Sum of the Parts

Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997
Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997

This was work I made using a decaying caravan in the two and half acres that we called our little wind-battered paradise in West Cornwall. I have retrospectively called it, 'Sum of the parts'. It was an attempt to make something installation-like.


In general I've gone right off installation work. I thought the absurdity of some installation work was brought to a chilling head by Mark Wallinger's meticulous copy of the camp of the guy, Brian Haw,  who held the long protest in Parliament Square outside the UK parliament against the Iraq war (amongst other things). When artists can do nothing but piggy-back on eccentric protest its probably time to put the sketchbooks away and do a proper job. According to Tate Britain, 'In bringing a reconstruction of Haw’s protest before curtailment back into the public domain, Wallinger raises challenging questions about issues of freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties in Britain today.'


Anyway, despite my suspicion of installation work I present my own rather feeble attempts. I remember being visited by an rather over-powering guy who was full of art-school 'speak' who reduced me to a tongue-tied impotence by saying to me about the 'piece', 'So tell me. What's going on here then?'



Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997
Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997

To be honest I didn't know what 'was going on here then' even though I had made the so-called piece. Looked at through his eyes with all my self-doubt and self-criticism added in it just looked like an amalgam of conveniently close-by items. Maybe it still does. I quickly dismantled the piece later in disgust with myself. I am glad I at least took some photos.


With distance I seem to be able to see more, or at least something that means something to me. Before that I should say that I've always struggled between the literal and the enigmatic in my art. I have a strong empirical/analytical bent. I've also struggled with the spectrum between the expressive/emotional and the intellectual/rational.


In this piece I think I was trying to create something enigmatic that didn't give up a single meaning or message. I've always liked Joseph Beuys but I've never come near his sense of confident self-absorption and ability to exist in a series of apparently parallel but linked universes.

Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997
Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997

Anyway, here is now what I see in the piece. It seems to represent a kind of memorial to my father, who had died terribly of esophageal cancer. The suit is his, tailor-made in Hong Kong. The cooker and its sort of preparation to cook food with an unlit fire and the wheat ears on the floor (that I had grown in my garden) now feels like a child's feeble attempts to look after a parent, to try to provide for them. Or to reverse the finality of death.


The book with the suspended glass of water looks like a tense situation; looks like something terrible that is going to happen to some special hallowed object. The clumsy anxious child wanting to impress Dad and just making him mad. The black book, its words obliterated and silenced.

Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997
Sum of the Parts (Mixed Media) 1997

And all of it in a decaying caravan on a windswept hill in Cornwall. A place out of the wind and rain, rarely visited, in fact, intensely private. Outside a stream flowed past under the canopy of a wind-stunted ash tree.


I'm now reminded of the tombs I visited in Cyprus. The ears of wheat, the firewood, clothes, book - all nourishment for the spirit in the afterlife.


I don't think any of this was 'meant' when I made the piece although it always had a sense of intense memorial stillness. But maybe I should add a sub-title to the 'Sum of the Parts' -  'Mixed Memorial Message to Dad'. Or call it  'Sum/Son of the Parts'.


In this reading the 'Sum of the Parts' refers both to the artist - formed from the raw material of the 'parts' - his parents and to the way in which the piece is an amalgam of different things I had previously made/grown in the studio/garden and found.

Components from 'Sum of the Parts'  (Portland stone, lead, steel plate)
Components from 'Sum of the Parts' (Portland stone, lead, steel plate)



I wrote a trilogy of poems about my dad after he died, aged 60.  Here is one of them that seems to fit in with the mood of 'Sum of the Parts'.  To me it is strange that I conceived of these two expressions of tangled grief and remembrance independent of each other and that it is only now, 15 years on, that I have made the connection.



Later I remember you


Later, I remember you


in the late September sun.

The wind already chill on your dressing gown.

Nervous, like a dying bird,

sensing cats,

you looked around

already all not there.

The breeze lifted the silver hair

above the nape

of your sallow shrunken neck,

your skull too large,

too heavy

on your half eaten sinking ship.

The wheel chair

doing the bleak hospital grounds clumsy in my grip.

Your feet tucked in strange

hose socks,

water clutched in your trembling hand,

tight and scared

as if someone might snatch

that little last comfort from you.


I remember a photograph

taken when I was two.

You hold me on your lap,

the sun pulsing through Venetian blinds

on the terrace of

the Prima Cappella house.

You look into the camera

as if by sheer angry will

you’d etch yourself upon the film.

Your father beside us,

patient or pissed,

suffused with a gentle smile,

his watery eyes


You hug me tight,

your big fingers digging into my small chest.


The nurse gave me tea

and then left me with you.

You were propped like a sack of potatoes,

Your ramrod, 'no slouching' back

that became your cross to bear,

piled against the cushions.

I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’

before bursting into tears,

alone in that last strange room

with you.

I kissed your cold forehead,

your angry fire

now without heat,

your fingers, open, dead,

upon the sheet.

Requiem for a Wasp (Wasp, plaster cast of cross, wax, marble, dried grass, matchbox, cotton wool, wood)
Requiem for a Wasp (Wasp, plaster cast of cross, wax, marble, dried grass, matchbox, cotton wool, wood)

I have shied away from the autobiographical in my 'art', although the opposite is true of the poems and songs I have occasionally written. I'm not sure why.  Perhaps because I needed some distance from myself or because I didn't seem an important enough subject about which to make 'art'.


I remember getting really pissed off when researching Louise Bourgeois' work and her milking of her own autobiographical trauma as if her life (art?) depended on it.  It was interesting and engaging to start with but enough already.


Maybe once self-professed autobiographical artists become famous their autobiographies become less interesting. And there are only so many times you can revisit early trauma before it becomes a pastiche of itself?