Researched and developed by Wendy Gunn as a part of Duncan of Jordanstone’s and the University of Aberdeen’s collaborative Arts and Humanities Research Board project ‘Learning is understanding in practice: this exhibition comprises visual and sonic works by artists, architects and anthropologists, complemented by a dossier edited by Gunn of working notes, essays, sounds and diagrams.
While the criminally overused ‘challenging the boundaries’ is destined to become a cornerstone in the Pantheon of funding council meta-objective clichés, this exposition, more modestly, successfully reveals the meeting points between completed description and developmental process. This revelation is, of course, a much more demanding curatorial and artistic research task than a simple ‘laying out’ of preparatory notes and sketchbooks, or a loosening of the fabric of objets d’art to allow insight into stages of construction.
With that challenge in mind, anthropologist Tim Ingold, founding member of the Creativity & Practice Research Group, ably charts the territory of inquiry by way of Magritte-style pictograms. With these sketches he gives form to his outstanding Rhind Lectures of 2003 which addressed drawing and notation as practices of knowledge and knowledge in praxis. Yet, whereas the delivery of the six lectures for the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland two years ago was a drawing together of ideas, the static notebook pages presented here telegraph conundrums familiar to us all via surrealist punning and postmodern cunning. Ingold cleverly reveals the familial links between descriptive word and described image, but he also lays down a gauntlet for anyone bold enough to treat the research theme, not by way of spectral analysis, but by more holistic means.
Up to this undertaking is Alan Johnston. His two unassuming geometric abstract paintings, conceptually dense yet aesthetically intercessory, at once describe finitude and openness: a black rectangle gradually meets the eye and mind as instantiation of resolution and as suggestion of a process of limitless variation. In support, agitated miniaturised graphite marking into a white ground defines and upholds a requisite subtlty for work which is a description of an unfolding idea embodied in a thing exactly described. Johnston’s work is exemplary within this research context as being both postulatory as well as putative without any lessening of the intrinsic quality of the object.
Other highlights are Arthur Watson’s unsettling, unauditable silence-conducive-to-learning in between his periodic singing; Norman Shaw’s engagingly mysterious reference laden contribution to the dossier, as well as architect Simon Unwin’s sketching in his ‘Entrance Notebooks’ of the borderland that is the threshold of a building.
One cautionary upshot of the strongest entries in this stimulating show might be this: at its best, art, certainly beyond the fundand- audit symbiotic of higher education, is happily and necessarily a conflation of practice and theory. When at its very best, a separation of summative description from the formative processes of that describing can be flatly redundant.
Ken Neil is a critic, artist and director of the MFA course at Gray’s School of Art