This year’s Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, titled Histories in Transition, explores the theme of historicism in visual art of the modern period. For the third lecture in the series, Rémi Labrusse, of Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre, described idealist visions of the Islamic Middle East in nineteenth-century art and scholarship. Prof. Labrusse began the talk with an apology for his imperfect English, and then spoke in elegant English, and with perfect clarity, for the following hour. This was one of those rare moments, for me, which define what art history is all about: capturing the rich and complex ways in which artefacts and images incorporate the values and meanings of the culture that produced them. A tile pattern from the Alhambra, transcribed to a nineteenth-century pattern book, inflects the crisis in the self-image of imperialist Europe; or describes the shift from figuration to geometric abstraction in the history of decorative art. The narratives that intersect the visual object are never exhausted – and that’s what makes art history so fascinating.
Rémi Labrusse’s account traced two broad ideological tendencies that governed visualisations of Islam in nineteenth-century Europe. The first of these, termed orientalism, describes the construction of a fictive, exotic world, embodying values imperilled by the rise of industrial capitalism. In the works of painters such as Jean-Léon Gerôme or Frank Dillon, the Arabic world was projected as a fantasy realm, absent of modernity, an erotic blend of timeless sophistication and heathen barbarism. As Labrusse described, the inherent tensions in the imperialist project are implicit in the paintings: the ‘Orient’ was defined by its isolation from modernity, so these depictions can describe only its defilement, or its demise. Vasily Vereschagin’s horrifying Apotheosis of War (1871), a desert pyramid of skulls with feeding crows, echoes the meticulous naturalism of Gerôme’s Arabian palace scenes: these are opposing perspectives on the same imperialist project. The history painting aesthetic, employed in the depiction of a fictionalised actuality, fails to suppress the underpinning brutality of nineteenth-century colonialism.
In opposition to the orientalist fantasies of the genre painters, Labrusse suggests that a more culturally sensitive, Islamophilic tendency emerged in European visual culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Studies of Islamic ornamentation, by authors such as Owen Jones, became exemplary texts in the movement to reform the decorative arts, following the aesthetic debacle of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Rather than serving as a figure of exoticism and colonial conquest, Islamic art offered, for the Islamophiles, a dazzling contrast to the decadent styles of the ‘age of ugliness’.
The lecture concluded with the outline of a fascinating hypothesis – my scribbled notes are a poor record of Labrusse’s subtle ideas. Among the reformists, he suggests, Islamophilia became a means of reformulating the Romantic project of classical renewal. Islamic tradition, unlike Greek and Romantic antiquity, offered a ‘weak’ model for European modernity, a path to aesthetic renewal without the oedipal constraints of the classical tradition. I am in danger of misrepresenting his arguments, so I better stop there. French readers can find more on this fascinating theme in Labrusse’s Islamophiles: l’Europe moderne et les Arts d’Islam, published in 2011.Categories: Research Forum | Tags: Aesthetics, Alhambra, art, colonialism, decorative art, figuration, Frank Dillon, geometric abstraction, Great Exhibition of 1851, Histories, history painting, idealism, idealist visions, imperialism, industrial capitalism, Islamophilia, Jean-Léon Gerôme, Labrusse, Middle East, narratives, nineteenth-century art, Orient, Orientalism, painting, Research Forum, Transition, visual art | Leave a comment
On the 20th of June 2012 I had the pleasure of attending Curators in Dialogue on the Persistence of Histories, part of the Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory project led by Dr. Ayla Lepine, the current Andrew Mellon and Research Forum Post-doctoral Fellow.
As one of a series of events associated with this project, the evening’s presentations by Dr Scott Nethersole (Courtauld Institute of Art), Abraham Thomas (design curator, V&A) and Sonia Solicari (Principle curator Guildhall Art Gallery), were followed by a lively panel discussion chaired by Dr Caroline Arscott.
Revivalism was presented as a creative act that entails varying degrees of historical referencing ranging across historical periods, cultures, and media. The presentations addressed how collections, spaces and exhibitions can function as vehicles of revivalism, while the discussion brought up issues such as concepts of kitsch versus irony, the use of the term ‘neo’ and the different forms of mediation that are put between one period and another. By the end of the night, it was clear to me that revivalism has little to do with the recreation or reconstruction of forms from the past. Rather, it is about constructing new meaning through what Dr Nethersole called aestheticized evocations.
