Glebova Essay Wins Prize

Warm congratulations to Aglaya Glebova, whose “Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature” has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Scholar Prize by the Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture  (SHERA).

The prize jury praised the essay, calling it “highly innovative in its approach to the interpretation of a famously problematic episode in the career of Aleksandr Rodchenko: the work produced during his visit to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps, in the early 1930s.”

 

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

 

Visual Form and the Beholder’s Share

“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share

by Whitney Davis

The essay begins:

Franz Boas (d. 1942) was born into an educated Jewish family in Westphalia in 1858; by 1888, at the age of thirty, he had settled permanently in the United States, in New York City. Today Boas is perhaps best known for his lifelong critiques of racialist theory and its concomitants in anti-Semitism and Nazism. He broadcast his arguments indefatigably from Columbia University (where he taught from 1899 until his death) into the public forum; one such statement was his memorable 1924 letter to the New York Times, “Lo, the Poor Nordic!,” in which he set out to refute Henry Fairfield Osborn (chief paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History), who was advocating the innate superiority of the “Nordic race.” By the 1920s, the German-Jewish immigrant Boas was writing with immense authority as one of the internationally recognized founders of American anthropology—that is, both of Americanist anthropology and of anthropology in North America (the United States and Canada; Boas did much of his fieldwork in the latter nation).

In this essay, I consider a somewhat neglected contribution made by Boas to the anthropology of visual culture and, more narrowly, to the methods and principles of art history—namely, his prescient theory of the beholder’s projection of verbalized meaning into visual form and symbolism. Boas worked out his ideas in relation to certain background intuitions about human seeing and image making in interaction with natural language. But they remained undeveloped, and they have not much been followed up beyond the specific ethnographic context in which they were formulated. Still, they remain suggestive from the vantage point of a present-day world art history. I will contextualize them analytically in relation to comparable but distinct approaches to the “beholder’s share”—a beholder’s active identification and interpretation of visual form and meaning, including the most basic matter of recognizing the things that might be depicted or symbolized in a conventionalized visual pattern. My aim is not only—not primarily—to provide an exegesis of Boas. Instead, I aim to frame and phrase his ideas—as I see them in their “best case”—in ways that give them the greatest interest and relevance for certain present-day concerns in the study of visual culture worldwide. Continue reading …

Basing his essay in part on Boas’s book Primitive Art (1927), Whitney Davis considers the Boasian theory of the beholder’s share in constructing the significance of visual form and in interpreting its meaning. Boas’s analysis of what he called “contradictions” between his indigenous informants’ exegeses of form lay at the heart of his conclusion that individual agents “read-in” to form some of the most crucial aspects of social experience that are most salient and specific to them. “Reading-in,” Davis argues, is the verbal speaking of visual “seeing-as,” and it infuses visual form with the diversity and particularity of a speaker’s grammatical choices undertaken within their natural human language(s). This model might now seem self-evident. At the time, however, it opened up the possibility of an “anthropology” of art and, to an extent as yet unrealized, the possibilities of its sociology and history. The essay evaluates Boas’s model in relation to other well-known accounts of the beholder’s share in art history, philosophy, and elsewhere and concludes with a discussion of the uptake of his idea in the “structuralism” of Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

 

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

Blockbuster Diplomacy

The Splendor of Dresden in the United States, 1978–79

by Alice Goff

The essay begins:

On June 1, 1978, The Splendor of Dresden: 500 Years of Art Collecting opened in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. At the entrance to the massive exhibition, two life-size mannequins on horseback, outfitted in ornate armor, lunged at each other in mid-joust: a preview for visitors of the spectacular onslaught of cultural objects across twenty-two galleries in the brand new East Building beyond (fig. 1). The impact of Splendor was both political and aesthetic. This was the first major loan of art from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the United States, initiated immediately after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries just four years earlier. Billed as a grand gesture of cultural exchange in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords, the exhibition was the product of unprecedented collaboration between American and East German museum officials in an environment of intense mutual suspicion at the highest political levels. The gradual erosion of détente in the late 1970s set the stage for a telling opening scene: the dinner planned to celebrate the exhibition’s installation in the National Gallery was deferred to accommodate the NATO summit taking place concurrently in Washington. At the same time that NATO delegates were committing to increase defense spending in response to Soviet military advantage in central Europe, their wives, hosted at a preview tea by First Lady Rosalynn Carter, were among the exhibition’s first visitors.

