Am I making Conceptual Art?

I’ve been obsessed with this lately.

Reflecting upon my latest work, “Dinosaur in the Cage”, I keep getting lost in thoughts about how to describe my piece. It’s not a garment, it’s not a full sculpture. It’s more like… a research finding, an interpretation and visualization of photographs, dinosaurs and Victorian fashion I gathered, churned and digested. I felt that my concept and idea was in the end, the essence of my work.

My thoughts drawn me to research Conceptual Art. Yes, that weird kind of art people usually frown upon.

According to Tony Godfrey’s book, Conceptual Art:

“Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is.”

In other words, conceptual art can be anything and nothing. It’s paper thin between the greatest masterpieces and utter rubbish (and again beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Lawless.

Over the weeks I thought if this is it. 

I’ve been analyzing Duchamp’s much debated readymade Fountain (literally an autographed urinal showcased in a museum). Placing an everyday object (some say vulgar object) in the museum, Duchamp challenges the viewer to see the urinal as a piece of fine sculpture. But the real ‘art’ is not the object itself.

Why a urinal? How vulgar! Remove it! Housewives shrieking and covering the eyes of their young children.

Why in the museum? Why sign it with a pseudonym? Art connoisseurs circling and rubbing their heads, cleaning their glasses.

What was he thinking? Why would anyone do that? What does he want to convey? Why Why Why? Wonder I wonder.

This is his art.

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Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, French, 1917; Photo: Artstor

So, what makes good conceptual art?

Just like many attempted definitions of art, there is no one answer. Since conceptual art lies on the IDEA, such idea has to be formidable and mesmerizing enough to draw the attention of its audience and transcend all flaws in execution, mediums and perhaps even poor aesthetics.

To achieve this, I think this once again lies in creative research. Yes, the spontaneity element is crucial to jumpstart the initial ideas, but first tries may not be the strongest thoughts. One needs the extensive amount of images, references, photos, prints, maps and linkages to back up such idea.

Another element that separates the good from the bad is the level of controversy.

Is it raising commonplace questions or roiling debate? Does it instigate disgusted faces or mere nonchalance? Does it lure the audience to stare or even glare? Does it urge people to touch, understand, analyze, wonder? Or do people pass by with a mere glance? As mentioned earlier about Duchamp’s work, it is such controversy that fuels the idea, separating it from common rubbish and everyday objects.

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Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Man Ray, American, 1890 – 1976; Photo: Artstor

So, am I making conceptual art?

Well, simply put, I don’t know.

It is true that I am leaning towards this realm in such that I am focusing on the concept more than the used medium. It is also true that I find more joy in honing my ideas (through different mediums) than actually making my 3D piece. But according to the criteria I set on good/bad conceptual art, I am unsure.

Did my work raise controversy? Am I pressing too many, perhaps even useless and unnecessary meanings on my work? Was it mesmerizing for the audience? Did my work challenge the traditional meaning of art? Does it have to? After all, there is no restrictive framework to conceptual art.

Does that mean my other work without any research,  just mere spontaneity, equal meaningless commonplace rubbish?

I feel I’m setting up boundaries, categories and criteria for myself in one minute, and destroying them in the next.

I’ll conclude with a thought to self: need more research.


More on Conceptual Art:

http://www.theartstory.org/movement-conceptual-art.htm

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-if-you-don-t-understand-conceptual-art-it-s-not-your-fault

More on Fountain:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html

More on Duchamp: 

http://www.theartstory.org/artist-duchamp-marcel.htm

https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade

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Tabaimo & Portrayals of Women

There were several open bathroom stalls on the left. The doors were painted rustic orange with stains. The central panel had a tiny window overlooking the sunset while the right panel featured several sinks and bathroom mirrors. A half naked girl, predictively enrolled in primary school judging from the red rectangular backpack she has on her shoulders, was rinsing her face and hair. She was clothed in a mere pair of white ankle socks and white underpants, with hair neatly braided in two tails.

All the while, another woman was washing her hands at a nearby sink. Though the woman was quietly rinsing, her reflections started to rattle the mirror with a heavy duty hammer, smashing the glass and smearing her own blood all over the floor. The woman, though still washing her hands at the sink, started to bleed silently. She left the sink nonchalantly and wrapped herself in gauze, holding dear to her wound and disappeared into a nearby stall.

