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ON WHEELBARROWS and the shadowy realm of inference

by Jo Melvin

In Susak wheelbarrows are highly significant functional objects. They are commonplace, as there are no private vehicles on the island. Some are customised and everything from builders’ materials to shopping is carried in them. Wheelbarrows are a familiar sight once you’ve spent any time on Susak. When Daniel Devlin told me he was thinking of painting the barrows orange as an art piece, my reaction to the idea was that its enactment would simply and directly address critical considerations on issues of intention, ownership and originality in contemporary practice. I will outline these and point to different ways of addressing them.

The painted barrow presents an incremental shift in perception for the viewer and through the fact that it is different, art as a way of thinking enters the cultural arena. It recalls a work by Daniel Buren in 1970, the stripe posters, that were placed in all the Paris metro stations, in the situation where you would expect to find an advert. Viewers may not have known the theoretical context the project addressed but they would or could have noticed the work, if regular metro travellers they would have noticed the poster’s re-occurrence in all the stations they visited. They may have speculated or they may have wondered. In either case a shift in thinking through looking would take place and the reflection on this sets in motion trains of thought that without the encounter with the poster(s) would not have happened.

The idea of painting wheelbarrows is pragmatic, and it has a direct visual effect on the environment. The barrows are generally grubby in appearance, some quite battered with erosion holes. Daniel outlined the scheme of his idea, to paint Susak’s wheelbarrows a uniform orange. They would be properly prepared in a workmanlike way, sanded down, then the application of undercoat before two final coats. A notice inviting owners to sign up their barrows for the work was placed in the central bar, thirty were consigned. It was free. This caused general astonishment even disbelief as well as a certain amount of humour at the absurd notion of a group of artists working freely on a laborious task. This fact marks one of the important considerations, the distinction from exchange value as commerce and introduces exchange as trust and gift. The gift exchange is from the artist and trust exchange is from the owner. The introduction of humour in the absurdity of the situation is another important factor.

I imagined the Susak resident noticing a pleasant difference, or the holidaymaker struck by the unusual number of orange barrows wonders at the reasons and thinks it a local custom. The encounter causes a subtle rupture of thought processes. The owner is pleased, a good as new object, better as it’s not drab looking but bright. It’s at this point where the art idea enters the project. It is through two distinct threads, one is nuance of meaning in the shift of perception, the other by bringing together different exchanges between people, of objects and of context. It operates pragmatically as an actual event and philosophically as the event of understanding. And it’s also like the telling of a joke where a whole range of interlinked references come to the fore without being directly stated.

There’s another story to tell here. The above is a theoretical position. In the conversations I referred to the idea of an impossible transparency by outlining how what I want to say is never tied to what I do say and that the gap between what I say and what I intend to say drives me to continue in hopeful expectation. It is also tinged with despair. But despair is not the subject, there is no time here in this outline of thoughts for dwelling on the despairing aspect, it is instead on the modification of what is said, each attempt begins again the aim for transparency between thought and its articulation, between the idea and its intended realisation. I wanted to be part of the wheelbarrow painting team. It’s convivial to engage in labour, sharing common concerns, it’s quite a luxury away from my normal routine of work in a different situation entirely. I would not have the same relationship with wheelbarrow painting here in Stoke Newington, but in Susak my so called ‘normal’ time based relations were temporarily unhinged. There was what I called a skewering of time. Others felt it too and it was not simply tiredness although this was definitely a factor. Our time awareness had no anchor, a day for instance, felt like a week, as the markers of familiarity weren’t there. This was simultaneously exhilarating and un-nerving. And for me it was precipitated by the collective energy of a group of people working. I don’t mean simply those on working together on the barrows, but the whole group endeavour with disparate but shared enterprise in participation.

But who, unless they’ve done the job before, would have thought the barrow to be such a complex object to paint?