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Unseen Giving

Garry Fabian Miller & Martin Barnes
In conversation, Dartmoor, 05/08/11

Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, began a conversation* with Garry Fabian Miller as they worked together on the monograph Illumine, Photographs by Garry Fabian Miller (Merrell, 2005). Their dialogue and friendship has continued through various exhibitions and events. Unseen Giving is the transcript of their most recent meeting, as this new body of work is seen and exhibited for the first time. The exhibition That I Might See runs at the gallery from 12 October to 17 December, 2011.



MB] We’re speaking on the 5th August, sitting outside your studio.
Garry, you surprise me! The last thing that we worked on together
was a retrospective book of your work to date, Illumine, in 2005.
At that point I think I saw your series of pictures as moving steadily
away from using physical things to make the images. There seemed to
be a journey moving away from using plant material, petals and leaves
to make pictures, towards eschewing all of that, minimising what you
use to make pictures and simultaneously moving towards something
abstract. Now I’m seeing a whole body of pictures which looks again
at plant matter, and particularly flowers and petals. And yet they don’t
seem like the pictures that you made earlier in this way. Some of them
are using the same plants, but they seem freer to me. They’re less
deliberately symbolic, maybe. These pictures seem to be both concrete,
physical things and abstract at the same time.

GFM] I worked with plants predominantly from 1985-1991, and for a small
period within that time, I worked with flowers. I stopped working with
plants because they seemed to be constraining me in too small a space.
I wanted to find a more direct way, to create a relationship with light
and its energy. This led to the abstract pieces that started in the early
1990s and culminated in the two series of 2006-2007, Year One and
Year Two. With hindsight, I see that I was trying to bring together all
the knowledge I had gained from this abstract period. I now knew how
to create the images, understood exposure and colour and had reached
a point where I had a degree of knowledge and control. It felt an
important moment. It was no longer a continuous forward groping;
reaching toward a place I knew existed. It was no longer an unknown
exploration. The abstract pictures I’ve made since Year 2 (2008
onwards), have been attempts to try and make more considered
pictures, exploring the rectangle, square, circle, line. I wanted to use
the colours I felt most committed to, to make pictures that embrace
the places I wanted to exist. This was where I had arrived at the end
of winter 2011. Plants weren’t something I thought I would need to
reconsider, yet for some reason, they have resurfaced. I’m trying to
understand why that’s happened.

MB] Can I make a suggestion? I think that what’s been happening to this
point has been a linear trajectory, and you reached a point at which
you’d explored, at least to a satisfactory level, that progression. And
what’s happening now is a sort of circularity that is no longer so much
about incremental discovery. You’ve reached a point of discovery where
you’re able to close the circle.

GFM] I think up until the point I’ve described, it was a projection outwards,
where I was trying to find a place, by moving forward, seeking arrival.
I think I’d realised I’d reached that place now. Perhaps there’s a
maturity, in the work and within my life. The responsibility now is to
make sense of the journey and figure out where the important places
were. I can now look back and try and figure out where the divisions in
the path were, where I wasn’t sure which way to go. I didn’t necessarily
take the wrong route, but perhaps I didn’t think long enough at the
place of choice. I made very few flower pictures. I found I was never
terribly comfortable about making flower pictures – it didn’t seem to fit
comfortably with my idea of a male artist. Yet I knew that within these
flowers, there was something important. The biggest influence on my
work comes not from the art world, or the work of other artists, but
from movements of thinking which embody the ideas I’m interested
in. The most formative period I have come through was feminism, of
the late ’60s early ’70s, when a whole value system and a completely
different attitude towards nature was given significance. When I made
flower pictures, I was trying to embrace that and explore it.

