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Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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It’s afternoon on the first day of a brand new year. The weather is a touch brighter and calmer than it has been of late adding to that sense of a new start. It’s only a day different from last year, but that idea of starting all over makes all the difference.

A clean slate and all that.

As I sit here with the obligatory cup of Yorkshire tea and listening to Mahler’s first symphony, it seems like a good time to catch up on the past 12 months and put it to bed before moving on with the future.

The Mahler seems appropriate as 2012 was the year I fell in love with playing music all over again. Just 12 months ago I was polishing my old East German Lidl and oiling up the valves before blowing some dusty notes through it.

Since then I’ve joined a couple of orchestras and played with a few others and performed live in front of paying audiences. The repetoire has been almost unbelievably vast – from newly commissioned works through chamber pieces, a wonderfularray of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Beethoven, my beloved Tchaik 5, a whole day of Wagner overtures (to a horn player that’s like dying and going to Valhalla) and two who Mahler symphonies (including the one I’m listening to).

I got to play on a victorian bandstand at Beamish museum, at the Sage in Gateshead and in Bishop Auckland completely intimidated Joe McElderry who was supposed to sing Nessum Dorma with us but as we weren’t a backing track in his earpiece he couldn’t do it and showed himself to be no more than a vertically challenged karaoke singer. Bless.

In June I played in an emsemble at the opening of the new Tees Barrage and was picked out of the hat to meet the ACTUAL Queen. I have to admit she gave me a bit of a disapproving look – dressed as I was in jeans, un-tucked shirt and a waistcoat I bought to wear to an All About Eve gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, and clearly doesn’t fit anymore, and I think she guessed. Still it was good to feel I’d played a part in the whole Diamond Jubilee thing and have my own memory of it.

queen

I finally got back into writing my own music again too. Still a little tentative although the eagle-eared among you may have spotted a couple of pieces slipping out over the year.

The other big thing of the year – if not the biggest for most – was the Olympics in London. I was lucky to get tickets and had an incredible day there with my kids. Words just cannot explain the roar for the home team in the venues. Just hearing it eminating from the main stadium sent inexpicable shivvers up the spine. Remembering it now has the same effect. Truly an unforgettable experience. Even Kapoor’s Orbit was more interesting in real life than I thought it would be.

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On the visual art side, it was another busy year. In the current climate this was something I’m particularly fortunate to have had, I know.

In the spring I went back to China to make a new piece for a Cumbrian Paper Mill. It was part of a series of works I’d been doing for a couple of years now exploring the connections between paper, its raw materials of wood and water, and playing with colour and form in the Cumbrian landscape. They even made a gorgeous limited edition calendar of all my paper pieces (there’s a little booklet about them here).

cortexspare

It was a far from smooth process working in China again this year – you can read about it on an earlier bog post here – but the offset was making the piece in Suzhou – home to some of the most important traditional gardens in China. Working there gave me an extra opportunity to get a better understanding of the importance of art and landscape in Chinese culture and helped make some imporatnt links in my own work. There’ll be another blog post about this no doubt.

chinese-shadow

At the same time. Let me say that again. At the very same time, I was installing and showing a piece back in the UK. It wasn’t really a new piece, but the first time this piece had been seen in the UK since the first version in Shanghai in 2006. ‘Brockhole Souvenir’ was commissioned by Mid Pennine Arts for the ‘Art of Destination’ conference on art and landscape. Through the miracles of technology I also presented at the conference from a slightly seedy hotel room in downtown Shanghai.

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Unfortunately some of the good folk of Preston thought differently about the pieces and were badly vandalised within minutes of them going up. This was the first time any of my pieces had been vandalised, let alone damaged while up. Maybe I’d just been lucky up until now. It was sad to hear of their too swift demise and even sadder too for the folk at MPA and the Brockholes people.

Still, the process threw up some interesting ideas which although couldn’t be realised there at that time of year were too good to let go of. Also, Khan’s visitor centre at Brockholes was criminally omitted from the Stirling Prize shortlist in a year when the Stirling prize became far more interesting than the Turner prize (discuss?).

