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Sketch of Damian Ortega’s Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12 (c)Kate Withstandley

Excellent. Politician art again! But isn’t all art is political, though? As is pretty much everything, in fact. Even animals have their own hierarchy system, intrinsically political in nature. We can’t avoid it, particularly us human beans, struggling to cling to the vine. We need structure. For society to function we need be told what to and what not to do, often to unbelievable extremes. Unfortunately, as is regularly the case, the top of our self-imposed hierarchy mistreat and manipulate us and we in turn mirror their behaviour in our microcosmic lives, sometimes abusing others around us and even the planet on which we live. Damien Ortega’s work often deals with political issues concerning his native Mexico, but the themes he tackles in his new exhibition, Traces of Gravity, run through society and mankind as a whole and he explores them alongside and through, traditional human emotive characteristics.

Congo River ’12

Set in the ground floor gallery of the White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Congo River consists of a number of carefully placed (but seemingly chaotic) car tyres, spread around the floor and built up in piles. What appears to be white powder can be seen in places, but it’s nature is not immediately obvious. It is in fact salt, and has been spread along the tops of the tyres in a straight line. The salt indicates the snaking stretch of a river and, depicted as a line of white powder, could be addressing the topic of cocaine smuggling. It is interesting that the line of salt can only be seen as a dead straight line from two viewpoints – at either end. At any other point the line is broken into many as it crosses various levels of the tyre, possibly a comment on the continued damage to great rivers through industrialisation. The same broken/unbroken illusion is created by the placement of the tyres whereby they appear as carefully peaked mountains from each end, but a chaotic sprawl in the round. Although the physical set-up can clearly be a visual metaphor for a river running through landscape, other elements complement the intended notion. It spoke to me of disruption. The choice of materials; salt and rubber – natural elements refined by humans. The contrasting natures; chaos and order – line/broken line – our human chaos disrupting the order of nature. It’s also notable that all of the works in this exhibition are monochrome, or variations of black and white, invoking the traditional connotations of white as pure, black as impure – white representing nature, while black is humanity and industry. Contrast and juxtaposition emphasising the vast gulf of difference.

Hollow/Stuffed:market law ’12

In an empty darkened room on the lower ground floor hung what looked at first glance much like a whale or shark, suspended on hooks and bleeding white matter. Moving closer I realised that no, indeed, I had not mistaken this for a Damien Hirst exhibition, the suspended being was in fact Hollow/Stuffed:market law, a representation of a submarine made from industrial sacks. Salt is used again, flowing from a small hole at the underside of the front end; a reference to the use of narco-submarines in cocaine smuggling along the South American coast to Mexico. The lighting in the room is dramatic, with a quite literal and perhaps also metaphorical, highlight on the work and the issues it confronts. The steady stream of salt, piling up like the sands of an hourglass, seem to be pinpointing ongoing wastage; not in Mexico alone but as part of our global throwaway culture. Embodying the principle of interactive, living art, the installation is constantly changing. I wondered what it might look like when the salt runs out. When the belly of the beast, so to speak, is empty. Will it just hang there as a few empty sacks, signifying our failure and as an unsettling portent for the future?

Preserved ’12

‘Preserved’, in the final room, continues to use salt as a primary material. Creating a negative image, the salt gives the spatial void around the vehicle solid form, a technique also employed for the adjacent ‘Fossilised’, concrete casts capturing the space inside old cameras. Rachel Whiteread’s House, ’93 strikes me as a precedent; the exploration of unused and unnoticed space and its transformation from void to form ties in with Ortega’s preoccupation with change and adaptation. For ‘Preserved’ Ortega utilises alternated lighting, striking the installation with two spotlights and enforcing varied viewpoints upon the viewer, highlighting again the disparity between changes of perspective.

