The Socialist Unity Network

Towards a 'Broken' art

Rupert Mallin

Had a schizophrenic education in sculpture, modern theatre and humanities, though poetry has always been central to my art work. Ah, but real work? Until eighteen months ago I was an FE lecturer and youth worker but since have been attempting to scratch a living from my art, directly and indirectly through workshops and residencies.


Initially, I studied 'well made sculptures,' then 'well made plays' of the Twentieth Century; and initially read 'well made' poems, from Shelley to Plath. It is a double truth that each medium has a history of its own craft and has to be considered in its own language first. However, one doesn't have to have written a PhD thesis on prosody in order to write poetry. The weight of what has gone before should not impede making art.


From my 36 year apprenticeship (I began writing poetry at 14), my understanding of 'well made' art is quite considerable. However, at 50 I decided to describe myself as a 'conceptual artist.' Shock-horror: I quickly ran into artists, in a number of mediums, who reacted quite violently to the 'conceptual' tag. One said: "Conceptual artists know a little of everything and nothing in particular. They've no framework for their work."


There is an element of the 'British' in this reaction - a history of reaction, hostile to Whitman, The Beats, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Oppressed and more. Yet this reaction not only emanates from the Ruling Class, it can be found on the Left too, particularly when the language of the art  is played off against the work's content/intent. That is, I can't find class lines in the reaction. The division between the tradition of meter and rhyme versus free verse and the 'new poetries' seems strangely English. The argument runs that meter allows solid ground for the lightning strike of the words, while free verse is like 'writing out of the air' with no concrete base to refer to.


Thus, throughout much of the Twentieth Century, Britain almost entirely avoided the great art and cultural movements from across the world. Of course, there was a brilliant flowering of political theatre here from 1968 to the late 1970s. For myself, an interesting aspect of that time was the degree of experimentation, subsequently reined back in the 1980s.




Even in my own work I can now chart a drift through the 1990s towards ever more 'social' art - community plays, reminiscence projects and in making 'well made' poems and plays myself. Ironically, the more 'social' my art practice, the more alienated I felt from my art and society. Then, by near accident in January 2003, I was asked to collaborate with sculptor Jayne Knowles as part of a 4 artists - 4 writers touring exhibition. I provided some words and Jayne responded in a conceptual way. Our theme was 'confidence' and its lack. Jayne not only incorporated my words into her sculptures, her use of metal and paper together, for example, tempted the viewer to think 'what is confidence?' The other three pairs largely ended up illustrating each other's work, rather than fusing the mediums together.


This year I've been engaged on The Airbase Collaboration (concludes July 2005), working with two installation artists and a composer. Our subject is the long disused US airbase in Norfolk. The old control tower houses a museum celebrating (sic) its role in WWII. Yet, there is no real military hardware. There are hundreds of photos, diaries, shrapnel and 'broken' pieces of aircraft the airmen lost their lives in. It is macabre, made worse by the display of a pristine white silk parachute, which had been buried in the Norfolk marshes for over 30 years.


Alongside my other work, 'broken' has kept recurring - alongside 'broken's' opposite, 'made up.' Why does a play have to have a resolution? Why can't a theatre be an art gallery and vice versa? Why can't sound be paint and paint be sound? Does illustration have any purpose at all? Why are most plays boring and formula driven? Why can't sculpture be the breeze? Why can't we write out of air? Why do poems have to be trapped between covers? Why can't we be 'made up in the broken?'


Of course, out of the fragments of this world's contradictions, conflicts and capitalism's class divisions, art can build an opposite of harmony and even beauty. Yet the nature of art is that it can never square the circle and provide harmony in our lives without that global fundamental change to society itself. So at best, for myself, art is a signpost there and makes me feel 'made up in the broken' - both in terms of its process and content/intent.




Collaboration with other artists and creative practitioners is a step forward, while 'crossing over' between art forms is another step forward. There is no solid ground on which we stand thereby - but what's solid anywhere in our time and lives?


August 2004

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