The Floating Studio


Laura Skerlj

All the islands

Detached from the mainland, an island bobs in the ether, fringed in twinkling sands and palm trees that cast star-shaped respite. Beneath the fronds, a wondrous leeway opens up for visualising an everyday existence filled with more pleasure and less obligation: that holiday feeling, where the foreign time zone you are momentarily experiencing is disconnected from the one you’re used to. Here, no one knows where you are or what you are doing, and as you recline in the sun, everyone else is in another hemisphere, sleeping through the midnight of ‘real life’. As a space, this island paradise is stuck between the recollection of home and no-where: a site in ‘abstract limbo rendered earthly’.1

The artist’s studio is similarly un-anchored. It is not the insulated ‘imagination’s chamber’ of the past2, but a more flexible spatial form that moves between the zone of creation and the increasingly interiorised global world. Comparing the studio to a metaphorical island might seem anachronistic in our ‘post-studio’ context: with the rise of conceptual concerns in the 1960s and 1970s, and a weakened grip on practices like painting and sculpture, the studio as a space was seen to have ‘fallen’. Since the 1990s, these ideas have further flourished with relational and collaborative practices expanding the artists’ workplace across both localised and global networks.3 However, the contemporary studio has not disappeared by any means, and instead, covets a new definition: as Jens Hoffman suggests, ‘[instead] of talking about the end of the studio, then, perhaps we can speak of the expanded concept.’4

Today, many artists still attend the architectural space of a studio designed for spillage and solitary labour, while others prefer to check-in to the portable work site of a laptop, propped on an aeroplane tray-table, en route to their next collaboration. A great deal of artists do both. For Tacita Dean, the studio is inside the lens, and for Robert Smithson, a place in the environment. Artist Kimsooja declares, ‘I contain my projects in my body, which I find as my studio’.5 As Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice explain, the traditional notion of the studio has expanded to become any number of myriad sites ‘via both physical and virtual bases, and through the collaboration of different people with varied skills and backgrounds.’6

Whether it has physical bounds or not, the studio maintains island-like qualities. On one level, it is a microcosm with its own rules and mannerisms: an ‘is-land-like planet’.7 As described by social scientist Angus Cameron, the island is ‘a conveniently closed experimental world within which aspects of complex societies can be explored and manipulated.’Although no longer perceived as the insular realm of a virtuoso, the studio, like an island, floats outside more conventional activity while being bound to the ‘mainland’ by rebellion, information and interaction.

 

No-place

In his novel Utopia (1516) Thomas More conjured an imaginary island positioned somewhere off the coast of South America. It was circular in shape, with an indented bay on its ocean-facing side for harbouring ships. Consequently, this island was never completely isolated, having a large population, and convict slave labour sent across from the mainland: in fact, Utopia did not occur naturally, but was deliberately segregated from Abraxia—the larger ‘non-place’—by the digging of a 15 mile wide channel between the two landmasses. What the author created was an island ‘paradise’ where communal living and a lack of regulation became a visionary alternative to 16th Century Europe.

However, More’s vision was quite literally ludicrous. The Greek word ‘utopia’ joins ‘ou’ (‘not’) to ‘topos’ (‘place’) in its definition as a ‘no place’; while the story’s protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, translates to ‘speaker of nonsense’. As cultural theorist Stephen Duncombe explains, these trademarks deem More’s alternate realm absurd and unbelievable. However, it is the disruption of the reader’s reality by the possibility of this site that is meaningful: despite being situated in a no place, Utopia becomes an option or alternative to mainland society, a contradiction Duncombe describes as enabling. In turn, the impossible nature of the utopian space encourages a ‘dream politics’ for potential futures and ideas.9

The artist’s studio acts like More’s Utopia, simultaneously enclosed yet open, interactive and reactive to the outside world. As Cameron specifies, utopias are never completely hermetic, yet access to them is carefully controlled ‘so that subjects can arrive in some way (shipwrecks, plane-crashes, magical storms, kip nap, discovery, marooning) and then be cut off.’10 He describes the common feature of the experience of an island—whether the inhabitants are released, rescued, or destroyed—as transformation. What happens in this isolation produces something new: an enlightened person, an alterative society, or, in this case, a creative practice.