What struck me most were the layered levels of revivalism that were present in all three presentations. Each revealed revivalisms within revivalisms that extended beyond simply the appropriation of stylistic references.
Dr Nethersole spoke of his curatorial decision to evoke, but not replicate, the original viewing conditions of 15th Century Italian altar pieces in order to emphasize their function within a church setting. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450), is placed within a classicizing Florentine Renaissance context as a result of its permanent setting in its own small room in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, itself a post-modern neo-classical revivalist design. However, it was originally hung as one of many elaborately framed altarpieces in a church, and when it was acquired by the National Gallery it was framed in a Victorian gothic revival frame. By emphasizing the viewing conditions over a continuous historical narrative, Dr Nethersole was able to achieve a revival of 15th century displays that created new opportunities for interpretation of the objects.
Abraham Thomas addressed the importance of the Alhambra for Owen Jones in the creation of his Grammar of Ornament (1856), and the subsequent interest in his version of Arabian motifs from the Egyptian Khedive. The romanticized photographic image of the crumbling and exotic Alhambra combined with Jones’ 19th century interpretations of its decorative motifs inspired the Egyptian leaders who sought impressive palaces that represented the latest in design and technology and yet harkened back to a non-western culture.
Finally, Sonia Solicari spoke of the self-conscious engagement with the reinterpretation of historical motifs as central to determining a definition of Victorian revivalism, or neo-Victorian. Here, the complex layers of mediated evocations at work in any revival were most apparent. The Victorian era was loaded with historical revivals: from Gothic, to Middle Eastern, to craft, and these were combined with vast advances in science and technology to create what we now consider Victorian ‘style’. Twenty-first century culture has engaged with its own revivals of these references, through steam-punk, taxidermy, a renewed interest in craft techniques and the cabinet of curiosities. In planning an exhibition of current neo-Victorian art, Solicari is faced with determining not only what makes an object neo-Victorian, but also why we are turning to this era once again. Her examples included Timorous Beasties’ ‘Devil Damask’ flocked wallpaper and Dan Hillier’s artwork for ‘Flush’, a track by Losers feat. Riz MC and Envy.
I left the talks wondering about the political motivations behind revivals. Though this was not addressed directly by the presentations, it was nonetheless apparent in the objects that were talked about and the various curatorial approaches to exhibiting revivalism that were offered to us throughout the evening. I am looking forward to delving deeper into revivalism, and its many facets at the conference in November.Categories: Research Forum, Response | Tags: Aesthetics, Alhambra, craft, evocations, Gothic, Histories, identity, irony, kitsch, memory, Middle Eastern, narratives, photographic image, Politics, Research Forum, revivalism, style, utopia, Victorian | Leave a comment
As I was headed out toward the exit to head back home, walking past the daily announcement board near the reception, I saw that there was a lecture based on a book launch that evening. “Richard Cork: The Healing Power of Art,” it said. The possible implications on the scientific function of art was a rather unusual subject, so I quickly read over the description, and the mention of Rogier van der Weyden grabbed me. Two years ago, I have attended a presentation about his Beaune Altarpiece and its commission for the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, and I remembered that I was fascinated by the fiery damnation depicted in the work and the reason for its display for the hospital’s dying patients. Fragmented memories and the feeling of my earlier questions rose up to the surface.
After considering it for a little longer as I emptily continued reading (…El Greco…Mattias Grünewald at Isenheim…), I decided to attend the lecture. I quickly went up the three flights of stairs to the top floor entrance. Slightly winded, I placed my ears near the door, and listened. A male voice was talking about traveling, and there was a polite laughter. The lecture had already begun, but I could tell that Cork wasn’t that far along in his presentation. I opened the door cautiously and with a quick, shuffling walk up to an empty section in to the door side, near the front row.
