Author Archives: Naomi

Making the Space of There Not There

A week after the closure of ‘There Not There’, let us return full circle to the exhibition’s origins: a brief and a space – The Courtauld Gallery’s main exhibition room: 12 metres long, 7.5 metres wide and 4 metres high. The idea of   informed both the theme of the show and our work as curators. Artworks are physical objects and exhibitions are spatial experiences. This means that the physical and spatial characteristics of the room and the works it contains must be considered at all stages of the planning process.

 

The space shapes the exhibition: a single room calls for a focused show and requires that each work speak to all others. Placed next to the wall text, Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Hole in Snow’ and ‘Black (Soil Covered) Snowball’ (1979) illustrate the exhibition’s central idea: that presence and absence are not dissimilar. Monochromatic and geometric, these photographs find an echo in Christine Hatt’s drawing, ‘There Not There’ (1991), and in Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967). Together, they form a triangular anchor that articulates upholds the unity of the room, as they offer the clearest expression of the concept cryptically formulated as ‘There Not There’.

A scaled bird’s-eye view enables curators to think about the connections between the artworks in spatial terms.

 

While we did not want to impose a prescribed route (and indeed the artworks can be viewed in any order, since they all relate to each other), the placement of the wall text and of the central box that accommodates Runa Islam’s video work indicate a clear entrance and exit. The four walls provide a way of grouping artworks according to the themes they address: Tillmans and Ohiri both manipulate photographs to re-write reality; Tudela,   and  all express the bittersweet taste of decay and loss in an urban setting; Long and Hatt foreground the bodily traces of the creative process; and Michael Craig-Martin and Jasper Johns both take an introspective look at the transformation of personal identity. Disseminated throughout the room, the geometric works that form the Goldsworthy-Hatt-Long triad contribute to the exhibition’s emotional balance, providing respite from the heavy emotional charge of works such as Ohiri’s and Seawright’s.

 

Inside the room, another room houses Runa Islam’s  . This construction was necessary because, as a video, ‘Stare Out (Blink)’ is best viewed in a dark space. Enclosed in its own box, the work occupies a prominent position and de facto becomes the exhibitions’ centrepiece. And this status is one it deserves indeed, being the only work that enables viewers to see a presence when there is nothing there. While the size of the box was partly determined by the video projection requirements, we opted for a small structure to reinforce the confessional and confrontational character of the work.

 

 

The way the artworks are hung suggests a certain interpretation. Some artists give curators specific display requirements, some allow a degree of freedom, and some grant full curatorial license. For ‘Kid’s Stuff 1-7’ (1973), Michael Craig-Martin sets the rules, specifying a precise distance between each piece and height from the floor – the artist’s eye level. The mirrors are too high for many visitors to see themselves in them, but this conveys the self-centeredness of the work. Jasper Johns does not provide a specific order for hanging his four ‘Seasons’ prints (1984-91), so we chose to end on ‘Spring’ to emphasise the sense of renewal.

 

   

 

Faced with the twenty-two photographs that make up Karl Ohiri’s ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart’ (2013) and no instructions as to how to hang them, we settled on a compact, slightly jolted configuration that alludes to the domestic nature of these family pictures. By isolating the wedding photograph from the others, we indicated its separate status as the only unaltered image. In itself, the inclusion of Ohiri’s work in ‘There Not There’ makes for a gesture of hope and a blueprint for the future: that of ‘making space’ for emergent artists among canonical figures, such as Wolfgang Tillmans or Rachel Whiteread, in a gallery with its own prestigious history.

