Work that doesn’t work

by Helen Barker

I think my work is often made up of things that don’t work.  I’ve been making some lino prints and assembling them into decoupage pictures. Most of the lino prints don’t work. But I kind of like this. They’re messy, sloppy and technically inaccurate. The ink blobs, the cutting is scratchy and the content is dubious. I’ve been dealing a lot lately with the way that thinking and doing don’t add up. It’s not possible to enact a thought in a thing. When I start making an image, all the ‘thinking’ gets squashed out of the frame and the material demands attention. Look at me! Look at me! I’m not going to do what you thought I was going to do. I’m not going to co-operate! Making and thinking become locked in an argument. Have you ever argued with a piece of vinyl? It’s pretty tough.

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard part of Great Lives – Lewis Carroll, Matthew Paris asked Lynne Truss and Robin Wilson to read out a section of Through The Looking Glass:

There were three chairs at the head of the table: the Red and White Queens had already taken two of them, but the middle one was empty. Alice sat down in it, rather uncomfortable at the silence, and longing for some one to speak.

At last the Red Queen began. ‘You’ve missed the soup and fish,’ she said. ‘Put on the joint!’ And the waiters set a leg of mutton before Alice, who looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve a joint before.

‘You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,’ said the Red Queen. ‘Alice—Mutton: Mutton—Alice.’ The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice; and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

‘May I give you a slice?’ she said, taking up the knife and fork, and looking from one Queen to the other.

‘Certainly not,’ the Red Queen said, very decidedly: ‘it isn’t etiquette to cut anyone you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!’ And the waiters carried it off, and brought a large plum-pudding in its place.

‘I won’t be introduced to the pudding, please,’ Alice said, rather hastily, ‘or we shall get no dinner at all. May I give you some?’

But the Red Queen looked sulky, and growled ‘Pudding—Alice: Alice—Pudding. Remove the pudding!’ and the waiters took it away so quickly that Alice couldn’t return its bow.

However, she didn’t see why the Red Queen should be the only one to give orders; so, as an experiment, she called out ‘Waiter! Bring back the pudding!’ and there it was again in a moment, like a conjuring trick. It was so large that she couldn’t help feeling a little shy with it, as she had been with the mutton; however, she conquered her shyness by a great effort, and cut a slice and handed it to the Red Queen.

‘What impertinence!’ said the Pudding. ‘I wonder how you’d like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!’

It spoke in a thick, suety sort of voice, and Alice hadn’t a word to say in reply: she could only sit and look at it and gasp.

‘Make a remark,’ said the Red Queen: ‘it’s ridiculous to leave all the conversation to the pudding!’

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The scraps of my work hang messily in my studio and burn a hole in my head as though they are trying to out-stare me. Sometimes I do not know which way to look. And as I tear into them, chopping about their edges, I feel a little unnerved – as though they are whispering beneath my hand “I wouldn’t have done that if I were you.” The work just doesn’t want to work with me. Perhaps I am suffering the same problem as Alice. I’m so hungry that I’m willing to serve a slice of pudding to the Red Queen anyway. And now I have no choice but to obey her – and make a remark. I wonder what that re-mark might be?