By Emily Feibusch
ARTiculation Alumna (recent graduate of History of Art, University of Birmingham)
Congratulations to the eight speakers from the South West Regional Heat hosted by the Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village last Thursday (28.01) on Zoom Webinar. The morning was varied, including an ancient historical landmark, an interactive contemporary installation, conceptual multi-media, as well as an iconic fifteenth-century masterpiece! It was exciting to hear the speakers challenging conventional assumptions, and offering individual and personal interpretations of the artworks, as well as encouraging the wider audience to interact with art and culture with a refreshed perspective. Thank you to ARTiculation and each contestant for providing yet another stimulating and enjoyable online event during lockdown.
Uma engaged Thursday’s ARTiculation audience immediately by questioning whether The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of Balthus’ pre-pubescent, passivized and sexualised Thérèse Dreaming should be displayed, as it is now, without a contextualisation label. Uma’s detailed visual analysis of the painting combined with her emphasis on the ignorant purity of Thérèse Blanchard, Balthus’ neighbour, conjured an emotional response from the audience. Shocked by the exploitative and unsettling depiction of the young twelve-year-old girl, stripped of her youth and with her underwear as the primary focus, the audience was encouraged to question institutional responsibility in providing adequate context or disclaimers for artworks. Additionally, we learnt that there had been a petition started to remove the painting from the gallery wall by a visitor, who found the painting offensive.
Lauren then took us on an investigative journey, delving into the local history of Camberley by discussing the eighteenth-century Camberley Obelisk, built by John Norris, a land-owning merchant. This historical feature has largely been unappreciated and is now graffitied. Lauren exposed its darkest of histories and its comparative significance between the present day and the eighteenth century. The obelisk currently stands at thirty feet tall; however, the original tower was a hundred feet tall, visible from Hampstead Heath, and a significant precursor to Camberley town. Explaining that the eighteenth century was rife with moral degeneracy, Lauren revealed that John Norris most likely used this tower as a form of personal communication with his close friend, Sir Francis Dashwood. Their involvement in the Hellfire Club, which constituted activities that were a mockery of Christian principles, gave the audience an evocative look into one of the eighteenth century’s most frightful underground clubs.
Ai Wei Wei’s installation, Sunflower Seeds in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, was described by Dora by dint of a unique personal story. Dora’s Grandad, an artist and potter himself, was gifted a ceramic sunflower seed from the exhibition. Dora, having found this seed in his wallet, was inspired to choose the installation for her presentation. After explaining the intricate and individual production process of the one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds, Dora extracted the deeper meaning of the artwork. She explained how the installation exposed the paradox between individuality and mass conformity, specifically referencing the communist political system in China. Being hand-painted, each seed was unique yet when clustered together with other seeds their individuality became lost in the mass. Dora beautifully conveyed this paradox using her Grandad’s seed. It was also once lost amongst the mass, until it was extracted and appreciated as a valuable and individual artwork, just as it was at the beginning of the production process. We learnt that Ai Wei Wei was arrested and imprisoned for this political statement.
Sarah then passionately explained how the new Amazon Headquarters, The Spheres, is an effective and astounding architectural example of the co-existence of nature with humans, not only in its structural and organic shape, but also in its interior, and technological features. It was fascinating to understand how the building worked, balancing the needs of forty thousand plants with a human office space. For example, the use of illumination glass, which blocks UV heat yet allows light in for temperature control and optimum plant growth, as well as how ninety percent of the building’s energy comes from renewable resources. Sarah’s enthusiasm and emphasis on the importance of living in harmony with nature for the future of planet earth was motivating; it is possible to deconstruct the boundaries between cities and natural habitats and adapt our infrastructure in order to integrate nature into our everyday lives.
Next, Bella exported the audience to a conceptual futurist utopia, Tai Shani’s DC: Semiramis, which encapsulates the developments of feminism. Bella’s explanation of how Shani adopted and adapted metaphorical characters and concepts from Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of the Ladies, a celebrated fifteenth-century proto-feminist book, was particularly enlightening. Central to Bella’s nuanced analysis was the demonstrated separation of female biology from gender identity, an advance from Pizan’s proto feminism. Female organs are hanging in the background of Shani’s work, detached from women’s bodies. Bella discussed how Shani avoided an essentialist biological stance, criticising other feminist art historical examples for upholding concepts they wish to critique. Estrogen Bomb by the Guerrilla Girls, for example, could be seen to reduce the power of women to their biological estrogen production rather than truly demonstrating gender as socially constructed.
Alyssa then undertook a very detailed analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper explaining various conspiracy theories, such as the possible presence of Mary Magdalene (in the guise of John). The presentation was centred around the importance of fresh interpretation, as well as encouraging the viewer to question what we are told about the history of artworks. Alyssa’s focus on the iconic fresco’s unconventional composition was particularly interesting; the stage-like painting was compared to other depictions of the scene, where it appeared more naturalistic. It was interesting to learn that Leonardo searched for expressive facial types in Italy to use as models for the disciples. Alyssa powerfully described the dramatic tension caused by the grouped arrangement of the figures and significant shapes, such as the ‘V’ between Mary and Jesus.
Madeleine presented Sarah Jane Moon’s vibrant and playful portrait of Dr Ronx, Emergency Doctor, TV presenter, and queer intersectional feminist, with fitting enthusiasm and energy. Madeleine indicated that the portrait’s exuberance, with its bold colours and ambitious brushstrokes, refreshingly contrasted with the stereotypically ‘sensible’ image of medics. Delving into greater detail, and adding wit to her talk, Madeleine identified Dr Ronx’s trainers, further emphasising the characterful and contemporary twenty-first-century doctor. Moon encapsulates the true individuality of Dr Ronx, in her exuberant, androgynous and bold stature. The efficacy of this depiction was captivatingly interpreted by Madeleine as an opportunity for the viewer to form an important companionship with the approachable doctor, highlighting their essential role in health advocacy.
Gabby concluded the morning with her compelling presentation on Mark Wallinger’s State Britain of 2007, which was installed at the Tate Britain. The installation aimed to preserve and replicate Brain Hoare’s protest camp in Parliament Square, London, which he had been using to protest for five years against the Iraq war of 2003. State Britain embodied Brian Hoare’s camp, including large and upsetting banners, his tent and his sleeping bag. The fourteen-metre-long installation magnified the physicality of the opposition to the war and as Gabby emphasised, shocked the gallery visitor. Gabby drew on other art-historical representations of violent conflict, such as Pablo Picasso’s Massacre in Korea, and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, to demonstrate that historical violence repeats itself and art is a tool for memory and activism. All protests within one kilometre of Parliament were banned from 2006, yet Wallinger’s installation dissected this boundary; it was activism against the government’s imposition.
The heat was adjudicated by Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of the Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, who congratulated and gave insightful feedback to each speaker. Only two speakers could be selected to move on to the next round. Alistair chose Uma and Bella to proceed to the London Final on 4 March 2021 hosted by Clare College, Cambridge. It was, however, a job well done by all. All speakers will also become part of the Alumni Network.
The Grand Final will be hosted by The National Gallery on 18 March 2021.
If you are interested in finding out more, head to:
https://rochecourteducationaltrust.co.uk/articulation/england/, for the 2021 programme and email email@example.com to register and tune in for other undoubtedly stimulating online heats!