Camille Feidt

Further Reading

Brian O’Doherty, ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ (1976)

Carol Duncan, ‘Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums’ (1995)

Mary Anne Staniszewski, ‘The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art’ (1998)

Victoria Newhouse, ‘Art and the Power of Placement’ (2005)

Robert Storr, ‘Show and Tell’, in ‘What Makes a Great Exhibition?’, ed. Paula Marincola (2006), pp. 14-31

 

Out of Sight: Long and Goldsworthy

Out of Sight: Long and Goldsworthy

Gary Snyder, poet and ecological essayist, wrote that ‘the world is our consciousness and it surrounds us’ at a time when the destructive consequences of human activity were only just beginning to take shape in the natural landscape. Snyder’s words call for us to cultivate a relationship with nature that is founded on mutual resonance rather than resourcefulness. A desire to reconnect with the earth served as a key principle behind the 1960s and 1970s ‘Land Art’ movement, which advocated for a departure from the gallery space in favour of direct interaction and exchange with the material earth. Rather than portray what is already visible in a landscape through drawing and painting, Land artists explore the earth itself as it is transformed by the artist. In so doing, the land becomes the art object, rather than its depiction. Both Richard Long (b. 1945) and Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956) have steeped their artistic practices in the exploration of an artist-marked landscape. Interestingly enough, neither Long or Goldsworthy identify as Land Artists, instead resisting affiliation with any other artists or artistic groups. Their individualistic approaches to art-making result in deeply personal and yet universally accessible works.

Richard Long transforms the simple act of walking into a wider meditation on human presence in nature in ‘A Line Made By Walking’ (1967). In this work, Long chronicles an afternoon which he spent walking back and forth in a remote field, effectively inscribing a line into the earth with his repeated footsteps. The resulting photograph documents a moment in which human activity appears imprinted in the landscape. The symmetry of the scene imbues the moment with a sense of balance and harmony. Long’s work gives shape to Rebecca Solnit’s observation that ‘[w]alking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.’

 

By taking this photograph, Long acknowledges the challenge inherent in representing an experience that is fleeting and in many ways, incommunicable. Long defines a walk as ‘a spatial measurement of land on which a sculptural trace’ is left. By positioning his experience within the context of sculpture, Long bridges the gap between the expired act (his walk) and the present object (the photograph and text). Long’s photograph is a reminder of the now invisible trace of his interaction with the land, alerting us to our own transient existence and enduring memory. ‘A Line Made By Walking’ does not simply show a physical landscape, but alludes to the much more complex geography of human consciousness.

Goldsworthy’s interactions with the natural world are manifested in “natural” sculptures that range from petal-covered boulders to huts made from twigs. Like Long, Goldsworthy embraces the ephemeral nature of his works, stating, ‘[n]othing lasts. We all have to deal with loss. When I make something, in a field or street, it may vanish but it’s part of the history of those places.’ Goldsworthy documents his own process of making through photography, employing a similar tactic to Long to make it possible for his sculptures to persist beyond their natural lifespan. In works like ‘Hole in Snow’ (1979) and ‘Black (Snow-Covered) Snowball’ (1979), Goldsworthy presents materials that have been manipulated in a manner that highlights both their “naturalness” and “artificiality.” Each sculpture’s orderly patterns and immaculate presentation are clearly the result of an artistic intervention, and yet these objects do not appear completely out of place when photographed in their natural surroundings. Goldsworthy’s “arrangements” of materials found in nature form a new classification of organic beauty. In the process of making these works, Goldsworthy becomes a collaborator with the natural world.   

Although vastly individual in their views about both artist and landscape, both Long and Goldsworthy’s works capture the tension that exists between humans and the natural world. As much as we may long to achieve complete harmony, our human consciousness constantly prevents us from blending into the natural world. Any human interaction with the natural world results in a mark, even one as subtle and temporary as a footprint. In their respective works, Long and Goldsworthy show their “marks” but exclude their physical bodies from the composition. A human presence lingers in each photograph, but the artists are nowhere to be found. Through their works, Long and Goldsworthy encourage us to consider the natural world and our place in it. 

Laura House 

Quotes Obtained From:

Gary Snyder, ‘The Practice of the Wild’ (2003).

Rebecca Solnit, ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’ (2001).

Maddocks, ‘Andy Goldsworthy: Lying down in Times Square in the rain is bound to attract attention,’ in ‘The Guardian’. 17 August 2014. <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/17/andy-goldsworthy-interview-folkestone-triennial-times-square-rain>.

 

Perspectives on Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series

The View From: Perspectives on Paul Seawright’s ‘Sectarian Murder’ series.

