Category Archives: Contemporary Art

AAG Dry Run: Miriam Burke, Pip Thornton and Simon Cook

17204138_10155050018541948_275600179_nOn a (finally slightly more spring-than-winter-like!) afternoon, the Landscape Surgery group gathered at Bedford Square to hear early versions of some of the papers being presented by group members at this year’s AAG Annual Meeting in Boston. We heard from Miriam Burke and Pip Thornton (pictured left), who delivered fascinating material; whilst Simon Cook, who was unfortunately unable to make the session, offered his apologies, but also had some fascinating material to share.

Miriam, Pip and Simon are also convening sessions at the AAG – below are both the summaries of their papers, and the description of the sessions they are convening.

 

Miriam Burke

Paper Title: Threads, ties and tangles: exploring the idea of ‘more than human’ social reproduction as a means to cultivate caring practices for the climate using participatory art practices

Abstract: In their ‘feminist project for belonging in the anthropocene’ Continue reading

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SoCo Artists: Showcase

SoCo Artists: Showcase

This is news of an exhibition which might be of interest to people interested in dialogues between visual art and geography, place and space.

I am an artist-member of Landscape Surgery, with a practice based in drawing. I’m also a member of ‘SoCo’, or South Coast Artists, a professional Hastings-based group. The society has produced a ‘Showcase’ exhibition of selected members’ work in which I am happy to be included – see here for details.

For some time now one strand of my work has been the visual exploration of ideas of self and community through the metaphor of dwelling, thinking of walls, windows, doors, passages, stairs, as built suggestions of mental barriers, mental openings, flights, traps, spaces which connect and those which separate. In this work I’m using a variety of materials such as earth, wax, silk and paper to investigate how such materialities inflect meaning in unexpected ways.

If anyone can get to the show that would be great! However, I’ll also be showing related work in London later in the year in Chelsea and Westminster Reference Library and in The Stone Space, Leyton. More news on those exhibitions nearer the time.

Helen Scalway

A Week in Leipzig: From censored punk portraits to Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets on Saturday afternoon, 18 April 2015

view from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

View from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

April 2015

April 2015

I had spent time over the Easter break with the family at my parents’ place in Eastern Frisia on the Dutch-German border (I am German, from the former West). My train ride to Leipzig took me on a journey from West to East starting at Emden via Oldenburg, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, and Halle, to Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic. Leipzig has been very visibly renovated since the ‘Wende’ in 1989, a term for the reunification that has crept into everyday use but is criticized by some as a flawed term in as much as it implies some form of restoration. For others that time of change is characterized as the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution).[i] This study trip afforded me insights into the city’s complex past beyond the recently gilded and contemporary glassy facades.

My doctoral research, provisionally entitled ‘Experimental Fields: Curating Art and Environment Projects in the Age of the Anthropocene’ considers the relationships between humans and the natural environment with particular attention to field and expeditionary practices, to the co-production of knowledge, and to re-enactment.

One of my case studies is the photographic album ‘Kohle unter Magdeborn’ (Coal beneath Magdeborn), 1976, by photographer Nguyen The Thuc (b. 1949 in Nam Dinh, Vietnam). During the time of the German Democratic Republic he documented the environmental and the social impacts of the intensifying coal mining in Espenhain, near Leipzig. The historic village of Magdeborn was only one of many swallowed up by the expanding open-pit brown coal mine, but seemed to have attracted the most attention. Its around 3500 inhabitants were decanted to nearby villages or the newly-built ‘Plattenbauten’, buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, on the outskirts of Leipzig. Thuc accompanied this process over a period of a few months, creating a unique documentation of the bulldozed buildings and the displaced life.

The Espenhain surface mine scored deeply into the landscape to unearth the crumbly brown coal between 1937 and 1994 and was closed after having extracted coal to depths of 60 to 100 m. The site was transformed into the Störmthaler See, which began to be flooded in 2003, creating a lake with a sailing and other leisure facilities. The re-cultivated area and its futuristic landscaping was photographed last year by Leipzig-based photographer Christiane Eisler. Both artists, Thuc and Eisler, were educated at the famous Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts or Hochschule for Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB), where they studied photography. My attention was drawn to the Magdeborn project by Thuc and the retake by Eisler through the exhibition ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’, curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker for the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, which marked 250 years of the school in 2014. The curatorial proposition was to show works by foreign students at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig as a much neglected chapter of international art in the GDR, with a special focus on photography. Interestingly these students often worked on themes that were not officially recognized or were subversive, selecting themes that were taboo in the GDR at the time.[ii]

You can see some works and exhibition installation shots here Freundschaftsantiqua

Thuc documented the people of Magdeborn. A lot of the inhabitants had small holdings, and Thuc recorded details of their everyday lives, their festivities, and their religious celebrations. His photographs became particularly poignant knowing that it was forbidden to talk about the process of ‘decanting’ and the problems of environmental transformation and of pollution. In fact, religious groups in particular started to draw attention to the toxic environments around Leipzig at the time, contributing to the dissidence that led to the change in the late 80s.

