Mark Anstee – living in the moment

Yesterday we had a visit from Mark Anstee who makes huge temporary artworks – often (always?) with a historical and emotional aspect, using wonderful creative ideas and incredible drawing skills.
It was a huge pleasure to discuss our forthcoming MA work with Mark before his talk, he had something pertinent to say about all our plans and I think we all took something away. We also had a quick philosophical “What is art?” and “What is art for?” discussion which was fun!
I asked Mark about my current bugbear, exhibitions that do not give the viewer much information in which to place the work before them.   He fell on the side of minimalism, saying that the work should stand alone – leaving the aesthetics and feel of the piece to do the talking.    I still disagree (as I have said before in my review of Tightrope Walk and A picture paints a thousand words…), I feel strongly that the viewer has to be given some clues – the provenance – in order to more fully understand the significance of what they are seeing.    It doesn’t need to be chapter and verse, just a nudge in the right direction.
I’ve quoted Austin Kleon before:

“Words matter.   Artists love to trot out the tired line ‘My work speaks for itself’ but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself.  Human beings want to know where things come from, how they were made and who made them.  The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work affects how they value it.”

Mark Anstee’s Work

We then moved to the lecture theatre for nearly two hours of fascinating insight into Mark’s work over recent years.
Mark takes on projects that require meticulous and lengthy planning and in the delivery of them painstaking, backbreaking, monotonous practice.

To name a few.
I asked him why his works were so physically punishing and he said “because they have to be done“.  He seems driven to work in this way.
His works have a haunting beauty and are deeply emotional, all the more so because each one is destroyed as part of the installation.   Mark feels strongly that most of his work can only be temporary – “All things must die” – he has no desire for his works to live on, which is an interesting stance as it is a human trait to want to leave something behind.    Mark appears to be living in the moment and able to move on to new work without being attached to the old – he culls his work regularly – and that strikes me as a very healthy thing to do.   If we as artists get too hung up about what future generations are going to think then we will not do our best work.   Mark also cites a very practical reason for his pragmatism – large art works are hard to move, store, maintain and curate  and are therefore naturally harder to ‘sell’ (as a concept) – whereas a temporary, high profile art piece can be assembled, generate great interest but be dismantled and destroyed afterwards.  The art is in the act and the memory not the object.
I was especially moved by the film of his work at  Ypres – there was something so poignant about spending 72 days drawing 20,000 soldiers (each one unique) and then only two days crossing them out.  My grandfather fought just outside Ypres at Passchendaele, he was 15 and miraculously survived.  [I wonder if any of Mark’s soldiers wore kilts which is what my grandfather wore I believe 🙂    The featured piece at the top of this post is my response to going to Ypres to retrace his steps a few years ago. ]
Going back to my discussion with Mark about explaining a work to the viewer, I was moved by his explanation of the piece at Bluecoat Liverpool – Removed and Destroyed.   I am sure that going into a space and seeing that incredible submarine would be moving enough, but how much more moving to realise the story behind it and to understand that each of the 2000 sheets covering the craft were Marks attempt to communicate (unsuccessfully) with the Soviet crew trapped inside.

Mark creates an imaginative narrative around each project which seems to enable him to play with the ideas away from his normal persona.   One project around Cursus, a neolithic monument on Salisbury Plain had him creating a whole culture around the use of the land there – he became the storyteller, because no-one knows what the monument was for, so he was free to dream and play.
In another project, he was an “asexual angel of death” and he created an incredible piece in an old Church, whilst dangling on wires for 25 days.
In writing this blog and collecting pictures for it I suddenly saw how much Mark is the art -his performance creating and then destroying the art is pivotal and makes it all the more moving.
I was interested to read on his website, a conversation about the Ypres piece where he said he has to draw “…on the line, I have to be in the moment” – that is exactly what my project is about, being in the Now and experiencing life moment by moment rather than worrying in the past or being anxious about the future as so many people do.   That, to me, is mindfulness in a nutshell.
It was fascinating to hear how Mark made his work and the meticulous planning behind each one.  I think Mark and I could not be more opposite in our approach and I learnt a great deal from his dedication to getting a project right.  I am a bit too quick to act sometimes and do not put enough thought into my projects – I like to be spontaneous and move on!  Mark has shown me the value of stopping, pausing and staying in the moment with my art.
All pictures shown by kind permission of Mark Anstee and can be found on his website
See the film about Encounter at Ypres.
See the film about RedBlueRedBlue :

3 thoughts on “Mark Anstee – living in the moment

  1. That’s a great synopsis of Mark’s visit. I think that I took away some of the same things that you did. It may take a few days to things that we talked about to really sink in. I’ve been having little realizations about what I perceived and then realizing that’s what was meant. I found some of the work really sad, especially the Flanders piece. The elimination of each figure what especially symbolic and touching.


  2. Pingback: Time for a cull – Ailsa Brims

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