 

Paul Seawright’s ‘Sectarian Murder’ series holds a pivotal place in ‘There Not There’. It is undoubtedly an emotional climax of the show, a point around which what has preceded, it and what proceeds it, gravitates. It is the sublime beauty of the images, contrasted with the brutality of the text, that gives the works its emotional sway, as does knowing how recently these devastating events took place, and the lasting impact of them. The influence of the work has certainly been far-reaching, having been displayed in over twenty countries since it was created in 1988.

 

As part of ‘There Not There’, four photographs from the series are presented in the context of disappearance, the impact of absence and presence on people and the world they inhabit.

 

The sublime nature of the photographs and their particular, unsettling quality comes principally from Seawright’s subversion of the photographic medium as a form of documentary. In preparing for and creating this series, Seawright spent long periods of times at each of the sites, in some instances re-creating the steps of the victims. This intimacy with the events certainly comes across in the variety of ways in which he has chosen to depict the scenes of the crimes. A closer look at the perspectives presented in the series of fourteen photographs shows the variety of human perspectives which Seawright has played with in order to create such an emotive and impactful series. In some it is from the perspective that the victim would have seen the scene, in others, a bystander, and still more difficult in others, that of the perpetrator.

This play on various view-points is particularly hard-hitting in ‘Tuesday, 3rd April, 1972′, where the site of the murder is documented from atop a slide. Accompanying this is the text: ‘Last night a 28 year old man disappeared from a pub. It wasn’t until this morning that his body was found abandoned in a quiet park on the coast.’  The perspective from which this quiet park is captured, as if from that of a child looking out to the sea, clashes impactfully with the text which accompanies it. The angle from which we see the scene, as if from that of a bystander, and likely a child, emphasises its simplicity, its banality, whilst never allowing us to forget the brutality that occurred there.  

 

Seawright depicts a further mix of perspectives in ‘Tuesday, 4th December, 1972′, the text of which reads: ‘The sixteen year old youth was standing at the corner of Dandy Street talking, when a motorcycle with two youths on it drove by. The pillion passenger was carrying a Sterling sub-machine gun and opened fire on the group. The boy fell dying in a hail of bullets.’ We observe the scene as if standing, therefore we could be the victim, witnessing the motorcycle passing by, about to be shot; we could be the persecutor, standing over the scene after the fact, or we could be a bystander, looking on. The inclusion of a motorcycle in the scene creates a chilling immediacy to what is before us, a reminder of the innocuousness of the site, the ordinariness of those who were killed, and the devastation of it all. 

 

In removing the religious affiliations from the text, and waiting time enough that they were forgotten, Seawright emphasises the human nature and tragedy of the events of the Troubles, and in presenting them in his own simultaneously beautiful and disturbing way, does his part in ensuring they never disappear from our memories.

Emma Batchelor

 

 

The End of Time

As the only painting and the largest work in the show, George Shaw’s ‘The End of Time’ (2008-9) is hard to miss: it confronts you as you enter the space. If the barren patch of land seems ordinary at first, it reveals itself as a poignant reflection on the effects of time on our lives. Shaw has spent the best part of his 30-year career meticulously painting various areas of Tile Hill, the post-war council estate in Coventry where he was raised. Each painting, painstakingly created with tiny pots of Humbrol enamel, offers a glimpse into the architecture and urban landscape of a specific moment in British history, as well as into Shaw’s life growing up there. To most outside Tile Hill, the disappearance of the ‘Woodsman’ pub depicted in ‘The End of Time’, would have gone unnoticed. Yet to Shaw, this pub was a major part of his life. The pub — previously called ‘The New Star’ — was his mother’s workplace and his father’s occasional haunt.

