Just found this from yonks ago in the ‘Independent’… has extra resonance now I am something of a Gallerist myself!
Susan de Muth seeks out hidden micro-sculptures sneaked into the Tate Gallery by the self-styled art terrorist Jack Maclean
“Get down to your knees,” hisses the art terrorist Jack Maclean when we reach a certain secret spot in London’s Tate Gallery. He looks around, making sure we are unobserved. I pretend to drop my pen and sink floorwards, groping.
This is the least elegant position I’ve ever adopted at a private view, as far as I can remember – my cheek brushing the dust, my rear in the air – but I can see Maclean’s micro-sculpture now: a tiny piece of resin in which a flailing aluminium figure isfrozen head downwards. “You’re only the third person to see it,” he grins, helping me to my feet and hurrying me away as a security guard returns.
The Tate is not alone in unwittingly housing the unknown Maclean’s work. The Saatchis have a micro-sculpture, so has the Metropolitan in New York. There is one in the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Tokyo’s Spiral Building has two. Berlin, Los Angeles and Amsterdam are among the other oblivious hosts whose exclusive cultural parties Maclean gatecrashed last May in a whirlwind 22-day trip around the world.
“I call it `involuntary acquisition’,” the 33 year-old Glaswegian explains. “I got the idea in 1989 after painting for several years and getting nowhere. I didn’t go to art school, which is how some people get picked up on by dealers and critics, but pe o ple locally liked my stuff. I started to take slides of my paintings down to commercial galleries in London, but no one would even bother to look at them because they’d never heard of me. I used to think, if I’d exhibited in world-famous public galleries , you’d all be dying to look at my work and people would pay thousands of pounds for it. So I decided to steal the space I needed. I wouldn’t do any grovelling at all – I’d just go into the biggest galleries in the world, place the work and walk out.”
Maclean is part of a growing band of cultural terrorists who mount regular challenges to the art establishment. The K Foundation turned the 1993 Turner Prize announcement on its head by simultaneously awarding the winning artist Rachel Whiteread a £40,000 award for the worst entry. Another group called FAT (Fashion, Art, Taste) created confusion at the last Royal Academy summer show by placing red dots beside every painting.
With no group backing or sponsorship, Maclean financed his odyssey himself. He worked for a year teaching English in Tokyo to save the £5,000 he needed to place an uninvited exhibit in each of 13 selected “metropolitan cultural cathedrals”. The sculptures – “tiny people I made without thought from aluminium chocolate wrappers while I was doing something else” – were set in resin and packed in a suitcase with three shirts and a toothbrush. Maclean bought two round-the-world tickets and set off with a collaborator (a member of the self-styled “Faculty of Transient Identity”) who filmed each “opening” with a Super-8 camera.
Maclean maintains that it doesn’t matter whether the sculptures are visible. “I had to hide them because otherwise they’d be taken away,” he states with perfect logic. “My sculpture at the Saatchi Gallery has actually been painted over with grey emulsion, but I can still say I have work there. People may see it unconsciously while strolling.
“I don’t think going to a gallery is very different for most people to watching television or buying a newspaper – they hardly notice it,” Maclean muses as we pass a young woman checking her reflection in the glass over a Picasso. “I asked some kids in LA why they were in the Museum of Contemporary Art and they just said, `Oh, where did you get your clothes?’.”
Maclean takes a childlike delight in carrying out each operation unnoticed. “I check the security in each space thoroughly before I place the micro-sculpture,” he recalls. “The guards are always walking around so you need split-second timing. In the Mus e um of Modern Art in New York I had a tricky moment when I accidentally superglued my finger to a window frame along with the sculpture. When the guard came in, I leant against the window trying to look casual and then wrenched myself free.”
In Berlin’s Daad Gallery, Maclean came across an exhibition consisting entirely of potted plants lying around the floor. “It was an `installation’ by Damien Hirst,” he says, laughing somewhat bitterly. “That’s the epitome of the art market: interest is generated in names so that they can sell work for money. There’s no technique, no meaning, nothing creative about those plants or a pile of bricks in the Tate. … People sometimes say to me: `Maybe you don’t get exhibited because your work isn’t very good.’ I don’t mind because I just think of Damien Hirst’s plants.”