Beyond the strained political environment from which it emerged, Splendor was a spectacle in its own right, exceeding standards of scale and expense even in an age of blockbuster exhibitions. The 702 objects on display, works of fine and decorative arts from eight of Dresden’s state museums, formed by many accounts the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted by an American institution. Insured for an extraordinary $81 million, Splendor was among the first exhibitions to be partially indemnified by the US government under the 1975 Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act. In addition to funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the cost of the enterprise was funded by a $750,000 grant from International Business Machines (IBM), the largest-ever corporate contribution to a cultural project in the United States at the time. Over the course of a year, Splendor traveled from Washington to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, attracting 1.5 million visitors and widespread national and international press coverage before its return to Dresden in June 1979. “I wore out my eyes,” confessed the Branson Beacon’s Helen C. Saults of the endless galleries of artworks, from Cranachs, Rembrandts, and Friedrichs to ostrich-egg tankards, gem-encrusted mirrors, astronomical clocks, and filigreed automata—not to mention towering arrays of porcelain, weaponry, and bronze sculpture. The New York Times art critic John Russell concurred: “It is by universal agreement the most intelligently conceived, the most inventively presented and, room by gorgeous room, the most seductive exhibition of its kind ever to be seen in this country.”

The lavish scope of The Splendor of Dresden was an expression of the firm belief, common to its American and East German organizers, in the utility of fine art to Cold War foreign relations. Splendor joined numerous other exhibition initiatives during the 1970s that exploited the public forum of the art museum as a stage for the performance of mutual understanding on one hand and cultural superiority on the other. As David Caute argues, while the Cold War was a conflict between opposing world powers, it was also a contest over a shared cultural field located broadly in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. An 1823 bust of George Washington included in the gallery on neoclassicism is a case in point. Commissioned from a Dresden sculptor by a Saxon merchant who had served as a volunteer in the Philadelphia militia, the bust was to stand for a liberal republicanism common to Saxon and American cultural traditions in the nineteenth century: “a work of remembrance and respect,” in the words of the exhibition’s principle organizer in Dresden, Joachim Menzhausen. As the catalog noted, the bust was based on an illustration of Antonio Canova’s 1821 statue of Washington for the North Carolina State House. Incidentally, because Canova’s statue had been destroyed when the state house burned in 1831, and had only been replaced with a marble replica in 1970, the Dresden bust served as a unique referent to a work of American cultural heritage since lost. The collections on view in Splendor established Dresden’s artistic wealth in terms that American audiences could easily appreciate; they also sought to prove socialism’s unmatched capacity as a steward of the artifacts of the Western cultural canon.

For the East German officials who were largely responsible for Splendor’s conceptual framing, the role of art in political performance was not only the exhibition’s guiding premise but also its central theme. This was among the first exhibitions to focus on the history of collecting, narrating the shifting fortunes of notoriety and prestige won through the production, acquisition, and display of art over five hundred years. In the catalog, published by the Metropolitan Museum but authored entirely by curators from the Dresden museums, this story unfolded according to a Marxist-Leninist narrative, with socialism as the last stage in a long dialectical process of progress and retrenchment. Catering to American audiences, “for whom every communist dialectic is foreign,” this trajectory was both conventional and understated. From the curiosity cabinets of the sixteenth-century electors to the grandiose collections of the absolutist monarchs, through the rationalized public museums of the bourgeoisie, and culminating in the rise of fascism and the total destruction of Dresden’s architectural heritage and near annihilation of its art collections by American and British bombs in February 1945, the socialist state emerged from this history as its logical end and proper keeper. “We recognize the creative conservation of our humanistic cultural heritage in the hands of the working class,” wrote Manfred Bachmann, general director of the State Art Collections of Dresden in his prefatory statement. While the objects on display transformed the splendor of the past into the splendor of the present, they also showed the very concept of splendor itself to be a historical construction: dynamic, contextual, and contingent on the political convictions of their owners.