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Public conVENience, 2006, Tabaimo, Video Installation; Cred: SAAM

This is Tabaimo’s video installation piece: public conVENience. The piece had recently appeared as a part of the Japanese artist’s Utsutsushi utsushi exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

In this installation, the artist showed highly provocative and bizarre images in a seemingly public setting. The artist found it quite interesting that although public bathrooms are public spaces, each stall becomes a private space with the division of thin walls. The artist also claimed that the piece was a metaphor for “the virtual space on the internet nowadays” in which people anonymously leave awful and bizarre comments in a somewhat public setting.

For me, what provoked my senses were the portrayals of women. The naked school girl reminded me immediately of child pornography, a popular theme in the Japanese entertainment industry. Often featured in anime and movies, young girls are subjected to the eyes of male obsessors, sometimes coined as Loli-con in Japanese, as sexual goddesses. The fact that the girl in the installation was continuously washing her hair and face, was almost a ritual in hopes of rinsing the impure and the contaminated minds of people.

The injured woman led my mind to the issue of domestic violence. Though there was no men in sight, and the injury was inflicted by the woman’s own mirror reflection, the eerie sense of silence and tolerability in the situation reminds me very much of the DV nature. Most cases of DV are not reported. In some, the wives even deny the abuse and sought to protect their husbands reputation instead of seeking help for themselves. I wonder if Tabaimo was also using her piece to reference the home as a private space, in which outsiders cannot even detect the slight bit of darkness within an abusive household.

Besides the two women, there was another woman who gave birth to a baby through her nose in a bathroom stall. She then deliberately put the newborn on a turtle’s back and flushed it down the toilet, watching it disappear with the roiling waters.

Midway through the video installation, four Japanese kanji characters appeared: 公衆便女 (ko. syu. ben. jyo). Direct translation: public bathroom girls. It is all the more interesting because the final character “女” (jyo) meaning ‘girl’ has the same pronunciation as “所” (jyo), which is the original character that makes up the phrase ‘public bathroom’.

Here, Tabaimo had substitute the character with ‘girl’, making it even more convincing that the artist was referring to the many denouncing and hell-like portrayals of women in society.


More on Tabaimo:

Utsutsushi utsushi Interview, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_9eRLibjI8

Interview 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiA3fOEBVi4

Artist Bio: http://www.jamescohan.com/artists/tabaimo/

Art Talk with Curt

Looking at my wall of R + D, collage pages of crinoline, skeletons and Irving Penn’s wife in nude, we started talking.

My art professor Curt congratulated me for Friday’s showcase and asked me how I felt overall. Smiling and nodding to his applaud, I told him I was happy that lots of friends came to support and that I was somewhat satisfied by the final piece.

I expressed that my original plan was to create three pieces, but due to the time constrains, I changed course and decided to create one quality piece instead of three mediocre ones, thus causing a slight disappointment. Curt agreed.

We looked at the wall imagery.

Curt pointed to my sketches and traces of dinosaur skeletons. He expressed that “not to be mean”, but he found the imagery of such sketches to be far more interesting than the actual 3D piece. I was mildly surprised but agreed to his comment in the sculptural context. The sketch had an interconnected skeletal tail as a left arm, collaged onto the dressform, with a jewelry-wired mock up as the torso, acting almost as a tunic, completed by my muse whom I ‘discovered’ from a B&W photograph of a young Victorian-era girl. He said I had leaped out from my boundaries in the collages and sketches and wished I had done so with my 3D piece. I protested that would force me out of the realm of fashion. But again, my work wasn’t exactly a garment.

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In fact, I wasn’t sure how to label my piece. It wasn’t a garment, since it wasn’t wearable. It didn’t have zippers, the proper seam allowances or fasteners, either was it properly sew. It wasn’t a fully developed sculpture either, making me referring it to ‘my work’, shunning all labels. We dived into this identity crisis and dissected the differences between art and design.

On Artist vs. Designer

I asked whether he thinks I’m more of an artist or designer. For sure as an artist, he replied. He pointed at my loose craftsmanship: the fraying black denim ties on boning hoops, the uneven machine stitches, the carefree drapery and unfinished hemlines. I nodded and laughed at my own craftsmanship, but not a bit disgraced.

I revealed and admitted that I am by no means a meticulous crafter. And this is a concern and somewhat obstacle for me since as an aspiring designer, I need to sew and construct functional garments. I shared my experience talking with established designers and their emphasis on technical skills. Curt nodded, agreeing that at the entry level, it is indeed important to gain as many skills as possible, but how I utilize them is another issue.

Curt shared an anecdote about his dreams of becoming a guitar player growing up. Only in high school did he realize he will never become a guitar player because he simply wasn’t good enough. And that was ok. I wondered if that was a cue for me to give up. I wondered if my repeated concerns about identifying as a designer, the insecurities of garment construction and craftsmanship are indicators for me to change goals. I wondered what else will I work towards.