Thankfully, Cork had not started talking about the artworks yet. I probably missed the part where he explained why he decided to take on this project, which, in hindsight, would have clarified some lingering questions I had about the talk. I initially intended to just sit and enjoy the talk, but as I began to listen to him talk about his first encounter in his travels, the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, I opened my bag, took out my notebook and pen, and began taking notes.
Cork led us through his travels to uncover the art in hospitals in the Continental Europe and the UK within a mostly chronological and geographical framework. He relayed his studies from his visit to the Innocenti Hospital in Florence, passing through Sienna to Beaune to see Rogier van der Weyden’s panels of the Last Judgement, then to Isenheim and Grünewald’s altarpiece.
Some of the more vivid examples, such as van der Weyden’s depictions of the extremes of redemption and damnation, and Grünewald’s affecting image of the suffering Christ on the cross, looking diseased and his face contorted in pain in the Isenheim piece. These pieces in particular seems to offer a glimpse of the diverse attitudes of societies toward their sick to today’s audiences.
His focus moved to Spain from there, lingering on El Greco and his contributions like the Madonna of Mercy (1603-1605) for the Illescas Church Hospital, deemed blasphemous during his time for representing figures in contemporary dress, and his dynamic portrayal of the apocalypse at the Tevera Hospital in Toledo, depicting St. John and the murdered people abandoning themselves to the End, their faces and bodies reaching up to the heavens.
He then traced his steps to London, where he encountered Caius Gabriel Cibber’s contorted faces and bodies of madness that once decorated the gateway into the Royal Bethlam Hospital, James Thurnhill’s English Baroque paintings adorning the dining room of William and Mary Hospital for Seamen (now known as the Painted Hall in Greenwich), William Hogarth’s hopefully thematic Healing of Bethesda (1736) at the Baths Hospital, and Richard Dowd’s numerous works that were created on the premises while mad and confinement to the Broadmore Hospital. For more recent examples, Cork also looked at Leger’s Le Fleur qui Marche (1952), and Naum Gabo’s public sculpture for the fountains at St Thomas’s.
Through these many examples, he gave a vivid telling of stories about a selection of artworks and their connection to hospitals. As my interest lay in getting a further understanding of unusual functions of visual arts, I felt that Cork could have given us a bit more, because although he gave us some conjectures about what contemporary viewers would feel while looking at these works, he did not explicitly addressed the issue of why art would be used in the hospitals for each historical context within the lecture. But it may have been a strategy to prompt the audience to refer to the book, and in that the lecture gave a taste of the small selection of artworks included in his book, it was a good presentation to accompany a book launch.Categories: Research Forum, Response | Tags: Research Forum, Richard Cork, Rogier van der Weyden, visual arts | Leave a comment
Currently President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust and previously Director and Professor of the Courtauld Institute, Dr James Cuno was warmly welcomed to a full lecture theatre of academics eagerly awaiting his discussion of the issues surrounding the encyclopedic museum.
Current debates often attack encycopedic museums as imperial in their approach to the display of cultures; that they are symbols of state power and control and merely stagnant repositories of knowledge and culture. Dr Cuno’s counter to this argument began with the world-famous example of the British Museum founded in 1753. An encycopedic museum from its very beginnings, the BM offers a diverse collection that aims not at the specialisation or control of knowledge but rather its accessibility. The idea of an ‘Enlightenment vision’ with freedom as a human right is thus introduced and is something that must be considered throughout Dr Cuno’s discussion, after all, how free is a museum experience, and if it is not total freedom, is this a repression of a basic human right?
On a very basic level in museums, objects tell stories when positioned next to other objects. The difficulty comes in finding the right balance between focusing on each individual artwork and their presentation both aesthetically and in relation to the surrounding objects. This brings us to Dr Cuno’s suggestion that museums should never have a spine so to speak, but instead act more like a sponge. The intenton being that visitors are not under the control of the institution, but rather explore museums as they wish, creating their own path. But how true is this in a controlled space? We are led think deeper into Dr Cuno’s suggesion of free-will more generally: with the encyclopedic museum acting as a sort of microcosm for life, are we ever free to make our own interpretations?