Therefore, as islands are not ‘passive and neutral armatures’ but ‘domains whose intrinsic remoteness both makes the experimental society possible… and actively transforms those cast upon them’11, they remain characteristic of the evolved studio. This could be the nether-space of the Internet, which enables an artist connection to infinite information and social networks via the humble armature of a laptop. Or, conversely, it could be the ostentatious, Berlin-based ‘laboratory’ of artist Olafur Eliasson (‘Studio Olafur Eliasson’), with some 70 architects, craftspeople and technicians, described as ‘a natural phenomenon in its own right, a complex and spectacular happening to be explored and experienced’12. From meagre portal to narcissistic empire, the expanded studio is a utopian interior in intimate connection with its periphery.

 

Isolation

On a map, an island is divorced from the blue space of an ocean and the patchwork mainland by a cartographic line. Although lithe, this contour establishes an important separation of spaces, delineating the modest landmass from its surrounds. Like an island, the studio is similarly microcosmic: however, in its expanded definition, has a less consistent frontier, fluctuating between innumerable forms (a room, the screen, time set aside for creative thinking). These come in contrast to the narrow definitions provided in artist Daniel Buren’s famous essay from 1971, where the studio ‘is generally a private place, an ivory tower perhaps.’13 In his critique, the author reflected on the problematic transition of the artwork from its ‘logical’ home in the studio to its isolation in the gallery environment, defining the studio as the first ‘frame’ of artistic production: ‘Of all the frames, envelopes and limits…which enclose and constitute the work of art… there is one rarely even mentioned today that remains of primary importance: the artist’s studio.’14

Despite the expansion of the studio since Buren made his critique, anxieties still fester in its prevailing isolation. Without strict hours of opening, material constraints or form, the site and its operations are motivated by the artist. For example, Shana Lutker recalls a dream: ‘[It] seemed like I spent all of my time at the studio, as if guards were conspiring to keep me there.’15 Presumably, this lack of clear limits conjures other heebie-jeebies, such as ‘Where will my next pay check come from?’ or ‘This project is failing—how can I resurrect it?’ Just as the isolation of the island-studio provides breadth for experimentation, this flipside is less pleasant, as ‘mainland’ concerns start to infiltrate: artist Michael Smith confers, ‘To this day I get nostalgic for simpler times when I waited for the muses to transport me from my studio to uncharted territory…. At some point the eager anticipation dissipated, and now only the anxiety remains.’16 In other words, the studio’s interiorised nature never assures comfort as it can effortlessly morph into an exterior attribute: as Gaston Bachelard reflected, ‘Outside and inside are both intimate—they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility.’17

 

Objects, washed ashore 

Within the studio environment, an artwork has context. Here, reference images suggest a practitioner’s motivations. Sketches show the many incarnations of a ‘finished product’. Coffee cups delete fatigue, lists proliferate, invisible blood-sweat-and-tears linger, and phone numbers act like rafts to the outside world. Maybe there’s just (Bruce Nauman’s) emptiness, or a wilted plant neglected during the artist’s final propulsion towards a deadline. This studio paraphernalia, which may also be seen as artwork (or, art-work) itself, has often been re-presented in the museum for all to see. However, as David J. Getsy commented on the exhibition of Francis Bacon’s studio in Dublin, ‘[despite] its overwhelming mess and disarray, the space is a carefully orchestrated artifice—one designed to convince us that we are seeing into the inner workings of Bacon’s workplace and by extension, his creative process.’18

If, as Buren argued, the artwork is meant for some-place-else (a gallery most likely), its time in the studio is merely an upbringing: ‘Every artwork is doomed to reside in a place where it doesn’t belong and destined to be manipulated by people it does not belong to.’19 For Buren, the chasm between the studio (island) and the outside world (mainland) is connected by a ‘hazardous passage’ where objects are ‘expelled from the ivory tower’ only to end up in another one: ‘from one enclosed place/frame, the world of the artist, to another, even more closely confined: the world of art.’20

