Curating the Immaterial: Histories, Theories and Practices of Sound Art


By Carlos Kong

Sound Art Curating Conferece

Sound Art Curating Conference

“Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” (15-16 May) brought together an interdisciplinary community of curators, artists, and academics to discuss the philosophical, aesthetic, and practical challenges of curating sound art. The conference, held across three days at Goldsmiths, University of London, and The Courtauld Institute of Art and co-chaired by Lanfranco Aceti (Sabanci University), Janis Jefferies (Goldsmiths), Martin Sørengaard (Aalborg University of Copenhagen), and Julian Stallabrass (The Courtauld), fostered interdisciplinary conversations that explored sound art at its curatorial, theoretical, and sociopolitical intersections. Sound art has recently emerged in circuits of public space and art institutions, evident in exhibitions such as Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China (Shanghai, 2013), The Heard and the Unheard (Taiwanese Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale), and Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic (Tate Modern, London, 2012), and Soundings: A Contemporary Score (MoMA, New York, 2013). Despite its ontological absence, sound is accruing a significant presence at the forefront of contemporary art and media culture. Its elusive materiality, unstable objecthood, and relational aesthetics are expanding both the parameters of art historical discourses and the social engagements of curatorial practices, which the conference participants discussed and debated throughout a lively weekend of sonic musings.

The conference featured a variety of compelling sessions and panel discussions, examining diverse audiovisual interstices that ranged from sound art and globalized politics, the spatial considerations of curating sound, writing about sound art, the philosophy of listening and audibility, sound art and issues of conservation and copyright, sound art and the mediatization of the artist, and the relation of sound art to other forms of visual, performance, and digital art. One r session that I found particularly fascinating was “Event Making and Identity Politics Beyond the Dirty A-Word of Authenticity: The Case of ‘Sound Art’ in China”. The speakers, professors and curators from China and Taiwan, problematized the politics of curating nonwestern sound art. Their papers challenged the western, orientalized formation of a distinctly “Asian” soundscape and questioned the possibility of authenticity in the transnational politics of Asian art. Through analyzing various case studies of recent sound art exhibitions, “noise” festivals, and multimedia installations throughout China and Taiwan, the panel participants (one of whom included Dajuin Yao, curator of Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China) concluded that curators of nonwestern sound art must maintain a sensitivity to the geographical and material conditions of the work of sound to prevent the spectacularization of nonwestern culture that pervades globalized networks of artistic exchange. The speakers advocated that the relational intervention and social praxis of curating sound art could potentiate a reversal of the “ethnographic ear” of sonic orientalism- an idea that I found particularly compelling, as sound so potently bears the politics of nationality and identity despite its lack of a representational referent.

Another highlight was a keynote address by Atau Tanaka, Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. As a practicing electroacoustic musician and multimedia artist, a curator of sound and media art, and a scholar of media studies, Tanaka discussed the curatorial instability of sound in his talk, “Curating and Exhibiting Performative Systems”. Tanaka drew on specific examples from his prolific career in electronic audiovisual art to thematize both the risks and richness of sonic performances across networks and spaces, utilizing interactive systems as musical instruments. His anecdotes and artworks emphasized hybridity, complicating the distinctions of physical, virtual, immaterial, and embodied, while collapsing the epistemological divides of data, sound, and image. Tanaka’s virtuoso installations and curatorial projects posit interactivity across geographical cities and continents, and formulate temporal simultaneities of the art event, at once live, re-performed, online, aired on the radio, and networked across galleries and time zones. By expanding and experimenting with the responsiveness of the “embodied audiovisual interaction” of sound with other forms of digital and performative media, the artistic and curatorial practices that Atau Tanaka presented captivatingly gestured towards the redefinition of contemporary aesthetic experience as we know it.

