Art & Matter: The Politics of Time

By Julia Secklehner (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

Questioning the values of art historical writing, Professor Keith Moxey (Columbia) addressed the value and understanding of time at a lecture at the Courtauld Institute on Tuesday 17 May 2016. Tracing the time of material objects, from petrified wood over Maya relief sculpture to Albrecht Altdorfer’s Dead Pyramus (1510), Picasso’s Collage with Violin (1912) and Spencer Finch’s Sunlight in an Empty Room (2010), Moxey highlighted the different times objects relate to, and can be understood within. For example, the Maya sculpture, Stele I, depicted King Chaan Muan (776 CE) and in Mayan belief, images of the king were an extension of himself, allowing him to exist throughout different times. Simultaneously, the object itself is made from limestone, derived from the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. In relation to these two particular histories alone, the object has a variety of significances and meanings, depending on what time we focus on: it can be an anthropological artefact, a sacred sculpture, or a geological example, all at the same time. Each of these interpretations is also dependent on the beholders, of course, who, again, live in their own time, which they transpose onto the object. As such, depending on where we are, and which aspect of the object in question we look at, multiple interpretations arise considering time alone, though there are undoubtedly many other aspects that would lead us to different conclusions – gender perspectives for example.

Chalice-cover. Aztec-feather work, Hidalgo-Mexico, ca.-1540.

Chalice-cover. Aztec-feather work, Hidalgo-Mexico, ca.-1540.


The structure of the lecture itself, however, was chronological, showing that any given time brings certain ‘conventions of storytelling’ with it. These are put in place even when we question them: in order to interrogate the heterochrony of objects in the lecture, we followed a chronological interpretation, exemplifying that heterochrony exists ‘through time’. Concurrently, all the stories connected to the stones and shells and prints and sculptures assessed show that the very act of ‘storytelling’ is crucial to an understanding of time itself. The best example for this is Moxey’s mentioning of the ‘invention’ of regulated time itself, when the Industrial Revolution made standardization necessary, and led to the time we live ‘after’ now.

While thinking about time and its relation to objects is an intriguing exercise in thought, the question is what the wider implications of these ideas are. We will hardly ever have the time, means or understanding to approach material objects from all the different temporal parallels that are tied to it: we are inevitably caught up in our own time, which is an amalgamation of our subjectivity and us as a product of the society we live in. Therefore, we have to choose one time over another and, in so doing, deny other interpretations that have no place in our ‘current’ understanding of the object. A vicious circle, is it?


Quite on the contrary: the impossibility to escape our own time (as much as some of us may try to), means that we are forced to make conscious decisions about what to focus on, and why to choose that particular angle over another. In the process, our awareness of all the different times and interpretations we exclude can shape what it is we want to say. In other words, we need to consciously choose our own standpoints on art, society and politics as a consequence of the fact that, we will unavoidably overwrite other interpretations of the materials we look at. Moxey’s argument about ‘Material Time’ thus becomes much more than a theoretical exercise in (art historical) thought: it is an appeal to use art history more consciously, and to show awareness for the fact that the passing of time denies the possibility of objectivity. Rather than trying to remain detached therefore, we must emphasise the subjectivity of our own art history.




…And Wishing You Were Far Away exhibition at The Lloyds Club

By Madeleine Brown (M.A. student, The Courtauld)


In the monochrome depths of the City, reside two enchanting surprises for art-lovers. The first is The Lloyds Club, a private member’s club housed in a grade II listed building; the second – and most important – is the exhibition, …And Wishing You Were Far Away, currently on show within.

Susie Hamilton, Three Hens, 2015. Oil on canvas.

Susie Hamilton, Three Hens, 2015. Oil on canvas.

Spread across all three floors, the show exhibits contemporary works by three artists, Roxy Walsh, Susie Hamilton and Persi Darukhanawala. Structured by the curatorial collective, Patch, and curated by their founder and director, Katie Heller, and exhibited artist, Darukhanawala, the exhibition combines great organisation of diverse artworks with a creative raison d’etre that results in a superbly synthesised and meaningful show.

The title comes from Darukhanawala’s love of Paul Weller and The Jam; “…And Wishing You Were Far Away” are lyrics from the 1980 hit That’s Entertainment. Regardless of how familiar you are with the song, this phrase ignites the imagination, encouraging the beholder to think about what it means to be somewhere else. Interpreting the artworks through this thematic prism means that the exhibition is highly interactive – a highly personal response can be elicited. Indeed, such musing should be all too easy for those stepping off the streets of rat-race London.

The exhibition really is a feast for the eyes: Daruhanawala’s use of geometric shapes and single lines executed in brightly coloured paints is highly appealing. With these minimalist markings on white backgrounds, the pieces powerfully encourage the viewer to look within themselves and consider what they can take from this image. ‘Wishing you were far away’ in front of these works has the capacity to transport you emotionally and imaginatively.

Persi Darukhanawala, My mind goes ablank, 2015. Watercolour on paper.

Persi Darukhanawala, My mind goes ablank, 2015. Watercolour on paper.

The minimalism contrasts with the thickly applied and luscious brushstrokes of Susie Hamilton’s representational yet abstract work which – with their colour, texture and content – are commanding for the eye and, at the same time, relatively certain in terms of where the artist wants you, the beholder, to end up when viewing these painted scenes.

Roxy Walsh’s pieces are similar to Hamilton’s in terms of their abstract representations although the medium is more varied, with use of gesso and linen fabric. The visual field of the exhibit pieces is relatively small too, inviting close-up inspection and personal contemplation.

