Final Day of CIHA 2012

Friday 20th July – back to conference papers all day.  Started in Section 18 – The Absence of the Object and the Void – for Burcu Dogramaci’s introduction to the topic, followed by Jessamyn Conrad on ‘Absence as Presence’ – the mihrab as a means to and metaphor for the transcendent God in Islam.  Her paper took in several examples of mihrab niches in mosques around the world – a frame that defines emptiness.  I thought this was an interesting topic to explore, but thought there were some aspects skirted over too quickly, and comments such as the Islamic god being omnipresent as a contrast with the Christian and Hindu god – which I disagree with.  I spoke to her afterwards and suggested she looks at Denys Turner’s Darkness of God, and Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology, as I think what she was exploring in Islamic architecture was similar to paradoxes of apophatic and cataphatic theology and metaphor – and in such a way, what she is saying about the mihrab, is similar to some of my own thinking about museum objects.

I then whizzed to Section 11: The Artefact and its Representations for the end of a paper about second life, by Lisa Mansfield, followed by an incongruous presentation from Sandra Klopper (South Africa) about Falko, a hip-hop artist who makes split pieces across sites, using Flickr to display his work – so a part may be ‘traditional’ wall graffiti, while some might be sprayed onto a vehicle and then driven into place.  Very inspiring, and interesting that part of his funding came from the British Council for a project called ‘The Darling Made me do it’ which was an attempt to work with a very poor community to transform the neighbourhood.  I’m not sure what the legacy was after the project, and why the local people were initially hostile – it did feel somewhat exploitative.

After coffee, Section 15, Charged Sites.  A voyage from Tianenmen’s gate to heaven (although without mentioning the Tianenmen Square massacre, because ‘the paper is about the gate, not the square’) by Yan Geng in which I learnt more than I have ever known about Chinese history as she focussed on 3 periods of the gate’s existence: 1) Imperial China 1368-1912; 2) Republican Period 1912-1949; 3) People’s Republic 1949-.  It was fascinating particularly to see how images of Mao were used on this monument which had initially been an imperial statement.  Then the voyage took us to Belgrade and a paper by Nenad Makuljevic on the city through its torn past from Ottoman to Habsburg to Serbian state in the C17th-19th.  Fascinating.  It really struck me too that it was the NATO bombs in the 1990s that destroyed Belgrade’s most important monuments that had survived a turbulent history up to this point.  Was this an ‘urbicide’ – destruction and rebuilding of a city? (And now I have been to Berlin too, it feels similar there).  The final paper in this trio was Anna Minta talking about contested spaces in Jerusalem – a city that belongs to nobody and everybody.  Even thought this section wasn’t really relevant to my own work, I learnt so much, and literally felt I had been on a trip to those countries.

After lunch spent talking to people about my poster and the work of others, I went to my one and only Durer session, by postgraduate section organiser Anna Grebe – a brilliant paper on Durer relics, and the kitsch-ness of emblems of Durer, such as the praying hands (later seen in Berlin’s Museum der Dinge which illustrated the point very well).  Following that, I attended Rudolpf Frieling’s ‘The Museum as Producer’.  The next presenter was unwell, so I went back to Section 18 for Christina Vasconcelos de Almeida’s paper on the object archiving its own absence.  We went on a journey to Teshima Island in Japan to see Christian Boltansky’s archives – requiring a pilgrimage to get there, record one’s heartbeat.

The final papers were Mark Cheetham on The Absent Objects of EcoArt – on land art and eco art and the differences between them – but really I enjoyed just seeing the visual images and travelling to far flung places.  He talked about Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (now at LACMA) and its 340 tonne and $100 million progress from the desert to the museum, the director saying “there won’t be a single adult who won’t want to experience this object” (!)  This was followed by what was deemed more successful as it was obviously artificial, Eliasson’s sun at Tate, Robert Morris’ Earthworks, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium, Roni Horn’s VATNASFN.  And last but not least, Nicole Sully on the World Trade Centre, and Unbuilding in the Void which painted an interesting architectural history in which the twin towers (built 1966-76) were hated with only one article written in their favour, and a 1964 campaign against their construction due to unsightliness, getting in the way of migrating birds, TV signals etc.  Taking us on a chronological journey through acclaim, disrepute, symbolism, and finally redemption, the towers myth was painted, but with the ultimate memorial being for the PEOPLE, not for the building.

