As a frustrated writer, or, rather, as someone who is disenchanted with the business of publishing and of ending up not reaching an audience, I have come to embrace exhibition curating as an alternative to churning out words for pages rarely turned. I teach curating for the same reason.
Staging an exhibition reminds students of the purpose of research and writing as an act of communication. Seeing an audience in walking into the gallery – or knowing that anyone could stop by and find their research on display – is motivating students to value their studies differently.
As someone who teaches art history, and landscape art in particular, to students whose degree is in art practice, curating also enables me to bridge what they experience as a gap or disconnect between practice and so-called theory, between their lives as artist and art history at large.
It also gives me a chance to make what I do and who I am feel more connected.
Angus McBean’s personal album of travel photographs featuring McBean and his gay companions (1966)
In my latest interactive and evolving exhibition, Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies (on show at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, Wales until 8 February 2019), I bring together landscape paintings, ceramics, fine art prints, travel posters and luggage labels, which are displayed alongside personal photographs, both by a famous photographer (Angus McBean) and by myself.
Here is how I tried to describe the display of those never before publicly displayed images from my personal photo albums:
Plinth display of NYC, Travelling Through Me (1985 – 2018), digital and digitised photographs
Before the age of digital photography, smart phones and social media, snapshots were generally reserved for special occasions. Travelling was such an occasion.
For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city. All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark. The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures. Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.
Lost New York City landmarks: Twin Towers and Gay Pier, 1987
Back in the 1980s, New York was not the glamorous metropolis I expected to find as a tourist. My early photographs reflect this experience. Most are generic views of the cityscape. Others show that I tentatively developed an alternative vision I now call ‘gothic.’ Yet unlike Rigby Graham, whose responses to landscape are displayed elsewhere in this gallery, I could never quite resist the sights so obviously signposted as attractions.
Like the personal photo album of the queer Welsh-born photographer Angus McBean, also on show in this exhibition, these pages were not produced with public display in mind. McBean’s album was made at a time when homosexuality was criminalised. It is a private record of his identity as a gay man.
I came out during my first visit to New York. The comparative freedom I enjoyed and the liberation I experienced were curtailed by anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis. Being away from home can be an opportunity to explore our true selves. Travelling back with that knowledge can be long and challenging journey. Harry Heuser, exhibition curator
Pennant Tour of Wales featuring illustrations by Rigby Graham, with one of my photo albums and a collage of luggage labels beneath it
Montague, a stout, furry Jack Russell terrier, developed a cancerous growth in his snout and the last few weeks were (mostly) painful for him; he quickly lost his eyesight, his hearing, and his sense of smell, even though, until the very last day, he still ate with relish as much as he could swallow with ease.
I stroked the sedated dog in his basket as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection; his heart was so strong that it required two injections to put an end to his suffering. It even made me doubt, momentarily, whether he could not have pulled through after all.
I had never experienced dying before; that is saying a lot, considering that, in my youth, I worked in a hospital for twenty months and have been around since then for decades.
Adopted and at first reserved, Montague was the only dog ever to live with me. Given his past, shadowy though it is to me, he was cautious and not overly attached to anyone in particular; so it would not be right to call him ‘my’ first dog. He let my husband, me – and friends and relatives – take care of him as he saw fit; and I was glad of it.
I had to go to work after the veterinarian appointment. It was a gloomy Saturday, the day that Storm Callum caused the worst flooding in Wales in thirty years. When I walked to the School of Art, where I work, I heard organ music play in a nearby chapel. I do not recall having heard music coming out of that place before, at least not in my presence, atheist that I am. It felt like something out of Victorian melodrama; not that I, being late as usual, had time to dwell on the peculiar aptness of the music as a soundtrack for the moment.
On the previous day, my latest exhibition, “Travelling Through,” opened at the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University. The wistful, melancholy title has added meaning on this day of loss.
I am prone to sentimentality; but, in this age of meanness, discord and accelerating indifference, I am glad to be feeling sorrow – though some may sneer that I simply feel sorry for myself – along with the need to let it be known; not in the hope of letting it dissipate but of making it resonate.
Farewell, Montague. Little though I know, you taught me a lot.
Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.” The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program. What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.
As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators. This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:
‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.
This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.
Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.
Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.
Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’
The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.
Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).
Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design). Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf
I am grateful for second chances. Following on from the 2017 Royal Academy exhibition “Second Nature,” which Robert Meyrick and I prepared in conjunction with the publication of our catalogue raisonné of Charles Tunnicliffe’s prints, I created a new show exploring the painter-printmaker’s career. “‘To hell with nature!’: A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints” is on display at the School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University, in Wales, until 12 March 2018.
