On the methodologies of the adaptation of text for gallery exhibition mphil by thesis Critical Writing in Art & Design, Royal College of Art, London Ajay Hothi October 2014 Words: 36137 Abstract

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On the methodologies of the adaptation of text for gallery exhibition
MPhil by thesis

Critical Writing in Art & Design, Royal College of Art, London
Ajay Hothi

October 2014

Words: 36137
In the twenty-first century, a mode of visual art making has emerged that utilises methodological practices of writing in order to explore the functions and readings of the fine art object. This thesis examines this practice, termed Art Writing, in three stages.
The first chapter of this thesis draws the origins of Art Writing. This chapter describes various moments in visual art history where technological process in print publishing enabled visual artists to create new, analytical contexts for reading contemporary art. Case studies in this chapter include the manifesto-based practices of Futurism and Vorticism publications around Conceptual Art, including Semina, Aspen, and Interfunktionen; and artistic practices from the 1970s and 1980s that merged literature and the visual arts, such as Neoism and Transgressive writing.
The second chapter of this thesis analyses the current moment of Art Writing, with a specific focus on Art Writing in the UK. This research aims to define the boundaries in which Art Writing operates. Having diverse historical origins – that include criticism, curation, fiction writing, and independent publishing – Art Writing has a variety of manifest forms. This chapter examines different styles of Art Writing and places it within a recognisable praxis-based infrastructure.

The final chapter looks at the institutional structures that have emerged in the twenty-first century that has enabled Art Writing to become a recognisable form of contemporary art making. This research includes analytical case studies of the growth and development of the contemporary art institution, independent publishing, coupled with trends in contemporary art that coalesce curatorial research as exhibitive practice. Cumulatively, this thesis analyses the causes and effects of Art Writing in the UK and suggests its trajectory in the near future based on the findings of this research.

The origins of Art Writing
This thesis will explore the contemporary phenomenon of Art Writing.1 This will be a contextual and critical analysis of the situation in which Art Writing developed and its relationship to evolving modes of gallery-based exhibition.
In 2008, London-based visual arts publishers Book Works published The Happy Hypocrite, a quarterly journal with the subtitle ‘for and about experimental art writing.’ Since that date, in the UK, Art Writing has appeared in galleries, as a residency-based practice, in exhibition displays, and as performance; an Art Writing MFA course began (and has since folded) at Goldsmiths, University of London; and examples of Art Writing have appeared as publications and have been subject to critique in the arts press. Across all this (and despite it) there is no fixed definition of what constitutes a work of Art Writing. The ultimate purpose of this thesis is to highlight, define and examine the common elements of works of Art Writing in order to understand it as a coherent, and potentially discrete, form of visual art making. The proposition then is whether Art Writing can withstand critical assessment as a structured art form, or if it is only able to operate in parallel to more traditional fine art forms.

Art Writing has occurred as a multidisciplinary practice. In The Happy Hypocrite, Art Writing appears as mini-essays, interview, autobiography, photography and illustration. At the single-evening event, Volatile Dispersal: Festival of Art Writing, held at Whitechapel Gallery in 2011, examples of Art Writing included sculpture, film, performance and spoken word. In a series of events organised by Goldsmiths’ MFA course in Art Writing, it appeared as criticism within public fora. The boundaries in which Art Writing defines itself must be made clear in order for it to be able to sustain itself as form of art making, as well as for institutions to understand Art Writing’s essential forms of presentation, display and interpretation. This thesis will examine the history of Art Writing, its present situation and will investigate how institutions in the UK have developed concerns parallel to those of Art Writing, but will question whether the two are on related trajectories for their futures.

The narrative of this thesis is structured in to three chapters. The first chapter provides examples of the historical context from which Art Writing developed. This will be a survey of certain international art movements from the 1910s to the 1980s. The common narrative thread will concern artists creating writing and publications concurrent to an object-based fine art practice. As the twentieth century unfolded, developments in print technology, combined with the influence of Conceptual Art movements, saw the artists’ text succeed alongside traditional fine art objects in contemporary art. This thesis suggest that, as result of this, towards the end of the twentieth century there saw a merging in practice between visual artists using text and authors working in a literary context.

