Wide Open School at the Hayward Gallery
Review by Gloriana Riggioni
It is a common misconception to think that the study of art is what makes a good artist. Sure enough, to be acquainted with the history, symbolic language and techniques of the field helps an artist to understand why and how certain practices are deemed ‘good art’ - all artwork is best appreciated with knowledge of its context. When it comes to the creation of new art, however, the context, as much as the form, is something as yet to be discovered and explored. It is therefore the artist’s acquaintance with the world that takes precedence during the creative process: body, neighbourhood, culture and counterculture, the living planet, the cosmos and beyond; it all forms part of a rich weave of experience, against which the study of past and current art forms is but a limited subject. Defined as it is by constant reinvention, artistic production relies on original observation of the context; original thinking and experimentation that unmask or subvert in some way the fabric of the world. There is consequently no amount of acquaintance with techniques or art history that can substitute a genuine impulse to explore.
If one may be so bold as to suggest a possible outcome where (deliberately) none have been prescribed, the experiment currently taking place at the Hayward Gallery is at the point of laying bare once and for all the above misconception. The Wide Open School is no exercise in didactics, nor does it have an active focus in the subject of art per se; yet for the space of one month between mid June and mid July, the general public will have the chance to become intimately acquainted with the production of some of the most interesting art on offer. More than 100 artists (including household names such as Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, as well as a wide variety of national and international faces) have been charged with the task of conveying to their audience the full extent of their creative process, the result of which is as far and wide a mélange of human pursuits as ever was found under one roof.
From straight forward talks to fully immersive happenings, each ‘lesson’ marks the opening of a direct channel between artists and viewers which allows everyone involved to take part in an inventive journey through their field of choice. According to Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Gallery, “you certainly don’t need to be interested primarily in the arts; most of the classes are about other subjects – from mountaineering to meditation, from high finance to critiques of capitalism. And perhaps the most important content will be learning about the different ways that artists approach a subject, how they develop ideas and raise unexpected questions. ” It is thus a journey which spans its subject from the initial quest for knowledge, the resulting inspiration and creative impulses, down to the active execution of artwork.
If nothing else, the project does seem to be experimental in the full sense of the word. “Everyone involved is embarking on some kind of learning adventure that doesn’t have a set outcome” is a premise which easily deflects the often expressed scepticism towards the way large institutions tend to prescribe the viewer’s experience of art. “The viewers realise that their responses to the work are a crucial part of its content. So rather than shaping the public’s experience, we really are trying to make that experience as open-ended as it can be.” Speaking during the second ‘school night’, and captivating an audience of several dozens with his characteristically metaphysical approach, Antony Gormley laid out his take on this process of engagement with regards to his own work: “If sculpture is the action of will on substance to transform it into representation, then through the notion of co-production the viewer reattaches meaning to the matter. It’s the real: the first hand experience of the world.”
Perhaps a mark of this experimental nature is the difficulty experienced in defining the whole event. Is it one big happening or a series of them? Is it theory, practice, or a whole new conceptual beast altogether? And given the highly democratic arrangement within some of the lessons, who, ultimately, is the artist? It is evident that giving it a name tag would do the ‘wide open’ essence of the whole affair a disservice. However, this does not preclude conjecture as to what its stance within the purpose of art might be: “One of the traits that art is often celebrated for is its capacity to change the way we see things, and think about things. Wide Open School can hopefully do something similar without the mediation of art objects.”
In true Renaissance style, an incessant pursuit of knowledge and experience of the world return to be the driving force of inventiveness and originality. Call it art, or simply human creativity, the Wide Open School is no more and no less than an opportunity to explore, to engage, to become inspired.