The following pages offer a tour of three focal galleries in The Splendor of Dresden that demonstrate how East German political aspirations, historical imagination, and diplomatic maneuvering shaped the story of art collecting at work in the exhibition’s design and reception. This was a conception of splendor as fragile as it was complex, as the Washington Post noted: “It is ironic that a socialist state should dazzle us with the spoils of absolutism.” The title of the show might more appropriately be “The Splendor that was Dresden,” quipped the Wall Street Journal. To make the cultural wealth of early modern Saxony reflect the political prestige of the East German state for Western audiences was the exhibition’s central challenge. Fully cognizant of the conceptual risks, curators from Dresden worked with their American collaborators to create an exhibition that was as concerned with the perils of splendor in the past as with its promise in the present. In the first gallery, we encounter a history of the destruction of Dresden that established the enduring fragility of its cultural wealth; the second gallery presented the virtues of the unaffected pursuit of knowledge sheltered from the taint of statecraft; the fifth transformed the excesses of princely collecting in the baroque into a new model of cultural diplomatic exhibiting. Throughout, splendor emerged as a historical problem, even as it remained for East German organizers the primary instrument through which its cultural political goals could be achieved. Continue reading …

“The Splendor of Dresdenwas an astonishingly lavish blockbuster exhibition loan from the German Democratic Republic to the United States between 1978 and 1979. Yet the history of its conception and execution reveals the tensions and ambivalences that underwrote cultural diplomatic efforts in the era of the Helsinki Accords, even those at the grandest scale.

ALICE GOFF is a historian of German cultural and intellectual life in the modern period. She is Assistant Professor of History and the College at the University of Chicago.

Art in a State of Siege

A series of events with Joseph Leo Koerner
March 15, 16, & 17
sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities
at UC Berkeley

ART IN A STATE OF SIEGE

Lecture: Art in a State of Siege: Bosch in Retrospect

Thursday, Mar 15, 2018 | 5:00 pm
Morrison Reading Room, 101 Doe Library, UC Berkeley

In this lecture, Koerner examines Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights — a work notorious for its portrayal of nude men and women cavorting with beasts in a verdant landscape. He approaches the painting as a representation of a world without history and without law, whose imagery attracted significant attention during similarly lawless historical periods. The discussion emerges from a larger project in which Koerner explores the relationship between art and freedom under a range of emergency “states of siege,” including apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

Joseph Leo Koerner, Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow, Society of Fellows at Harvard University, is the author of Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape and Dürer’s Hands. He wrote and presented the three-part television series Northern Renaissance and the documentary Vienna: City of Dreams, both produced by the BBC. Koerner’s work has been influential for decades; his essay “The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermenuetic in Hans Baldung Grien” appeared in Representations 10 (1985).

Symposium on Art in a State of Siege

Friday, Mar 16, 2018 | 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Joseph Leo Koerner, joins a panel of scholars to discuss the role of art in a society in which freedom is radically curtailed, such as Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Panelists engage with audience members in lively discussion about creative expression under an emergency “state of siege.”

[image credit]

Participants: Whitney Davis, History of Art, UC Berkeley; Joseph Leo Koerner, History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; James Porter, Classics and Rhetoric, UC Berkeley; and Jane Taylor, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

Film Screening: The Burning Child

Saturday, Mar 17, 2018 | 4:00 pm
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)
2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Joseph Leo Koerner screens a preview of his documentary film The Burning Child (2017, 120 mins). Through interviews, testimony, and archival footage, the film explores Koerner’s return to Vienna, the birthplace of his father, painter Henry Koerner, and is a meditation on the concepts of home and homemaking that emerged amidst the turbulence of 20th-century Vienna. With Q+A to follow moderated by Winnie Wong.

Tickets available at the BAMPFA boxoffice or at bampfa.org.

