Tag Archives: subversion

Catherine Harper, Land, cloth, body and culture

I blogged recently about Georgia O’Keeffe as an inspirational women artist (for International Women’s Day in March) but in the last week I have attended talks by two equally inspirational women.    It has taken me a few days to collect my thoughts as I was so impressed with their lectures – I have divided up the post into two (see Mandy Webb post here)….

Catherine Harper

Catherine is the Dean of the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries; Professor of Textiles at the University of Portsmouth and last week gave her inaugural lecture at the University – Land, cloth, body and culture.

Her synopsis of her art practice over the last twenty five years was shocking, fascinating, amusing and deeply moving.   I have huge admiration for anyone who can put so much of themselves into their work – the art is always richer for it.   Her work covers the ‘places inbetween’ in Irish and Northern Irish gender and identity, in intersex and anatomical drag and in  fabrics of death and desire.    Huge subjects, but tackled in such a way to make the audience think twice about a subject they may not have much knowledge about or may have felt they understood already.

Woman Mouth Stapled Shut (detail) 1988-90

I learnt some shocking things and understood a little better the deep collective agonies of being female in Ireland.    Some of her art is glorious and subversive, some uses humour and stereotypes to convey the message about gender issues.   Queenie; the knitting and ironing drag queen for instance.

Catherine Harper, Queenie O Queenie performances, Orchard Gallery and Derry City, 2001

The poignancy of Queenie washing the walls of Derry makes a huge impact – I find it incredibly sombre.

The Big Red (detail) 1994

Such beauty and sadness combined.   I am envious of the scale of some pieces – I do not feel I yet have the confidence to attempt something that makes such an overwhelming statement.

The Big Red (Dublin) 1994

Listening to Catherine, I understood a great deal about what makes good art good.  The passion, research, subversion and combining difficult subjects with beautiful objects makes for powerful pieces.   Before I tentatively entered the art world a year or so ago, I had no idea the work that went into a piece, the research, the practice, the background.  I know that many members of the public will look at art and wonder why it is art (I had that discussion with a cleaner at the art college only last week!) but when you are privy to the backstory, the artwork comes alive.

I realise that I have to concentrate my own practice on my personal experiences – just to attempt to express how I feel about being a human – goodness knows I have a rich vein of life experience to call upon!   If I am doing a piece and it is not about a strongly held belief / feeling / experience, then I should question why I am doing it.

I shied away from doing some darker pieces for my MA Fine Art this year because of the potential impact on my audience and whilst I still feel it was the right decision, I know that these pieces must emerge at some point in the future.

At the end of the lecture (which flew by!  I could have listened to much more) I turned to my fellow female MA Fine Art student and we both just said “Wow”.  And nearly two weeks on, I still think  “Wow”.

Find out more about Catherine Harper here and download her lecture notes (PDF) from Academia now.

All images ©Catherine Harper and shown with kind permission of the artist.


Mandy Webb – subversive artist

Mandy Webb

As part of our course we have visiting artists who come and chat with us and talk about their work – I have found each and every one an inspiration.    Last week it was Mandy Webb, a Portsmouth based artist who makes intensely personal and shocking pieces broadly around women’s issues and social issues, particularly dealing with and educating people about her HIV status.

Mandy graduated from Portsmouth a few years ago and it was interesting to hear about the progress she has made in that time.     Her work is so deeply personal and raw and in that there is also great beauty.   Like many artists her work also contains a great sense of humour.

The works ‘Fucking Kettle’ and ‘Too many pricks for my liking!’ deal with the wholly inadequate response by Social Services to her serious illness.  There is nothing subtle about Mandy’s brand of subversion!    The works make you gasp and laugh and then make you see the point she is making.   They leave you feeling a deeper understanding of the issues she addresses.

The dresses are incredible feats of imagination – the most famous is the “Red Ribbon Dress” which has been exhibited widely in order to bring awareness to HIV in this country. 6000 red ribbons commemorate the people who have died and the people who are surviving and coping.