The farewell evening for postgraduates followed back at the museum – more pretzls and champagne, followed by the final speeches and handing on of the banner to Beijing for the next CIHA 2016 event.  All 400 lectures and 70 posters will be published.  A wonderful experience, incredibly well-organised, superbly funded, and really interesting new contacts made and new places to go as a result.  I am very grateful to the CIHA Postgraduate Programme for this wonderful opportunity.


Catching Up – Day 4, CIHA 2012

Thursday of the conference was slightly different for me: the section papers during the day weren’t so directly relevant to my own research, and there were lots of things to see in Nuremberg, but I also wanted to attend the postgraduate papers during the lunch break, and of course the keynote speech by Dr Ulrich Grossmann in the evening.  So, careful planning meant that first thing, I went by bus to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds Documentation Centre.  An eery experience: the building itself looks like the Nazi salute. My first impressions were disappointing, as it was crammed full of noisy students.  I was unable to be given an audio guide as there were too many school groups there who were using them.  This was a shame, not least because the documentation was all in German, and it needed description to understand, but also many of the school children weren’t even using their guides and were messing about, and while I think it’s vital that they visit and learn about histories, the person on the welcome desk could have been a bit more welcoming and explained the situation or offered the option of buying the guidebook – especially since the audio guide is a key part of the exhibition as described on the website.

As it was, the space that I found most moving was the current temporary exhibition by artist Linda Ellia, Notre Combat on ‘Mein Kampf’.  Communities had been given pages from Hitler’s book to deface, add to, reflect on – and the resulting artworks were amazing – very powerful and interestingly curated and themed.  I had the whole red brick, dark space to myself.  The other temporary exhibition on the Art School’s responses to National Socialism was also fascinating (with interesting display techniques too).  The actual ‘Fascination and Terror’ starts with a strange film of two contemporary teenagers skate-boarding through the park, and peering into some of the Nazi Party spaces, with flashbacks to period films of the rallies.  And then the main exhibition takes you chronologically through this bleak period of history.

I then raced back to Messe for the postgraduate lunchtime papers: head full of history, and a bit out of conference mode…  I missed the first paper, but arrived to hear Julia Szekely’s interesting paper about Budapest’s socialist statues all having been moved to the ‘sculpture park’ there as a business venture for tourists, rather than as a historical memory.  She was followed by Julia Ariza from Argentina looking at visual representations of women in C20th Argentinian periodicals.  Corina Meyer was next with her paper on controversies around acceptance or rejection of Lippi’s conserved work in Frankfurt – she was an excellent story-teller.  Sarah Maupeu from Cologne then gave a fascinating and really relevant paper for my own interests – about ‘primitive art’ – or whether anthropology is/should be displayed aesthetically or contextually.  She compared the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris (aesthetic lighting, little context, information separate from aesthetics) with the Rauchenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne (one room displayed aesthetically, others contextual – also questions museum display in a self-reflexive way), and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt (contemporary artists as ethnographers).  Her research is more broadly about the mystification of museum objects and so I am looking forward to further discussions about this.  Marie Yasunuga from the University of Tokyo gave a similarly fascinating paper on displaying non-western objects in art museums, focussing on the Folkwang Museum, Hagen 1902 by Karl Ernst Osthaus.  I wonder if she has visited the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich as this might be a useful comparison site.  The penultimate paper was by Stephanie Rozman from Minnesota, on Ananda Coomaraswamy as the most prolific historian of South Asian art in the early C20th.  Finally, John Tyson (whose poster was displayed next to mine – but I was never sure how we’d been displayed, and whether there were sub-themes?) – talked about Hans Haacke’s Ready-Mades and his invertion of Duchamp’s ready-mades into ready-mades.  I mentioned that Janet Marstine has done work that might be useful for him.