The Photo’s Imagination

The Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train: A Love Story

by Alexander Nemerov

The essay begins:

The huge explosions could be heard more than twenty miles away. A Union major named James Connolly lay asleep on the ground, exhausted after the day’s fighting, when he and his men “were aroused by sound of distant explosions away off to the North.” General William Tecumseh Sherman, encamped nearby and leading the Union army, uneasily heard the sound of shells exploding in the direction of Atlanta just after midnight. He and his aides debated what the blasts meant and woke a nearby farmer, who said that the battles around Atlanta sounded like that. Still, no one was sure. The sounds died down but then renewed at 4:00 a.m., this time louder and longer than before, “with the thump and crump and muttering finality of a massive coup de grâce.”

The next day the truth was revealed. Confederate General John Bell Hood, leading the Confederate forces defending Atlanta, had found his main supply line cut off and had ordered that his own munitions train be blown up so that it would not fall into Union hands. In a massive self-destruction that helped cover their retreat, the Confederates torched five locomotives and eighty-one railroad cars full of their own ammunition. This was the sound that Sherman and his men heard. It was the night of September 1, 1864.

Within days, Sherman’s official campaign photographer George Barnard was at the scene of the explosions. Accompanying Sherman and his men on their destructive march from Nashville to Charleston, Barnard would ultimately assemble sixty-one of his large wet-collodion plates into a deluxe publication, Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, published in New York in 1866. Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train is plate 44 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. G. Barnard, Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, 1864

At the center of the photograph stands a lone man (fig. 2). We cannot tell who he is—the title does not identify him. Likely he is a civilian, a figure exempted from military ritual and allowed a place of solitude. Back to us, clad in dark clothes, he is a man of shaken contour, either slightly aquiver in the breeze or impatient with having to stand still during the exposure, or both. His feet make a wispy fishtail pattern. One imagines him as an associate of the photographer who has walked from Barnard’s position, down the trash-strewn hilly foreground at lower left, further down the gulley at the foot of the hill, and up onto the rail bed, where he could respond to the photographer’s commands about where to stand and for how long. He is within hailing distance.

The man stands within a circle of soot. Although the circle may not have been the epicenter of the explosions, the missing track suggests that the nature of the fire here was different than the one further in the distance. So do the sideways-flung rail carriage wheels to the left of the soot. Further back, the wheels still sit on the rails, implying that there the blaze consumed the wooden cars in steady flame. But nearer to our vantage, in the circle of ash where the lone man stands, a huge detonation likely blew things sideways and burned extra hot. Barnard’s photograph shows a flat volcano. The man is at the crater, at ground zero.

Fig. 2. Barnard. Destruction … (detail)

Standing there, the man seems to verify what happened. Like a journalist, he is on the spot, the embers barely cooled. Following the uncertainty of those cataclysmic sounds—the booms that awakened and disturbed Sherman and his men—the lone man confirms the truth of Hood’s defeat. Standing on the ash imprints the reportorial truth of the scene as much as the light hitting the photographic plate. The weightiness of the shadowed man, even if he flutters unsteadily, surpasses the conjecture of an artist’s drawing of a few weeks later that shows the exploding ammunition train. Unlike the fabulist with his pencil, the photographer and his associate occupy the actual scene, letting it be stamped on them, a predicate of there-ness and truthfulness.

The verification was timely. A few days earlier, George B. McClellan had accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, running on the party platform that the North should sue for peace with the South and end the war, slavery intact. A cartoon by Thomas Nast, appearing in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864, shows the disastrous implications of such a peace: a defeated Union soldier, his sacrifice a waste, slumps to shake hands with a triumphant Jefferson Davis. “One party seems to want peace,” wrote Major Connolly to his wife, ending the same letter in which he had described hearing the explosions. “That suits us here. We want peace too, honorable peace, won in the full light of day, at the cannon’s mouth and the bayonet’s point, with our grand old flag flying over us as we negotiate it, instead of cowardly peace purchased at the price of national dishonor.”