On his return to London, each gallery was sent a fax that read: “Jack Maclean is now exhibiting a micro-sculpture in Violation of your Art Space.” He considers the project finished now that it has been “exhibited” and has already started on new work, yethe is not planning to give away the exact locations. “I like the idea of people looking for the micro-sculptures. … It might make galleries more interesting.”
While Maclean says his main purpose is to “make people think”, he admits he would quite like to be famous himself: “People would give me about £15,000 for each sculpture, which would fund new projects; I could then become unknown again by changing my name to Neon Glassbender or gaining weight or starting to wear flares,” he suggests, with an air of artlessness of which Andy Warhol would have been proud.
Some time after Maclean has taken the plane back to Tokyo, where he has decided to live, I speak to Simon Wilson from the Tate Gallery. Ironically perhaps, he is complimentary, if academic, about Maclean’s “violations”.
“He is challenging the acquisition practices of the world’s museums,” says Wilson. “The challenge is the point and the whole project is a work of art carried out with determination. Fabulous! I take my hat off to him.”
Wilson’s attitude towards the Tate’s very own micro-sculpture, however, is rather less accommodating. “If we knew where it was, we would take it down and return it to the artist,” he says. “It would be deeply unfair to other artists to accept this sculpture just because Maclean wants us to have it. He has not gone through the proper procedures. Are you going to tell us where it is?”
This is a poem I wrote for my dearest friend, Christina Mills, who passed away on 25 April 2019. We were friends for 43 years.
The Miracle of the Pigeons
By Susan de Muth, May 2019
“I love the sound wood pigeons make,”
You said in the Hospice this Spring
“It reminds me of Summer and sun and flowers
When I hear them on the wing…
“Yet is also reminds me of Death,’ you said,
But didn’t elaborate more,
You closed your eyes, and lay down your head,
And I softly closed the door…
It wasn’t ‘til after you died
That these puzzling words were explained
When your son said that as a child –
In sunshine and in rain –
You loved to feed pigeons outside your home
In your childhood Manchester Street,
Laughing and throwing them seeds and crumbs
In a hubbub of wings at your feet.
But one night came poisoners from the council
Who scattered their poisonous bait
And the pigeons – in their innocence –
Flocked to the ground… and ate
Next morning you opened the curtains
And screamed out loud when you saw
the street awash with dead pigeons
Culled under a council by-law…
And whistling workers shovelled them up,
Like so much dirty muck
And bagged them in bin bags like rubbish
to be crushed in the back of their trucks.
…We’ve been dreaming of birds now you’re gone
And pigeons have appeared in kitchens…
One flew in through a window in Denmark
And there are birds in every song…
I know you don’t believe in miracles
But there’s been one just the same
It’s the miracle of the pigeons
I’m going to claim it in your name…
The miracle of the pigeons,
Christina, is that on your death, to the very day,
It became illegal to kill wood pigeons,
Or harm then in any way.
The miracle of the pigeons
Sets them free to gather and fly
and only the spirit of the Universe
Will determine when they die.
The gentle song of wood pigeons
Only meadows and sunshine once more
As we think of you flying before us,
Towards infinity’s door
On 7 April 2019 our new Arts Lab, A Wave of Dreams, will open in Kings Rd St Leonards on Sea.
it is a fabulous space – about 70 square metres. We anticipate curating eight visual arts shows a year with regular performance and acoustic music events through the month.
The emphasis is on imagination and innovation.
Some inspiration derives, as the name suggests, from the early days of surrealist adventuring in Paris, ‘new romantic lodgings for unclassifiable ideas and revolutions in progress… GREAT THINGS ARE BOUND TO HAPPEN!’ [Louis Aragon, ‘A Wave of Dreams’]
Artists and performers of all disciplines are invited to get in touch.
The space is also available for local community arts projects and for hire for suitable uses (eg rehearsals, yoga, spiritual well-being, exhibitions).
I am currently copy editing an English language, Turkish History magazine. This is proving to be an interesting experience and is particularly relevant at a time when Turkey is going to the polls and Turkish politics are incredibly polarized (pro or anti Erdogan).
Several interesting projects came my way this summer, including editing an edition of a Turkish history magazine – link to follow when it is live.
Among other commissions, I have written the catalogue essay for a thought-provoking exhibition of epic photographic triptychs by Ben Gibson-Cowan.
I am about to start some translations from the French, for a British university’s academic journal.
I am also working on my own creative writing… and developing some London walks tracking literary landmarks in the ‘Outlaw Borough’, Southwark.
