Success in Failure: Art in the City – Bristol Artist Talks

Simon and Tom Bloor

A few days ago, I was lucky to attend a talk (hosted by Arnolfini), given by the artists Simon and Tom Bloor, two brothers (and identical twins) from Birmingham, on their recent work.  The Bloor brothers primarily deal with sculpture – on a large scale – often directly placed into the ‘public realm’; housing developments, schools and libraries.  Their main foil, or at least the focal point of this talk was the concept of twentieth century modernism.  It was / is this failed utopianism that provides inspiration.

As an explanatory note, ‘modernism’ is a philosophical and artistic movement, which arose from the massive transformations of western society during the twentieth century.  Developments such as the growth of modern industrial societies, the growth of cities and the horrors of the world war prompted a re-conceptualisation of Enlightenment certainty and rationality.  But then, the question remains – what comes next?

As Ezra Pound exclaimed:  ‘Make it New!’

The utopian aspect came from the affirmation of human beings power to create, improve and reshape their environment.

So, from this point, the Bloor Brothers took us on a tour of their artistic practice.  The first work discussed was their exhibition at Eastside Projects (where they are also founding directors), entitled ‘As Long as it Lasts’.  This work riffed off the aforementioned statement, written by the artist Lawrence Weiner on a pillar on the Gallery.  Inspired by a small sculpture in a Birmingham public park, the Bloor’s set about making ‘failed sculptures.’  Things with short, or perhaps non-existent lives.  The sculpture in question was by John Bridgeman, one of the multitude of ‘lesser known British modernists’, creating work designed for active play, not passive engagement – now forgotten about in a corner of a residential park.

The Bloor Brothers were drawn by thought that such work had failed, before it had even been made.  They described it as a ‘second rate Moore or Hepworth’ –  an automatic failure in the utopian yearnings of the modernist ethos.  So, this ‘failed sculpture’ led to their show, with Silver Birch trees (trees often used on new developments, yet also ‘pioneer species’ in the wild) placed in cardboard and resin planters, with structures made of polystyrene bricks around them.  These constructions look solid – until closer inspection reveals their underlying materials.

Bridgeman continued to be a source of inspiration for the artists, and they created a piece, ‘Design for Pleasure’ in direct response.  This consisted of a structure, angular in its construction, designed as a space to sit / move around / interact with.  It was situated outside the Royal Pump Rooms, in Leamington Spa – hosting a retrospective of Bridgeman’s work.  On the inside, the Bloor’s utilised what they describe as ‘pre-emptive vandalism’; messily spray-painting the MDF boards which revealed the object’s construction.  Here, the idea of whether or not to ‘guard against destruction’, interested them.  This was the ‘ambiguity of graffiti’ – seen as ‘bruises on a building’s surface.’  Should the public’s interaction with it (mostly teenagers in the park), their graffiti – often typically racist or homophobic statements, be censored?  In the end, the Bloors sprayed over such statements.

The first large scale project they introduced was a commission for Cotham School in Bristol – ‘Formula for Living’.  Previously, as artists, they had taken Modernism as a reference, but hadn’t actively created it.  Here, the commission had to have a long ‘life span’ (note the repetition of themes)– at least twenty-five years, and this caused considerable consternation.  Yet again, the Bloor’s turned to their modernist foil, using pre-formulated grids and primary colours to form a sort of ‘primary language’ on the wall and outside spaces of the school.  It was intended to provide the potential for engagement, in the form of children’s games, but they were very clear this was not to be prescriptive in any sense.

This concept of potentiality fed into another public commission, on a much larger scale – for a London development near Battersea.  Ideas of Art and Play once again loomed large, with a particular focus on ‘natural play.’  This is an extension of the playground ethos, yet refusing to dictate how spaces and objects should be used.  The Dutch artist, Aldo van Eyck, was a big inspiration – who from 1947-76 made 700+ playgrounds in Amsterdam!  The Bloor’s enjoyed the concept of ‘affordance’ – objects designed with a specific purpose in mind, yet more often than not – used in a completely different way.  The artwork itself was a tree (felled locally) cast in Bronze, laid atop a concrete, rocky outcrop.  It was not necessarily meant to be ‘pretty’, to add to the value of the nearby houses, but more to challenge – to make people think anew on their environment.  The rocky outcrop formed a modern ruin in the centre of the brand new, highly designed, London development.

