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Li Yuan Chia Study Day, Stuart Hall Library, 13 February 2017

A response by guest blogger Nicola Simpson

‘Where can we place the artistic practice of Li Yuan Chia in relationship to Modernism?’

On 13th February, Iniva and BAM (Black Artists & Modernism) co-hosted a study day in the Stuart Hall Library focused on the work of artist Li Yuan Chia (1929-1994) an artist born in China, resident in Taiwan and Italy before settling in Britain in 1966. Over fifteen years have now passed since Iniva organized the retrospective on Li’s work at Camden Arts Centre in 2001, the most comprehensive exhibition of his work in this country to date. Therefore the aim of the day was to begin conversations about how the critical reception for Li’s work had changed and how Li could be situated within current dialogues about Modernism.

Image: Yu Wei (PhD candidate, Birkbeck)

This was the question that Yu Wei opened with in his keynote paper ‘Art & Artefact’. How can/should we reconcile Li’s relationship with the object to ideas of conceptualism? Wei traced object-hood in Li’s work from the initial abstract calligraphic line, to a more discernible and later signature ‘cosmic point’. A point that moved from flat fields to folded books, from paper to cloth, to the panel reliefs that hung on the gallery wall space, activated like turning pages in a book and where the point itself became a tactile and participatory object that the viewer could move freely through the environments created. Wei identified Li’s participation in the ‘3+ 1’ exhibition at Signals Gallery in 1966 at the invitation of David Medalla and Paul Keeler as a decisive moment in Li’s career, enabling him to form, in Wei’s words, “an inseparable connection” between his own interest in interactivity and participation and the wider context of counter-cultural activity in London at that time. The three aspects of the Daoism that influenced this “visual philosopher”: simplicity, spontaneity and wu-wei had found a temporary home at least, in the mid-1960s artistic underground. If Li’s art can be aligned with conceptualism, Wei suggested it was far closer to the concept art of Fluxus, through the emphasis Li placed on toy-like interaction and multi-sensory participation.

Image: Dr Hilary Floe in conversation with Andrew Wilson (Tate Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art and Archives)

The curatorial realities and challenges of staging such participation were explored by Hilary Floe in her presentation ‘POPA at MOMA: Pioneers of Part-Art’. For his contribution to this ‘Part-Art Show’ held in Oxford in the spring of 1971 Li created an immersive environment out of tissue paper, transparent sheets of plastic, Chinese paper birds and see-through ladders, to enable the audience participants to walk over tissue paper clouds and look up at the hanging constellations of red, gold, black and white discs, suspended like stars. Notoriously many of the art-works were destroyed or damaged on the opening night, leading to a withdrawal of the works from the exhibition by some of the artists. However Li made the decision not to withdraw, leaving his very fragile environment in situ for the duration of the show.  Andrew Wilson, in his response to Floe’s paper, was “moved” by Li’s openness to the mayhem of this (over)participation. The rules of participation, framed by the artist and/or the institution but flouted by the good/bad participation of a group of drunken under-graduates were rules with which Li did not necessarily engage or apply to himself. Could it be said that Li had challenged this museological framing by permitting the work to be destroyed? This question intensifies when one considers that, at the time, Li was already beginning a decade-long project to make, with his own hands, the LYC museum in Cumbria.

Image: susan pui san lok (Co-Investigator, BAM) in conversation with Marlene Smith (UK Research Manager, BAM)

The consideration of contemporary museological frameworks was discussed in the final discussion of the day, where BAM researchers Marlene Smith and susan pui san lok explored the modernist criticality of the work, mediated and unmediated, as experienced on research visits to Tate Modern to see two recent displays of Li’s work and Li Yuan Chia at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in 2016.  One of BAM’s propositions has been that the socio-political and the biographical have not served us well in the search for the significance of the art itself, proposing a “dialogical formalism” as a method for getting back to the work itself. In this way, Li’s current inclusion in the display at Tate Modern’s Switch House was evaluated for its direct placement alongside works such as Medalla’s ‘Bubble Machine’ in comparison to the small solo display the previous year. My own interest in Li’s works and my decision to curate his work alongside that of Dom Sylvester Houédard and Kenelm Cox, in the exhibition Performing No Thingness, East Gallery, NUA, (2016) similarly proposed a “phenomenological formalism” with which to consider the object (lessness) in Li’s work and those of two of his close contemporaries.

Common to all these recent presentations of his work, however, is the curatorial and conservational reality that toy art can no longer be toyed with – it is strictly forbidden, or as Marlene Smith stated, “the museum forecloses all interaction with the work.” Nick Sawyer, a close friend of Li and former trustee of the LYC Foundation, drew attention to the 2015 retrospective of Li’s work at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the 2001 exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, where a room of replica ‘Cosmagnetic Multiples’ were installed, and the audience could place and replace the cosmic points continually through the day. Notably this room usually held the highest concentration of visitors. This led to study-group questions: Do we need a different museum for this kind of work? To what extent is the messiness of the original lost in any restaging? Is looking at the work enough of a compensatory strategy for not touching? To what extent was Li consciously subverting the very word ‘museum’ in the act of naming the LYC Museum? As Andrew Wilson concluded, “thinking about the LYC Museum is a different kind of thinking to that of thinking about the Tate as a museum […] Li was giving a frame to his own activity.”

