John Berger in his Ways of Seeing said that “when the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image” (Berger, 1972, 19). Before the invention of the camera a person had to visit the building that painting was stored in to see it. However, once the camera was invented it became easier to view paintings from the comfort of our own homes. Now if a person wanted to see the Mona Lisa they wouldn’t have to visit The Louvre in France, instead they need only type the name of the painting into a search engine to see various images of the painting. The mass-production of artwork, and the influence it has, was something my partner and I found extremely interesting. This was the driving force behind the creative process of our piece.
At first we focused solely on the idea of mass-production, using Berger as our influence. However, we later added in the idea of history after reading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He says that the “unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence” (Benjamin, 1936, 218). Through mass-production we lose the history of a work of art. The image of the art stays the same and the signs of ageing and handling disappear. For example the fading of paint or chips on a frame. We also lose the stories behind the artwork, such as why the artist created the work and what he or she was influenced by.
For our final piece we wanted to look into the idea of perspective and how being aware of an artworks background and influence the viewer’s perspective of it. In modern day gallery’s we are given very little information on paintings, they tell us about the artist but almost nothing about the painting itself. Therefore we find ourselves uncaring about the painting, simply viewing it for a couple of seconds before moving on. What we wanted to find out was whether knowing about the painting and the subject of the painting changes this, does it make the viewer care more about what they are seeing.
To do this we created an interactive tour of the Usher Gallery where we provided to histories for seven paintings, one was true and one was a lie. We did not tell them which was true and which false. We looked at Leontine and Quadrille I by William Tom Warrener, Child with Roses by John Downton, Portrait of Goldwynne, An Early Victorian, and The Skirt Dance by William Logsdail, and A Lemon and White Water Spaniel by George Stubbs. After we presented the two histories to our audience we then asked them to choose which history influenced their perspective more by placing a token into the bucket which corresponded to the history. If neither history influenced their perspective we asked them to keep the token and hand it to us at the end of the tour. Each tour lasted 15 minutes and was performance twice, at 12pm and 1pm.
Analysis of Process
When I first visited the Collection and Usher Gallery what really stood out for me was the history. In the Collection they have an exhibit that is dedicated to history, with various artefacts on display. While I was visiting this exhibit for the first time there was a group of school children on a school trip who were taking part in an activity which saw them dress up as Romans and, with the help of a tour guide, act as part of a Roman cohort. This interactive element of history was something I wanted to bring into our Site Specific performance piece.
When our group first formed we had three main goals regarding what we wanted in our piece. These were making the audience think, technology, and history. We decided that this would be best achieved using a tour of the gallery and Collection. The tour would look at paintings that depict historical events, such as the painting of the World War I soldier in the Usher and the painting of 9/11 in the Collection. We would write a letter, a postcard, an email, and a voicemail related to the artworks and present these to the audience. We would then ask the audience their thoughts, for example how the postcard made them feel, and record their answers.
After initially pitching this idea it came to our attention that this idea was not enough to constitute a performance. After struggling to come up with something new that incorporated all the elements we wanted we decided to go down a completely different route. We realised that having three elements to the piece made it too complicated so instead decided to focus on just ones, this was women in art. On the top floor of the Usher they have a room full of nude statues. We were going to explore the idea of male gaze, and how the statues were made by men for men. As there were three females and one male in the group we decided to have the male mould the girls into typical feminine poses. However, we were going to turn this on its head by having the females choose how they want to be seen. It was decided that we would have boxes with props in front of us that seem typically female, such as a rolling pin or cleaning cloth, and we would pick these up. This would show that it was our choice to cook or clean and make a career out of it. The male member of the group would then take these props off us and give us new ones, representing society moulding females.
Sadly, before we had chance to put this idea into practice the group decided it would be in our best interest to split up and work as pairs instead. As I was paired with the male member of our group it did come to our attention that we could take our original performance idea and change it to fit the two of us. However, we felt that this was unfair to the other two as the piece had been a group collaboration.
It was John Berger and his Ways of Seeing that inspired us to look at mass-production. In the first episode of his documentary series he states that before the invention of the camera artwork could only be viewed in the building it was being displayed in, but now “the camera reproduces it, making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose” (YouTube, 2012). Thanks to mass-production we need only type the name of any artwork into a search engine to find multiple images of it. You can even get posters or postcards with the artwork printed on to take home or send to a loved one.