Though the first chapter takes international examples, in order to focus my study of Art Writing, chapters two and three will use the example of Art Writing as it appears in the UK in order to reflect its wider situation. A central proposition of this thesis is that Art Writing has had a strong impact on forms of exhibition, display, presentation and distribution of contemporary art in the UK – arguably a stronger impact than it has had in its iterations in other countries (notably the USA and the Netherlands). That the term ‘Art Writing’, in regard to a specific form of art making, first appeared in the UK in the work of Book Works, lends weight to this proposition, as well as the fact that a number of Art Writing’s leading proponents, internationally, are either British or UK-based.

The second chapter of this thesis will examine the contemporary situation of Art Writing, beginning with written and published works from the 1990s onward. This chapter highlights specific works, specific individuals and specific organisations that produced art that support the concepts of Art Writing. By analysing art works, their reception and their modes of public interpretation, the aim of this chapter is to settle on several elements common to works of Art Writing – regardless of the specific form the works may take. The third chapter will examine the sites in which Art Writing takes place: it will look at Art Writing through the contemporary art institution in England. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the contemporary institution sector in England has undergone widespread refurbishment, redevelopment and building anew. These ‘expanded’ institutions are required to show, keep and interpret a greater amount of art for increased audience numbers. This thesis proposes that Art Writing shares similar interpretive concerns to current trends in curating contemporary art. Art Writing’s public face, as a discursive and dialogic practice, has been appropriated in to the core interpretive programme of many contemporary art institutions in the UK, but as its use becomes ever more integrated, this thesis will question whether it remains an artwork defined as Art Writing.

What is Art Writing? Part one
It is slightly problematic to talk about specific acts of Art Writing before the term was coined. Similarly there is a difficulty in imposing a retrospective analysis of Art Writing onto conceptually similar works before we have at least outlined what Art Writing is. In which case, it is useful at this point to identify the basic common element of a work of Art Writing: the artist uses words. These words are not simply displayed in graphic form; in order to be considered as artworks, they attain a sense of presence. In exhibition or performance the words have the function to transform a situation – placed in juxtaposition with other artworks and to be responded to by an audience. The words of Art Writing needn’t facilitate rational comprehension of a topic – these are words that when placed in a specific situation affect transformation of the topic.
Artists’ writings predominantly appeared at specific points throughout the twentieth century. These moments were tied to advances in technology, hence we see artists’ publications appearing during the 1910s (as the cost of printing plummeted2, daily printed newspapers were a vital form of communication during this period3); as well as from the mid-1950s (when the first photocopiers began to become available for commercial use); to the 1980s (and the first home computers became commonly available, with home printing, and facsimile copying widespread). In recent years, the internet has enabled self-publication and -distribution to occur instantly and to no fixed schedule. Artists are using the internet to explore autonomous modes of distribution, however this thesis focusses on the creation of artists’ books (as a distinct visual art practice) and its evolution into the gallery environment.

The most common forms of printed matter (particularly in contemporary art) are the poster, magazine and book. Often the creation of printed matter requires collaboration between an artist, a designer and a specialist skilled printer. More often, the creation of a book or magazine requires collaboration between a printer, designer and a group of authors, or an editor and a group of contributors. The printed artwork is most often not a solo activity.

Using the slim template above, we can begin to apply the tenets of Art Writing avant la lettre. Some of the earliest examples of Art Writing that fit this template are the turn of the century ‘manifesto movements’.