Beyond exercising the beholder’s eyes, a plurality of the senses is engaged by the exhibition. On the top floor where Darukhanawala pieces are situated, music plays in the background. The experience of viewing becomes totally immersive, further provoking a mindful response from the viewer. It also reminds us that wishing we were somewhere else isn’t just about picturing somewhere else, it can be about smelling it, hearing it, touching it.

The lack of wall labels contributes to the personal meditation facilitated by this exhibition too. It is rare that a show can be so personally satisfying both in terms of aesthetic experience and the poignant meanings elicited in the beholder. With summer just around the corner, venture far away by all means; but do stop off at The Lloyd’s Club too – you’ll be surprised how far away you can get simply by experiencing the panelled walls and works that hang upon them.

*The exhibition runs until 1st July 2016.

Art and Terrorism Symposium Review

On Saturday 27th February 2016, the Sackler Research Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art hosted a day-long Symposium on Art and Terrorism, a collaborative event organized by Professor Julian Stallabrass and Dr. Anna Marazuela Kim of the Courtauld Institute, and Dr. Noah Charney and Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). Bridging disparate sectors and audience, the event brought scholars of image and violence into dialogue with practitioners in the field of conflict antiquities and the destruction of cultural heritage, and featured the premiere of a UNESCO-funded film on Syria and the work of an award-winning photographer on sites of extraordinary rendition.

Session I by Gene Borkoski (BA1 student, Fine Art, Central Saint Martins) 

The first session covered topics ranging from IRA art heists to the Freudian uncanny, and set up several problematics that were developed further throughout the day. Courtauld professor Julian Stallabrass, who co-organized the event and presented later in the day, chaired the session.

Noah Charney, a co-organizer of the symposium and founder of ARCA, opened the session by giving a Very Brief History of Art and Terrorism.  The starting point for this history was that art crime is an “under-served area within criminology” due to the fact that most of the information in the case files is missing. (Michael Will of Europol elaborated on the challenges of investigating art crimes during the second session).

Palmyra Destruction by IS in Damascus, Syria

Palmyra Destruction by IS in Damascus, Syria

Charney went on to explain that art crime, as it pertains to terrorism, generally falls into one of two categories: iconoclasm and selling stolen art to raise funds. Illustrating the former category, Charney pointed to members of the Irish Republican Army scratching “IRA” into the surface of Rubens’s The Adoration of the Magi, and to the Taliban dynamiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan. As examples of the latter, he mentioned Rose Dugdale and Martin Cahill stealing old masters paintings, and touched on Mohamed Atta’s unsuccessful plan to sell antiquities as a means of raising funds for a plane to fly into the World Trade Center. (Mike Giglio and Sam Hardy presented on the illegal antiquities trade in more detail during the second session.)

Charney ended his presentation by giving examples of valiant efforts to protect cultural heritage from destruction, including museum staff in Timbuktu smuggling manuscripts out of Mali, and museum staff in Bagdad strategically confronting inevitable destruction by placing less valuable artifacts in prominent locations, thus sparing objects considered to be more valuable. (Giovanni Boccardi of UNESCO presented on the preservation of endangered cultural heritage in the third session.)

The first casualty of 9/11, Father Mychal Judge (Ground Zero Pieta(

The first casualty of 9/11, Father Mychal Judge (“Ground Zero Pieta”)

Jennifer Good, Senior Lecturer in History and Theory of Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, presented next. Good’s topic was Totalizing Narratives of 9/11, and she focused on photojournalistic and memorial images from the aftermath of 9/11. Good posited that within these images a redemptive, transcendental narrative emerged as a way of rationalizing feelings of despair left in the wake of the attacks.

Two of her examples included an image of Friar Mychal Judge (the first recorded fatality) who was referred to as “Ground Zero Pieta,” and the cross that was recovered from the rubble of the gigantic towers, “as if waiting to be born from the destruction.” The human-sized cross, Good suggested, came to redeem the Towers’ “purposeless giganticism” (quoting Lewis Mumford) that made them a target.

Good concluded by suggesting that both the enormous towers and their incredible destruction were uncanny in the Freudian sense. In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans thus turned to religious narratives “to make the un-tolerable tolerable.”

Anna Marazuela Kim, Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Courtauld, co-organiser of the event, later session chair, addressed The New Image Wars. Kim focused on the long-standing link between violence against bodies and violence against figurative art that represents, or even presents, bodies and persons.

Drawing parallels between IS and the Protestant Reformers, Kim pointed out that both groups were adept at deploying new technologies to disseminate their message through images. During the Protestant Reformation that technology was printing, presently it’s the Internet, but the underlying tactic is familiar, as she demonstrated by showing an IS image of a Jordanian pilot being burned in a cage next to a Reformation image of a bishop being burned at the stake.

Bishop Hooper's execution, 1555

Bishop Hooper’s execution, 1555

Kim also drew parallels between the Christian imperative against desecrating icons and the Islamic imperative against representing the Prophet Muhammad. Turning to Charlie Hebdo, Kim suggested that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are offensive not only because they represent the Prophet, but also because of how he is presented, given that such images are understood to contain the real presence of the Prophet. It is therefore a category mistake, Kim argued, to reduce affective images to an issue of “free speech,” as happened in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

What is “new” in the new image wars or “visual terrorism”, Kim concluded, is that the images merge and become fused with the flow of our consciousness more readily than ever, and, citing the images of Palmyra being blown up with people tied to its columns, the images do so with a violence that constitutes a form of violation.

Francesco Rutelli, Former Italian Minister of Culture and former Mayor of Rome, was the fourth and final speaker in the first session. Rutelli focused on “iconoclasm as a matter of power.” As a starting point, he described Napoleon’s quest to fill the Louvre with the best masterpieces to demonstrate France’s cultural superiority.