The interdisciplinary conversations at this year’s “Sound Art Curating Conference: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Sound Art” reflect the exciting, albeit challenging developments of incorporating sound art into curatorial programs and academic institutions. Sound- its elusiveness, intangibility, and ephemerality- is emerging to the globalized forefront of contemporary art, exposing the productive, transmedial spaces for curating and scholarship. The conference’s discussions signified a stimulating start to the examination and curation of sound art towards its affective, sociopolitical potential.


Sacred Traditions and the Arts is one of the Research Forum’s consistently exciting ventures, organised jointly with King’s College London to create a dialogue between art history and theology. Glenn Sujo (G. F. Watts Associate Artist) warned us that his paper might be rather more sombre than Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture that had aired that morning on Radio 4. But in some ways this whole seminar addressed some similar modern anxieties about art, not least the thorny matter of beauty.

Dr. Glenn SujoGlenn’s lecture “The Image of atrocity is never innocent: the aporiai of the visual” was about the art produced, often covertly, during and in the immediate aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. To what extent do these “products of the imagination” adequately represent the horrific experience? His analysis of these aporiai concerned their subjects. A sketched view of a window spoke of confinement, and the seemingly simple subject of Jews transporting sewage carried an underlying message of the resilient struggle to maintain civilisation and sanitation in the ghetto. While there was not a complete disregard of treatment; sombre colours and jagged lines were considered, it was “Draw what you see” that almost became his keynote, and that these works embodied experience.


Professor Tim Gorringe

Tim Gorringe (University of Exeter) had written his lecture as a direct response to Glenn’s address. He began by stating that the “classical” view of beauty: harmony and proportion, as embodied in the art of Ancient Athens through Aquinas to Kant, when applied to religion, fails. It produces “high-grade kitsch” such as the Sistine Madonna, certainly an interesting definition of Raphael’s Roman masterpiece. For Tim, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, through its choices in form and style addressed theological truth with greater success: the outrage at the suffering in the world. Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion achieves much the same: its initial exhibition leaving Kenneth Clark only able to remark “what an extraordinary world we live in”. For Steiner, true Tragedy in the arts required a metaphysical overlord, removed in the modern era by a secular, rational worldview. But Tim tried to show that a painter within the secular age could still articulate profound tragedy through a “silent scream” at the injustice of existence.


Glenn and Tim in the final discussion and the horrors of BelsenThis series always places a great emphasis on encouraging discussion afterwards. Showing a commendable willingness to disagree, a difference emerged between the two speakers of the status of a work of art made in the wake of tragedy as an object of knowledge. Is its ultimate value as a work of truth as a document of experience, or as an ineffable, theological statement akin to Job’s questioning of the injustice wreaked upon him? Keats’ aphorism of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is often maligned as a bit of a cop-out, and indeed it is not all we need to know. But it is a starting point. We all have our own truths, artist, viewer and art historian, and many were expressed in this highly rewarding evening.

The Art of Collecting: Questioning Status and Practices

In this workshop, held on Thursday 13 June, Courtauld students Agathe Jacquemet and Amélie Timmermans set out to explore why and how people and organizations collect art. The afternoon began with a short video of three different collectors discussing why they collect, what defines them as a collector, and how they purchase and develop their collections. Following the video, Jeffrey Boloten, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ArtInsight Ltd, introduced the workshop’s speakers, who represented both private and public collections.

The first half of the afternoon was devoted to private collections and featured Philip Hook from Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Department and art advisor Alex Heath, who is Chairman and Managing Director of International Art Consultants Ltd. Hook’s lecture, titled Why Collectors Collect, presented a pie chart of the various motives for developing private collections: spiritual enlightenment, investments, status, and aesthetic/intellectual pleasure. Overall, Hook promoted the virtues of collecting for spiritual enlightenment and intellectual pleasure, concluding with, ‘You need to see your art in order to stay alive’. Heath’s lecture, titled Advising Collectors in their Collections, approached private collections from the opposite angle, examining the methods and factors essential to advising a broad range of collectors. Having little background knowledge on economic and financial theories, I found Heath’s treatment of art as a good to be consumed and his discussion of the importance of wealth management in building private collections to be particularly interesting.

