The purpose of our piece was to experiment with the idea of perspective, with regard to how history influences how a painting is viewed. Our performance took place in the Usher gallery, where we would take our audience through the gallery, stopping at certain paintings on display. When we presented a painting to our audience members we would detail two alternate histories of the painting. One of these histories was the actual history of the painting, and the other was a false history: usually one designed to make the subjects more personal to the painter.
We took our inspiration from John Berger’s book and television series, “Ways of Seeing”, which challenged the purpose of art in the modern day, now that technology means that art is now no longer definitely site specific. Inspired by Berger’s words “when the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image” (Berger, 1972, p.19), we originally had the idea to represent this by displaying the ease of which paintings can be recreated in the modern day using the internet, printers and cameras. However, we later changed projects, but the final performance was still influenced by John Berger.
Inviting our audience members to our performance, we presented them with six tokens each. We would then show them each painting, and after presenting the two histories to them, we asked them to put one of their tokens in one of two tubs we held out to them, with each tub corresponding to one of the histories. We asked them to put their token in the tub representing the story that they liked most/ influenced their perspective, or withhold the token if they didn’t feel inclined towards any particular story. We then took note of how the audience was inclined towards each painting, and to what extent the truth was preferable to lies.
The pieces we looked at focussed on the works of four artists: William Logsdail, George Stubbs, John Downton and William Thomas Warrener. For Warrener, we presented Leontine and Quadrille I, tying them together by emphasising the appearance of a figure dressed in red, using this as the basis for our untrue history. We used William Logsdail’s Portrait of Goldwynne, An Early Victorian and The Skirt Dance, as they were all in some way related to the artist’s personal relationships. We only used one of Downton’s paintings, Child With Roses, as it linked in to the theme of youth that we showed in Logsdail’s paintings. And we used A Lemon and White Water Spaniel from George Stubbs, as we saw the opportunity to turn the story of the painting into one more personal to the artist. We repeated the event twice, once at 12pm, then again an hour later at 1pm; each one lasting roughly fifteen minutes.
Analysis of process
The main appeal of performing a piece in The Usher Gallery and Collection was that we would be surrounded by the history of Lincoln, and the work of the artists who originated from the city. The Usher and Collection are dedicated to showcasing Lincoln’s local history, specifically the artefacts and artworks from James Ward Usher’s personal collection, and the archaeological discoveries made in Lincoln. To take advantage of this, the Gallery and Collection have a multitude of activities that are open to the public, to encourage participation in the site’s history. The Collection hosts several interactive events, such as teaching schoolchildren about the testudo formation of the Roman legions, or assembling a mosaic out of coloured glass. One of their most recent exhibitions, Viewpoints, asked its audience to define what art was and what it meant to them personally: therefore making the exhibition different to each individual person’s perspective. This idea of perspective would later be an important influence to our final performance
When we started devising a performance, we first looked at the history of the gallery, and the art exhibited there. In the Usher Gallery, there are several portraits of subjects related to Lincoln, such as Lincoln-born William Logsdail’s pictures of his family. Our group had hoped to be able to find other sources, such as scholarly articles, interviews and letters that could be applied to the subjects in the paintings we would choose, crafting a story that would then be recorded by us and played over audio devices throughout the Usher Gallery to create an immersive, atmospheric experience for the audience. They would also be able to read physical copies of the material. We had hoped to use exhibits with a connection to Lincoln’s history, such as the painting of the World War 1 soldier (Lincoln’s manufacturing of the first tanks were vital to the War) or the collection of watches and jewellery donated from the personal collection of the building’s namesake, James Ward Usher. We wanted to emphasise three main themes in our performance: technology, history, and audience perspective. This was the reason for using audio postcards, letters, as well as more modern means of communication like voicemail and e-mail to mix generations. Even at this early stage, we planned to include an element of exaggerated history in these pieces, to see how this would influence the audience’s perspective. However, we were advised that, as there were little elements of performance in our piece, and that it would be better for us to investigate alternate subjects to craft our piece around.
