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2 September 2012

August Book of the Month

Book of the month for August, is Michael Foley’s, ‘Embracing the Ordinary’. Not so much an ‘art’ book like I normally opt for in these reviews, but this month we’re taking  the term ‘art’ at its most broadest and most encompassing in looking at the banal, the humdrum, the everyday, the mundane and (for you academics out there) the quotidian. Besides, what could be more artistic than the ordinary?...

That question, I suppose is what Foley is attempting to answer or convince his reader into believing in this book. That the daily commute to work, the paperclips and rubber bands of office paraphernalia, the supermarket shop, the wakening moments of the morning spent observing the shapes on the ceiling, light hitting the edges of kitchen appliances, everyday conversations and garden weeds can all be fascinating, interesting or even beautiful or sublime if we take the time to notice. In fact, he goes on to explain, that it is in these moments of everydayness that we do most of our contemplating and have some of our best ideas. Embracing the ordinary is a state of mind (or as Foley explains a philosophy of Rusism) where, what are irritating weeds to the gardener, are also remarkably resilient, adaptable and brilliantly named (such as, hemlock, stinking hellebore, fleabane and hairy bittercress –not exactly charming names, but do as the book elaborates sound like the names of a hoard of goblins) plants. This is not to say that the gardener has to suddenly adopt a love for weeds but in principle the positive attitude and open mindedness that goes with being able to appreciate really mundane things is something that might make the ordinary parts of our lives all the more enriching.  Phew! Pretty preachy stuff, you may think, but the point Foley makes is that artists have been doing it for centuries,

‘One approach is to use the arts to develop a new perception, an imaginative relabeling of the everyday world. It is not what you look at that matters but what you see.’

The main examples Foley refers to throughout the book are Vermeer, Hopper, Caulfield and the more recent Turner Prize 2011 nominee George Shaw (interestingly all painters!) However there are plenty more artists such as, Duchamp, Cage, Johns to name a few that could have been mentioned in support of the same idea. Foley does discuss other photographers such as the contemporary urban explorers dedicated to seeking out and exploring abandoned churches, cinemas, offices etc. He argues this is almost a creative form of recycling or these sorts of perspectives allow the potential of what were once ‘dis-used’ and run-down spaces become transformed into works of art.

 ‘The city was the first, and still is the most original and imaginative collage artist.’

The bulk of the book, however, uses detailed analysis of works of literature by James Joyce and Marcel Proust to explain how the authors used and re-created/re-presented the everyday of their own lives and observations into their writing. Although as someone that has never read ‘Dubliners’ or À la recherche du temps perdu’ this was a little bit lost on me, but in the context of the chapter headings, ‘the everyday self’, ‘the everyday environment’ and ‘the significant of the insignificant’ explained enough for me to get the idea. Arguably we’re all experts of everyday life anyway as any kind of life (regardless of circumstances of wealth or poverty) can become ordinary if it has become routine.
Another two books cited in 'Embracing the Ordinary': The Mezzanine by Baker and An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris by Perec
What I found most exciting in particular, was not only the many arty references and reaffirming of the life enhancing and transformative power of art,

‘Art is not about artefacts and artiness. Art is humility, engagement, exploration, discovery, cognition, experience and above all renewal.’

But also the reference to two amazing books I have previously read that make for a fantastic ‘linking things together’ opportunity in this review. Namely, the painstaking observations of Georges Perec in ‘An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris’ and the witty musings of Nicolson Baker in ‘The Mezzanine’. Perec himself writes, that the aim of his writing is to record, ‘what happens, when nothing happens’. His choice of location, Place Saint Sulpice, Paris where the author writes the sights, the slogans, the sounds and occurrences that litter everything. The result is a book that is more like an inventory of bus numbers, pigeon counts, billboard slogans, people, weather and food consumed by Perec as he does his observing. Boring? You ask. Well, it could be but it’s these little details that create an impression of the place, its people, the atmosphere and events that take place there. When one considers that painting, film and music are essentially made up of what is usually a harmonious combination of elements such as colour, tone, pace, light, rhythm etc. If you single each of these elements out on their own they seem very simple and the point that Perec is making is that these very simple everyday elements like the bus numbers come together with the weather and the number of pigeons etc to make the bigger picture.  Foley uses Perec as an example of how narrative can be found in the everyday and that the individual details can be as beautiful as the whole. ‘The Mezzanine’ is another example of a novel that is more of a descriptive homage to the banal as it describes one office workers day taking great care in observing the items on the desk and the way in which the mind wonders and daydreams on banal things, such as ‘why does one shoe lace always wear out before the other?’ It’s actually quite funny and uncannily accurate and human. I like the kind-of absurdity of books that point-out the obvious. Foley writes how the success of comedy is precisely that, noticing the everyday things we do and pointing out their frivolity or ridiculousness. I’d definitely recommend reading or at least trying a bit of either of these novels.

The home of the SAW blog. In all its mundanity!
The good thing about ‘embracing the everyday’ is that for artists, nothing is more everyday than the studio (or if not maybe they’d like it to be everyday!), but what I mean is that to the artist who uses it, their studio is very familiar and therefore debatably ‘everyday’. For me, this is one of the great things about Open Studios for this year’s Somerset Art Weeks. The opportunity (as an outsider) to see the familiar, the everyday working spaces of artists, the materials, equipment, utensils, sounds, smells, paraphernalia and things that make up a studio space.  Whilst some of the stereotypical items being the same in most studios (I’m thinking brushes, old chairs, rags, pencils etc.) no two studios will ever really be the same in their subtleties of differences or mediums. The studios can sometime become the work as much as the artwork made within them.  Some artists may take offence to this, after all who wants to spend weeks on a painting to then be upstaged by the palette! However in truth, although painful, that can often be the case (I’ve been there!). My personal response to this is that it’s ok to celebrate that the palette may have an accidental beauty but the worked-on, crafted and developed painting also has a beauty to it just of a different kind.  Anyway it’s like acknowledging that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece, but who wouldn’t be as equally excited (if not more so) by seeing the Da Vinci’s studio it was created in? Tourists flock to locations such as Roald Dahl’s garden shed in which he wrote his books. Not that people are necessarily visiting those places to see an old chair, or garden shed, but it is the significance of seeing these often very mundane places that authors/artists create in that inspire people into thinking, maybe I could do that? And that some of the most imaginative, creative and original writings or artworks are made in the most ordinary of settings. Who knows, event the location of the SAW blog might one day be of interest (ha ha)! Anyway, the result of all this reading, wondering and pontificating is that books such as  the one reviewed here, ‘Embracing the Ordinary’ offer a different and refreshing perspective that as a result got me thinking about how I felt about the everyday in relation to this year’s Open Studios. Already being a self-confessed addict of tools, umbrellas and sublime tat of all kinds, you’d be right to think I probably didn’t need much convincing. You’d be right, but nonetheless I still enjoy reading more on the subject of banal, and it was this weeks’ Paralympics opening ceremony that was festooned with umbrellas as a symbol for British-ness that proved that I am perhaps not alone in this way of thinking. In its humble honesty and intimacy perhaps Open Studios has a greater power for inspiring people than in the sometimes deemed ‘intimidating’ gallery space?

We shall see...


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