Meet the artist: Oliver Bliss

In a series of blog posts we will get to know the artists who will be taking part in our Microresidencies project a little better.  Finally, it’s Oliver Bliss who will be resident in Work in Progress from Tues 26 – Sat 30 August.

Oliver BlissHi Oly, nice to meet you! Please can you introduce yourself…. 
I’m Oliver Bliss, I’ve been living in Manchester now for nearly ten years. I graduated from MMU with a BA in Fine Art Painting and I recently completed a MA in Arts Management from the University of Manchester. I’ve always had an interest in sexuality and identity and enjoy exploring these themes through a textiles based practice. I was really inspired by an exhibition in Craft Council called Boys Who Sew which was curated by Professor Janis Jeffries. It helped me move away from painting and explore mixed media and a little hand sewing. The biggest change in my practice was seeing Alice Kettle’s Three Caryatgids in the Whitworth Gallery. I was in the first term of University at MMU and I told my tutor Sharon Hall how fascinated I was with Kettle’s technique. My tutor was a real straight talker, she advised, very bluntly that I didn’t waste my student loan but instead invest it in something useful; a sewing machine. So I did, it had a lasting impact on my practice and I still use the same sewing machine to this day.

What attracted you to apply for the Microresidencies project? Have you done anything like this before?
I think the People’s History Museum is so important; I studied sociology at A level.  The museum’s collection brings to life our political history, how people’s collective action has led to a fair society in a way you can’t comprehend from any text book. Play Your Part really struck a chord with me and made me want to contribute to make LGBT history more visible. I volunteer with LGBT Youth North West which has really supported me. I’ve recently helped them with their Heritage Lottery project to capture an oral history of activists of our time who were instrumental in campaigning for equal rights such as the repeal of Section 28 and the campaign for equal marriage rights.

I’ve done a few small exhibitions myself and done heaps of volunteering for other groups and artist projects. An example was when I helped out with the Spring Shrouds projects with UHC to produce a hundred shrouds to cover street-based advert shells across Manchester city. The Mircoresidency is a great opportunity for me as it gives me the chance to lead on my own project and test out ideas to make a practice which is participatory. I had to make the decision not to make anything for two years when I was completing my masters as I was working full time. Having this chance to get creative again is great, it feel like a new starting point for me.

Can you tell me a bit about what you’re planning on doing for your Microresidency. What should our visitors expect when they come to your studio?
Visitors will have a chance to get stuck in and participate with some easy crafting. I want visitors to have a voice and contribute to an ongoing project I’m developing with the support of People’s History Museum.  I am currently in the process of developing a community quilt project which aims to celebrate the 396 MPs who voted ‘Yes’ for equal marriage in 2013 by printing hand drawn images of each MPs on hexagonal fabric and sewn together to form a political map celebrating each member that voted Yes for equal marriage. There were however 254 MPs that did not say ‘Yes’ for this bill. The aim of the residency is to host drop in workshops and ask visitors to create a range of positive messages to the MPs which did not vote for equal marriage.   The project aims to inspire more political engagement with current affairs whilst learning about the important roles of MPs. The project will draw out key examples from the People’s History Museum’s banner collection (which include banners from suffragettes and section 28 campaigns).   The project highlights that although LGBT people have gained rights, there is still work to be done to gain real equality.  The messages that are created will then be appliqued onto the hexagons to show where MPs did not vote Yes for Equal Marriage across the country. The studio will have lots of different materials for people to play around and get creative. I’ll have lots of things to help inspire people but I want them to come down and check it out themselves. I want the messages to be honest, optimistic and constructive; depending on how much time they have they can either leave a message for me to turn into an art work or generate one themselves with the tools that will be there in the studio.

Do you have a favourite object/display in the PHM
It’s hard to choose a single object, I found the painting on the silk banners of the forestry ancient order fascinating as they are so detailed and well preserved. The banner is also rich in visual symbolism.  Possibly my favourite piece is a banner from 1903, of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Ilford which says Votes for Women- Believe and you will conquer. It’s such a powerful statement and really articulates their determinism and faith in a sharp single phrase. The banner itself is quite plain but there are subtle nuances in the colouring: purple for dignity, green for hope and white for purity, the coding is deliberately provocative whilst secretly empowering their cause.

If you could meet any person living or dead, who would it be?
I would have really liked to meet the German Emperor Wilhelm II who was a prominent figure during World War I. Some historians suggest that he was controlled by his generals and eventually he was forced to abdicate his throne.  I read a book called: Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past whilst  on holiday in Corfu. The book made references that although the Kaiser had seven children he enjoyed male-only hunting parties and long weekends. Whilst I was in Corfu we visited the Palace of Achilleio which was full of Greek works of art including lots of sculpture. There was this huge figure of a dying Achilles hidden in the back garden of the palace. The figure is Achilles in an incredibly erotic position, lying struck in the ankle with an arrow. Whilst on exploring the palace I found that the Kaiser had purchased the palace shortly after the peak of a scandal the Harden-Eulenburg affair which the book evidences questioning remarks about his sexuality. It was a bizarre coincidence that I was reading this book on holiday whilst visiting a place which the Kaiser he had purchased. It would have been a hidden oasis, an escape from his life in Germany. The book made me question why he chose a remote property in Corfu which was filled with Greek sculptures and homoerotic nudes. The more research I do into his life the more interested I am in who he was as an individual. There is no concrete evidence but it’s a great conspiracy and I would enjoy the chance to have an open conversation about his role as Kaiser, World War I and his personal life.

If you had a time machine that could only go forwards or backwards in time, would you like to see the past, or visit the future?
I think the future is always something you can look forward to, so I would prefer to visit some of the past. I’d like to attend a symposium by Plato or work with as an assistant to Michelangelo; but most of all I would love to see a dinosaur!

What’s your idea worth fighting for?
I think human rights are really important. The closer we get to creating an equal, tolerant  and fair society the closer we get to creating our own version of heaven on earth and that has to be worth striving towards. I think Moulin Rouge sum up best what is worth fighting for: Truth, Beauty, Freedom and above all things Love.

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