Mandy will make art out of just about anything, condoms, bed pans and sanitary towels – she has no qualms!   Nothing is what it seems.   She showed me that art takes commitment, passion and flair – and that whilst it can be about deadly serious subjects, it can be handled with sparkle and humour too.

Mandy is opening her latest exhibition in Bristol from 05/03/2016 to 02/04/2016 called Addressing the Situation at Grant Bradley Gallery.

For more information see:  Saatchiart , Facebook and www.mandywebb43.com

All images © Mandy Webb

Course update

My work is going well, I keep feeling anxious about everything I have to achieve but actually it is ticking along.  I finished my series of photographs on the Gosport Ferry this week, I have 72 small pictures of people occupying themselves on the journey across Portsmouth Harbour.   My aim now is to be mindful on the trip myself. I tried this for the first time on Friday, on both crossings and it was such a relief to sit and be still for 5 minutes.  I felt really refreshed.  Since this is the raison d’etre of my research, it’s a good job too!

Did a portrait anatomy class this week – wow, unexpectedly hard work but great fun.   Only half finished but fascinating to learn how the muscles on the face build up our features.

2016-02-26 15.31.04

Featured Image

The featured image is part of an occasional series on negative and parental road signs.

What is the link between subversion and creativity?

I realised that after talking about it for a long time, I haven’t actually recorded what I found and summarised my thoughts.

I enjoyed researching this subject immensely and found myself getting deep into the area, I would not have anticipated the conclusions I now draw.

When I reflected on my process, I realised that it resembled a tree, I started off with a trunk with one question on.  I divided it into two – subversion and creativity, neither of which I knew much about, my aim was to understand these two areas fully, before I could then see where one influenced the other.   Each time I read a book, article or found an artist, the topic branched, one idea led to another, until I had numerous ‘leaves’.

My sketchbook….

At first I concentrated on subversion, a subject I had not thought about before.  I read from books, looked at articles online and researched many artists.   I could have done several talks just about them but sadly there was not time.   Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Francesca Woodman, Banksy, Jann Haworth, Martha Rosler – there is an endless list of artists who subverted the politics of the day or peoples’ thoughts and opinions.

Researching Banksy was especially interesting as I thought I knew his work but discovered that he has been responsible for so much more than I realised.  What I like about his work is the intelligence with which it is staged – it is always carefully planned, perfectly placed and always challenges some belief or opinion whilst maintaining a healthy sense of humour about serious subjects.

Subversion can be bold and obvious or extremely subtle.  It is a form of rebellion, kicking back against the status quo.

I read about the Trickster character in mythology and felt that, this eternal character, was part of our makeup, and the source of subversion.   Tricksters are dangerous, have no respect for authority or the rules.  They mess things up and this is how society progresses and moves forward.

During the time of doing the research I wanted to do something ‘subversive’ myself.   Initially I felt that being subversive meant being somewhat offensive (often just for the sake of it) and since that isn’t really ‘me’ I did think of being overly polite as a subversion of subversion!   I thought about having t-shirts made with things like “Thank you very much” and “No, after you!” or perhaps “Yes please” on them but firstly I found upon doing some research that you can already get t-shirts that say such things and secondly, some phrases may still have been misconstrued as sexual, which was not my aim.    I then considered my existing art practice which is somewhat subversive already – to accepted watercolour painting techniques anyway – as I paint with watercolour neat from the tube directly onto the paper, using a cut down DIY paintbrush from B&Q.

The void – watercolour & mixed media Ailsa Brims

I started to look at creativity and the information I found was fascinating.   At the start of this, I would have assumed that being creative was genetic – I come from a creative family for instance, my great-grandparents, great-aunt, aunt, father and two cousins are/were all artists.   It seems that there is a small genetic component, but the story is much more complex.   Creativity it seems is not a ‘thing’ it’s a process that is multifaceted, and combined with a selection of character traits, personal histories and a bit of luck will manifest itself as creative.   Perhaps creativity seems to run in families because the particular character traits that it requires are encouraged within families, skills are also learnt at your parents knee which combine to make being creative seem a desirable use of time.

