Archive for July, 2009

Simple power (by Olga Norris)

Sometimes a visual piece stays in the mind beyond any memory of the context, or any impulse to find out more about it and/or the artist at the time.  When this happens to me I find that more often than not the work has a powerful simplicity: a clear sense of itself. 

One such piece which I remember distinctly is the one below:apologies for the small size

For My Mother (Vogue 1977-1997), 1998     Tracing paper and marker

I did not take a specific note of the title or the artist at the time, and it is only by chasing around Google now that I have now found that the latter is Emily Jacir.  The piece was part of an exhibition I saw in Oxford in late 2003 entitled Veil.  The show itself was culturally thought-provoking as also noted by a local reviewer, who like me was particularly drawn to Emily Jacir’s piece. 

This is how the artist described the work as developed for another exhibition:

“The work is a selection of three pieces from the series entitled “From Paris to Riyadh(Drawings for my Mother, 1976-1996)”. These pieces are based on my memories of traveling in and out of Saudi Arabia. On the airplane from Europe to Saudi Arabia, my mother would black out with a marker all the exposed parts of female bodies in the latest Vogue magazines in order to bring them into the country. In “Novembre 1977”, “Avril 1984”, and “Mars 1991″, I have traced all the illegal sections from each month onto vellum. The tracings from each issue becomes a piece comprised of drawings in which all that remains are the black shapes. Marker on vellum documents all the illegal sections from these months. Each of these pieces are laid out in the shape of a page and hung in order corresponding to the pages of the magazine. These drawings represent the space in between a place where the image of woman is banned, and a place where the image of woman is objectified and commodified.”

What I saw in Oxford was one piece on sheets of tracing paper, not vellum.

What struck me at the time was that it was a powerful piece visually, before I had read any explanation.  I enjoyed its lack of frame, its ‘povery’ of materials.  I was also intrigued that it could be described as a kind of quilt form made up as it was by repeated rectangles comprising flat shapes in two colours.  It would work as an abstract art quilt if rendered as such.  Then I found that this domestic art form would indeed be appropriate.

On reading the label I discovered that it deals with both the daily domestic and the political on the obvious level concerning the veiling of Islamic women – but also aspects which pertain to fashion magazines, for all kinds of women.  Emily Jacir has taken what might be described as an oppression-reactive negative act and turned it into an enlightening thought-provoking statement while making a pleasure-giving object.

But I think that it is important that the piece itself, its simple presentation, works even without the explanation.  I believe that this makes for more powerful, and certainly more memorable art.  I have come to believe that the most enduring art wears its complications in layers, to be revealed on examination but not necessarily immediately on initial encounter.  Yes, the work must attract us and hold that interest, but be sufficiently rewarding at that point.  Any ensuing curiosity then can reinforce the initial satisfaction further.

The trick is of course to be able to make such work: to keep it powerfully simple at surface, while stitching in layers of back story, links, and springboards to further inspiration in others.  Only the great achieve this, but one has to keep trying.  I find with my own work that the more I contrive to include in my designs the less successful they are.  Cutting out seems to be a positive act, although then the danger is that the result is bland.  Ah for the ability to stride purposefully along the tightrope!

I am interested to read what others think.


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