 

That Shaw has chosen to depict this site three times over the course of ten years is telling of the affection he has always held for it. In its earliest iteration, ‘Scenes from the Passion: The New Star’ (1998), the pub is still intact; it is burnt in ‘Scenes from the Passion: The New Star’ (2002); and finally demolished in ‘The End of Time’. Interestingly, the increase in scale of each painting runs counter to the gradual disappearance of the pub: the less visible the building, the larger its depiction. The photorealist quality of the most recent version, accentuated by its position between the photographs of landscapes by Armando Andrade Tudela and Paul Seawright, foregrounds the subject matter as an actual place. Yet the closer you get to the work, the more abstract it becomes. The bleak shades of greens, greys and browns, combined with the glossy sheen of the enamel paint, afford the work a hazy, dream-like quality. The empty patchwork of concrete and grass is eerily quiet and takes on an air of the sublime. All that remains of the pub are Shaw’s memories, now embodied in this painting rather than in the physical place of their origin. In this sense, this painting both pays homage to a significant place and time in his life, and serves as a symbolic substitute for its subject matter. To take in Shaw’s work completely requires standing away from it and experiencing it as an atmosphere. Its large format belies its profoundly intimate and nostalgic meaning.

Margot Mottaz

This blog post has been adapted and republished from the exhibition booklet, available for free at The Courtauld Gallery.

Touring the Unseen

Overlooked Places and People in Art and the City

In a city like London where locals and tourists alike adopt a non-stop, frantic pace of life, it is no surprise that sometimes things are overlooked, missed by a city of individuals without time to pause. Whether an underappreciated architectural feature on the upper storey of a building, a newly-opened cafe by the tube on our daily commute, or a rough sleeper shivering in a doorway, so many aspects of our supposedly familiar city are missed and neglected on a daily basis. As part of our exhibition ‘There Not There’, we have teamed up with Unseen Walking Tours to hold an event that offers an opportunity to uncover the hidden stories of people and places, both through the artworks in our exhibition and through stories from the streets around The Courtauld Gallery

 

The theme of overlooked places and spaces is key to our exhibition ‘There Not There’. Many works in the show deal with the unseen, shining a new light on elements of our daily experience that we may not realise are there, and are meaningful and important. These works challenge our preconceptions and encourage us to reconsider our perspective, offering an alternative way of looking at the world.

 

The first works in the show, Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Hole in Snow’ and ‘Black (Soil Covered) Snowball’, do just this. These two photographs are visually very similar: in each, a dark circle dominates a white background. The titles of the works however indicate that the focal points of the photographs are in fact opposites; one is a hole – an absence – whilst the other is a snowball – a presence. In this way, Goldsworthy suggests that absence and presence are much closer concepts than we might initially presume; the hole in the snow is no longer merely an empty void, but assumes a latent presence of its own, visual and metaphysical, becoming the centrepiece of the photograph and commanding attention. The artist causes us to change our focus from what we believe to what we see, revealing that our preconceived notion of a hole as representing an absence, devoid of all existence, is not entirely correct. Sometimes we must refocus our attention to what is in front of us to see what carries importance and truth.

 

Similarly, Armando Andrade Tudela’s ‘Billboard’ series inspires reflection upon parts of the urban landscape that we encounter on a daily basis, but never truly consider. The imposing and derelict billboards that form the subject of Tudela’s photographs are common sights along the highway near the artist’s hometown in Peru. Yet they are rarely noticed, having become so integral to the landscape that they seem invisible to locals. By depicting them as the sole focus of these artworks, Tudela makes us look again, bestowing these towering and obsolete structures with authority and beauty. The photographs cast the billboards as monuments to the failed hopes of Western consumerism and commercialism, no longer displaying the bright advertisements for material goods once emblazoned across their front.

 

George Shaw’s ‘The End of Time’ also demonstrates how places that seem unremarkable or devoid of meaning in fact possess rich histories of their own, often being the source of powerful memories and experiences for individuals and communities. This vast painting shows a plot of land, empty and uninspiring. A pub used to stand on this site, the pub that Shaw’s father frequented when the artist was a child and where his mother occasionally worked. The pub subsequently burnt down, leaving a mere skeleton of a building standing in its place. As Shaw grew older, he passed this burnt-out shell whenever he was visiting his sick mother. Eventually, the council demolished what was left of the ruins of the pub, leaving the patchwork plot of land that Shaw captures in his work. With this story, the painting and its subject immediately take on multiple new layers of meaning, revealing the significance of the place to the artist’s memory and identity, as well as causing us to think about the stories behind familiar and fond places that we have lost in our lifetimes.