The manifesto: Futurism
In 1909, and following the example of the Symbolist movement and their manifesto Le Symbolisme4, Italian artist Filippo Tomasso Marinetti wrote and published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, first in the newspaper La gazzetta dell’Emilia and then again in Le Figaro (see fig.1), the French daily newspaper, two weeks later.5 The publication of this, the first Futurist manifesto, marked the first instance of a shift in the priorities of artists working on the fringes of established fine art practices at the time. This manifesto’s publication was a seminal moment in formalising a European avant-garde movement that was later to have influence in the form of politically-charged expressionism and abstract figuration of artists including Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, and Wyndham Lewis. Le Symbolisme demonstrated how the print press could be an effective tool in propagating an artist’s political aims (in this case the aims of manifesto author Jean Moréas, who by publishing in Le Figaro, Paris’s oldest and France’s most widely circulated newspaper, was attempting to regain some of the authority and relevance that the Symbolist movement had lost with its association to the Decadent literary movements6). Le Symbolisme attempted to highlight the inconsistencies of Romanticism in the then-artistic and political climate. Moréas wrote:

So Romanticism, having sounded all the tumultuous warning bells of uprising, had its days of glory and battle, lost its force … any demonstration of art succeeds [in] … becoming impoverished, in exhausting itself; then, of copy in copy … the unprompted becomes banal and commonplace.7

In the first instance, Le Symbolisme was a document of art criticism, whose ultimate suggestion was that the leading movement of the day was suffering from a shrinking of new and original thought. It was a political document, insofar as its author suggested an alternative reality based on his own ideals of what art could mean in the future of the twentieth century. Fundamentally, Le Symbolisme sought to address what Moréas saw as stagnation in artistic thought. Though he ultimately created a document that promoted his own style of art above others, arguably he believed in the social benefits of symbolism. The manifesto paved new ground for a new form of artistic criticism, one which was further developed by Marinetti in The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.
The manifestos presented propositions for the future of art by analysing the political and artistic situations of the period and offering suggestions for change: a new social ideal based on embedding the principles and morals from each movement’s perceived ‘ideal’ of art. The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism defines avant-garde practice in one aspect by concurrently locating itself both within the sphere of the political and the artistic.

The first Futurist manifesto provided the textual aesthetic template that would become common to all subsequent artist manifestos (even if certain manifestos would dispense with one or more of these elements):

  • An introductory narrative that forms the basis for the formation of the propositions that follow.

  • A series of self-contained statements with suggestions on how an artistic ‘revolution’ could benefit society, and how this could be achieved.

  • A conclusion taking the form of a rhetorical speech act, defining the utopian ideal of the society based on the above propositions.

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism became immediately popular. A further sixteen manifestos would be written in Italy under the banner of Futurism8, that covered subjects including painting, sculpture, cinema, photography and cooking. Similar ideologies were promoted and manifestos written by Futurist movements in Russia,9 and Futurism has very similar aesthetic concerns to German Expressionism of the same time period. Like Art Nouveau across Europe, there were regional variations on the seminal Futurist edict. The success of the first Futurist manifesto could also be claimed to be a document of political nationalism during a period of political instability in Italy.10 Marinetti specifically used heated nationalist rhetoric, presenting the case for the establishment of a new artistic practice and social culture based on the perceived strengths that he identified as national character traits: Italians he saw exhibiting, “All the strengths / All the weaknesses / of GENIUS.”11 The rise of Futurism occurred during a tumultuous social period in Italy, which came to a head with the working classes rioting and striking for seven days in favour of suffrage for the working classes (known as ‘Red Week’) in June 1914. The Government introduced a formal policy of neutrality in August 1914, only to be coerced into joining the Great War alongside the Allied Forces in 1915. This, with worsening economic conditions, led to unworkable conciliation attempts to bring together the political Right and Left. Among such a turbulent backdrop, the passionate nationalism of Futurism – which celebrated Italy and the Italians – became popular rhetoric.