Fossilised ’12

Damian Ortega’s work is both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating. Like all my favourite art it made me work for the meaning, encouraging and challenging me to decipher its threads. Much of my interpretation may not have been intended by the artist, but was generated through themes within the pieces linking and developing with my own ideas. Although seemingly an impassioned plea inviting discussion and dialogue, Ortega’s work could also be seen in an instructive form; an offer of guidance to our political leaders. Perhaps even, in its most abstract form, a morality tale through salt.
All images (c) Damian Ortega unless otherwise noted

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.

The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

Poor Doris Salcedo. Like the injustice of a serious musician permeating the public consciousness for the appearance of just one of their songs on a car advert, Doris is a household name mainly as a result of her Turbine Hall installation Shibboleth ’07. Not that the installation was commercial or of less quality than her other works, but recently someone actually referred her to me as ‘that crack woman’. I think Doris deserves more. Her name should be bigger than it currently is outside of the artistic inner sanctum that is the world of collectors and academicians. But I get the impression that Doris isn’t much of a self-publicist, likely more through choice than inability. Her work portrays a character at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Hirsts and Emins and even Picassos of this world.

Shibboleth ’07

I never got to see the famous ‘great crack’ as it has been named by some, although I felt deeply disappointed that I didn’t, after listening to Roger Lloyd-Pack read Adrian Mitchell’s poem The Song of The Great Crack aloud at a Stop The War meeting and almost reducing the audience entirely to tears. The poem records the writer’s emotional reaction to the installation and though it is too long to recreate now, I shall cite a short piece and strongly recommend you buy the book and read it in full:

and the great crack / is Lethe the river of forgetfulness / which the mass media drinks each night / to wash away the past

and the great crack / is the cry of massacred innocents/ poor hungry raped or murdered /

and the great crack / is the handwriting of an alien / whose love letter to the human race says: / meme meme tekel upharsin / you have been weighed in the balance / and found wanting

and the great crack / is despair / that useless emotion / which sometimes threatens / to flood the mind

As can be fairly easily gleaned even from this small extract, Doris Salcedo’s work deals with life, death and the politics in between. Unlike someone like Damien Hirst, however, her message is understated. The power is in the restraint. Dignity and strength of mind deal with mortality, not through morbid curiosity but with a quiet despair and grim anger. Less is more here.

Shibboleth ’07 – Detail

Approaching that wonderfully compact and minimal White Cube outpost, hidden away down an alley in Mason’s Yard, I was intrigued to see what Salcedo had created next. The first piece on the ground floor, A Flor de Piel ’11-12 surprised me straight off. Having seen detail photographs of the work in reviews and such like, I had somehow imagined it as a wall hanging when zoomed out. I’m glad it wasn’t. The piece is intended to give the impression of a giant shroud and consists of thousands of Rose petals, waxed and carefully stitched together to create an undulating mass covering 2/3 of the floor in the ground floor gallery.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12

On passing through the doorway and seeing this, my first thought was actually not of a shroud but of a landscape, mountainous and vast. The wax used to preserve the petals gives the material a leather-like appearance in texture; when bunched and folded this works with the variations in colour and tone to create a scene resembling a bird’s eye view not dissimilar to that of South American desert regions. This may not have been the intention of Salcedo, but I liked her interpretation too; the death shroud created through careful manipulation of the fragility of life, to speak for those whose lives were also carefully manipulated, although without the care which went into this work (Salcedo took inspiration from the concept of offering flowers to a victim of torture). It has a certain poetic irony to it.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail
A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail

The lower ground floor housed her newest work, Plegaria Muda and was an altogether appropriate place to situate it. I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of the numerous tables laid out one on top of another, but I was struck by the aesthetic uniformity of the upstanding tables, which put me in mind of large dead insects with their legs reaching in vain to the heavens. On closer inspection I saw flashes of green protruding from the underside of the top table and as my eyes scanned downwards, discovered a layer of carefully placed soil in between the upright top table and the bottom one standing.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The connection with burial and coffins was immediately clear (the work is an homage to Colombian victims of army-sanctioned mass murder) but the overwhelming message portrayed through this installation is of the triumph of life over death. Salcedo seems to be making a fierce statement – you can kill and maim us, break our families and communities in the name of unjust wars, but out spirit will live on through them and others we connect with; we will not be forgotten.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The exhibition is on until 30th June so hurry yourself down to Mason’s Yard. Don’t miss this.

