It's February and I am sitting in the back of the main studio listening to a Beate Terfloth lecture. I am quietly making notes. Terfloth is talking to the Higher National Diploma part-time Fine Art students. She has been in the island for only a couple of days and she is giving the first of several lectures about her work and her influences.
As Terfloth is explaining some of her ideas and showing slides of her work I am jotting down words and phrases that jump into my head: maps and mapping; cracks and authorised graffiti; vapour trails, zones, boundaries, macro and micro, the identity with the material itself, links with the landscape and fragments of space. And as I write these notes I start to make other connections.
I remember references from way back. Richard Rogers talking about his own practice stated that architecture was just the re-organisation of the earth's surface. That thought makes me think about the provocative yet profound statement by the Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone that if an artist takes a stone from the river bank and holds that stone in his fist for just a few seconds and then throws it back into the river - he has changed the face of the world forever.
These thoughts in turn lead me to think about Richard Long and his moving of stones into circles and his subtle surface interventions around the world - he, too, is just re-organising the surface of the earth - and this takes me to the book 'Figuring it Out' by Colin Renfrew, veteran of archaeological digs on many prehistoric sites.
What is so refreshing about 'Figuring it Out' is that, although he is a major authority on archaeology, Renfrew re-examines the whole field. He refuses to make any kind of automatic assumptions. He goes back to address those basic questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? And while trying to answer these, he suggests that art is about 'making sense of the material world', and throughout the book he is constantly drawing parallels between the actions of a contemporary artist who seeks to understand the world by making or doing, and those of the archaeologist who seeks to understand the world through examining the material traces of such activities carried out in the past.
I would like to suggest that Terfloth is one of these artists that Renfrew is talking about as she is indeed trying to 'make sense' of the material world that she inhabits. However, Terfloth's interventions are so slight that she does not even move stones; her interactions with the surface of the world are even more subtle than those of Penone or Long. Her marks on walls and her gluing back together of cracks in the floor are, at times, so insignificant that they often go unnoticed, drawing into question the very understanding of art as a 'visual' language.
When entering the gallery one is confronted with not very much, a few pencil lines, but Terfloth in her understated, yet quietly determined way, is doing for art what Renfrew is doing in archaeology. She is asking us to re-look, and to re-think our ideas. She, too, goes back to the basics. She takes nothing for granted. Terfloth questions the very nature and purpose of art. She constantly questions her materials, process and techniques while remaining sensitive to surface and scale in an attempt to strip her ideas down to the chassis.
She questions the idea of the catalogue, deciding it can be an artwork in its own right. Here, working closely with the printers, Terfloth draws or rather scratches directly on the plate, coated with its anti-oxidising gum finish. She is turning technology on its head: a six figure, six colour, Heidelberg litho press is being asked to produce a modern day drypoint print. Utilising the idiosyncrasies of the pagination, Terfloth from two plates produces an eight page special limited edition.
During the lecture, a student who had received a formal art education in Latvia before coming to Guernsey was struggling to identify with the material content of Terfloth's work and asked her, 'What kind of art do you call this?' Terfloth's answer was quite simply, 'I don't know.' In many ways this could be seen as a 'put off', but it wasn't intended because Beate Terfloth honestly didn't know. It was work, but she was not keen to place it in one of the existing categories, and why should she?
This question and Terfloth's answer of stimulated further debate relating to how we classify and categorise works of art. Do we rely on past experience, which of course is the most natural thing to do, and attempt to fit what we are looking at into those reference points? The trouble is, that only works for some of the time. At other times, if one wants to develop and extend the visual language one needs to construct new frameworks for discussion, but that's not always so easy or accepted.
The problem is also to do with looking, because these categories, these reference points, affect the way we see things. Sometimes we are so familiar with the world we live in and so resistant to new ideas, we see only what we are used to seeing.
British graphic designer Alan Fletcher argues that most of us fail to actually register a very large part of what we see. He goes on to suggest that our visual senses have grown lazy and that we subliminally ignore many images that don't fall within our comfort zone, and if and when we are confronted with a 'visual surprise' we re-organise that information to fit into the familiar. But sometimes it doesn't fit!
Aren't we now at the very heart of the problem? Jackson Pollock, in the late 1940s, at the height of Abstract Expressionism, felt that he had pushed his understanding of the subject so far that he was not certain that what he was making was actually art. And Claude Monet, half a century earlier shocked the world with 'Impression, sunrise'. This small painting of the northern French port of La Havre, probably painted in less than one hour, had a huge effect on the way we see.
So when looking at Beate Terfloth's work what references should one use? Like Terfloth's, my answer is, 'I don't know'. I can only pose questions to help stimulate thought.
Fascinated by the sea and all that goes with island life, Beate Terfloth has been out walking the cliffs sketching. Terfloth has not been sketching the coastline but drawing the flight paths made by seagulls as they ride the thermal air currents. These invisible (because for us islanders it's all to familiar) yet graceful graphs are indicators to the world we inhabit. They are as much part of the landscape as the fields, cliffs, rocks, sea that are our familiar reference points. Sometimes it takes an 'outsider' to point out the obvious, but still, we will only see it when we are ready.
I would like to finish with a story and a quote by Bruce McLean, British artist and Professor of Post Graduate Painting at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. McLean was in Guernsey last summer to give a lecture. Preparing for it, he was in the office sorting out his slides and we were discussing his work and the role of art education in general when suddenly he stopped talking. There was silence for a few minutes and he started waving a slide around in the air. He had obviously come across an important image or had made a very important discovery. And then he exclaimed, 'You know, for years I thought that I was trying to make the invisible visible, but I have just realised that actually what I am doing is trying to make the visible invisible'.