Image: Li Yuan Chia Study Day

Perhaps the most recurrent thread throughout the day was the expansive scope of this activity: Li’s own multi-disciplinary approach to his art. He rarely exhibited his own work at the LYC Museum, instead doing much of the manual labour of the construction itself: plumbing, brick-laying, roofing, rewiring etc.  Is this “hard labour” (Wei) not also part of “the meta-catalogical revolution” (Wilson) with which Li engaged? As Guy Brett wrote in Iniva’s monograph of Li Yuan Chia, tell me what is not yet said (2001), in the making of the LYC Museum, Li taught himself: “Photographic colour printing, typesetting and lithographic printing, plumbing, wiring, wood-carving, gardening, wine-making, bee-keeping, musical composition, film-making, Spanish, French, German and Arabic.” A lifetime of actions all contained in the simple gesture of moving a small palm-sized magnetic point from one place to another.

 

Nicola Simpson is a curator and researcher based at Norwich University of the Arts and curator of Performing No Thingness DSH, Ken Cox and Li Yuan Chia, at East Gallery, NUA, 2016. Her interests are in Concrete Poetry and Kinetic Art, particularly the influence of Zen and Tantric Buddhisms and Taoisms on the Performance Art, Participation Art and Kinetic Theatre of the transnational artists of the 1960s & 1970s and the British counter-culture. Her doctoral thesis is right mind-minding: the transmission and practice of zen and vajrayana buddhist method practices in the poemobjects of DSH 1960-75 on the Benedictine monk and artist Dom Sylvester Houédard.

 

Endnotes:

1 Yu Wei ‘Art & Artefact’ in Viewpoint: A Retrospective of Li Yuan-chia, 2015, catalogue in 4 volumes produced by Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

2 Hilary Floe “Everything Was Getting Smashed”: Three Case Studies of Play and Participation 1965-1971,’ Tate Papers, no.22, Autumn 2014: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/22/everything-was-getting-smashed-three-case-studies-of-play-and-participation-1965-71

3 Guy Brett, ‘Space-Life-Time’, tell me what is not yet said, 2001, published by Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) on the occasion of a major touring exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, London; Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Musuem, Kendal; and Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.

 

 

On this day, 13 February 2000

A response by Stuart Hall Library Artist in Residence Ting-Ting Cheng

It was a Sunday morning. You woke up naturally late, still a bit hungover from the drinks you had the night before. You dragged yourself to the kitchen, hoping not to bump into any of your flatmates, you were not really in the mood for small talk. You made yourself a cup of tea, and quickly went back to your bed. You turned on the radio while sipping the tea that almost burnt your lips.

“There was patchy cloud overnight leading to a light air frost in North East England, with light rain and drizzle in South England that cleared South West during the morning. Most of the British Isles are having a sunny day under a weak ridge of high pressure, although there will be snow and hail showers over North and Central Scotland…”

The woman delivered the weather forecast with perfect ‘Received Pronunciation’. You started to feel confused about where you were and why you were there. It no longer felt like your room anymore. The sunlight shined through the window, which almost hurt your eyes. You closed your eyes, wondering if you could figure out where you were. You smelt sand, perhaps the sea. You must be at the border of something. The wind blew towards you. You opened your eyes, and looked towards where the voice was coming from. That was the first time you met him.

“Yes, Black and British, this is a funny combination.But people either want to be something, or so universally open to everything, that I don’t think either of these modes work. I think we have very strong but different attachments. And we need differences in recognition. But, of course, at the same time we need to feel that we can belong in our recognition in a much wider context.”

“But you could argue that, technically… anyway, that is obtained today. We have British Asians, British Muslims, you know, but you look forward to much more than that, don’t you? To the day when British denotes, as well as Westminster Abbey denotes, mosques.”

“Rise” by Gabrielle was playing on the radio. You couldn’t help but hum along with it, although you didn’t even like the song. You also heard that Charles M. Schulz passed away yesterday and Sam Mendes was talking about his chance of winning an Oscar with his new film American Beauty. ‘It’s not a typical Academy Award-winning movie,’ he said.

Yes. It’s been a while. ‘RBS takeover of NatWest should mean good news.’ You were also told.

Image: found by the artist during google image search of “13 February 2000”

“Yes, I think that the term British denotes all these different things. I mean, I don’t want them to conjure into a sort of hegemony, an undifferentiated mass. I want it to be differentiated. But, funnily enough, it’s an aspiration for Britain, not for me. I think the British have a future only if they can come to terms with the fact that Britishness is not one thing and has never been one thing. There have been a million different ways of being British and there have been a million different struggles about Britishness which only retrospectively are then smoothly accommodated into the story as if it’s unfolding seamlessly from beginning to end, but it isn’t like that.”

“But don’t you think it’s coming to terms with that?”

It was today, but 17 years ago. You are amazed by how appropriate it is for the current context. You are so tired of the bombarding Facebook feeds about Trump, Brexit and Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl. You are sick of the world but not knowing what to do. Yes, it’s very frustrating.

“Yes, of course. But if you think of last year, you know, the two celebrations, the first of all the celebration of the Windrush Arrival, which is 50 years since the first post-war migrants. On the other hand there is the MacPherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. And it seems to me that Britain is facing these two possibilities as an alternative future. I want them to, the British, to consciously move towards, in a more concerted and open way, towards a more cosmopolitan idea of themselves.”

Are we coming to terms with that? What happened during the past 17 years? It’s always a turning point. We can always turn, like we always have been.

No, there is no answer here. Probably there is no answer after all. It’s just a thought, perhaps a journey, a journey that you are already participating in.


The quotations above in italics were extracted from the conversation between Professor Stuart Hall and presenter Sue Lawley on BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, first aired on 13 Feb 2000. Other texts were written by Ting-Ting Cheng, the current artist in residency at Stuart Hall Library, whose new project reworks this episode of Desert Island Discs to form an audio/visual/physical guide for the library, which will be presented at Stuart Hall Library in May 2017.