This issue is problematic in light of contemporary debates which instead tend to raise the issue of the ‘scripted’ visit: the museum as a subject containing a pre-subscribed state ideology that unknowinlgy restricts our freedom of thinking and experience of objects. Dr Cuno however, remains somewhat idealistic. He believes that museums ‘disarm’ us to allow us to think in new and profound ways, to forget ourselves and create our own story through interacting with each object and collections of objects.
We then move on to Dr Cuno’s case study: a blue and white ceramic jug. We are asked to consider how the display of the object changes visitors’ and our own interpretations of it. We are provided with a detailed history of the object from all angles, certainly making us consider the significance of the level of information available beside an object. The important thing, Dr Cuno asserts, is that any level of research begins with the object, before the discourse.
Another interesting idea that was put forth is the idea of visitors as travellers through encyclopedic museums, perhaps as explorers of culture and knowledge, with the action of walking between objects and making connections opening our eyes to cultural relations and art. Dr Cuno does tackle the legacy of empire that such thinking implies, but asserts that there is evidence of empire in almost every object in encyclopedic museums and questions whether this should necessarily be the focus, let alone the aim being to search it out. The important thing is that museums respect individual agency so as to ensure no prejudice or priviledge in the way cultures are presented, and thereby to promote an understanding of difference.
Earlier this term I discussed the debate that was organised by the MA Curating students, Museums without Walls: Showing Art in a Digital Age. As a topic that is so current, Dr Cuno passionately argued that digital doesn’t offer the confrontational and conversational approach to objects and public speaces, as well as the meditatory aspects, that a physical museum does. Instead, the encyclopedic museum offers a source of experience of a ‘larger’ world and its diversity, something that he feels is especially important in times of conflict. His aim for the encyclopedic museum is for a democratic approach to the ownership of objects and thus the non-secularisation of objects through focusing on their multiple accessibility. Clearly Dr Cuno feels the aim of the encycolpedic museum is to counter any ‘mono-view’ of the world. And to provide a certain freedom of encounter with objects. The question still remains as to whether this can ever be possible in a museum’s articulation and display of cultures other than its own.Categories: Research Forum, Response | Leave a comment
Museums without Walls is part of the on-going Exhibiting Research series, organised by the Courtauld’s MA Programme Curating the Art Museum in collaboration with the Research Forum. The debate explored the implications of the virtual presence of art images and collections on the future of the ‘real’ museum experience. How do museums meet the public’s need for online content? And how have digital platforms affected the role of the art curator?
With Dr Sarah Hyde as chair, the speakers were from a diverse range of art-related backgrounds. As Producer of Interactive Media at Tate Online, Kirstie Beaven asserted from the start that Tate’s mission statement to increase public understanding and perception of art is key to showing art in the digital age. The focus being on participation and working closely with the curators and the gallery. Offering a curatorial perspective was Xavier Bray, Chief Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Spencer Hyman, Chief Executive of Art Finder which offers an incredible (although still in its development stage) app which I now have and strongly recommend! As a former COO of last.fm, Spencer entertained us with his music/art analogies throughout. And finally, our very own Joff Whitten from Public Programmes at the Courtauld. Joff, very democratically, proffered the general consensus from the start: that digital does not and cannot replace the gallery experience.
One issue that the digitalisation of the museum creates is the questioning of the role of the curator. What happens when people encounter objects in museums is very different from an encounter through a screen. But the main thing to remember is that the huge range of technologies out there are there waiting to be used as interpretative tools by museums. The debate centred on whether institutions have a responsibility to provide online content to the public. But the feeling was that this is not an option anymore and that it is essential to move out of the material world. For the museum audience being catered for today, online availability has become a requirement. From a curatorial point of view, Xavier made the point that digital is a helpful tool for sharing images and that museums have a responsibility to maintain interest in their collection, so that once a visitor’s curiosity is stimulated they have the option to go on to find out more digitally. Whether this mode of viewing encourages a person to visit an artwork in person (always the hope) or not, the focus today is on the access and providing of information via digital means.
