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Black Artists and Modernism

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.

 

 

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.

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.