In memory of Stuart Hall, 3 February 1932 – 10 February 2014.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs were taken by Ting-Ting Cheng in the library as part of her research.

For more information on Ting-Ting Cheng and the Stuart Hall Library Artist’s Residency, including details of Cheng’s artistic outcome when it becomes available, please see here.

 

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A Collage of Constellations: “Now & Then…Here & There: Black Artists & Modernism”

A response by guest blogger Annie Jael Kwan

From 6-8 October 2016, BAM in partnership with Iniva presented the Now & Then…Here & There: Black Artists and Modernism conference at Chelsea College, University of the Arts, London and Tate Britain, alongside BAM leader Sonia Boyce’s curated exhibition, Now! Now!…in More Than One Place. The programme was extremely rich, and from which, the notion of “collage” and the imagining of “constellations” began to be mapped out in new, exciting ways.

Showing works from the 1940s from artists who are British, or who have lived, trained or worked in the UK, the exhibition aimed to provoke the viewer to re-think representations that are far too easily collapsed back into simplistic binary classifications in relation to race, sexuality and gender. The selection included diverse mediums, subjects, motifs and allusions, that the viewer may create multiple unexpected connections between works. For example, Ope Lori’s photographic work, After Newton (2012) depicting the insolent gazes of the three ‘white’ females, found a connection with Yeu-Lai Mo’s image Spitting (1996) made almost a decade earlier, where the gaze is also locked onto the eyes of the central figure whose sputum hits the lens. Similarly, the three channel video installation, It Is As If (2015) by Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier, with its close-ups on unidentified arms and hands, and the landscape of Laos, the Thames and Mekong Rivers, found a parallel to Hetain Patel’s The Other Suit (2015), a four channel video installation whereby the male body is split and duplicated across four screens; at times a body in context of a living space, another, a performative body in the foreground.

Image: Yeu-Lai Mo, Spitting, 1996, colour photograph, 500 x 605mm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Apart from the obvious connection via mediums, the socio-political and spatial contexts of the works were disparate, and their being brought together, i.e. ‘collaged’ unexpectedly within the frame of the exhibition, created new possibilities for reading. In the accompanying Iniva publication, the editorial text also gestures towards Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space with the exhortation “of the need to circumvent the usual path, creating multiple lines of connection towards some moment in the future.”

Kobena Mercer’s keynote address provided a foundational context on which to situate these considerations with regards to Black artists, art-making and modernism. With close reference to the trajectories of transnational Black artists including Frank Bowling, Rashid Araeen, Anwar Shemza, Gavin Jantjes and so on, Mercer traced the transformations that took place from the late 1950s to 1960s, to the decolonial urges of the 1970s, the emergent Black British art practices in the late 1980s onwards, and the introduction of diasporic concerns in arts practice and criticism. He reaffirmed that “critical art is never a passive reflector of historical change, but is itself an active agent in the workings of the new, which is what modernism’s underlying impetus was all about to begin with.”

He asked a key question, “What does the blackness of Black Britishness stand for?”, with the reminder that “what purely empirical accounts lose sight of… are precisely the analytical tools that Stuart Hall gave us in the 1988 ‘New Ethnicities’ essay, when he pointed out that, as a collective identity position, the materials ‘black’ are made out of are discursive through and through.” With this consideration in mind, Mercer advocated again the principle of ‘collage’ as an aesthetic strategy for our contemporary lives “which are composed of heterogenous elements from multiple origins” and which can help “ask how our identities have themselves been collaged into history by contradictory forces.” Over the next two days, the motif of ‘collage’ as strategy would itself re-surface throughout the conference and became a helpful mode in grappling with the range of ideas explored in the conference.

The questions raised by Mercer regarding “Blackness” and identity were echoed in the session, Artists’ Practices with Permindar Kaur’s self-questioning, “Am I a Black artist?…What does that mean? Who defines it? And do I have a choice?“ and her reflection that “How people describe your work is important as it is how they see the work, if you are introduced as a Black Asian artist, people expect your work to be about identity.”  This resonated with Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier’s presentation, especially when Phaophanit shared how his tutor had once declared to him, “You are Laotian… as a Laotian student, you should be making Laotian work or Laotian art.” Similarly, during the 1993 Turner Prize competition, art critic Brian Sewell raised in direct response to his nominated inclusion, that according to the rules, the prize was for British artists only.

If Kaur expressed uncertainty at the validity of her inclusion as a Black artist, Phaophanit’s biography has been used to constrain his practice and also exclude him. This reminded me of how when attending the 1998 conference Identity Papers: Undoing Asian Culture, it was specified to me directly by a presenter that for the purposes of the conference, the term ‘Asian’ would only mean “South Asian”. (This limited use is unusual and specific to the UK, which often bewilders those born in Asia major when told by arts and academic communities in the UK they are not considered Asian.)  More significantly, the programming of these presentations into the frame of “Black Artists” introduced different cultural coordinates that provided new territorial contours for consideration.

Image: Laura Castagnini leading breakout session at Tate Britain

The conference included a number of breakout sessions held within the Tate galleries, led by members of BAM (Anjalie Dalal-Clayton, Marlene Smith, David Dibosa, Paul Goodwin), Iniva (Laura Castagnini, Rohini Malik-Okon) and conference speakers (Rachel Garfield). In the breakout session I attended, led by BAM convenor David Dibosa, conference participants joined in a lively discussion over the presentation of works by BAM artists Donald Rodney and Eddie Chambers, which underlined how exhibition texts and the hang of the works reveal embedded institutionalized ideas of how the works are not described or merited on their own account, but usually linked to the post-colonial concerns and the artist’s racial biography. Particularly, Eddie Chamber’s Destruction of the National Front (1979–80), a work that illustrates collage without actually being so, is an acute reminder to look deeper and closer.

