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Artist in Residence at Lycée Georges Pompidou (UK) (2020)

Nos memoires partagées.

Like everyone across the globe I am confined to my home due to a microorganism. The world has changed, possibly forever. One could argue that time stands still, on pause, until the manic activity of the world’s population resumes. My residence at the lycee Lycée Georges Pompidou ended weeks prior to the french lockdown, a confinement which has given me uninterrupted time to recollect my thoughts and stimulate my memory as to what happened during my five weeks at the Lycee GP. It will be interesting to see how the world collectively remembers the several months that followed.

During the five weeks as artist in residence at the Lycée Georges Pompidou, myself, the students, the teachers, the college Le Cres and pensioners from l’EPHAD shared personal, collective, national, international and universal memories, using photographs, accompanying anecdotes and group discussions around my own work.
I wanted to demonstrate through my own work and eventually a collaborative installation with the students, the importance of memory in our lives. Today’s generation immortalise instants in the palms of their hands at all times. However, despite being at their fingertips, their memories elusively glide by in a complex web of impersonal pixels, possibly hindering their relationship with their past – their memories.

I opened the residence on the 24th september 2019 with an exhibition focusing on my personal work over the last ten years. I selected several large format paintings that connected with history and memory : Guernica, The inauguration of Obama, Martyrs, Dictators and my own personal life. An installation called Ghostwalkers which focuses on the plight of Syrian refugees was at the centre of the show.
Seven hundred or more students, teachers, and pensioners from the local EPHAD, came to view this exhibition, often for an hour a time. In some cases, teachers had their own projects planned and used the exhibition as a discussion point for their own ongoing class work. Their written accounts in particular, written spontaneously on site or back in the classroom, were clear evidence that younger generations have informed and rich opinions on art.
I had never talked in such detail or so openly debated my work before, so this was a very welcome and enriching experience, using my work to discuss a variety of issues, particularly with the younger generation who are often less inhibited and youthfully inquisitive.

At the end of each tour, I invited volunteers to work with me on a collaborative exhibition called ‘Living Room’ which would close the residence. The fifty students who signed up were asked to find existing photographs from home. I hoped this would lead to family discussions about their own, often hidden, histories. I was not expecting the flow of eclectic photographs and accompanying anecdotes that ensued. Fascinating and sometimes tragic personal histories and tales from around the globe were revealed, in many cases linked with major historical events and personalities. The Russian Revolution, The Spanish Civil War, The Second World War, Vichy France, La Resistance, The Algerian War, The Holocaust, Immigration, to name a few. Others were simply personal family photographs that held their own value.

Once we had collated the photographs, I encouraged the students to paint interpretations of these photographs (sometimes directly from their phones) onto biscuit porcelain, a method I’ve been working on for several years.
During an atelier in the CDI at the lycee which lasted just over a week, I demonstrated to the students how to paint onto the porcelain, using black and cobalt oxides. The results were later fired in a kiln. This was not a mission to replicate or copy their photographs but an exercise in projecting their memories onto a porcelain support, a material which, once fired, never decays. To avoid a detailed illustrative approach, I asked them to used cotton buds instead of brushes. This method softens edges offering slightly blurred results, thereby denying detail, like memory itself can do.
It takes courage to create, to expose one’s expression before an audience but every student took up the challenge and produced fascinating, beautiful and moving results. Some chose images of loved ones, in some cases lost to illness or age, others chose images of relatives they had never met. One story particularly moved me. A scan of a photograph on a student’s phone of a family group standing in front of a roulotte in the early 1930s. They were a travelling Roma family of actors and entertainers – ancestors he had never met. They had been exterminated during the Holocaust and he had only recently learnt about their fate. His painting on porcelain of this image from an era he’d only studied in history books was undeniably powerful.
By the end of the atelier week, we had produced sixty four works on porcelain and several hundred preparatory paintings on card. A powerful and meaningful body of work.

For the remaining part of the residence, I planned to construct and eventually exhibit the installation ‘Living Room’ with the help of the students in the Salle Polyvalente at the Lycee. Emmaüs kindly donated all the furniture and various objects which we selected during a visit to Emmaüs Vendargues. The aim was to create an installation that resembled a typical living room. A domestic, intimate space comprising of used furniture and items that one might find in any home. Their work on porcelain would then be integrated within this living room, embedded in furniture, slipped between pages of books, balanced on an ornament, nestled within a shoe and so on. Our aim was to demonstrate that memory exists within everything around us, not solely within the frame of an image – after all a worn shoe bears evidence of many steps.

I invited my friend and regular collaborator, the composer James S. Taylor, to participate in the residence. James in turn, invited the students to also consider the memory of sound and record, with their phones, sounds from home or their daily lives. All sounds were welcome – a purring cat, a printer printing, the knocking on a classroom door, a granny leaving her message on an answering machine, people laughing, someone singing…anything that caught their ears! With the contributed sound files, James composed a multi-channeled soundscape that played in and around the installation itself. It was an all-enveloping audio installation which occupied the entire space with random sounds provided by the students. It was immediately clear that the audio memory was as vital as the visual memory and that together they could provide a powerful effect – Living Room.

A further five hundred and fifty visited this show, including a second visit from EPHAD and two visits from Le Cres college, one of whom had worked on an interesting project with their art teacher using a photograph of me as source material.
Again, we did tours of this second show and discussed the results openly. Though this time, their angle of analysis had shifted given they had all, in a way, been involved in its creation from start to finish.

I had approached this project as I would a personal work and was both intrigued and delighted with the results. This collaboration had the power to clearly move viewers without submerging them into nostalgia. We had effectively created a platform for collective memory, a myriad of personal moments bought together into one Living Room. The students, I hope, appreciated working alongside an artist and participating in the creation of a work of art that involved their own personal memories. It is possible that during this unprecedented period of confinement in our homes due to Covid 19, the students and visitors to Living Room might now reflect on their surroundings in a different light. To pass the time, they might even take out an old worn photograph album from a bottom drawer and refresh their memories.

Thank you to all the students and staff at Lycee GP for your hospitality and trust.

CB 08/04/2020