Art and academia meet in the imagined lives of objects

Business Day Live | Chris Thurman:


Art and scholarship are often perceived as uncomfortable bedfellows: artistic production is caricatured as an anti-intellectual outpouring of emotion, and academic responses to works of art are assumed to be dry, unfeeling and anticreative.

Walter Oltmann, Shoring, 2007 (detail). Aluminium, aluminium wire and rocks. Picture: WITS MUSEUM/STANDARD BANK GALLERY

In my experience, quite the opposite is true. Many of the artists I admire spend just as much time reading and researching as they do experimenting in the studio.

Critics and scholars are involved in a reciprocal creative act. Analysing or theorising works of art should never be reduced to a cold process of abstraction. Rather, such tasks require imagination, passion, introspection and careful observation — all qualities associated with artists.

Nonetheless, social and institutional pressures have traditionally tried to force these twin vocations into separate spheres. This is, perhaps, an inevitable result of the superspecialisation associated with postindustrial capitalism: everyone has their role to play, so woe betide the ambitious soul who would be both painter and art historian, both sculptor and professor.

For university-based artist-academics, there was until recently a growing pressure to separate theory and praxis.

Fortunately, things have started to change. Although the Department of Higher Education and Training, the National Research Foundation and universities themselves have been slow to implement it, there is an acknowledgment in principle that peer-reviewed “creative outputs” should be recognised as equivalent to research. The rubric of “practice-based” or “practice-led” research formalises what is actually an intuitive integration of scholarship and art.

Two exhibitions on display at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg emphatically reinforce these claims.

Downstairs, there is Lifelines (until September 13), a project directly linked to postgraduate research at the University of the Witwatersrand. Art history students are each assigned an object or set of objects from the Wits Art Museum — items about which comparatively little is known — and commissioned to write their “biographies”. The introductory text asks, “Do objects have lives?” before answering this question vividly in the affirmative: “Objects are made, remade and repurposed, they are worn and broken, sometimes fixed. Objects are traded or stolen, they are entangled in people’s lives or remain unused.” The key question, then, is: “If objects could speak, what stories would they tell?”

The exhibition is divided in half. “Life-” contains objects already examined last year and before, along with their narratives; “-Lines” presents objects that will be tackled by the 2014 cohort of students. The first group is accompanied by substantial explanatory notes, summarising the students’ discoveries: historical fact and verifiable cultural or political context, as well as conjecture and interpretation. We are thus encouraged to make educated guesses as to the provenance and subsequent “experience” of the objects in the second group.

Lifelines sublimates objects into ideas. While a few of the items displayed (such as works by David Goldblatt or Penny Siopis) evince a self-conscious awareness of some hermeneutic “contract” behind the production and consumption of artworks, most were produced for practical, ritual, commercial or even propaganda purposes. Here scholarship is a recuperative practice, coming “after the fact”.

A curious inversion occurs upstairs in the Walter Oltmann retrospective, In the Weave (until March 29). Oltmann, himself a senior lecturer at Wits, is an artist-academic whose research into the use of wire in material cultures across the African continent clearly informs his own wire works and drawings. The themes discernible in his oeuvre, moreover, traverse rich scholarly terrain: from European colonial expansion in Africa to evolutionary biology and archaeology.

Yet I found myself responding to In the Weave not intellectually but viscerally. Oltmann’s grand treatment of insects and fish merges with his depiction of vulnerable human subjects — part celebration and part memento mori, reminding the viewer that all life forms are simultaneously resilient and fragile.


Read this and other interesting art-icles at source: http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/entertainment/2014/02/06/art-and-academia-meet-in-the-imagined-lives-of-objects