The second half of the workshop had a very different tone, focusing on building public collections, particularly the Art Fund’s, discussed by Head of Policy and Strategy Sally Wrampling, and the Courtauld Gallery’s, discussed by the Head of the Gallery Ernst Vegelin. Wrampling presented several of the Art Fund’s joint purchases from the past few years and explained the process of helping other institutions acquire works with Art Fund support. She stressed the importance of the support of Art Fund members and donors to the success of the Fund over the years. Vegelin’s lecture highlighted the importance of three of the Courtauld’s own private collectors: Samuel Courtauld, Lord Lee of Fareham, and Sir Robert Witt. It was particularly relevant in light of the current exhibition at the Gallery, Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s, which showcases the benefits of Samuel Courtauld’s foresight in building his own collection. According to Vegelin, ninety-five percent of the Courtauld’s collection is composed of gifts, making it a prime example of the fruits of meticulous private collectors. It also made it a fitting topic to end the workshop with, as it illustrates the transformation of private collections into public ones.

The Art of Collecting provided an impressive range of speakers and topics, highlighting the difficulties with and complexity of developing and managing both private and public collections and opening up further debate on the changing function and status of collecting art in the twenty-first century.

Light, Colour and Veils

Some conferences, such as last month’s Beyond the Western Mediterranean, set out to break new ground, but some are held just to celebrate and inspire. This was the mood for the day-long event at The Courtauld in honour of retiring professor Paul Hills. The duly prophetic Peter Mack from the Warburg set the tone for the day by explaining how Paul, with his deep pleasure in paintings, uses them as tools with which to think. Getting intense enjoyment out of a work of art is something I feel is a skill in itself. However, it seems almost selfish to indulge in if you can’t pass anything from the experience to others without pretence or arrogance, two words that could never apply to Professor Hills.

Highlights of the day’s papers included Jane Bridgeman’s explanation of the different sort of female head-coverings in Renaissance Italy: mantles, veils and wimples. It was stimulating to be reminded that the beautiful costumes of the Madonna that the Christ Child tugs at in so many medieval paintings are in essence a symbolic yoke of the repressed female. Beverly Louise Brown’s reassessment of Titian’s Jacopo Pesaro presented by Pope Alexander VI to St Peter was particularly lucid and revealing. Usually considered as a clumsy piece of juvenilia where the young artist could not even get St Peter’s mantle the right colour, Dr. Brown showed how Titian was working in a tradition of dressing St Peter in red papal robes, and the saint’s somewhat stilted appearance may have been an allusion to his statue in the Vatican of which pilgrims would kiss the foot. Paul Smith’s characteristically packed paper on colour theory formed an excellent closing to the conference.

What made the day special was the presence of actual art and artists: something Professor Hills surely appreciated. The print room had been prepared with a selection of appropriate master drawings, serving to bring people together at the lunch break and prompt rich discussion at this often awkward stage of a Saturday conference when many disappear up the Strand in search of calorific sustenance. Films were also presented, in person by Nicky Hamlyn and in absentia by Shirazeh Houshiary, which prompted thoughts on the materiality of the veil, as well as the noisiness of the 16mm projector (a topic for another conference). Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy, spoke openly about his own paintings: how by veiling the canvas in paint he unveiled his own persona to the world at large. It was a reminder that the creation of the work of art could be an uncomfortable process, much more fraught than the art historians’ task of picking it apart at their leisure.

I work with so many broken bits of English Gothic art, sad shadows of great works through poor drawings, all but demolished Abbey ruins. However this inspirational conference reminded me I want to see them as an art historian, and yearn to pass on at least a small fraction of the pleasure which they give me, to show that they are examples of beautiful and profound music in a noisy world.