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?

The Studio at Islington Arts Factory

Last September, after a valuable tip off from an acquaintance, I found myself at the inaugural exhibition of Artbox – a charity providing art workshops in Islington for young adults with learning difficulties. Held in the foyer of the Prince’s Foundation in Shoreditch, the evening showcased some astounding works. As I wound my way through the pulsing crowds, I absorbed the aesthetics and the range of styles and techniques being displayed and (even after promising myself this was purely window shopping), soon found 3 or 4 pieces I wanted to buy. But this was a silent auction, and the competition for each piece soon became clear, as a suited man stood territorially in front of his favourite choice proclaiming ‘none of you want this picture, I’m telling you, you don’t want it!’ After eventually finding a work for which I hadn’t already been outbid, I swiftly put my name down and ticked the box ‘would like to volunteer’. 10 months later and I’m the proud owner of a screenprint ‘Owl’ by Gary, and am a helper at the weekly workshop sessions in the Islington Arts Factory.

Students hard at work

Since working with Artbox I’ve been utterly amazed. Not just by the fabulous work being produced week in, week out, by a group of talented and previously unrecognised artists, but by the relentless hard work and dedication committed to the enterprise by Madeline and Jenny, the charity’s directors. It is astounding that small charities such as this go relatively unnoticed. As with other sectors, people generally notice the big daddies. The Oxfams and Greenpeaces are all well and good and do fantastic work, but they overshadow the little guys – fighting to be noticed, to get funding, to get support and interest, for work which makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

If you hadn’t already gathered by now, I’m a big believer in art for all and of the benefit of art to the individual as well as society as a whole. With Artbox I’ve seen first hand the effect it can have on people, particularly those with learning difficulties, as we watch their exploration, confidence and independence develop in leaps and bounds. There is understanding here, as well as respect. Madeline Alterman, the founder of Artbox, has a brother with Down’s Syndrome and has worked with people with physical and learning disabilities. She felt, rightly, that disabled people are under-represented in the art world and not viewed on an equal footing with those whom are able-bodied, which is both a shameful injustice and also a great loss to the general public. Then came a stroke of genius. Rather than merely hanging and displaying the works, how about selling them? The resulting exhibition and silent auction was a resounding success. 60% of the sale was given directly to the artist, and 40% put back into future funding for Artbox.

Madeline with a student

I started helping out just after this first exhibition and remember being told by one young man, with total belief in his eyes, that he will be a professional artist. I believe him. His work is a combination of graphic design and illustration through mixed media. It is astounding in its emphatic expression and fluid production. Artbox provides him with a space free from the bureaucratic levels and targets of traditional learning. His only target is to produce what he considers his best work.

The spirit of the charity and it’s inclusive, engaging, and sometimes very entertaining ethos (flashback to dancing wildly around the room to Michael Jackson with one of the students) was captured recently by a local school taking part in a film-making competition. They were asked to showcase a small charity doing important things and wisely chose Artbox. Thanks to their expert skills, and the photogenic nature of our students and volunteers, their film won the competition and landed Artbox with a well-deserved boost in funding, meaning more materials for the group and potentially some more sketching day trips.

The next Artbox exhibition will take place on 20th July at Mazars, Tower Bridge, with works for sale. If you would like to attend you will need to put your name on the guest list. You can do this by emailing madeline@artboxlondon.org.

If you would like to help out, get involved or donate to Artbox please visit their website www.artboxlondon.org.

At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.

I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.

I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.

                 The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.

So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.

                

Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?

But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?