“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.

Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies

Travelling Through, installation view
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

Sea Change at Aberystwyth University

Poster by Neil Holland, based on a design by Lauren Evans

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.

Installation view showing John Roberts’s large painting Fond Farewell (1973)

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.

Plate, from the series Cumbrian Blue(s) (1998) by Paul Scott

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.

Works by Keith Vaughan feature prominently in the exhibition

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

‘To hell with nature!’: An Exhibition of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints

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.

Mighty Joe Young and I: A Curator’s Statement

 
The album, as it is displayed in our gallery

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.

A Mighty Joe! But not without a plan …

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.

Recapturing Mighty Joe Young: The Movie! The Memory!! The Make-believe!!!

 
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 (19392002).

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.

Alternative (F)acts: Curating as Creative Response

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 UnknownQueer Tastes, and Matter 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 Facts also 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)

Worth a Shot? Photography as Matter of Life and Death

How do we measure the importance of a life? Who or what is worth remembering? These are some of the questions raised by photographs such as the ones on display in Matter of Life and Death, an exhibition on view from 16 May to 9 September 2016 in the gallery of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Today it is easier than ever to produce and share photographs.  Subjects diversify.  Perspectives broaden.  We no longer have to deal with precious materials or finite rolls of film when determining who or what is worth a shot.  Yet images are also more readily manipulated.  Realities are filtered and faked.  The black-and-white photographs in Matter of Life and Death predate our digital age.  Fragile and bold, these infinitely multipliable images of singular moments and individual lives were intended to live and matter as prints.
Looking at images of people and places can make us aware of our cultural differences.  But it is not difficult to find universals in photographs produced worlds apart.  Struggling farm workers in 1930s Alabama are shown alongside striking miners in 1980s Sardinia and South Wales.  The town of Aberystwyth, where the exhibition is staged, is featured next to Palermo and Bangkok.  Visitors to our gallery will see the faces of children.  But they will also face the aged, the dying and the dead. 
All of the photographs are from the University’s collection.  They were chosen by School of Art students who then debated how to exhibit them and create a narrative.  Only the medium and the title had been decided beforehand by me, the instructor of Staging an Exhibition, a course in curating that each year culminates in a show like this one.   Previous exhibitions include Queer Tastes, Untitled by Unknown, and Face Value.

The selections students made for Matter of Life and Death are journalistic and surrealist, propagandistic and personal, mass marketed and private.  Some photographers – Walker Evans, Mario Giacomelli and Angus McBean among them – are famous.  Others are unknown.  Learning about the identity of a photographer may well influence the way we look at the work that photographer has produced.  A child may look less innocent once we know that the man behind the camera was Erich Retzlaff, a photographer who supported and propagated fascist ideals.

There is no particular order in which these photographs should be experienced.  Themes such as dying traditions or endangered environments are suggested, but there are no conclusions.  As in life, material circumstances limit our choices.  The paths we forge are our own.

Matter of Life and Death is open to the public until 9 September 2016.  Admission is free.

Curators: Megan Evans, Rebecca Fletcher, Suzanne Fortey, Emma Game, Emily Griffin, Elizabeth Kay, Kirils Kirijs, Michael Kirton, Maria Lystrup, Kate Osborne, Amy Preece, Georgia Record, Emma Roberts, Samantha Robinson, Emily Smyth, Bethany Williams,  Gemma Woolley; with support from Harry Heuser (text) and Neil Holland (design)

