Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 2 January 2021
Life Fragments I
A work by Tony Stewart in September 2002.
One of the pluses and minuses of making photomedia artworks on the computer — as well as not enough time in the fresh air — is that it is possible to make very large works that will sit in cyberspace for years, before you have enough money or a convincing reason to print them in hard copy.
In the next few articles on my making art, I am going to describe and attempt to show large works – some of which I have exhibited and some of which I haven’t. The latter I have only viewed as small-scale versions and as details.
Terms for Digital Works
In my article Pandemic Art Update is used the word cartoon as a description of a small-scale physical print of a much larger work. This isn’t an ideal term as cartoon in art used to refer to a full-size drawing or modello (model) for a painting, stained glass, or tapestry. Cartoons are particularly relevant to frescoes, but also to tapestry, where pin-pricks can be used to transfer the design to a wall or pattern.
There are no new words for these terms in digital art. A sketch is traditionally a rough drawing or painting, in which an artist explores preliminary ideas for a much larger work to be made with much more precision and detail. My friend Allan Byrne suggested digi-sketch. In one sense digi-sketch is appropriate because the smaller version, together with details (a blown up specific area of the work) may suggest changes before the larger work is printed, but in another sense it is not because the digi-sketch is an exact copy of the final version of the artwork.
In other words a smaller-version in digital art is useful in the sense of creating a model that one can use to examine and correct, before embarking on the final printing of the large-scale version. Another concept that of a detail, a blown-up or expanded part of the whole, is also incredibly useful in the decision-making process. And, is a term that is both useful in conventional and digital art. (The use of details is important in describing paintings: see my article on Hieronymus Bosch.)
Thumbnail is another concept that though useful and important does not describe what I am talking about, either. However, let’s not get caught up in semantics. It is the process that is important not the label.
Another way of looking at the issue is to think of postcards and larger catalogue prints of major well-known artworks (let’s not worry about the issue of colour reproduction and assume that the colours are a perfect representation of the original).
Unless, you know the original painting — a knowledge based solely on a postcard or even a good catalogue print, often means that you are completely surprised when you finally view the original artwork, because it is not at all what you had expected.
The problem with a digital ‘cartoon’ or a digi-sketch for a much larger-scale work is that it does not really reflect what the work is going to look like in a much larger size. In my work this is sometimes not a problem, but sometimes it’s a major problem.
Descriptions of a Large Work
Sometimes the large-scale work is not really represented by a small-scale cartoon and you need to provide descriptions and details to support the small-scale version to try to provide some idea of the large work that makes sense.
That is my task in this article and the ones to follow.
Life Fragments I
Life fragments I, September 2002, Digital Mixed Media, 349×79 cm, Edition of 5, Archive: # 020939D.
Life Fragments I was my first large and major work, perhaps a museum piece (another term or expression), which evolved by chance. (It is weirdly similar in a strange way to Tracey Emin’s Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995, a tent appliqued with names — slept with didn’t necessarily mean had sex with — although I wasn’t aware of her work at the time.)
Life Fragments I was first exhibited in Transit, my first solo exhibition at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka, 27 September to 6 October 2002. It was set-up once at PhotoAccess to look for an easier way to hang it. And, also exhibited at the Churchie Emerging Art Exhibition in Brisbane in May, 2003.
The cloth border was modified from a Hmong small Paj Ntaub (flower cloth), shirt collar patch applique embroidery, purchased on the street in Luang Prabang, Laos in 2001.
I’m still somewhat gobsmacked, at what I achieved with Life Fragments I, which, as well as being technically difficult at that stage was also artistically transformative.
Sasha Grishin said in the Canberra Times Review of Transit (2002):
The large scroll image Life Fragments I, is the real show stopper, quite brilliant in its conception and execution.
A friend of Helene George, who managed a private contemporary art collection offered to buy it but later withdrew, most probably because I was an emerging artist with no marketable credibility.
Helene George encouraged me to enter the Churchie Emerging Art Exhibition in 2003 and also helped me to hang the work, which from memory was difficult and stressful for us both. Nevertheless, she had a refreshing cynicism about the exercise and commented wryly to me that Life Fragments I:
was out of place in an emerging art exhibition, because the art practice was too polished, that is, fully conceptualised and complete.
