Magiciens De La Terre


In the second installment of the autumn 2014 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Professor Sarah Wilson considered Centre Pompidou’s re-staging of its seminal exhibition Magiciens De La Terre on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Wilson began the lecture by proposing that both artworks and exhibitions could change one’s understanding of time. Outside the entrance to the original Magiciens show, Neil Dawson’s steel sculptural installation Globe (1989) depicted an earth with its own pulse and tremendous fragility. It underlined some of the concerns about time and space that energised dialogues between post-structuralist theory and global visual practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson’s lecture situated Magiciens, a show that brazenly sought to challenge Eurocentric values with a survey of contemporary art practice and intercultural exchange on a global scale, within a wider moment that reconceived ideas of virtuality, globalism and memory.

Wilson first placed Magiciens in a series of efforts leading up to 1989 that explored the variety of artistic exchanges in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century, including the Pompidou’s 1981 ‘Paris-Paris’ and Centre de la Vieille Charite’s 1986 exhibition La Planète affolée.  These exhibitions, reflected other efforts to reimagine roles for history and the objects that express it. In this regard, one seminal exhibition was Jean Lyotard’s 1985 Les Immatériaux, a companion to his theoretical articulations of postmodernity that favored interactions between sound and technology, the charged exhibition space and its curatorial documents, rather than experiences of discrete objects.  Wilson reread some of the objects in Magiciens relationally rather than discretely, celebrating lesser known works by artists including Clido Mereles, Huang Yong Ping and Ilya Kabakov. With this remembering in mind she discussed the organization of Jacques Derrida’s lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ (later renamed Archive Fever) at the Freud Museum in 1994.

Using Derrida’s idea that archives are both violent and tender, Wilson turned to the problems and successes of reconstruction of Archive Fever, Les Immateriaux and Magiciens. While the symposium ’20 Years of Archive Fever’ brought back many original participants with new webs of recollections as well as homages to Derrida and his legacies, the Les Immatériaux reconstruction at Kunstverein Düsseldorf offered clarity at the expense of the original show’s energy. To describe Magicien’s restaging, Wilson used painting metaphors. Towards anamorphosis, the show featured disorientations in scale as well as different emphases and juxtapositions. Towards vanitas, Magiciens offered poignant reminiscences of the art world of 1989 as well as an opportunity to affirm its values to a new set of viewers.

While leaving the lecture, audience members were given a poem by Miklós Erdély called ‘Time Mobius’, that spoke about processes of construction and reconstruction at the heart of learning. The last lines declare, ‘Beware of yourself/ That Readying is Ready Already’. By returning to the original circumstances of these exhibitions, and treating exhibitions and artworks as memory devices that activate multiple histories, Wilson’s lecture showed how these self-critical endeavors have been ‘ready already’ for future generations of viewers and readers.

Ways of Seeing

“Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain”

Professor Margaret Livingstone, Tuesday 22 October 2013.

For the second Frank Davis memorial lecture of 2013, the Courtauld community and guests were given a privileged glimpse into the workings of our own visual processing by Margaret Livingstone of Harvard Medical School. Applying developments in neurobiology to a study of pictorial reception, Professor Livingstone’s research in recent years has explored the evidence that artists also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we see. Along with plentiful information on the finely tuned operation of neurons within the visual pathway, it was the interactive experience – facilitated by red-green cinema specs – which cemented for the audience the evidence of how the brain processes retinal responses to pictures, faces, and pictures of faces.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Those who had turned up to hear the big neurological reveal on the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile were not to be disappointed, but first we needed the basic picture. Through diagrams illustrating the opposing actions of ganglion cells on the retina, which can both fire or repress signals depending on the area receiving light, Professor Livingstone demonstrated the dominant principles of luminance and contrast at the base line of vision. This evidence helps to access the employment of light and shadow throughout the history of art, from the uniform brilliance of haloes in a Duccio altarpiece to Impressionist experiments with movement created by subtle variants in light value. Such effects were further explained by a diagram of the primate brain showing the division of two distinct functions: the ‘what system’ which has developed to recognise objects, colour and faces; and the ‘where system’ which takes the more general role of detecting spatial relations of depth, distance, figure/ground, and movement. These separate functions are behind the puzzling effects of optical illusions and those red-green patterns familiar from optical examinations; and, as illustrated with works by Monet and Mondrian, are expertly manipulated by visual artists. Correspondingly, we were shown how it could be the difference in acuity between central and peripheral vision which is behind the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

Returning to the visual peculiarities of artists themselves, the lecture concluded with an intriguing insight into the properties of stereovision and the likelihood of ocular misalignment or of dyslexia as a contributing factor in the artist’s particular facility in translating volumes into flat pictures. A graph based on Rembrandt’s depictions of his own eyes in a series of painted and etched self-portraits provided a convincing argument in favour of the research, as of Professor Livingstone’s parting comment; namely, that ‘if you can make a graph of the unlikeliest thing, you can get published’. The background to this science and its application to artistic vision are explained in Margaret Livingstone’s book, Vision and Art (2002), available in the Courtauld Library.

Toshio Watanabe: Ryoanji Garden as the Epitome of Zen Culture

Ryoan Ji, Kyoto zen garden

The final lecture in the 2012 Frank Davis Lecture Series was given by Prof Toshio Watanabe, from the University of the Arts, London. At its centre was an extraordinary object, the Ryoanji Garden in Kyoto, regarded as one of the finest examples of the Japanese Zen garden. As we discovered in Prof Watanabe’s fascinating lecture, Ryoanji’s canonical status is a more complicated affair than the garden’s antiquity might suggest.

I have, I confess, very little knowledge of Japanese dry gardens, and the lecture slides filled me with a mixture of wonder tinged with bafflement. In the everyday meaning of the term, Ryoanji is scarcely a garden at all: it’s a rectangle of raked shingles, in which a small number of rocks have been significantly placed; the only vegetation is small patches of moss forming islands around these mysterious objects. The garden’s history, in Watanabe’s account, only adds to its strangeness: its designer is unknown, and it was constructed at some point between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (recent scholarship favours the later date). Its austere beauty, as part of the Ryoanji temple complex, clearly suggests a contemplative purpose, though the ritual or symbolic intent of its authors remains a matter of scholarly conjecture.

The subject of the lecture was not the history of Japanese gardens – though I would have been happy enough to sit through that. Watanabe’s theme was the creation of canons, a process that results, in Ryoanji’s case, in 300,000 visitors a year. It turns out that the origins of this pilgrimage are not lost in the mists of time, but can be specifically dated to the inclusion of Ryoanji in guides to Japanese gardens from the 1920s onwards. The key turning point was 1935, when the American author Lorraine Kuck linked the garden to Zen Buddhism in her book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens – previous scholars had been more circumspect in their claims, if they mentioned Ryoanji at all. The lecture then sketched out the progress toward Ryoanji’s present-day mythic status, passing through American transcendentalism (five million copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the Tokyo Olympics of 1964,  and the works of John Cage. At some point along the way, Kuck’s speculative theory of Ryoanji’s Zen credentials became hardened into certainty.

The joy of Prof Watanabe’s lecture was that it spoke, with great clarity, to a fundamental issue in the history of art. How do works of art enter the canon, and what does this inclusion signify? A simple appeal to artistic quality is, clearly, inadequate: works may be elevated or ignored for all kinds of contingent reasons. Watanabe did not suggest that we can do without the canon – it’s basic to cultural value systems, and to the creation of interest groups – only that we should be aware of the complex power relations that underlie them. And that, as the Ryoanji example perfectly illustrated, historians need on occasion to follow received wisdom back to its original sources.