Beyond Compare: Art From Africa in the Bode Museum

‘Every visit to a museum prompts viewers to compare and interpret objects, but what does it mean to identify similarities and differences?’

The Bode Museum is a historic art museum located in the centre of Berlin. Like the others around it on Museum Island, such as the Altes Museum and the Pergamonmuseum, it’s old and has an emphasis on traditional pieces of art and specific time periods, and includes pieces typically found in other Berlin museums. The particular focus of this museum is that of Byzantine sculptures, and it is amazing to see such a vast collection of such age and from a range of different countries. What makes it quite notable, however, is the museum’s most recent endeavour.

The latest exhibition of the Bode Museum is one that places European and African artworks side-by-side, grouped by theme, style and history, in such a way that has rarely been seen before in such a space. As is written on the website for the exhibition, “many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums” – why is this the case? Why is one artistic and the other ethnographic?

It was a delight walking through the halls of this historic and ornate museum, being able to see the stark contrasts and unexpected similarities between these geographically and ideologically different pieces of art. One thing I’ve noticed is that art is often divided by era and location, such as the Italian Renaissance or French Modernism, and African works are often also separated, so the opportunity to see them together is usually quite rare. As a result, however, you are able to draw the conclusion that every society has the same ideals being creating these types of art, the same idols to revere, the same lessons to teach, regardless of geography.

Amazingly there’s an app which has images and details of every paired items in this exhibition, with far more information than was available at the actual exhibits (which you can download here if you want to have a look). And it is because of this I can actually show some images of the different pieces (because I’m a fool who forgot to take any pictures myself).

Opposite or Complementary?

The theme of this pairing is balance. The one on the left shows a woman and a skeletal figure back-to-back, serving as something of a memento mori (a reminder that you must die), and the one on the right shows a man and a woman back-to-back, equals in life. These pieces, I would argue, are simultaneously both opposite and complementary. Life and death are opposites, and man and women is often also seen as such, however they complement one and other as without one the other would not be defined as existing.

A stark difference here, however, is that the ideologies are contrasting. On the left, the piece of European descent, serves as a warning that beauty fades, and death is the end for us all, therefore one must live life virtuously. On the right, however, a Luba figure originating from the Congo, we are confronted with a somewhat more heartening comparison, which is that men and women are in balance and two parts of an ideal whole. This would contrast heavily with the traditional European notion of the balance between men and women, where the women are definitely seen as lesser.

There are dozens of other pairings within this museum, and therefore dozens of other ways to make some interesting and previously unknown contrasts and comparisons between some awesome African and European sculptures. Since we can’t all just hop on a plane and head over to Berlin (it’s only been a few weeks and I want to go back already!) I would definitely recommend to download the app and check see them through that – the museum has done a fab job and there’s just so much information about every piece and some insight into their meanings and implications.

That’s all for me for this one, I hope you enjoyed it!

-Alice

Some Further Thoughts: ‘Decompression’ by Sally Golding and Spatial

The Hey Art, What’s Good? gang were kindly invited along to the Tyneside Cinema to check out a film from their Projections programme, which is a new programme of artists moving image. The motivation behind Projections is that these types of project are generally confined only to a gallery space, so with an entire cinema at their disposal why not utilise it to present a wide range of moving image works in a space designed for screening the moving image?

We went to go see an installation called Decompression by Australian/British artist Sally Golding and London-based electronic artist Spatial (aka Matt Spendlove). You’d be hard-pressed to call what we saw a film, but it was most certainly an experience. If you could imagine a hypnotic cross between a club, a light show, and a cinema you’d be mostly right.There was very little onscreen for a majority of the ‘screening’ aside from a sort of visual static, however this shifted part way through (I honestly couldn’t say when because time meant nothing in this space) to show quotes from a book called Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood. This book relates very much to Decompression given that it literally explores the concept of expanding what it means to be a cinema. (I managed to find a PDF of the book which you can access here).

A quote that I saw on screen that really stood out to me was “We have a compulsion to be occupied”, and I think this really hits home in the current age of digital and mobile media (if you haven’t read Rosie’s blog post about FEED by Zara Worth then you definitely should). I know I’m guilty of scrolling through Twitter or Instagram for ages simply because I wanted something to look at, and in the space of the cinema this would concern the images we see onscreen. The dramatic car chase, the quick cut action sequence, beautiful landscape and cityscape shots: a lot of the time they’re just visual fillers. And this can of course extend to the entirety of what we go see at the cinema; so many films have little real consequence and simply just aren’t good or engaging, they’re just something to go see. As such, Decompression works as a sort of response to this, a means to experience cinema in an entirely different way and to have the opportunity to see what that means for them. For me, it meant being completely and utterly mesmerised. I was engrossed in the sights and sounds around me, yet at the same time my mind was wandering very far and wide. I loved it.

This leads me to recall a quote I had to write an essay about at university, by philosopher Theodor Adorno: “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse” (Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, p.25). What this can boil down to is that when we go to the cinema to watch a film we essentially stop thinking. Where Hannah Arendt posited her ‘two-in-one’ theory, detailing how thinking to the likes of Socrates would be like two people having a conversation, in the cinema one of these voices would be silenced. There are two distinct ways of combating this ideology, however. One could take it at face value, becoming dumb when faced with imagery on the big screen, or one could look a bit deeper, and come to understand how you have the opportunity to become wholly engrossed by something you otherwise wouldn’t. This is exactly how I was during the screening: engrossed. Being so engrossed actually gave me a lot to think about when it was over, so much so I recorded a podcast and wrote this little essay about it!