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The ‘Fairhaven Bubbles’ which resulted were one of my favourite pieces so far. A combinatio of a good client, the right budget and an enthusiastic team based at the lake ensured that the piece worked the best it could. The initial teething problems were patiently solved and even the unfortunate attacks on the pieces (what was wrong with you Lancashire?) were handled with a determination to keep the piece looking its best. The most flattering bit came when my artist’s talk at the lakeside cafe was not just standing room only but there were people standing outside who couldn’t get in who still enjoyed the sunset cruise around the piece afterwards.

bubble

A determination to finish a piece also resulted in ‘Twisted’ at Cromford Mill – a work that this time last year I was disappointed to not have managed to realise. This time I found all the funding and managed the project myself and the final piece was not only as spectuacular as I’d hoped, but its silent majesty and the way it remained in place for over six months and looked just the same on its final day as it did when it was first completed.

twistedwithkids

I was also fortunate to be invited over to Sweden a couple of times last year to do some talks. On the first trip I also got to have a little play in an ancient forest as part of a project looking at how artists can drive sustainable communities. Sometimes the most interesting work comes without a brief.

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There were other projects and pieces. Some big, some tiny, and mostly enjoyable. I did lots of talks – the one in Presteigne is now up on the Culture Colony website (link here) if you want to know what they’re like. Another one on working in isolated rural communities was filmed at Li Yuan Chia’s place on Hadrian’s wall for the Museum of Modern Art in Taipei.

On top of this I’ve had yet another year living in the most amazing part of the world, where everyday the light and landscape never cease to inspire me.

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….

Well, that was last year.

Twenty thirteen, you’ve got a big act to follow.

But somehow I think you’re going to beat it.

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Gosh. It’s been ages since I last sat in the Howgills to write a blog post.

It’s a beautiful day and it looks like we’ve got a little spell of days like this ahead this week. Time to get out and get some images done that I’ve been waiting to do for a while now.

The other week someone asked me what I thought was ugly. That’s an interesting one I thought. I know what I consider to be beautiful and by definition the opposite of beautiful must be ugly. The dictionary defines beauty as “A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic, intellect or moral senses”. Ugly is similarly defined, but is unpleasant to the senses.

Most of my work on one level is about beauty. I know it’s not fashionable to make art just because it looks nice, but I make no excuses. I’m happy doing that. I’m a bit of a beauty addict. It’s the force which moves me the most emotionally. I’m always looking for it. Hunting it out in all it’s forms. If I’m having a bad day nothing lifts the spirit than finding something beautiful.

It’s not just a visual thing either. It can be a sound, music, a smell, a taste, a touch. It’s there to be found in all the senses.

But what is beauty?

It’s in the eye of the beholder as they say. It’s true that every one of us has our own individual tastes and these too are shaped by our cultural norms. The idea of beauty has changed throughout civilisation too. There’s a wonderful book on the History of Beauty by Umberto Eco (whose writing is a thing of beauty in itself).

It’s all subjective. Aesthetics are subjective and relative too.

Even colour is subjective. There are many cultures in which the concept of green as a colour doesn’t exist. In some cases it’s seen as a shade of blue. In other cultures blue is just a shade of red. Even in Welsh there is no word for brown. In fact, the only universally accepted colours across all cultures and languages are black, white and red.

But back to beauty. What do I love?

Here’s a tiny selection:

starlings over Stainmore. 2012

Hylas and the Nymphs by JWWaterhouse at Manchester Art Gallery

‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ (detail) – J W Waterhouse – Manchester Art Gallery

peacock

shanghai view

Lost by Klas Eriksson

‘Lost’ – Klas Eriksson 2012

But what about ugly? I’m not entirely sure it exists. If there’s a common ideal of what is pleasant to look at, then there’s a consensus of what is not so pleasant, or unpleasant. But even that’s not so straightforward.

Joseph Merrick

Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) photographed in 1889

Beauty can be unconventional. Take the work of Diane Arbus.

Twins by Diane Arbus

‘Twins’ – Diane Arbus

Or medical specimens

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pickled six-finger infant’s hand – 1999

Or wind turbines

So maybe ugly is just a form of beauty? It’s still about triggering an emotional response.

What then is the opposite of beauty? Maybe it’s mediocrity. Something devoid of emotional stimulation.

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Which is why I’m on a grass bank beside a babbling stream in the Howgills in the sunshne and not sat at a desk somewhere.

