Opening of In Pursuit of Leisure

Here is the opening statement from Dr. Ed Krčma of History of Art, UCC. The full text is below.

Dr. Ed Krčma

I was delighted to have been asked to say a few words to open this excellent exhibition by Stephanie Hough, In Pursuit of Leisure, presented by Pluck Projects. Previously I’d known Stephanie as the engine behind the impressive Basement Project Space, an artist-run initiative in operation here in Cork between 2009 and 2012; but it is more satisfying still to have the chance to see a full presentation of her own work, and especially one that has been so carefully and intelligently put together. So I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few initial ideas concerning the exhibition; and for some more developed and substantial commentaries, you should all make sure to acquire one of the limited edition catalogues with essays by Kerstin Fest and Sarah Kelleher, as well as a statement by Stephanie herself.

Stephanie Hough takes as her object of inquiry the subject of leisure: its appeal, its demands, its supplements, its conventions. Hough appropriates existing images and signs, and for this body of work she has sourced numerous instructional VHS tapes from thrift stores, as well as tag-lines from more recent IKEA catalogues, and images from gardening books.

Hough appropriates found signs and materials rather than using art as a space to invent ex nihilo or as a vehicle for self-expression. Some artistic skills are abandoned, therefore, while other newer ones are cultivated. Indeed, Hough’s work is full of the evidence of precise decision-making: regarding the selection of source materials; the scale and duration of the resulting pieces; the removal of the audio dialogue and the preservation of other more creaturely noises (something that you will probably find difficult to appreciate in the noisy atmosphere of a private view); and the precise cuts and jolts made in the continuity of the instructional narrative.

The results offer up a cast of characters and scenarios that are as comic as they are ominous, as zany and maniacal as they are imploring and sympathetic. Witness a particularly creepy and joyless invitation to flower arranging; or the frankly sexual gasps, sighs and grunts of our meditating new agers; or the fixated and spasmodic clappings and smiles of an apparently unbalanced keep fit instructor!  The removal of comprehensible dialogue in favour of a kind of creaturely residue of communication makes the weirdness of being hailed by these dubious ciphers all the more comic and unnerving.

There are certainly shadows cast by important art historical precedents here: Dada works of the 1910s and 20s, Situationist strategies of détournement from the 1950s and 60s, Pop Art appropriations from the 1960s, and the thoroughgoing interrogations of advertising and popular media by Pictures Generation artists in the late 1970s and 1980s. Hough takes a place within a coherent trajectory, then, and is able to make deft, original and compelling contributions to it.

One issue around which this exhibition seems to me to turn is the tension between the idea of leisure as a chance to re-group, re-charge and enrich oneself after the demands of working life, and the idea of leisure as having become basically an extension of the alienated labour process: just as full of a generalized banality, regulation, mystification, and enforced obedience. Stephanie’s work seems to me to lean more to the second characterisation: leisure as the bad conscience of a society that first drove a separation between labour and recreation by taking the fulfillment out of work; and one that has now more recently harnessed technology to ensure that our activities of consumption and self-disciplining can continue unabated after our hours at the office. Indeed, one interesting aspect of these videos is their distinctly low-fi, retro quality; we might even feel nostalgic for some of these woefully untempting efforts to seduce us to explore more self-improvement products. Surely today’s marketing gambits, delivered by way of an utterly pervasive media network, are much more sophisticated and insidious, rendering these efforts rather quaint?

But Stephanie’s work is more speculative and playful than satirical and dogmatic, and it is I think more interesting for resisting the temptation to condemn in any straightforward way. Rather, the spectacle of modern leisure is held up for our inspection, analysis, and, I suppose, enjoyment. And it raises the question, I think, or the relationship of art making and art viewing to the subject of leisure. After all, as we are gathered here this evening, are we now practicing work or leisure, and what would be at stake in the difference?

I’ll just end by saying a few words about the presentation of the exhibition and the people involved. Firstly, I find this event especially satisfying as it constitutes an example of genuine, organic collaboration between some of the most skilled and dynamic graduates of both the Fine Art programme at Crawford College of Art and Design, and of the MA in Modern and Contemporary Art at UCC. Both Stephanie and Sarah are CCAD graduates, and both Sarah and Rachel are now studying for their PhDs in History of Art at UCC. And again it is worth reminding ourselves of what a fantastic job the Crawford have done in maintaining the Wandesford Quay Gallery as one of the few spaces in which such exhibitions can take place in the city. It has become a really important asset for Cork I think.

So, firstly, we look forward to many such collaborative efforts in the city; secondly, this being the first event staged by Pluck Projects, we eagerly anticipate their future offerings; and, third, and by no means least, this being Stephanie’s first solo exhibition we very much look forward to more exposure to the strange and compelling challenge of her work. Many thanks.


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