Alumni News: Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair 2017


Sarah Cliff – Corda’s Carousel (2017) Aquatint, drypoint

Recently graduated MFA student, Sarah Cliff, has had three prints selected for inclusion at the 2017 Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair. The international exhibition takes place between 20th and 23rd October at Building 10, Major Draper Street,  Royal Arsenal Riverside, London, SE18 6GD. A Press View takes place on 19th October.

The Fair receives huge numbers of applicants and competition is fierce, so many congratulations to Sarah on her success. This is not the only achievement associated with Sarah’s completion of the MFA programme. At West Dean College’s Graduation Award’s Day in July, Sarah was the recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize, awarded for consistently high achievement, presented in partnership with West Dean’s partner institution the University of Sussex.

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Alumni Residency at Ochre Print Studio


Sarah Cliff – Iphigenia’s Inconsequential Dreams and Lost Intentions (4)

West Dean College Alumni, Sarah Cliff (MFA) has recently been appointed Artist-in-Residence 2018 at Ochre Print Studio in Guildford. The residency will provide her with access to a fully equipped print studio, workshops and studio space, three-monthly critiques, two exhibitions, a blog and talk, in return for help in coordinating exhibitions and technician responsibilities.

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Claude Cahun: Surviving Incarceration

The fragmented writings of Claude Cahun, writer and artist, from her time in prison awaiting execution during the Nazi occupation of Jersey, provide a chilling insight into the starvation, the freezing cells, the cuts to the body from the sharp straw stuffing of the mattress and the emotional turmoil resulting from fellow prisoners regularly disappearing to be executed.  Many of the episodes she recalls have elements of dark humour, particularly those which allude to the ridiculous logic of the authoritarian power where rules must be followed and reflection or an alternative point of view is forbidden.  When sentenced to six months for possessing a camera, and death by execution for treason, she responded by asking “which sentence must be served first (execution or six months)?”  The irony went unnoticed by the German lawyers, who responded with a factual, legal response.  As if drawing attention to the two cultures at play, through characterisation and narrative she achieves a neat juxtaposition between the ironic farcical attitude of the condemned prisoner and the ideologically driven process of the Nazis, oblivious to her mockery.

Deprived of her camera, her writing in prison assumes a cinematic quality, as if the prison environment is the set and she is directing the camera and the  cast.  A Russian work camp deserter is caught and brought to the prison. He looks like Gary Cooper in “Mr Deeds” , like an “American Aviator”, the “costume in rags”.[1] She fancies him (or is perhaps thinking of herself in a 1927 self-portrait, Beaux Arts, Nantes, cross-dressed as an aviator with camera lens goggles and wearing lipstick).

cahun aviator 1927 235 180 Beaux Arts Nantes

While other work camp deserters are long term imprisoned, “Gary Cooper”  is executed immediately. Cahun seems to ridiculously imply that he is executed because of his film star good looks and as a punishment for her desire for him.

She recounts her horror at the screams of a prisoner who has deliberately eaten rusty nails in a desperate attempt to delay his trial.  The Nazi authorities show no mercy and despite his agony, his trial proceeds and he is executed.  Cahun records her incomprehension at such optimistic yet astonishing self-mutilation.


She and her incarcerated partner, Suzanne Malherbe, (also known as Marcel Moore), would meet by the prison well in front of a horizontal wall at the end of a corridor.  They would continue their creative collaborative practice  by conjuring up  the set of a “Utrillo Ballet” (designed for the Ballet Russe). They imagine that the ballet is taking place not in a Nazi detention camp, but in “paradise, the Champs Elysee Theatre in Paris”[2]. The prisoners, with skin and rags… dusting the iron bars in the yard, watched carefully by the motionless, quiet, ornamental guard, Otto, crammed into his shorts, with his face like a “small apple”, ruminating the “work for works sake” of authoritarianism.


Utrillo, M. 1925, Design from the Ballet, “Barabau”

Cahun writes, “No date, it was a premiere! I was humming away at the good adventure looking for the musician. But the decorator’s name, no doubt it. [Utrillo]  Suzanne and I pronounced it without consulting the programme”[3]

While the imagination and circumstances failed to provide this entertainment every day, Cahun fixated on the prison wall. “The programme was not distributed every day but every day we had the wall,…[ the] incontestable low relief sculpture, the sad daylight…lent solidarity to my dreams.  That is the magical for us, these familiar horizons” which provided confidence and optimism that in the future the horizon would be “a blade of grass or into cat’s eyes. “[4]


Utrillo, M. 1911, Le café de la Tourelle à Montmartre

Gloucester Street prison, St Helier 111-f129a046ca

Sanders, P., @ 1944, Gloucester Road Prison, Jersey, Unknown photographer

Cahun’s extraordinary sense of plane and perspective, which in her photographs is used to create instability and intrigue, condenses the prison corridors and prison walls into a stage on which the prisoners and guards dance. The prison’s empty architecture and the palette of dust, rags and stone evoke the street paintings of Utrillo and the Boiffard photographs of desolate scenes in Nadja, by the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton.