MB] There have been polarities in your art which in retrospect encapsulate
broadly what might be described as male and female principles. There
have been pictures which I understand as being about physical energy,
about darkness or a light emerging out of darkness, which have been
dense and dark and powerful and could align with a masculine
presence. And then there have been tenderer, ephemeral, graceful
pictures that you might associate with a feminine presence. There
are circular motifs, as opposed to square or rectangular motifs and
it seems you might have been balancing out this male and female
principle. Yet in the flower pieces you have made now, particularly
in the foxgloves, I see a combination of the two principles. You can’t
escape the flower as a reproductive system. There is a complex
microcosm within the foxglove pictures: little pink and red spots of
light, halations, hovering in a three-dimensional space that is difficult
to focus on and grasp a sense of relative scale. The potential for
everything seems to be encapsulated in this world within the flower
that is both the male and female space. Does that feel right?

GFM] Yes, that’s interesting. I suppose we’ve two types of pictures, the heroic
masculine abstract expressionist ideas, which one’s affected by and
understands - in which one seeks a positiveness, something from that
stance which is not aggressive yet can embrace that large scale. Work
I’ve completed in the last couple of years has been trying to make sense
of those values. Yet, I know that there’s as much wonder in a picture,
which is not much bigger than the palm of my hand, a fragment of a
flower. When I look at that flower it seems to embody something so
profound that it brings forward tears.

MB] I think it’s recognition of the awe that can be found in even simple
things. To feel this, you need willingness to embrace a certain lack of
control. I think the colour in some of these pictures seems almost out
of control. Up until recently in your abstract works, you’ve been using
one colour and subsequently combining two colours and seeing the
interaction of those two colours that create a third colour; and that third
way seemed to be almost too much for you. And yet, with these flower
pictures there’s wealth of colour that emerges from the collision of two
colours mingling with each other. It’s like you’re able and willing to
embrace that, and a lack of an authored gesture; that you don’t make
that shape, that the plants or petals make the space for you.

GFM] In this publication we’ve predominately two groups of flowers, foxgloves
and irises, which in their flower form are three-dimensional objects that
I engage with. I’m often taking a volume that is perhaps 3/4 of an inch
thick, the flower bell of a foxglove. I have to physically shape it so that it
becomes a material, which I can then place into the head of an enlarger
to channel light through it to make the print. To successfully maintain
the ‘foxgloveness’ of the flower I have to make a series of decisions
about how I shape and cut the plant. A degree of sculpting takes place
with more confidence now than I would have done it twenty years ago,
because somehow I feel I’m in some relationship with this flower,
to make an image appear which embodies what this flower seems
to express to me and so it is a kind of tactile relationship which is
somewhat like the last abstract pictures I was making where I was
working with materials in a similar way. There is a connection.

MB] So there is a mediated control, but I suppose what I’m getting at is that
we don’t have to recognise these as petals, particularly the foxgloves
that seem to have infinite space encompassing them.

GFM] Only a few people have seen these pictures. Amongst them, one person
told me a story about Winifred Nicholson visiting the Paris studio of
Mondrian, along with Ben Nicholson. There were the grid paintings
of Mondrian, but equally there was also a chrysanthemum flower head
painting. And the suggestion made by this person was, that in the story
as told to him by Winifred Nicholson, these pictures were painted
within the same period of time. I’ve always been very interested in the
relationship between the flower paintings of Mondrian and then the
grid paintings that followed and I’ve never really known what degree
of separation existed between them, or whether they were concurrent
or perhaps overlapped for periods of time. I’m interested in this as I’m
making flower pictures at this moment, having come out of a long
period of abstract pictures. I will return to these and I’m interested in
common entrance points between the flowers and abstract pieces.

MB] So you’re happy to flip back and forth, or rather to be in a cycle between
pure abstraction, or abstraction of a kind, to a more figurative space?