Barnard’s photograph, taken in those same days, says that Atlanta is taken, that Sherman is victorious, and that the war needs to be fought to its conclusion. The proof is in the photographic glass, in the stone and rail and wood, and in the man at the center of the ash. Neither black nor white (it is impossible to tell his race), he solemnly acknowledges the massive destruction of the southern war machine and makes the case implicitly for more of the same violence as the only way to bring peace. In Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, true enough, there will be many scenes of obliteration still to come after the Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train. Relentlessly, the rebellion will be flattened to the ground. When it is not flattened, picturesque windows will be left in its broken walls only so that the viewer can examine how little of the defeated place still exists. On September 12, Sherman wrote to the mayor of Atlanta, who had implored him to stop bombarding the city: “You might as well appeal against the thunder storm as against these terrible hardships of war.”

But the solitary man goes beyond the news cycle. Four prominent chimneys repeat his upright form, multiplying his solitude and extending it to the heavens. He stands before these chimneys like a shepherd before the columns of a ruined Roman temple in the romantic paintings that Barnard admired. The Old South, the photograph says, is a fallen empire, a ruined civilization. But the chimneys also lift the man into the skies, as if he were part of the black smoke that once emanated from this building, an iron mill destroyed in the explosions. Organizing his photograph not just so that the lone man would be at the center, but so that the chimneys would rise into the clouds, Barnard aligns the man’s contemplation not just with the events of the day but with an eternal churn of time. That Barnard “combination printed” the clouds from another negative—his photograph would otherwise show the sky only as a blank gray—creates the image’s mysteriously otherworldly sky and the lone contemplator’s relation to it. The windswept and light-stained clouds come not only from another negative but seemingly from another world, as if a passing planet had allowed Barnard to borrow its atmosphere. They rhyme with the flutter of the man’s black coat and trousers, the shifting of his knees. The sky’s main echo on the ground is the soot on which he stands, a flattened cloud of cinders that resembles the heavens’ light gray. The lone man courses with a rhythm of sun and cloud, the full flow of romantic history—empires rising and falling but also some otherworldly time, some timeless time—that the historian internalizes within his own small body.

Standing there, the man aligns with not just flow but frozenness. The diagonal of the tracks implies far-off movement, but no trains will run on them for some time. Where the blast was, where he is, time has stopped. The historian pauses at the location where the momentum of events ceases. There the motionless wheel-carriages suggest the arrested force of his own observations. The massive mill wheel between the chimneys has likewise run into the ground. Aligned to these signs, the historian likewise freezes the action of the day—like the photographer, he keeps the world from rolling. Their mutual hope is that in stillness the significance of an event will become cryptically clear. The earth itself still turns, the clouds still scud across the sky, but the historian feels no contradiction. In Barnard’s romantic view, the historian feels the fixation of a moment in time and the relation of that moment to eternity. The lone man’s shadow looks like an oil stain on the soot, but it also charts the path of the sun.

It is proper that all this destruction leaves a lasting mark on the historian. He does not glide by the scene of violence, even if his presence there is of short duration. Rather, like the photographer’s plate, he allows the scene to imprint itself on him. To his dying day he will retain the record of what he saw. Even if he forgets his place, losing the memory of having stood on the tracks, the place will not forget him. It will be in his consciousness like a possession buried in the earth, like the belongings that the citizens of Atlanta interred for safekeeping as they departed the city. Even if he forgets that it was him in the photograph, remembering only that he actually stood beneath a pastel-blue sky on that spot or, conversely, if his presence in the photograph is all that he recalls, the pastel-blue sky having been forgotten, the confusion of experiences will not dissipate his sense of having been there. Transfer the man to a heady scene of Broadway in New York, bright on a summer’s day, with everyone else happy and prancing beneath parasols and top hats, and he would still walk in the cloud of his shaken contours.

Damage, to judge by the photograph, is the historian’s proper element. Barnard’s contemporary J. T. Trowbridge wrote of looking out a railway car window in Atlanta on a rainy morning just after the war, seeing the “windrows of bent railroad iron by the track; piles of brick; a small mountain of old bones from the battle-fields, foul and wet with the drizzle; a heavy coffin-box, marked ‘glass,’ on the platform, with mud and litter all around.” Trowbridge let the sights impress him, then wrote liquid descriptions that impress the reader. In the same way, Barnard’s sole observer becomes a photographic plate, allowing the grit of the sand and clay and pebbly wasteland to imprint itself on him until he, too, sensitively registers the scene. The pathological stillness of his contemplation registers the aftershocks of violence as only a slight fluctuation in his trembling clothes. Alone, he keeps the landscape from breaking apart.