Rutelli made two main points. First, the history and biography of objects matters; he cited the case of the Goddess of Morgentina, a 5th century BC Greek statue, which made its way to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles under questionable (mob-related) circumstances, and was recently returned to Sicily, as an example of the rectification of improperly removed cultural heritage. And second, the intentional destruction of art and artifacts sends a powerful message about power and cultural dominance. Therefore, restoring sites of destruction is more than symbolic gesture, but a crucial moment in the ending of a war.

Session II by Sarah Farman MA (MPhil student, University of Bristol)

The second session, chaired by Noah Charney, featured Mike Giglio, investigative journalist and war correspondent based in Turkey; Michael Will of Europol; and Sam Hardy, an archaeologist who researches cultural property crime. The combined presentations offered personal perspectives and information about facets of the trade in stolen art and antiquities, especially in a war zone such as Syria.

The Tel Abyad (Turkey-Syrian) border. Photograph by Mike Giglio (2015)

The Tel Abyad (Turkey-Syrian) border. Photograph by Mike Giglio (2015)

Mike Giglio gave the human overview and reasons for the looting of cultural antiquities in Syria today and the link to survival. The trade in antiquities fuels a wartime economy. The business structures of emergent, armed groups since the collapse of the infrastructure of the country are self-supporting in part due to revenue obtained from trafficking stolen artefacts. Equally for the ordinary people having to adapt and survive in this present chaos, the sale of a piece of antiquity can buy food to feed an often-extended family. Objects are smuggled across the border not just as part of a financial trade between dealers but also hidden in the personal effects of fleeing refugees. Such objects are currency for trade and barter for refugees on the move through other countries. The desecration of Syria’s cultural sites and disappearing of objects is damaging to the cultural and human psyche and, as Giglio stated, the looting of artefacts has become a microcosm of the conflict.

Following on from this fascinating insight into the human side of such trafficking was Michael Will of Europol and a former Chief Inspector investigator in the field for the Berlin C.I.D. He is now based in Rotterdam, Holland having joined Europol in 2013. Will gave an interesting outline to the organization explaining that it acts more as an advisory and supportive vehicle for the twenty-eight Member States (aka MS) of the European Union. Officers at Europol are drawn from all the MS. Major issues that perhaps hinder them from carrying out and collating more investigations information is lack of funding – a typical problem today.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo – 1300 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

The Great Mosque of Aleppo – 1300 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Sam Hardy of the American University of Rome presented an interesting insight into the problem of fake cultural artefacts being sold via the Internet – even Skype – adding to the dilemma of “conflict antiquities”. Lack of concrete evidence is the primary problem. Hardy defined the difference between state- driven trafficking (imperialism) for example, the British Empire, Ottoman Empire, and German Third Reich (Nazis) and non-state led trafficking that is the present situation. Across Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine and Yemen the looting and illegal sale of cultural arts and artefacts, especially antiquities, is widespread and hard to control. Armed groups exploit this often for their own violent objectives. Getting governments to regulate trafficked sales, fake or not, is a problem too as offloading the problem to the discretion of auction houses, for example, is an easier path to take. Some cultural property is looted to order from Afghanistan to Honduras to the EU. Selling fake items is not difficult along with disinformation. Sam Hardy’s blog is an interesting read with an (open access) article on state-organised trafficking.

Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque – 800 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque – 800 years old. Still from The Quake by Matteo Barzini (2015)

Session II ended with the UK premiere of a short but powerful UNESCO film, The Quake (2015) by Matteo Barzini of the Feel Film Production and music by Ennio Morricone. A poignant music and visual collaboration as narrative about the Syrian war and the destruction caused to both people and cultural sites.

In summary, it would seem that although cultural looting takes place outside of wartime it seems to accelerate when conflicts ignite and perhaps the greatest concern is what will be left in the aftermath.

Session III by Dr Anna Marazuela Kim (The Courtauld)

The third and final session, chaired by co-organiser Anna Marazuela Kim, featured three papers unified by a focus on photography and issues of representation, bringing into compelling dialogue case studies within the domain of insurgency.

Julian Stallabrass presenting

Julian Stallabrass presenting

Julian Stallabrass, writer, photographer, curator and lecturer who publishes widely on documentary photography and war, presented a paper titled Representing the Iraqi Resistance. Stallabrass began with the provocation that the definition of those constituents who fought against the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was itself heavily contested. Were they terrorists or a resistance movement, the remnants of the old regime, foreign insurgents, or a new Iraqi force?

Given this politically charged issue, the very act of representing them photographically entailed a certain risk: it was an act that could eventuate in being targeted by US forces or accusations of collaborating with the enemy. Bringing into comparison images from independent photojournalism versus those in embedded photojournalism, as well as images used by members of the resistance themselves, Stallabrass probed the political and representational limits of the civic medium of photography.

The second presentation featured award-winning photographer Edmund Clark, the author of acclaimed books on Guantanamo and Afghanistan, among others. Clarke’s work compellingly links history, politics and representation, particularly focusing on spaces of control in the global “war on terror”. In an extremely thought-provoking, and at times disturbing, presentation, Clarke described his most recent project, Negative Publicity, co-written with counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black. A collection of photographs by Clarke and redacted documents from court cases gathered by Black, the work engages the nature of contemporary warfare, making visible the otherwise “invisible” mechanisms of state control. The focus of the current project, Negative Publicity, is the representation of what is called “extraordinary rendition”:  the disappearance of persons, without legal process, into a network of secret prisons organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency from 2001-2008. As part of George Bush’s sanctioned war on terror, prisoners were taken to ‘black sites’ around the world, where many of them were subjected to torture. As Clarke notes, some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released, while others still remain unaccounted for.