Subsequently, we decided to build the second incarnation of our piece around one theory, as opposed to complicating the performance by having too many theoretical concepts muddying the performance. The upper floor of the Usher is home to a multitude of statues depicting Greek deities, mostly women, in the nude. The idea came to us to explore the idea of the male perspective of the female body, noting that the sculptors of the statues were all men. We determined that the purpose of depicting the statues in the nude was to provide titillation for the male gaze. With three girls and one boy in our group, we decided that our piece would be a subversion of traditional gender roles. The girls would become statues, which would then be moulded into shapes by myself into stereotypical female poses, such as cooking and cleaning. We would then undermine this by having the female members of the group pointedly choose these roles, by taking objects such as rolling pins and cleaning cloths from a box and making their own poses, to remove the element of having this destiny forced upon them.
Unfortunately, before we could pitch this idea it was decided that it would be better for our group if we separated and did two separate performances as pairs. Although the option was left open to my group to stay with the idea we had been working on, we felt that doing it with only one girl would have lessened the effect of the performance, and would have been unfair on the other group that would not be able to perform something that they had also worked on.
On a short deadline to present an idea, we found inspiration when watching John Berger’s television series critiquing the place of art in modern society, Ways of Seeing. In the first episode of the series, Berger showcases the influence of the camera on the way art can be accessed in the modern day. Whereas previously art had been strictly site specific, and unable to be seen anywhere but it’s display place unless it was sent on tour, since the invention of the camera and printing devices the distribution of art has taken many pieces out of their resting place and into wider public access. We saw this as an interesting way to challenge the necessity of art galleries and museums in the modern day; when everyone knows what famous paintings such as the Mona Lisa looks like. Thanks to television and the internet, it is very easy to simply look something up online if we wish to see a piece of art, and printing technology means that any number of copies of a piece can be made to serve as posters, or be manufactured into trinkets like mugs, key rings, fridge magnets or coasters. There are even studios in China that make a living out of reproducing famous pieces of art that are “strictly speaking… not fakes, since the studios are usually careful enough to change the size slightly form the originals” (Kennedy, 2015). We found the idea of different sized replicas technically being different an interesting one, and decided to incorporate this into our performance. Our piece was also inspired by one of the aforementioned audience-interactive activities in the Usher gallery. In the first room of the gallery, there is an activity that allows the participant to take cut up replicas of paintings in the Gallery and assemble them in a manner of their choosing. This too, was a show of the way that art can be replicated to suit a variety of purposes. We wanted to transpose this activity onto a larger format, and investigate the idea of repeated reproduction, such as the replicas manufactured in the aforementioned Chinese studios. We decided to take three different paintings: Child with Roses, Portrait of Goldwynne, and Maria Van Wassenaer Hanecops (A portrait of an aging woman by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt), and two busts; one of Napoleon and the other of Paul Robeson, the singer, actor and political activist. We chose these because of the contrasting nature of the subjects: the three portraits were all of females in different stages of life, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rather fascist political views and high status contrasts with Paul Robeson’s struggle as an African American in the early 20th century.
Our performance was going to take place over 4 hours, in the first and second gallery. We would set up a magnetic whiteboard in the first gallery, then after two hours we would move to the second. We printed off our chosen pieces on magnetic paper, which could then be attached to the magnetic whiteboard. We printed off two copies of each piece, and cut one of the copies into multiple pieces. Our performance would then reassemble the cut-up copies over their whole copies on the white board. The result of this was a copy that was similar in appearance to the original, but was fragmented and similar to a broken mirror in appearance. Creating a copy “destroys the uniqueness of the image” (Berger, 1972, p.19), and we wanted to repeat the process multiple times to invoke the notion of the Chinese studios, of which we would have placed information of on a lectern supplied by a local nightclub. In the end, we decided not to use the copies of the busts, as we felt that a 2D medium did not do a 3D piece justice. This shortened our piece by two hours, which made us consider exploring other paintings that we could link to our theme of life stages.
