Set up in 2008 Shape's annual Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary is one of the most significant opportunities for disabled visual artists in the UK, offering an opportunity to engage in a three month residency at a high profile gallery.
Antony Gormley, one of Britain's best known and internationally significant artists has been a patron of the bursary since 2011. In an address at the opening of the Shortlist Exhibition earlier this year he said:
'The arts is a broad field, and in it there are intelligences that have particular points of view. In a post ideological time, when in a sense all those notions of moral order or political hierarchy are crumbling, the necessity of celebrating subjective and particular points of view becomes so critical.
I think we are at a very extraordinary moment in terms of how human beings value 'value' itself and where we go to look for value, meaning, truth.'
The award offers a bursary of £5000 to UK based disabled visual artists as well as residency providing time, space and support for artists to develop their creative practice without the pressure to deliver a particular outcome. The recipients are supported by the gallery and Shape teams and are offered exhibition, public engagement and marketing opportunities. Tony Heaton, Shape's CEO has this to say about the bursary scheme:
‘The Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary has become absolutely intrinsic to Shape, and critical in a way that enables us to create mutually successful partnerships with some of the countries most exciting contemporary galleries. That they are now approaching us is evidence that this bursary is an exciting and novel proposition with consistently excellent outcomes for all, and particularly for disabled artists…’
Previous residencies have taken place in Camden Arts Centre in London, the BALTIC in Gateshead, Spike Island in Bristol and Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool.
In an overview of the work of the first four winners of the bursary, below, John O'Donoghue investigates the value of the artwork produced in residency to date.
Caroline Cardus: Message To Barbara
Caroline Cardus won the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in 2011 and took up a residency at the Baltic in Newcastle. John O'Donoghue discusses how Cardus' work transforms the private correspondence of the text message into an iconographic artwork
Caroline Cardus is a visual artist working in a variety of media. She explores the construction of identity through simple yet powerful messages, taking common everyday expressions and situating them in contexts where humorous and sinister nuances make the viewer do a double take. Her work examines the power of language, and the way words work to both express and supress the individual to reveal a layered notion of self.
Message to Barbara, created during Cardus’ residence at the Baltic in Newcastle, came out of an intense series of text messages between the artist and her friend Barbara Lisicki as a result of Lisicki becoming seriously ill. Saved and treasured over a long time, this string of communication summarised the drama, humour, love, and intense friendship in between Cardus and Lisicki coming to terms with the changes to life post major surgery. Reproduced as a
series of paper panels, while keeping the original text-speak acronyms, abbreviations and symbols as well as the typographic aesthetic of the mobile phone screen, the piece was exhibited as a large scale wall based piece, arresting the viewer with its relentless speech.
Cardus had previously made work that focused on language and power. Her Dirty Words For Disabled People (2002) came about after she posted on a messageboard asking disabled people to nominate the words they didn't like. She then asterisked out the vowels to make them appear like swear words, words such as: Handicapped, Special, Mental, Brave, Spastic.
This simple visual pun – for whom are the words taboo: disabled people? non-disabled people? both? – brought into sharper focus the way language can act as one of the social barriers disabled people have to negotiate on a daily basis. The piece also highlighted the way language has changed, even in the last twenty years, when ‘Handicapped’ has no longer become acceptable.
The power of Message To Barbara lies in its cumulative effect. Seeing the texts arranged on the wall the viewer is at once admitted to a very private form of correspondence and at the same time is aware of the public space in which they’re being shown. The private realm of the phone screen is transformed into the airy vault of the gallery. Into a singularly discreet relationship expressed in the terse language we have come to call ‘textspeak’ intrudes the Other – we, the onlookers. Suddenly we are aware of where are positioned – not in the neutral zone of the gallery goer, strolling round in a kind of trance to look at pictures, but in the contingent situation of the eavesdropper. So this is what a long series of other people’s text messages looks like! The conversation goes ahead without any opportunity for us to intervene or contribute – we’re at once admitted to the text messages, and excluded from them.
And so Cardus enacts a common experience of disabled people, of being inside and outside the loop. ‘Does he take sugar?’ is the by now stereotypical formulation of this curious inside/outside positioning. For Cardus to make a such an intimate set of texts stand for a similar moment in the onlooker’s experience is characteristic of her exploration of language, power, and identity. Her Message to Barbara is a message to us all.