Image: Rohini Malik-Okon leading breakout session at Tate Britain

The theme of ‘collage’ was continued in the “Museology” session with Nick Aiken’s presentation where speaking of the Van Abbemuseum’s collection and exhibitions, he expounded on collage as a curatorial practice “reflective of different temporalities”. He advocated drawing upon the archive of collections to construct contrapuntal display, where one could extend the notion of assemblage even further with reference to Walter Benjamin’s use of “constellation of temporalities that can collapse the ‘here’ and ‘now’”. In this manner, exhibitions could provide constellations of positions that span time-frames, and would defy chronological framing and thus, fracture Eurocentric linear narratives and the white universalism of the white cube. Lucy Steeds, as respondent, pushed the question further as to whether the notion of ‘collage’ as strategy might also be useful in terms for “collecting” for the museum.

With reference to presentations in the Museology session, Kobena Mercer then asked the insightful question regarding how we reap the benefits of collage when currently, in research and critical thinking, there is a re-scribing of racial and cultural politics, and how might one reconcile this with a concurrent urge to return to formalist readings? Are both approaches negotiable in relation to the other?

Image: Irit Rogoff speaking in Critical Vocabularies session

These theoretical challenges were taken up in the ‘Critical Vocabularies’ segment (curated by Iniva) where Irit Rogoff observed that we are living in a “state between overlapping paradigms where we have difficulty locating oneself”, and hence we have a renewed necessity for an exploratory language that can express how we might traverse between the different paradigms whilst feeling the ‘pressure to inhabit them all at once’. She proposed the strategic concept of “jumping scale”, whereby one would take the reference, structure or framework from a small, specific study and scale it up to apply to broader paradigms, in an attempt to connect the specificity of the local and the broader perspective of the international.

Image: susan pui san lok speaking in Critical Vocabularies session

In parallel, susan pui san lok’s presentation of her artistic practice brought words flashing up rapidly on the screen; a sequence that demonstrated disconnection, subversion, breakage and re-formulation, against a manipulated montage of wuxia footage. These unexpected elements were collaged into the schema of “Black Artists” and in turn opened up new horizons with their unfixing of language and the inscribing of parallel constellations associated with contemporary Chinese performance art and Chinese filmmaking. This connection between constellations was an unexpected and tantalizing result for the conference, and opened up new pathways that only emphasizes the possibilities of new critical territories for “Black Artists” and Modernism.

Image: Panel discussion, Critical Vocabularies session

 

Annie Jael Kwan is an independent curator, writer, researcher and producer based in London. She trained in theatre arts, film and cultural theory at Goldsmiths College and then obtained a postgraduate qualification in Law. She has worked as producer and curator on numerous arts projects in the UK and internationally since 2005, working with major arts and cultural institutions, and international companies. She founded the curatorial partnership, Something Human, in 2012, to focus on her interests in the critical ideas and explorations surrounding movement across borders. Something Human has delivered projects in the UK, across Europe and in Singapore. She recently completed a curatorial research residency in Cambodia, with the support of the Artist’s International Development Fund from the British Council, ACE and NAC Singapore. She is currently undertaking a MA in History of Art and Archaeology at SOAS.

 

For more information on the Iniva/BAM collaboration, including conference documentation when it becomes available, please see here.

 

All images by George Torode, unless otherwise stated.

Iniva Director Melanie Keen reflects on her first year

There are many things which have happened in the past year at Iniva which are not visible to the naked eye. These are the things that make a difference to an organisation that’s undergoing a transformation. Some of those things are the ‘behind the scenes stuff’ that help the machine to crank into action everyday. The conversations with artists and curators. The conversations with trustees and the Iniva team. The conversations with partners and potential partners.

The thing that has got me determinedly out of bed every morning has been wanting to affirm the importance of artists, and the crucial role that Iniva plays in the development of their practices, now, in the past, and in the future. And part of that development is the way in which we can help create a critical context and achieve greater engagement with audiences. Thinking this through has been especially needed whilst Iniva undergoes a significant series of changes to the way we will programme and function.

Even before I was appointed, I had to imagine myself running Iniva. My two-stage interview, which included representatives from Iniva’s board, Arts Council England and the Supporters of Iniva, gave me the opportunity to test out my vision for the organisation. I understood that the incipient Iniva could be not be disentangled from the Iniva established in 1994, and the idea of working as agency or ‘a gallery without walls’ was part of its DNA. The difference now, and the thing which makes us unique as a visual arts organisation, is the vastly expanded Stuart Hall Library, a significant resource that anchors us to a physical and intellectual space giving context to much of our work. Established when Iniva was formed 22 years ago, the library harnesses the space of ‘the international’ in ways that are more apposite for today’s nimbler, leaner incarnation of Iniva.

This year has been one of trial and experimentation, with several developments contributing to what a new Iniva might look like:

In October 2015, we secured funding from Arts Council Collection which ensured that Keith Piper’s new work would be commissioned and become part of a national collection to commemorate its 70th anniversary. Our partnership with the Bluecoat in Liverpool heralds the beginning of a major touring exhibition for Keith and points to our recognition of the differing types of support artists need at different stages in their career. Keith’s importance as a pioneer of digital technologies in Britain, and as a key British artist who has influenced a generation of younger artists, cannot be understated.

