The Plot
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Up the Rhine, Inside an Ore Barge, In the Fog with Radar, In Front of a Rhine Push Tug, With 3000 Tons of Acid Alongside in Another Barge
Couper’s tug and barge (centre top) loaded in a Rhine barge for transportation from Rotterdam to Duisburg, 1996. Part of the Lembruck Museum Steel Fulcrum project

Max Couper in his time 
by Marina Vaizey

Max Couper: water, petroleum, steel, and mud; four countries, three museums, and four cities. A series called The Plot unfolded over time from the Thames in London where it was plotted, across the waterways of northern Europe over eighteen months, involving the artist and waterman Max Couper, his maps, his charts, his tug Pablo, and a barge.

Incorporated in the on-going work were notions not only of travel but also of differing roads of activity, of traditional modes of travel subverted and changed by the self consciousness of the artist. Traditional skills were needed, of navigation, of the knowledge of how to sail, of chart reading, of the permissions needed to move from country to country. The tug itself came from time to time to rest on dry land, winched and craned, to leave its imprint. This book is about the souvenirs of those events, for all that remains of a work executed through time and travel is its record, part document, part documentary, part artwork.


Barge in Barge
Couper’s Thames barge from London inside a Rhine ore barge during transportation up the Rhine to Duisburg
Part of the Lehmbruck Museum Steel Fulcrum project 
 

Couper’s art draws attention not only to time – and work, work literally in keeping afloat – but to the interplay between nature and artifice, the man made and the natural. The boats are steel; they are powered by petroleum, fossil fuel, extracted and refined, the black gold of the industrial age, the fuel of heating, electricity, transport, and travel. The rivers and the waterways have been teased, altered, by human intervention, but they also have a life of their own, support lives other than human. And the efficacy of transport, with its network of permissions by human hands – the bureaucracy of northern Europe – and the skill of the human navigator, the sailor, is also at the mercy of natural happenings, of currents and tides, of weather.

This is a book of works in progress over a period of time – of installations, performances, and the souvenirs, reminiscences, remainders, and reminders of times past. In these works the footprints and imprints of forms, and the moulds and casings are of as much import as that which they contained. The frame and the setting are crucial. All are part of the spectrum of visual arts as they are practiced at the end of the 20th century. It’s not just what you do, but the way that you do it – and where.

It is not necessarily a new phenomenon: visual artists have long been proponents of show business, delvers in real as well as imagined time, devisors and entrepreneurs of spectacles and theatre, street performances and events. Such notable multi media figures as Indigo Jones and Peter Paul Rubens were renowned in their day for their skills in these areas.

In the case of Max Couper, sculptor and event maker, his work is modified, transformed, and irradiated by the process of his daily life. He lives on and works from a series of studio barges on the Thames, moored facing east and west, a trio insinuating itself sideways into the river. It is not everybody’s work place and living place that rises and falls with the tide.

Couper’s art and sculpture thus revolve around boats. Boats obviously involve water and imply the notion not only of movement and transport but also of working. And the act of working is itself perhaps a metaphor: a boat sits on the surface but depends for its success on a sure knowledge of what goes on underneath, in the substance on which it rests, on which it travels. Knowing the tides, currents, and depths, is but a small part of the continual human interaction with the artifact – the boat – which, skimming the surface, is dependent for its survival on the interaction of its craftsmanship and the guidance by its human inhabitants.


Max Couper works both on his own, and with collaborators. Rather like his own tug carried on a freighter down the river, his interests and activities are individual yet not detached from the wider stream of contemporary art activity.

A recent book which charts installation art of the past thirty years, Blurring the Boundaries, defines installation art as site specific and multi-media. But installation art can be portable as well. Do we think of Richard Long’s sculptures – arrangements of stone, or flint, or slate, shown in art galleries – as specific to the site, or as portable art work? Another strand in late 20th century art is kinetic art. The American Alexander Calder’s artwork, which consists of mobile abstract forms cascading through the air, requires a flexible amount of time to appreciate the random and inventive permutations.

Earthworks and Beyond is a title that has been used to suggest artistic interference in the natural landscape. Sometimes this is just a mark of someone passing, as with Richard Long and his walks through different landscapes. Artists in the 1970s grafted their art onto the landscape. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), which has now vanished because of erosion over time, was just that – a spiral jetty curving into the Great Salt Lake, Utah. The American James Turrell is, under the aegis of his own Skystone Foundation, remodelling an extinct volcano in Arizona.

Theatrical traditions have often been invoked in recent art. In the post war period there have been several now classic manifestations of performance art, deliberately temporary, ephemeral. This rich arena of staged art has deployed accident and spontaneity as well as control and discipline. Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960), a piano set on fire, auto-destructed in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art; Robert Rauschenberg’s orchestrated happenings and his work with the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham exist now only in the photograph, whilst Yves Klein was on occasion the master of the illusionistic photograph; the artist in a death defying flying leap.

The ritualizing of personal experience is a formative influence on art in a way that may be characterized as post-modern. Perhaps it began with the intimacy of the impressionists. All over Europe painters turned away from the grand subjects of myth, history, and religion, to the scene of suburb and city. Taken to an extreme of concentrated intensity, the contemporary artists Gilbert & George explicitly declare their art is their life and their life is their art.


Sometimes the medium is the message but more often the message, whatever it may be, is free to use whatever medium is most appropriate.

What is fascinating about Max Couper’s series of integrated events and making of objects is his intuitive exploitation of various strands of art-making today.

The Plot incorporated mini conferences and committees. In Antwerp a major performance with actors took place lit by spotlights on the rudder of the tug Pablo and televised. Charts and maps, created by the imagination of the artist, were shown in gallery and museum situations. The boats were swung out of the water onto dry land. Industrial methods and the notion of commercial construction have also been evoked. The barge was installed on a fulcrum. Pablo left an imprint in a pile of clay and sand on city ground in the museum. This imprint eventually eroded and decayed naturally.

Couper’s fascination with ‘black gold’ – and oil after all has been a political football during almost the entire post-war period – is part of the ordinary day-to-day process. His tangles and discussions with bureaucracy also became part of the process of the series of time based events. The Plot incorporates travel across boundaries but, as Max Couper points out, when on the water the signs of national jurisdiction may sometimes be well nigh invisible.

So the voyage of The Plot has been marked by different events involving time – the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of the ephemeral performance. The Plot has also been framed by the convention of the art exhibition and by the methods of installation and site specific art.

Over a substantial period, from gestation to fruition, The Plot has subsumed a variety of methods of making art, all integrated within this particular voyage. Time, performance, installation, the involvement of a particular site, and the placing of the discrete art object, have all had their place, as has the blurring of the boundaries between the artist’s life and the artist’s art. In some senses the artist here has been both chief executive and chairman of a wide variety of activities, as well as the protagonist, in collaboration with existing physical objects. Those objects, through the activity of the artist, are seen in different ways and in different contexts thoughout the course of journeys that are both literal and metaphorical. Max Couper is an individual, idiosyncratic visual voice within the wide spectrum of multi-media art.

 
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