Homegrown Blog – Part 2: (Live) Art History
Live Art History: ‘Homegrown’ through the lens of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century visual culture
This post is experimental, in the spirit of the Homegrown programme. As an art historian of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I’m interested in analysing images, who was producing them, how they were being used and by whom, in order to uncover stories about the past and share what can be learned from them today. My involvement with the Homegrown project grew out of discussions with Kate Spence (HFWAS) and our mutual inquisitiveness about what I might bring to the analysis of these performances and what parallels might be drawn between them and my own research practice. For example, can I analyse performance art in the same way as images, and what is an image? How do I, as an art historian who analyses printed images that existed in multiples and were often collected, approach and interpret transitory, one-off performances?
The final Homegrown performances at Vivid Projects on 9 September featured new work by China Dethcrash, Caitlin Griffiths Sebastian H-W, Andy Howlett, Myah Jeffers and Albert Smith. The event was the culmination of the six month development project funded by Arts Council England was the culmination of the six month development project funded by Arts Council England and Jerwood, and co-curated by Antonio Roberts (Associate Curator, Vivid Projects).
All six Homegrown artists engaged in some form with issues about identity and the body’s relationship to both societal expectations and/or the past. As such, I am taking the above printed image as a starting point for my analysis of the performances. It was produced in early nineteenth-century London on the topic of Catholic emancipation and, in it, the body is a site of protest. The Catholic Relief Bill, introduced with the opening of the 1829 parliamentary session, was an unprecedented challenge to the status quo and a cause of concern of elite print buyers, who were likely to be have been educated, upper or middle class, politically conservative and, significantly, Anglican. Religion remained an important issue in the lives of Britons well into the age of ‘enlightenment’. Print viewers in 1829 knew what was at stake if Catholic emancipation became law. It would mean that, for the first time since the Glorious Revolution of 1689 when the British constitution of Anglican Church, State and Crown was founded, Roman Catholics could be involved in the machinery of State and take up positions such as MP. In images such as A Sketch of the Row in Parliment [sic] Street, published by Thomas McLean in April 1829, feminised male and lower class bodies are used to articulate ideas about civic, national and religious identities at the time when the Catholic Relief Bill was being debated in Parliament and looking likely to become law.
The print shows representatives of the English and Irish ‘masses’, the figure of John Bull (the personification of Britain, understood in this period as representing ‘everyman’) and Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847, an Irish Catholic lawyer and key campaigner for Catholic Relief) each supporting a leading politician – one who was for, and one against Catholic emancipation – who are dressed as female fruit hawkers and are squaring up in a bare knuckle fight in a marketplace. For print viewers, this image was likely to signal fears about Catholic emancipation being the thin end of the wedge, with popular political engagement and the spread of radical ideas among the lower classes in and from the marketplace.
Food and Transgression
In the print transgressive bodies are depicted to show the world as being turned upside down: elite men are dressed as ageing lower class women, representing the inversion of social hierarchies that would be the result if Catholic emancipation was to be passed. The inversion of social order depicted was for comic effect, of a kind found in carnivals which was only ever temporary in form (and, because of which, arguably helped to maintain social order), but the print posits that the result of Catholic relief would lead to permanent social changes. In depicting a brawl in a marketplace, the print maker was also drawing on symbolism of subsistence riots which would often involve the staple, flour. Indeed, analyses of gendered behaviour in food riots has shown that men often dressed as women to avoid prosecution.
The representation of food was a traditional marker of difference, particularly in relation to national stereotypes. For example, in printed images produced during the French Revolution (1789-99), representations of a stout John Bull eating roast beef were juxtaposed with the starving French revolutionaries (sans culottes) as a standard way of contrasting ideas of liberty and prosperity. Print audiences would have understood that in James Gillray’s print French liberty British slavery print from 21 December 1792 (Pub. Hannah Humphrey, London) (above), the English are enjoying real civil and religious liberty. In A Sketch of the Row in Parliment [sic] Street John Bull is depicted as supporting the anti-Catholic relief side and protecting liberty – signified by the basket of oranges over which to two sides are fighting.
