Saturday, 13 November 2010

Is this a plant sale, or is this art?

Today I visited Kettle's Yard gallery in Cambridge for the penultimate day of an exhibition of the art of American composer John Cage, 'Every Day is a Good Day'. It's been ages since I was last in Kettle's Yard, and that's a scandal - I always have a great time when I'm there, whatever the exhibition, and this visit was no different.  More about Cage in a bit, but first, I have to share what is probably one of the oddest things that has ever been said to me in a gallery (or anywhere else, for that matter):
'Take a pot plant. Listen to the plant.* Don't do what you want to do, do what the plant wants.  Find out where in the exhibition it wants to go, and put it there.'
'query' by jenny downing on Flickr
'query' by jenny downing on Flickr

Laid out on a table were a range of pot plants - some herbs, some succulents, some grassy, some bushy - looking for all the world like a stall at a church fete.  But these weren't for sale; they were all waiting for someone to take them, to listen to them, and to home them somewhere in the gallery.  And, true enough, the minimalist spaces of the gallery were bedecked with plants - some right next to paintings, some in the middle of spaces, some tucked into corners, some nestling in each other's foliage, some with notes attached explaining that their true home was half way up that wall or on the ceiling.

The plant-placing was organised by McCormack+Gent, artists in residence at Kettle's Yard for a few days in October and November (I think they said they'd be back in a fortnight).  It's part of their current project 'Dumb Fixity'.  As well as homing vegetation, participants were asked to 'debrief' by rating themselves, their plant, and the exhibition on a number of sliding scales such as 'listening....hearing', 'handled...managed' and 'emotional...logical'. I can't claim to quite understand what the artists' description of the project means, not being very good at art-speak, but I must admit that I really rather enjoyed the experience of wandering round the gallery, plant in hand, considering its spiky greenness in conjunction with Cage's abstract, and generally somewhat brownish, works.

Did my plant speak to me?  No.  Or, if it did, I didn't hear it.  But I did manage to convince myself that there were places in which it would be happier, and places in which it would be less happy.  I didn't, for example, feel satisfied placing it near my definite favourite pieces in the exhibition - they were in a quiet side room, and I honestly thought that my plant would prefer to be somewhere busier where it could listen to and watch passers by. What this says about me, I'm not sure.

'Silencers - Prepared piano' by svennevenn on Flickr
Cage also wrote music for prepared piano.
'Silencers - Prepared piano' by svennevenn on Flickr

The main exhibition showed over 100 drawings, etchings, prints and paintings by Cage (1912-1992), known best as the composer of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, and the sort of music in which a throw of the dice determines what you play.  He turned to the visual arts late in life, and the works displayed in this exhibition all date from his last 15 years.  They were apparently created using chance in a similar way to his compositions, although I didn't manage to find out anything about the mechanics of that, sadly.  The works were also hung in the gallery according to the operations of chance, and were rehung three times throughout the exhibition's run.  The pictures were all over the place - at floor level, near the ceiling, clustered together, and leaving large areas of empty wall - and they had no captions accompanying them, only numbers (these referred to a handlist detailing title, media, date, etc.).

As at the Sainsbury Collection, it was fun to look for links between nearby pieces.  Several of the works looked to me rather like sketched maps, which reminded to think about sending something to the Hand Drawn Map Association.  Number 87, 'Soul of One Foot for Collection of Ray Kass' (1989), looked like (and I assume probably was) a shoe print in black ink.  Number 51, 'Eninka' (1986), was made from 'Smoked and branded monotype printed on gampi paper chine collĂ©', a description that doesn't really do the brownish-rust coloured markings justice.

My runaway favourite was numbers 6 to 12, 'Seven Day Diary (Not Knowing)' (1978), all hung together in a row, inconveniently just a bit too high for me too get a good look. I've a soft spot for etchings, it's true, but these were lovely. The first one was black ink on paper, and the rest were increasingly embellished with various other media and other colours. You can see them in this picture - the run of seven in a row half-way up the near wall.  There wasn't a postcard of them, of course.  There never is...

So, in summary,  Kettle's Yard is great.  Go there.  Tomorrow if you can before the Cage exhibition closes (it's on tour, so you can also catch it later in Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea).  Or a fortnight today if you want to play with plants.  Or just whenever you can.

*Fans of Doonesbury might, at this juncture, be thinking of Zonker Harris but I can assure you that it wasn't *that* kind of pot plant.


  1. Love this review, much better than what I wrote after my rushed visit;
    I love Kettle's Yard and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. @Frangipan, thank you! My visit was quite rushed too (I, live you, went right at the end of the exhibition). It never fails to amaze, though, how much less rushed I feel after a visit to Kettles Yard.