Negative Publicity book cover

Negative Publicity book cover

In order to recreate this covert network and its operation, Black and Clark traveled worldwide to photograph former detention sites, detainees’ and pilots’ homes, and government buildings implicated in this activity. Unlike the highly graphic images that emerged from Abu Ghraib, Clarke’s are eerily empty of figures. Moreover, violence is not represented, but rather implied via its erasure, much like the redacted documents in which the photographs stand in productive dialogue. Rendered with extreme clarity, the often banal subject matter plays upon ideas of opacity, surface, and testimony in relation to this process, to reveal a system “hidden in plain sight.” In ‘showing,’ in a negative way, what cannot be seen, the work raises important questions regarding the limits of photography, and also challenges traditional notions of representation in an age of increasingly secret, invisible, state control.

Rounding out the session on photography, Neville Bolt, specialist from the department of War Studies at King’s College on communications in conflict and foreign policy with a wide-ranging and distinguished career in TV, journalism and advising governments, gave a conceptually-demanding paper titled Iconic Photographs & Geopolitics. Bolt began from the premise that while millions of images circulate each day in the global media space that connects social media to more traditional outlets like television and the press, occasionally some acquire “iconic status”, linking a local event to higher moral, perhaps even universal, beliefs. These iconic images have come to represent the way terror events are understood in the popular imagination.

Neville Bolt presenting

Neville Bolt presenting

In order to probe more deeply the nature of this linkage between iconic images and moral sentiment, Bolt analysed in depth two photographs which seem to belong to the same genre and to yield the same effect, but are in fact instructively different: the image of an alleged jihadist executing a prisoner, and a refugee child washed up on the shore in Turkey. On the surface, it would seem that both images are concerned with moral outrage. Through a subtle analysis, Bolt argued instead for a distinction between moral outrage, which is other-directed, and shame, a self-reflexive response. The image of the terrorist puts into play a binary of us and them, provoking moral outrage against the implied perpetrators, while the child invokes a sense of corporate shame. In both cases, Bolt argued, such iconic images have the potential to reach into the very heart of geopolitics, “threatening the liberal conscience”.

The symposium ended with a panel discussion, following a keynote by Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit of UNESCO’s Culture Sector. In a paper titled UNESCO’s Global Action to Protect Cultural heritage Under Threat, Boccardi described the scope of UNESCO’s current actions to protect heritage under threat; the challenges it faces in this ever-expanding and volatile arena; and areas of work to be explored through partnering with other International Organizations and stakeholders outside of the culture sector.

Unite 4 Heritage / UNESCO

Unite 4 Heritage / UNESCO

As Boccardi explained, a rapidly evolving global scenario and the continuous and increasingly violent manifestations of cultural cleansing, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, that include not only deliberate attacks against cultural heritage and widespread looting, but also persecutions against minorities and the expressions of their cultural identity, have highlighted the close link between culture, security and human rights. This situation is questioning many of the assumptions on which UNESCO, the only UN Agency with a mandate for the protection of culture, was operating. The Organization needs therefore to reassess its strategies and approaches. This is being done not only to protecting culture for its own sake, but also to ensure that culture’s potential for building resilience and social cohesion is harnessed in humanitarian and peace building efforts. Building on its wide range international legal standards, which need to be more streamlined and operationalized, UNESCO has recently adopted a Strategy and is in the process of engaging with new partners to deal with these unprecedented challenges. The strategy has two main objectives, which are: the strengthening of Member states abilities to prevent, mitigate and recover the loss of cultural heritage and diversity as a result of conflict; and the incorporation of the protection of culture into the scope of humanitarian action and security.


Bringing the margins to centre

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Organised by the Courtauld’s Professor Sarah Wilson, ‘Drawing on the sidelines’ was a conversation between the South African artist William Kentridge, the art historian András Szántó, the Director of the Animation Academy at Loughborough University Paul Wells, and Professor Wilson, about the the Hungarian painter and animator György Kovásznai (1934-1983) in particular, and the role of political artists in marginalized and isolated societies in general.

The parallels between Kentridge and Kovásznai’s works, an attention to mining movements as creative inspiration and a sign for political action for example, provided intriguing starting points to the discussion. Is it possible that societies which operate under heavy censorship and limit civil liberties are the key to artistic freedom? This was one of the questions the discussion centred on. As Kentridge explained, when his native South Africa was internationally boycotted, the Johannesburg art scene was nonetheless thriving. Why? Because he and his peers were not under the pressure to create something that related to the international art scene and their ‘great artistic forefathers’. Rather, they could fully focus on their own ‘emergency of making’, reacting to the restrictive world they lived in without having to worry how their work would be perceived in the wider cultural community.


One particular way this development manifested itself in East Central Europe, Wells argued, was through animation. While the medium today is largely known through pop-culture giants like Disney, Wells pointed out that animation, as is slowly being uncovered, was also used in the fine arts, particularly in East Central Europe. Next to Hungary, where Kovásznai lived and worked, there was a surge in puppet theatre in socialist Czechoslovakia for example, which could operate as a critical force of culture and class consciousness within the popular sphere. Particularly in reference to caricature, animation has a longstanding relation to the fine arts, Wells highlighted, not at least considering cubist experiments. Humour, in animation as in caricature, can function as a means of ventilation in oppressive societies, and for precisely that reason was not always as strictly censored as may be assumed – thus affording artists a greater liberties of expression through the ambivalence inherent in ‘a good joke’. Animation as a form of ‘marginalised fine art’ could operate in those oppressed societies of the 1970s and 1980s as a new form of expression among artists, articulating their own social utopia.