Alongside our research on Berger we looked at an article which describes how a gallery in London placed a fake version of an artwork alongside the real version and asked members of the public and art critics to spot the fake. The fake was commissioned online from a Chinese studio that specialises in creating identical copies of masterpieces from any decade. The senior curator, Xavier Bray, describes seeing the replica for the first time, “the replica is excellent quality, and when it arrived we were delighted with it – but when I put the two side by side, it was a very interesting experiment. The difference was instantly apparent” (Kennedy, 2015). This is a quote I personally found to be really interesting. It hints that to the trained eye, in this case the curator, it is easy to spot the differences between fakes and genuine artwork, but to anyone else it is not. The gallery gave no hints about the painting, or how to spot the difference, but Doug Fishbourne, who inspired the project, did say this: “It’s not just a ‘Hey, spot the fake’ stunt – it raises serious issues of how we view, appreciate and value art” (Kennedy, 2015).
One final inspiration was the Usher Gallery itself. In the first gallery they have a children’s activity where a child can create their own artwork using pieces of others in the gallery. To do this they have a small whiteboard and piece of the art on magnets. After having a go at the activity ourselves we started to put together our performance idea.
We decided that we would draw attention to mass-production in art using artworks from the Usher Gallery. We had, at first, intended this to be a tour full of activities for the audience to participate in, such as guessing the value of artwork. However, we cut it down to simply one activity as we believed that the tour would be too packed. Originally we decided we wanted to use four artworks, two from the first gallery and two from the second. The artworks we chose were Child with Roses by John Downton and Portrait of Goldwynne by William Logsdail from the first gallery, and the statues of Paul Robson by Jacob Epstein and Napoleon by Antoine Denis Chaudet from the second gallery. What we planned to do was take images of these artworks and print them onto magnetic paper, then we would cut them up and recreate them on a loop on a whiteboard. The whiteboard would ideally have been facing the artwork so that the audience would understand that we were recreating artworks specifically from the Usher.
We had planned to do this for four hours, which would mean one hour each in each gallery. We would each recreate a different artwork, which myself recreating Portrait and Goldwynne and my partner recreating Child of Roses. I would go first, recreating Portrait of Goldwynne for an hour and taking a photo after every recreation. Once that hour was up my partner would do the same thing with Child with Roses.
Afterwards we would move into the second gallery and do the same with Paul Robson and Jacob Epstein. However, we later decided that it wouldn’t make sense to recreate a sculpture using printed images as the sculptures are 3D. We then toyed with the idea of having the audience participate in the recreation. Once we had both done our hours we would leave the whiteboard out, along with a bucket which contained pieces of a third painting, which would have been Maria Van Wassenaer Hanecops by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, and see if the audience would approach the whiteboard and recreate an image or create a new one using pieces of each artwork. We were also going to have a sign saying ‘artist at work’.
We had also entertained the idea of having a jigsaw element in our performance, which was inspired by a jigsaw of an artwork that was given to us by our tutor. We had been thinking of printing a jigsaw of one of the artworks in the gallery. We would have invited the audience to create the jigsaw as a group. They could have done this by putting down one piece each or as many as they desired. We later discarded this idea due to practicality. The jigsaw would have been too expensive and too time consuming to produce.
Unfortunately it came to our attention that our piece was not as far advanced as it was hoped and, therefore, we ultimately decided to change our project in hopes it would kick start the creative process more. In order to do this we looked at Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In his essay Benjamin touches upon the history and tradition of paintings, and how mass-production gets rid of it. He said that “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1936, 218). The authenticity of an artwork comes from its history. Reproductions of art, whether they are almost identical copies or a poster, lack history. There is no sign of previous ownership, whether that be a chip on the frame from where a clumsy owner had dropped it for fading that comes with age. When I visited the Usher Gallery I noticed that the labels next to the painting don’t tell us very much. It gives us a brief explanation of the artist’s history, but nothing about the painting or the subject. But knowing what made the subject so special that the artist just had to capture the moment is something that greatly interested me.
