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.