Food, then, had social significance, and bread in particular remains a potent symbol, especially in religious doctrinal terms when, through the process of transubstantiation, it becomes the body of Christ (believed by Roman Catholics to be literal, and Protestants to symbolic) and therefore is symbolic historically of suffering but also of redemption and rebirth. It is through bread making that Albert finds self-expression; in his untitled performance, the gallery space was filled with the (for me) comforting, safe smell of freshly baked bread, inviting the viewer to think about the symbolism relating to bread and perhaps of the memories attached to that smell. In the time that it took to bake loaves that had been shaped earlier in the evening by the audience, Albert performed a ritual of adorning himself with clothes and make up – at once performing and challenging identity constructions – and articulated ideas about personal freedom and discovery. The narratives that Albert weaved were universally relatable; traumatic, humbling…and funny. In the same way as with prints such as those depicted above, it was through the promotion of shared (perhaps, carnival-like) laughter in Albert’s performance that serious issues were dealt with (including, abuse, racism, sexuality, pain, loss and remembrance – I was left feeling that Albert had dressed for a funeral) and anxieties displaced, bringing people together. Food symbolism and eating therefore became the vehicle to explore issues of identity and to nourish the body and soul.
Myah Jeffers powerful one-to-one performance likewise invited us to think about food’s role in shaping identity. I felt hesitant about what I might encounter as I stepped into the glowing tent-like structure, in an otherwise dark gallery setting, in which Myah’s performance took place. There was a sickeningly sweet smell of luxury food products which formed part of each performance – honey, chocolate, brown sugar and ground coffee – which, when combined, had a blood-like appearance on Myah and the floor on which she was positioned. Sitting opposite Myah, I read aloud the questions that were written before me on cue cards and felt uncomfortable by the unrelenting eye contact in the intimate space. I wanted to ask my own questions (to follow up, to reassure, to challenge) but it was not clear whether I could speak my own words or not, so (in my instance) I stayed silent and uncomfortable beyond the words given to me and reflecting on the power of the act of speech. The philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin talks about the dialogic nature of language, whereby any utterance is relational to what came before and what will come after – but what happens when the dynamics are unequal? At other times I was in a position of power – pouring, feeding and choosing how much or how little – meaning that the performance carefully played with power relations which were constantly shifting.
What were the power relations that were exposed? The performance operated on multiple levels to interrogate identity and social construction of the black female body. The phrase ‘my body is not mine’ was repeated, somewhat poetically but resonantly. As well as reflecting on the significance of the material goods and their historical associations with slavery, and of excess and consumption, the emphasis on the skin, and of honey, sugar and coffee, were also reminiscent of skin care regimes, and therefore ideas around beauty, social expectation and the commodification of women’s bodies; could the blood be an indicator of self-harm? Was the viewer complicit in construction of the self and self worth?
On leaving the tent, my mind was whirring and my hands were sticky from the sugar and chocolate; I was faced with a moral dilemma – should I wipe them clean? In fact, could I wipe them clean? As Catherine Hall has written in a recent article on the legacy of the slave trade and slavery, we ‘need to grasp a history that takes responsibility for the debt – moral, political and economic – owed to others, to give us a much stronger understanding of the benefits that we at the imperial centre have reaped.’ ‘Abolition of the slave trade, eh?’, as Martin Rowson asked in this satirical print on the 200th anniversary of the trade’s abolition in law.
(See here for printmaker James Gillray’s powerful printed response to the slave trade in 1791).
Iconoclasm and the performed body
What does it mean for an individual to use their own body in the production of their art, to explore and perform aspects of identity? Sebastian H-W’s performance, ASCULTA [Vision/Serpents] used his body, the senses and technology, as vehicles to explore the complexity of memory and personal and national identities. The performance was multi-sensory. Walking into the space, I was felt the heat from projector, an intense citrus smell, and was cocooned in sound from VHS home movies from (what I assumed to be) the artist’s childhood that were projected onto the wall. That’s if cocooned is the correct word – despite being invited to lie down on the floor with a pillow (suggesting comfort?) there was a sense of unease as Sebastian prowled around the space, seemingly unpredictably, in a white boiler suit in order to pick up one of the oranges which we had been instructed to bring into the space with his teeth and consume it.
In the 1820s in prints relating to Catholic emancipation such as A Sketch of the Row in Parliment [sic] Street (above), oranges were symbolic of the Protestant Orange Order (an association established in Ireland the late eighteenth century, its name referring to William of Orange and his defeat of Catholic King James II in 1690 Battle of the Boyne), and therefore used in the print as indicators of a specific civic and national identity, which was bound up with ideas about Protestantism: in the print, the oranges are being fought over. In Sebastian’s performance, oranges were symbolic of the artist’s native Mexico; with their rind painted green, they imitated those found in market places there.