Medieval Work in Progress: Dr Robert Mills on Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Although given a rather moderate-sounding title, as soon as Dr Mills started speaking about the bestialisation of the human in the context of medieval torture and martyrdom images, the seminar on the 22nd of May, “Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal,” immediately became much more complex than initially expected (and for those of us with darker tastes, much more interesting too). Mills began by addressing theories of “Speciesism” and considerations of how violence is represented from the perspective of the animal, and deconstructed these ideas by considering what actually constituted “animal perspective” in the Middle Ages.

In this context, Mills looked closely at how animals functioned in a symbolic manner in the late medieval period, and how this informed the pedagogical functions of bestiaries, such as the Rochester Bestiary (BL MS Royal 12 F xiii) and another in the British Library, MS Harley 3244. This was but a springboard, however, for Mills’ exploration of animality within the category of the human. Drawing upon Aristotle’s claims that man is both beyond, yet also within the animal, and that “man is by nature a political animal,” he established that the distinction between “human” and “animal” is essentially porous – the foundation of his study of both animal and human slaughter in manuscripts. There were some beautiful examples of this – particularly in Leviticus 1 of the Bible Moralisée (ÖNB Vienna 2554, on folio 27r). On this folio was a richly illuminated, deep vermillion rendering of the flaying of a cow, with the corresponding moralisation equally graphically depicting the skinning alive of St Bartholomew. Here, the flaying of the cow was so vividly conflated with human martyrdom, and the torture of both cow and saint were represented almost identically. Similarly in another Bible Moralisée (Naples, MS Français 9561), the orientation of the humans and the animals undergoing torture was exactly the same, as well as the nature of the torture and the torment on their faces – an interesting revelation, considering the common perception of medieval attitudes towards animal rights. The martyrs are conspicuously dehumanised, heightening the effect of the torture, whilst the animals are simultaneously humanised. The porousness of the distinction is no clearer than here.

What I found most interesting, though, was Dr Mills’ idea of medieval books themselves literally representing the word-made-flesh – that the bloody, torturous image of the cow being flayed in Vienna 2554 vividly recalls the production of the parchment that the illumination is painted on; medieval parchment, also called vellum, was itself made from cow or calf skin. The parchment in this context becomes performative, and is an active component of the cow’s torture; “the violence on the page,” Dr Mills explained, “serves as an uncanny reminder of the violence behind the production of the page.”

Caroline Villers Research Fellowship Lecture – ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups’

Dr Pia Gotschaller presented her most recent findings on the history and use of masking tape in modern and contemporary art on Thursday 9 May in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre. This lecture was the second of a three part series on the subject, as Dr Gotschaller continues her research as the Caroline Villers Research Fellow.

The terminology of the title, ‘Masking Tape: From Innovators to Early Adopters and Majority Groups,’ is borrowed from innovation theory used by product developers. Although Dr Gotschaller was not aligning her research with this theory, it was useful as a framework to understand how products are initially developed and then how people begin using these products in their daily lives. Innovators and early adopters are the first two groups to test out new products, so Dr Gotschaller borrowed this concept and applied it to artists using masking tape in their practice. Before determining who these artistic innovators and early adopters might be, it was first necessary to research the history of pressure-sensitive tape manufacture. By establishing a timeline of its development, she could then work with this chronology to see which artistic practices coincided with the product as it developed. Moreover, research of tape’s manufacture enabled a better understanding of its materiality, which provided valuable insight into the specific results the product yielded.

Dr Gotschaller then shifted her discussion to artists using masking tape in the 1930s and 1940s, including Piet Mondrian, Harry Holtzman, Charles Shaw, and Max Bill, describing the varying ways they employed pressure-sensitive tapes. For instance, while Mondrian only used masking tape to plan his De Stijl grids, tracing his compositional arrangements in charcoal before painting, Max Bill opted for Scotch magic tape for its compatibility with oil paint.