The Futurists were enraptured by the mechanisation of industry and promoted its efficiency as a common aim for the country, “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed … We want to hymn the man at the wheel.12 Marinetti predicted a vision of Italy as a world leader in the new century. His political association with Mussolini, which manifested formally with the merging of Marinetti’s Futurist Political Party and Mussolini’s Fasci Italiani de Combattimento in 191913 was based on both figures seeing Italy as necessarily required to intervene in the escalating tensions abroad in order to assert Italy’s power. With frequent proclamations in newspapers quoting their perceived marginalisation from mainstream politics, Marinetti and Mussolini developed a vision of Italy that was unrecognisable in the difficult economic and political period – and one that was becoming increasingly appealing to the Italian public. Both advocated war as the first step in the country’s rehabilitation.14 Marinetti’s status as a high profile Fascist, affiliated with Mussolini and his party, was later to be a significant factor in the nation’s acceptance of Futurism. Ultimately, Marinetti would ensure that a large section of the Italian population would have access to his series of manifestos because they were printed cheaply and efficiently and in great number, as well as, where possible, in the press.

Using political and social rhetoric, and a mode of expression that was proud, nationalistic, charismatic, and clearly politically defined, Futurism sought a general public, whether arts-literate or not. With the publication and distribution of manifestos, such artistic movements that would otherwise have only had audiences in galleries, performance venues of the avant-garde, and in private, suddenly gained a more public spectatorship. This guaranteed a higher degree of visibility, particularly for artists and collectives whose work stretched beyond the visual arts and into more political spheres.

The political aspirations of the Futurist movement were met, through the combination of their artwork and their rhetoric. According to Peter Bürger, “bourgeois” art reaches the stage of self-reflection via aesthetics.15 The avant-garde is the antagonist of “bourgeois” art, or art of the institution. Operating firmly within the avant-garde (in the years previous to the Great War, before Fascism became the national standard), Marinetti and the Futurists brought a cohesive vision to visual art (painting, sculpture, illustration), design (graphic, interior, structural, industrial design), film, fashion and textiles, music, literature, architecture, and even gastronomy. Italian Futurism was mechanistic, by design. Its works utilised formal and structural aesthetic constraints; it played with perspective and employed bold, primary colours. Futurist painting analysed its subjects in regard to their dynamism – a style that focussed on the properties of shape and that detached itself from Baroque-influenced Romantic, Neoclassical, and Impressionist painting that was popular in western Europe into the twentieth century. Futurism placed its onus on the motor, rather than the man. It was a radical break from the art developed under bourgeois institutionalism. Returning to Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, aestheticism denotes a detachment from the “praxis of life.”16 Efficiency of function, therefore, is the very centre of the modern age.

The Futurist manifestos are not aesthetic objects – they were created to serve a purpose, that is to serve as a directed guideline to a specific way of living (a ‘praxis of life’, as it were). In formal terms, the manifestos were printed either in newspapers, and therefore were required to fit each newspaper’s layout – in single, double, or more columns. Or, were printed full justified on single-sheets of paper, with the title most often declaring: “Manifesto futurista della … ” followed by the subject of that manifesto.17 The aims with the manifestos were to emancipate art from aestheticism (therefore from the bourgeois) to hand it back to general society (in order for society to empower itself in the face of the coming century – the age of modernism), and return the country’s strength.

