Research Rhythms Archive

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.

 

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.

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’.

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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.

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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.

Chasing America: Workshopping American Art History in the CHASE consortium

By Theo Gordon (PhD student)

On Saturday 24 October, scholars and students of American art history and visual culture from across the CHASE consortium gathered together in the Sackler Research Forum to discuss their research topics, exchange ideas, and ponder the age-old existential problem of the Americanist in Europe: why study the culture of countries half-way around the world, and what are the methodological problems we all encounter in this curious scenario?

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, New York, United States (1886)

The event was organised by David Peters Corbett (UEA) and Alixe Bovey (Courtauld), alongside SAVAnT (Scholars of American Visual Art and Text), with the aim to assess the breadth and depth of research into art and culture in the Americas, taken to include Canada, Central America and Mexico, as well as the United States and South America. Around fifteen research students and post-docs from across the consortium presented their work across the day. The range and quality of the work was extraordinary – we heard of the afterlives of American Civil War photography, the representations of female sex workers in turn of the century New Orleans, rereadings of materialism in depictions of the American home, theories of the graphic novel, and the mystery of David Wojnarowicz’s series showing Arthur Rimbaud riding the New York Subway, amongst many other fascinating topics.

As the day unfolded, we gradually realised the proposition that within CHASE there exists one of the most dynamic network of researchers working on the Americas in the United Kingdom. The event was exciting for a number of reasons. First, the consistent originality of the work and the way that everyone sophisticatedly questioned established narratives of art and culture of the Americas. Second, the opportunity presented to reach outside of one’s own institution and connect with others working on similar problems. Third, the prospect of establishing a formal network for the study of the Americas within CHASE, to enable these links and friendships to flourish in the future.

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Finally, it was nice to know there are other people facing similar issues in the study of a geographically and culturally distant place. It can be difficult when the archives and objects of investigation are so far away. I took away the importance of sharing and discussing one’s method with the group. If we are all chasing America, we can turn these issues from being the problem into being the solution.

 

Clausura Explains it All?: Review of Sister Act, Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and  Daniela Rywiková take questions

Jennifer Atwood, Giuseppe Capriotti and Daniela Rywiková take questions

After last year’s Friarsday, there could only be a sequel in the form of a Nunday. Organised by Michaela Zöschg and Laura Llewellyn, two research students at the Courtauld working on art associated with female convents, this conference set out to ask important questions about art historical enquiry within their field. The problem of agency behind the appearance of a work of art is common to all medieval art history, but is a particular problem for female monasticism, as the clausura of the community would seem to displace nuns further away from the act of making than was typical for other groups, such as monks, priests or laypeople. Furthermore, if the art associated with a particular social group shows as much diversity as it does homogeneity, how credible is it to interrogate it from their perspective? The strength of this conference is that it was exceptionally well-curated to explore these problems, and was clearly shared by many, judging by the healthy turn-out.

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline

Joanne Anderson shows faith in the Real Presence of Professor Kline when asking a question

It is now widely accepted in art history that reception of art can be just as interesting as its creation. The opening session on Friday afternoon explored books and furniture from female convents via the perspective of their cloistered audiences: Jennifer Atwood on a book from Littlemore Priory in Oxfordshire; Giuseppe Capriotti on the choir stalls of the Camerino Clarisse in the Marches; and Daniela Rywiková on a variety of Bohemian manuscripts. All made reference to internal factors rather than simple stereotypes: something that would become important throughout the conference. Gendered space is a more controversial topic: the sort of term you can drop into a research application (a bit like ‘liminal’) because no one is precisely sure what it means. Professor Jonathan Kline’s paper (pre-recorded, and successfully given in-absentia), on the detached frescoes from the upper chamber of Santa Maria Inter Angelos near Spoleto, was well-received for that way it explored the issue. Nuns are intensely holy people, but their connection with the Eucharistic liturgy is severely limited, so these frescoes now largely preserved in American museums asserted the Real Presence of the Host outside of a liturgical context. Susan Sharp’s and Eva Sandgren’s papers took similar approaches to possible female audiences, respectively to the paintings of the hitherto named ‘Chaplain’s Room’ at Lacock Abbey and the fittings of the highly unusual choir at the Birgittine Monastery of Vadstena.

Carola Jäggi’s keynote at  the close of the first day compared the well-documented St Katharinental in Switzerland, a limited network of artists and internal patronage, to the much more trans-regional connections of the convent of Konigsfelden. Christian Nikolaus Opitz took a remarkably similar approach for his comparison of winged altarpieces in Clarissan convents in Nuremberg and Bamberg in his paper which opened the second day. He concluded that the former attracted potential donors, the latter potential nuns. This idea that that two similar convents’ artistic solutions could be so markedly different, surfacing as it did at the mid-point of the conference, was well-timed to stimulate much discussion.

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James D’Emilio, Stefanie Seeberg and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón under the unusual double-image of Beatrice of Portugal in the Dominican habit

The following session on nuns as artists, explored some problems again related to the problem of clausura. Fausta Navarro showed how the Dominican nun Suor Plautilla Nelli’s art was restricted by her conservative use of models derived from Fra Bartolomeo from the same order. Similarly, Ingela Wahlberg looked at the embroidery of female convents, showing how it was wayward and eccentric in its technique compared to ‘professional’ workshops in the external medieval art market. Three papers then looked at female monasteries and royal patrons: James D’Emilio on Cistercians around León; Stefanie Seeberg on the convent of Altenberg under Gertrud of Thüringen; and Diana Lucía Gómez Chacón on the extraordinary tomb monument of Beatrice of Portugal. All approached their topics with the agenda of discovering the agency of the female communities, but all found some grey areas in which their influence was more difficult to attribute amid the stylistic choices by the artists themselves. Angelica Federici showed at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura that an inscription tells of the nuns’ (specifically the sacristan’s) agency; while Veronique Bücken used the images on the remarkable chariot for the shrine of Nivelles’ collegiate church as demonstrating the canonesses affirming their predominancy over the male canons. The closing paper of the day by Saundra Weddle was a fitting finale in that it achieved an interesting synthesis of this problem. It showed how Venetian convent architecture was integral with the city fabric, but modified the local vernacular – obviously unique to Venice – for the demands of clausura and self-identity, such as canal-side doors solely for waste disposal and iron window-grates with wooden shutters.

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Alexandra Gajewski and the Graefenthal crucifixion with its army of nuns

Alexandra Gajewski’s excellent paper on the striking Graefenthal crucifixion came with a magisterially concise overview of the historiography central to this conference. Replacing Georges Duby’s view of medieval women as passive objects, feminism introduced the concept of gender as a societal concept that could be undermined, and eventually moved toward reception theory, that maintains the agency of a passive, enclosed community. Yet her paper and many other showed that there is no such thing as a normal nun, and that analysing the community for its own peculiarities is essential in ‘nun studies’. Without contraries is no progression, but in setting up such binaries as male and female; external patronage and internal agency; liturgical and devotional, enquiry will find that invariably, the most accurate picture will lie somewhere in between these extremes. If ‘nun studies’ conform to the assumption of a single character type, then it risks being no more accurate to real medieval holy women than Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 musical comedy (which Carola’s keynote reassuringly referenced) was to the modern religious female community.

Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 was held at the Courtauld Institute on 13 and 14 March 2015