Eisler (called Schwenn at the time of her studies) has taken a long-term interest in documenting social environments of marginalized individuals under an oppressive regime and those affected by a changing society. Her portraits of East German punks of the 80s were considered undesirable and were censored. She contributed to the ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’ exhibition with her photographs of defunct sites of labour, the immigrant situation of Leipzig’s Eastern district and by revisiting the former Espenhain site, in whose depths lie the remains of the Magdeborner Heimat (homeland).

Through these photography projects I have started to explore a critique of a utopian societal and economic model. Thuc’s intercultural encounters within the ‘closed society’ of the GDR afford subtle and subversive observations of the dramatic changes in the industrial landscape and the effects on people. I am beginning to explore how Thuc’s transcultural perspective from the 1970s, and Eisler’s existing and commissioned photographs, were reframed through contemporary curating practices.

During my stay, I interviewed one of the exhibition curators, other artists who had photographed the changing landscape, and inhabitants of the extinguished Magdeborn. One day was spent driving and walking the outline of the 1-year old Störmthaler See, which was opened for public use last April. My site-visit started on the Grade 3 waste deposit that now covers part of the former mining site, from which vantage point I could oversee the lake. It was the hottest day of the week when I climbed this ashen mountain of waste.

The GDR in the 1980s was the world’s leading producer of brown coal. The Federal Republic of Germany still ranks among the most significant extractors of the remains of the carboniferous forest, and is engaged in mining sites from West to East. Despite the Energiewende (energy transition) and heavy investments in alternative energies, Germany still relies on coal, the more so since its stepping away from nuclear power following Fukushima. A layered model of an anthropogenic Earth would picture the gaping holes in the land left by coal extraction, a transformed society through energy generation, and an atmosphere laden with CO2 caused by burning coal. How do artists critically represent our hunger for energy? Can we afford to be sentimental about the loss of Heimat as the cost of the energy demands that underpin our standard of living? Does our understanding need the top of a waste heap from which to look down onto the moonscape of a surface pit or the turquoise mirror of a leisure lake?

On my last day in Leipzig I went to the motet in the protestant St. Thomas church, where Johann Sebastian Bach, was cantor. Every Saturday at 15h the motets are sublimely sung, this time with the world-famous St. Thomas boys’ choir. 70 years earlier to the day, the American troops had entered Leipzig in the last throes of the Second World War. Back home in London I had a heated debate with a German friend about which verb to use for the advancing and the retreating armies and the German population caught up in these battles. Were the Germans in Leipzig ‘liberated’ or were they simply ‘defeated’? The pastor speaking from the pulpit in the St. Thomas church related that the Americans were in Leipzig until 1 July 1945. When American troops withdrew as agreed with the Soviet Union, Leipzig was taken over by the Soviet army. During the time of the GDR the official story was that the Soviets had liberated Leipzig, thereby erasing 10 weeks of American rule from history.

I will use the research material gathered during an intense week to trace the layers of the living archive south of Leipzig. The photographic representations and the narratives evolving around these images are my primary sources. The artists’ works appeal to social justice in their portrayal of the individuals within the different states, which is something I will particularly draw out.

I am exploring landscape as a palimpsest of human interventions and the agency of nature. Artists’ representations of environmental change can draw on the fields of economy, science and technology, and culture. In my thesis research I study and trace these through a number of artists’ works including photographer Chrystel Lebas, installation artists Mark Dion and Hu Yun, and painter Daniel Boyd. Their explorations led them to the re-enactment of archives and to working in the field to create their art. The current debates around the geological age of the ‘Anthropocene’ serve as a framework to analyse and interpret these works afresh. I will look at the understanding of time in nature and humans and the complex role humans assume within nature by being passive observers and active agents.

Bergit Arends

2nd year PhD candidate in Geography and Drama, Reid scholar

I would like to thank the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography and the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London for the support of this study trip.