It is a depressing scene, even if it shows the demise of the Confederacy. The photograph has all the hallmarks of a victory parade except the people and the motion and the joy. What, if anything, redeems the emptiness?

My own answer is imagination. Adrift in the wasted world, either the historian traces the wreckage, speaking in a voice of dejection and outrage, or the historian can invent from those same woebegone feelings. In the latter case, something new emerges from the destruction and violence. That something new is not an asinine version of progress—of forward-looking and backward-forgetting. It is always committed to the recollection that allows it to come into being. Instead of flying away, the historian’s invention owes allegiance to the particular topography in which it finds itself. Down every gulley, across each desolate rock pile and sandpit, the imagination must trace its way, divagating the broken tracks, stumbling down the shallow hillsides, taking an exact impression at each point of what is not itself. The imagination works like lava, flowing across the terrain, making a mold of what it streams over. The imagination clamps to memory like Barnard’s sky to the earth. The imagination depicts unbelievable things—it is imported from other scenes, “combination printed” into a first picture in which it does not belong. Yet somehow it does belong. And it makes us look again, and look longer, at a photograph we might barely have noticed otherwise.

What does the imagination trace in Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train? The answer will be different for each viewer. I can give only my own account. Improbably, I imagine the photograph as a story of love. I say this because General John Bell Hood, the commander who ordered that the ordnance train be blown up, was deeply in love at the time. Continue reading …

How is something that is not there still present in a photograph? What is the importance of seeing a photograph in this way? Looking at George Barnard’s Civil War photograph Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train, this essay meditates on the operations of imagination in historical images.

ALEXANDER NEMEROV gave the sixty-sixth annual Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art this past spring. His most recent book, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, published in 2016, was short-listed for the 2017 Marfield Prize/National Award for Arts Writing.

The Life of Performance Arts

What Happened; or, Finishing Live

by Rebecca Schneider

The essay begins:

When you get a pebble in your boot—flesh, stone, and leather rub, irritating each other into and out of comfort. This essay is like that. In 2012, I stumbled over a minor comment made on April 19 at the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage” at the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, curated by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson. The comment was made by Sabine Breitweiser, who at that time was the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Speaking of “acquiring actions” when “collecting” performance, Breitweiser said, almost as an aside during the question and answer session after her talk: “If live artworks are collected correctly, I believe they can acquire a patina over time.” The comment puzzled me, and I scribbled it down for memory’s sake with a question mark at the lead. What could it mean?

My difficulty was surely disciplinary. In a blog posting circulated in advance of the same conference, Malik Gaines, who was also an invited speaker, had written:

Visual art and performance are in a classic bad relationship. Art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive. But art will belittle performance in public, will call it late at night but won’t let it stay over, doesn’t really believe what performance does is valuable. Art’s esteemed family only barely tolerates the relationship. Performance stays with its more powerful partner for the money, for the stature, the trips to Europe, for feeling like it belongs to something, for fear of having to go back to that old senile boyfriend, the Theater. How else can it support itself? But performance never feels like it really belongs in art’s world. It’s always using the wrong fork at dinner.

Indeed, as a scholar of performance studies trained in a history of actions that include mime, theater, dance, and other historical forms more “theatrical” and less “object art,” I felt like an awkward guest at the dinner table in relationship to Breitweiser’s comment. I looked up “patina” in various dictionaries, but it only turned up the meaning I anticipated. Patina is

  1. A thin coating or layer; an incrustation on the surface of metal or stone, usually as a result of an extended period of weathering or burial; a green or bluish-green film produced naturally or artificially by oxidation on the surface of bronze and copper, consisting mainly of basic copper sulphate …
  2. A gloss or sheen or finish; that on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing …
  3. An acquired accretion of an abstract quality; a superficial impression or appearance.