I did not have to describe Life Fragments I in my Transit Exhibition because it was there physically. But, when it came to my entry for the Churchie Exhibition, I did have to describe the work and to provide a hard copy example, because email entries and digital reproductions weren’t acceptable then.
Pre-Digital Photography and Technology
I only had my first digital camera, a FujiFilm FinePix S5500, in 2004. The world had changed but it took some time for people to jump onto the bandwagon. Similarly, one forgets that the promise of technology only became a reality not that long ago.
In January 1996, after a year away in virtual isolation, Denise & I met Bill and Kerry at a backpackers, on the river in Nong Khai, Thailand, just as they were heading into Laos for the first time. I asked Bill Fisher what big things happened in Canberra while we’d been away. He said: ‘the Internet.’
I only got onto the Internet and began to use email in 1996 with great difficulty on that frustratingly remembered sound, the phone modem.
The first Apple iPhone (the first mass market smart phone) was not revealed by Steve Jobs until 2007. In between, the digital photography revolution took off, but it was only in its infancy in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
My first art works used my recycled travel photography from earlier decades. Although, I consider my art at the leading edge of the digital revolution in the beginning, this is not a boastful statement. I stuck there. I was completely happy with developing my vision with what was possible in the early 2000s and have intentionally not tried to keep-up or modify my art to track the possibilities and potential of changing technology.
I am completely surprised and encouraged by what digital artists are doing now with the newest of new technology, but I have no desire to be there. I am also amazed and encouraged at how traditional visual artists have begun to use digital tools to enhance and make easy parts of their practice. We are in a wonderful new age!
Explaining Life Fragments 1
How I explained Life Fragments I to the Churchie selection committee.
Imagine a Chinese Scroll ten feet long (305 cm) by thirty-one inches wide (79 cm) with a bamboo roll at either end and cloth binding on the sides.
Image 3 gives one photographic row. Try to imagine this row multiplied 43 times.
Image 4 presents three rows to help in the imagination process.
Artist’s Statement condensed:
My work is digital and physical mixed-media using photography, print & collage.
Life Fragments I deals with images of my lifetime, family and friends, and with extended social linkages across Australia and other cultures (unusually in my work only about half of the photographs are taken by me). This new definition of the family photo album seems to resonate with viewers. The narrative is intended to delight and inform, but I hope it conveys also some of the darker edges to our civilisation.
Artist’s statement attached to the base:
This work comes from a series dealing with time and movement through human and geographical space. The banal plastic bread tag with its use-by date is an ephemera or icon of technology.
Whilst the hundreds of images are a narrative on my life and extended social relationships, I hope they will resonate with, delight and possibly disturb you.
Description of the Concept
To describe Life Fragments I, it is easier to describe and show you a small work first that encapsulates the idea.
Homage to my mother
My mother was in a nursing home and unfortunately slowly losing her physical capabilities and mental faculties. I gave her this homage in early 2004, perhaps a little too late, but it hung in her room and at least was a conversation point for her many visitors.
It is a sweet work and far less complex than Life Fragments I, but it gives an idea of what the larger work is all about. The images from left to right and then down, are as follows:
My mother as a young girl. Her father and sister about to set off for World War I — he to Gallipoli and she to the hospital at Heliopolis in Egypt. My mother’s father later with my mother as a baby. She and her younger sister in the 1940s. My mother in the mid-1940s. My father in his RAAF uniform. My mother and father around the time of their marriage in the mid-1940s. He has suffered from malaria in New Guinea and is very thin. A portrait of my mother in the late-1940s. The wedding. My mother, my sister and I on a bridge in Colombo, returning from England in 1952. My maternal grandmother as an old lady. My sister and I around the same time as the previous photo.
It is a mixture of family photographs with a few studio photos thrown in. You can imagine that you know something about my mother’s life from these few photographs. You are meant to, because that is what I designed the artwork to do. You can almost forget about the breadtag shapes.