 

Stories are what give meaning to places, stories are what connect us to each other. But without looking for them, without listening to the voices that tell them, these stories can so easily pass us by. On Saturday 7 July, we are holding a walking tour of the area surrounding The Courtauld Gallery and this tour is all about bringing such stories to life (for tickets and more information, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/unseen-london-walking-tour-tickets-46711642781). This event is in partnership with Unseen Walking Tours and led by the wonderful Viv, our guide who shares entertaining and illuminating tales about famous and familiar places on Embankment, Strand and around Covent Garden. What sets this tour apart is that every guide working for Unseen Walking Tours has experienced life on the streets, meaning that at some stage in their lives they have been homeless.

 

For many years, Viv herself made her home at various spots along the tour route, including in Temple Gardens, below Waterloo Bridge, and down the steps of the Transport Museum. Hearing her stories causes us to look again at these places and people that we pass unknowingly every day, just as Tudela’s photographs do for the billboards. Viv and Tudela both make us reconsider how we view our surroundings, what we see around us, but most importantly what we don’t see. The walking tour uncovers layers of the streets we thought we knew so well, shining a light on the forgotten corners and unseen spaces. More importantly though, Viv’s inspiring and honest reflection upon her experiences of this bustling, vibrant area of London gives voice to a neglected part of society: those living on the streets without a home to go back to, those who more often than not, we choose not to see. Like many of the artworks in our show, Viv’s tour makes us think again about supposedly familiar places, offering an opportunity to reassess our perspectives and really pay attention to what is right in front of our eyes.

 

If you would like to hear Viv’s stories for yourself and hear more tales behind the artworks in ‘There Not There’, please join us on Saturday 7 July, 1.30-4pm for a curator-led tour of the exhibition followed by the walking tour with Unseen Walking Tours. For more information about Unseen Walking Tours, visit http://sockmobevents.org.uk/.

 

Helen Record

Runa Islam and the Art of the Afterimage

As you enter ‘There Not There’ you will immediately notice the exhibition’s centrepiece: a smaller room containing Runa Islam’s captivating video, ‘Stare Out (Blink)’. In this 16 mm film, we are confronted with the negative of a woman’s face staring out at us. Before we know it, the film cuts to a blank screen – yet, we continue to see a dark outline of her face. How is this optical illusion achieved? And more importantly, how does this shape our experience of Runa Islam’s work?

Images that persist after they have disappeared are known as ‘negative afterimages’. The human eye is made up of numerous photoreceptors, which are cells that convert light into neurological signals. Negative afterimages are caused when these photoreceptors adapt to overstimulation. Usually, when viewing multiple images, the eye will make small movements known as ‘microsaccades’. This ensures that no photoreceptor cell is over stimulated at any given time. However, if the eye remains too steady, these small movements are not enough.

 

In ‘Stare Out (Blink)’, Runa Islam encourages us to stare at the arresting gaze of the stranger’s face before us. This means that when the screen unexpectedly turns blank, our eyes are slow in making the ‘microsaccades’ necessary to process the new image. On top of this, our eyes view afterimages in an antagonistic manner. According to Ewald Hering, the eye processes colour through three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow and black versus white. Therefore, a green image will produce a magenta afterimage and so on. Hence, even after Islam’s negative of woman’s face is gone, we see it linger before us as a black afterimage upon the white screen.

 

 

Runa Islam’s work has developed out of her interest in the methods of filmmaking: in particular the illusionary nature of the medium. She often uses film to question the ways in which new technologies mediate how we see the world.  Adopting diverse methods in the presentation of her work, Islam disrupts, alters and enhances visual perceptions. In ‘Stare Out (Blink)’, Islam uses technology to outsmart the most evolutionary advanced computer: the human brain. In creating an optical illusion – the afterimage – Islam draws our attention to the phenomenal capabilities of the human brain in recognizing, interpreting and processing visual signals on a daily basis.