I am always interested in psychology and wanted to look into where certain creative and subversive traits come from.    I am familiar with Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) model of ego states and I propose that the free child described in TA is the same as Trickster described in mythology and by Jung as an archetype.   I believe that this is the source of creativity.

It was fascinating to bring these threads together and show how certain traits may be influenced by our ego state, our very early upbringing and our later childhood experiences (which shape us emotionally).   All of this is conjecture of course but I have discussed it with a psychotherapist who feels it is a reasonable conclusion to draw.    Regarding creativity being genetic, it has long been believed that psychological issues and behaviours are passed from parent to child (subconsciously) and so, if some degree of emotional impact is necessary for creativity to flourish (Grayson Perry certainly feels it is – Reith Lectures 2013), then this will also be replicated down generations, albeit being diluted and changed by each one.

Having done a great deal of reading and research, I mapped out what I had learnt and from that my conclusions were fairly straightforward.   Subversion is so closely linked with creativity as to be indistinguishable from it, but it is possible to be creative without being subversive.   However, creativity without a point to make could be considered, well, pointless and I would argue that subversion gives creativity its purpose, its energy and drive.

Is there any great art work that is not subversive?

Interesting reading

Andreasen, N. (2014). Secrets of the creative brain. The Atlantic, 62-75.

Banksy. (2005). Wall and piece. London: Century.

Banksy does New York. (2013). Sky Arts.

Barrett, E., & Bolt, B. (2010). Practice as Research. United Kingdom: IB Tauris Co.

BBC Documentary. (2015, 11 3). Imagine – Anthony Gormley.

Cantu, L., Gundersen, D. E., & Rozell, E. J. (2012). Creativity and critical thinking: What is it? Who has it? How do we get more of it? Feature Edition, 108-126.

Chang, C. (2015, 2 27). What does it take to be a genius? Retrieved 11 22, 2015, from News.com.au: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/mind/what-does-it-take-to-be-a-genius/news-story/bd8024eccbd66bf910cd23cfc3f3beef

Clare Strand . (2015, 12 3). UP Photography Lecture.

Gompertz, W. (2015). Think like and Artist and lead a more creative, productive life. Penguin Books.

Gray, C. &. (2004 ). Visulising Research: A guide to the research process in art and design. Ashgate Publishing.

Hyde, L. (2008). Trickster makes this world: how disruptive imagination creates culture. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Joines, V., & Stewart, I. (2002). Personality Adaptations. Kegworth: Lifespace Publishing.

Joines, V., & Stewart, I. (2003). TA Today – an introduction to Transactional Analysis. Nottingham: Russell Press.

Loori, J. D. (2005). The Zen of Creativity: cultivating your artistic life. New York: Ballantine.

McNiff, S. (1998). Art based research. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Sachs S, Minioudaki K. (2010). Seductive Subversion – women pop artists 1958-1968. New York: Abbeville.

Sullivan, G. (2010). Art practice as research. United States: Sage Publications.

The Reith Lectures – Grayson Perry. (2013). Retrieved 2015, from BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/episodes/downloads

Think Different. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 30, 2015, from The Crazy Ones: http://www.thecrazyones.it/spot-en.html


MA FA week 9 – a busy week

Creativity and subversion research

This week I have been continuing my research into creativity and subversion.   I had one of those wonderful afternoons when I started off with Picasso, read all about the women at ‘Remaking Picassos Guernica” which lead me to a whole activist movement I have not heard about – Craftism.  I love their style!



I was reading a blog about some of the stuff they do and one craftist leaves small cross stitch works with inspiring messages on ‘in the wild’ for people to find.  The same principle as Free Art Friday.   She said she was inspired by the artist Susan O’Malley.    This led me to spend a couple of hours researching her and it was a bitter sweet experience.  I love her work, the colours ping and her work is touching, moving and amusing.  She really embraced living in the moment and  I was so excited to have found an artist that I really connected with and yet the sad news is she died unexpectedly last February aged 38 – life is short and most of us do not make the huge impact that Susan did.