Another, unpredicted, aspect was Kovásznai’s use of gender in his work in reference to a brief piece of animation about the artist, which was shown at the beginning of the discussion. In the film, a number of women with large breasts were shown, which provoked the question how and why the female body was used as a means of mediation for political issues, poignantly highlighted by Professor Tamar Garb (UCL). To a large part, this issue remained unexplored, highlighting the fact that, when uncovering ‘forgotten’ artists like Kovásznai, basic frameworks first need to be established before considering their wider significance in society – including gender. There clearly was a shift towards the erotic in critical works created under oppressive regimes, which some art historians, like Martina Pachmanová in the Czech Republic, have begun to uncover – making it only a matter of time until Kovásznai’s work will also be taken under the lens of gender politics…

The gender question highlighted the crux of the conversation on the whole: there is an entire Central European avant-garde, which still remains to be explored. As Wilson emphasised, Central Europe is so close by, yet remains a ‘riddle to be opened’. As a region of so much cultural and linguistic variety that has long been marginalised for its ‘political otherness’, its ‘rediscovery’ through the likes of Kovásznai and the recent attention paid to fine-arts animation at Loughborough paves the way for a more inclusive art history and may just change the way we perceive those societies on the whole.

The exhibition ‘Kovásznai – A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting.’ is shown at Somerset House 3-5 March 2015.

The cityscape as national battleground: Brno/Brünn and the avant-garde

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Matthew Rampley’s lecture ‘Brno: city of the avant-garde’ was introducing part of a current research project on Central European Modernism, which shifts the focus from Habsburg metropolises like Vienna and Prague to more regional centres that often developed their own approaches towards modernism and identity formation. Rampley’s example of Brno was particularly interesting in this context: Brno, now the second-biggest city in the Czech Republic, is located only 80 miles north of Vienna. It was the third biggest German city in the Habsburg Empire. Rampley focused on architectural developments in the city in the 1880s, when Brno was dominantly German ‘Brünn’, and in the interwar years, when it became the second city of new Czechoslovakia, strongly defined through progressiveness and modern life. Architecture, Rampley showed, is a particularly interesting way to assess how Germans and Czechs asserted national hegemony against each other, clearly visible from the ways the city was structured and re-structured.

Vladimir Karfik - Bat'a Department Store, Brno (1931)

Vladimir Karfik – Bat’a Department Store, Brno (1931)

In the early 1880s, Brno was redeveloped in reference to Vienna’s Ringstraße, including a broad boulevard circling the city’s core, dotted by buildings of cultural and political significance, like the German theatre (1882) and the Moravian design museum (1883) in typical Habsburg, historicist styles. However, as Czech national consciousness grew and members of Czech society became increasingly influential (Brno was a merchant city), they reacted to these architectural assertions of German hegemony with their own buildings, like Vladimír Fischer’s Cyril and Methodius Foundation (1913-15). As such, the national dichotomy between Czechs and Germans could be traced along the city’s architecture- even though these divisions blurred when considering social backgrounds: many architects, whether native Czech or German speakers, trained in Vienna, with one of the city’s most famous sons being Adolf Loos, a German-speaker who took on Czechoslovak citizenship after 1918, but lived in Vienna for most of his life. The mixed architecture of late Habsburg Brno/Brünn thus also represented its mixed population, whose mixed identities often betrayed the official nationalisms proclaimed as the Habsburg Empire crumbled.

In contrast to this complex German-Czech dichotomy, interwar Brno presents a rather different image, as Rampley highlighted: while struggling initially to find a language of avant-garde architecture as clearly expressed as in Prague’s rondo-cubism, the city soon functioned as an architectural showcase for the progressive new state. Relating the talk to the 2015-16 Prague exhibition ‘Building of a State’, Rampley emphasised a Czech drive to forge an architecture that would match its ambitions as ‘the island of democracy’ in interwar Central Europe. In an attempt to ‘czechify’ Brno, buildings were torn down and re-modelled, emphasising functionalism and modernity with buildings like the Bat’a Building, which represented mass consumerism and modern culture through simple form. Another, even more telling example was the Vesna school for women, which joined the progressive vision of the educated New Woman with modern architecture.

Interwar Brno was also host to a number of exhibitions, like the ‘Exhibition for contemporary culture’ in 1928, and the ‘Industrial exhibition’ in 1929, making the city a prime example for modern Czechoslovakia on an international scale. Despite the importance of modernist architecture as an assertion of national progressiveness, however, attention to regional arts and crafts persisted: there was an exhibition of Slovak arts and crafts in Uherské Hradiště (1937) for example, and the Slovak architect and folkorist Dušan Jurkovič continued to enjoy great popularity as a creator of vernacular developments like the spa town Luhačovice. One problematic aspect in this context is still the fact that Brno and its surrounding areas were by no means only Czech in the interwar years. The question remains as to the influence German and Jewish members of the population had on the cityscape before largely being erased in the 1940s. Did the aim to ‘czechify’ Brno not bring a reversed hegemony with it? How was the Habsburg legacy dealt with in a city that stood so clearly ‘in-between’?

Overall, Rampley created a multi-faceted image of Brno as a regional centre, which persisted with influences from Vienna, Prague and regional idiosyncrasies alike. More importantly, he showed that there is still a wealth of arts and culture to discover in an area that has all too long held a marginalised position between ‘East’ and ‘West’. With its legacy of Jewish, German and Czech heritage, Brno remains an important location for a shared cultural space in Central Europe – one example of many that highlights just how complex the region is and how much of it still remains to be explored, particularly now that nationalism is on the rise again.

