Stuart Mayes: Notes from a small town
Notes from a small town: Wednesday 22 April 2020
Until a few weeks ago I expected to be in Stockholm at this time, not just in Stockholm but at Supermarket Art Fair. Instead I find myself in here the small Swedish town where I live and work. Enköping might ’only’ be fifty minutes from Stockholm by train but it is worlds apart. Knowing that I ’should’ be in the city in the throng of the fair makes the lack of a vibrant art-scene (ANY art-scene) here even more acute.
This morning I am at work. I am putting together educational material and an activity pack for a temporary exhibition that opens in early May. My half time job as the local council’s Arts Education Officer is good – I like the work and really appreciate the regular income after years of working free-lance. The challenge now is making the shift from being very hands-on to producing digital content. It’s an entirely different way of working – one that I am not completely unfamiliar with, however I last worked on online projects twenty years ago and “we’ve all passed a lot of water since then” (as a friend of a friend says). Working for a Swedish local authority in the midst of a health pandemic is undeniably different from working with an overly ambitious internet start-up with initially endless venture capital funding at the height of the millennial internet bubble.
Do I believe in ’muscle memory’? Maybe that’s not quite the right question but somehow I feel the lack of Supermarket viscerally – my mind and body are reacting to not doing something that has become habitual. For the past nine years the fair has been part of my annual cycle, and this year that cycle is broken, it is no wonder that I feel some kind of … what is it that I feel? Am I feeling something like Mr Tumnus feels in Narnia – where it is always winter but never Christmas. Like Christmas, Supermarket is a much anticipated annual celebration, the planning of which is undertaken over many months. During those months an excitement builds and there is a longing for that day when all the various preparations come together. It is with both excitement and nervousness that I pick-up a copy of the magazine/catalogue that I have worked on together with Alice (editor) and Kathi (designer) – that feeling too is absent despite us having completed months of work with the exhibitor’s texts, as well as feature articles and interviews by a host of international artists, writers, curators and theorists. I miss holding the 2020 publication in my hand, and that initial quick flip through the pages to see how it looks before heading off to the exhibitor’s/pnp lounge where I can take a bit more time and enjoy reading familiar words. Familiar they might be, but seeing them in print, on paper, in the magazine, makes them real for me.
At six o’clock this evening I will watch the live stream of Alice, Andreas and Pontus marking what should have been the official opening of the now cancelled and rescheduled Supermarket Art Fair 2020.
This is not the Supermarket 2020 Art Fair that I was expecting
Notes from a small town: Thursday 23 April 2020
It was good fun to watch the slightly shambolic live stream yesterday evening. And at the same time it made me all too aware of what we are all dealing with right now. Sweden is one of a very few countries where restrictions on personal movement are relatively lax. A group of artists were able to broadcast live from the streets of Stockholm safe in the knowledge that they weren’t doing anything provocative or prohibited. I wonder how it was received in countries were there are strict quarantines and curfews.
I missed the champagne.
Thursday morning I spent finding my feet with Supermarket’s blog. Making posts with the content we have received from this year’s exhibitors and artists is a great way to see more of their activities and to hear about their plans and projects. It brings home (literally!) the importance of having time and space to share things with each other.
Before heading off to the studio I spoke with friends in London. One of them works on education and community programmes for a couple of the larger galleries in London, she is furloughed at the moment. But what exactly does that mean when you are on a zero hours contract? With no end of the UK’s lockdown in sight it seems likely that she will not be given any hours over the summer which is usually a busy time with public tours and special events. Galleries, museums, and institutions appear to remain closed for at least the foreseeable future. Even the autumn term looks uncertain as even the galleries’ programme managers (with regular hours) have been furloughed so are not at work doing all their usual planning and preparations. I cannot imagine how difficult my life would be if I were still living in London.
Notes from a small town: Friday 24 April 2020
Much smoother uploading of blog posts! Though there are some ’curious’ aspects of making each post – once you choose a ’cover image’ it seems that you can’t change or edit it. This was an issue when I selected an image that had too low a resolution for some screens. The image looked fine, if a little oversized, to me but the artist was not really happy – and I certainly didn’t want to present a poor quality of their work. The situation was resolved by creating a new post identical in every aspect except for the cover image, and then quickly uploading the new version and deleting the older version.
The studio packed with second-hand materials offers something of the comfort of crowds
I spent the afternoon at the studio – all too conscious that being able to go to the studio is something denied to many artists living under lockdown in various countries. Over the recent weeks I have found myself working on new series that has been on my mind for quite some time. I am working with second-hand menswear again, specifically business shirts and ties. Shirts have featured in my practice for more than twenty years now. Not always but often second-hand, the shirts have include those that I wore in my first job after art-school, those of my partner, boys school uniform shirts, and donations from friends. But mostly they have been anonymous second-hand shirts sourced in charity shops. I like not knowing the history of the garments (both the shirts and ties), signs of wear on the collar and cuffs of shirts, creases left where ties have been knotted reveal traces of another life. Together the garments and I collaborate to create something new. The current series combines shirts and ties into a single work, previously I have made pieces with either shirts or ties. I am excited by what is emerging and it feels good to working with these materials again after a hiatus of a few years.
I wonder if my return to something familiar is a response to conditions in which we all currently find ourselves. My life here in the small town is pretty socially isolating at the best of times, with the government’s coronavirus guidelines and my own wish to avoid contracting the illness I feel even more remote than usual. While this is not necessarily a problem in itself (I am good at entertaining myself and always have too many projects on the go), The further reduction of what was already limited interaction with other people does affect me. I am grateful that technology affords meeting-up with friends both here in Sweden and the UK via Skype but it is no substitute for sharing real time and space with the people that I care for. Perhaps that sense of material absence is what made me gravitate back to the shirts and ties - literally the fabric of my and other men’s existence. The hours spent unpicking and re-stitching seams, handling garments that other men have handled is perhaps the closest that I dare permit myself to close physical contact. The closest that I come to finding comfort in the company of strangers.
Hours pass in quiet work, the Swedish spring days become longer and longer. A little before seven o’clock in the evening I begin to feel hungry. I lay the separated sections of shirts on sheets of tissue paper and roll them up, place another sheet of tissue over the ’emblem’ pattern laid out in ties, put the pins, tape-measure, scissors, needles and thread back in the sewing box. I switch off the work-light, lock the door and cycle home hoping that a friend's internet connection has been restored and that we can share an evening together – me in Enköping, her in London.
Stuart Mayes is a British artist living and working in Sweden since 2011. He has been a proofreader and language editor for the Supermarket publication since 2012. His practice includes education projects and running Glitter Ball showroom & projects (Enköping). He regularly participates in Supermarket's PNP programme.