I really liked her “Finding your center” exhibition from 2014.   It has echoes of what I am thinking about at the moment.

I was left with a sense of sadness but like the craftist before me, I am inspired to do something similar, particularly with my Free Art Friday pieces which I want to get back into doing each week.

Susan O’Malley

Grayson Perry

I also spent the week listening to the excellent Leith Lectures with Grayson Perry – hours and hours of them!   I have listened to them before but now I am more of an insider than an outsider so much more made sense.    I was about to replay some pieces in order to transcribe some quotes when I found that the BBC have helpfully done transcripts.

He seems to be saying that subversion has had it’s day:

“And if you think about it, all the things that were once seen as subversive and dangerous like tattoos and piercings and drugs and interracial sex, all these things, they sort of crop up on X Factor now.”

He’s very cynical about there being any true subversion any more.  But then in an earlier speech he describes his own pots as subversive…..and they certainly make you think and challenge your beliefs!

Grayson Perry: The Existential Void



We talked about a lot in our tutorial this week, I have 3 pages of notes to follow up!

Empirical research – how do artists do something considered so scientific?   As I have a science background I would gravitate to empirical research, but in art I have yet to find an application in my own research.  I find it difficult to categorise the research I do into types.

In his book “Art as research” Shaun McNiff considers that in science there is introspection as part of the empirical approach and in art research there is empirical experimentation as well as reflection.

“Art based research comprises both introspective and empirical inquiry.  Art is by definition a combination of the two.  The artist researcher initiates a series of artistic expressions as a means of personal introspection and the process of inquiry generates empirical data which are systematically reviewed.”


To subvert is to overthrow the accepted norm.  Does that make any scientific discovery subversion?  I feel that the definition of subversion is more geared towards political / social acts rather than new discoveries or else all scientists are subvertists?  When searching online the word has an underground quality that I am not sure most scientists have.   Of course there will be cross overs.

Propaganda and advertising are designed to subvert but are usually done from the position of power (the government / political party / large organisation) so perhaps rather than subversion being underground it is more underhand…..

We talked briefly about semiotics (the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication) which I had never heard about before – having done a little reading now (OK, Wikipedia!) it is a whole new world which includes semantics, syntactics, pragmatics and seimology!   I think it will take me a bit longer to take all that in.

Does Twitter subvert journalism by making us all journalists on the ground?  The other day I was tweeting pictures from a pro-refugee rally in Portsmouth and a news channel retweeted me.   Was I being subversive?!

Why does being subversive feel like being a little bit naughty as a child?  I guess we all like to kick back at those that rule us.

My practice

I’ve added some pictures on Flikr of the Gosport Ferry and have started to have some ideas about how these might be shown as a whole.

I did a big acrylic painting this week, not sure it’s finished yet, but I like where it’s going.

This weeks featured image is a reflective shot under Forton Bridge, Gosport – a liminal space. (Actually a liminal space twice, it’s low tide too).

Week 6 – Creativity and subversion – where does it come from?

Subversion / creativity project

I have had some time this week for my uni work!  (but perhaps not as much as I’d like) – I have done a great deal more research about the origins of creativity – where does that human streak come from?    I have been reading about how the Greeks thought it was a gift from God, to Freud who was one of the first people to think it arose from the subconscious.

Personally I think it is the child within us who is creative – if you subscribe to the TA (Tranactional Analysis) school of thought, it would be the free child who is fun, free and creative (and subversive – there are no rules!) but in the majority of people, this free child is squashed by the critical parent within us all who tells the child in us that they are not artistic, can’t behave like that, are not doing it right etc.   We all have this side of us that seeks to criticise what we do, and we all have a rebellious child within who wants to break free! (And we need a sensible Adult to help us moderate the more off the wall ideas the free child might have 🙂 )

The model below is very simplified, for more detailed information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_analysis

Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis model of self
Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis model of ego states

Subversive graffiti

I was interested in this news story from the week, about how graffiti artists on the Homeland TV set, have subverted the show by writing negative comments about the show in Arabic graffiti!   The producers didn’t think to check it and it wasn’t uncovered until the show went out on air.   I do not know how appropriate the artists comments are, but I do applaud their creativity.