Utopian Places And Spaces: The Urban Ideal In 20th Century India

By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)

On the 19th of January 2016 Professor Deborah Swallow delivered a first lecture in the series Utopia: Constructed, which commemorates 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. By training Swallow is a social antropologist who for many years specialised in Indian art, museology and textiles and worked in institutions such as Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Victoria  & Albert Museum. Since 2004 she has lead the Courtauld Institute of Art as its Märit Rausing Director.

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man)

Professor Swallow began her lecture by considering the architecture of the 20th century. The period’s architecture was meant to convey a sense of a ‘new beginning’ in the world devastated after the two world wars and years of suppression. Modern materials such as iron and steel became key elements of the avant-garde and cutting-edge buildings, which rapidly replaced the old ones and occupied previously untouched landscapes. Architects of ‘tomorrow’ relied heavily on their utopian theories about the ideal city; yet few of them understood how to realise them in practise and how to work with these new materials. The best example of this is today’s many crumbling concrete buildings all around the world.

The lecture then proceeded unto the discussion about the utopian places and spaces in India. Professor Swallow began by exploring various concepts of the ideal city in the classical textual sources. She stressed that in India the spiritual concepts were always intrinsic to its architecture. For example, the concept of Vastu Purusha (or the Cosmic Man) is the rationale behind the architecture of the traditional Hindu temples.

Temple as the body of the deity

Temple as the body of the deity

She then proceeded to explore the post-independent cities of the mid-20th century, which she extensively studied and got a chance to live in for an extended period of time. It is around 1950s when cities, such as Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and the township of Auroville were either created, or reimagined. Due to the lack of locally trained architects foreigners were employed to design these cities. Their architectural design had to convey the essence of Indian culture. It had to merge the spiritual aspects with India’s historic past, independent present and aspirations for its future. Also, the architecture had to foster contemporary political and social ideas of the independent state. For example, Le Corbusier’s giant concrete buildings in Chandigarh continue to dominate the city and proclaim these days no longer so ‘new’ dawn. Similarly, the Open Han Monument became Chandigarh’s symbol representing ‘peace and reconciliation’. It tells a story about the partition and independence of India and at the same time projects a vision for a brighter independent India’s tomorrow.

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Matrimandir in the township of Auroville

Auroville demonstrates a slightly different case of utopian architecture. It was founded as an experimental township by Mirra Alfassa (known as ‘The Mother’). It was originally calculated to populate 50.000 people by 2014. However, today it is home for around 2.500 citizens, who come from around 50 countries. Auroville operates under the unusual economic and political structures and its architecture does not fall under the label of traditional. It was designed by Alfassa and an architect by Roger Anger, who wanted to build an ideal society living in ideal architecture. In the middle of the town the giant golden metallic sphere called Matrimandir is located. It is a spiritual object, which attracts believers from all religions. Similarly, other buildings in the town are futuristic. Their style reflects the beliefs of the town’s founders about the progress and development, which Auroville was intended to bring to the world.

I would like to briefly conclude by saying that although the talk was titled Utopian Places And Spaces these cities and their architecture are ‘real’. It continues to make an impact on its people and act as an example for a new generation of architects. It is a functioning example of the 20th century modernity in India and around the world.

Is the biggest art the art of living? (The Transformative Power of Art 5-6 February 2016)

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Opera-village-image2-600x600[1]Organised by PhD student Sarah Hegenbart, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a conference at the Courtauld Institute focusing on the life and legacy of the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010), his relationship to Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art.’ Presented by a host of impressive participants like Schlingensief’s widow Aino Laberenz and the director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon, much of the conference revolved around Schlingensief’s final project, the Opera Village in Burkina Faso – and the question whether this was a continuation, or realisation, of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. The Opera Village, which started in 2010, today consists of 26 buildings revolving around a school and a hospital. ‘How is this a Gesamtkunstwerk?’ you may ask – which, at least in part, was also the crux of the conference.

Defining the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk on the stage as a unity between lyric, dance and sound from his 1849 essays ‘Art and Revolution’ and ‘Artwork of the Future,’ much of Schlingensief’s work corresponded with this idea. Given that Schlingensief, who had his first Tate Modern retrospective in 2012, is certainly not known as well in Britain as in Germany, selected works introduced him as a socially engaged artist, often drawing on Catholic notions of the spectacle, with films and action art projects that involved bystanders as participants, consistently blurring the line between art and life. Please love Austria (2000), for example, let people vote asylum seekers out of the country in a Big-Brother-style fashion after the Austrian right-wing party FPÖ became part of the country’s government. Another piece, the trash film The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990), dealt with the implications of the reunification of East and West Germany in 1989, showing West Germans turning their Eastern counterparts into objects of mass consumerism: sausages!

This narrow selection of works alone exemplifies the work of an artist who not only engaged critically with politics and popular culture, but was also blurring the lines between art and life in an idiosyncratic reinterpretation of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. References to works like Please love Austria were well-chosen given the current socio-political climate in Germany and Austria, yet not assessed within this context. For all the critical and social engagement in Schlingensief’s work, one cannot help but wonder how pieces like Please love Austria would be received today — or how Schlingensief would have responded to the current refugee crisis.