Poster design by Neil Holland, showing a detail of Tunnicliffe’s The Stuck Pig (1925)
The new show has been curated to highlight four phases of Tunnicliffe’s printmaking career: his student days, in which work on the family farm became the subject of his autobiographical prints; his success as a maker of fine art prints; his second career as an illustrator and commercial artist after the collapse of the print market in the early 1930s; and his ‘decorative’ works featuring birds to whose study he devoted much time after he moved to Anglesey in North Wales. Charles Tunnicliffe (1901–1979) grew up and worked on a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after his studies, he gained a reputation and a market in Britain and the United States as an etcher of farming subjects. In 1929, Tunnicliffe married a fellow art student, Winifred Wonnacott. The couple settled in Macclesfield. Although Tunnicliffe enjoyed the theatre and the movies, as his diaries tell us, London never featured in his fine art prints. In middle age, not long after the end of the Second World War, Charles and Winifred Tunnicliffe relocated to Anglesey, where Tunnicliffe became an avid birdwatcher. Today, Tunnicliffe is closely associated with his study of birds and is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist. Towards the end of a career spanning six decades, Tunnicliffe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It may seem somewhat incongruous that, in an interview published in the Society’s magazine, Tunnicliffe stated:
‘I have shocked quite a lot of people by saying ‘To hell with nature!’ Nature is made to be used, not to be dictator, as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’
I used this exclamation as the starting point for my exploration of Tunnicliffe’s career. To me, it expresses the frustration of an artist whose pictures are often judged on the strength of their fidelity to nature. Instead, Tunnicliffe’s prints show us nature transformed by culture and outdone by art. They demonstrate their maker’s knowledge of art history, his love of design, and the need to tell his own story. It was printmaking that earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, however, he rarely produced fine art prints. For decades, Tunnicliffe’s work in various media appeared in magazines, on calendars and biscuit tins. The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career. Turning from etching to wood engraving, he became a prolific illustrator. His first project was Tarka the Otter. Anglesey was no retreat for Tunnicliffe. Working on commission, he created colourful paintings he described as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ He also continued to turn out mass-reproduced designs that promoted anything from pesticides to the Midland Bank. The messages these images conveyed were never the artist’s own. Since the mid-1930s, Tunnicliffe’s work has been appreciated mainly second-hand. Until last year, when Robert Meyrick and I put together a catalogue raisonné of his etchings and wood engravings, Tunnicliffe never had a printmaking exhibition at the Royal Academy. For some of his early prints, we were unable to trace contemporary impressions. The plates, which Tunnicliffe retained, were proofed by School of Art printmaker Andrew Baldwin. Exhibitions like ‘To hell with nature!’ remind us what many histories of twentieth-century art omit in order to sustain their focus on the avant-garde. Tunnicliffe’s career does not fit into the narrative of Modernism. It is a product of modernity. In his work, at least, he never said ‘to hell’ with culture. Pragmatic yet passionate, he made images to make a living.
Put on display like a corpse in a glass coffin, the album in the centre of our gallery at Aberystwyth University is a relic of a bygone era of moviemaking. It features documentarian photographs, production stills, concept drawings and watercolour storyboards.
A page from our album
These images showcase ingenuity, commemorate teamwork, and highlight the efforts of the many artists involved in creating make-believe. They are shown alongside each other in the album to demonstrate how ideas were realised.
Why showcase this album here? Why now? Why bother commemorating the production of a relative commercial failure that, by now, is technically outmoded?
My motivation for staging this exhibition is rooted in a queer identity and a sense of belatedness. Mighty Joe Young – the story of a captured primate exploited for profit and sentenced to death for revolting – affects me with its pathos and its promise of xenophilia triumphant. By accommodating its memorialization in our gallery, I seek to contest notions of cultural relevance and the trivialisation of nostalgic longing as ahistoric sentimentality.
The album defies history by unfolding Joe’s story in fictional time. It captures the film’s production in the sequential order of its narrative, not in the chronological order of its planning and shoot.
Sculpture by Richard Boalch
Conceived in 1945, filmed over a period of fourteen months, and released in 1949, Mighty Joe Youngdid not keep up with the times. Its compassion for the outsider and its indictment of consumer culture is an expression of early post-war idealism.