It was interesting, then, that as the performance progressed, Sebastian periodically hummed the tune of Auld Lang Syne, which encouraged the audience to reflect on the associations with that tune (perhaps particularly about new beginnings). Recalling the line from Robert Burn’s 1788 poem ‘may old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind’ took on new meanings, especially as the artist destroyed VHS tapes at the same time by forcefully, relentlessly, hitting them against his elbow. The rhythm created was akin to a drum and, watching on, you witnessed the raw skin and thought about the pain associated with the action. It is possible to situate Sebastian’s work in relation to scholarly language around destruction of images. For the art historian Richard Clay, the term ‘sign transformation’ is used in order to analyse how the meaning of objects, the space occupied by them, and discussion of them, change as a result of material (in full or in part) destruction, making a new set of meanings.
‘Iconoclasm’ (the word deriving form the Greek words for image and breaking) had the potential to signal a radical break with the past. For example, the above print, A British battering-ram preparing the way for a popish bull made by Henry Heath and published by S.W. Fores on 10 May 1827, signals concerns regarding the transformation of the Anglican State if Catholic emancipation becomes law. Catholic religious figures are shown to be carrying out iconoclastic acts: they are attacking and toppling a statue of the King George IV (1762-1830) and attempting to break into an archaic church. Print viewers would have understood the suggestion constructed in the print that Catholic emancipation would lead to the reversal of Anglican iconoclasm against Catholic religious images which had happened on a wide scale during the Reformation (1532-4) and Civil War (1642-51).
‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’
The above quote from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind. Yet, what does it mean to destroy tangible, physical symbols of your own past and memories, in the way that Sebastian did in his performance? Indeed, what is the relationship between physical record and memory? In Roman antiquity, destruction of public sculpture, including erasure of inscriptions, was akin to an official memory sanction (known as damnatio memoriae); and more recently the artist Michael Landy RA (b. 1963) destroyed all of his possessions publicly in his work Break Down (2001) (viewable here)
Moreover, as the artist Pablo Picasso once stated, isn’t every act of creation at first an act of destruction? In the same way that a painter destroys-changes a blank canvas when applying paint, China Dethcrash’s seven minute untitled performance changed the meanings attached to the space we were in, as well as those meanings associated with the body. The audience entered the enclosed dark space which was simply lit, and witnessed China balanced, precariously in the corner on towering heels. There was a feeling of vulnerability and of being exposed and laid bare. Once the music – classical – began, the vulnerability was coupled with a frenetic, dynamic rawness of lyrical movement offering, seemingly, a fleeting insight of the internal made external and which was juxtaposed with the stillness and absorption of the audience. The performance made me reflect too, on changing attitudes to the body and bodily integrity historically. For example, in contrast to how we might think today about individual autonomy over our own bodies, for the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, has argued that the pre-modern body was ‘not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits’ (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Trans. Helene Iswolsky), Bloomington, 1984, 26). In early modern times, the body had collective ‘symbolic vocabularies’ and ‘elaborate bodily rituals, ceremonies, gestures and punishments were central to the display of power, respect or submission’ (Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London, London, 2007, 193). It has been argued that prints such as the ones above were expressions of this enduring carnival-like folk humour (which Bakhtin refers to as the carnivalesque). What did the body mean in China’s performance? Do we understand the performed body here on a conceptual level or material/physical level?
Performing knowledge, technology and the sublime
In the same way that the viewing experience of performance art can be individual, like Myah’s, or collective, like Albert, Sebastian’s and China’s, prints formed parts of collections and studied, meaning that viewing them was often a participatory culture of discussion and laughter among peers, which would have fed into political culture more broadly. But what role does the viewer play in live art performances? Does it matter who is doing the looking? In what ways are audience members complicit in inscribing events onto the body of the artist, and vice versa?