Aaron Williamson: The Forgotten History Of The Affligare
Aaron Williamson won the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in 2010 and took up a residency at Spike Island Studios in Bristol. John O'Donoghue reveals the mind of a trickster at work, mimicking the language of an anthropologist to make comment on disability discrimination
There’s a rich tradition of fakes, hoaxes, and pranks in art. A whole taxonomy could be devised just to delineate the nature of the deceptions artists and their darker accomplices have perpetrated on their ‘marks’. Perhaps the purest hoax, though, the con that inspires the most affection and respect for the hoaxer, is the art work made to dupe the experts and show them up for bumbling laymen. This kind of con says to the world, ‘Look – art is actually something everyone can take part in, everyone can have opinion on, everyone can do.’
I think this is what makes Aaron Williamson’s The Forgotten History of the Affligare such a wonderful piece. It works on two levels: the documents, artefacts, and publicity Williamson generated for the project are – in and of themselves – fine pieces. But it’s the underlying concept that elevates Williamson’s Affligare into the ludic realm of play, that empyrean place where true art has its proper place.
Of course there’s nothing ‘true’ or ‘proper’ about the Affligare. And this is what makes it so brilliant. The entire project is a work of fiction, dressed up as a coup, a scoop, a sensation tricked out with cod-scholarship and curatorial scrupulousness that is in fact a lie.
The Affligare is a fictional tribe of medieval ‘cripple-beggars’, exhibited in the tradition of the ethnography collection. Skulls, crutches, mysterious, possibly ritualistic objects dominate the exhibition. Williamson also produced a short monograph on the Afflicare, introducing and describing the series of objects belonging to the tribe that was ‘discovered’ beneath a barn in Hildesheim, Germany in 1972.
In the deadpan academic prose of The Forgotten History of the Affligare, Williamson comes across as a learned don, a Levi-Strauss or a Margaret Mead, looking at a remarkable but mythical tribe that is the product of his scabrous imagination. He subtly critiques the politics of disability in contemporary art and museum studies, as well as making the observer laugh.
What strikes me most about the Affligare is the humour of the piece. The mainstream art world doesn’t expect disabled artists to produce work that calls into question their attitudes, their prejudices, their desire to keep disabled artists in the conveniently safe categories of ‘outsider art’, ‘art brut’, ‘naïve art’, and all the other fatuous categories disabled artists have long left behind.
Whilst these categories at one time drew attention to the work of disabled artists they now seem to serve more to confine such work. Williamson sends all of this up, taking a bash at notions of ‘primitive art’ as he sweeps along, majestically laughing at all of these fatuities.
I laugh too. It’s an ingenious and brilliantly wrought project and I for one can’t wait for a proper, glossy catalogue detailing all of the pieces, and hilarious including Williamson’s monograph.
For it’s a great example of work that’s both ludic, and ludicrous in the best senses of those words. The Affligare may not really exist but in a profound sense – to me anyway – they do. They are my playmates in a world that increasingly seems to want disabled people just to go away. As such, for me the Affligare have become imaginative touchstones, heroes of the mind, fictional tricksters that make me laugh as the news grows increasingly darker. I too am Affligare.
Sally Booth: The Bluecoat Windows
Sally Booth won the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in 2009 and took up a residency at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. John O'Donoghue reviews the use of light in her work making a comparison with the work of William Turner RA
Was William Turner visually impaired? There has been speculation that his late style, all swirls and vivid colours, provides evidence that the great Victorian painter and watercolourist had cataracts, colour blindness, deteriorating eyesight.
If so, Turner manages to turn to his advantage what many without such an impairment would think essential for a visual artist: clear vision. Rather like Beethoven contending with deafness, Turner shows that impairment need not be a barrier to practice. Indeed, as Turner demonstrates, disability may have its advantages for the artist.
Sally Booth is herself a visually impaired artist. As the fourth winner of the Adam Reynolds Bursary she opted to take up a residency at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool between February and April 2009.
Booth said, "The Bluecoat’s studio’s beautiful oval windows had inspired me from the beginning. I made ongoing photographs of the changing light and shadows cast by the windows at night and in the afternoons. Sometimes the light was diffuse and soft, evocative of my own vision; sometimes reflections were abstracted, sharp or almost invisible. As the days slowly lengthened… this series became an important part of the passage of time during the residency".