The exhibition also features 1940s drawings from Disney and Fleischer Studios
Was the right to consume equal to the pursuit of happiness for which GI Joes and Jills had risked their lives? Mighty Joe Young’s climactic orphanage fire suggests otherwise.
The album contains storyboard watercolour paintings by Willis O’Brien
‘Mr. Joe Young,’ as the giant yet gentle gorilla is announced in the credits, stands apart from the Atomic Age monsters of the Cold War era in whose destruction we are encouraged to relish. The menace in Mighty Joe Young is not its title character. Mighty Joe poses no threat to the Average Joe. The enduring, transcontinental friendship of Jill and Joe is proposed as an alternative to the fears and desires that tear us apart.
Perhaps, this is why Mighty Joe Young was not a commercial success. By the time of the film’s release, red-menaced consumers had been conditioned to accept as the new normal what the film fantastically surmounts. The contemporary press called Mighty Joe Young ‘incredible corn.’ A banana peel of discarded values, a throwback like Mighty Joe Young – and an album devoted to its making – can make us mindful of lost chances, and of the biases and restraints operative to this day.
Poster design by Neil Holland using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
As announced in my previous post, I am staging the exhibition Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’ at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University (see poster for details).
This is my introductory text panel for the show:
From adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes saga, non-human primates have played a prominent part in the evolution of motion pictures. Ridiculous and sublime, they act as uncanny doubles of our uncouth selves.
Until well into the 1980s, silver screen simians were often aped by actors in hairy suits. A memorable exception is the original Kong, the uncrowned King of Skull Island. Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of his descendants.
Joe was brought to life by the creative team responsible for King Kong (1933) and its sequel, Son of Kong (1933). The large volume displayed in the centre of the gallery is Joe’s baby album.
The album commemorates the collaborative efforts that earned Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Special Effects. Showing off the tools and tricks of the trade, it contains documentarian photographs as well as drawings and watercolour paintings by Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien, the film’s ‘Technical Creator.’ The album also records the work of Obie’s apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, whose name became synonymous with pre-CGI fantasy film and stop-motion animation.
The album is on public display for the first time. It was compiled retrospectively, probably by a member of the crew.Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1932–2002), to whose legacy this exhibition pays tribute.
Surrounding the album are posters, promotional materials as well as 1940s concept drawings for animated movies produced by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré and John Martin.Their fantastic and awe-inspiring images were precursors of cinematic spectacles. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen referenced them in their work.
As a curator, educator and writer, I aim to promote interconnections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. Instead of imposing a context in which our album might be contained, I let it take over the gallery to disclose its stories and open new associations.
The public is invited to shape this evolving display by sharing responses to Joe in animation workshops scheduled during the show’s run. Like the homage in Lego you encounter in our gallery, the videos created in those workshops will become part of this exhibition.
Preliminary poster design by Neil Holland using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
This fall, I am curating an exhibition featuring a unique album commemorating the production of the 1949 Hollywood fantasy movie Mighty Joe Young. The brainchild of the creative team responsible for King Kong(1933), Mighty Joe Young earned an Academy Award for Special Effects.
The album contains over 100 stills from the film as well as documentarian photographs, drawings and watercolour paintings. It provide insights into the production of Hollywood movies, and in pre-CGI visual effects and the work of the celebrated stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013) in particular.
Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young
The album has never been on public display before, and little is known about its origins or provenance. Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1939–2002). As a curator, I am keen to recover and display objects of visual culture that encourage us to explore connections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. The Mighty Joe Young album tells stories of ingenuity and collaboration, of artistic influences and commercial enterprise. The film, meanwhile, is a story of friendship, a friendship that triumphs over greed and the exploitation of innocence.
Gustave Doré, Leviathan for an 1866 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost
The work of Ray Harryhausen has long attracted enthusiasts of fantasy and science fiction. Now, there is renewed interest in his artistry. Leading up to the centenary of Harryhausen’s birth, major institutions, including Tate Britain in London, have been staging exhibitions of his drawings and sculptures. Our album has attracted the attention of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, who will be giving a presentation in the School of Art galleries on 22 November. We will also hold animation workshops during the run of the exhibition, and the videos created as part of those workshops will be shown in our galleries.
The album will be displayed alongside film posters and promotional materials, as well as production drawings for animated movies of the 1940s. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré whose sublime and fantastic imagery was a precursor to Hollywood magic and served as an inspiration to Harryhausen. Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’: The Movie! The Memory!! The Make-Believe!!! is on display at the School of Art from 20 November 2017 to 2 February 2018.