As my thoughts run amok, Curt added that my dilemma will absolve itself through time. And that, it is usually the experiences that change our course of action and not merely thoughts from our head.

I wonder if I can think it through and find what I truly want.

On Wants vs. reality

We highlighted the distinction between ‘what we want to become’ and ‘what we really are’. I thought about social media, arts, advising, research, psychology, fashion design, illustrating, all the disciplines I touched upon but do not master. I thought about what I am actually good at and what I love doing.

I love arts and creative research, concept building and reading references. I love fashion. I love making things that present my thoughts. My thoughts are the backbone and essence of all creations.

In reality, my professional experiences lie in advising, social media and lab research.  I thought of the clashes. I thought of improvements. About my piece, about life.

On Improvements

Critiquing on the actual piece, Curt expressed that within the contexts of fashion, my piece was by far the most interesting compared to previous years, mainly due to the creative research behind it. My heart melted to the compliment. But he also noted that in a gallery context, it is unusual and unnecessary to show sketchbook pages on the walls. It is more interesting to make the audience work through my thought processes on their own and make the piece more interpretive.

It is when the audience gather clues themselves, through their own analysis and arrive at-  the artist’s intended message, that makes an artwork ‘interesting’.

On Life

Curt asked me where I will go from here. Misunderstanding his question, I went on talking about making more pieces for my concept. He meant after graduation. With mild embarrassment, I revealed my exciting and reckless plan of moving to New York City. Curt then shared his NYC travel plans in 2 weeks and how he had already planned out all the galleries and shows to visit. We went crazily excited for a while.

He shook my hand really tightly and wished me luck. I reciprocated the handshake with as much might as I could. He told me that he really enjoyed talking with me in our critiques and really challenged him to think. He said I have a lot of potential and passion and thinks that I will do great in whichever path I chose. Of course, being my usual self, I wonder if he was just being a nice teacher. But, regardless, it will be a lie if I was not feeling pleased.

And with that, I departed from the gallery.

#MyCSM

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To this day, I am still talking about London. It was THAT amazing. The 3 weeks at the legendary Central Saint Martins was life changing. Not only did I learn immensely from the most prominent fashion tutors, I also made talented friends from all over the world (14 countries to be exact).

So you may ask, what did you learn in 3 weeks?

Well, quite a lot actually. Here is a list of 10 steps of the creative design process I learned from Central Saint Martins. Hopefully, it can bring some insight to other fashion enthusiasts and emerging designers.

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Last day at CSM
  1. Go on the streets for Creative Research

What is research? The old me may think web search on runway shows and mood boards. That is one way to do it, but it is not comprehensive at all. Creative research is about getting on the streets, drawing and taking pictures. It’s about visiting galleries and museums, and being mesmerized in the art work, finding that connection that sparks your design inspiration.

For our project, we spent the first few days visiting the Tate Modern, Newport Gallery, Dover Street Market, Portobello Market and Spitalfield Market, constantly taking pictures and sketching. We also collected unique items such as vintage postcards, fabric pieces and trims, anything that seemed interesting.

This is known as primary research.

Once you discover an exciting image (or item), you go on and capture more images relating to that original image. It doesn’t have to be a concrete concept at this point. Just go with your feeling. Maybe it is the structural elements in this image that excites you, then try to recreate other images or find objects that resonate with that particular structure. Maybe it is the color scheme, then find other images that go along with the colors.

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Past student work: Research + Development samples

2. Print Research on Large A4 Paper

After accumulating a sufficient amount of visual research, print them out on large clear A4 size paper. Only on a large scale can you see what really fits and what doesn’t. Edit out images that don’t have the right feeling (or put them aside) and continue onto secondary research.

For secondary research, you can look at books, magazines and other images you may find on the internet relating to your original image. Don’t look for designers’ work or runway shows. Designers’ work are their own interpretation of their concept, and it won’t bring much help in forming your own concept. Look for images, shapes, reoccurring color schemes, structure and techniques. Photocopy images on large A4 size paper and compare them with your primary research. Again, edit out images that don’t fit.

3. Collage Doesn’t Have to be Pretty (at first)

Once you have found more images relating to this ‘feeling’. You can start collaging. Work in an A3 size notebook or card. Start putting your visual research images and form collages. Tape down images with temporary masking tape. They don’t have to be pretty at first. This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons I learned.

This process is all about experimentation. Collages are not the final product, your designs are. So, at this point, just play with form and structure. Play with rotation and composition on these pages. Tape them down, adjust, move on.