None of these definitions works simply or seamlessly with the immediate definition of performance art as typically featuring “live presentation.” Though definitions vary quite wildly across dictionaries—some describe performance art as essentially “collaborative,” others as “solo,” some say “theatrical,” some refer to its “fine art context”—they almost all use the word “live.” And though synonyms for “patina” like “distressing” or “weathering” might appeal to tragedians or expressionists (anyone might agree that a live performance of King Lear would employ weathering and distressing), “oxidation” is less quick to comply with disciplinary orientations tuned to dance or theater. And yet, Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings might seem closer kin to live performance than the average “bluish-green film” on the skin of a local monument. Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, or piss paintings as they are commonly known, might be read as something of a theatrical parody, making base bodily fluid the agent of oxidation. Still, might one not easily argue that patination may be standard “senile boyfriend” theater as usual? That is, the crusty monument model might resemble the standard American theater to the degree that such theater often trots out productions so encased in layers of accrued acting convention that they can barely strut and fret (spread by the deadly MFA model of training in the United States and the tendency of the professional theater to produce nothing but replicant white and male playwriting). But if this is the case, why would we desire patination for performance-based art in general?

To make a long story short, I scrapped the paper I had carried with me to the conference, and, in the wake of Breitweiser’s comment, I began to track a new set of thoughts, live, as it were. I wanted to try to respond to the notion of a patinal live, but I knew the fork I would take would be different, and I wondered, as well, what or who exactly was being served by thinking of patination as desirable. The essay that follows tracks thoughts that, like thought, do not always track in a linear fashion but overlap, change direction, cross paths, interrupt each other, get swept under, and tend toward general promiscuity. My hope is not that one thought might align with another, or one discipline with another, for in that parallelism nothing can amount to encounter. Rather, I hope that the thoughts collected here might swerve, jump, bend—we could say dance—not under protective cover of singular disciplinary orientation, but open to weathering, on the move. Continue reading …

This essay asks what happens to live performance over time: Can it develop a patina, as claimed by at least one major art curator? Are intervals between or among performances part of a work itself, like skin or film that grows in the cracks of a work? Or is performance itself a kind of patination process? In short, can liveness be finished?

rcschnei_photo__thumbnailREBECCA SCHNEIDER is Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is the author of The Explicit Body in Performance (l997); Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (2011), and Theatre & History (2014) and editor and author of many anthologies, essays, journal special issues, and book series.

“Time Zones” Launch Event

MINDING TIME: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION OF TIME ZONES

A UC Berkeley Arts Research Center Upcoming Event

You’re Invited! Sunday, December 4, 2016
3:00pm to 6:30pm

3pm: Tour of Mind over Matter Exhibition
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Galleries 

4:00-5:30pm: Celebrating Time Zones
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

5:30pm: West Coast Preview of In Terms of Performance Website
and Holiday Reception
Dwinelle Annex, Room 126, UC Berkeley campus

Join a time-based (and time-sensitive) tour of Mind over Matter at the Berkeley Art Museum with curator Constance Lewallen.

Converse with Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson about their special issue of Representations, “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts,” including substantive essays on contemporary Croatian dance practice, Uruguayan art under dictatorship, the work of the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, and the visual and sound arts of China, along with reflections on durational art by Berkeley faculty, including Natalia Brizuela, Jeffrey Skoller, Suzanne Guerlac, Winnie Wong, and more.

Engage with the Arts Research Center’s new online anthology of keywords in contemporary art and performance, In Terms of Performance, coproduced with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Art & Heritage, with contributions from a range of Bay Area artists, critics, and curators such as Rudolf Frieling, Paul Dresher, Judith Butler, and Claudia La Rocca.

Launch the holiday season with a celebration of the Arts Research Center as a think tank for the arts, at Berkeley and beyond. See the full afternoon program here.

