Pert & Simple

Posted by

I’m a huge fan of Kickstarter and back last year I was working on trying to expand my range a little from the rather narrow range of tech-related projects I’d been funding. One particular art project caught my eye. Firstly, it was local – well, within 50 miles – which is a surprise when so many are either US or frequently London based. The other was the name, and you cannot help be caught by the expression Pert & Simple. See http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hollyjames/exhibition-pert-and-simple?ref=live.

Unfortunately for Holly and Anna, the Kickstarter process didn’t come up with the goods, but I was happy enough to support a local project and contributed some money to them directly so that they could put on the exhibition.

Holly James’ and Anna Salmane’s work fits into the category of what I refer to as ‘thought provoking art’. That is not to say that all art is not thought provoking, but hat some art is specifically developed because of the emotions and thoughts it is designed to instil.

To best illustrate that point I’ll start by talking about Holly’s work, because, from a psychological perspective (which is one of my personal interests) this had the most impact on me. Holly has been working with patterns and in particular weaving. Originally starting with white thread, Holly moved on to using fluorescent so that the weaving would stand out against your typical white wall. Despite all of the work that went into the weaving, the chosen presentation mechanism was simply hanging it on nails on the wall. This results in a dramatic, unconventional, if not elegant, demonstration of the work.

For Holly though the most critical part occurred when people started to view the work. People would come in and touch the fabric. Of course, this is a perfectly normal experience. How many of us walk into any clothing shop and starting touching up the fabric? We don’t look at these items from a far and judge how well they will fit. It’s a textile, we are going to touch it. But this is art. You wouldn’t go up and touch a painting, would you? Why touch a textile that is a piece of art? Because that is human behaviour.

So what did Holly do next? At the exhibition, she was working on a “Making a Fluorescent Doormat”. Why a doormat? because if people are going to touch your art, why not let people just walk all over it? Of course, this leads to an interesting paradox – the chances are that humans will refuse to walk on something that (a) they are told to walk on, and (b) are explicitly allowed to walk on and (c) would normally be walked on.

That habit of human behaviour, to do the opposite of what you should do, or even what you have been told to do, is such a core part of the human condition it is hard to get away from. To force people into a situation where they are allowed to do something that would be perfectly natural if it wasn’t for the fact that you had been told you are allowed to do it serves up an interesting position on the human condition. I would love to be able to watch people and count how many actually walk on the doormat.

There is also a separate aspect, that of the artist being disrespected for their work – people walking all over Holly’s doormat directly reflects how she felt when people touched her “Fluorescent Weaving” piece. Does her giving them permission lessen that effect, or give people the right to walk over her?

Holly’s work is beautiful, but also has a lot of meaning, both to her, and to those who understand how these items were produced.

And that leads me on to Anna’s artwork. Anna’s work is also very personal. Sadly, there are no cat-related artworks from Anna yet (although she has promised them!), but they are no less intriguing. “Sorry” for example represents a count of how many times Anna said ‘Sorry’ over the course of the year, and the counter used to tally up the results. Sorry has itself become such a throw-away statement. We say it when we bump into someone, when we we don’t respond quick enough, just for not doing something, and yet really sorry has a very specific, empathic, meaning of sympathy for somebody else’s feelings. Yet we will say it to strangers as much as we do to friends and family.

At the launch of the exhibition, one person’s first question was ‘what happened in March for you to say sorry so much?’ – an apt demonstration of how much importance we attach to the word, despite how frequently it is used.

Anna’s “Starcounter” is a personal view of the inability to count the stars in the sky – as explained to her by her father. Anna chose to represent this with a simulation of a night sky and a recording of Anna counting to 6000. It takes Anna hours to read through the numbers, and it took her even longer to actually record the material. Does this represent the futility of counting so many objects, or the endless-ness of the stars in the sky? Or both?

The other piece that resonated with me, but forgive me I have forgotten the name, is that of a slideshow of headstones at a war memorial. Each headstone is essentially identical – same shape, name, lifespan, and yet each one represents a unique person, with families, loved ones, and a whole life of experiences. Yet they are so simply, and consistently, represented, so as to almost make they lives meaningless.

These are personal, and yet hugely descriptive examples that to me speak of the dichotomoy between meaningless and meaningful, represented by the same objects.

From this description you would imagine that the entire exhibition is incredibly some and serious. But it’s not. Behind the works by both Holly and Anna is actually a layer of humility, if not outright satire as all of the pieces often have a simpler, and, as the title suggests, impertinent edge. Holly’s desire for people to walk on the doormat is a tongue-in-cheek poke at the way people treat art. Go ahead, she’s daring you to walk on that doormat with a broad smile on her face. Go on. Anna, meanwhile, is remembering her fun summer evenings of counting the stars as a child, and the inanity of saying sorry.

It’s only complicated art, with additional levels, meanings, and complexities, if you add them, and that, just as they are hugely personal to Anna and Holly makes them exclusively personal to the viewer. You can get caught up in the meanings if it suits you. Or you can have wry smile to yourself as the artist introduces the works.

Meeting Holly and Anna and talking to them clearly shows their passion for their work, but also the humour and relaxed attitude to the meaning of the pieces. I spent a few hours with them both at their launch event in Nottingham. Anna is working on her BA at Goldsmiths, and Holly has completed hers and, hopefully, working for her MA with the Royal College. I certainly wish them all the success that deserve from work they displayed at the exhibition. It is no word of a lie to say that I feel honoured to have attended and more importantly understood the work of two exceptionally talented artists. Both from their perspectives, and my own.

You can see pictures of the exhibition at http://www.hollyjames.org/pert-and-simple

More work by Holly is available here: http://www.hollyjames.org

Anna’s work can be viewed on http://www.salmane.co.uk