 

In ‘There Not There’, Islam’s piece encapsulates the over-arching concept of the exhibition. In displaying a form of active disappearance that nonetheless persists in the mind, her work epitomises the ambiguous space between being ‘there’ and ‘not there.’ Viewed in a darkened space at eye-level, this work is truly a must-see when visiting the exhibition.

Hannah Marynissen

 

Further reading:

 

Bender, Feldman and Sobin: ‘Palinopsia’ in ‘Brain: A Journal of Neurology’, 1968.

Kamitani, Nishida and Shimojo, ‘Afterimage of Perceptually Filled-in Surface’ in ‘Science’, 2001.

 

Far from Black and White

The Importance of colour in There Not There

The ideas that underpin our exhibition There Not There are far from black and white. Were I to ascribe them a specific colour, it might be Terre de Bohême, the name of the light blue grey colour, which we chose to paint the walls of our exhibition space. The space between absence and presence, which we explore in our show, is undoubtedly a grey area.

When we first started thinking about how our class of twelve student curators would go about organising this show I did not realise how powerful and important colour would be to our concept.

From a practical curatorial standpoint, colour was very important to our show. We had art works by twelve different artists in different media, ranging from photography, works on paper to a 16mm black and white film. All of these works had to be placed in one room with one colour on the walls – a task easier said than done. It became apparent that after selecting the works for a show, choosing a wall colour is one of the most difficult challenges a curator faces; it can make the artworks sing or it can leave them struggling to make their voices heard, drowned out or deadened by the wrong choice of paint.

With Terre de Bohême out of the paint tins and onto the walls, it became abundantly clear how important colour would be in this show. The works began to resonate with each other more than I had ever expected, with colour creating connections between works, which I hadn’t necessarily noticed before. The relationship between Armando Andrade Tudela’s dilapidated Billboards and George Shaw’s The End of Time was made even more obvious by their shared blue tones and the tiny yellow flowers in Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series chimed beautifully with the yellow parking line around Shaw’s demolished pub.

Colour in this exhibition helps to bring the unseen to the fore. Whiteread’s decision to cast her found objects in light blue and azure resin and plaster turn the inside on mundane objects, in this case two postal tubes and a rectangular box, into jewel-like treasures. The sculpture seems to sparkle and shimmer in the light, drawing our attention to objects, which we normally overlook in our day-to-day lives.

The sense of wonder and mystery created by colour can also be seen in the Tillmans photograph behind the Whiteread vitrine. The sky in Gedser contains the same rich blue as Whiteread’s sculpture and the digital manipulation that has obscured the figure in the background adds the same shimmering quality to the photograph. Both artists use colour to show the elusive quality that exists between there and not there.

The colours present in our exhibition help to confirm the idea that absence and presence are not mutually exclusive concepts. In Christine Hatt’s work, from which the title of our exhibition is taken, it might appear at first glance that the artists sees these ideas as black and white, represented by a black rectangle sitting on a white background. But take a closer look at the black rectangle and you will see that it is neither purely black nor opaque. The rectangle is built up of layers of orange crayon, black crayon and grey graphite pencil, which intermingle to create a richly coloured and textured shape. What at first seems familiar and easy to grasp is in fact more complex and intangible.

Flashes of colour highlight the complex emotions which many of this exhibition’s artworks explore. The subject matter of many of the works in this exhibition is serious. The works deal with a number of issues such as abusive relationships, urban deterioration, violence and murder. At first glance, the content and palette of this exhibition is dark. Tudela’s Billboard series documents deteriorated billboards along the highways of Peru. The economic problems in South America are made clear by these former symbols of North American investment now laid bare. However, look at the Billboards another way and they become large abstract oil paintings, sprung out on nothing on the dusty roadside. Tudela shows that art and beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places. The ideas of There and Not There are two ends of a spectrum which is filled with a wealth of colour and possibility.

