Parade of the Denizens is a collaborative artwork by Ed Pien and Eva Lis. Peripatetic by nature, it takes the form of a horse-drawn carriage which tours a handful of Essex towns skirting the M25. Lis’s glossy black ‘carriage’ contains works by Pien; we must peer in to discover its contents – a gothic, fantastical display.
The work, we are told, is in part an exploration of migrant life. In the words of Lis, “Most of my life I lived the ghost-like life of a migrant. There is something very intense about living such a fragmented life. It is so fuelled by dreams.” Ghosts? Dreams? These are two very different worlds, surely, though the idea of not belonging to this world runs through both. In the British vernacular, a denizen is an alien who has been absorbed – to an extent – into the country in which he or she resides; a person who has been naturalised but is not indigenous. This brings many things to mind: the peripatetic nature of artists as well as their works, the migrant (not just immigrant) society in Britain. Closer to home, there is also the notion that these chosen Essex towns are on the ‘margins’ (their word) of London – close, but not yet absorbed by this sprawling metropolis and the mixed blessing that this different ‘world’ would represent.
This part of Essex is not artistically replete (I know – I grew up there.) It’s a good distance from the activities of Firstsite in Colchester and lies close enough to the capital that it is susceptible to a creative ebb. So with this and the questions of migrancy in mind, I was intrigued to see how the horse-drawn artwork would sit in an Essex landscape.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. Arriving at King George’s Playing Fields in Brentwood on a brisk September morning, I was told by a gentleman clothed in a fluorescent jacket that No, they were no longer there – they had packed up and left at eight that morning. The information released had stated the work would be in Brentwood that day, though nowhere could I find out what time I would be able to view it. That it had already moved on was not a complete surprise, it was also (if we are being generous) not entirely contrary to the press release, so perhaps it was just unfortunate.
Or perhaps not. This undiscovered artwork brought to mind a host of similar incidents, many other times when I have trotted around a town trying to locate an artwork or art space. Those familiar with taking turns down unpromising side streets and peering at discreetly labelled door buzzers will know what I’m getting at. Why is it that art is so often difficult to find? It certainly doesn’t help contemporary art’s defence against accusations of elitism, this feeling that its very location is only party to those in the know.
That is not to say I am entirely against an element of the elusive. Much of the fun, I believe, is in the thrill of the chase (Mike Nelson’s mischievously secretive installation at the core of last year’s Frieze Art Fair was a good example of this.) It is also, more generally, about putting the public in a questing state of mind; once you set out with a mode of ‘searching’ you are liable to find something of interest, even if it is not exactly what you were looking for. This is one of contemporary art’s greatest benefits: instilling curiosity.
But at what cost, I wonder? Whilst I may enjoy the thrill of the chase, there may be others who are frustrated and put off – in particular those who are on the ‘margins’ of the art world. It’s a question of how much we are prepared to sacrifice in the game of secrecy versus visibility. Some may say the important thing is audience quality rather than audience quantity; perhaps it is better that one person sees the work who really enjoys it, than ten who for whatever reason do not engage. But we are straying into elitist ground again here. Shouldn’t all ten people at least be given the chance to find the work? If we are wont to be secretive, this can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways and doesn’t necessitate hiding work about secrecy. A secret about a secret: surely this is just tautology?
In any case, the occasional frustration won’t stop me scampering around in quest of artworks, but it does make me question the tendency towards secrecy in my own practice. Some things will change. Publishing the correct time that events take place will be a good start.