Esther Windsor

Drinking and Smoking

An essay for artists book: ‘It colours your Life’
To be shown at SFMOMA, USA May 2011
On the work of Heather Sparks
By Esther Windsor


Getting drunk can be an act of communion, a ritual with the will to transform space and time, to engage in an act of transubstantiation.The ritual of drunkenness is a way of representing and communally containing the limits of the ego’s capacity. The ego’s transgression in drinking and smoking is an act of undoing, a state of painful jouisance.  The cool detached nilistic drinking body, a post modern surface of conflicted consumptive desires, where the body and its plastic idol of perfection reach bodily limits and become real.  Time appears limitless – drink claims the whole night as its own, the opposite of purposeful day activity, work. Drunken ness is also opposite of representation, after hours, in the dark, in secret.

Heather Sparks’ pencil drawings, are literally black and white graphic scenes of drinking, smoking and debauchery.  Without the embellishment of colour or containment of photography or painterly care, they are unflinching and uncomfortable. Their lack of romance, recalls voyeuristic moments, glimpsed in facination while drunk, but cringed at when witnessed in the harsh light of day.  A colouring book, seems innocent enough but creates a clever document of social history and an evocation of mental and physical processes in artistic production and consumption. 

Heather Sparks ‘It Colors Your Life’ is inspired by William Hogarth’s 18th century politically satiric drawings, examining excess and it’s social implications.  Heather depicts London’s  turn of the 20th century, contemporary art scene, drinking to excess in images culled online and mined from the artist’s personal collection.  Its title is, appropriately, taken from a 2002 Gordon’s Gin advertisement.  ‘It Colors Your Life’ explores contemporary bacchanalian culture, where in drunken revelry nothing is regarded as impious or criminal.  Her book plays with the double edge of escapism. The playful and sometimes creative inspiration that comes from seeking oblivion is juxtaposed against the tensions of success and failure and the darker, and often destructive forces at work.

Scenes of drunkenness have titles like ‘foot in mouth’, ‘girls on couch’, ‘briefcase’, ‘comforter’.  In many, bottles of beer, seemingly stuck in mouths, make recognisable art names look like gargoyles or almost grotesque caricatures.  In others mouths are held open, caught in raucous laughter and some show states of undress, pissing against a car or bodies dishevelled and fallen over.  In one, a business man is slumped, besuited in the street, his briefcase out of reach.  In another a man is shown in close up sucking the foot of someone, while a different drawing shows someone wrapped in a comforter, the day after.  The pencil marks are not soft on details; laughter lines, insides of mouths, stubble, bruises and under the eye lines.  Pretty girls are shown getting sloppy, more than one drink in hand.  Their strappy clothes fallen from angular limbs and strangely unfocused eyes, are all the more disturbing for the characters obvious previous attention to cosmetic detail.  One thinks touchingly of their obvious effort undone while beery men seem less incongruous and disordered until we see obscene acts and collapsed bodies.

Heathers work is in a tradition of modern morality paintings.  Hogarth depicting 18thC Georgian Britain, the city, sexuality and behavior, social integration, crime, political corruption, charity and patriotism, or  contemporary works including Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) or Nan Goldin’s Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1986) or Tom Hunters photographs of east end streets, squats and nights out. For example, Woman Reading a Possession Order. inspired by Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter.(1998)  Heather says of her work: I began making these drawings while living in England and commuting to California..Drinking and smoking seemed to be a ubiquitous  social and cultural leveler- it cut across economic, educational, and social lines.  I started to view drinking and smoking, and the need to release through consuming to excess, as   symptomatic of the pressure to achieve economically and consume material goods to excess— the need to take a break in oblivion. This was something I began to explore in my drawings and was something I could not separate myself  from— I  include myself in several drawings  
Escapism is base desire, which connects a wide range of questions about how self generated and media generated fantasy and fictions create parameters for selfhood. The theme of escapism provides an active narrative structure from which I navigate the slippery terrain of high and low culture and the social paradigms that shape perception and identity.. (Sparks, H.: 2010)

What I suggest is being evoked in Heathers drawings, is the experience of grappling with the highs and lows of drinking and smoking, of the ego coming into contact with stimuli, both pleasurable and fearful, that cannot be placed within representational structure.  Also that her reference to escapism, is consistent with methodology, in this and her other work, of thinking about the parameters of selfhood. In Bersani’s The Culture of Redemption (chapter: boundaries of time and being), he paraphrases Freud’s theory of ‘The Ego and the Id’:

The ego is not only, in Freud’s mental topography, that part of the mental apparatus most directly influenced by the body’s contact with the world, it is also a mental projection of bodily surfaces….the ego is not a surface: it is a psychic imitation of surfaces.  Baudelaire suggested the ego also imitates a body’s boundaries: it is the mental replication of the human organism’s limited mastery of the world.   Crucially the egos representations of the world…protect itself against stimuli that cannot be placed within a representational structure. (Bersani: 1990: 70-1)