After this, I went back to the Germanisches National Museum for a proper look around, particularly spending time in the wonderful family gallery for the Durer exhibition – which had a real object and sensory focus, was a highly visual space that was not dumbed down in any way – very impressive, and reinforced the high opinion I formed of the education department the day before.  I got totally lost in this amazing museum, exploring Folk Art, Musical Instruments, Medieval Religious Sculpture and the Toy section – but also, could not find the C20th century collection (or understand it may have been closed).  I also revisited the Durer exhibition, looking closely at the beautiful cow’s nose.

The evening saw the wide-ranging keynote presentation, The Challenge of the Object from the conference convenor and General Director of the museum.  Dr Ulrich Grossmann started by exploring art historical definitions of ‘object’, only to discover that it’s a word not really defined in the discipline at all.  He explored several key ideas: that it could be the material object, or the object/subject of the discipline, and then cleverly wound his way through most of the section themes from the whole conference – looking at reproductions of objects, thinking about the need to constantly reevaluate the object using scientific techniques, thinking about religious objects, the differences between museum and university responses to the object, issues around restitution, authenticity, tourism and objects, nothingness of objects and issues of contemporary/performance art – where is the object?, global art history and internationalisation…

And then in a late night film showing ‘Der Hof’ by Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff, I was absolutely enraptured by the story of Issa Samb: a post to follow eventually about the film.

Day off (or not!)

Today was the postgraduate programme workshop day.  I attended two workshops on a similar theme – objects in museum education – but the two sessions were so different from each other.  The first, led by Dr Jessica Mack-Andrick, Deputy Head of Learning at the Germanishes National Museum was a useful overview of museum learning and theory, visitor studies, open-ended visual literacy, and the approaches used by the museum were demonstrated in really practical tasks and activities around ‘seeing is thinking’ ideas.  Some of these were very similar to work taking place in many art museums in the UK – for example using objects to make links with collections, doing detective work around stories and narratives in paintings, looking at the moods in portraits and pairing them with objects/other portraits in a very imaginative way, and finally a discursive ‘memory’ activity where after 5 minutes of gazing at a painting, hot-spots could be identified as to which areas both you/your partner could recall and why they stood out.  I really enjoyed working with a diverse range of people – many of whom had worked in museum education but others who had not, and sharing this really open-ended way of working with art historians for whom this is probably something ver far removed from formal qualities and historical context of works.  The initial activity, looking and deciphering the large entrance hall work: Rheinsberg’s Hauptstadt – found signs from when East German Berlin street signs were replaced to match the West – or unified ones – was a really interesting exercise too.  What did it mean?  What could we learn or find out?

The second workshop was at the contemporary art Neues Museum and led by freelance artist educator Jan Burmester.  The group was somewhat complex in that a couple of other workshops had amalgamated into one due to staff illness, and this was a bit unfortunate as people’s expectations were too diverse and unmanageable in a two hour slot (some wanted purely art historical tours of the current exhibition).  Nevertheless, it was fascinating to contrast the education programmes at this contemporary white cube space, with those in the traditional space of the morning.  And actually the programme came across as much more ‘traditional’ in the new space.  Perhaps still in its infancy (after 12 years), but there was a sense that the style may be somewhat didactic (despite the very best open-ended and discursive intentions of the educator) – workshop activities sounded like fun ways to explore artists’ processes (e.g. paper collage a la Bridget Riley, and photo-based cartoon portrait a la Julian Opie), but as yet there is no sign of learning staff ever working together with curators to instigate exhibitions, or develop interpretation (there is hardly any), and certainly audience involvement in curating is a distant dream of the freelance team.  It seems a shame that in the most modern architectural gem, there is still such a hierarchy of ways of working.  Family activities are just for the children on a Sunday, while their parents disappear.  A place full of politics.  I really enjoyed chatting to Jan though – and wish him all the very best in what must be a tricky environment to work in.