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Last week saw the completion of a new artwork. It’s big. And red. And twisty. And in an internationally significant venue.

No, not Kapoor & Balmond’s Olympic titan. In that odd kind of serendipity I did my own twisty red thing last week. Made from around 50 miles of bright red polyester cotton in a former mill building in Derbyshire, ‘Twisted’ was finally completed.

Cromford first mill

Cromford Mill, located about five miles south of Matlock on the A6 is no ordinary mill. It’s the first one. The very first textile mill. In the world. Back in 1771 Richard Arkwright built the first water-powered cotton mill in the tiny village of Cromford. Drawing power from water out of the nearby lead-mines, he pioneered the powered means of production and mass production. In fact what Arkwright did back then was invent the factory.

It’s mind-blowing to think that places like China, whose colossal and rapidly expanding economy based on mass manufacturing, owes it all to a simple brick and stone building on the edge of the Peak District National Park.

In the 19th Century Shanghai was just a little port town, in the shadow of Suzhou – the region’s much older and more significant city 90km further north. But as a sea port, and effectively gateway to the rest of the world, it soon began to expand and consume ideas and technology from the west. The first cotton mill arrived in the 1880s powered by machinery imported from Lancashire, and by the end of the century the little Suzhou creek was lined with dozens of cotton mills. By 1900 it was thought that the Suzhou Creek mills alone produced enough cotton to cloth the entire Chinese population.

suzhou creek mills

One of the largest cotton mills in town was the Tang Yin mill. It continued to spin cotton until the late 1980s. Around 10 years ago the site was developed into a cultural hub for Shanghai’s booming contemporary art scene – M50.

When I came to revisit the idea of creating a piece at Cromford Mill, I thought it would be a great idea to create a sister piece at M50. I knew loads of people there and had some great friends who could help me out. What’s more, I was heading back to China on another commission.

What I hadn’t anticipated however, was the fickleness of the Chinese Government. At some point earlier this year, the authorities decided that culture was a delicate thing and that all non-Chinese art had to be approved by the Central Cultural Bureau. What’s more, in Shanghai at least, this became rigourously enforced. By February my contacts in Shanghai told me that a number of high profile galleries had been raided and fined heavily for showing non-certified foreign art. The possibility of creating even a very temporary piece at M50 without a permit – which itself could take months – was just not going to happen.

Undeterred I concocted a plan to create a piece at night using red lasers. I found a little store selling lasers of all shapes and sizes. The owner tried to sell me one the size of a torch which he demonstrated would easily light a match! Wow- the fun you could have with that, starting fires with stealth…. Anyway, it was green and I needed red. Unfortunately red lasers aren’t as powerful, so I got the strongest small ones he had to test them out. That night I did a test – the beam was faint, but photographed really well. This was promising! It then started to drizzle a bit so I called it a day. I had one more night before I had to return to the UK. No problem, I’d start as soon as it got dark.

test of twist shanghai

That night there was one of those incredible electrical storms you only get in subtropical climates. The sky sizzled with lightning and the rain came down in sheets.

The next night I went back to create the stealth masterpiece – the security guards wouldn’t even know what I was up to. I got everything set up. Camera on tripod, stick to keep the laser lines parallel. However, the previous night’s storm had cleared the humid air that had been building for days and the laser beam was barely there.

failed twist test

Such is the nature of installations outdoors anywhere. There’s no point battling nature – it’s always best to work with it where possible, and on that night nature just didn’t want to play.

So back to Cromford.

The first mill at Cromford is just a shell at the moment. After years as a colour and dye factory, the whole site is slowly being rescued by the Arkwright Society. Years of toxic pollution followed by neglect has taken its toll on the site. But slowly the buildings are being restored and the story of what went on in that historic site is being uncovered. Cromford Mill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – as are the other Arkwright mills along the Derwent Valley. For me the opportunity to create a large and ambitious piece in such an important building was too good to pass up. Fortunately the Arts Council thought so too and have supported the piece in Derbyshire.

installing twisted

The piece was installed with my crack team of technicians in just four days. The thread wound between the two frames in a continuous line clockwise around the piece. Hi-tech big red elastic bands helped keep the tension even across the piece.

twisted

For visitors to Cromford Mill, the piece has temporarily given life and purpose to the otherwise empty building. While the piece is in place visitors on the regular guided tours will be given the rare chance to see inside this, the most important building on the site. There’s also plans to have open days over the summer months for anyone to see the piece. If you’re not already on my mailing list, just sign up here to find out open dates.