A very similar project, at another housing development, ‘Seven Acres in Cambridge’, took these themes even further – Art and Play on the one hand, and the Ruin on the other.  The artists had to work with a set of walls, installed by the developer as a sound block.  They turned them into a ‘brutalist ruin’, a ‘future archeology’ – again, contrasting with the pristine architecture of the site.  They also created a frieze design on the front wall of the buildings, responding to the municipality, the construction of otherwise austere spaces – again, often failed from their very conception.  Here, the work of Sol Lewitt was a big influence, once more, utilising a grid pattern.  There was also a glass wall, with patterns scratched into it, generating a sense of destruction, through creation – evident in much of their work.

As is manifest in the Bloor Brother’s work, there is a repetition of themes, reappearing in a similar way to the grid patterns and primary colours they so frequently use.  Each time the ideas are slightly changed, yet all seem to refer back to their original, failed modernist paradigm.  I was particularly interested in their categorical assertion, at the start of the evening that Bridgeman’s utopian work was a ‘failed sculpture.’  I wondered why they thought this, and how this, in turn, played out in their own work.  How did the Bloors judge success and failure in their own practice?

They started answering, initially foregrounding their own opinion; work they like was successful, even if the public didn’t agree, and equally, vice versa – some work the public liked, they didnt.  Here, their own conception of success and failure as artists was paramount.  The Bloors noted that when their pieces were taken out of context (out of the authorial intention), this resulted in ‘failure.’  But in an opposite manner, if it was vandalised – this was a success – it had created a point of engagement.

Here, we have a dichotomy between authorial intention and public reception, both important – both highlighting the difficult issues surrounding ‘public art.’

The Bloor’s ruminated that they’d been unfair to Bridgeman, that it was only their subjective opinion on his failure – that maybe the artist was incredibly pleased with his own creations.  Yet, almost immediately, they negated this thought with the statement that his work was ‘always set up to fail, as it was responding to ‘utopia.’  How does this necessary, objective, failure – fit in with a subjective viewpoint of authorial success?

These were issues left palpably un-theorised.  I think though, that such questions are central to their practice and would form a rich vein for further thought.  I would be incredibly interested to hear more.

 

Featured Works


          

 

For the Bloor Brother’s latest work, take a visit to their ‘Instructions for an Ordinary Utopia’, in Frome, Somerset – which launches on March 22nd and runs until May 4th 2014.

http://www.simonandtombloor.com/

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10 thoughts on “Success in Failure: Art in the City – Bristol Artist Talks

  1. Very often new art is not accepted well by public (impressionists) but it does not mean that everything that authors like is really good. Today I posted a painting (the 9th painting in my 80 years) made using the paint program on PC. I don’t think that this painting deserves recognition but many my followers (including artists) liked it. Are they just polite? In your post I did not find YOUR personal opinion about the Bloor’s art.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much for your comment JF. I took a look at your painting in question, and as ever – felt it was incredibly hard to gauge the public’s reaction. Comments – what it reminded them of, etc. do not necessarily mean it was ‘liked.’ However, I do not think it is ‘liking’ that is at issue. For me, a successful piece of art will change the way you look at/think about the world around you – creating a reaction (of whatever type). Also, thank you for enforcing the point that my personal opinion did not feature; this was probably because I was unsure myself. On further reflection I do not think many of the works were ultimately successful – I don’t think they will provoke the artists’ desired interaction / participation. For me, ‘As Long as it lasts’, the first piece – was the most thought provoking.

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  3. Really interesting, food for thought. I’d have to reread this to make a serious comment. As public art is not part of my own practice, I haven’t thought a great deal about it but this has certainly raised some issues for me. Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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