Booth’s photographs were displayed in eight light boxes, mounted on a large whitewashed wall, the images by turns reminiscent of a clock face, porthole windows or a bicycle wheel. The illuminated photographs give an impression of stained glass or a triptych in a church, a mixture of spectral black and white and sunny golden abstracted designs, as if the attempt to capture the passage of light through the frame of a round window pushed the window itself into the background of the piece, and foregrounded the light alone.
The window becomes not an architectural feature, but an artistic image, a net for catching sunshine and shade, rather than a device for allowing more light into the studio. It is in fact a lens, rather than an aperture. And of course the roundness of the window reminds the onlooker at a subliminal of a human eye, the vital source of perception for every visual artist.
Booth’s visual impairment here works in a similar way to Turner’s treatment of light. In Turner’s canvases you feel that it is not the skies, the ships, the seas that fascinate him so much as the process of light itself, by turns bathing and obscuring whatever is in the foreground. Of course the flip side of light is darkness, and as a viewer of this piece I am very aware also of the absence of light, of night, and blindness, and the altered perception of someone whose eyesight is different from mine.
And ultimately of vision in a more mystical sense, of sight beyond sight. I think Booth – like Turner – tries to convey something of this exalted sense of ‘vision’ in her work. But this quality of her work doesn’t come from any lack of exactitude – it comes from a close and detailed scrutiny of what’s in front of her, from attention to detail, from having an ‘eye’.
Like Turner, her sight may be impaired. But there is nothing out of focus about Sally Booth’s vision.
Noëmi Lakmaier: Experiment in Happiness
Noëmi Lakmaier won the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in 2008 and took up a residency at Camden Arts Centre in London. John O'Donoghue investigates the literary references in the work to uncover reflections on power and control
Control and power are important themes in Noëmi Lakmaier’s work, themes that come together in Experiment in Happiness, first exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre in 2008.
Experiment in Happiness is a two metre sphere holding about 400 pairs of shoes, painted with the yellow road paint used to mark double yellow lines on British roads. The ball looks very odd, as if a great heap of shoes had been rolled down a hill and formed itself into a small planet of soles, uppers, laceholes, and straps, a giant yellow knobbly Ferrero Rocher. Lakmaier was attached to the ball at a live event by wearing one of the pairs of shoes, making her body a part of this strange object. She invited viewers to push the ball, surrendering control to her scrutineers.
By using her own body in the artwork, Lakmaier emphasises the relationship between viewer and object and challenges her fears of relinquishing control. It’s part 'It’s A Knock Out', part Trust Exercise, and enacts the plays of empowerment and disempowerment disabled people experience on a daily basis. The absurd relationship between body and ball of shoes makes the piece both comical and sinister at the same time, and by placing herself at the mercy of her spectators who could just roll the big ball of shoes over her, Lakmaier situates herself in a dramatised version of many disabled people’s position.
She is the underdog, about to be stepped on by the rest of the planet, the yellow paint symbolic of the rules and the regulations – as much as any disability – that constrain her.
In an interview with the artist and writer Susan Thomson, Lakmaier talked about some of the inspiration behind Experiment in Happiness, citing the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. “The main character in The Visit, Claire Zachanassian, has an artificial arm and leg following a plane crash, and she is a dark and vengeful force in the play, promising a million to the town if they sacrifice Alfred Ill, her former lover who betrayed her after fathering her child… It is significant - not because of her disability - but because of her lost love and the betrayal that this character wishes to exact vengeance. It is when the villagers start to buy expensive items on credit that Ill realises he is in trouble, and most notably some of the villagers begin to wear new yellow shoes.”
She goes on to draw parallels between The Visit and her piece: “There is a level of trust in the play and in the art work, which assumes that the spectator will not try to kill or harm the artist, just as Ill assumes that they will not harm him even though they have the opportunity.”
Experiment in Happiness is on the face of it an absurd piece. The shoddiness – pardon the pun! – of the materials, the bright yellow paint, the child-like rolling of this matter into one big ball – all of this looks like the kind of thing most mainstream art critics would sneer at.
But Lakmaier situates the work within two discourses: Art Brut and High Mittel European Art. What looks on the surface to be a ridiculous toy is actually a highly thought out piece that comes trailing Teutonic seriousness.
As the first winner of the Adam Reynolds Bursary it marked a significant moment in disability art. For the piece collapses the boundaries between Art Brut and Fine Art, between art by the disabled and art period, between object and subject. Experiment in Happiness draws on a number of artistic traditions and discourses to make a memorable, funny, and intriguing piece.