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’.

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.

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990

By Hannah Gormley (BA3 student)

Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990, an art and archive exhibition at The Guildhall Art Gallery comes across, at first, as a total enigma. If you are lucky enough to know of the Guildhall Gallery, one of the more esoteric gems of The City, it is also likely you missed the brazen red banners downstairs, proclaiming the shows existence. In all fairness, one wouldn’t expect a show commemorating two of London’s most valuable creative activists, concerned with celebrating and exploring the Black British experience of the seventies and eighties, to take place in a gallery that is a branch of the City of London corporation. Nor would you particularly expect a show containing Eddie Chambers ‘How Much Longer You Bastards’ (1983), a brutal challenge to Barclay’s involvement in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, to be nestled within the financial centre of the country.

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

‘Recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop owned by Bogle L’Ouverture Publishing at No Colour Bar’

No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 – 1990 is an amalgamation of art and archival material related to the African and Caribbean diaspora and those interested in the ‘black’ British experience – though their use of the term ‘Black’ denotes a political and cultural struggle rather than a specific skin colour. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to the efforts of Jessica and Eric Huntley, Guyanese born migrants who settled in London in the 1960s and founded Bogle L’Ouverture Publications in 1969. This bookshop is recreated and becomes the centre of the exhibition, attempting to evoke the ‘cultural hub’ where artists, writers and activists met and shared their work. The Huntley’s notably published Dr Walter Rodney’s ‘Groundings with my Brothers’ and ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ which were seminal to reframing black experience and analysing the systematic profiteering from oppression across the world.

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

Sonia Boyce, ‘She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On’ (1986)

This archival material is then set against art from the BLK art group of the 1980s and the Caribbean Artist Movement, or artists with similar concerns. This is where it is possible to get lost – as the link between the Huntley’s activism and artists is subtle. It is also too easy to presume that these artists like Sonia Boyce, Denzil Forrister, Keith Piper and Eddie Chambers were solely political or ‘black’ artists – when really their artworks were personal expressions that in certain works, incidentally, explored the societal tension of the time. Sonia Boyce’s rich She Ain’t Holding Them Up, She’s Holding On (1986) pastel drawing is deeply personal and recreates the psyche of a young girl formative years, contending with her identity as both Black and British – at a time when such things could be considered incongruous. Even the shows title ‘No Colour Bar’ references the formal and unofficial racial segregation in the UK and across the world. And this is where, as a show championing the Black British experience and struggle, often under tradition and the establishment, the potency of the exhibitions message is revealed – in a grand government run gallery. Hopefully this show not only allows people to reconsider their assumptions of Black British art but of the Guildhall Gallery too.

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.

 

A Mockery of Contemporary Art Taste or a Triumph of Medium over Message?

A symposium and an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Wiktor Komorowski (PhD student)

Softer Targets is a solo exhibition by Jenny Holzer at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, featuring both new work and a selection of significant pieces drawn from over three decades of the artist’s career. The exhibition was accompanied by a symposium under the McLuhanian title ‘The Message and the Medium’. The main aim of this one day meeting was to explore the use of language and technology in art.

Softer Targets, exhibition view

Softer Targets, exhibition view

The undisputable highlight of the symposium were talks given by Dave Beech and Pavel Büchler. Dave Beech is an artist in the collective Freee, as well as a writer and curator. He is also Professor of Art at Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Sweden. His work focuses on slogans, billboards and publications that challenge the commercial and bureaucratic colonisation of the public sphere of opinion formation. Pavel Büchler is an artist, teacher and occasional writer who describes his practice as ‘making nothing happen’. Büchler teaches on MA Fine Art at Manchester School of Art.

The presence of two conceptual artists among the panellists contributed to a more interactive discussion by providing a testimony of the first-hand experience of artistic practice and through brining ample examples drawn from the portfolio of both speakers. Beech’s talk concerned the foundations and the almost 50-year long tradition of text art. His presentation emphasised the artistic potential of language that provides almost limitless opportunities to unfold different contexts. Language, as a highly culturally-related medium, became a foundation of all conceptual creation as it facilitates artists to introduce additional levels of meaning. His presentation was followed by Büchler’s talk on the discrepancy between the limitless potential of language and technological limitations of working with letters and words. Pavel Büchler focused on the gap between ideology that supports the conceptual practice and the frequent practical difficulty of bringing these ideological assumption to life.

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

The presentations given by Beech and Büchler fully engaged the audience, but, surprisingly, did not build on the links between the tradition of text art and the work of Jenny Holzer. The lack of a more structured commentary from Beech and Büchler left an impression that the tragedy Holzer talks about in her art becomes marginalised and serves merely as a platform for a discussion over aesthetic form and different modes of reception.

The absence of further considerations of the message Holzer is trying to convey, pauperises her work to a purposefully hyperaesthetic commodity. Her practice seen in such a light does not provide the silent victims an opportunity to speak but rather questions the moral condition of the contemporary audience, in particular, its ability to spot the message under a thick layer of conceptual aestheticisms. Holzer’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, similarly to the recent exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works at the Royal Academy, raises the question how far has the politically inspired conceptual art turned into a mockery of contemporary art taste?