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Scott Rogers

The equestrian paintings of 18th century English artist George Stubbs provoke a peculiar fantasy for me. I envision one of them being X-rayed, though that’s hardly unusual. The weirdness of my reverie unfolds something like this: the conservators and art handlers gently remove the painting’s frame. The canvas is positioned on the bed of the specialised imaging device with a sheet of photographic film beneath it. X-rays bombard the picture, yielding an image of an image embedded in the image. When the results of the process are revealed, a puzzled gasp is heard from the gathered workers. On examination, it is found that Stubbs had rendered the skeleton and musculature of the horses beneath the painted surface. The artist’s fetishistic obsession with verisimilitude is revealed inside and out.

To my knowledge this scenario exists only in my imagination – though I wouldn’t be surprised if the speculation were true. Regardless of whether Stubbs drew skeletons beneath the beings he depicted, I can feel the invisible presence of their entire anatomy within his pictures. There is an unnerving liveliness to a Stubbs horse. A sense of arrested life force. In order to hone his craft Stubbs completed numerous dissections, carefully learning the mechanics of equine bodies.1 The developing artist likely engaged grave robbers as well, publishing detailed drawings of human anatomy as part of his self-initiated training.2 However, critics have noted that the humans in Stubbs’ oeuvre are stiff and rather listless – more like bad statues than people. In comparison, the horses ripple with energy.

This semblance of life makes Stubbs’ horses unsettling. An equestrian picture by Stubbs operates on a level that is both sober and enigmatic, in that it reveals itself as a precise document, and mysterious facsimile all at once. The animal bodies are accurate to a degree that is almost calculating. This is particularly notable in Whistlejacket (1762), one of Stubbs’ most famous works, which holds pride of place at the National Gallery in London. For this enormous canvas, Stubbs painted the prized stallion of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham at life size, creating a frozen double of the formidable horse as it rears. Like the studhorse that adorns the bonnet of a Ferrari, Stubbs’ artwork evidences the proprietary purview of its patron. The painting is an accurate accounting. But despite being presented riderless, on a vague, inchoate background, Whistlejacket is not a straightforward depiction – it is the tangible declaration of power as it penetrates living things. This painting is more than a mere visual verification of wealth and authority, it is an act of capture, a cunning snare that affixes its subject within the field of the surface. The equine protagonist enacts this tension, without reins or saddle, powerful and intimidating, but invisibly bound in an endless recursive game of pictorial mastery. The painting seems to speak for its former owner, “This animal, untamed in spirit, is mine and always shall be.”

I visited Amie Siegel’s Bloodlines at the end of August 2022, and in many ways the film continues this well rehearsed relation between art and the maintenance of power. Commissioned by and installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, (Modern One) the video is a thorough document of how an exhibition of historic paintings is assembled through loans from private collections. The exhibition-in-process featured in the film is George Stubbs: ‘all done from Nature’ which was presented at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes from 12 October, 2019 – 26 January, 2020. However, the vast majority of the film does not focus on this exhibition. Instead, Siegel’s primary subjects are the elements of exhibition making that are pre and post public display. In other words, behind the scenes. With a methodical, almost Hitchcockian pace, the camera crew visits the homes of British aristocrats in the lead up to and after completion of the exhibition. Tracking shots pass through rooms and halls brimming with opulent, if well-worn, décor. There is the persistent ticking of clocks, but no soundtrack, voiceover, or narrative outside the diegetic. Animals are ever-present: beloved old hounds wandering desolate halls; lap dog tchotchkes on a mantle; fantastical Asiatic birds swirling on tapestries and wallpaper; taxidermied tanagers in bell jars; robins and swifts calling from the external grounds; sheep and cattle; pheasants shot down; coursing and scent dogs; an undocumented fox driven to death; horses.

The first humans to appear in Bloodlines are not the wealthy elite whose collections are featured, but the domestic cleaners, and the handlers tasked with transporting the artworks. The comparison with the grooms, stablehands, and gleaners in Stubbs’ paintings is bluntly reinforced. As it was in the 1700s, the people working in these houses appear to be the obedient servants of the blue-blooded. The workers in Siegel’s film go about their tasks with methodical professionalism, and the utmost restraint and care. Each movement and action is carefully undertaken, precisely trained and timed, well-practised and effortless. As the old adage about art handling goes, ‘If people notice your work, you’re doing it wrong.’ Ironically, the secret rites for correctly shifting artworks are made fully visible. Only minor incursions appear from a different kind of environment. A piercing or neck tattoo, the smart-casual company uniforms, Cockney or northern accents encoding quietly muttered commands, the darker skin of someone of African descent.