Towards the end of the year, we awarded bursaries to a group of early career artists, curators and scholars to attend a conference, Artist and Empire at Tate Britain. The recipients made insightful and provocative contributions to the conversations that took place at the conference. This was followed up with a roundtable in the Stuart Hall Library to debate ideas around exhibition histories and imperialism, amongst others.

In January 2016, we realised our first artist in school residency that specifically used our Emotional Learning Cards with partners A Space and Oppossum Federation. An artist working alongside an art therapist in a classroom setting makes this residency distinct. Drawing connections between artists’ practice, visual literacy and wellbeing continues to be an important part of our work with children and young people.

In February, we applied to the Arts Council England Catalyst Evolve fund, a match-funding grant to help organisations with fundraising. We found out in June that we had been successful and our grant was the largest given to a London-based visual arts organisation. We’re working with our partner Pavilion to realise some combined fundraising activity across London and Leeds. The grant means that we will be able to 100% match fund any donations from individuals, trusts and foundations or sponsors received to support our artistic programme.

By April, Alia Syed’s iterative work On a Wing and a Prayer, had been installed in the Stuart Hall Library as part of an exhibition with fellow artist Nadia Perrotta and a larger project presented by Nirmal Purwar. Alia’s work drew its inspiration from John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book, A Seventh Man, first published in 1975. The book is an intense exploration of the individual and collective experience of migration. Alia’s work could not have been more timely or acutely and poetically reflective of the crisis within which humanity is immersed.

In June, we worked with the Black Artists and Modernism team at University of the Arts London and Middlesex University to present the Lubaina Himid Study Day in the Stuart Hall Library. This cemented our partnership which will unfold over the next year with the next step being the conference Now & Then, Here & There being held at Tate Britain in 6-8 October. Later this year, we will be convening another Study Day on artist Li Yuan Chia whose first monographic show was produced by Iniva in 2001.

In July, we announced our partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation to collaborate on an artist’s residency which will take place in the library from January to March 2017. This residency marks the beginning of regular programming in the library that supports early career artists, curators and scholars through providing time and space opportunities. We’ve had a tremendous response to the open call and will announce the inaugural artist by the beginning of December.

In the past year, I’ve had colleagues sidle up to me to ask if we still need Iniva, if our mission is still relevant (the assumption being the art world is properly international now) and in some corners, it has been suggested that the Iniva project (whatever static venture that is) has failed. To my mind, they are curious to see how change will take place. I would argue that with the opportunity to reflect, refresh and renew, Iniva is needed now more than ever. I look around and wonder how different the world is, broadly, now from the moment of Iniva’s inception. Rebecca Solnit, in her recent book Hope in the Dark, reflects on Zhou Enlai’s famous quote on being asked, in the early 1970s, his response to the French Revolution. She argues that his answer ‘Too soon to tell’, whether on the revolution of 1789 or 1968, could be seen as a generous and expansive perspective that gives rise to more open-minded uncertainty than most people are able to tolerate.

What I see now is greater retrenchment in the wider developed world which has given rise to movements which shift public consciousness: Black Lives Matter being a potent one. The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission and the Arts Council England’s Data report acknowledge this retrenchment specifically within the arts and culture in the UK. In a post-Brexit moment when the UK borders become more intransigent, there is as much apathy as there is opportunity to challenge and be challenged. If you read Stuart Hall’s essay “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three Moments in Post-War History” (available in the Stuart Hall Library), you’ll gain firm insight into the intellectual grapple with a complex and changing terrain on the notion of difference which ‘continues – persistently – to register it’s disturbing effects.’ With London’s first Muslim mayor and Bristol’s first Black mayor, its clear that change can happen in small sharp bursts or it can stretch across decades. Whatever the span of time, the urge is to defy amnesia and never lose hope.

Mapping Routes through Pattern and Colour to Reach the Invisible: Reflections on the Lubaina Himid Study Day, Stuart Hall Library, 20 June 2016

On 20 June, Iniva and BAM (Black Artists & Modernism) co-hosted a study day in the Stuart Hall Library focused on the work of artist Lubaina Himid (1). The aim of the day was to generate new readings of the artist’s work, invite personal responses from a range of perspectives and inspire continuing dialogue.

One of the main premises of the BAM project is that the work of Black artists is often over-determined by sociological readings, which focus on an artist’s ethnicity and identity rather than a critical consideration of their practice and the aesthetic and material qualities of their work. In the case of Lubaina Himid, this study day was an opportunity to attempt to redress the balance (2).

Enveloped in an atmosphere of openness and generosity, the study day provided a platform for thought-provoking presentations and rigorous discussion, and the artist’s presence at the event lent it a particular spirit of warmth and welcome. In our invitation to contributors and participants, we were keen to elicit a range of responses to Lubaina’s work across different generations and practices, and among the thirty or so voices that fuelled and animated the dialogue were eminent academics such as Griselda Pollock, artists and curators inspired by Lubaina’s work including Phoebe Boswell, Hansi Momodu-Gordon and poet Rommi Smith, and those who will be working closely with the artist over the coming months on new shows and commissions, including Sam Thorne, Director of Nottingham Contemporary.