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Standing over 6m high at one end and stretched over 35m along the length of the original building, it’s on a scale that explores the vast space of this first factory. The twisting motion recalls the heritage of the place whilst creating an architectural form which reveals itself only when you step inside the giant 4m frame. Like all my pieces, I think it has a presence which you can only experience by being there. while the shapes and the colour throw up some great images photographically, the scale of the piece – the way the lines zoom away from you up into the ceiling, the constant optical movement of the red lines, the way the piece from the side is barely there, and yet as you move around it seems to materialise and disappear in phases.

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I guess you’ve just got to be there.

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So, I did China again. Well, a tiny corner of it is more accurate – it’s a really big place.

I went over to make a new piece for Cumbrian paper manufacturer James Cropper Speciality Papers. I’ve been doing temporary installations in the landscape for them for a couple of years now. It’s all part of their way of using their association with the stunning landscapes of the lake District as part of their identity on the international stage. Although the thought of selling mountains, lakes and paper to the Chinese has always tickled me a bit.

Last year I blogged the whole process of the piece I made for them. This year things weren’t so straight forward. A very recent clamp-dow on non-Chinese artists showing work, or even working in China has complicated things somewhat. All non-Chinese artists and their work have to currently get approval from the Bureau of Culture before their work can be shown in mainland China. A rule they have been enforcing quite rigorously in Shanghai lately with several prominent contemporary art galleries inspected on a weekly basis and some issued hefty fines for sowing un-approved work. The result of this meant that my normal studio space at island 6 was unavailable, and most studios in the city were unwilling to let to a foreign artist at short notice. The ensuing saga couldn’t even be blogged as WordPress, along with almost every other social networking platform is now blocked in China.

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Fortunately, through other friends in the UK, I was introduced to the Art School in Suzhou – a city about 70 miles north of Shanghai – and they were all too happy to offer me space in return for a lecture or two. The Institute is a vast campus about 5 miles outside the city centre – no good for nipping to the shops or sight-seeing, but fantastically quiet with views to wooded hills with pagodas on the top. So very unlike Shanghai!

Suzhou Art and Design Technology Institute

The piece I was building – ‘Cortex’ – was a development of last year’s piece, still using the motif of a twisted mountain tree. This time the tree would be cloaked in a skin of thousands of die-cut paper shapes. The inspiration I think started with a fantastic book of the designs of Alexander McQueen, in particular this piece made from oyster shells:

oyster shell dress by McQueen

VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Overdress of panels from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk screen; underdress of oyster shells; neckpiece of silver and Tahiti pearls
Neckpiece by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen courtesy of Perles de Tahiti
Dress courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

I loved the way the rigid individual shapes draped and softened the form, and the subtle play of light and shadow which accentuated every curve. I liked Alexander McQueen stuff. He was a true genius.

cortex (detail)

So that there were no surprises in China with the piece, I did a series of tests on a variety of forms in my studio before I went. The final test, created on a rootball was photographed on Esthwaite Water for some local context.

Cortex in Cumbria

The piece in China was much bigger and took far longer to do – 5,300 individual pieces were cut out and attached, one-by-one over four days. The tree was sourced by one of the fine-art lecturers from one of the nearby forests.

Here it is with a bit of genuine Chinese landscape (well, art school anyway).

Cortex in China

It was only after photographing the piece, along with hundreds of detail shots for the client to use in brochures etc., that I realised how important light was to my work. I guess I’d just got used to our far more subtle northern light, and what was essentially the same piece in China just didn’t work the same way as the piece back in Cumbria. The light in Jiangsu province was much flatter – shapes lost the subtlety I was used to. A much flatter landscape didn’t really help either. However, the colours were much stronger and became far more important.

cortex detail

The original aim of the piece was to simply to take one of my landscape installations and take it inside. Take a bit of what I do in the Cumbrian landscape and transport that to China.

cortex detail

What happened, in my eyes at least, was show just how very different Cumbria is to China. And how very much part of my work the landscape of Northern England is – not just it’s physical location, but its palette, textures and most importantly, the light.

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