However, your imagination that you know something about my mother’s life is illusory. It is a nice illusion, but it is not real.
Description of the Large Work: Life Fragments I
In the large work the number of photographs has jumped from 12 above to 350 and the illusion of a life is much stronger, but it is also illusory for the same reason.
It is also not a complete life. It does not cover old age. It was made nearly twenty years ago, by my parents era I have reached old age now. By mine I am only approaching it.
The breadtag also follows closely my history. Unbeknownst to me, until recently, the breadtag was invented when I was two. It has permeated my whole life.
When I began using breadtags in my art, I thought the breadtag would disappear a few years into the twenty-first century. It has resisted doing so. It was meant to be an ephemera, a transitory technology icon with its use-by date.
It is now becoming a symbol discarded plastics and of plastic pollution. It is lingering on despite climate change and the campaigns against single use plastics.
Should I linger on and suffer from dementia, like my mother did. There is a small but real chance that a breadtag accidentally ingested could end my life.
The photography spans the black & white and the colour era, but not quite into digital photography.
There are almost no studio photographs in my photography era. And, also I was born too early for the incessant and ongoing baby and childhood photos my nephews were subjected to. Their photos were also nothing compared to the interminable digital photos and social media postings of the past ten to fifteen years. Endless shots of children from birth; and endless selfies.
Hence, Life Fragments I represents an age and a time that was different from my parents era and from the next generation to me. It is a fragment of a Baby Boomer life to use the newly pejorative term, and thus is visually specific to an era in history with geographic aspects as well. The locations are recognisable in Australia and in various places around the world.
Hence the breadtags are icons. The photographs of my life are icons. They represent but do not display my life. They are artefacts of a life that are recognisable in part by others of my generation, but also surprisingly to others not of my generation. An interesting observation by me (mainly at the Churchie exhibition), was that Life Fragments I fascinated a wide audience particularly of women. Although the gender difference may also have reflected the preponderance of women in the audience.
Now, to me obviously each photograph or image is intensely personal and a remnant of strong memories and nostalgia, mainly positive but also negative.
Perusal of each image can lead to a memory path that is intense, initially visual but also recalling other senses and also emotions.
Too close a perusal can lead to rather darker memories that may also be personal, but also to recollections of an extended social or physical environment that may not be personal at all, but can be troubling.
I think in a similar sense others begin with superficial viewing that can also lead to somewhere else, sometimes disturbing, even though these photographs do not directly pertain to them.
A friend recently commented on my article Winnipeg the Centre of the Food Universe as interesting and well-written, because it triggered for him vivid and intense memories of exploring food for the first time in a serious sense in one’s twenties.
Similarly, in the article International Peasant Foods the friend who shared the fish meal in Pucallpa in the Amazon, remembered it vividly as soon as she read about it. Even though the event was nearly fifty years ago and we hadn’t been in touch for years.
I think that Life Fragments I touches such deep remembrance and it can be both wonderful and disturbing.
Life Fragments I is one of those moments when life and art intermingle inextricably. And, I think it is accidental. It is one of those moments ‘tritely’ but also profoundly where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Aristotle).
This article is about my artwork Life Fragments I but I also have a few afterthoughts to place it in context 18 years later, which I’ve separated from the main text below.
Key Words: Life Fragments I, Tony Stewart, breadtag, photomedia, cartoon, modello, sketch, digi-sketch, detail, thumbnail, postcard, catalogue print, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Churchie Emerging Art Exhibition, PhotoAccess, Hmong, Paj Ntaub, Laos, cloth border, applique embroidery, digital mixed media, Transit exhibition, Helene George, Sasha Grishin, large Chinese scroll, Tracey Emin, museum piece, digital camera, digital photography, photography, Internet, travel photography, family photographs, artefact, illusion, strong memory, nostalgia, remembrance, baby boomer, Gen X, millennial
About Art and Digital Art
Early in this article I described digital art, photomedia and some terminology without getting too technical or definitive. The purpose was to outline some issues in my own art.