Image: Marlene Smith (UK Research Manager, BAM) in conversation with Lubaina Himid

The first presentation was by Jane Beckett, Professor of Contemporary Art at New York University in London, who asked us to examine what it is that the work does in the world. Highlighting Lubaina’s sumptuous approach to paint and the sound of words in her use of text, Jane proposed that we consider the performative aspects of writing and painting in the artist’s work and how her acts of cutting out and collage are deliberately intended to make an impact in the world. On the one hand, she suggested, Lubaina’s work exudes a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity, while on the other her very definite acts of making offer an invitation to engage, and there is thus both a vulnerability and an openness to her practice. An impending sense of danger and unease inhabits many works, as does a continual return to the sea and Jane evoked resonances with both Turner and Maggie Hambling in Lubaina’s depictions of currents and tides.

Dorothy (Dot) Price, Reader in History of Art at the University of Bristol, focused on Lubaina’s Revenge series (1992) in her presentation. She suggested that the rhythmic warp and weft of colour, pattern and text across the five tableaux that make up this series invite a reading that is cyclical rather than chronological or monological. Abundant with textiles in various forms, from robes to rugs, sails to tents and flags, these works are laden with multiple meanings and evoke both an engagement with and a disruption of Modernism. Carpet, a painting from the series, resists pure abstraction while, Dot suggested, recalling Matisse’s Snail (1953).

Textiles were also the starting point for the series of works discussed by curator, critic and art historian Christine Eyene; Kangas from the Lost Sample Book (2011/12). These works on paper consist of collage portraits alongside the artist’s interpretation of East African ‘kangas’. Lubaina had made this work after spending time in the textiles department at the Whitworth Gallery, and an interesting discussion evolved during the study day about how these printed fabrics are being worn by contemporary women while simultaneously being held in museum collections.

Evan Ifekoya’s performative presentation gave an insight into the common threads between Lubaina’s work and the younger artist’s practice, which is permeated by themes of appropriation, pattern, play and storytelling. Both artists are interested in intervening in what’s already happening, making do with the situation and employing collage as a strategy, while Evan emphasised how making a spectacle of oneself is a political act and invited us to consider the aesthetic operation of the disco ball, which both reflects and refracts.


Image: Artist Evan Ifekoya

Throughout the study day the conversation kept coming back to the possibilities of flux, of attracting and repelling, of how the material qualities of a work can simultaneously draw you in and push you away. Lubaina shared with us that why she finds Bridget Riley’s work so powerful is her use of paint to reveal astonishingly clear narratives while simultaneously maintaining a sense of obscurity and secrecy. We discussed scale and speed, and the artist explained that while earlier works were ‘fast and wet’ there is less urgency now and she has become a quiet, meticulous, obsessive painter making tiny patterns for hours at a time. Making series has become a way of life for her, and while the individual pieces might be small they often form part of larger installations, revealing wider historical narratives through a collection of individual stories.

For many of us the highlight of the day was the close reading of works from the series Inside the Invisible (2002). Lubaina had brought with her twenty four of the hundred small works on raw linen that had formed her site specific installation at the St. Jorgen’s Museum, a former leprosy hospital in Bergen, Norway. The intimacy of handling the work was an incredible privilege, and having the canvases to hold, feel, absorb and discuss engaged both the senses and emotions. In the centre of each eight inch square canvas was a five inch square painting, a unique pattern in many colours, and attached to the back of each was a handwritten luggage label (in Norwegian on one side and in English on the other). Each painting alluded to an individual patient from the hospital, the unique pattern and label giving us a sense of their story beyond their illness. Being able to physically touch the works enhanced their emotional resonance, as we encountered a sense of community through touch and the rhythm of the canvases and their labels suggested voices in different registers, some whispered, some more determined.


Image: Close Reading of Inside the Invisible

Almost two months on, many of the new lines of thought generated through the study day are still resonating as I consider speculative maps that traverse seas and negotiate grids, circling back and forth between escape and arrival, intimacy and distance, and I find myself reflecting on how a language of colour and pattern can be evocatively mobilised to reveal hidden narratives that dwell ‘inside the invisible’.


Image: Helena Vilalta and Griselda Pollock look at the display of resources on Lubaina Himid held in the Stuart Hall Library

By Rohini Malik Okon, Freelance Writer and Associate Producer, Iniva

Endnotes:
1. Lubaina Himid is Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. She has long been associated with the UK Black Arts Movement, and as a painter, writer and curator has participated at an international level in exhibitions, conferences, books and films on the visual art of the Black Diaspora since the early 1980s. During the past 30 years she has exhibited widely both in Britain and internationally, with solo shows including Tate St. Ives; Transmission, Glasgow; Chisenhale, London; Peg Alston, New York and St. Jorgen’s Museum in Bergen. She represented Britain at the 5th Havana Biennale and has shown work at the Studio Museum in New York, Track 17 in Los Angeles, the Fine Art Academy in Vienna and the Grazer Kunstverein. Himid’s work can be found in public collections including Tate, Victoria & Albert Museum, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Arts Council England, Manchester Art Gallery, The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, The Walker Art Gallery, Birmingham City Art Gallery, Bolton Art Gallery, New Hall Cambridge and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.
2. This study day was the first event in an ongoing collaboration between BAM and Iniva. Upcoming events include the conference Now & Then, Here & There: Black Artists and Modernism, and a study day focused on the work of artist Li Yuan-chia.

New film about our recent library exhibition

Alia Syed film

Alia Syed and Nadia Perrotta’s exhibition in the Stuart Hall Library responded to themes of migrant experience in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s novel A Seventh Man. Watch a video (below) about Alia Syed’s site-specific film installation On a Wing and a Prayer, which was on show in spring 2016.

For more information visit http://www.iniva.org/library/news/library_exhibition_and_new_video

Keith Piper completes new commission UnEarthing the Banker’s Bones


Image: Keith Piper, Unearthing the Bankers Bones (test installation), 2016.