The group attempted to tackle the problematic google images and the google gallery tours in their offering of mega-pixelated images beyond the naked eye. The question is, do these tools supplant the real world or in-fact question the need even to visit museums at all? These types of tools certainly offer a new and engaging route into art but it was agreed that the pressure to provide such tools puts a strain on smaller museums, tight finances etc. It became clear that such high-tech digital involvement by museums may not be so necessary after all: the focus after all should be on the image and one’s connection with it in person as well as the social side of visiting a museum to exchange views and opinions.
Thus a tension is created between the physical museum and its digital presence. But can they not unite in their offering of education and information? Isn’t it the focus of museums to give people access to their collections whether they can afford/have time to visit in person or not. So in a way they do have a responsibility to educate and therefore to have a strong digital presence that the group agreed would support the museum experience. The problem with digital images is that of the loss of scale and the repetitive reproductions that begin to wear down the pleasure of viewing the artwork. A relationship is needed with the space and surrounding works, as well as the physicality of the object. The loss of the curatorial decision process, the dialogue between objects is irreplaceable digitally and furthers the tension.
It seems that the ‘utopia’ of the digital museum is to find a balance between giving the option of information and providing a personal connection for people with the exhibition overall and each individual artwork. The group agreed that the digital and physical experiences of art are equally valid but serve very different purposes. There is still a lot of restriction within digital but it can offer a lot that the physical experience cannot and having the choice is a complicated idea but is a key part of museums today.Categories: Research Forum, Response | Leave a comment
Dead Subjects Speak: Silvia Kolbowski Presents her 2010 video, A few howls again?
‘What happens when people feel incapable when reacting to a degree of power that seems impossible to contest?’ – Sylvia Kolbowski on A few howls again?
Complementing the current MA on ‘Art and Psychoanalysis: Fifty Years of War in the Time of Peace, 1960-2010’, taught by Professor Mignon Nixon with Visiting Professor Juliet Mitchell (University College London Psychoanalysis Unit), Silvia Kolbowski is an artist based in New York and her stop-motion silent film A few howls again? explores issues of political resistance focusing on the German journalist and political militant, Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976).
Following the recent Gerard Richter Baader-Meinhof series as the Tate Modern, Kolbowski’s research focuses on the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof group, members of which were active in West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s. The group’s radical ideologies, which originated from the belief that a number of former Nazis continued to hold positions of power, were and are extremely controversial. The figure of Ulrike Meinhof is endlessly fascinating – a daughter of pacifist parents, she became highly respected journalist, then went underground once becoming involved with the RAF. The terrorist and extreme activities of the group led to their imprisonment and eventual deaths/suicides. Ulrike’s body was photographed after her death in 1976; an image that both Richter and Kolbowski employ.
Kolbowski calls for a move back in history to provide commentary of the present, particularly current issues surrounding what she sees as a right-wing shift in the U.S.. Baader-Meinhof is presented as a key moment of resistance in history. We are reminded of events in West and East Germany; the 1963-6 Frankfurt/Auswitz trials; the 1968 student uprisings etc. before being shown A few howls again?
The film itself is short at just ten minutes, and silent throughout. We are given a set of quotes by Ulrike, the media and other sources together with the black and white photo of her body. The body becomes coloured and slowly turns to look directly out at us. This doppelganger, this recreation of her image as a physical manifestation is not only disturbing, but highly sensitive in relation to the media-infested cult image of Ulrike herself: she speaks to us, complains that she has not been allowed to ‘rest’ even after death. We read a series of accusations that were levelled against her at the time: a militant; an unfit mother; ‘she wasn’t strong enough to bear the escalation of war.’ All the time the focus is on her mouth, her words: ‘my kind of violence made people nervous.’ This is a delicate issue, something that Kolbowski is certainly aware of in the presentation of what I would describe as a film-essay.
The restless figure of Ulrike, never left alone, always mythologised, is violently shaken awake by the erratic stop-motion technique of the film. We are simultaneously shaken into consciousness through these shocking images of a ghoul-like Ulrike, into questioning current acts of political resistance and the state handling of it. Kolbowski reiterates the relevance of the RAF and Ulrike’s story to us today. Since 9/11 the symbolisation of such violence is regularly taken as a threat to the American people, hence the difficulty for Kolbowski in finding a space to exhibit her work in the U.S.. We project our own anxieties and ideas onto the image of Ulrike and, thus Kolbowski’s piece. We project our own soundtrack, our own voice onto this silent film and in doing so become acutely aware of our relation to Ulrike both as a symbol and as an individual.