In Andy Howlett’s performance Dream 53: An Invocation the artist adopted a pseudo-conjurer role. Andy used props as well as a dream machine to create a surreal and mystical atmosphere from which to seemingly channel and narrate the plot of a surrealist film that had been originally produced in Birmingham and since neglected in historiography. Pointing to ‘the power of the flicker’, Andy’s performance played with the dramatic potential of light and darkness. This, along with language used to describe his actions such as the ‘resurrection’ of the film, and the channeled faith and participation of the audience, meant that there were religious undertones.
I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) which depicts an itinerant natural philosopher (whom we would today understand to be a scientist) performing an experiment on a bird in a bell jar by candlelight for an awe struck crowd. In Wright of Derby’s painting, the depicted audience, consisting of multiple generations, are witnessing the mysteries of the natural world in the demonstration on the role of oxygen in air and of breathing: the artist has depicted a moment where oxygen is being removed from the glass, the bird being almost at the point of death. Andy, like Wright of Derby, played with ideas of the sublime which, in the eighteenth century, was characterised by philosophers such as Edmund Burke in his treatise ‘Philosophical Enquiry’ (1757) as evoking an emotional response in the viewer, often of awe and wonder but also of fear. A range of responses are constructed in the painting by Wright of Derby (we could think here about how the responses are gendered), and we, the viewers of the painting, are being drawn in to the scene by the philosopher’s outward gaze. Andy performance similarly invited the audience to suspend disbelief, in an unusual, artificial experience which was dependent on the crowd’s participation and exploring the (recent) past. Therefore, Wright of Derby’s painting, like Andy’s performance, invited us to think about the overlaps with the performance of knowledge, entertainment and sensation.
What about the use of technology to perform identity and philosophical response to technological change? The Internet offers space to connect with a vast amount of information and talk about yourself and share and perform you identity but can this replace human conversation? Caitlin Griffith’s performance What is Socrates’ Phone Number? recreates the interaction between the artist and an artificial intelligence application called Cleverbot (http://www.cleverbot.com/). Sitting at a table across from the artist, I was invited to read from a script (authorship of which, on the front, is attributed to both the artist and Cleverbot), taking the lines of the ‘Unknown person’ generated by the AI bot. The Cleverbot website invites you to ‘chat with a bot about anything and everything’. Using algorithms to have these conversations, it draws upon, and reflects, online data from millions of human beings. As Caitlin and I discuss afterwards, in using the site, you are at once connecting with everyone who has used the internet and yet speaking to no-one. Yet, what made the performance so interesting is that, while it added a level of human interaction and setting, table and flowers promoted a sense of intimacy and trust, it was a constructed – largely scripted – experience. We might think back here to Bakhtin’s notion of the dialogical.
However, there was a stark honesty to Caitlin’s ad-libbed responses, and the way she delivered those responses was natural, conversational and obviously off-script. I found the experience as ‘Unknown person’ disorientating; at times I lost sight of whether the conversation (for, it did feel like a conversation, in large part due to Caitlin’s delivery and body language) was ‘real’ or scripted; whether how I felt were my emotions or merely me thinking about emotions that had been generated by the words given to me to read via Cleverbot. At times I was invited to give ad-libbed responses by the in-script direction ‘answer in your own words’, such as following shortly after this passage of dialogue.
‘What have you already told me?
‘That you can only speak back to me words that someone else has already said’
‘What would happen if you stopped doing that’
‘Maybe I would die…’
‘Or maybe you could what?’
‘I don’t know…’
‘Could you speak your own words?’
I found myself wondering whether to reply in relation to the script, to continue the narrative, to get into part, or whether I should speak truthfully and freely. It was a moment of doublethink.
The performance also made me reflect on the interplay of performed public and private identities. It made me think about what it meant to be acting, in what instances you chose to reveal information, and what you reveal. I was surprised by some of my responses and I suppose the question might be – did I believe myself? Certainly in the 1820s there was anxiety about public and private identities (especially of those in positions of power) and this was articulated in satirical prints by pointing to politicians like the Duke of Wellington (the Prime Minister from 1828-30) as being an ‘actor’ in multiple roles, therefore with questionable trust. This print, Actor of all work (by William Heath, published in London on 15 June 1829 by Thomas McLean), brings together many ways that Wellington had been represented in prints from the decade.
Analysing about these performances through the lens of my own research on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has drawn out some cross-cutting historical themes relating to food, multi-sensory experience, iconoclasm, laughter, the body, technology and performing identity, and the role of the audience in producing and understanding meaning from visual experiences.