And because today was our ‘day off’, I of course crammed as many other visits in as I could.  So lunchtime included a visit to the Toy Museum – full of wonderful Noah’s Arks just like Mary Greg’s, also dolls, teddies, toys, railways, meccano and games.  The things that struck me the most were the games from the 1940s – in a section called ‘Out of the Rubble’ – all relating to the context, ‘make do and mend’, and reflecting the reality (such as a rubble shovelling lorry).  And of course some of the toys I remember, such as little Peekachoo monkeys from the early 80s (called something else here).  Lunch on the run (more pretzel) – and then after the second workshop, I had a cup of tea and piece of apple cake (although it seemed to also come with another cake as well which I think was free as part of a Kaffe und Kuchen deal with the tea?) – so I was rather piggy but had a nice sit down.  Then headed up to the Kaiserberg – amazing castle with lots of different parts to it, stunning views over the city and beautiful gardens.  Very brief pop into the museum there too (lots of arms and armour), then I headed to the Durer House Museum which was fantastic.  A stunning house, but also not only a wonderful exhibition of Durer’s studio and artistic techniques, paint pigments, printing press and so on, but also, I was so pleased to see the most wonderful exhibition of work by children mainly from Charkiw in the Ukraine (I think twinned with Nuremberg maybe?), based on Durer’s paintings and prints.  I hope those children were able to see their works hung in pride of place in the home of Durer himself.  What an honour.  Delighted to see that it had been extended since April too.  Dinner  – salad and lots of it – in nice little place by the Museum Bridge and then hotel bound.


I am an international presenter

Day two, and CIHA 2012 continues to be an amazing congress…  Highlights of today have been: hearing Janice Baker talking about about David Walsh’s controversial aesthetic ‘non-museum’ or temple to the secular at MONA, Hobart, Tasmania.  A bizarre text-less cavern-like performative space in which one man’s anti-curatorial collection has perhaps become highly curated – a mix of anthropological/ethnographic objects juxtaposed with contemporary art. Including Marc Quinn’s No Visible Means of Escape which of course I like (see Manchester Art Gallery and Creative Consultants’ project from 2009). Despite the criticisms, I really want to go there – indulge in my individual experience.  There’s even smelly artwork – Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca.  Say no more.  I stayed to the rest of the session to hear about the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver – again discussions around anthropology and/or art and aesthetics as modes of display or reading objects, and then a paper in French about Quai Branly and the Immigration Museum (no collection initially) in Paris – which luckily I understood the general gist of, having already heard about both places back in 2005 on the Museum Studies MA trip to Paris.

Following this, it was time for the long-awaited postgraduate papers.  8 of us presenting during the lunch break – in a rather vast hall.  Technical hitches initially (what – even in Germany?! I hear you ask!) – remind me to always bring my presentation on a memory stick – but luckily all was well after a lengthy delay, thanks to a very helpful member of the CIHA postgrad team finding my presentation.  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to speak to this world audience (!) about sensory experience of the Mary Greg collection.  In only 6 minutes, I did an ‘off the cuff’ talk which I think worked well – a slightly different mode in a conference where most papers have been read out loud, and a more light-hearted approach than many.  I had lots of lovely comments afterwards and look forward to more to come.  I was particularly interested in Ivana Nina Unkovic’s paper (from Croatia) on involving audiences in conservation projects, and the problems and solutions that may arise as a result.  In addition, Jennifer Morris spoke about occult objects in Reformation Germany – and their mystical as well as material qualities.  Fascinating stuff, and wonderful to be part of this very generously funded programme.

Then I attended Howard Morphy’s paper in the CIHA special section (I felt I had to since he wrote the Foreword to my supervisor, Sandra Dudley’s book – Museum Materialities).  It was a fascinating look at aboriginal art and its links with contemporary work – particularly focussing on a snake image found in body art.  Art and anthropology as absolutely linked as art is a ‘form of human action in the world’.  The section was about CIHA’s role in the wider object world, so this seemed a bit of a tangent, but a very welcome one.  I then heard (back in the Museum Section 5) about an exhibition being developed, on art that hadn’t been recognised by museums, or by the avant garde artists, but in which the art was more than object (or not an object).  I needed a bit more here I think – I wasn’t quite sure how the works for the exhibition had been selected, except that they were innovative.  I think it was showing that there is a way of sharing such works beyond doCUMENTA.   The final paper of the day (Religious Object Section 3) was brilliantly quirky and I loved it – not because it was really anything to do with art – but because it was about an obsession with objects, making and leaving things behind.  Howard Finster was a minister who quit when he realised that nobody listened to his sermons, instead making a garden of paradise.  Some 44,000 ‘folk art’ works later, he died leaving an amazing and very odd place behind.  Cult leader?  Obsessive hoarder?  Eccentric maker and do-gooder?  I am not sure, but it was clear that his objects have affect on people.  (But do all objects do this?  Does any object have a capacity to do this, no matter where it is?)