Futurism’s popular decline coincided neatly with the end of the rise of Fascism after the Great War. It is noted that popularity is the neutralisation of the avant-garde,18 because of the inherent paradox that once an avant-garde moment becomes popular it becomes much like the institution that it was created to undermine. Added to which, Mussolini, in 1923 Prime Minister of Italy, was vocal about his dislike of art beyond individual personal admiration, saying, “I declare that it is far from my idea to encourage anything like a state art. Art belongs to the domain of the individual. The state only has one duty … to encourage them [artists] from the artistic and national point of view.”19 For Mussolini, like his Fascist peers among the Axis powers, art, design and architecture were for the benefit of supporting society, rather than leading it. It favoured the concept of ruin value, where Marinetti believed each successive generation should tear their cities down and start afresh. However, despite ineffectual long-term influence, Futurism did operate strongly enough to influence and maintain other avant-garde artists, works and movements that previously may have been marginalised but that now had readymade audiences.
The manifesto: Vorticism
Vorticism, an avant-garde movement with motives similar to Futurism, began to gain traction in the UK during approximately the same period. In 1914, artist Wyndham Lewis led a group of artists away from the design company Omega Workshops after a disagreement with fellow member Roger Fry. Lewis named this breakaway group the Rebel Art Centre. Their aim was to present a new vision of Britain’s future in the twentieth century (in opposition to Fry’s Impressionist-influenced modernist painting). The Rebel Art Centre was first comprised of visual artists Lawrence Atkinson, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth and Jessica Dismorr. Together they collaborated with a wider range of writers and poets, including Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme and Ford Madox Hueffer (later, Ford). Later in 1914, Lewis began publication of BLAST (a journal that lasted two issues, between 1914-191520) (see figs.2 and 3) under the group’s newly-given name: Vorticism. Though the Vorticists closely followed the development of Futurism. From 1910, Marinetti regularly lectured in London, and in 1912 The Sackville Gallery hosted the first UK exhibition of Futurist painting. The exhibition catalogue published three new Futurist manifestos, each declaring Futurism’s inherent innovative nature, above popular movements of the time (including Post-Impressionism and Cubism).21 Following a second Futurist exhibition in London at the Doré Galleries in April 1914, and the publication by Marinetti and artist Christopher Wynne Richards Nevinson of the manifesto “Vital English Art: Futurist Manifesto” in The Observer newspaper, Marinetti listed his address as the Rebel Art Centre and Nevinson had even included Lewis’ name as signatory. It has been claimed that this act resulted in a schism between Vorticism and the Futurists, with the former group confronting and heckling Marinetti at his public engagements:

[The Vorticists] issued a letter to the daily press dissociating themselves and the Rebel Art Centre from Marinetti’s manifesto…precipitating the emergence of the term ‘Vorticism’ as the group’s name. With his flair for cryptic and abusive language, Lewis vilified Futurism in the pages of BLAST as Marinetti’s ‘Automobilism and Nietzsche stunt.22
There were, however, strong similarities between Futurism and Vorticism. Both favoured a modernist, machine-inspired aesthetic, with bold colour, clean lines and distorted perspective in order to evoke dynamism and industry. Both movements celebrated industry and automation as future inevitable. Both believed that their present national political state was staid and archaic and required the vitality of mechanisation. However, Lewis’s politics were not as far right as Marinetti’s fascism. Further, the two differed on the application of technology in society. The Futurist sought to replicate speed and dynamism across all social and artistic fronts, the Vorticist looked upon technology as the perfect tool to capture energy. This difference was manifest in each group’s aesthetic: as Futurism was intended to act as a guide to social change, its works were direct, less abstract than the Vorticists, and were more influenced by industrial design techniques. Ultimately, the differences between the Futurists and the Vorticists were as pronounced as the difference between stillness and speed.

“The Vorticist Manifesto” (see fig.4) (1914 was published as part of BLAST No.1 and was signed by Lewis, Pound, William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Atkinson, Dismorr and Gaudier-Brzeska. Keeping in line with one of the recurrent features of the artists’ manifesto, the document was written primarily by the movement’s de facto leader, Lewis, with assistance from Ezra Pound.23 The artists’ manifesto was defined in one aspect with its creation by a collective, led by a single author whose influence would be supplanted upon public distribution and reception by the consensus of the group. In the case of the radical, avant-garde artists’ manifesto movements, the general political strategy (and this was true of Vorticism) was a form of social libertarianism, where communalism is so entrenched that at its most extreme it borders fascism (as in the case of the Futurists). The close-knot artistic communities (specifically here Futurism and Vorticism) were in favour of a state that shared work and resources and was fiercely nationalistic, to the point of exclusion of any foreign element. Vorticism, however, distanced itself from Futurism in a number of ways. Dismissing Futurism as “the latest form of Impressionism”,24 the Vorticists promoted anarchism and individuality based on primal, natural instincts as opposed to Futurism’s fascination with automation. Technology was useful to the Vorticists as a means to harness natural energy. Confusingly, descriptions of Vorticism by Vorticists differ: as we will see here, there are many instances throughout the two volumes of BLAST where Vorticism is described in contradictory terms.