To combat this I visited the gallery and challenged myself to make up histories for some of the paintings I saw. I wanted to find out whether knowing more about the paintings and the subject of the painting would influence my view of the art. For example, I looked at the painting of a lady who was reading and I imaged that she was the wife of the artist, who simply had to paint the beauty of his wife in that moment. Even though she was only doing something as simple as reading. I personally found that knowing something like that did influence my view of the painting. Instead of just viewing it as yet another portrait of a girl in a gallery it became a picture of someone’s much loved wife, and therefore I felt myself more connected to the portrait. However, we thought it would be interesting to see if this would be the same for others.
When coming up with the concept for our new piece we revisited two ideas; the tour and history. We picked seven portraits from the gallery, four from the first gallery and three from the staircase. These were Leontine and Quadrille I by William Tom Warrener, Child with Roses by John Downton, Portrait of Goldwynne, An Early Victorian, and The Skirt Dance by William Logsdail, and A Lemon and White Water Spaniel by George Stubbs. For each painting, bar The Skirt Dance and An Early Victorian as we group these together as they had the same subject, we researched the true history behind the painting and then created our own. This meant that for each painting we had a truth and a lie. During the tour we lead our audience around the Usher Gallery and stopped at each painting, where we would then present to them the two histories. Once they had heard the two versions of the histories they then picked which one influenced their view the most by placing the tokens we had given them into the bucket that corresponded with the history. If neither history influenced their view we asked them to keep their token and hand it back to us after the tour. Originally we intended to have note cards on us to help us to remember the histories, as we had only a short amount of time to learn them. Feedback we were given indicated that this took authority away from the performance so therefore we scrapped the note cards and worked from memory the best we could.
Our final performance was on May 9th 2015 where we ran the tour twice, at 12pm and 1pm. Both tours lasted approximately 15 minutes. Unfortunately, as we had only a couple weeks to work on our final piece, our audience numbers were not as high as we had hoped. However we still had the interaction we had hoped for. Our results were as follows;
- Leontine: two tokens for the truth and three for the lie.
- Quadrille I: four tokens for the truth and one for the lie.
- Child With Roses: three tokens for the truth and two for the lie.
- Portrait of Goldwynne: three tokens for the truth and two for the lie.
- A Lemon and White Water Spaniel: four tokens for the truth and one for the lie.
- The Skirt Dance and An Early Victorian: three for the truth and one for the lie.
Only one token was handed back to us at the end of the tour. Had we had longer to work on this piece then we would have hoped to have attracted more audience numbers by creating and putting up posters, alongside the Facebook event we did create.
Though I felt that the tour went well, there were many things I would have improved upon. One major element that we noticed was that some of the information we presented was visible on the labels next to the artwork, therefore we sometimes contradicted ourselves. To avoid this we attempted to stand in front of the labels so to obstruct the audience’s view of them. On the stairs especially this was hard to do, as the labels were sometimes placed higher than we could reach. As well as in the galleries they were hard to block as a rope stopped us from getting too close to the artwork. I also worried that in attempting to block the audience’s view of the label it would also block their view of the painting. If I had the opportunity to perform the tour again this is certainly something I would want to improve upon. I would do this by planning out exactly where my partner and I would stand, being careful to make sure we were blocking the label but not the art.
Another area I would have liked to improve upon was our lies. If redoing the performance I would make these more elaborate and vastly different from the truths, rather than just slightly different. The lies were only slightly different so it would be easier for us to remember then as, like I mentioned in my process analysis, due to our time restraints we had planned to use note cards to prompt us with the information we needed. During our final rehearsal we changed this and worked from memory. Though we both managed to remember all the information we needed on the day I would have liked to have been better acquainted with the material to avoid mistakes or slip ups.
In conclusion I believe that our performance went well, but there was most definitely room for improvement.
Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [online] Available from http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf [Accessed May 12th 2015].
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and the Penguin Group.
Kennedy, M. (2015) Dulwich picture gallery challenges art lovers to spot the fake. [online] UK: The Guardian. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/12/dulwich-gallery-spot-fake-painting?CMP=share_btn_link [Accessed 13th May 2015]
YouTube (2012) John Berger / Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972). [online video] Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk [Accessed 13th May 2015]