[i] Simon, A, (2014) ‘Wende? Revolution!’, Die Zeit Online, No. 44

[ii] ‘Freundschaftsantiqua. Ausländische Studierende an der Hochschule fὒr Grafik und Buchkunst – ein internationals Kapitel der Kunst in der DDR’ exhibition curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker at the Galerie fὓr Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 1.2.2014 to 1.6.2014, and accompanying Journal #2, issued by the HGB

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Last Breath: Exploration and Art Practice as Research

I’m Thomas, currently an MA Cultural Geography student at RHUL. Over the last months I initiated my first two ‘real’ academic adventures: a participation in UCL Urban Labs’ Cities Methodologies exhibition (showcasing innovative means of investigating the urban) and in the Reconfiguring Ruins research project (an AHRC-funded platform bringing together museums, academics and artists to reconsider our current understandings of material and immaterial ruins and the process of ruination). Apart from the disastrous technological breakdown minutes before the exhibition’s opening night (no surprises there), it proved to be an exciting experience to present a project I have been working on throughout 2013 and 2014, where the ‘traditional’ boundaries of the researcher were questioned and blurred into spheres of curation, art practice and film making.

Last Breath

Continue reading

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Wobbly Ground: Climate, chaos and creativity

I’m Miriam, and I’m an artist -turned geographer; along the way getting terrified and fascinated by climate change. This blog post is a summary of a presentation I gave summarising the research I have done in the first year of my PhD at RHUL…

I’m interested in the way that art can prompt and suggest ideas about the way that we interact with our natural world – especially in terms of the climate. The very idea of climate change is a really difficult one to relate to – in fact “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology”1, it’s big, it’s longterm, it’s horrifically negative and it’s a global problem; and joyfully, western populations are, for the most part, apathetic. People feel distant from the issue, there’s a focus on negativity and guilt and there’s an awful lot of media generated uncertainty and confusion. There are lots of studies – mostly from social psychology – which look at the barriers to people engaging with climate change, but I’m intrigued to find out the ways that people do in fact engage with the climate, in order to build on these.

I look at art and climate change, not as using art as an illustration of scientific facts, but as knowledge about climate change, and the lived experience of climate that can inform how we can instigate and cope with changes to come. I have been thinking about my own art practice in regard to the philosophy of Elizabeth Grosz, in order to understand the work that these imaginative forays into the idea of climate change do…. 

 “Albedo”

 Albedo

I’ll try to keep this snappy: Albedo, for those non-physical science types, refers to the reflectivity of a thing – usually a planet. So, a white or silver thing will have high albedo, as it is very reflective, and a black thing will have low albedo as it absorbs energy and radiation. In terms of climate change, the more areas of snow and ice there are, the more energy from the sun is reflected straight back out to space; rather than warming our atmosphere. As areas of sea and ice shrink, and give way to dark areas of open water or coniferous forest, these dark areas absorb more energy and the world warms.

My work, albedo, is an attempt to ‘cool’ the planet by making small wax casts of my fingertips, and placing them outside the gallery. In this work, there is a connection between familiar fleshy fingers, and the massive, and often incomprehensible forces that govern not only our climate, but the very universe itself. Elizabeth Grosz describes art as a means to ‘slow down chaos’, and I’m interested in the ways that these artworks can offer a space for pondering the connection that we – as bodily creatures – have with the world that we inhabit, that so often gets forgotten about in the business of day to day life…

“Drawing of a Piece of Chalk, Drawn with the Piece of Chalk, Until all that is Left of the Piece of Chalk, is the Drawing of the Piece of Chalk”

 TL572655

I hope the title of this work is relatively self explanatory. This is one of a series of drawings of pieces of chalk that I collected on walks in the south downs in Sussex. The idea for the drawings arose out of many, long conversations with the wonderful Dr. Peter G. Knight, glaciologist extraordinaire at Keele University (www.petergknight.com) – so I can’t take all the credit! Again, I take inspiration from Grosz’s writing, when she says that art can offer a means of connection across scales – and a way for us to relate to things that are ‘beyond relations’. This work is a way to explore the histories of the materials; for the chalk is composed of long dead sea creatures that swam in the warm tropical seas that covered Southern England in the late Cretaceous period. They have been subjected to geological processes of time and pressure, but also of climate change. This work observes and transforms the materials once more – again, with the help of my fleshy formed fingers – turns the piece of chalk into not an accurate representation of itself, but a prompt to enable us to think about the histories, stories and memories of changing climates that are contained within the material itself. 