I was struck particularly by the scenes of hunting in Bloodlines. Prior to watching the film I assumed that it would be nearly impossible to get permission to document such activities, given their illegal or unpopular status. However, blood sports are rather unemotionally portrayed by Siegel. A morning shooting game birds is just part of the normal routine. In an interlude to the logic of the film, dogs are bundled into a lorry and driven to a fox hunt. There are numerous identifiable people in this scene, unconcerned for anonymity, and presumably playing themselves. The dogs and riders are captured by drone as they trample through bucolic hedgerows and paddocks. The sequence feels closer to period drama than documentary. Straight out of Stubbs.

Made illegal in Scotland in 2002 and England in 2004,3 fox hunting is obviously still practised on a wide-scale throughout Britain. There are a number of loopholes in the Hunting Act that allow for its proponents to justify their actions to law enforcement. To pursue foxes with dogs and horses, one need only know the legal exemptions to avoid prosecution.4 However, the court of public perception is not as easily skirted. The vast majority of UK citizens disagree with fox hunting and find its cruelty abhorrent. That Siegel was able to document aspects of this practice in detail led me to two assumptions. First, the artist must have had special access to this group of people. If one were making an unsanctioned documentary, permission would perhaps be unnecessary, but a commission such as this would surely have required assent from its human subjects. Second, the hunters must not be concerned in the slightest about how they appear to the viewers of Siegel’s film. Bloodlines evidences an obvious entitlement. Regardless of being made behind the scenes, the owners of these country estates haven’t changed their behaviour for Siegel’s portrayal.

I found this feeling of complicity underlying the film rather strange, despite enjoying its tense, symmetrical course. It wasn’t something I could easily articulate. After visiting Bloodlines I read reviews5 by various critics and an interview6 with Siegel about the work. There are numerous incisive, and enriching commentaries, and most seem to agree that the work is subtly critical, however, ‘…tactful, almost tacit, about class…’7 Bloodlines might be. My take on the film is a little different. I’m not convinced that this work is critical. Bloodlines may operate through the presumed critical veneer of contemporary art, but its subjects feel eerily stable and unchallenged. The film portrays the system of art circulation between the gentry and the museum as an ideal, seamlessly functioning mechanism, a fairytale. If anything this liquidity reinforces the presumed eternal status of the British ruling class and their accrued wealth and influence. Appearances of decrepitude and anachronistic glory might allude to an always-to-come slow demise, but ultimately Bloodlines services the existing order as an accurate accounting, just as Stubbs paintings did. An electric heater beside exquisite fusty furniture is hardly a call for revolution.

Ruminating on these incipient feelings, sitting in Modern One, I felt a sudden sense of vertigo. Around me in this grand Georgian building lit only by exit signs, a powerful projector, and the occasional illicit phone screen, were gallery visitors captivated by this view from behind the curtain. Young and old watched transfixed as art handlers carefully lifted Stubbs paintings from brass chains, packed them with acid-free materials and clear polythene, then shuttled them in their Plastazote lined crates to and from climate-controlled vans. Together, we were watching on-screen workers do the same work that I used to do in that very room. But the work didn’t seem the same.

From 2016 until the pandemic I was part of the Art Handling Team (AHT) for the National Galleries of Scotland. This was just one of my many freelance gigs as an art handler or install technician in Scotland’s various art institutions. I had many employers and many strange, frustrating, and hilarious experiences. I took on this work because I needed it. As was my deadpan riposte about the cultural value of my job: ‘I exchange labour for money.’ As such it would be easy to cast shade on these times. The cliché surrounding art handlers is that they are grumpy, and quick to complain. To an extent that was and is me. I did become disillusioned and cynical toward the end. I was carrying a painful chronic injury from an onerous job. COVID was a chance for many of my employers to restructure their relationship to freelancers, and their approach to self-employed workers was offensive and out of touch. I was tired of the typecasting narrative. It’s a common perception amongst art handlers that when you are ‘back of house’ you get pigeonholed as such. Being an artist is a desirable attribute for the job, but ultimately you’re working with other people’s artwork instead of your own.