However, although this separation still exists for some art objects, much contemporary practice hopes to erode these oppositions. For example, in technological space, gallery and studio sites overlap, as artists can both make and present their work in the same ethereal environment while encountering fewer restrictions. In another example, art theorist Lane Relyea described Seed Stage (2009)— a project where Corin Hewitt spent his days in the Whitney Museum, crafting food and art while the public watched on— as a project where these former oppositions of inside and outside, studio and museum, public and private, were ‘made continuous, as if so many conjoined and provisional states travelled through in a process of relentless conversion and transcription’ were overcome.21

 

Retreat (to and) from the mainland

As global technologies like Google Earth uncover hard-to-reach places and distant neighbourhoods, the world appears less lonely. Empty space, like that section of ocean previously envisioned as blue paper on a map, becomes ‘filled in’ with detailed visual information found on satellite imagery. The azure plane is replaced with an incalculable number of frosty wave cycles: many peaks and troughs petrified in an unending photographic frieze. In turn, our notion of an exterior begins to dissolve as global space is increasingly interiorised.

As this essential perception of what resides inside and out becomes more complicated, the metaphorical island remains lodged ‘in between’, providing an intriguing connection with the still-present artist’s studio. This is partly due to its utopian culture, where experimentation and transformation find their feet: as art critic Barry Schwabsky proposes, ‘[even] the artist who works solely with the real (rather than with illusion, imagination, or metaphor) must transform it—no longer changing paint into a painting but life into art.’22 However, it is defining a studio through some form of boundary, physical or invisible, which conjures its ‘complex spatial praxis.’23

The island-studio’s microcosmic inclination makes it a positive space for esoteric activity, and remains, as Buren reassessed in 2007, the main site of artistic production.24 However, its increasing association with the ‘mainland’ defines it as an independent exterior while simultaneously connecting it to a larger one: ‘the island functions equally well as both the model of the hermetically bounded, sovereign state and as the means of opening up its antithesis: the growing array of placeless fictional/functional xenospaces.’25 As a result, this expanded studio experiences the comfort, rebellion, experimentation and isolation of being both inside and out. In this oscillation, it departs from the confines of its historical model (which was characteristically closed) to become part of an expanded field where many evolving studio forms are connected in an archipelago of interiors.

 


1. Sudesh Mishra, “No Sign is an Island,” Emergences 10, November 2 (2000): 338.

2. Alice Bellony-Rewald and Michael Peppiatt, Imagination’s Chamber: Artists and Their Studios (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,1982).

3. Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice, “Introduction,” in The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work, ed. Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2009), 6.

4. Jens Hoffman, “Introduction: The Artist’s Studio in the Expanded Field,” in The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Jens Hoffman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012), 13.

5. Kimsooja, in The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 87.

6. Wouter and Paice, “Introduction,” 6.

7. Angus Cameron, “Splendid Isolation: ‘Philosophers’ islands’ and the reimagination of space,” Geoforum 43 (2012): 741.

8. Cameron, 741.

9. Stephen Duncombe, “Utopia is No Place: The Art and Politics of Impossible Futures”, Walker Art Centre, YouTube video, http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H8BhXKGOeeY

10. Cameron, “Splendid Isolation”, 743.

11. Cameron, “Splendid Isolation”, 741.

12. Phillip Ursprung, “Narcissistic Studio: Olafur Eliasson,” in The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work, ed. Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2009), 170-1.

13. Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Studio,” in The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Jens Hoffman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012), 83.

14.  Buren, “The Function of the Studio,” 83.

15. Shana Lutker, “Index: Dream Studio, 2003-2006,” in The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 23.

16. Michael Smith, “Recipe: Perfect Studio Day,” in The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 28.

17. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press (1994): 218.

18. David J. Getsy, “The Reconstruction of the Francis Bacon Studio in Dublin, in The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 102.

19. Wouter Davidts, “My Studio is the Place where I am (Working),” in The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work, ed. Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2009), 72.

20. Buren, “The Function of the Studio”, 85.

21. Lane Relyea, “Studio Unbound,” in The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Jens Hoffman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012), 218.

22. Barry Schwabsky, “The Symbolic Studio”, in The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 95.

23. Cameron, “Splendid Isolation”, 746.

24. Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Studio Revisited,” in The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Jens Hoffman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012).

25. Cameron, “Splendid Isolation”, 747.

Laura Skerlj is a Melbourne based artist and writer. Her art practice concerns painting and assemblage, with a conceptual interest in notions of ‘wilderness’ and...


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