“Preserved Snowballs”

 Stack

A few years ago, one January, I was at Liverpool Street underground station when a boy of about 9 or 10 came down onto the platform carrying a snowball. The station was hot and the snowball was beginning to drip. He looked at his snowball, looked a the display which told him the next eastbound train was 3 minutes away, looked back at his snowball and ran off, up the stairs.

Snowballs-1

This moment really stuck with me, and in response I learned how to ‘preserve’ snow on glass with superglue, and created these hanging ‘preserved snowballs’. I feel that this is something that we have all wanted to do at some point in our lives (I mean, who hasn’t seriously considered slyly popping a small snowball in the freezer?). But it also alludes to a sense of loss and melting ice on a global scale. But for me, there are 2 things going on in this work: one is the idea that we wish to preserve the world just as it is – but the world is changing faster than we can ‘preserve’ it, and indeed it is always changing, so perhaps, preservation is no longer an option for us. Instead, we need to come to terms with the scale of the loss all around us, and learn to cope with the changes to come. The second aspect of this work, which relates to the first is the idea of stories; stories help humans through difficult times, and it is in cultural reservoirs and memories of tales and stories which, perhaps will be exactly what we will need as the impacts of climate change really do start to to bite. 

Future research

This post has focussed (perhaps rather narcissistically I feel) on my own artwork. But my PhD research is about encouraging others to create their own stories, and images of climate change as a way to investigate what is important to ordinary people who (importantly) are not already engaged with the idea of climate change. At the moment, this involves a group of women on an estate in Hackney, many knitting needles, copious amounts of tea and a lovely young man called Richard at the London Wildlife Trust… Watch this space, and I’ll post something about this soon! 

  1. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2014/socialbrain/climate-change-experts-beginners/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rsaprojects+%28RSA+blogs%29

By Miriam Burke

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‘to Munich’

'to Munich'

Digital painting.
LeedsBradford Airport. 15 Jan 2013
Clare Booker (Ph.D. Candidate)

Cultural Geographers at the White Cube

Outside the White Cube, Bermondsey

Outside the White Cube, Bermondsey

On Friday, 7 December a group of MA Cultural Geographers, together with Creative Writers, PhD students and staff gathered at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey to visit the recently opened Antony Gormley Exhibition “Model”.

Thinking about questions of the body, affect, architecture and space the group examined the exhibition’s collection of working models from Gormley’s past and present work, as well as new and recently made sculptural works installed in the gallery’s central corridor.

The centre piece of the exhibition was the huge room-size installation “Model.” “Model,” rendered in 100 tonnes of weathered sheet-steel developed Gormley’s long running exploration of the human body and space in the form of an installation the audience can enter. Described as part sculpture-part building we entered ‘Model” through a ‘foot,’ walking and crawling through the interlinked spaces and feeling our way through the darkened chambers. Whilst many of us explored the space by way of feeling its edges or stepping blindly into the dark and hoping for the best, Giles extended his bodily capacities by using his umbrella as a prosthesis (!). Extending it up and to the side he felt for ceiling and walls, and used it to create vibrations and knocking against the walls, explored the spaces as echo chambers, using sound as a means to determine dimensions that could not be seen in the dark.

photo-33

After the exhibition, the group went for lunch, and then wandered along the embankment.

photo-39

Cultural Geographers at large in London

Geographers at the Shard

Geographers at the Shard

HH

Open sky

Clare Booker (Ph.D. candidate) presents a new painting over on her blog.

Time, Trade and Travel- from Accra to Amsterdam

Time, Trade and Travel is small but satisfying group exhibition currently being presented by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The project took shape through artists residencies conducted both in the Netherlands and in Ghana. The focus of the show was not so much on the colonial past, as on its legacy and persisting forms. The result was a series of works that interrogated the exchange and translation of material, visual patterns, ideologies and practices, (in sculpture, painting, installation and film). They were largely presented as fragmented and unique experiences rather than as monumental ones. Humorous and generous, not all mistranslation was framed as ‘failure’.

Problems of mobility seemed momentarily to have been eased by the lubricating power of contemporary art- until one looked closely at which of the artists were going to be giving talks or interviews within the events programme. The lack of Ghanaians featured on this list showed the frictions still in place. Perhaps these artists will speak when the show travels to the Nubuke Foundation in November? I hope to conduct fieldwork in Accra later in the year, it would be extremely interesting to see the exhibition in both locations.
Image 1 (above): My Lifetime (Malalaika), Katarina Zdjelar, 2012 (video still)

Image 2 (below) :  from a photographic series by Bernard Akoi-Jackson

Liz Haines, PhD Candidate