It is well known that Pablo Picasso dated each of his works and considered them an authentic form of diary. He was open about how he considered his work to be a form of research into human creativity. Via the dating system and continuing scholarly interest, his creative process is visible and open to investigation and interrogation. Perhaps the clearest and most beautiful example of this are the 11 Taureau lithographs he executed in 1945-46 which depict the evolution of a more or less realistic drawing of a bull through various stages into a highly pared down bull image executed with just a few lines. 1
In contrast making the creative process visible can be an anathema to some artists who capitalise on the polished and refined nature of their finished pieces; many would not want their sketches, mistakes or lesser works made visible if there was a danger of any negative impact on their perceived skill and reputation.
One thinks also of David Hockney's research into the methods and in particular the optical aids of European painters between the 15th and 19th centuries, and the obsessive secrecy which shrouded their techniques. 2 Optical aids enabled painters of this period to produce portraits and other images with a high level of accuracy in depicting the appearance of their subjects and hence a two dimensional realism which was otherwise virtually impossible. In many ways they anticipated photography by several hundred years. To a large part their secrecy went along with the culture and practises of the Guilds of which painters were members and the Hermetic tradition which the Guilds participated in. Secrets ranged from practical ones of techniques and recipes to the more obscure involving secret knowledge and its revelation, a process in which their practical actions were part. Secrets were both a commercial necessity to protect jobs, prices and exclusivity and a shrouding of the greatest truths to which not all were suitable to witness, and indeed were thought to cause great danger in the hands of the ignorant or the unworthy.
Perhaps what both examples demonstrate is an enduring fascination with the creative process, a desire to know and understand how creative minds and groups function. In pop music the resource of the available recordings of almost every studio session of groups such as the Beatles, Beach Boys and Pink Floyd has recently lead to the publication of compilations and box sets which include numerous polished and unpolished demos and early mixes of songs, showing how the kernel of an idea would appear and evolve toward the final recording. Notably the artists let 30 or more years pass from the recordings' initial release, ensuring that their reputations were sufficiently firm before revealing the skeletons, perhaps also waiting for their original fan base to reach an average level of wealth where investment in such expensive and indulgent compilations was an easy choice.
Exquisite Whispers was inspired by my own fascination with this process and a parallel interest in how images and other visual media evolve in their repetition and re-iteration, across long periods of history. Certain symbols can be of great importance in one era, but slide into the background, disappear or change their meaning in later periods. Just because something is repeated and given status or prominence does not of course mean that its previous meaning in all its depth is completely understood. One thinks of the survival of classical symbols and their mutation into forms in the neo-classical period and beyond as the most obvious example.
Anyone approaching art from a symbolic point of view today, if they so choose can immerse themselves in a wealth of scholarship covering most of the known significant representations of the past and can make themselves aware of the precedents and symbolic antecedents for a huge range of topics and subjects.
This doesn't mean that they necessarily do this research, but it does create a climate where the ability to make reference to earlier periods and to see new works within a deeper cultural context is a given. Perhaps contemporary art's predeliction for the banal in the everyday life of the 21st century is a response to this and a way to unload this curatorial weight, the nightmare of history from which we are forever trying to awake.
In this context 'Exquisite Whispers' creates its own tradition, a tradition which is self-obscured and within which its participants may with clear conscience and open hearts take 3 days to scratch around in the work of their predecessor and wonder what they were meaning to say or what now invisible stimulus prompted them to those choices of design, colour or medium. My hope is that the project and the responses to it provide some insight into the creative process of individuals working within the greater context.
Why an elephant?
In such a context it is reasonable to ask why is the first subject an elephant? Everything has potential for meaning whether we desire it or not.
I was initially intrigued by the idea of a complex scene such as a street or a cafe as the opening image but subsequently decided that I would prefer to reduce my authorship and eventually settled on something more singular and in some ways reminiscent of Picasso's bull. Whilst not wanting to ape Picasso I could see that a large animal figure created scope for pictorial development, and an elephant's physiogonomy offered much potential for this. There is a long tradition of elephants appearing in stories and images throughout human history plus they have significance as the largest land mammals and are put to work for humans in peace and war.
Elephants are both exotic and seemingly familiar, we encounter them most often perhaps in our use of expressions such as 'the elephant in the room' and 'white elephants'. I particularly enjoyed reading how elephants in childrens' stories tend to embody exemplary human behaviour. I also liked the famous story of the blind men and the elephant which I first encountered at a Buddhist centre in Berlin. The way that the blind men's investigations of the diversity of the elephant's features becomes a metaphor for acknowledging the subjectivity of all our experience had a nice parallel with the way the project was to function and the enforced blinkers each person would wear, only seeing the previous image in the series.
Robert Nisbet, Jan. 2015
1 The series of images has also been used by the Apple Corporation as a paradigm for improvement through simplification in product design as part of the training of their design staff at the Apple University.
2 David Hockney, Secret Knowledge, Thames & Hudson, London 2001