While artists working with masking tape in the late thirties and into the early forties could be considered the product’s innovators, many Concrete and Neo-Concrete artists in South America could then be described as early adopters. It is likely that these artists were exposed to Bill’s work in the 1950s when he exhibited in Brazil and consequently incorporated pressure-sensitive tape into their practices. A recent exhibition in Madrid, Concrete Invention, brought together the work of many of these Argentinean, Brazilian, and Venezuelan artists, along with works by Albers, Bill, and Mondrian, so that Dr Gotschaller could compare works of those artists who used tape and those who did not.

The next phase of research for Dr Gotschaller and her team will entail testing individuals’ perceptions of paintings made with masking tape and those made without, the hypothesis being that people will be able to tell with relative certainty which method an artist used. This then calls into question what the further implications of using masking tape, the motivations of its innovators and early adopters, and the almost subconscious aesthetic effect of mechanistically straight lines in relation to growing urbanism and Modernism itself. But for now, research remains in its initial stages, exploring and discovering the process of artists who used an everyday material that we often take for granted.

Geoff Nuttall’s lecture ‘Paolo Guinigi and Palla Strozzi: Lucchese Influence in Early Renaissance Florence’

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423

On Wednesday 15th May scholars gathered to hear Geoff Nuttall present Paolo Guinigi and Palla Strozzi: Lucchese Influence in Early Renaissance Florence. Nuttall has just completed his PhD on the artistic patronage of Lucca, and this presentation focused on the relationship between Paolo Guinigi, the lord of Lucca in the early Quattrocento, and the Florentine banking merchant Palla Strozzi. Guinigi was a great patron of the arts with a good knowledge of the process of artistic production, and an enormous familiarity with aristocratic tastes. This was due in part to Lucca’s strong access to international markets and its supply of Lucchese silk and luxury goods to the Northern courts.

However, Nuttall explained that the city of Lucca and its artistic legacy has been largely overlooked in the history of art, due in part to the omission of Lucchese artists in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, a historiographical delineation of the major painters, sculptors and architects of Renaissance Italy. For as a major manufacturing city, Lucca was marginalised by Vasari in favour of cities that produced his main interests of painting and sculpture. Although not much of this was produced in Lucca, and very little was brought in, Nuttall made clear that Lucca was an artistic periphery in itself. Nevertheless, without the stimulus for artistic rivalry and competition of Florentine politics, the window of Lucchese artistic prosperity was fairly small. Furthermore, when Guinigi was exiled in 1430 and the Medici of Florence besieged the city, Lucca lost its monopoly on its trade of silk. Nuttall thus made clear his aspirations for a reconsidering of the legacy of Lucchese art, in reference to his own research and insight.

Accordingly, Nuttall outlined how the wealthy Florentine Palla Strozzi began to take an interest in Lucca. Strozzi was in fact related to two important Lucchese families, and in the decoration of his chapel at Santa Trinita in Florence, Strozzi employed several artists who had previously been in Guinigi’s employment. Strozzi may have even used Guinigi as an adviser for style and artistic choice. Strozzi commissioned Gentile da Fabriano to paint an altarpiece for his chapel and it is here that we see the strongest influence of Lucchese art. There is such quality and complexity in the silk clothing of Gentile’s figures in The Adoration of the Magi, and a style reminiscent of the decoration of Lucchese manuscripts.

Nuttall concluded by outlining that the Lucchese mercantile networks and the knowledge of the courts, as well as the influence of Guinigi as a patron were all very important to Strozzi’s own commissions in Florence. Moreover, the merchants of Lucca were not only manufacturers but purveyors of luxury goods and their trade was far greater than history has concluded. Nuttall gave an insightful and thoroughly fascinating lecture, and it is now evident that the Lucchese influence should be explored further in the art and patronage of Quattrocento Florence.

History of Photography Seminar: Image and the Abyss

Toronto-based visual artist Annie MacDonell gave a compelling lecture-meets-artist’s talk, discussing her work in an open-forum manner at the Research Forum on 1 May.

