Understandable Artwork at Dundee Contemporary Arts

Artists Kate V Robertson and Andrew Lacon will show this month in Dundee Contemporary Arts, and they share a commitment to engaging non-art audiences that's shared by new Dundee Contemporary Arts curator Eoin Dara

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 07 Dec 2017

A new pair of solo exhibitions open in Dundee Contemporary Arts this month. They mark not only the final gallery projects of the year, but also the first shows programmed with the new curator Eoin Dara. Speaking to him in advance of the opening, along with the artists Kate V Robertson and Andrew Lacon, there are obvious threads of a shared commitment to the importance of openness and accessibility in curating and making artwork.

Visiting Robertson’s studio, she refers to a scale model of DCA when describing the parts of This Mess is Kept Afloat, as her upcoming solo show is titled. One part of her installation will be a floorwork, which is comprised of concrete casts of food containers laid on the floor like slabs. There will also be resin casts of corrugated metal hanging from the ceiling that delicately change the light in the room, large works made from metal mesh, and a room with a floor of sand made from ground egg shells.

Speaking of the title as an insight into the work, Robertson describes it as speaking to a sense of environmental and economic precarity that underlies the day-to-day sense of routine and stability that some people are presently able to enjoy. For example, another work in the show directly considers the ambivalent ideas of technological dematerialisation – storing files in the cloud, and condensing several gadgets into one – that is nevertheless accompanied by the constant and toxic junk of rapidly obsolete phones and computers.

In a small room that’s usually walled-up, she plans to put in a mechanism that holds a polystyrene form that will be spinning very quickly and look like a cloud. “You’ll look through a little aperture, into a small cube-like room tiled in blue,” she explains. “The tiles are [pieces of] unexposed photographic paper in the format of 6x4 snapshots.” When it stops, it’s clear that it’s a lump of polystyrene. Thus the visual illusion of lightness and immateriality gives way to the reality of the non-degradable material that sustains it.

As well as visual illusion, another important feature of the works is that they are designed to gradually change over the course of the show, whether from exposure to light (in the case of the photographic paper) or like the eggshells and concrete casts that will be walked over by the audience. “You can come on the first day of the show, [but] later on it will be something else. Sometimes that means it will be broken, because there’s a fragility to the works.” Part of this approach is traced by Robertson not training initially as a sculptor, and often not necessarily going by the book when it comes to methods and materials. Bypassing a schooling in conventional formalities, she also finds it easier to position herself away from an overemphasis on the value of a pristine finish.

Instead, Robertson’s measures of a successful artwork are grounded in being able to communicate complicated impressions and senses, without necessarily relying on a presumption of the audience having an extensive artistic background. Reflecting on the kinds of decisions that she makes when putting work together, Robertson questions whether exhibition audiences will be able to engage thoughtfully and meaningfully “without any historical knowledge or artistic training.” She goes on to reflect on the kinds of “recognisable” forms and materials she uses – “I almost never make abstract work. It always looks like something or it’s directly cast from something.” There’s a sense that direct engagement (standing on the work itself), optical illusions and elements like movement are all intended to draw audiences using impactful and relatable visual and material cues.

Though interviewed separately, Robertson’s parallel solo exhibitor Andrew Lacon speaks of some of the same preoccupations and principles with how to draw in an audience that Robertson describes. Lacon will also be working on the floor, with a work “which will take up the whole of Gallery 1. It’s 50 slabs of coloured terrazzo that are about four foot square, so they’re made from marble chippings, cement and pigments.” Together, they’ll make up a geometric design or pattern.

“The idea is people will actually walk on it.” This has implications for Lacon on the hierarchy of the artwork. “When you step on the artworks, it instantly destroys that feeling that, ‘Oh, I can’t touch this.’” This subversion of expectations is continued in Lacon’s relationships with the associations of marble as a sculptural and decorative material. Having worked with marble for a while, Lacon sets out to find the material when it is at its least lofty. Though the marble is more often associated with antiquity and classical artworks, Lacon makes a point of working with “offcuts or broken parts, or marble that’s intended to be worktops.” He’s drawn to terrazzo, as it’s made from the waste of the larger scale cuttings for bespoke countertops, “so it’s all waste that’s being used to make this luxury object.”

He also speaks of some of the strangeness of using industrial methods for a fine art context. Though he describes “not overtly talking about class,” he still tracks moments of reflection on his place as an artist from a working-class background. “I’m casting concrete for an artwork, which is [quite]… bourgeoisie and has no tangible value.” Something he’s also aware of, is wanting to avoid “putting people off… It’s not just about the material but if people can interact with the work. [In this case] people can stand on it and touch and understand marble the material. It’s not like going to the V&A when you can’t touch the artworks on the wall.”

Robertson and Lacon both speak in different ways about opening out their art to audiences from the widest range of backgrounds. New DCA curator Eoin Dara speaks about their respective approaches proudly: “I think Kate and Andrew are wonderful examples of that kind of practice that is deeply sophisticated, nuanced and layered, but at the same time Kate and Andrew in different ways are hyper-aware of audiences and wanting to be generous and open and welcoming with their works. They are the kind of artists that we will continue to work with in the DCA, that strike that balance between really rigorous, intelligent work that wants to speak to as wide an audience as possible.”

In this way, the artists’ practices correspond with some of the features of the DCA that Dara identifies as exceptional. “DCA as an organisation or institution feels like much more of a public, civic space than I have felt in an arts organisation in quite a long time.” He speaks also about “how strongly the people of Dundee feel about the [DCA], a sense of ownership and a desire to know what we’re up to within. This is hard won, that’s not easy to cultivate within an institution that has the phrase 'contemporary art' within its name and with all the exclusive or difficult or inaccessible associations that contemporary art has. DCA has carved out a unique position within Dundee and Scotland.”

It’s for this reason that Dara thinks of the show as evidencing his commitment to contributing as far as possible to the priorities, practices and structures that have existed in DCA since 1999. He sums up one particular impetus of his career and something that the DCA has been working towards for a long time: “that deceptively simple democratic idea that art is for everyone and should be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone and challenge everyone.”

This Mess is Kept Afloat by Kate V Robertson and Fragments by Andrew Lacon will run from 9 Dec-25 Feb