Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Talin Grigor

The final keynote of the HIAA conference was delivered by Professor Talinn Grigor of University of California Davis Arts. Entitled ‘Modernism as (a)Politics: Marginality and the Autotomizing Discourse on Architecture in Pahlavi Iran’, Professor Grigor charted the pivotal involvement of architects from religious minority backgrounds in the construction of a new Iran during the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The talk began by setting the scene that surrounded the advent of Iranian involvement with Modernist architecture. Grigor introduced Gabriel Guévrékian (b.1892/1900 – d.1970), an architect of Armenian heritage who became instrumental in the Congrés International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) (founded in 1928 and disbanded in 1959) alongside Le Corbusier. CIAM’s manifesto on architecture suggested an ambivalent relationship to the state: although there was a split between design and politics for many Modernist architects, there was an overriding belief that social problems could be remedied by urban planning and these mega projects needed the patronage of those in command of the state. In a political atmosphere where the Bauhaus met its end at the hands of the Nazis in 1933, architects needed to shape the nature of their relationship with power. As leaders of the Modernist movement dispersed to climes beyond Europe, Guévrékian accepted an invitation in 1933 from Reza Shah Pahlavi (r.1925-1941) to act as the chief architect who would erect a contemporary vision of Iran. This was a project that entailed superseding the ad-hoc quotations of Safavid (1501-1736) and Victorian decorative styles which comprised the urban schema of the previous Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) with a distinctly modern update.

Talinn Grigor

Grigor then took the opportunity to posit the key questions which informed her research into the subject of this talk. Firstly, why, given the staunch nationalist prerogative of Reza Shah did the most eminent Modernists emerge from Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities? And secondly, how did these figures come to pursue architecture in the first place, and then succeed in realizing the Pahlavi Modernist vision?

During the interwar years, those from Armenian, Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Baha’i backgrounds came to serve as the pioneers of Iranian Modernism and built a secular vision for the country. Despite the homogenising policies of a new, burgeoning Pahlavi nationalism, marginality could be seen as a privilege: those on the periphery could enjoy both a degree of separation from the masses in belonging to a small community whilst taking a space on the international stage of Modernist architecture. This was also a process of integrating modernity into the larger Iranian polity. In an expansion on the structure of modernity laid out by Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (r.1848-1896), Modernism gestated in the schools which were set up for minority communities. Vartan Hovanessian, the second Modernist architect to return to Iran after having trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, set out on building an arts academy for Armenian girls to serve the needs of the arts and women’s education. Institutions like this set the contemporary standards for architecture and attracted the attention of the Pahlavi cultural elite.

Meanwhile, Guévrékian worked to apply the Modernist aesthetic to all public structures. This new modernity was primarily articulated in the spaces of the bourgeoisie – spaces of middle class leisure, from swimming pools to cinemas such as the Metropole and the Diana that ushered in a new aesthetic. Innovation and interaction went hand in hand. The wealthiest families of Northern Tehran, however, interpreted Modernity though their own commissions, which created a clean minimalism of columns and dissected tiers that was informed by an enduring upper-class affection for the Neo-Classical. At the highest rung of society, imperial projects displayed an eclectic and revivalist style which borrowed from an inheritance of Qajar buildings, Sassanian motifs and Safavid conventions. Tehran’s green and white marble palaces within the Sa’dabad complex displayed this fusion of old and new, whilst the likes of Karim Tehrarzadeh Behzad oversaw projects for the north façade of the parliament building and the mausoleum of Ferdowsi in Tus, north-eastern Iran in an imposing, monumental style.

Bank Melli, Iran, Sandogh Pasandaz

The readiness of patronage, Iran’s economic buoyancy and its rich social atmosphere made it the ideal soil in which to plant an idiosyncratic, localised Modernism. The likes of Hovanessian, Mohsen Forughi and Keyqabad Zafar tried to remain apolitical, tussling between an Avant Garde spirit and the parameters set out by official endorsement. In journals such as L’Architect, practitioners set out architecture as a solely technical endeavour. Many even went as far as refusing the residual attraction to historicism; the past was not seen as the direction in which to approach the future, with the motifs of lions and cows – as quoted from the capitals of the columns of Persepolis – being perched outside the building of Tehran’s national bank being seen as implicit in “turning the capital into a zoo”.

Grigor ended her erudite assessment of the Modernist project within Iran with a broader consideration of how it then fostered the emergence of an influential elite of intelligentsia ‘from the margins’ during the 1960s. Artists, architects and poets associated with minority populations in Iran, from Marcos Grigorian, Behjat Sadr and Forough Farrokhzad to Houshang Seyhoun, all emerged as the next generation who oversaw the future of Iran’s modern incarnation, with women having a particularly pivotal role.  Encompassing some thirty years of Iran’s modern history, Grigor’s talk considered Iranian Modernism in its capacity as a ‘regional’ phenomenon as per the principal theme of the 2016 HIAA biennial. Not only this, but it located its genesis within an even smaller social geography, that of those figures at ‘the margins’ who embraced a novel aesthetic project and tried to maintain its distinctly apolitical philosophy within what were hierarchical structures of patronage and a distinctly nationalistic administrative atmosphere.

