Martha Playing Her Tiniest Violin, 2015, oil on linen, 160×220 cm

When the legendary American conceptual artist Martha Rosler visited the EARN event at Slade, Hayley made a speech that included the phrase; “we all have our memory of her work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)”.  We have a collective experience and understanding of her position as a historical, conceptual artist – this is where/when a friendship arises. As the conversation went on, someone said with a soft voice that she still wants to ‘feel’ in front of the artwork, and Martha mimicked playing a violin with a smile. I didn’t know what her gesture meant, but I could feel what I thought she meant, so I googled her actions when I got home that night. Mimicking playing the violin can be a form of sarcasm, indicating that someone is telling a rambling sob story or whining excessively. It is a mocking gesture.

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Cautiously optimistic, I felt the friendship between the artists present who still believed in and connected to a romantic idea that artwork can make people feel emotions. The event was organised by us, and it was for us, people who live in an art school world – a very specific group of people. I believe we work together, sharing a particular kind of interest and speaking the language of our tribe – a close community brought even closer by organising and attending the events of that week. That moment stuck with me, and when I asked my course mate Dawn if she remembered Martha’s gesture, she said “Oh yeah! She played the tiniest violin!” Her description of ‘playing the tiniest violin’ reassures me in my impression that Martha Rosler was being humorous rather than sarcastic, affectionate rather than dismissive.  She was not laughing at but laughing with us. To me, the event was a manifesto of friendship, with Martha’s gesture was a warm and humorous joke between friends bonded through art.

… or, maybe not. Surprisingly the idea that Martha Rosler might have been being sarcastic does not really disappoint me. After the event I made several drawings and had many conversations with fellow students to explore what she meant by the gesture, and it reached a point where what she meant was no longer important; instead, what I believed she meant became the subject. This is the point at which my experience became the painting. In this sense, this is not an autobiographical painting. It is a biography of my experience devolving into a painting.

I remember one of my friends said “when you take sarcasm with a laugh, the friendship starts to form.” I painted Martha playing a real but tiny violin, and played some romantic music to talk to my friends who had also been there at the moment that inspired me. Most of the time, my motivation is a private moment, but this was something we had all shared and a moment we could all talk about. Friends who were at the event recognise that I mean Martha Rosler by the title, but the for the painting is broader than this – first-hand knowledge may not be the only way to build a friendship. Many friends who were not present at the event still enjoy the painting very much. My Facebook friends, who “liked” the painting without needing to know my inspiration, may have liked or empathised with the afterlife of my excitement which is left in the painting.

 

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