Keith Piper has just unveiled his new artwork, UnEarthing the Banker’s Bones, a major commission acquired by the Arts Council Collection (ACC) to celebrate their 70th anniversary. The ACC commission, a partnership between Iniva and Bluecoat, was selected as a result of ACC’s open call to Arts Council England’s Visual Art National Portfolio Organisations to submit proposals to commission a new artwork. Last week, staff from all three organisations visited Keith’s studio in New Cross to view and officially ‘sign off’ the new work – a three screen video installation with sculptural elements encased in two vitrines – which was met with a celebratory round of applause.

Keith began working on UnEarthing the Banker’s Bones in September, when Iniva and Bluecoat learned that their joint proposal to Arts Council Collection for Keith’s commission was successful. Since then, Keith has been filming in various locations around England and working with an object fabricator, technical director, and a voice-over artist, to collect the work’s many layers of visual and research material that imagine the apocalyptic remnants of contemporary globalised capitalism. The looped video projection runs for approximately ten minutes, and is presented in five chapters: edge of the Anthropocene, the dark, the trickster, the map, and the relics. The work’s narrative is guided by a female voiceover, who calmly tells the story of two protagonists. We first learn of the Trickster, an elusive ‘shape-shifting android’ figure, who steps off the pages of an unfinished Octavia Butler novel and wanders into a post-apocalyptic vision of the future. Here, at the edge of the Anthropocene, the Trickster finds the remains of the second character: the Banker, a profiteering slave dealer, whose bones are laid in nearby vitrines on top of three large antique books entitled ‘The Banker’s Ledger’ (the book of what we took), ‘The Banker’s Inventory’ (the book of what we kept’ and ‘The Banker’s Journal’ (the book of how we took). These relics relate to an earlier encounter in which the Trickster showed the Banker an ‘upside down’ map of the world, presumably brought back from the future, that demonstrate contemporary migration patterns that ‘reroute the trade routes’ in search of the Banker’s ‘booty’. The Banker, perhaps unsurprisingly, shreds the map and locks its fragmented contents with a secret code. The film’s time-travelling narrative is complemented by eerily grey landscapes, such as the cold ocean’s lapping waves or a lone hooded figure wandering away from the city, but these images seem to appear as a set of possible associations rather than any direct illustration of the story.

Now, with UnEarthing the Banker’s Bones officially acquired by the Arts Council Collection, one might think Keith could take a holiday. Instead, over the coming months Keith will be developing another new work, a suite of drawings, as well as a new limited edition print for his major monographic exhibition, also entitled UnEarthing the Banker’s Bones, which will open at Bluecoat in late October. Iniva and Bluecoat will also be hard at work, developing plans to restage and reconfigure Keith’s iconic video installation Robot Bodies (2003-15) for the exhibition, and working on ideas for a symposium and other public programmes exploring race and science fiction. In addition, a substantial national and international tour is planned for the exhibition, which is Keith’s first major monographic show since Relocating the Remains in 1997 (produced by Iniva which toured to Ikon, Birmingham; National Gallery of Canada, Ontario; and New Museum, New York). In order to fulfil this ambitious project, we are also seeking passionate individuals to be part of the Unearthing the Bankers Bones – Exhibition Circle: a dedicated group of donors that will secure the legacy of this important exhibition.

Migration Dreams and Nightmares

Stuart Hall Library Research Network Event 19 November 2015
To listen to audio recordings of the event, please scroll down.

A panel discussion to mark the opening of Alia Syed and Nadia Perrotta’s exhibition in the library which responds to themes of migrant experience in John Berger’s novel ‘A Seventh Man’ (1973).

The panellists were Nirmal Purwar (Reader in Sociology, Goldsmiths) Ashwani Sharma (Principal Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, UEL), Nadia Perrotta (artist) Alia Syed (artist nominee for the 2015 Jarman Award).

Alia Syed showed her hypnotic film ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ recording her walk through the alien environment of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Alia was invited to respond to Berger’s ‘The Seventh Man’ as part of  the Goldsmiths Methods Lab Project  Migration Dreams and Nightmares. Alia had been affected by a news story about the asylum seeker, Abdul Rahman Haroun, who had walked the 31 miles through the Channel Tunnel. Her film recreates the claustrophobia and fear that Haroun experienced during his nightmarish journey.
Nadia Perrotta interviewed six migrants during a journey to and from her native Italy and the UK. Her artists’ book, ‘Traits and Lines #1′ contains transcripts of the interviews in English and Italian and overlapping drawings of the migrants. Nadia stressed the unique identities of the migrants by capturing the inaccuracies and idioms of language used by each individual. Her ‘Crystalised Objects Archive’ is also on display in the library which contains alum-coated flotsam collected from the Thanet shoreline, with echoes of dangerous migratory sea-crossings .

The artists’ presentations were followed by reposes to the works from Ash and Nirmal, a lively discussion by the panel and questions from the audience.

The library exhibition is part of a larger project, Migration Dreams and Nightmares, led by Nirmal Puwar and Mariam Motamedi Fraser from the Methods Lab at Goldsmiths University of London. A concurrent exhibition and seminars at Goldsmiths “Migrating Dreams + Nightmares: Materials and Movement” Nov 2015-April 2016.


 

Tagged as:

Sound, Space and Identity

Ain Bailey

Sound artists Ain Bailey, Chris Weaver and John Wynne talked about their practice and research at the 29 October 2015 Stuart Hall Library Research Network event. It was an informative and interesting evening, and, we believe, the first event in the library dealing with audio art practice and research.

