Re-Writing the Canon: New directions in art writing

Sophie Hatchwell, University of Birmingham,

Sam Rose, University of St Andrews,

Whether it’s called art writing, criticism and theory, text–image studies, art-historiography or ekphrasis, the exploration of writing on the visual has become a standard sub-set of art-historical research. Giants of the genre, from Nelson Goodman to WJT Mitchell and Mieke Bal, have demarcated a field of study orientated around a particular set of methodological norms – semiotic, post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, sociohistorical. Less obvious, and less acceptable, however, are the field’s increasingly unquestioned set of assumptions: art writing’s narrow (and largely Anglo-American) ‘Krauss-Fried’, etc. canon of famous critics and historians; the total autonomy afforded to ‘creative’ or ‘experimental’ art writing by artists and historians alike; even the very equivalence of ‘art writing’ and ‘text–image’.

This panel commences with the proposition that despite (or perhaps because of) the success of the field, we need to consider new approaches to the analysis of text–image relationships, as well as expanding the range of texts that might be covered by such analysis. How might we historicise ‘art writing’ to recontextualise canonical art writers, or introduce new candidates for canonisation beyond the Anglo-American norms? How might we historicise or critique the rise of the creative ‘fine art’ art writer, including the alliance of literary art writing with a narrow Western canon of artists? How might we renew our understandings of terms such as ‘art writing’ and ‘word and image’? And which new theories and thinkers – including those within critical race studies and pragmatic sociology that have already closely engaged with the subject of art writing – can help us address any or all of these issues?

Speakers and Abstracts

Where Angels Fear to Tread: Mazhar Şevket İpşiroğlu’s canonisation of Siyah Kalem

Ambra D’Antone (Courtauld Institute of Art)

In the 1950s, Mazhar Şevket İpşiroğlu (1908–85), Art History professor at Istanbul University, spearheaded the study of the Siyah Kalem paintings contained in four albums in Topkapı Palace. The works’ history was contested: the search for their geographical and temporal coordinates, original function and the artists behind them challenged the scholarship. In his art writing, İpşiroğlu sought to re-engage the paintings as objects of the Turkish artistic tradition, as well as to hone their ability to build a notion of modern Turkish art and post-Ottoman, Turkish nationhood, turning the art-historical conundrum into a question of national identity.

Situating it within the historical and intellectual context of late 1950s and early 1960s Turkish painting, I reframe İpşiroğlu’s art writing as indexing a two-fold process of canon formation that was ideologically and politically determined. On the one hand, his texts, which turned Siyah Kalem into a modern precursor simultaneously in and out of tradition, appeared serviceable to young painters who were shaping their practice and understanding of modern Turkish art. On the other hand, İpşiroğlu himself entered the canon of Turkish art writers. Yet, a contextualisation of his methodologies, which have so far remained unquestioned, reveals that they echoed narratives of Turkish nationalism that were popular amongst the intellectuals in his network. Through this case study, which addresses work that is systematically excluded from analyses of art writing, we can begin to detach the genre from the set of contributors it has been limited to, as well as advance its understanding as a historically determined discipline.

A Fiction of Our Time? Writing China’s photobooks

Rachel Marsden (University of the Arts, London)

In China, the photobook can be first located in the discourse of documentary photography as a practice of re-reading and cultural translation corresponding to a moment of crisis in social belief in the 1980s. In today’s ‘post-’ prefixed art world, the photobook has expanded into a conceptual practice in its own right, providing freedom of expression to a younger generation of artists.

Often seen as a non-official art practice written through a visual language without being committed to words, the photobook affords artists a space to question the current state of China; a mechanism to amplify hidden and subversive histories open to interpretation, criticism and censorship. A material object of desire due to its ‘cult of authorship’, here the reading of the photobook becomes as important as its writing in understanding the truths and fictions of our time.

In this paper, the vocabulary and language of the photobook – a writing of the photobook – will be established. Published examples will be discussed using interchangeable Chinese translated terms of practice, further framed within John Swale’s tactile act of ‘textography’ – a conceptual approach combining text analysis and ethnographic techniques to get an inside view of the worlds in which the texts are written – alongside the Deleuzian approach to an assemblage of texts – a situation as a multiplicity of things within a network of hierarchical intertextuality. This situatedness is vital in sustaining the photobook as a field of practice; its voice currently lacking within Chinese art history.

Retaining the Object in the Absence of Vision: Translation and re-presentation in the writing of Robert Smithson and Kenneth Goldsmith

Benjamin Jenner (University of Leeds)

This paper compares the writing of Robert Smithson and Kenneth Goldsmith. It aims to explore the role of representation on our experience of the cognate world, asking how language and images operate to mediate that interaction in the present. In order to destabilise this relationship, I will approach these concerns in the absence of vision, a gesture that both complicates the impact of prior knowledge on experience, whilst highlighting the perceptual gap between empirical exploration and the sign-systems used to communicate that experience.

Robert Smithson’s essay Incidents of Mirror-Travel in The Yucatan (1969, Artforum) posits an anti-ocular form of cognition that analyses the role of text and image on experience. Smithson interrogates the relationship between media, pointing to the slippage that occurs in translation as a metaphor for our mediated interaction with the world, a ‘negative ekphrasis’. The Conceptual Writing of Kenneth Goldsmith performs this slippage. Taking spoken and written language as his subject he re-presents words, highlighting how semantic content disintegrates in the absence of a contextual present, resulting in swathes of nonsensical signifiers gesturing at unlocatable signifieds.

How might Goldsmith’s linguistic performativity be used to ‘write through’ Smithsons text/image critique? How might Smithsons critique point to a contextual ground from which to begin to read the writing of Goldsmith? How might this relationship contribute towards a re-working of our approach to mediation that isn’t so visually dependent, one that favours temporality and indexicality, iteration and prosody, the blurring of text and image, writing and speech?

Allegorical Narcissists and Analogical Mystics: Geeta Kapur writing women’s work, 1968–93

Meghaa Ballakrishnen (Johns Hopkins University)

Though the Indian critic Geeta Kapur (1943–), and her now seminal collection of essays When was Modernism in Indian Art?’ (2000, Tulika) have been understood to advocate radical nationalist figuration, I suggest an altogether different, undertheorized, context for both: the global reception of French Feminism. Integrating two essays in that text—one on feminist labour, “Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work,” and another on the abstract oeuvre of Nasreen Mohamedi, “Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved”—with Kapur’s lesser known practical criticism, including exhibition reviews and catalog notes, I suggest that she proposes modernism as an embodied feminist practice. That is, Kapur attends not to figural content, but to the material and processual, or embodied, conditions of artistic production: the work that brings the artwork into being, and the marks that work leaves in the art. Focusing on Kapur’s construction of narcissism as an allegorical strategy – the construction of a material other for contemplation – and mysticism as an analogical strategy – the experience of alienating oneself in the work – I situate her readings of artists against developing theoretical analyses of the feminist subject. More specifically, I demonstrate that, in her attention to the artist working herself out through laborious material acts, Kapur is reconstructing the three feminist personae—narcissist, mystic, woman in love—first introduced in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (Jonathan Cape, 1953). 





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