She began by reading her interpretation of two pivotal postmodernist texts, Craig Owen’s ‘Photography en abyme’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ both of which have largely informed MacDonell’s practice recently, as she has begun to question notions of authenticity and originality in her own art making and in contemporary artistic practice in general. When these texts were written, photography became an important allegorical device for theorists to employ when trying to unravel some of the impenetrable issues of postmodern discourse in its early days. To some extent, MacDonell has translated this methodology into an artistic practice that incorporates photography, film, sculpture, and installation.

MacDonell’s exhibition ‘Originality and the Avant Garde (on art and repetition)’ at Mercer Union in Toronto includes all of these elements of her practice, with a selection of five photographs as well as a mirrored structure the size of her studio. The space within the structure functions as a screening room for a short film, which also reveals itself as a camera obscura: as the film comes to an end, the images from the gallery space appear as projections on the wall.

The mirror is crucial in relation to the texts by Owens and Krauss, as it is the surface that causes an abyss in its endless repetition. This can be understood quite literally, as light reflects on the mirror in a camera, which MacDonell physically translates into the gallery space with the mirrored structure and the camera obscura. Then, there is another layer of mirrored space, as the photographs themselves include mirrors or other reflective surfaces, creating a chain of projections that have no beginning or end. It is this aspect of the mirror that informs MacDonell’s understanding of appropriation. All of the images pictured in MacDonell’s photographs were found in an image archive in Toronto, where, over the years, various archivists have determined categories and sourced images from an indiscriminate array of periodicals, organizing a vast amount of visual information in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The idea of an original source becomes obfuscated in this mass of imagery, and even further removed through its appropriation by MacDonell.

MacDonell confessed that her work is ‘self-explanatory to a fault,’ but actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem. In the short film included in the exhibition, a young man implicates the viewer, engaging in a theoretical diatribe about the very ideas that are explored in the exhibition: originality and authenticity. His confidence in these ideas will resonate with viewers of MacDonell’s work, as its presentation is so in line with its conceptual underpinnings that it verges on becoming too obvious, too self-referential. But his confidence also reveals his naïveté, reminding the viewer that what appears most obvious may be more complex than it initially appears.

Memorabilia from an Age of Troublemaking – Liu Dahong and Katie Hill in Conversation

Liu Dahong, Gazing into Space. Oil on Canvas, 2011. Courtesy the artist, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong and Rossi & Rossi, London

Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dahong began his presentation on 30 April by stating that he has lived through three dynasties—the first being Chairman Mao’s reign, the second when he left power, and the third the current regime. He explained that this is the lens through which all of his paintings must be viewed. Liu’s work illustrates the merging of past and present histories by weaving references from his own childhood with contemporary political issues. It not only reflects his own histories, but also the nature of history as both an account of factual events and a myth composed of personal memories.

Sotheby’s Institute of Art lecturer Dr. Katie Hill engaged Liu in dialogue about the overarching themes present in his most recent series of work, ‘Childhood’, currently on view at Rossi & Rossi. This show presents the work, along with written text by Liu, in book form. During the conversation, Hill described this book as a kind of ‘textbook’ that was available for visitors to purchase and contribute to. As Liu explained, alongside the pages of his images and explanations were also blank notebook pages to which spectators could add their own impressions and thoughts about his work. This concept, he noted, comes from his continued practice of journal keeping, again bringing elements of his childhood history into his contemporary practices, merging his own history and opinions with those of his audience.

I was particularly interested in the dialog regarding Liu’s painting, Battling the Seaweed Sea (2011). Liu introduced this image with a folktale from his childhood about children who were brave enough to stay out with their sheep during a storm. Thus the image depicts two mischievous children peddling through the water ‘battling the seaweed.’ But as Hill suggested, the image also reflects contemporary ecological issues: the green sea signifies the extreme pollution. Again, Liu brings together the myths of his childhood with current histories, creating a visual link between the past and present.