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One of the many design studios

4. The Photocopy Machine is a Godsend

What if you run out of images to cut? Just print and photocopy more of the same images you found! You can also play with scale and color. Try photocopying images in super large and super small scale, try color and greyscale.

You should also photocopy fabric pieces and trims. Instead of buying actual materials at this point, simply shove the fabric onto the machine and copy it 20 times (again try different scales). Use that to further your collaging process. (This is like the smartest trick ever)

5. Form Your Concept

At this point, you should have a pretty clear idea of the ‘feeling’ you are forming. This ‘feeling’ will be your baby concept. Once you have identified your concept, you can go back to the library and do more secondary research and continue with the experimentation.

You can start experimenting by making fabric samples. Is there a particular technique or color scheme you are focusing on? Try to recreate them by making small fabric pieces. Sew them together and shove it into the photocopy machine, copy it 20 times and collage.

More student work: Playing with fabric samples

6. Editing is Refining NOT Rewinding

Through collage, fabric samples, sketching and other techniques, you have developed your concept and design ideas. Here comes the editing. Brutally rearranging elements of your work and taking out irrelevant images is extremely important.

Even if you really like a particular image, don’t keep it if it doesn’t make sense! If an image fits well into the context, but it has horrible resolution or composition, take it down and retake it! Be critical about your work and constantly question if your images are following your concept.

Don’t be afraid of editing. Don’t be afraid of taking things down, even if this mean going back to the first page. For me, I was constantly redoing my pages every hour. I could be done with 8 pages but after critique with my tutors, there could be only 2 pages left. It is quite painful to watch your work taken down, but all is for refining. Even if you are taking images down, you are still going forward in the design process.

7. Listen to Your Tutor vs. Listen to Your Heart

Sometimes your ideas will clash with your tutor’s comments. Your tutors, being respected professionals in the fashion industry will most probably know more than you.. SO, always listen to your tutor and try their suggestions first. If it really doesn’t work, then argue another way. Show your tutors that you have taken in their feedback but it just doesn’t align with your vision.

8. Trace + Sketch + Design

After collaging and experimenting, you can start sketching. If you have developed interesting silhouettes through experimentation, you can trace them onto vellum or tracing paper and transform them into more garment-looking designs. Note that the actual designing only happens after a longggggg process of experimentation!

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Presentation Day with my Tutor

9. When stuck…

When you feel lost and stuck in your project, take a short break and review your past pages. Show your peers and see what they think. Ask what kind of feeling or sense do they detect from your work. If they are describing the exact feeling you are crafting, you are in the right direction! If not, continue to adjust and edit!

You can also observe what your peers are doing with their project. Is there a technique or experimentation that you can try as well?

10. Work Hard, Play Harder

Designing should be fun and playful! To me, designing is about experimentation, trial and error. At times, it can be intense and you don’t know if your concept even makes sense, and just want to rip it all out. But it is all part of the design process. Work hard, but play harder with your ideas, and it will surely take you somewhere.

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Granary Square, CSM campus. On Fridays, there are food trucks

These 3 weeks at CSM was incredible, I will do it all over again in a heart beat.

If interested, definitely check out the CSM short courses here!

My Weaving Days

For the last 6 months, I studied how to weave at school. I wanted to try it simply because it was one of the very few textile classes offered at my Uni, and I thought it will be useful for building my fashion foundation. Since it was such a time-intensive and fruitful experience, I thought it will be nice to showcase some pieces I’ve done. (And YAY for the 1st Art & Design Post!)

So what the heck is a weaving exactly?

To weave is to form a 3D structure, that is a piece of fabric, by interlacing yarns or threads into a weaving loom. A weaving is the end product, the piece of finished fabric.

Weaving is a veryyyyyyy long and sometimes tedious process. Even a small structure (4X4′) can take about more than 5 hours. And depending on the intricacy of the pattern, weaving set up, and fabric finishing, a weaving can take up to months or years to complete.

The weavings here are called Double Weaves, where there is a different set of color system on each side of the fabric. These pieces took about 3 weeks to complete and lots and lots of ice-cream comfort.

2×2 Twills, 6×12′, Mercerized Cotton Threads

2×2 Twills, 6×5′, Mercerized Cotton Threads

2×2 Twills, 6×5′, Mercerized Cotton Threads

2×2 Twills, 6×5′, Mercerized Cotton Threads

Although weaving is a really long process and it’s easy to freak out when something is not going right (Trust me, there’s a lot), I still really enjoyed it because it’s a very unique and rare art experience.

Any weavers or textile lovers here? Leave a comment below!