Ways of Seeing Art.
Workshop – Describe with Aaron McPeake
Translation is impossible but inevitable. Plato.
This was Aaron’s opening quotation to his workshop at the Tate Modern as part of Tate Exchange.
Aaron is a visually impaired artist. Aaron had some paintings on display which he had painted in collaboration with another artist, Stephen Farthing, who had originally asked him if he wanted to paint. Aaron said that he had although he could not, based on the level of sight he has. These paintings have been done through Aaron’s description and Stephen Farthing interpreting this description and making it a reality.
The workshop highlighted that although we are all presented with the same subject to describe, we will all go about it in a very different way. We were asked to write, draw or re-create things through all the senses and it was fascinating to discover how others at my table perceived things and how their opinions varied from my own.
We were asked to either take a crisp or a raisin, taste it and eat it describing everything. I have never really thought in any detail about eating a raisin before and there’s a lot more to it when you really think about it!
My raisin was small and oval in shape, tough on the outside with little flavour when I first put it into my mouth. It was wrinkly and the wrinkles were almost twisted around the raisin. The flavour only emerges when the raisin is bitten into. Sweet with a bitter edge to it. The sweetness lingers however, when the bitterness has disappeared and remains after the raisin has been eaten, long after even the last bits of skin have been removed from my teeth.
We were then asked to sculpt the raisin using materials on the table, or draw it. I made one from a pipe cleaner, trying to convey the twisted wrinkles. My drawing was less successful, probably just a bit of a blob with a purple pen to tell you the truth! At least the pen was purple!! Anyone who knows me will be totally astounded that I am writing about the experience of eating a raisin! It’s not usually something that I would give any thought to, let alone give space on a page too. Just goes to show how we can be made to think at times.
We were then given different scents to write about. Aaron made the point that scent is very powerful in evoking memory. This is something I have experienced on many occasions in life and today was no exception. The first one I was given had base notes of patchouli but also smelt a little of joss sticks and incense. However, other notes were prevalent and I was taken back to a time at school when I had a sprained wrist which was taped up in Elastoplast.
The second example we were given was very obviously Jasmine, which a few of us around the table recognised. Possibly other white petals included as well. This immediately reminded me of a hotel I had stayed in some years ago in Italy which had a huge Jasmine hedge outside the front of the building. We used to sit out there each evening chatting over the day’s events in the warm air, and the Jasmine scent today took me right back there.
The third scent had somewhat woody base notes and reminded me of those shops you go into that sell incense and wind chimes. It wasn’t a smell I enjoyed and I didn’t linger over it long. However, the same scent brought back very pleasant memories for one of the group who was taken back to a time of a very enjoyable holiday in Morocco. As I write this I am reflecting that it is interesting that two of us related scents to holidays. Maybe we are more receptive to all our senses when on holiday with time to really think about them.
Description. Our next task was aimed at the sighted members of the group. They were given a picture and a performance to describe. Two of our group took the opportunity to describe these to me. It was interesting that two people looking at the same things could see them and interpret them differently.
There was a screen showing a train table and reflections of what was passing the window. One person described it to me as blurry, like a powder puff effect, caused by the grubby surface of the table. The other person said it made her want to lay her head on the table to sleep. Two very different interpretations of the same image.
The performance was a woman who walked into the room, tall with platform boots. Long clothes with sleeves over her hands. A hood over her face, covering it completely. The woman sits perfectly still and upright, cross legged on a thin mattress. the fabric looks more like furniture fabric, possibly dating back to the 70s or 80s. Both describers felt uncomfortable describing her, feeling for her perceived discomfort and claustrophobia.
We were asked to touch several objects on the table which Aaron had made, but not look.
There was a large metal bowl, very thick at the bottom which made it weighty. The surface had an orange peel texture to it. There was also an almost bell shaped object with the same texture. This was again very heavy and suspended on cord from a ring at the top. There were two spoons also made from the same metal which was described by Aaron as crispy bronze, meaning that the crystals making it up are very small. This is the same bronze that is used for casting church bells. the first spoon had a long handle and small rounded bowl. The second, which I really loved as it was pleasing to hold was an exact replica of the type of wooden spoon that most of us have in our kitchens, but which was very heavy and highly polished. I am always drawn to shiny polished things!
Finally, we were invited to tap the bowls and also some bells, with either metal or wood, listening to the sounds they made. This I couldn’t wait to do as I’d already tried it earlier in the workshop and been politely asked by Aaron to wait for later. I can’t resist making sounds with things! Many of the items were very resonant and had overtones or different notes in the same way that church bells do. The sound varied in tone depending on how hard the object was struck, how large or small it was, and was also dependant on what type of material had been used to strike it.
The overwhelming thing I took away from this workshop, and also from a small part of Liz Porter’s workshop which I was unable to attend in its entirety, is that two people seeing the same object or picture often see totally different things or interpret them very differently. Also, when describing from touch, qualities will be observed that someone looking will not have identified.
To read more about Aaron McPeake, go to http://www.aaronmcpeake.com/index.htm