Always looking for more interesting assigments though!
RIP HEATHCOTE WILLIAMS 1941 – 2017
It was with great sadness that I attended the funeral of Heathcote Williams, who died on the 1st July. Heathcote had been ill, and in hospital, but he was still so full of life, ideas, and plans…
But how wonderful to see the beautiful church of St Barnabas in Oxford filled with hundreds of people who had come to mark his life and his legacy. When we arrived, Heathcote’s voice, a recorded reading of ‘Whale Nation’, inhabited the space entirely, echoing from the vaulted ceilling and swirling round us as if we were, indeed, in the deep seas or, perhaps, tiptoeing into eternity. Grey Gowrie’s wonderful eulogy, placing Heathcote in the pantheon of the great rebel writers which includes Shelley and William S. Burroughs.
There were portents, too, both grand and comedic – just as Heathcote would have ordained it:
First, as the mourners walked along the canal towpath towards the church, a huge hawk circled over us the whole way (H for Hawk, for Heathcote too, perhaps). Intimations of freedom? Michael Horovitz sang ‘Stairway to Heaven’…
Later, sitting outside a pub opposite the church, after the wicker coffin woven with flowers had begun its final journey, and as the murmuring congregation flowed along the street… a fly buzzed through my hair, making me jump out of my seat with surprise. It landed, legs in the air, stone dead on the table in front of me. It was exactly the image that Heathcote had used to illustrate his poem from the ‘American Porn’ collection, ‘The White House Fly’. Why me? Because when we were working on the book, we had some lengthy and energetic discussions about dramatically cutting ‘The White House Fly’… I thought the brilliance of the conceit was obscured by the original length of the poem. Heathcote, graciously, conceded, but I couldn’t help thinking he would have loved to have given me this last scare… and a laugh. The fly was solemnly placed in a plastic sandwich box by Tymon Dogg and thereafter accompanied us for the rest of an extraordinarily peripatetic wake.
Heathcote was a one-off; the foremost leftfield/underground bard of our times. His environmental (Whale Nation, Autogeddon etc) and political (Brexit Boris, American Porn) polemics offer a no-holds-barred critique of everything that is wrong with our world today – from the wilful destruction of the planet and its animals to the infamous branding of all Moslems as terrorists and the inevitability of Donald Trump’s election to lead a nation of ‘pornographers and warmongers’.
Eton and Oxford educated, few would have anticipated his life-long devotion to anti-establishment causes, including running the infamous Rough Tough Cream Puff squatting ‘estate agency’ in Notting Hill (providing break-in housing tips for members of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Slits among others) in the 1970s.
He was a modest man and a joy to work with editorially.
RIP Heathcote…may your words live forever.
Susan de Muth
I am working on three fascinating short stories by the great French writer, Louis Aragon, which were lost for many years, having been published cladestinely during the war under the pseudonym Saint Romain Arnaud. I found this little book in a junk shop in Paris (picture below).
The stories are about life under Nazi occupation: a bickering elderly couple are visited by a Gestapo search team; a bored country priest becomes the unwitting accomplice to a resistance bomb plot; a sports journalist charts his own political journey via a decade of cycling events.
Witty and chilling at the same time, with an almost journalistic approach to narration, these stories are very unlike his surrealist writings.
Watch this space for availability via Thin Man Press and Kindle.
The ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which ends 29 May 2017, places Claude Cahun – whose most important literary work, ‘Disavowals’ I translated from French for Tate Publishing – alongside contemporary British artist, Gillian Wearing.
Both artists, born seventy years apart, deal with universal themes of identity, gender and notions of self-disclosure often via self-portraiture and masquerade.
It took me three years to translate Cahun’s complex and utterly unique work. I was commissioned by Professor Dawn Ades, who gave a very interesting talk about the exhibition (for which she wrote the catalogue introduction) at the NPG last week. I was in the audience, and in the course of the event, she frequently referenced my book and even waved it around so that the audience could see it!
I have to say that I am rather baffled that nobody from the NPG saw fit to invite me to participate in any of the events associated with the show; when Professor Ades talked about self-portraiture and the ambiguity surrounding the attribution of Cahun’s photographs (taken by her companion, Susanne Malherbe) I wanted to jump up and down and spout my theory about this which comes straight from the pages of the book. Ha!
Not wishing to appear bitter and twisted (B&T) allow me to recommend the show to you!
And the book!