In contrast to these critical works, it seems, the Opera Village was born out of a different kind of social engagement: that of fostering the arts in a place that Schlingensief identified with, far away from the remits of Western culture and ‘European values’ he so frequently exposed. Still, one wonders about the implications of a high-profile Western artist building his legacy in a remote part of Africa (the opera village is located 30 kilometres outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital). Aino Laberenz, who is now the project’s director, pointed out that, while she is overseeing things, the bulk of the project is directed by the local community, and there is a particular emphasis to foster cultural exchange, rather than to enforce ‘Western values’ onto the African project. Even though the artist may have started the Opera Village with the best intentions and, as was asserted, a great portion of naivety, it seems that more critical engagement with the socio-political implications of the project, especially given the current situation in Burkina Faso, is needed.

Particularly striking in this context is the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. If the Opera Village is not a charity project but an ‘artwork’ that integrates art with a social infrastructure, what do the people living there (Burkinabe teachers, doctors and nurses) represent? Are their lives a performance? Or has Schlingensief created a perfectly autonomous artwork that survives and continues after his death and is inseparable from the individuals involved with it? While it has been stressed that the people living in the Opera Village have their own input, their voices weren’t heard at the conference, and by focusing on the project as ‘Schlingensief’s utopia’ haven’t we somehow reversed his ideal by excluding them? As Schiller said, ‘the greatest art is the art of life’. Using the Opera Village as an example for ‘an art of life’, notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk can be re-assessed, yet its relationship to the direct socio-political situation in Burkina Faso remain to be explored.

As such, ‘The Transformative Power of Art’ was a successful and engaging starting point to the reception of Schlingensief’s work in the UK: rather than providing answers, at the end of the one-and-a-half-day event there were more questions than before, some of which, like the contemporary relevance of Schlingesief’s work and a critical, socio-political reading of the Opera Village, are more pressing than others.

What’s at stake when rewriting the History of Art? A Panel Discussion

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

The Art of Mechanical ReproductionTamara Trodd’s new book The Art of Mechanical Reproduction (2015) was the point of focus in a discussion between Dr Briony Fer (UCL), Dr Tamara Trodd (University of Edinburgh), Dr Ed Krcma (University of East Anglia) and Dr Klara Kemp-Welch (Courtauld Institute) at the Sackler Research Forum on 2 December 2015. To begin with, Trodd introduced the main points of her publication, focusing on the central role of the artist’s studio, the dismantling of structures of succession by problematizing the term ‘medium’, and the replacing of a focus on trauma in art historical analysis with notions of play. Paul Klee’s oil transfers (developed in 1919) and Hans Bellmer’s studio photographs for his Doll series (1935-1937), were particularly relevant examples in this context. One of the main arguments was that artists are driven not necessarily by national traumas but by their interest in innovation to make their works economically and culturally viable. In effect, Trodd suggested a reinterpretation of Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ with a focus on ‘hermetic’ studio spaces, relating them to greater economic and social structures.

The ensuing discussion emphasised the author’s use of Donald Winnicott’s ideas of play as a means of understanding the links between conscious and unconscious state (following from Freudian psychoanalysis). It became clear that, as Krcma remarked, Freud’s significance has been renewed for art historical analysis. Another point of discussion was the issue of ‘Neomania’ and the longstanding contradiction that nothing is really new anymore (in art as elsewhere), yet we are seduced by proclaimed novelty time and again. In a way, Trodd’s book even exemplified this notion, considering her aim to ‘rewrite modern art history’: her reintroduction of the figure of the artist into art historical discussions suggested a change from current analyses, as did her focus on the studio space, defined by Fer as ‘critical romanticism’.

However, as Kemp-Welch poignantly highlighted, questions of politics and historical narratives were placed on side-lines in Trodd’s publication – as well as in the discussion panel. This problematized the book in relation to one of author’s main focuses: notions of trauma. As Trodd argued, these have become an ‘easy way’ into art historical analysis and, in an attempt to move away from this practice, she suggested a focus on play as a substitute. Yet, it seems hard to conceive of a history of European modernism without the traumatic historical narratives running alongside it, and Trodd’s response to the question whether collective traumas like the Holocaust could really be left aside seemed to disregard the issue, arguing that every artist could be viewed through the lens of trauma, collective or personal.

panel discussionOverall, these somewhat controversial aspects of The Art of Mechanical Reproduction provided thought-provoking material for discussion, and emphasised the book’s new contributions to the history of art of the twentieth century. The discussion at the Sackler Research Forum also highlighted the book’s potential shortcomings by questioning whether renewed approaches to art-historical analysis and methodology could leave out seemingly unavoidable topics like trauma and conflict. As such, The Art of Mechanical Reproduction certainly showed validity as a challenging publication to respond to – agreeing with its points of focus or not.

Reviewing The Making of Soundscapes

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

The Sackler Research Forum conversation between Dr Minna Moore Ede, curator of Soundscapes at the National Gallery, and Dr Irene Noy (the Courtauld Institute of Art) was an epilogue to the exhibition shown at the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing between 8 July and 6 September 2015. Comprising of only six paintings from the collection, six sound artists from different musical genres (Chris Watson, Susan Philipsz, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Yared, Jamie XX) composed their own interpretations of the works. The musical and visual pieces were presented together, each in their own room.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Having been impressed by the way sounds can enhance visual experiences in the exhibition, it was interesting to see the paintings and ‘their sounds’ in short clips at the talk, accompanied by the noises from the street below. Revisiting the works in this manner underlined just how location-specific Soundscapes was and that, even though we could see the same pieces and hear the same sounds, it was a filtered experience this time. And no wonder: each artist could choose a sound equipment to fit their work best, so that the idea of ‘seeing music’ and ‘hearing painting’ was tailored specifically to how they wanted it to be perceived at the exhibition. For example, Chris Watson, who composed a piece of natural sounds for Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, insisted that the volume of his piece should not exceed natural sound levels. This meant that visitors had to take some time to adjust hearing the quiet sounds of Watson’s piece after entering the exhibition space. For someone not used to listening actively, Minna Moore Ede admitted, this may have presented a challenge, especially as Watson’s room was the first one in the exhibition.

