'Protest Crowd, Tokyo 2012' ( No. 25, Version 2, 2013 )
38 x 50 cm, ink on paper
1 unique drawing for MATERIAL
Price: Sold out
Art Making: Memory, Work and Practice
My grandmother lived high in the Dublin Mountains, overlooking the city. We called her the Mountain Granny. She was fragile - undiagnosed Alzheimer's had begun to alter her already chaotic lifestyle. Tall, thin, angular, and incredibly spare; she wore cardigans and pencil skirts; which made her look as if she were an aging model from the twenties. Her gray hair was pulled back into a scant bun at the back of her head. Looking back, I think she was quite beautiful, but then I just thought of her as strange. She was not unkind - I think she liked us, her grandchildren, but always seemed distracted. I was seven or eight when I went to stay with her, with my father and younger sister.
At that stage she had three or four dogs. These dogs ruled the house, and could go anywhere and do anything. They were Yorkshire terriers, hairy and small. I was slightly frightened of dogs, and the sound of their scratchy paws on the green linoleum in the kitchen unnerved me. I also hated the smell of continually cooking dog meat that leaked out of the kitchen and permeated through the house. Apart from that, it was fun to be there. My sister and I got to eat a great deal of cake and biscuits. Confectionery was my grandmother's main form of nutrition, cooking was only for the dogs. We could roam around the house, poking into fascinating drawers packed with treasures, and racing or rolling down the steep hill with a pond at the bottom. And, there was no school, a huge bonus.
The first evening we were there, we got ready for bed. My sister and I were sharing a double bed in one of the front rooms, overlooking the city. The bed was made up with pristine white linen sheets, feather pillows and wool blankets. My grandmother might have been losing life skills, but she could still make a bed beautifully. We had brushed our teeth, and stood in long flannel nighties, waiting to get into bed. My father pulled back the top sheet and blankets, revealing an expanse of flat white sheet, pulled tight to the edges of the mattress. It looked a bit like a huge sheet of white paper. Then my eyes started to play tricks on me—the sheet was moving—as if suddenly animated or activated in some magical way. I stared and stared. The movement sharpened into tiny black dots, appearing and disappearing. There were hundreds or thousands of these dots, being switched on and off. I was fascinated. We all stood in silence for a few seconds, seconds that seemed like minutes because the vision was so strange and shocking. Then my brain clicked; it was exquisite, I knew what it really was. Fleas, horrible fleas, had infested the bed. They were jumping up and down, alarmed by the sudden light, appearing and disappearing as they landed for a millisecond on the white sheet. Already the tiny black dots were dissolving, seeking the darkness and shelter of the inner covers. My sister and I were horrified—there was nowhere else to sleep, and it would take hours to drive home. My father would never have dreamt of leaving —fleas had been a familiar part of his childhood – although their numbers had increased exponentially since then. He found an old can of flea powder, sprinkled it on the bed, and tried to assure us in a pragmatic way that dog fleas didn't bite humans.
Not wanting to get into bed, I stared out the window for hours. Convinced by the omnipresent power of the flea powder my younger sister was asleep already, and there was just one small light beside the bed. At night, back in our home, the blackness was complete. There were no lights visible from the window in our house, but you could often see the land, lit up by the moon and the stars. Here, in my grandmother's house, the world looked altogether different. The orange lights of the city bleached the sky into an overall luminous orange purple color. The view was like nothing I had ever seen before. During the day you saw a far away misty grey structure. By night, you could see the whole city spread out, it was a long narrow spread, foreshortened, with the blackness of the sea behind, and an expanse of sky above. The lights held me. There were thousands and thousands of white lights, which seemed to blink on and off. They indicated occupation, and possibility. They held still, and moved, became more yellow, disappeared, and reappeared. The lights were transfixing, contained by the sea, and the sky, and the expanse of forest that crawled down the mountain, providing a foreground to the vista.
I don't remember the rest of the trip. I must have slept in the bed later, beside my sister. My father was dealing with the fragmenting of my grandmother's mind, and the physical and practical consequences. At that stage, her mental ability to live alone was fracturing around the edges: food went rotten in the fridge, dogs roamed the house, and meals were forgotten. Later, her life became filled with enlarging black holes of incomprehension and confusion, requiring the structuring, help, and comfort of others. She came to live with us shortly afterwards and her mind became like a camera without film – recording but not remembering.
I had forgotten this combination of memories, until I was sitting in my studio recently working on a particularly detailed drawing. Brian Doherty said in a recent talk that while drawing, one becomes particularly absent from oneself, specifically while working on something repetitive. I recognized what he said; there is a particular distance from oneself that takes hold while drawing or painting—which allows a different, less cogent kind of mental activity take place. Work comes from working. While my brush or pencil touches the white paper, laboriously constructing an image, my mind clicks along, touching on memories and ideas, almost as if I were asleep, and not in control of my consciousness. Sometimes I can grab at some of these mental punctuations, as I did with the memory of the visit to my grandmother, and try and turn it into a real, solid thing; a piece of text, a sculpture, a proposal. They become a piece of work. At other times, the thoughts or visual snapshots fragment and cannot be grasped or caught.
There is a sheet of white paper on the table in front of me. On it is a square, and contained within the square is the image of a crowd, seen from above and hemmed in by buildings and walls. This is number twenty five of a series of one hundred drawings. I am a quarter way through this project. I work slowly, painstakingly representing the city's buildings, bridges and roads first. It takes hours. My neck aches. I stop and make coffee. I dip the tiny paintbrush in the black ink, and dab the ink on a spare working page in order to get the correct density of black that is required. I do this again and again and again. The working page becomes deeply covered by the test lines, resembling a monochrome field. I am so absorbed by the practical task that I almost forget what I am doing.
After the structure of the city, comes the crowd. I have rules, which are followed for every piece. The crowd starts at the back, at the furthest distance from the eye of the camera, when each person is just a minute dot, or a blur of grey. Here is the fracturing, the edge of the crowd, where there is no containment, and no line of building. It is an uncertain space. As, I work through the crowd towards the centre, the image darkens, and becomes more dense. The image is stationary, but there is a sense of animation in the multiplicity of tiny marks. Depending on the nature and angle of the image, sometimes there is figuration in the foreground of the crowd. When I am close to finishing a piece, most important is the balance between black and white. This tonal balance, often has no relation to the original photographic image, and is about making the image ‘right'. The image will not function, it cannot become an autonomous thing, until this is correct. Memory, for me, is always in black and white, the blacks becoming denser with elevated levels of emotion, doubt or belief.
Melded into this one particular image are a whole series of preoccupations, the beliefs of thousands: anger, and memories. My images come from real moments in time, from real places, from when thousands of people came together to protest, at an injustice, or an entire regime, perhaps railing against the taking of a single life. And, there in this place—one person, capturing an image, with one click of a lens.
Joy Gerrard is an Irish born artist who lives and works in London. She graduated with an MA from the Royal College of Art, London in 2001, and an MPhil. from the same institution in 2007. Gerrard is known for multimedia work that investigates different systems of relations between crowds, architecture and the built environment. Her practice spans from film work to large public sculptures.
Her current studio practice centres upon a three year project (2010-13) entitled Seasons/Spaces/Multitudes; 100 drawings. This series of one hundred monochrome ink and pencil drawings reproduces a selection of contemporary media photographs. In each, the protesting crowd is contained within the built environment and overviewed consistently from above. Through repeated visual description of a contained, politicised human multiplicity, Gerrard foregrounds discomforting tensions between witnessing and participation, spectacle and event, media imagery and artistic representation.