New Special Issue on Time-Based Art

TIME ZONES: DURATIONAL ART AND ITS CONTEXTS

edited by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

Number 136, Fall 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

1.cover-source

SHANNON JACKSON and JULIA BRYAN-WILSON   Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts (the issue introduction; free access for a limited time)   ·   BOJANA CVEJIĆ          A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems   ·   ANDREA GIUNTA   Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship   ·   GU Yi  The “Peasant Problem” and Time in Contemporary Chinese Art   ·   ANDRÉ LEPECKI    The Non-Time of Lived Experience: The Problem of Color in Hélio Oiticica’s Early Works   ·   REBECCA SCHNEIDER   What Happened; or, Finishing Live   ·   WANG JING   Affective Listening as a Mode of Coexistence: The Case of China’s Sound Practice

PlusReflections on durational art from Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Angela Marino, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong

Do we have a problem with time?

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts

by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

This introduction to the Time Zones special issue begins:

Do we have a problem with time? The we here is specific—it means not only the scholars, curators, and practitioners who think critically about twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic production and its relationship to temporality but also the small collective of the two of us who are writing this introduction together. We are a performance studies scholar and an art historian who have been thinking together about what makes questions about time so persistent, and so vexed, within and between our two fields. Duration, we have come to realize, might be the conceptual connective tissue that links these two increasingly overlapping disciplines. But “durational art” is only one of the many names that have proliferated in an attempt to bound an unboundable set of practices that frequently violate the borders of medium-specificity as they move from so-called “static” configurations into durational forms: time-based art, live art, hybrid art, intermedial art.

What happens when the same phrases—“durational art” or “time-based art”—traffic back and forth between the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) and the performing arts, especially when, in the performance-based disciplines, time or liveness hardly feels “new”? While the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic experimentation is one of ever more blurry disciplinary borders, we often find that the habits and divisions of labor within different art institutions persist. Moreover, the training of artists and of critics separates skills and evaluative barometers within different art fields. Many kinds of cultural producers may be making, curating, and evaluating “live” art work, but our sense of what kind of work it is will be different depending upon its context, whether it is housed in a museum or a theater, or whether it is analyzed by a dance critic, a film critic, or a critic of visual arts.

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts brings together six substantial essays (by Bojana Cvejić, Andrea Giunta, Yi Gu, André Lepecki, Rebecca Schneider, and Wang Jing) and nine shorter reflections (by Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong) that approach time, duration, and liveness from an array of disciplinary and regional contexts. From the affective registers of contemporary sound art in China to the politics of labor and laziness in a collaborative performance collective in Zagreb to archive-based interventions during the Uruguay military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the essays plumb the specificities of practices as they unfold in real times and physical spaces. Contributors consider how the presumed presentism of “live art” puts pressure on the demands of historicity, as well as how it reconfigures relations to art’s viewers or witnesses. The essays and reflections examine how notions of time and duration have emerged as central, yet contested, in diverse projects that include public art, kinetic body-based sculpture, dance, and photography.

Together these texts make an argument, which is that the contexts that frame durational art—whether rhetorical, or national, or institutional—matter a great deal. Where and when does a piece take place? In what kind of site is it situated, and in what moment of time does it occur? What are the conditions of its inception and its continued circulation? Who is in the audience, and who talks about it after the fact? Is it applauded, or is it censored? These experiments with time respond to the local economic politics of particular regions as well as to transnational circuits of exchange. Questions of time in art interact with larger questions of migration, capitalism, and mobility in a global world. The ephemeral quality of time-based art can address and elude the political urgencies of volatile sites. Regionally specific themes and political issues prompt artists to collaborate across disciplines in some contexts but dissuade them in others. Funding models in different regions of the world both support and limit the capacity of artists to work across disciplines. Time-based art can in some cases disrupt and in others activate the demands of a market-based art calendar packed with biennials and high-profile festivals. It both challenges and enables the consumptive models of a globalized art world. Continue reading (free access for a limited time) …

Exploring the emergence of the rubric “time-based art” across several disciplinary formations, including performance and visual art, this editors’ introduction outlines some historical theories of duration across the arts and argues for a contextual approach that accounts for both medium and institutional location.

SHANNON JACKSON is Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as Director of the Arts Research Center. Other publications include The Builders Association (2015), Social Works (2011), Professing Performance (2004), and the forthcoming online anthology of keywords, In Terms of Performance, co-edited with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.