It was particularly interesting to hear how the artists prepared for the exhibition: Jamie XX, for instance, could only finalise his work at the gallery, an interpretation of Théo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene, shortly before the show opened by working through the night. The curator gave credit to the young popular artist, whose participation could easily be seen as a gimmick to draw in a younger audience: all the artists, including Jamie XX, shared an interest in the connection between visual arts and sound. As perhaps expected, the painting were very carefully chosen by the artists to present us with a variety of compositions that intensely engaged with ‘their aural paintings’.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

As, Minna Moore Ede admitted, Soundscapes had a non-traditional form of curation and was very much an experiment, particularly because it had to fit within the National Gallery’s programme. Considering some responses from the press, the project was not all too well received. However, she noticed a generational divide in the reception: younger viewers, more used to experiencing active combinations of sound and vision, reacted much more positively than an older audience. In relation to this mixed result, the curator also found that the categorization of art (for example into painting, music, and performance) is still something deeply ingrained into the expectations of a British audience. While this may be true, it seemed that much of the scepticism with the ‘mixing of artistic genres’ was based on Soundscapes being a show at the National Gallery. As such, the most difficult challenge of curating the exhibition was its link to the gallery, which, as a national institution, brought with it a very particular set of expectations from an audience used to seeing ‘conventional’ shows with a focus on visual artworks. The changing of this format by removing all but one work in each room and adding a corresponding piece of sound art was thus a new concept. And yet, Minna Moore Ede argued, this emphasis on the non-traditional reanimated the pieces in a ‘non-traditional art historical manner’ – a risk worth taking in the face of all the scepticism it caused: it enabled us to see familiar paintings in a new light, even though their interpretations were not necessarily our own.

The curator of Soundscapes wants the exhibition to travel in the future, and it will be interesting to see whether removing it from the site-specific context of the National Gallery will change the way it is received. The crux of the show was that it was something new, not as an exhibition format, but in the specific context of the National Gallery. Unsurprisingly maybe, this novelty factor also brought home some criticism. Yet, as the conversation with Minna Moore Ede has shown, curators like her connect the gallery’s collection with contemporary culture and a younger audience. As such, Soundscapes, as conceived by its curator, may well start to break down the boundaries between the different categories of art even in an institution like the National Gallery, one exhibition at a time.


By Evelina Kuvykovaite (MA student)

On the 7th of November I attended the ‘The Politics of Craft’ conference at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which was organised as part of the current exhibition at the V&A titled ‘The Fabric of India’. In this review I will consider talks by Neelam Raina, Amrita Jhaveri, Peter Nagy and Venu Madhav Govindu. Although their expertise differs considerably, they all agree on the importance of textiles to India’s past and present.

Muslin border embroidered with beetle wings, probably Hyderabad, 19th century, V&A

Muslin border embroidered with beetle wings, probably Hyderabad, 19th century, V&A

After the talk by Raina I could not stop thinking about the role of women in textile production in India, in particular in post-conflict Kashmir. Raina spoke about the craft industry in Kashmir as male dominated where women occupied the position of buyers. However, in a war-torn, predominantly Muslim, Kashmir the lives of women are changing. They now assume new roles of income generators as they wait for their husbands to return from war either alive, or dead so they can bury their bodies – a necessary ritual in Islam in order to remarry. Crafts, and in particular textile production, offer a way for these women to support their households while working from home or part-time. Here, they are also able to utilise their skills, which they previously developed as buyers. These activities enable them to overcome grief and poverty and ascertain their own identities as equal members of society. Therefore, women’s involvement in the textile industry redefines the traditional family and societal structures among Muslim communities in Kashmir.

Govindu spoke about khadi, a traditional hand-woven cloth primarily made out of cotton, as a political economy. The khadi movement of 1920s led by Mahatma Gandhi aimed at boycotting foreign goods, in particular high priced clothes, manufactured from Indian cotton and woven industrially in Britain. Instead it promoted locally produced goods, thereby improving India’s economy. Gandhi believed that through the production of khadi local communities would be able to sustain themselves and this would eventually lead to social transformation and economic authority. The khadi movement was one of many steps leading towards India’s independence. It once again demonstrates how tightly the textile production in India is linked with its struggle for freedom.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Yogini, 1986

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Yogini, 1986

The talk by Jhaveri and Nagy considered the career of a recently deceased Indian contemporary artist, Mrinalini Mukherjee. By creating monumental fibre sculptures she challenged the ingrained notions of ‘high’ art. Mukherjee was often marginalised for working in textile medium. Her art was identified as mere crafts by her peers and the general public and, in turn, rejected. Despite of this, Mukherjee was able to attain recognition on an international scale and in 2015 the Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi held the first retrospective of her work. Mukherjee’s career illustrates how the notions of ‘high’ art can be challenged through the use of textiles.

One observation made by Raina, which during the conference seemed fascinating, but in the context of the politics of craft rather insignificant, was about the older generation of men in Kashmir. When weaving the fabric those men performed traditional songs. In fact, it is this observation that best illustrates the importance of textile production in India. Weaving for these men was not just a way to earn their living, but it was a ritual passed through generations. And the cloth as the result of this ritual assumed sacred value, which helped India to overcome its struggles – social, economic, political, and personal.