Tab Interview: Lizzie Fisher

TABATHA LEGGETT spoke to Lizzie Fisher, a curator at Kettle’s Yard about the John Cage exhibition.

Art exhibition john cage Kettle's Yard lizzie fisher Tabatha Leggett

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‘Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance don’t realise that I use chance as a discipline. They think I use it as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask.’

– John Cage

John Cage (1912-1992): American composer, artist, writer and pioneer of twentieth-century avant-garde culture.

In light of the above, showcasing all of Cage’s skills and interests in a single exhibition is challenging at best. And it’s made even more challenging if the exhibition must contain up to 135 works, but should only show 105 works at any one time. The final 30 should, in true Cage style, be represented by empty spaces in the exhibition, or ‘silences’.

These are the criteria of the touring ‘Every Day is a Good Day’ exhibition. And these were the criteria that Lizzie Fletcher, a curator at Kettle’s Yard, was presented with when she chose to showcase Cage’s work. So, why did she take on this highly complicated project? ‘I’ve always been fascinated by avant-garde music and art,’ Lizzie told me, ‘And I was really excited to showcase John Cage’s work at Kettle’s Yard again.

‘Last time we showed his work here was in 2006. The exhibition was called ‘Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57’, and it explored the vision and reality of Black Mountain College: an approach to interdisciplinary education that encouraged students to learn by experiment and ‘start at zero’ rather than simply absorb information. Cage’s work was part of this exhibition, and so it seemed natural to follow this up by exhibiting his work here again.’

‘Every Day is a Good Day’ is not, however, just any ordinary art exhibition. As well as showing footage of Cage’s lectures, poems and music, it presents his lesser-known prints, watercolours and drawings. The placing of these works is inspired by Cage’s chance-determined musical scores, and so can be interpreted differently by each venue on its tour. None of the works are labelled, but each piece is numbered, and corresponding information can be found in a separate list of works.

‘The ‘score’ for the exhibition at Kettle’s Yard will involve three major changes, or ‘movements’,’ Lizzie told me. ‘On 11th October, 18th October and 8th November, we will take away between zero and 20 works and replace them. Furthermore, every third day, we will remove one piece of work from the exhibition. These works will not be replaced.’

All of these movements are randomly chosen by an I-Ching inspired computer generator, and so it could be the case that some of the 135 works that Kettle’s Yard are currently in possession of will not be used at all. ‘It’s exciting, because the exhibition is constantly moving: you can visit it numerous times, and it will never be quite the same. There’s a sense of constant renewal,’ Lizzie said. ‘But, it’s also sad, because there are some particular works I’d love to display, and it might be the case that they never get taken out of storage here. In fact, the work on our poster may never be displayed!

‘At Kettle’s Yard, we designed the exhibition on a grid system, whereby the locations of the works are hung in random places,’ Lizzie continued. ‘There were practical limitations, of course. For example, in our furthermost room, the ceiling is quite tall, and so we decided not to hang anything taller than our highest ladder could reach. Furthermore, some of the works have to be displayed together, and so we couldn’t allocate totally random places for all of them.’

Photographs by Louise Long

It soon became clear to me that the exhibition had presented Lizzie with a huge challenge. It can’t be easy to adapt such a specific brief to fit a space like Kettle’s Yard, where different rooms are hit by light at obscure angles, and a large, central space is non-existent. There is no doubt that the exhibition as a whole is thoroughly interesting. However, it wasn’t overly obvious to me that the individual works were particularly impressive. I asked Lizzie to talk me through a few of her favourite pieces.

‘Most of the work on display here is very intricate,’ she began. ‘And we have to bear in mind that whilst Cage was an anarchist, pacifist and Zen Buddhist, he did not want to force his beliefs upon others. He wanted to embed his ideas of revolution into a practice that rejects convention.

‘A great example of this is in the works that show footprints. These pieces just show a single footprint each, but none of the footprints are specifically placed: they’re all random. There’s 100 ways a foot could land on a piece of paper, and this is what Cage wanted to explore: what would happen if he didn’t plan where a foot hit a piece of paper. The result is beautiful.’

Cage’s other works include the use of unconventional materials, such as teabags and smoke. And, of course, all of the work is random. ‘My favourite pieces are the outlines of the stones,’ Lizzie told me. ‘In these cases, Cage has thrown some stones onto some paper and outlined them with pencil. Again, he hasn’t placed the stones in a special order or planned their positioning – it’s all random.’

And so, I began to understand Cage more. His works are not about self-expression. Rather, they represent a kind of union between the art and the audience, and thus these particular works are far more impressive as a whole than as individual pieces. This is even more evident in his collaborative work.

Cage had no qualms about collaborating with other people in creating his art,’ Lizzie explained. ‘He came up with numerous ideas and worked with other people to turn them into realities. He did this with his music too: his audiences often participated in his shows.’ Far from Damien Hirst’s famous attitude that involved passing his work onto other people because he ‘couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it,’ it struck me that Cage saw a closer connection between creator and originator of art, and genuinely wanted to blur the line between artist and audience.

Finally, I asked Lizzie what the reception to the show so far has been like. ‘It’s been amazing. We’ve had a huge audience, with people travelling a long way to come to Cambridge and see the show. We’re the closest the exhibition will be to London on its tour, so we’ve had a really busy first week. And a lot of students have come too.’

‘Every Day is a Good Day’ is a stunning exhibition. It’s brilliantly thought out and thought-provoking. I implore you to brave the trek up Castle Hill and visit this exhibition. It’s really worth it.

‘Every Day is a Good Day’ is at Kettle’s Yard until 14th November 2010. Admission is free. For more information on talks linked to the exhibition, click here.