Each of the artists engages in different ways with identity, space, field recordings, representation and the problem of the ethnographic gaze.

Chris Weaver

The audience learned about the concept of identity expressed in the form of a sonic autobiography and how ambient sound can be seen as an indicator of prosperity. We listened to audio-collage compositions, field recordings in Pakistan and speakers of almost extinct languages from Northern Canada and South Africa.

John Wynne

Many other original ideas and research centering on the acoustic world were revealed in the course of the presentations. You can read more about the presenters on our webpage, and listen to the audio recordings of the event (see below)

 

Tagged as:

The stories that make us

Lyn French (A Space, Director) reflects on how we make meanings out of our experiences and the unconscious agendas that influence the stories we tell ourselves and each other. The images referred to are from our Emotional Learning Cards sets ‘What do you feel?’ and ‘How do we live well with others?’. She has also produced art-based worksheets on the same theme for use in therapy sessions, the classroom, art workshops or at home, which you can download for free via the Iniva Creative Learning website. These worksheets are based on a project part-funded by Newport Primary School entitled ‘A Place for Conversation’ which was delivered by Iniva and A Space over the summer term 2014.

We all translate our experiences into language. This may take the form of a series of on-going conversations with others about what has happened in the past or accounts of our more recent experiences. Perhaps we speak most openly with a close friend or maybe with someone trained to listen and make sense of what has – or is – happening such as a counsellor, a psychotherapist or a creative therapist. Or we might digest our experiences in short ‘bite-sized’ chunks through emails and text. Maybe we share our stories on a blog with a number of people who provide a ‘listening ear’ and  respond by telling us about their similar experiences.

In this way, and through the stories we tell, we create our world. This is not so straightforward as it seems.  As authors of our own worlds, we can edit or re-write our stories to better suit how we want to represent ourselves. We may put a positive spin on an account of our lives to better match the picture we want to project of the kind of person we ‘d like to believe we are. This ‘creative licence’ can be unconscious and comes to the fore when we are reflecting on difficult experiences. None of us like to own up to our role in situations where things have turned out badly. If, for example, a relationship breaks up because our partner is spending more time with someone else, it is easy to label the partner as ‘the bad one’ and to win our friends’ sympathy by painting ourselves as a victim. No story is this simple. All of us have parts to play in every relationship. Break-ups happen for many complex reasons, some of which we are aware of and some we will be less conscious of.

We need to take care with the stories we tell ourselves and then share with others. Whenever we repeat an account of a significant experience, we are not only telling the other about it but also reinforcing our own version of events, often distorting the reality in subtle ways. We do this because we all have a vested interest in preserving our good image. None of us wants to feel guilt or shame about our behaviour or how we’ve treated someone else. It’s more comfortable to find an angle on the story which rationalises why we did what we did or said what we said in the heat of the moment, preferably an angle which clearly puts ‘the other’ in the wrong.

‘Right / wrong’ and ‘black & white’ thinking  avoids the complexities and ambiguities of thinking in shades of grey. Polarising like this only reinforces conflict.  If we can admit to our role in a difficult encounter, a space can open up that is less confrontational. It can make us feel exposed or vulnerable but this doesn’t have to be something to be avoided. Often, vulnerability generates compassion and diffuses animosity.

All of us have an inner ‘script’ running all the time. It takes the form of a commentary that is narrating our lives. This ‘self-talk’ can support more reality-based thinking or, conversely, reinforce negative thoughts about ourselves and others. A useful way to check your self-talk is to become conscious of what you are saying to yourself when you get something wrong or make an error in judgement. What is your inner ‘voice’ telling you? Do you say to yourself, ‘How could you be so stupid! Now you’ve gone and ruined things!‘  Or perhaps your ‘self-talk’ takes a different angle, commenting along the following lines: ‘That was the wrong thing to do!  I wonder how I can remedy the situation.  Maybe I just need to admit my mistake and take it from there.’

Bani Abidi’s series of photographs, 2008 (see above) puts communication center stage. By focusing in on these ‘devices’ Abidi makes us think about how we communicate with others and who we ‘let in’. We can extend this analogy and reflect on ‘what’ we let in as well as ‘who’. What stories about others or about ourselves do we choose to take in and believe as fact? If someone seems to be critical of our accent or how we look, or what we do, do we give their opinion more status than our own? Do we then feed a negative image of ourselves? Or do we say in our thoughts, ‘I hear your view but I don’t agree. I know who I am and I know my value.’

Families often edit stories from the past.  Perhaps relatives who have done well are given ‘star billing’ while others who have struggled or have been in trouble in some way are ‘erased’ from the family narrative.  Becoming conscious of what we let into our mind, how we frame our stories about self and other and how we use language is a vital life skill.  Unconscious prejudices and assumptions about   race, gender, class and culture are perpetuated in nuanced ways if we do not manage our thoughts and question our biases. We also need to take care with our self-image so that we avoid the extremes of either inflating our own image or denigrating ourselves. Language is the primary tool we have to construct our worlds and create and sustain healthy relationships with self and other. We need to use it mindfully.

Like the lamps arranged on the sideboard in Francis Upritchard’s image Grandma’s Lamps 2006 (above), we all share features in common with each other but we have differences too. The way we describe these differences to ourselves in our ‘self-talk’ may need to be monitored and perhaps gently challenged.

Did you like this blog? Download the free resource to accompany it The Stories that Make Us: exploring personal histories found within the resources tab on the Iniva Creative Learning website. For more on the project developed with Newport Primary School visit the Iniva learning project page.