Another link present throughout Liu’s body of work is one between the Far East and West. The first work Liu presented was a digital tour of a ‘Chinese Church’ to highlight the differences between Chinese and Western culture. Many of Liu’s works utilize Western, particularly Christian, motifs and structures to display distinctly Eastern themes. During the audience question-and-answer session, Hill and Liu discussed his reasons for adopting this format. Utilizing Christian iconography, but placing Chairman Mao’s image in it, demonstrates the widespread influence Mao had, comparable to that of Christianity. The Western forms facilitate the translation of the influence of Chinese political figures.

Overall, Hill and Liu highlighted this idea of translation—translating various histories and myths, translating childhood experience, and translating Chinese culture and politics into visual forms that can be understood and experienced by a broad and diverse audience.

Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500

Ivory pyxis with poetic inscription, Cordoba, 960s. Copyright the Hispanic Society of America, New York

On Saturday 20 April 2013, scholars gathered at The Courtauld Institute of Art for Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500, organised by Sarah Guérin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) and sponsored by the Barakat Trust, the Economic History Society and Sam Fogg. Guest blogger Anabelle Gambert-Jouan shares her views.

The upcoming opening of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée in Marseilles this summer will invite the public to take a new look at the culture of the Mediterranean. In light of the attention that will soon be turned in this direction, Saturday’s symposium appeared to me as a perfectly timed opportunity to reconsider my perception of the region’s rich history. Instead of approaching the Mediterranean in its entirety, the day’s presentations offered in-depth and varied explorations of the notion of a shared medieval culture in the Western Mediterranean and in the territories beyond the sea’s southern shores.

The first session took us on a peregrination from Morocco to Nigeria, passing through Mauritania and Mali. Sam Nixon drew our attention to the trade of raw materials, including gold and ivory, as well as that of glazed pottery, glass vessels, beads and copper, to name a few. This archaeological consideration of the connections between North and West Africa shed light on the trans-Saharan exchanges of production practices, material culture and architecture. Moving along the Niger River Basin, Kathleen Bickford Berzock introduced us to the area’s rich visual culture, with a particular focus on sculptures of horse and rider. These objects’ symbolic association with wealth and power speak of local articulations of status, which found a resonance in a wider Islamic context.

From one Mediterranean shore to another and across the boundaries of the Sahara, the study of the movement of objects, technologies and ideas asks us to reconsider notions of centre and periphery. The analysis of data related to shipwrecks established a regional maritime landscape that consolidated the perception of the Western Mediterranean as a distinct cultural entity. The creation of new centres may prove problematic in the long run. In the meantime however, work like Ronald A. Messier and Chloé Capel’s study of the development of the medieval city of Sijilmasa (Morocco) in comparison with Tedgaoust and Kumbi Saleh (Mauritania) creates a much-needed balance in terms of scholarship devoted to lesser-known regions.

To delve into the details of all fourteen presentations would be impossible in a single post. Topics ranged from the transmission of techniques of carving rock crystal and sand-casting bronze doors to the dissemination of specific motifs. Each speaker’s individual approach enriched a wider discussion on the nature of the connections between Western Mediterranean sub-regions. With subjects spanning over eight centuries, the day’s lectures led us from North/West Africa to Norman Sicily, Southern Spain and finally to Castile during an impressive presentation in which Jessica Streit discussed possible architectural ties between the Assumption Chapel at Las Huelgas (Burgos) and Almohad mosques.

The Sahara and its neighbouring regions are rarely included in the art historical narrative of the Middle Ages. The consideration of the movement of objects, artistic practices and techniques across areas perceived as natural barriers challenged preconceptions. The lectures drew out the lines of less studied, albeit extremely rich, networks of cross-cultural exchanges across the desert and beyond. By stressing the complex and changing nature of these links, the conference successfully avoided creating overly rigid boundaries that would prevent a larger scale dialogue between Western Mediterranean regions and other parts of the medieval world from taking place.