I hope you enjoyed this little ramble into academia here, this was such a fantastic piece and it is something I would love to look into further.

-Alice

Don’t forget to check out the next programme of screenings in Projections at Tyneside Cinema.

Further reading:
Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood (here)
Minima Moralia: Reflections of a Damaged Life, Theodor Adorno (here)
Stupider and Worse: The Cultural Politics of Stupidity, David Jenemann (here)

The Artist’s Book and the Book as an Art Object

Hey readers, what’s good? Back in university, I was introduced to the artist’s book at the International Artist’s Book Fair, an annual event that takes place in Leeds. Myself and one of my fellow Art and Design students manned the stall for the University of Leeds where we displayed and sold products made by our peers. I exhibited work and even managed to make a sale! But the biggest take away was a newfound love of the artist’s book.

The artist’s book is simply a book that is made or conceived by an artist (not to be confused by an art book which is a book about art). Some artists exclusively make books whilst others use books to exhibit collections of their work. Books provide an opportunity to collaborate with other artists, examine different methods of consuming art and potentially explore themes and ideas that may be difficult to communicate via any other means. Artist’s books are often self-published or published by small independent presses or collectives and the work produces is commonly limited edition or one of a kind.

An artist’s book can take many forms as artists bend the rules and challenge what we understand to be a book. Many contemporary artists’ books take the form of sculptures, others do not use paper, others are simply a stack of loose paper, some are empty and others are (literally) overflowing the page. Forget what you think a book is, art welcomes you to think outside the box!

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I am of the opinion that books, whether they be artist’s books or not, provide us with an intimate and often emotional experience that is unique to the medium. As a dyslexic who has not always had the best time with reading, my upbringing has still nurtured a great respect for the written word and the vessels that we use to consume them. Therefore, I am of the opinion that the artist’s book can provide a totally unique art experience, and not just unique in relation to other art mediums and methods of consuming art, but completely different to each individual viewer. When one consumes the content of a book, that relationship between object and reader is personal and unique to that person, that book and that specific time and place. Books often provide us with emotional landmarks in our life, whether they be a textbook, a book read for pleasure or a diary. The act of reading a book is, more often than not, a solitary act which creates a very personal relationship with the object and its contents. This is not to say that when a reader picks up an artist’s work that each reader will like the book artist’s book, it does not even mean they will have any strong feeling one way or the other. But the way that individual picked up the object, touched the cover and the spine, turned the pages and interacts with its materials, it creates an experience that is not only different to other methods of consuming art, but also one that is unique to that book.

In a previous blog post I have explained how a frame can change the meaning of an image and how it is understood. Books are simply another way of framing an artwork. ‘The Frame’ describes the context in which the art is seen and the value we place upon it. Consider the tacky laminated cover of a high school textbook in contrast to the leather-bound pages of a book of laws. We would treat the object differently depending on its frame, quite literally judging a book by its cover.

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Below I have provided some of my favourite examples of artist’s books to help give you a better idea of the ways different artists have played with the medium:

Barbara Tetenbaum & Julie Chen, “Glimpse” (2011) https://hyperallergic.com/182306/a-portal-to-unite-the-smithsonian-libraries-artists-books-collection/


Noriko Ambe, Cuts on a book of “ED Ruscha” (2008)
http://cargocollective.com/image-type-text/1A-Artists-books-digital-artists-books

Deirdre Kelly. “Coastal Walk”, 2013, edition 3, pencil on paper
http://artistsbook.lt/blog/2016/07/12/artists-book-exhibition-in-ireland-2016/


Angela Orr “The Breakdown Index Artist’s Book”, Watercolour and Acrylic on various papers (2015)
https://angelaorr.co.uk/artists-books/

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FUN FACT

We read in an ‘F’ shape! Studies have shown that we ‘read’ images and information at a glance, so fast we do not necessarily even notice. Firstly we register the information along the left from top to bottom. Then our eyes dash to the top left once more and take note of the information along the top left to right. Finally we go to the middle of the left side and follow a line horizontally across until we reach the centre of the page. This all takes place within milliseconds, before we have the chance to really register what we are looking at!

This information is used to make marketing more effective as the most important information will be placed along this ‘F’ shape. This means that we can take in an advertisement or understand a product at a glance as the information will be registered in our subconscious. The most successful marketing campaigns can use this to implant an idea with the intention of selling a product. On a less sinister note, artists and curators can use this information to make artwork more artwork easier to read, make a gallery easier to navigate and create a more pleasing composition

– Rosie

 

Resources // Further Reading

V&A Museum

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/books-artists/

Images:

https://angelaorr.co.uk/artists-books/

http://artistsbook.lt/blog/2016/07/12/artists-book-exhibition-in-ireland-2016/

http://cargocollective.com/image-type-text/1A-Artists-books-digital-artists-books

https://hyperallergic.com/182306/a-portal-to-unite-the-smithsonian-libraries-artists-books-collection/

The Tetley Gallery in Leeds hosts the International Artists Book Fair. Keep an eye out for more information on the website: https://thetetley.org/