However, two weeks before the performance date, concerns were raised with us about the level to which the piece had evolved over the course of the seven weeks we had been working on it. Concerned that we had lost sight of the artistic theory we were exploring, and that the piece did not have much in the way of audience engagement, we were advised to find a new project in the hopes of getting a fresh wave of inspiration.
We then decided that we would go back to the idea we had right at the very start of the process, of toying with the idea of perspective and how bending the truth can alter someone’s perspective of art. An example of perspective influencing art that appealed to us was in the first episode of Ways of Seeing. In the first few seconds of the series, John Berger used a knife to cut the face off of a subject in a painting. Though this was later revealed to be a replica of the original painting, the purpose of the exercise was to show how belief in a painting’s history created a greater sense of shock when the painting was destroyed. The idea of how the audience’s perspective of the picture influenced their emotional engagement was very appealing to my group, and we decided to incorporate those elements in our performance. Though obviously we could not take down the original paintings and replace them with replicas we could destroy, we wanted to be able to present a history to the audience with intent to obscure the truth for the audience. With less time than would be ideal, we decided to do a very informal piece, with heavy audience engagement. As mentioned in the framing statement, our piece would take an intimate audience around the gallery, presenting two different stories for each painting we stopped at. We gave six tokens to each participant in the group, and asked them to choose between the two stories and place their token in the tub that corresponded with the story they preferred. We made a note of the results on a card we had with us, keeping a tally for which story the audience preferred per painting. We asked the audience to keep their token if they did not feel the painting influenced their perspective to any significant extent, and at the end of the tour we would see who still had tokens left so we would know which stories had failed to make an impression. In the end though, there was only one token that had been withheld, showing an investment in the exercise by the audience.
We performed our final piece on the 9th of May, at 12pm and 1pm. Our audiences for both performances were relatively small, no more than five people per performance. However, I feel that this was beneficial to our performance, as it meant that the piece was a more intimate gathering with little waiting around, as a larger group would have been harder to organise, and the placing of tokens in the tubs would have taken longer. In hindsight, if we had had more time to prepare we would have been able to do more in terms of advertising, such as putting up posters, but that is a lesson that we can bring forward into our future projects. In the final performance, the interaction with the audience was as succinct as we had hoped for, with the audience members seemingly understanding what was asked of their participation and having clear opinions on which version of history they preferred. For the most part, the audience seemed to prefer the truth of the painting. The votes went as following
- Leontine: Truth: 2, Lie: 3
- Quadrille I: Truth: 4, Lie: 1
- Child with Roses: Truth: 2, Lie: 2
- Portrait of Goldwynne: Truth: 3, Lie: 2
- A Lemon and White Water Spaniel: Truth: 4, Lie: 1
- The Skirt Dance and An Early Victorian: Truth: 3, Lie: 1
Only one presentation, the duo of The Skirt Dance and An Early Victorian, didn’t receive a token back, which may have been due to the amalgamation of the two works’ stories and the two stories not necessarily contradicting each other.
Although the end performance went as well as could be expected, there are still several factors that I would have improved if there were more performances. As previously mentioned, I would do more to improve on our advertising campaign, such as posters and a larger social media campaign. A consistent problem with our piece was the plaques on the wall making the truth of our pieces redundant at times. In the second run through we did our best to position ourselves in front of the plaques, but there is still more that could have been done to negate the information given. If we were doing the performance on a more prolonged basis, we may have seen if we could negotiate with the curator to let us cover the plaques, or even take them down for the duration of the exhibit. This would have given us much more freedom to play with the truth. I would also have taken advantage of more time to prepare to go into more detail of our stories, as at times they felt too brief to have a significant impact. Overall, though our performance was subjected to many hiccups along the way, the process was an educational one, and the end performance went as well as we hoped. As with any performance, there were bits that we felt could have been improved, and parts that could have been improved, both of which we will bear in mind in future performances.
Kennedy, M. (2015) Dulwich picture gallery challenges art lovers to spot the fake. [online] The Guardian. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/12/dulwich-gallery-spot-fake-painting?CMP=share_btn_link [accessed 13 May 2015]
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books ltd