Jane Stella Simpkiss

Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

An Interview with Dr Barnaby Wright, Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at The Courtauld Gallery

‘There Not There’ came about in response to a brief that links the exhibition to the forthcoming major renovation project of The Courtauld, called Courtauld Connects. The themes of the exhibition – disappearance, absence and transformation – relate closely to the processes that are about to take place at our very own Courtauld. From September, The Gallery will be closed for two years while these building works take place. To get an insider’s view on Courtauld Connects and what it means for curators and public alike, we asked Dr Barnaby Wright, Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at The Courtauld Gallery, to share with us his personal involvement with the project.

 

What is going to happen to the artworks in The Courtauld Gallery during Courtauld Connects? Will the artworks disappear entirely from view or will the public still be able to see them on display elsewhere?

When I tell people that The Courtauld Gallery is closing for a major refurbishment, their first question is: ‘For how long will my favourite pictures disappear?’ It is certainly true that the pictures will disappear from our galleries in Somerset House but we have been working hard to have them reappear in interesting new places during the period of closure. For example, we have embarked upon a whole series of partnerships with museums across the UK to show works in places they have never been before. We will also lend works internationally. The hope is that by doing so we can reveal parts of the collection to audiences who have never seen it before.

Dr Barnaby Wright during the installation of ‘There Not There’. George Shaw, ‘The End of Time’, 2008-9 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © George Shaw

 

How did you decide where individual artworks would go during Courtauld Connects? Does the closure offer an opportunity to shine a light on lesser-known works, perhaps currently in storage?

Our most famous paintings are in high demand. The idea of taking them away from the public eye and into storage for a long period is out of the question. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for example, is part of the cultural landscape. Such works have been a priority to keep on display and there is no shortage of places that would love to show them.

We also hope to take the opportunity to use our partnerships to highlight works that are less well-known, for example our huge and impressive Prometheus Triptych by Oskar Kokoschka. This work has not been on display for many years but a request for it to join a major exhibition in Zurich has happily turned into a loan for the whole closure period. In other cases, we will use the closure to conserve certain works such as our Botticelli altarpiece, so that they can be seen in a completely new light when the gallery reopens.

People talk about the closure of an institution as ‘going dark’. We’ve gone to great efforts to keep the lights on as much as possible. And talking of lights, one of the outcomes of the refurbishment project is to relight the whole gallery so that everything will be revealed afresh.

 

What does moving artworks involve in practical terms? How long ago did you start preparing for the move?

We’ve been working on this project already for several years. Decanting the whole collection takes enormous preparation. Everybody is closely involved, particularly our registrars, conservators, and art handlers. Each artwork has to be carefully condition checked, packed and accounted for at every step of the way to its temporary new home, be that another museum or an off-site storage facility. We need to know where an object is at all times: it is easy to lose track, as maybe forty or fifty works are being carried and wheeled away during any given session. I had a heart-stopping moment recently when I thought a work had disappeared on my watch, only to discover a short time later that it had been packed together with another work in a single crate!

 

Since our exhibition contains many works that deal with the emotional consequences of loss and change, we would like to explore the move from a more personal angle. Beyond the practical implications of the project, how has Courtauld Connects affected you thus far on a more emotional level?

It is always rather moving to see how carefully the works are handled – treated like newborns and carefully swaddled in wrappings. It reminds you how precious and vulnerable works of art are – an enduring and timeless image like Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with a Bandaged really only survives as pigment clinging onto a thin canvas. It reminds us that our first duty as custodians of a great collection is to care and protect. And when those works are removed from their grand settings within a gallery and are put on a table or easel, or even taken out of their frames, their vulnerability and physicality is truly revealed. It changes your relationship with them somewhat. You see them differently.

 

As you prepared for the move, did you rediscover any works in the Courtauld Collection?

I was particularly pleased to be reunited with an old friend during this process, Kokoschka’s Prometheus Triptych, that I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t seen this monumental work for about ten years since mounting an exhibition devoted to it. It was great to be reminded of what a knock-out painting it is. This immediately made me feel guilty because it has been off display for so long – its enormous size makes it very difficult to show in our spaces. I felt doubly guilty because I recently reread Kokoschka’s letters – in them, he writes that he fears nobody will understand the painting and it will end up ‘in an attic’! I hope that now that it has been rediscovered, we will find ways of preventing it from disappearing again!