I thought that I’d say a few words about the work of the man that brings us together here today – and perhaps about this place in relation to that man.
If Tunnicliffe could be with us today, chances are he wouldn’t be with us. London. The Academy. The artworld. That, he felt, was not his habitat. And yet, we wouldn’t be here if Tunnicliffe had not been elected a member of the Academy – as a printmaker, no less.
Tunnicliffe’s own accounts of his life emphasise his youth growing up and working on a farm. And much of that is reflected in his subject matter.
Tunnicliffe certainly preferred the outdoors to the inside of institutions. He would rather study bulls than listen to what he would have considered to be so much academic BS. And even though he taught art, Tunnicliffe also said he much preferred birds to boys.
All of this fits the romantic view many of us have of the artist as an outsider. Perhaps, it fits rather too neatly. After all, the farm where Tunnicliffe grew up was near Macclesfield – and the signs of the Industrial Revolution were written in the wind.
Tunnicliffe was not removed from the world of industry or commerce. Nor was he resistant to change. Tunnicliffe, who studied at the Royal College of Art in London, owes his career not to any one institution but to his willingness to adapt.
For decades, far from the madmen crowd, Tunnicliffe produced images that served the advertising racket.
His pictures promoted farming products (some toxic), spurious wonder drugs (for dogs) and the Midland Bank. Not exactly the messages of a lover of nature.
The thing is, Tunnicliffe’s pictures were not designed as vehicles for his own thoughts. He made products of visual culture to which messages could be attached by others, at a price, to suit their purposes.
Tunnicliffe also produced book illustrations. Many of his wood engravings – and the many more scraperboard images we are not even showing here – were secondary to a given text, enhancing or supporting it.
By the time he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1944 (and a full member ten years later), Tunnicliffe had ceased to produce so-called ‘fine’ prints. The stock market crash had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career and to find his niche in order to make a living as a maker of images.
Partly as a result of this commodification, Tunnicliffe’s prints were never exhibited in a solo show here at the Royal Academy – until now.
You might well protest that what you see on display here today is not much of a print exhibition, either, given that his wood engravings are displayed alongside cheap reproductions and colourful paintings that might overpower them.
Print curator James Laver said nearly seventy years ago that it was ‘a pity’ that so few visitors to the Royal Academy come to ‘the little room in which the etchings and engravings are exhibited.’ Even those who did come visit had ‘neither the patience nor the strength to appreciate what is on the walls. For prints are intimate things. [They] need individual attention, like shy, sensitive children.’
I hardly think that individual attention span has increased over the last seventy years. And the Royal Academy seems to reflect that, or perhaps give in to it.
What Second Nature does bring across is the compromise that is Tunnicliffe’s work, and the way in which editioned prints and one-of-a-kind paintings compete with multiple copies: images of visual culture in the service of commerce, of advertising and the printed word. The purity or sanctity of art is, after all, little more than the modernist rubbishing of modernity.
As I said, this is Tunnicliffe’s first show here as a printmaker. Tunnicliffe regularly exhibited his watercolour paintings here at the Academy’s Summer Exhibitions, and they always sold. The one solo show he had here was an exhibition of post mortem studies of birds from his personal sketchbook back in the early 1970s.
That show was initiated by the Welsh painter Kyffin Williams, who, like Tunnicliffe and his wife, lived on Anglesey.
Well, the Royal Academy did not know quite what to do with those sketches. It consulted an ornithologist who vouched for their accuracy but also said that he had seen many like them just as accomplished.
The works were arranged according to family, genus and species. In other words, those private studies, which Tunnicliffe lent only reluctantly, ended up portraying him as an imitator of nature.
Choosing a composition, combining pictorial elements and omitting detail – all that was important to Tunnicliffe. His pictures were designed to be decorative, as he called it.
Faithful, decorative, or both at once, Tunnicliffe’s work can easily be coopted by those who say ‘now that is real art.’ Or, ‘when a farmer’s boy can become a Royal Academician, surely there cannot be any talk of inequality.’
Tunnicliffe was pragmatic rather than programmatic. He made images to make a living. But he did not promote a conservative agenda.
Whether you find such a career uplifting or frustrating is a matter of politics. For me, it is intriguing because it confronts me with my own biases. A career like Tunnicliffe’s does not fit into the avant-garde narratives we resort to when we tell or teach the histories of twentieth-century art from modernism to postmodernism, or roughly the six decades during which Tunnicliffe worked professionally.
