> Sally Sheinman: You Are Invited: by Martin Herbert

The truth is that, once the obsolete Christian compact of the Fifties had broken down, there was nothing – apart from, in the last resort, money – holding society together. Indeed, the very labour-saving domestic appliances launched onto the market by the Sixties’ consumer boom speeded the meltdown of communality by allowing people to function in a private world, segregated from each other by TVs, telephones, hi-fi systems, washing machines, and home cookers.

Ian McDonald, Revolution in the Head, 1994

In the dozen years since the words above were written, the culture it describes has only inched closer to an apex of desocialisation. This has not gone unnoticed by contemporary artists. The late 1990s saw the rise of relational aesthetics, a praxis (theorised by French critic Nicholas Bourriaud) with roots in 1960s ‘happenings’, in which the art object is regularly displaced in favour of emphasising the gallery environment as a social site. Simultaneously, a swelling number of artists have begun to organise themselves into collectives – in the case of Dutch alliance Atelier van Lieshout, even constructing miniature self-governing nation-states within their own countries. The broad question is to what extent the results actually work. While aiming to bridge art and life, many so-called relational artworks have left viewers embarrassedly unsure of how they should be interacting with the objects on display. Particularly when the artwork is deeply embedded in a dense theoretical practice, a viewer’s incomprehension can bloom into active rebellion. It’s assumed that the artist is merely playing with a notion of inclusiveness, and the tendency is to turn on one’s heel and, at best, go and think about it somewhere else. This is emphatically not the case with Sally Sheinman’s works.

Before anything else, they are optically welcoming – typically offering democratic gusts of warm colour and a concertedly handmade aesthetic which sidelines any assumption of obscurantist superiority. For Days (2002), Sheinman mounted 365 small, deep paintings in a scatter formation, each one corresponding to a day in her life between January 2001 and January 2002, and each appended with a small text relating – sometimes at an oblique angle – to the painting itself, which often represented a kind of sedimentation or condensing of a lived experience. For viewers, there were simply enough of these small paintings that it was easy to find one you liked (or, alternatively, there were so many that one was forced to anchor oneself by settling on one you liked best) and to relate an abstract image to a concrete thought. And that discovery or feeling of empathy, for some observers, would be enough. It would function as a model of inclusion, of communion. On another level, Sheinman had consciously opened up her life – and her subjective reading of it, through painting – to the public. Sheinman may well paint as a way of structuring her days, and of forcing self-reflection. (Her work oscillates between appearing to be for her, and for her audience.) Still, there’s an uncommon generosity and clarity of purpose about Days that can blindside a viewer.

Increasingly Sheinman’s work has become actively collaborative, encouraging physically unchallenging but meaningful actions on the part of the audience. These actions can snowball unexpectedly. For The Wishing Ceremony (2005), she installed bright booths in six public spaces around Leicester: curious visitors were to go inside, scribble a private wish on a Post-it note, and affix it to the capsule’s wall. Like the indelible moment in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire when angels in a subway carriage listen to its passengers’ inner monologues, the result is a tender glimpse into the faceted yearnings of strangers, their depths and shallows. I wish my sister could walk. I wish I could stop feeling depressed and be happy. I wish for a new kitchen. I wish for endless love. I wish I had a father. Such anonymous statements, charmingly handwritten, vault over theoretical debates into a well of struggle that is authentically humanising.

The booths may approximate confessionals, but there is no aura of religion here. Religion, as we know only too well, is divisive: what Sheinman is quietly aiming to expose is some kind of ethical commonality. Whatever our creed, we all wish for things. Hope is a powerful elixir, as any mind-over-matter story of medical recovery – or set of statistics about how optimists tend to live longer – will tell you. And this is something that can be projected into the past as well as the future. For Sacred Vessels (2003), the artist produced 49 paintings of the eponymous objects in 18 months, multifarious shapes in rich gold and jade greens, rusty reds and regal purples, and presented them with back-stories. All of them, she said, came from a lost place called Arcus, and they contained myriad potions: for endless beauty, for invisibility before one’s enemies, for accessing one’s ancestors’ memories, and more. It was a sequence that put one in touch with a world that had never existed, but which overlapped with a very real conception of history: something which, as Sheinman has noted, we’re increasingly losing with our move into instantaneous communication.

Her commission for firstsite both reaches back into a specific (and real) history and projects hopefully into the future. 544 small painted tokens will be dispersed to 537 people (some of the works are diptychs and triptychs) associated with the organisation and its history, at a point when it is about to move to a new home. Entitled “Artkacinas”, they are abstracted from the kachina dolls that Hopi Indians carve from cottonwood root into figural shapes, paint, and use to teach their children about their mythology. In Sheinman’s case, the connection to the past is redoubled by the accompaniment of each object with a text: in this case, a single word associated with firstsite, and as there, part of the way into the work is to try and bridge a variably sized gap between image and object. The titles are assigned randomly to the works, engendering chance collisions between language and form. Prior to dispersal, the tokens –each a handmade, self-contained and unique object merging elements of painting and sculpture –will be presented together: a confectioner’s shop of fizzy colour and small-scale desirability. You want to pick one up and enclose it in your hand, like a perfect pebble found at the beach.

In that process of holding and looking, ideally, occurs a transfusion of memories and projected hopes into them. Artkacina, if you like, is a secular benediction cast over firstsite as was, and as will be: vessels whose only sacredness comes from the subjective attention paid to them, distributed to anyone who completes an address label at firstsite. Once again, chance – the random pairing of a token and an object, and the unpredictability of their coupling with the receiver – binds the project together. It matters that this is a gift, and is presented as such. All art is a gift really, a wish blown towards a better world. It is Sheinman’s facility to expose such subtexts, to charm us out of our inhibitions, and to reveal our common ground through models of collectivity in which many hands make light work. Plenty of current art promises to do this, before finally murmuring ‘let’s not and say we did’. In our atomised historical moment, as Sheinman’s work clarifies, we can fairly ask for more than that.
Martin Herbert

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He is a London correspondant for Artforum and a visiting lectuer at the Royal College of Art, and his art criticism has appeared in numerous publications including Frieze, Art Monthly and Modern Painters.

© the writer, artist and firstsite