joanne lee


wondering about being interested

A text for the 2008 Nottingham Trent University Fine Art degree show catalogue.

I was asked to write on something I find interesting about art and I’ve found myself fixating on the very idea of being interested. In fact, I think the desire to be interested was the whole reason I headed off to art school in the first place all those years ago. As I dithered between a choosing potential study of English or French literature, philosophy, psychology, and even archaeology, I had some kind of hunch that art school would allow me not to decide, and therefore to continue an interest in all these things – and maybe more. (I’m not sure where such an idea came from, as at that time I had no actual knowledge of what really happened at art school and only the barest understanding of contemporary art afforded by some late night programming on the recently launched Channel 4.) Fortuitously my intuition paid off and I spent the next four years being interested in all sorts of things ranging from Lacanian psychoanalysis and through histories of vermin infestation, to avant garde film and political critiques of capitalism, driven by a spirit of auto-didactic curiosity.

Art as a subject/discipline/practice (or whatever it is that best describes this oddly diverse activity) seems marked by its offering permission to be interested: in the context of the contemporary scene the artist can make work ‘about’ any topic and utilise any medium; it is hard to say what might be out of bounds. It seems a natural home for my need to be interested in all kinds of things, and yet if I’m honest (as I must be), then I have to admit that much contemporary art too often leaves me bored or weary. So much work repeatedly treads the same ground: there’s frequently a frustration when the work is already too known, too easy to pigeonhole, when the press release or artist’s statement sums it up in a few pithy theoretical soundbites and it delivers no more. Alternatively, a work might struggle under the weight of the ideas it is alleged to carry, overburdened by an impossible requirement to ‘deal with’ some overblown concept. And sometimes a work might simply feel dumb or too flimsy to hook my attention beyond the initial encounter. In any of these cases, my interest is not sustained.

I’ve been thinking about how to describe the work that does detain me, and why my interest endures. I realise that I respond to work that has a thoughtful lightness (as Italo Calvino puts it in his lovely collection of essays Six Memos For The Next Millenium). Such work does not labour its point didactically, but offers a lightness that gives flight to my imagination and intellect; I am un-tethered from what I know and find myself exploring uncertainties. Simultaneously within such lightness there is complexity, the work is not just ‘about’ a given subject or idea, it transcends the initial impetus and echoes in surprising ways. Works that have had this effect upon me include a book of photographs by Marcy Robinson shot on a half-frame camera in which the visible world is compressed into images where the light thickens soupily as I peer at familiar things becoming strange before my eyes. Karin Mamma Anderson’s paintings apparently oscillate between modes of representation so that I can’t be at all certain what I’m seeing, what is being suggested and what I am simply imagining, and Peter Doig’s drawings slide out of formlessness into ‘somethingness’, but seem forever on the verge of dissolving back from whence they came (whilst his paintings on the other hand are, for me, always too much there, so that I’m rapidly bored by what I feel to be their attention-seeking behaviour.)

I suspect my interest is sustained because these works do not conclude, indeed they explicitly refuse a conclusion. It isn’t a question of ‘getting it’ and moving on: they are far more oblique than this – and far richer. They function somewhat like a prism for the attention: they draw in my interest, focusing it to sharpness, before splitting it into an expansive rainbow of response, imagination and affect that continues to resonate once I am far away from the work itself. This is a lot to ask, and it’s not surprising that few works deliver it, but I have a dogged optimism that sends me repeatedly to galleries and events, on the look out for something that will make me wonder, in both senses of the word: for me a feeling of wonder is synonymous with sustained interest. It can happen in the work of the most established artist but also in that of someone only emerging in their practice. A few treasured instances still echo from past NTU degree exhibitions: works that surprised or jolted me, that left me newly uncertain about something I thought I’d understood or intensely focused upon an idea I’d never previously thought about. I know I shall remain alert and hungry for them once more this year: it seems that my desire to be interested has not diminished.