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.

INDIA’S TEXTILES

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.

What do Art Historians Produce?

By Dr Irene Noy

Alternative dissemination methods within art history have fascinated me for quite some time, so I was delighted to find out about a talk dedicated to The Future of the Art History Book given by Dr Charlotte Frost from the University of Hong Kong. The event was organised by Dr Alixe Bovey (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and linked to The Academic Book of the Future project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library. Both responded to pressing concerns relating to how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities is produced, read and preserved.

Frost addressed these points when she listed numerous examples of platforms that seek to develop new systems for aggregation, annotation, collaborative writing, data visualisation, open access and peer review. For example, CommentPress Core (founded in 2006) proposes to turn ‘a document into a conversation’ and Open Humanities Press (2008) is an open access resource for ‘leading works of contemporary critical thought’. Book Sprints (2005) is a collaborative process where a book is produced from the ground up in just five days. Here, like in most of these initiatives, there is an emphasis on how technology can be used in order to congregate subject-matter experts ‘in a manner that would be nearly impossible using traditional methods’.

experiments

All these examples highlight the close link between how art historians create research and what it is that we produce. Frost focused on the fact that art history is behind in developing robust publishing models, but I would argue that this should be viewed within a greater context of what art history is expected to create and how it is disseminated. We are all too familiar with what is expected of art historians: learn how to look (better if you know how to listen too), read a lot, write papers, give talks at conferences, be active participants in various networks, teach and mentor students, make research accessible to non-academic audiences, curate exhibitions, when possible and so on. The ideas we exchange with each other verbally ultimately feed into publications – which are only one aspect of research’s dissemination – but it is the one which is valued most. This is probably the core issue. Art historians have to create text, preferably a lot of it (and then bind it into books) and preferably publish it with the most prestigious publishing houses.

Creativity is certainly encouraged within art history and, as Frost reminded us, we should be inspired by artistic practices. Though aren’t we already? As a PhD student, I was involved in a number of rewarding cross-period and cross-discipline collaborations which resulted in experimental presentations (we even called them performances) such as ‘Stepping Out and Into Rhythms: Moving Corporeal Inquiries from Music, Art History and Cultural Studies’ (Edinburgh, 2011) and ‘Listening art historians: a cross-period collage of seeing and hearing’ (Aberystwyth, 2013). These performances challenged the traditional formats of academic papers and conferences and we received encouraging feedback from our colleagues. These were incredibly nourishing projects but disproportionately time-consuming when compared to ‘value’ of the outcome. Only one of them resulted in a ‘formal’ publication. The most valued practice is still the production of text.

arthistory

Text is our most trusted source of recording and archiving. We perceive it to be less ephemeral to recordings of, say a text read aloud, or a video of a conference (so we publish conference proceedings). It is also about how we can ‘work’ and engage with a text, as it is something ‘solid’ that we can annotate and comment (although there are an increasing number of students who prefer to read from screens). At the same time we spend an increasing amount of time with mediated images and sounds. Of course, alternative mediums such as podcasts and videos present other challenges. Whether we want it or not, they have become an integral part of our research. If we want to tighten the gap between the content and the medium of our research, and not for the sake of experimentation with new gadgets and apps, but in order to integrate what we research about and what we ultimately create, we have to allow all of these forms to become part of what is valued within the evaluation structures that eventually determine what art history is.