Drinking is the opposite of success, thinness, control, or time consciousness. It is indolent, indulgent, squandering of time and opportunity and risqué.  Andy Warhol talks of champagne chins and beer bellies: ‘all my life I wanted as much champagne as I could drink, but now I’m getting all the champagne I ever wanted and more, look what I’m getting – a double chin.’ The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: 1975: pg 194

Drinking and smoking is the libidinous body, the return of the real, triumph of flesh over plastic, transformative of limits, looks and class.  It may look ugly but people can feel beautiful, or imagine that one lives in a sublime moment.  Bersani references Baudelaire’s description of Freud to describe what happens when the body’s normal range of controllable stimulation is exceeded:

 ‘it is easy to establish…that all comparatively intense affective processes, including even terrifying ones (spill over into) sexuality. What Freud analyzes in the Three Essays as the the pleasurable – unpleasurable tension of sexual excitement would occur when the body’s normal range of controllable ( structurable, representational) stimulation is exceeded, and when the organisation of the self is momentarily disturbed by sensations or affective processes somehow beyond those compatible with psychic organisation.   As we have seen, Baudelaire himself describes artistic inspiration in exactly the same terms he uses for his definition of love.  The self possessed by the external world or prostituted to others, is shattered into sexuality by what I have called its unconditional availability to otherness. (1990: 72)

Gregor Muir’s autobiographical book, Lucky Kunst, recounts scenes of great and disturbing drunkenness central to contemporary art culture in the 90’s. He describes the excitement of finding what was to become known as the YBA (Young British Artist) and the subsequent fall from grace.  He caricatures the YBA:

To be a Young British Artist was to be ascribed the following attributes.  A Fuck you attitude was essential, as was drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.  Ideally, you had a working class background and swore a lot.  You spent your days in the Groucho club or Golden Heart where you’d stay up late talking to Sandra.  You’d knock up an art work…You would appear drunk on television.  You’d dine in all the best restaurants and not eat a thing.  You’d go out on the town with Vivienne Westwood and Kate Moss who thought you were a darling.  You were photographed in a studio you hadn’t visited in weeks wearing expensive designer clothes, looking charismatic and pulling faces.  When interviewed you’d talk about your roots and what it was like to be poor.  Suddenly your phone would ring and you’d be off…..
(Muir, G.: 2009: 220)

He describes a scene of being ‘carried away on a wave of camaraderie’ where an artist laughing hysterically, cries ‘Its too much, I’ve shit myself’  He observes it was a turning point along with an incident recalled of Norman Rosenthal calling Hirst's wife, on finding him playing the piano naked at the Colony rooms. (Muir, G., 2009)  Muir reflects:

I noticed my face was puffy and haggard from night after night of abuse. What had happened to me? It started to dawn on me that I couldn’t go on like this.  I had thrown myself into the art world wholeheartedly and what was coming out the other end was a middle aged man with no children who seemed to avoid adult responsibility at every turn…It occurred to me I was too involved with the art world, and I might not be able to find my way out now even if I tried.  I had chosen to live my life like a teenager...(Gregor Muir: 2009: …..)

If Heathers drawings were a Hogarth depiction of modern morality the story would be not so much of drunk and disorderly but of disillusioned dreams of a modern classless Britain and USA in the 90’s.  Current economics a decade later might serve to remind, that free market economics and ideology makes slaves of many and success for a few.  For all the ‘lucky kunst’, there are those with no property, children, capital or galleries.  Or those struggling, before it’s too late; with relationships, fertility, poverty and obscurity.  And some who just didn’t make it and died.  A backdrop of grand failures and everyday tragedies haunts the charming comedic drinking scenes of ‘Cool Britannia’, leaving some artists to ask ‘are there other landscapes of classlessness, other places to dream than the pub?’

It is impossible for me to separate here an academics voice from that of a participant observer. Heather and I shared many nights at private views, going onto the Groucho, The Colony Rooms and much seedier ‘end of the night’ and early morning venues.  Often great friends and memories were made but also great risks taken, sometimes forgotten.  All of these raw experiences shape my reading of Heathers book.  `My writing here is part of my practice that uses first hand accounts of periods of contemporary art history and curatorial practice and is part of an essay entitled ;Artists in love’.  What I refer to here is the artist’s ability to live in a precarious state of continual examination and excitement.  To see the fissure, blur, blot and stain and draw its details, not bowing to social nicety, that would edit or add soft focus or colour.  It is within this unflinching register that Heathers book is made, of social satire and raw emotional exposure, glimpsing the dark shimmering hours of drinking and smoking.