“The Vorticist Manifesto” lists a series of things that deserve either a “BLESS”ing or a “BLAST”ing25 (often in contradiction of one another). This includes blasting England for its sins, its climates, and its canals, but then blessing England for its ships, seafarers, and for its “cold, magnanimous, delicate, gauche, fanciful, stupid ENGLISHMEN.”26 Where Vorticism’s primary aim was to advocate the sovereignty of the artist, it also celebrated communalist working ethics. Vorticism promoted the notion that if people were to follow their instincts, there would be no need for the State (i.e. Anarchism). Its ultimate contradiction was in building a community of artists with link-minded political beliefs and creating a collective artists movement with a communal manifesto – when that political belief was based on anarchism and individuality.

What was the purpose of the manifesto in this instance? In previous examples, such as Le Symbolisme or The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, the aim was to use to manifesto as a strict guide with rules for everyday living, hence, for example, the Futurists created twenty documents that covered a range of cultural and social pursuits. The Vorticist Manifesto was not just contradictory, its statements and proclamations were vague, and would be difficult to implement (in one example, the Vorticists blast both the “the specialist” and “the amateur.”27 Later, they bless experts.28) With the manifesto, the Vorticists demonstrate practical knowledge of the power of its form. Their language is deliberately provocative and declamatory – it is the only aspect of the written elements of the manifesto that are direct. That the reader is exhorted to either ‘bless’ or ‘blast’ a certain thing does not provide any middle ground. For the Vorticists, things are either good or bad, mediocrity is not an option. This is one of the common elements of the manifesto: that its rhetoric exceeds the technical qualities of the work produced. Martin Puchner points to this fact as a specific feature of Futurist art, saying that: “…[its] painting was less influential than the rhetoric of its manifestos and of its founder.”29 As described above, a technique of the avant-garde is to strip away the aesthetic elements in order to focus on the content. In the instance of the Vorticists, the function of the content was to provoke. That its statements were contradictory and difficult to follow (in praxis of life) was beside the point. The Vorticists understood that the manifesto was a document that, when presented effectively, was created to undermine the status quo – here, the bourgeois elements of the English art institution (as espoused, for instance, by the Omega Workshops).

All art manifestos are a criticism of an existing artistic culture. Publishing, vocalising or publicising an argument counter to the mainstream, artists creating a manifesto intend to stir debate and potentially court controversy for their unconventional opinions. In cases where artists use manifestos to detach themselves from the popular trends (see either Vorticism or Futurism, both of whom rejected the then-popular trends of Post-Impressionism and Cubism), the manifesto is a political tool; therefore, the manifesto will not contain any reference to a specifically defined visual aesthetic. If we are to take the three core examples above (Le Symbolisme, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, and Great Preliminary Vortex Manifesto I), the reader is given an insight into the beliefs of modernist artists (and therefore may make assumptions of the kind of aesthetic the artists/authors favour), however none of these documents specifically outline rules to art making – such as form, composition, line, material, and so forth.
With print press publishing becoming easier to access, use and maintain throughout the twentieth century, artists’ manifestos continued to be created from the period before the Great War onward.30 The number of artists’ manifestos published diminished as the century progressed, but saw resurgences in the wake of the two World Wars, which gave rise to opportunity for new forms of political visions and democratic free speech in western Europe. For example, the Inventionist Manifesto, by Argentine artist Edgar Bayley (1946), discusses the crisis in representative art, and that visual art needed collaboration with science in order to evolve. The manifesto states:

Art is currently in a dormant phase. There is an energy which man cannot convey. For this reason we call on all those in the world of science who know that art is a fundamental requirement for our species…[the system] is being replaced by another system…Each man will live in an organization integral to his work.31
The artists’ manifesto has two aims: the first, it conceptualises a new vision of contemporary art; the second, it attempts to coalesce an artistic community. The discussion thus far has largely concerned the political direction of the language of the manifesto, but what of the manifesto as a work of art itself? The following sub-section will examine BLAST in further detail, and will argue that it was the first instance where the artistic merit of object of the manifesto and the rhetoric that it promoted were of coequal value.

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