So that was my day at CIHA.  But there is life beyond the conference walls, so I went for a nice stroll through the stunning ‘old’ town of Nuremberg, its churches, bridges, halls.  But was so struck by a 1945 postcard I saw in a tourist shop, of the city, totally flattened – and now by the rebuilding and shrapnel damage.  All that culture and historic beauty bombed. By us.  And this was further compounded when I went to the Nuremberg Bratwurst Hausle for dinner (nothing to do with the delicious sausages x 8 with kartoffelnsalat and a beer) but I randomly shared a table with an Austrian family, the son of whom had also been at the conference and amongst other discussions, he had noted how few British conveners and presenters there are here – something he thought was due to international politics between the British Museum and the Germanischse National Museum  – and Nuremberg in particular – which is a direct result of WW2.  Is this true?  I’m not sure.  I certainly hadn’t even thought about Anglo-German relations as anything to do with this conference, and not knowing about the art history world in the UK, I have nothing to go on, but it is interesting that this is an outside opinion and that a lack of British presence here has been noted in what apparently is a traditionally Franco/Germanic institution of CIHA.  And so I go to sleep with my head full of thoughts yet again.

The Challenge of the Object

Well, here I am at the CIHA2012 Conference in Nuremberg.  With a title ‘The Challenge of the Object’, it instantly struck me that this might be something for me.  When I registered and applied for the Postgraduate Programme, I don’t think I’d really thought that this was an Art History Congress, more that it was about objects, and that’s what appealed, and that’s what my paper and poster are about. But in the months that ensued, I began worrying that I wasn’t really a real Art Historian – would that matter?  Would I understand the language of the ‘art historian tribe’?  Would they understand me and my perhaps unorthodox views on handling the physical stuff?  Do I belong here?

Well, after one day, I needn’t have worried.  I sat next to an interesting woman from S.Africa on the U-Bahn who I mentioned this to first thing, and she immediately extolled the virtues of interdisciplinarity.  Good.  Anyway, I am exhausted and bewildered, yes, but have heard some fantastic papers already…  So this morning, I attended the session on musealisation of objects – just my thing.  And I was really excited to hear Geraldine Johnson speak about sensory engagement with Renaissance Sculpture – actually handling, while eating, listening to music – that wondrous overload of sense experience.  And to have her still puzzling over why museums struggle with this was really inspiring too.  Following a short break, I then attended a few papers on religious objectifications.  In particular, I found Milada Studnickova’s paper about theological metaphor – looking particularly at exegesis and the symbolism of flies and spectacles.  Wonderful and stunningly illustrated with little medieval flies.  Interesting debates too about the scale of such flies, and the trompe l’oeil effects as actually being representative of the devil/sin – since they fool us into thinking that a fly really is on that page…

Lunch was brief as it was the postgrad poster launch at the same time, and I got embroiled in a really complex discussion about Hans Haacke with my next door neighbour poster exhibitor.  Super intelligent and well read – but made me think I need to read some Benjamin (and a whole load of other scary sounding things).  I then had a bit of a pause before going back to the Museums session, then escaped altogether to a fascinating but totally random (for me) talk on Matisse’s paper cut-outs and the copyright and design implications of his family estate then selling them on to family homes, museums etc as ceramic tiles, instead of the paper decorations they originally were…

Then I just had to escape as I am absolutely exhausted…  So back to nice quiet hotel for a brief sit down before the evening reception which I am now heading off towards…