I am still thinking about how I can do some art to support the subversion theme….. no inspiration yet!   I did think that since one prominent form of subversion has been to be rude and use swear words and be generally obnoxious in order to annoy the older generation, I would subvert that by wearing T’shirts that said incredibly polite things on, like “Thank you very much” and “Golly gosh” but I see someone has been there before me!


Shopping and Subversion

I am still researching ideas about subversion and creativity, but whilst looking for something else entirely, I came across Louise Ashcroft  and I had to laugh at her very creative attempts to subvert our capitalist society and explore the concept of marketing.  Brilliant stuff.

(The featured image today is a digital piece I did a few weeks ago, called ‘Feeling Good’)

Lack of sleep taking it’s toll and the fun of research…. week 4 :)

All this unaccustomed hard work has taken it’s toll and I have a cold and a cough.  I wouldn’t mind if I could get a decent nights sleep, being up half the night just perpetuates things!

It all means that I haven’t got half as much done over the last week that I planned, but nothing I can’t catch up with.

General Art

On Saturday I delivered my five zen pieces to the Live Art Local ‘Surveillance’ exhibition at Cafe Ethos in Fareham.  I think they will look good on the wall there.

I’ve also been meeting with the curators of the solo exhibition I’ll be putting on in November at Portsmouth Guildhall.  Lots to do but great excitement as well!   I spent two mornings this week taking more pictures as although I will only be exhibiting 18, the curators want to see 30+ in order to take the decision on the final ones.   As before I have been using the mindful techniques to clear my mind and tune into the world around me.   It was this aspect of my work that particularly interested the judges and features heavily in the write up of the exhibition.

I have been missing my paints and today have been doing some watercolour doodles, trying new techniques and having a bit of fun.  I have a wedding anniversary card to make soon and plan to do something around these ideas.

Finally the life drawing wasn’t such a success this week, the room was stiflingly hot and I couldn’t concentrate, combined with being mentally and physically exhausted, my drawings were not too successful.

The featured image today is one I took in Portsmouth this week – loved the reds and the shadows of people passing me.

Subversion and creativity research

I have been having a lot of fun researching this area this week.    Where else could you start reading about Picasso, move onto his Guernica piece and end up reading a fascinating blog about the politics of cloth and the remaking of Picasso’s Guernica – by activists in the south of England?    And that led me to read about author Rozsika Parker, who I had not heard about before, she wrote some interesting books and I already have two on my list to check out when I go to the library tomorrow.

I’ve been thinking about creativity – what is it?  Are we born with it or do we learn it?   Does being creative make you a genius?   And what does all this have to do with subversion?!     After an enjoyable couple of hours I ended up reading about human evolution.   I have covered a lot of ground today!

After a shaky start, I have got into the habit of recording all my sources correctly so that I can reference them when the time comes.   I am using MS OneNote which I really like, it syncs between my PC/laptop/tablet and phone so I will always have my notes with me.    Also Charlotte on the MA recommended a neat little app for my phone called RefMe – it’s superb and makes recording everything relevant about a source a doddle (available for Android and Apple devices).

I also watched this TED talk on the life cycle of creative movements which was very interesting, especially the bit about it all breaking down once you introduce too much bureaucracy……

My proposal

I haven’t had time for much this week,  but exploration into the psyche has led me to the dark side!  Jung’s shadow side to be exact.  I have been reading about the shadow.

My photography at least is usually about shadow or reflection and it is a topic that fascinates me.   I read a beautiful little book this week that had nothing to do with art per se, more to do with Japanese aesthetics – In praise of shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki.     The author has a beautiful lyrical way of writing and even two pages about the joys of using a traditional Japanese toilet sounded romantic!

I will close with this lovely thought:

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”  Junichiro Tanizaki