Visit Prof. Julian Stallabrass’ Flickr site for accompanying images:Uncategorized | Leave a comment
SPEAKER: G. M. TAMÁS (SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW,THE INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY OF THE HUNGARIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, BUDAPEST)
From the very beginning of his lecture, Gáspár Miklos Tamás established that what was to follow would be a stream of consciousness of his thoughts surrounding the abstract question: Can Capitalism Be Pictured? As a key player in the East European dissident movements and currently a professor of philosophy in Budapest, Tamás came across with great humility in his approach.
Having myself attended a discussion dedicated to the memory of a prominent figure in Hungarian politics Václav Havel earlier that same day, one of the key issues that emerged from Havel’s involvement in politics was the issue of time. As a liberal member of the Hungarian parliament during the early 90s, Tamás stepped down from his position in politics in 1994. The time constraints that come with politics were blamed for removing the free time for reading and research, and thus the progression of critical and philosophical thinking. Through quitting politics, does Tamás perhaps feel that he has more time for this mode of thought? It seems clear to me, through his carefully crafted and thoughtful lecture, that Tamás is someone who presents himself and us with a philosophical challenge. A challenge that won’t, or in some circumstances can’t, be answered but instead interrogated with question upon question from all angles.
Tamás attempts to bring to light a crucial problem in art: its attempt to represent capitalism. He argues that ‘bearing witness’ to capitalism has replaced its concept and thus that which operates as abstraction in the real world enters the conceptual. Capitalism becomes a philosophical problem: a concept. Here come the inevitable (and unanswerable?) questions that I promised: ‘Can conceptual entities be reached? ‘and ‘what does picturing them do to them?’ So, can the concept of Capitalism ever be made visible? Tamás uses the (art historically familiar) example of the icon and its issues within transubstantiation: in Christianity, for example, the sign of the cross as replacing the divine and thus its movement toward abstraction.
Tamás says that abstract capitalism is a process, one which operates at the centre of all societies, in that all regimes have elements of capitalism at their core. The difficulty, he argues, is finding its centre and anything structurally that could be used as a tool of repression. This makes it harder to analyse than other regimes such as communism, creating a tension and conflict at its heart.
This lecture is not at all what I expected. I was ready to take clear and concise notes about the relation between art and capitalism. What I got instead was a true insight into the working process of a project from one of the best and most qualified professors in the field and with it an incisive challenge to my own way of thinking. So the question is can capitalism be pictured? Ideally yes, in parallel to itself and to other methods of the conceptual. A difficult and abstract discussion in itself, I can only conclude with the question: can an entire mind-set, a significant element of life, can capitalism be pictured as a piece of conceptual art?Categories: Research Forum, Response | Tags: capitalism, conceptual art, Philosophy | Leave a comment
A response by Jane Scarth
“This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity.” – Thomas Hirschhorn
Having reflected on my notes from this lecture repeatedly, I am still not quite sure how to make sense of it all. This seems bizarre, because Thomas Hirschhorn’s purpose seemed to be to rationalise his art practise, and specifically his huge, immersive installation for the 2011 Venice Biennale, CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE, (Fig. 1) which I had seen this summer.
What I understood was that in using a belief system to justify what art is and should be (“because in art it’s a matter of believing”), and so Hirschhorn presented us with the three questions he needed to answer to reach the conclusion of the work. These were set in a framework of ‘The Four Parts of the Form and Force Field: LOVE, PHILOSOPHY, POLITICS, AESTHETICS’, at least two of which, he tells us, must always be present in his work, and all four are found here. Within and from these constant elements, Hirschhorn finds an appropriate motif, which is then integrated to create the whole. Each element leading to more inherent questions and each has an answer specific to the artist (taking the form of motifs, materials, themes, etc.).
To over-simplify the logic, in CRYSTAL OF RESISTANCE they take these forms:
LOVE = the motif of crystal.
PHILOSOPHY = a desire for universality.