Digital art is in its infancy and others are thinking of this topic too. There is a long article in Smashing Magazine from 2010 that covers the topic with some interesting interviews. Wikipedia also has a summary on digital art. (I’ve started using Wikiwand to present Wikipedia. Not sure If I’m enamoured yet.)
Afterthoughts on Life Fragments I
Life Fragments I was made in 2002. Then, it was quite sensible to construct fragments of a life from photographs taken with film. For a baby boomer you had more photographs and better ones than your parents, but were not burdened by them as perhaps Gen X were. The millennials had both childhood film and later a massive digital compendium to confront.
Because of writing this article, I have now realised that Life Fragments I could not be made now. Life Fragments I as an art concept just doesn’t make sense in 2020/2021. The world has moved on. Although digital photography and digital technology is still perhaps in its infancy, it doesn’t seem so. It seems the new reality.
Personal photographs are now selfies and are posted on social media. I feel sorry for the children, such as, my nephew’s son whose whole childhood is posted on social media in stills and videos endlessly. I feel sorry for the teenagers whose incautious or malevolently posted photographs may bedevil them for a lifetime. Yet in another twenty years such problems that concern us now and the very social media that are so pervasive will be dead and buried. Something else will reign, as long as civilisation still exists.
In this milieu, Life Fragments I now is more relevant rather than less. It is an anachronism, but also a portrait of a time when everything actually did change. When technologies that we’d relied on all our lifetimes became irrelevant. Sure it had happened before, the automobile, the transistor, TV, the computer, the personal computer and more quickly as the millennium approached, but never so many things at once and never so fast.
We’d been talking about accelerating technological change since the 1970s and waiting for it impatiently, but many things didn’t happen until the millennium.
I mentioned above the Internet (and the World Wide Web), which I first became familiar with in 1996. In 1997 the film Dust off the Wings was I think the first Australian feature film to be shot and edited on video.
I remember stalwarts at the Australian National Film and Sound Archive saying that film would never be replaced by digital.
With regard to 35 mm camera film, Kodak and other manufacturers began to struggle in the late 1990s and most had ceased production by 2003. Although specialist camera film producers still exist they are mostly very small.
Photographic storage and management on the Internet also began around the turn of the millennium. Flickr was launched in 2004, Picasa began in 2002 but was taken over by Google in 2004 who began offering it as freeware. Google closed Picasa down in 2016 offering Google photos as an alternative.
Other things happened as well. We often forget that the smart phone didn’t exist, as available technology, until Steve Jobs revealed the iPhone in 2007. The only social media at the turn of the century was email, chatrooms and bulletin boards (and a few crude early sites that were virtually unknown).
Blogging began just before the millennium and Wikipedia in 2001.
Facebook began in 2004 but didn’t expand massively for a few years. My Space from 2005 to 2008 was the largest social networking platform in the world. YouTube began in 2005. Twitter began in 2006. Snapchat began in 2011. LinkedIn began in 2002 but developed slowly. Pinterest began in 2010. Instagram, a photo and video social networking, service began in 2010.
It is primarily, social media that has changed the landscape that places the artwork Life Fragments I into a fascinating past that will never return.
I noticed in one of the images above a mistake is revealed. It is relatively insignificant. And, if I get round to printing another copy (Edition of 5) I may well correct the mistake. If I do, it may make Edition 1 currently owned by PhotoAccess more valuable. Artists never care about such things. However, value is relative and perhaps unimportant.
Painting as Real Art
In the article above from Smashing Magazine, the questions are raised: Is digital art real art? Is creating on digital media easier than with traditional media? These questions aren’t worth answering because they are hoary old chestnuts that are raised repeatedly in different forms and need to be debunked every time. In my experience digital art requires many hours on the computer. The tools are helpful but so are paint brushes, palette knifes, lino & woodcutting tools, etc.
Photography, print making, drawing methods, almost anything except painting, have had such questions raised. No one can agree on what art is — let alone real art! It is often taken for granted that painting is the master art form and that it is difficult. However, again from my experience some painters in both oils and acrylics are incredibly fast and can complete a painting in a couple of hours. Such comparisons in art are unhelpful at best and nonsense in every other instance.