When I thought about a suitable title for our essay and the exhibition on display here, I set out by looking at what Tunnicliffe said about his work. I somehow wanted him – and his works – to stand on their own and let them do what most of them were not even intended to do – to speak for themselves or, if that is an impossibility, for Tunnicliffe.
I came across a dramatic exclamation. ‘To hell with nature.’ He said that in a nature lover’s magazine devoted to British birds. He said it toward the end of his career. To me, it expresses the frustration of a man whose work is generally judged on the strength of its resemblance to nature. As a kind of second-hand nature.
It would have made for a provocative title, don’t you think? But, even though I would have been quoting him, I would also have taking such a rare public outburst out of the context of a career predicated on compromise.
I wonder what would have happened if Tunnicliffe had dared to say ‘To hell with culture.’ He didn’t. In his work, at least, he did not question the socio-economics that restricted him to serve the market. His earlier work is autobiographical. His family members are worked into his subjects. After the stock market crash, commercial work kept him so busy, there was hardly time for the luxury of self-expression that we perhaps tend to overvalue today.
Tunnicliffe did not make environmental statements. He did not push any agenda. I wish he had. When we look at his work, we should perhaps acknowledge that, whether we perceive this as a lack or not, an apparent neutrality lends itself to being naturalized. A second nature is, after all, culture.
So, is it possible meaningfully to discuss the achievements of printmakers like Tunnicliffe without the politics? I am not sure. But I hope our book – and this exhibition here at the Academy – raises awareness of a printmaker whose work never quite made it into our art histories because it does not fit into the history of twentieth century art, a history that, to suit a grand narrative of progress, we have turned into the history of cultural products that we can lift up or push away as we deem fit.
Our Japanese ‘Merman’ made for a suitable poster boy. Poster design by Neil Holland, based on an idea by Sarah Selzer
Once a year, with the help of the head curator of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, I stage an exhibition with a group of students who are enrolled in my undergraduate module “Curating an Exhibition.” The shows draw on the University’s vast collection of art and artefacts. The student curators are given a theme and set out to create a narrative by selecting objects in response to it. That is quite a challenge, considering that the exhibition is put together in just over three months from initial planning to display.
Past exhibitions include Untitled by Unknown, Queer Tastes, andMatter of Life and Death. This year, I was all set to use the colour red and its connotations as a theme . . . until the inauguration of Donald Trump and the ensuing dispute about the size of the audience made me see red in a different way. This gave me the idea for a more urgent, topical show.
That show is Alternative Facts: Interpreting Works from the School of Art Collection. It opens on 22 May and will be on display until 29 September in one of the School of Art’s galleries in Aberystwyth, Wales.
The introductory panel explains the theme as follows:
The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary. It has come to prominence in a political climate in which views and actions are shaped more by emotions than by reliable intelligence. Reflecting this shift, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be Word of the Year 2016. And yet, alternative facts are as old as language itself.
The works in this exhibition range from a sixteenth-century woodcut to twenty-first century ceramics. They make statements about religion and war, consumer culture and the media, humanitarian crises and the economy. They contain references to historical figures such as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela as well as fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Moby-Dick.
Using a current catchphrase as its premise, Alternative Facts explores the varied and conflicting functions of material culture: as representations of reality, as social commentary and as propaganda. Political caricatures by James Gillray and Honoré Daumier are exhibited alongside documentarian images by photojournalist Erich Lessing. Autobiographical and self-reflexive sculptures by Claire Curneen and Verity Newman are confronted with the hoax of a sea monster made in Japan. Collectively, these objects raise questions about faith and falsehood, truth-telling and myth-making, authenticity, authority, and freedom of expression.
Alternative Factsalso invites a closer look at the role of curators as trusted interpreters and reliable storytellers. Our readings are not intended to be the last word. The gallery is a forum for discussion.
Curators: Tom Banks, Natalie Downes, Amber Harrison-Smith, Néna Marie Hyland, Brit Jackson, Frida Limi, Dean Mather, Brad Rees, Sarah Selzer, Magda Sledzikowska; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)
As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality. Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so. As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies. Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.
No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study. As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947). I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”). The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.
Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal. In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa. It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.
As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?
Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.
Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa. Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong. The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”
Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity. Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography. There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage. Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.
Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow. Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory. What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary. She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.
I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different. Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.
Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged. If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation. They are like irony in that respect. You just can’t be ironic all by yourself. Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.
As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.
Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience. Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.
Buying the lot is something I rarely do. I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations. And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp. Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.
Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.” Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent. The question is: what are and what ain’t they?