The Pink Standard: Legally Blonde at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Okay, I am blond, gay and European. So it isn’t all that difficult for me to relate to this year’s summer season offering at the Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. “Positive” and “Omigod You Guys,” it’s Legally Blonde: The Musical. Ever since I relocated, for love and legal reasons, to this little Welsh town – from an island, no less, that has Broadway running through it – I have not missed a single one of these seasonal spectaculars. After all, they are often the only indication that summer actually takes place here. And since that very first show – which was Oliver! back in 2005 – I have been coming back to the scene it would be a crime to miss.
I’ve also seen the summer season grow up over the years, and the characters along with it, from a criminally mistreated but dutifully hoofing and oh-so-adorable Victorian orphan to a stylish, twenty-first-century Harvard Law graduate who seems to be fighting a lost cause but ends up winning her first case and her true love besides. 
In Legally Blonde, justice is served as in Dickensian days, except that what you deserve is no longer dished out as a helping of destiny. I won’t say that either way is “So Much Better” than the other – for entertainment purposes, at least – but it sure is about time to have, at the heart of it all, three persevering females who don’t have to suffer Nancy’s fate so that the Olivers of this world can enjoy the twist of their own.
Legally Blonde does its part to “Bend” if not quite “Snap” the long string of boy-meets-girl plots of theatrical yesteryear; at the same time, it cheekily pays tribute to the ancient laws of Western drama, right down to its cheerleading Greek Chorus. The conventions are not discarded here but effectively “Whipped Into Shape.” And what it all shapes up to be is an updated fairytale of boy meets girl in which girl ditches boy since boy doesn’t meet the standards girl learns to set for herself.
The lads, meanwhile, perform parts traditionally forced upon the ladies: they are the chosen or discarded partners of the women taking charge. Unless they are objectionable representatives of their sex, like the opportunistic Warner Huntington III (convincingly played by Barnaby Hughes), the men of Legally Blonde are mainly paraded as sex objects, flesh or fantasy.  Exhibit A: stuff-strutting Kyle (inhabited by a delivering Wade Lewin).  Exhibit B: gaydar-testing Nikos (gleefully typecast Ricardo Castro, returning to Aberystwyth after last year’s turn as Pablo in the divine Sister Act).  Come to think of it, even the two dogs in the show are male – and how well behaved these pets are in the hands, or handbags, of the women who keep them.
Not that it looks at first like the women have a clue or a fighting chance. I mean, how can a gal be oblivious for so long to the connubially desirable qualities of gentle, reliable if fashion-unconscious Emmett Forrest (played by David Barrett, who was unmissable as Mr. Cellophane in the Aberystwyth production of Chicago)? That Elle Woods ultimately finds her way and gets to sings about it is the so not gender-blind justice of Legally Blonde.
And that we side with the spoiled, seemingly besotted sorority sister is to a considerable degree owing to Rebecca Stenhouse’s ability to make Elle mature in front of our eyes, from bouncily naïve and misguided to fiercely determined yet morally upright. And, as her character gets to prove, a valedictorian is not just Malibu Ken’s girlfriend in a different outfit. Legally Blonde demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be pretty and “Serious” in pink, even though I, personally, have failed on both accounts.
Depending on Elle’s success in getting her act together is the life and career of Brooke Wyndham (energetically played by endorphin-level raising Helena Petrovna), a celebrity on trial whose fitness empire is endangered by a dirty secret of a potential alibi. And if you are a cynic out for a hanging, just wait and see what Brooke (and Petrovna) can do with a piece of rope.
As it turns out, Brooke does not have to make a case for orange being the new pink, which of course was the old black. Ultimately, not wardrobe but a serious case of TTP saves the day, for which the production hairdresser can take some credit. Follicles play nearly as big a part in Legally Blonde as in Hairspray, to name another property Aberystwyth Arts Centre has laid its skilled hands on in recent years. And if that production had a showstopper in “big, blonde and beautiful” Motormouth Maybelle, Legally Blonde has down-but-not-out stylist Paulette Bonafonte, a role Kiara Jay makes her own with warmth, knowing and extensions in her voice that reach from here to “Ireland.”
Legally Blonde is not without its share of injustices. It takes a seasoned professional like Peter Karrie to accept a plea bargain of a part that allows him to be the villain of the piece but denies him the moment his Phantom-adoring followers may have been hoping for. It was Karrie I saw in that memorable Oliver! production, and he is back here as Professor Callahan, a suave shark with a nose for “Blood in the Water.” Like Fagin, he is a law unto himself; but unlike Fagan, the professor is ill served by a book that bars him from tunefully “Reviewing the Situation” once he gets his just deserts. Not that you won’t be gasping at the scene that constitutes his downfall.
Now, had I a Manhattan-sized “Chip on My Shoulder,” I could object that, if “What You Want” to produce is a musical, you might consider putting a few instruments back into the pit. I mean, with sets as swanky as Acapulco, why should the singing be practically a cappella? The overture out of the way, any such objections are largely overruled, given the plain evidence that these troupers hardly depend on orchestral crutches. “Break a leg” to all of them – dancing, skipping and rollerskating – for keeping the pace brisk and making Legally Blonde such an infectiously high-spirited show.
This was the first season I attended as a legally married blond, gay European – and I think it is no overstatement to say that, for all their heterosexual pairings, shows like Legally Blonde have helped to take on patriarchal bullies, to rethink masculinity and what means to “Take It Like a Man.” It’s not the American flag alone that is prominently on display here. Whatever your angle, I can bear witness to the fact that, by any standard – gold, platinum blonde, or otherwise – the Aberystwyth Summer Season is in the pink.