GFM] Well, I’d always been desperately trying to get away from figurative art
because I knew abstraction was a place that I felt I belonged in. But I
suppose this kind of maturity that inevitably one carries now means
that you’re trying to understand that it doesn’t have to be like that. And
that if you’ve been working for thirty years part of the responsibility
you have now is to try and make sense of the body of work, and to try
and give a period of time to engage with where you were closest to
embodying what your interest is, and where you think your picture
making really is, finding the places that you are trying to engage with.
I’m making myself open to looking back as much as looking forward.
And I think that hopefully will mean the pictures become better in
allowing that possibility.

MB] Can we come to the idea of ‘the language of these flowers’, because
the titles you give to these flower pictures will be important. Although
there’s a great deal of colour there is also a graphic quality, something
about line in there, which I’m reading as a sort of calligraphic line, like
a written word. When I look through a sequence of these pictures, I
want to trace some kind of language, some story, and I’m wondering
about the choice of particular flowers informing some kind of symbolic
language. Is there something you’re trying to get across linguistically?

GFM] ‘The language of flowers’ is something that, over the years I’ve been
working with plants, I’m often asked about but it’s something that I
really don’t engage with. I’m aware there’s an iconography and history
that I choose not to engage with. Other people bring that to the
pictures. I have found, looking back, that I’m attracted to certain
flowers and these have become significant. So there’s the allium,
the foxglove, the bluebell, in this new series the iris, and they’re my
flowers, they’re flowers that I’ve cultivated or they have grown where
I live. Whatever I’m trying to find is contained within those flowers.
When I come to titling the pictures, I am presented with choices that
include contributing to a language of flowers. Mostly I just give the
name of the flower, foxglove, bluebell.... That’s fairly neutral. If I chose
to name them with a language beyond that, then I’m locating them
somewhere else. For example with these pictures, I have given some
of them names, on the whole the sequence pictures, rather than the
singular pictures. The largest piece, the grid of allium flowers, is called
Agnes. The line of allium flowers is called Anne. I’ve chosen female
names. Agnes refers to a kind of religious woman; it also references
Agnes Martin, a woman who seems to embody much that I believe in.
Anne refers to Anne Lee, who broke away from the Quakers and
established the Shakers. There’s another kind of naming, where pieces
are titled, That I Might See and Fade Into You. These seem to offer a
starting point to suggest what might be happening in these pictures.

MB] Is it that these particular flowers that you choose have contrasting
types of emotional resonance? I’m thinking of the quality of the allium,
the sharp six pointed leaf, which as a form is quite different from the
soft form of the foxglove. Is there an emotional tenor that each of
them provoke?

GFM] Partly it’s the availability. They’re common in my everyday life, not
exotic at all, but nevertheless they are remarkable flowers, so that’s
important. There is something about the six-pointed petal that makes
up the head of the allium that I’m very attracted to. It’s an incredibly
open form and I connect it to the Blake painting – Glad Day or The
Dance of Albion (1780). That joyful exposed being; the petal is like that.
The opening of the foxglove is very beautiful; a place one wants to be
part of. So no, they’re not randomly chosen. I plant the allium bulbs;
all of the allium flowers in our garden have come from bulbs I have
planted. The foxgloves have either blown in on the wind or they’re
foxgloves that I’ve sown from seed, which have then dropped their
seed and continued to flower. The bluebell, of which there is only one
in this catalogue, is a plant that we’ve tried to encourage the spread
and growth of since we’ve had this garden. From small beginnings
they now cover an acre of ground. It’s something to do with this
relationship that draws me to the flowers.

MB] There’s something to do with an enclosed but also an almost infinite
space. When you speak about the foxglove you gesture with your
hands as if to encapsulate that space. There’s also something else
going on in these pictures, which is not about single spaces but about
series. In the series, there is something moving in and out of a visible
spectrum, suggesting that something is there, even when it isn’t
visible. You chart its visible portion, or the beginning and tail-end of
its visible portion, but it suggests that it goes on beyond that. And it
seems that those things are about questions of embodied form and
disembodied formlessness.