Boiffard Paris Nadja We are going to be servied outside the wine shop

Boiffard, J.A., 1928, Nadja, We went to be served outside the wine shop

While any artist deprived of materials and tools and incarcerated in austere circumstances might indulge in imaginative play and black humour in an effort to survive in an environment they cannot control, Cahun’s particular distortions of the visual plane and perspective alongside her insistence on conjuring up theatrical stages from the landscape, buildings or backdrops, is a consistent practice which interrogates the blurring of reality with artifice and contributes to the indeterminacy of her work.


[1] Cahun, C, 1944, Prison writings on toilet paper, Jersey Heritage Trust,  JHT/1995/00045/2/4, n.p.

[2] Cahun, C.,1944, opcit, n.p.

[3] ibid, n.p.

[4] ibid, n.p.

Is suicide a voluntary act?

IMG_2818I recently presented this work to a group of artists and asked for responses. Broadly speaking, half responded that mental illness was the cause of suicide; that an individual driven by mental torment is unable to control their suicidal actions; and therefore suicide is not a voluntary act. Other participants were angered that such an insensitive question should be asked about a taboo subject. One person declared the work to be “shit” and that they would walk out of a gallery that displayed such a work.  Nobody seemed to think that suicide might result from societal malaise.

The question was first put to me in an essay title, Is suicide a voluntary act?,  set in 1977 when I was studying Cultural Studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the days before Thatcherism obliterated such hotbeds of left wing radicalism from university education. I remember an acceptable answer needed to include references to the sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who proposed that the decline of religion and community due to industrialisation resulted in alienation of the individual and increased the rate of suicides. Is this still relevant today?

The late contemporary art theorist, Mark Fisher, committed suicide in 2016 after a long battle with depression exacerbated by institutional, work-related stress. “We cower in our offices, experiencing our inability to cope with the impossible workload, as our personal failure and shame, telling each other that there is no time to talk.” (2015, Goldsmiths’ People’s Tribune)  As educationalists fixate on data and measurement, jumping through hoops to meet regulatory standards, education takes a back seat. He argued that mental stress is not a private issue but a direct consequence of the social dysfunction of capitalism which not only causes the illness, but then charges you for the means to keep well, by going to the gym, eating better, or paying for therapy. Is this capitalism’s inadequate, half-hearted attempt to make amends or a more cynical and simplistic exercise in maintaining the flow of labour?

The description by the media of an  “epidemic” of suicides in U.K. prisons; the daily disruption of trains by “a person on the line”; the rapid increase of suicides, particularly in young males; implies some more underlying root cause other than mental illness. A strategy of merely treating the symptoms of stress is high risk and irrational. If individuals with no previous history of mental illness are committing suicide, it makes better sense to identify the causes of distress and remove them. For those that feel helpless and hopeless but do not have access to therapy or the means to get well, then suicide will continue to present a compelling option.

a letter to mitchell browne, ‘why should artists at work fund idlers at art?’

School For Birds

I’m so happy to bring you this letter. One of my favourite artistic collaborators, Dave Lamb, has written this beautiful, eloquent, generous and immensely clever response to Mitchell Browne’s Syndey Morning Herald article ‘WHY SHOULD ARTISTS AT WORK FUND IDLERS AT ART?’ Enjoy and, if you happen to know Mitchell, please pass this on. Dave wants to hang out. 


Hi Mitchell

My name is Dave, and I’m an artist. We’ve never met, although you assume an awful lot about my lifestyle.

Last week I read your opinion piece on the Sydney Morning Herald website, along with the comments it generated. I must admit, I originally felt a lot of the ire that was expressed there, but I realise it’s not fair or productive to respond with scorn or sarcasm – that would only serve to distance our positions further, and one of the chief goals of the arts is, in my…

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Petersfield Arts and Crafts Society Exhibition this weekend: My Exhibits