POLITICS = urgency and panic.
AESTHETIC = the crystal meth lab/B-movie set.
The result is an artwork that is explosive, an onslaught of ideas and references, fluctuating between being at times enlighteningly coherent and at others impenetrable. But such is the creative mind. It was explained that to enter the installation you go inside the head of the artist, and on leaving you will be taking home ‘a bit of my head in your head’.
The thing I found most inspirational about hearing Hirschhorn was his unrelenting questioning of himself and his position as an artist. He creates intricate mind-maps, which are works of art in themselves, (Fig. 2) to place himself in relation to his work and so he can always refer back and reassess where he is coming from. I think that this is similar to the experience of the visitor to the show in the sense of getting lost in an extreme train of thought and having to hold onto certain reference points to relocate yourself.
Therefore to my understanding, it is entirely appropriate that one of the four banners spray painted with Edouard Glissant quotes was “You have the right not to be understood”. At times in the installation I think I understood, and at times in the talk I certainly did. However now, with the two collected experiences, and retrospect, I am not really sure that I do. Yet I don’t think that it’s a bad or even an ignorant thing, but part of the nature of the work in its process of finding logical, universal conclusions to questions that are at times without answers.Categories: Response | Tags: 2011 Venice Biennale, Aesthetics, art, Hirschhorn, installation, Love, Philosophy, Politics, Research Forum, visual art | Leave a comment
I’ve always secretly wished I was really good at science and could do physics. My dad tried particularly hard to get me interested having studied it himself at university, but the truth is I never had teacher at school that could get me engaged unless it was art or drama. Now having found my ‘calling’ (at least for now!) in art history, I always admire scholarship that finds new ways of fusing the two together.
Bringing astrophysics into the study of Alexander Calder’s Constellation series (figs. 1 & 2) proved the ways in which an understanding of science and its role within the contextual climate can open whole new realms of meaning. The prospect can often seem daunting for those less scientifically inclined. I won’t lie about the fact that when the speaker began discussing cosmic nuclear gasses, interstellar matter, and the 4th dimension of space time, my heart sunk a little with the feeling my scientific ignorance would cost me a full understanding of the debate. However it is not just that these ideas explain the artwork, but it was argued that the artworks themselves are creative explanatory models for what were new theories about the cosmos, an explanation that certainly helped me!
In terms of art historical context, I was particularly taken with the discussion of the Dimensionist Manifesto (1936), created by Charles Sirato and signed not only by Calder, but Arp, Picabia, Miró, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Duchamp and Nicholson to name but a few. Clearly Calder’s astrological endeavours speak to a wider contemporary artistic phenomenon, and focusing on his particularly astute intellectual response in relation to this elevate him from his usually marginalised status. Indeed Calder had trained for four years as an engineer, and so his technical understanding most likely surpassed some of his contemporaries. The manifesto states:
“It is, on the one hand, the modern spirit’s completely new conception of space and time (the development of which, in geometry, mathematics and physics – from Bólyai through Einstein – is on going in our days), and on the other, the technical givens of our age, that have called Dimensionism to life.”
It was suggested that every element of the Constellations colour, line, and shape are representative of specific scientific language and diagrams. As you may have noticed from my first blog post, I like unusual formal connections. Therefore I was fascinated by the comparison of the ‘hourglass’ shapes in Constellation with Two Pins (fig. 2), to the diagram of a light cone (fig. 3). It seems that in coming together within the artwork, these complex theories help to explain each other.
As with any Research Forum event, the depth of analysis was such that I could not fathom to cover it here. But I would like to end by reflecting on a phrase I can’t get out of my head, about making the connection. Calder’s works literally connect stellar forms with spindly stems, making connections between the shapes, which can be seen to represent scientific theories, and at the same time reminding us that the connection between art and science is often a lot closer than we imagine. Unfortunately I think it is the cultural heritage of Enlightenment reason vs. Romantic emotion (i.e. Science vs. Art) that tell us they are not, a barrier still often hard to break down.Categories: Research Forum, Response | Tags: Alexander Calder, art, colour, diagrams, line, science, scientific language, shape | Leave a comment