This idea of being typecast is a curious one. I don’t think it’s exactly true, but it’s easy to fall into the hierarchical roleplay of crude, maybe even paranoid delusion. To an extent the art handlers in Bloodlines do look like they’ve been trained for the part. The right clothes, the right movements, the right techniques. I even recognised a friend. This all looked familiar to me because art handling is a guild-like pursuit – highly specialist, its secrets guarded, and exchanged primarily without documentation. To say this another way, it’s a job that you learn on the job through watching, listening, doing, and eventually teaching. In nearly ten years with various institutions around Scotland I never received a handbook, code of best practice, or formal training course – though the contracts contain non-disclosure clauses. Whether carrying a Titian or building dubious installations, all of my knowledge was learned from my friends and acquaintances. It was a kind of power we got to wield. With it we cared for other people’s artwork as best we could. It’s these relations of shared knowledge and mutuality that I found very special about art handling.

Underlying these aspects, art handlers, in all their varying vicissitudes, are also united by another common trait: they are witnesses to the parts of the art field that tend to remain hidden. The actual behind the scenes. Artists at their lowest ebb. Registrars in states of disarray. Courier drivers watching porn on their phones. Accidents and near misses. Floods and leaks. Badly packed or broken objects. Temper tantrums. Chips and cracks. Lost condition reports. Lost paintings. Crumbling surfaces. Inches of dust on ancient frames. Curators placing their own collections, or the collections of their friends, in group shows. Gallerists double selling the same work. Sexist, homophobic, and racist comments from salaried superiors. Abuse of power in diverse forms. All are part of art handling, though none are part of the job description. Whistleblowing or internal criticism may be greeted with a silent end to your services.

Scott Rogers, Spirit Medium, vinyl banner of Whistlejacket by George Stubbs in abandoned luxury car showroom, Lefkosia, CY, 2022.

Returning to Bloodlines and the order of appearances in the film, I had a little epiphany. The first humans on screen are one thing, but I would argue that the first people in the film are the ones operating the cameras. I can feel their silent, invisible presence in every shot. This camera crew creates a subtly carceral situation. We see the cleaners, art handlers, and museum workers doing their jobs, working precisely and efficiently, but they are undoubtedly on best behaviour. To the uninitiated this looks like an intriguing set of rituals, but to the adept there are clearly missing elements. There is none of the conversation, the cheeky looks, the laughter, the cigarette or coffee break, the radio or the playlist. There is none of the commentary, negotiation, or questioning. No commiserating about the early or late hours, the long drive, the heavy weight, the bad pay, the hangover. No one is faced with a dangerous or abusive situation. There is always enough packing material. The screws don’t strip. The crate is the right size. The tail lift works. This is the process of exhibition-making, but the blood is drained from it. The worker humans are like automatons reduced to pure function, while the hunters remain unfazed.

Recently, I was chastised for some poorly worded advice I’d passed along. I told a young artist friend in need of work that they should avoid art handling, despite its allure of flexibility. In comparison to Deliveroo, this strange job is probably a more fulfilling option in the gig economy. However, ‘It’s a dead end.’ I said. Once this got around to another artist-art handler friend, he challenged me about it. Fair enough. I didn’t mean that artists shouldn’t work, or that it’s somehow a sign of failure to support your practice through other means. What I should have said is: “Art handling can be really useful work as an artist. It gives you great friends and skills. But it can also give you knowledge that you wish you didn’t have.” Like an X-ray, art handling reveals the subsurface in a way that Bloodlines never does.

  1. Joe Lloyd, “George Stubbs: All Done from Nature”, Studio International, ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Ash Murphy, “No wonder fox hunting is still prevalent – the ban is designed to fail British wildlife”, ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Elizabeth Fullerton, “Painting Pedigree: Amie Siegel at Thomas Dane Gallery”, ↩︎
  6. Joe Lloyd, “Amie Siegel – interview: ‘There’s a lot of information underneath the information’”, ↩︎
  7. Dominic Paterson, “Genealogy as a Matter of Tracking Shots: Amie Siegel’s Bloodlines”, ↩︎

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