Interview by Camille Feidt and Helen Record

 

Further Reading:

Please find more information on the Courtauld Connects Project, the History of the Courtauld and our exhibition in the Learning Resource, available at the reception desk in the gallery or online

Exhibition Oskar Kokoschka: The Prometheus Triptych (29 June to 17 September 2007)

 

Title Image: Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Triptych – Apocalypse, 1950 (January to July), The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London/DACS 2003
 

 

Thoughts on Curating ‘There Not There’

These days you hear the word curator all over the place. From people curating their Instagram feed to their vintage sneaker collection, it seems like everyone can be a curator – but what does it actually mean? In the traditional sense the word curator comes from the Latin word ‘curare’ meaning to care for or to take care of. In this way a curator is a person that cares for something, such as a collection of a museum. Today curating as a profession takes on a broader meaning. It not only involves preserving the heritage of art, it can also mean selecting, arranging and displaying objects, connecting them to art history. As a key concept both in and outside the art world, in the past few years the remit of what a curator does seems to change with each new exhibition or biennale, taking on a variety of meanings and definitions. We, as students of the MA ‘Curating the Art Museum’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art, are just beginning to find our way in what it means to be and become a curator. This is the first part of our journey.

Every year the MA group is asked to develop an exhibition to a specific brief as culmination of the programme. While previous years have been invited to respond to a current exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery, our journey in curating this year’s show begins with two words: ‘Making Space,’ in relation to the impending renovation of the Courtauld Institute of Art and Gallery. As part of the ‘Courtauld Connects‘ project, The Courtauld Gallery will close for two years making our show the last one to be staged in the familiar gallery space.

From quite literal interpretations – taking an artwork down every week over the course of the exhibition until the space is empty – to more conceptual ideas, such as the investigation into the specific nature and viewing conditions of a gallery space, the possibilities of this brief seemed endless, as was the range of works available to us. For this project, we were invited to draw from two large and distinct collections: The Courtauld and the Arts Council Collection. The Courtauld Collection spans from the early Renaissance to the 20th century and is famous for its Impressionist works such as Edouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ or Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’. The Arts Council Collection was founded in 1946 and is a national loan collection of modern and contemporary British art. As a ‘collection without walls’ it has no permanent gallery space, instead the collection is widely circulated and lends to museums and galleries across the UK and internationally, as well as to public buildings – and to us.

Bringing together works from these collections we settled on a theme that marks this transitional moment in the history of the Courtauld – when the ‘old’ Courtauld Gallery is physically ‘making space’ for the new. Our exhibition ‘There Not There’ explores the concepts of transformation, disappearance, absence and presence through and in the works of twelve contemporary artists, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul Seawright, Jasper Johns and Richard Long. Although previous MA groups have often chosen to stage trans-historical shows, juxtaposing contemporary and historic works, we were drawn to the works of living artists.

Between us, we had to form a consensus on conceptual decisions, such as hanging the works, enabling conversation in connecting them to each other, or creating interpretive material. We agreed upon practical questions, such as the colour of the walls and the typography of our writing. Making a decision in a group of twelve creative individuals with wide-ranging ideas was not always easy and often we had to find a democratic solution to conflicting opinions. As curators, we also had to deal with the practical implications of disappearance during the process of organising an exhibition in the short period of six months. Sometimes a work we wished to include would become unavailable as it was already on loan or had to undergo conservation. As a result, the disappearance of some works made space for new works to come in, which transformed and shaped our exhibition into becoming ‘There Not There’.

Marie-Kathrin Blanck

 

Further Reading:

Hans Ulrich Obrist: ‘Ways of Curating’, London 2014.

‘The new curator : researcher, commissioner, keeper, interpreter, producer, collaborator’, ed. by Natasha Hoare, Coline Milliard, Rafal Niemojewski, Ben Borthwick and Jonathan Watkins, London 2016.

 

Title Image: Head of MA Curating the Art Museum programme, Martin Caiger-Smith observes Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Gedser’ 2004. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Wolfgang Tillmans