bit of wall under the whiteboard

Last week I had an argument with Natali, one of my Year 12 students. Nothing unusual in that, but unfortunately it was interrupted by the bell so I never had the chance to fully put my case across. Or win, as I like to call it. It seemed a bit pedantic to bring it up in the next lesson (especially with Christmas and all that), so I’m doing it now, tongue in cheek and with our Year 12 Traces project in mind.

Let’s go back to Natali’s provocation (which followed an introduction to Peter Fraser’s work, amongst others):

“What’s the point in photographing boring things? There’s nothing interesting about…(SCANS ROOM QUICKLY)….that, is there?”

(POINTS FINGER AT “THAT” *).

that

Now, I can’t be sure but I think she meant the general wall area rather than the (obviously interesting) scratch marks, or the little dot (which looks like a hole but is actually some kind of stain and far from dull).

Still, she continued:

You couldn’t get an interesting image of that, could you?”

I was quick to point out the immediate flaw in her challenge: She had already made it interesting. A minute earlier that particular section of nothing really was quite unremarkable. She had elevated it to something, especially now the rest of the group had smelt a fight and were circling. 16 pairs of eyes were staring at a brick wall. Boring or not, if nothing else any photograph would be a testament to Nat’s thinking, which (unlike the wall) is rarely dull.

brick

But then the bell went and everyone left. Quicker than usual, funnily enough.

I found myself alone, so crafted this poignant photo:

finger

Wall, yeay!

Context is everything: Traces (something and nothing)

Earlier in the lesson I introduced students to a range of artists that have documented seemingly ordinary, everyday objects. In particular I had leant on the work of Peter Fraser and also Christopher Nunn. To my mind, both of these, in their own ways, whisper a poetry of sorts.

I also used some excerpts from Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Chapter 4, Something and Nothing) to emphasise how the act of photography itself can add significance to anything, and how traditional expectations of still-life (and photography) have been, and can be, toyed with.

Mostly I was hoping that students would slow down to question the familiar, and importantly, do this on their own terms.

head

Just playing, move on…

The obvious danger of starting a project showing examples of artists’ work is that students then simply set out to replicate what they have seen. Interestingly though, this particular theme, Traces, began in very different circumstances. Students were not shown any examples but were encouraged – within the confines of a hotel – to record traces of human presence/absence. Most students took to this straight way, sensitive to their cameras as investigative tools. But others did flounder. Lost without visual prompts – “I don’t get it sir” – the task seemed too abstract.

2

Nat’s wall, again

So, back in the classroom this lesson was intended to plug some of those gaps, to share some quieter ways of working to those previously encountered.

Anyhow, regarding Nat’s challenge: For most art teachers it would be easy enough to snap away at a bit of wall and make (tenuous) visual and conceptual connections, which may (or may not) be interesting. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Cy Twombly, Robert Raushenburg, Ben Nicholson, Carl Andre would probably be some of the most obvious reference points. But, a downside of knowledge when it comes to producing new work is that it can fog your own instincts. I wanted to play with Nat’s challenge (which is what I’m doing here) hopefully demonstrating that any act of doing – if you kick something about enough – combined with a bit of persistence, is likely to unearth something interesting. Possibly. If you stopped reading a while back you might disagree.

I was curious to compare Natali’s choice of ‘boring’ to similar art rooms around the country – those neglected bits of wall found below attention-seeking whiteboards. I put the following instructions on the wonderfully supportive NSEAD facebook forum:

instructions

I love the way that supportive art teachers across the land responded with enthusiasm. Like me they were clearly avoiding paperwork. But also, more importantly, this is a group appreciative of creative play and collaboration. No further explanations required.

Okay, enough. This is not helping to buy my wife a christmas present. But in summary – for Natali and the rest of my brilliant Year 12 group – don’t photograph ‘boring’ things, look for interest in everything. Ultimately for this project, photograph what you want. Keep your minds open and enjoy playing with new ideas and approaches. Be sensitive to the less obvious; don’t put a wall up too quickly.

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