Review of HIAA Keynote Lecture by Jeremy Johns

On the second day of the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s Fifth Biennial Symposium, Jeremy Johns’ keynote speech offered a poignant and critical analysis of the state of affairs of the art historical field. Johns, a professor at the Khalili Research Centre at The University of Oxford, began his speech with news clips about the recent abolition of art history from A-level testing. Johns relayed the argument put forward by journalists and pundits that, “art history is too posh,” which he illustrated with a photograph of The Duchess of Cambridge admiring an Old Masters’ painting.

This introduction asked the audience to consider why art history is not easily shared with the public and why art history of the Islamic worlds are even more obscure to the general public? Between this cohort of renowned scholars, we often forget that this discourse has relevance and urgency for people both inside but also outside of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum. Johns’ keynote examines these questions thoroughly. He hypothesized that art history has diverted from the actual object. He posited that studying visual culture is actually just the practice of studying “things” and the “making of things.” Johns asserts that art history must return to this rudimentary goal in order to succeed in today’s trying times

Johns focused his first example on the famous Umayyad frescos of Qusayr Amra. He asserted that the new studies of these images and inscriptions were only made possible after the extensive cleaning and restoration of the site. This cleaning allowed for previously held beliefs on the iconographies of early Islam to be debunked. He then compared this issue with a well-researched site – the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. This royal chapel, although well known and studied by art historians, is consistently confronted with breakthrough discoveries. As historians return to the architecture itself, they are finding more missing pieces to the puzzle. Ironically, the answers were right under their noses the entire time. In comparing these two historical sites, Johns demonstrated that the constant reexamination of objects and the ways they are produced can shed new light on human civilisation and tradition.

Johns speech then changed tone to examine his most recent collaborative project with the Labratory of Tribology and Dynamic Systems in Lyon. The project analyses and reconstructs archaeological techniques of artistic production. He found in his research on rock crystal art forms that there is a divide between practice of craft and knowledge of art. He asserts that there is an inextricable link between the physical labour of making art and the beauty, soul and originality of the finished product. In the Islamic sense in particular, this difference has a spiritual and divine context, elevating the art to a new level of importance. Johns closed with a touching anecdote about his family, more specifically, his grandfather who was an antiquing man. He taught Johns the importance of the tangibility of items and the desire for humans to work with such things.

As art historians, we have a duty to travel through time and different cultures and translate these past desires for the present. Johns’ speech truly resonated with the audience, from the most accomplished art historian in the room to the most junior like myself. His speech showed to me that the history of art is both reliant on the previous studies of others, but it also can and must evolve.

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.

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.

Patterns of Dissent: Contemporaneity in South Asian Art–Subodh Gupta & The Routes of Success

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Being familiar with Subodh Gupta’s large-scale sculptural installations, it was surprising to hear him speak at The Courtauld on 21 May– for his particularly modest, humble manner of approaching his own artworks and practice was somewhat unexpected in light of his ambitious pieces. One thing the artist and his work clearly have in common, however, is that they are immensely powerful. His latest installation at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not (2012) is a huge Keralan fishing ship, hand-sewn in the traditional way and filled with the everyday Indian domestic objects that Gupta is perhaps best recognised for, steel kitchenware, amongst other pieces of furniture, broken or whole. This miscellany collected within a symbol of travel and trade seems a fitting culmination of the fourteen years of work that Gupta discussed at the seminar, for his oeuvre is inherently tied up in his personal experiences.

It was interesting to hear the anecdotes that accompany some of his most well-known pieces, as they are linked to his life – whether they were events that had taken place, conversations he had had, or simply his own thought processes – as Gupta told us, “My journey is my art.” The importance of his discovery of Duchamp was particularly touching, and one that makes so much sense when considering his sculpture – the way he elevates the quotidian to something aesthetically beautiful is quintessentially Duchampian. For example, speaking about his works Across Seven Seas and Everything is Inside (both 2004) he spoke about how he used to travel to Europe via the Gulf, and on his return journey would see Indians who were working in the Middle East with large, tightly and carefully wrapped bundles. He asked people what they had packed in there, expecting them to contain fragile and precious items; however, they usually only held gifts for the workers’ families back home. He found these bundles, as commonplace as they turned out to be, so beautiful that he created the two sculptures based on them. Aam Aadmi (2009), a collection of incredibly realistic painted bronze mangoes in a wooden crate, is similar treatment of the everyday – and as “aam aadmi” (literally translating from Hindi as “mango people”) is a colloquial term used by politicians to refer to the “common people”, it becomes a celebration not only of everyday objects but of the general masses.

Gupta then went on to talk about his early years, the beginning of his artistic career in art school in Patna, how he initially wanted to become an actor, as well as his experience of working in the Khoj workshop in 1997 – a liberating environment where the artists could work free from gallery influence for the first time. Needless to say, it was fascinating to hear the experiences that preceded such an incredible body of work.

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.”

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.

Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.

Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.