GFM] Of the pictures in this publication the iris series of seven, Fade Into
You, takes the idea of exposure, the place of too much or too little light,
and the flower existing in different states depending on this. The
question for me is: where does the thing, which is the flower, where
does its essence exist? I believe it is in this emerging place where it’s
over exposed, it’s not really in the world as we would expect it to be, but
to me, that point of its emergence, or disappearance is what the floweroffers.
Working with flowers seems to be one of the closest ways that
you can try and engage with this transient place.

MB] Is it too far-fetched to suggest a parallel with human consciousness?

GFM] Possibly, but that’s something I’d lack confidence to want to talk
about in that kind of way. I would view it purely as a felt thing. I feel
it and accept it. I don’t want to engage with it in an explained way.
It’s purely a sense of rightness and then you know there is a place
to be. I’m just grateful to be in that place. I don’t want to understand
it in any other way.

MB] To me, there’s a suggestion that the petal, the flower, might represent
something like the human body, and that it becomes embodied, and
that’s the period of existence of a human lifetime in an embodied,
physical form. There are connections between physically embodied
forms, of which some of the most beautiful and elegant are flower
forms that emerge out of nothing and disappear again. It is very
tempting to connect a similar understanding with the much evolved
form of human beings. It seems that you’re suggesting that there’s
a parallel there.

GFM] I don’t disagree with any of that. I think it’s something to do with
its constancy. The flower gives of itself almost invisibly, serves its
reproductive purpose, then fades and decays and falls back into the
ground. It can be observed or not by anyone. I’m attracted to that kind
of unseen giving; I find that very powerful. I’m also spending a lot
of time thinking about why life makes sense living on Dartmoor. I’ve
been thinking about how I experience time here. I feel a deep and
ancient sense of time. I’m drawn to the earliest artifacts and traces that
survive from people who inhabited this place. They speak of many
things - the importance of fertility, the fundamental need to reproduce,
grow food, sustain life at an elemental level. Working with plants and
flowers reconnects me in some way to this and I’m quite glad to be
back in that place for a while.

MB] Can I come in here, because this is leading us to an interesting place.
What I’ve been thinking about is the flower as one of the earliest forms
of aesthetic appreciation, before picture making. They’re like a readyformed
artwork, a prehistoric ‘readymade’. I can imagine the gathering
of flowers, the appreciation of the scent and the colour and the
attraction of flowers as something that is a purely aesthetic gesture,
which isn’t linked to any utilitarian purpose for human beings. You
don’t eat them; you don’t cultivate them for anything other than their
beauty. They’re not linked in some way to physical survival. Something
which is deeply valued but not necessarily for survival points to a
transcendence of survival.

GFM] To me a flower is beautiful beyond anything that is called religious.
There’s a purity of being embodied within it. I have for years been
trying to find a way to inhabit that feeling: looking at flowers, observing
birds, trees, weather, the moon, the sun, and the wind, all of those
things. Giving time to looking at things, that on the face of it seem so
insignificant, a sense of contentment accrues. It seems so easily given.
This spring the flowers have done it for me. While we’ve been doing
this interview I’ve been watching swallows landing on that pond, 20-30
swallows. Over there, a heron fishing and this week on most days, I’ve
disturbed deer outside the studio. We just came across each other at
10-12 feet and exchanged eye contact. I find that, year on year, this is
becoming so full of wonder that I realise that this is where a sense of
happiness lies. It seems a good moment.

* The Oral History of British Photography, National Sound Archive (British Library)
- audio interview 24/01/1996 by Mark Haworth-Booth audio interview 29/09/1993
by Martin Barnes.

View The Colour of Time exhibition
View a short documentary made by the V&A
View further work by Garry Fabian Miller


© 2011 HackelBury Fine Art Ltd. Copyright for all images is held by the respective artist or estate and they may not be reproduced in any form without express permission. All rights reserved.

Unseen Giving Garry Fabian Miller Martin Barnes V&A Victoria and Albert Museum London in conversation That I Might See Shadow Catchers camera-less photography