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Blind spots of narration?

Ekphrasis and Laocoön digressions in the novel

Catriona MacLeod

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön essay of 1766 has long been understood as a pivotal moment in the demarcation of the spatializing properties of the plastic arts versus the temporal or narrative properties of literature. This chapter examines the long afterlife of this essay as it reappears as a discursive ‘foreign body’ (akin to and implicating ekphrasis) within a number of novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Going beyond strong critical readings of ekphrases as hostile stand-offs between text and image, however, my analysis of works such as Wilhelm Heinse’s Ardinghello (1787) and Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), will show how, in case of Heinse, the ventriloquizing of Lessing leads to a dynamic novel that is nevertheless saturated with ekphrastic description. Stifter’s novel allows ekphrasis to spread out from its centre, creating an experimentally sclerotic narrative. These hauntings by Lessing reveal not only the entanglement of the modern novel with theories and histories of representation but also its observational stance on its own and the reader’s mediation.

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An artist of the bizarre

Stanley Spencer’s ‘ordinary’ ekphrases

Liliane Louvel

This chapter identifies seven types of ekphrasis in the writings of the artist Stanley Spencer. Selections of these writings have been published, and the chapter explores this particular type of ekphrastic encounter when such ‘an artist of the bizarre’ develops his own search for form, while expressing his philosophy of life at the same time as he is busy writing a ‘defence and illustration’ (to borrow one of Du Bellay’s titles) of his own works. Writing for art takes on a very particular interest for the reader when it means having access to the origins of creation; that is, when an artist is engaged in developing his reflections upon and theories of art. The chapter then argues that Spencer’s writings are hybrid texts much in the same way as novels that mingle narration and description. But here the artist mingles self-reflection (in the diaries and notebooks) together with an epistolary style of address (there is always a receiver at the other end), more or less ‘theoretical’ developments (in the essays), and personal reflection on his own motivations.

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‘Art indeed is long, but life is short’

Ekphrasis and mortality in Andrew Marvell

Keith McDonald

Andrew Marvell is becoming increasingly recognized as a poet who demonstrates a profound connection with the full range of visual arts. However, little attention has been paid to how the remarkable visual quality of Marvell’s work engages with traditional or contemporary debates about ekphrasis. This may seem surprising, as poems like ‘The Gallery’ tempt us into the sort of paragonal opposition between text and image that has become a central characteristic of ekphrastic critical orthodoxy. But Marvell’s work is well suited to revisionist debates that look beyond these binary divisions. Two barely known Latin poems that accompany an unusual portrait of Oliver Cromwell to the Queen of Sweden demonstrate ekphrasis as prosopopoeia, exposing boundaries of language and culture in both visual and verbal modes. When Marvell’s fascination with how lives are represented combines with glass and reflection, we embark upon his ekphrastic encounter: of specific visual and temporal moments that define human mortality.

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What not to collect?

Post-connoisseurial dystopia and the profusion of things

Sharon Macdonald and Jennie Morgan

A key – some might even say the key – curatorial role is to decide what to collect. What, that is, should be preserved for the future? In this chapter, we present ethnographic research with curators of contemporary everyday life. As we show, these curators struggle with a profusion of things, stories and information that could potentially be collected. Moreover, they widely report the struggle to be intensifying. Exploring their perceptions and what these mean in practice in their work, we argue that while neo-liberal and especially austerity politics has an important role in intensifying their sense of anxiety, their experience cannot be reduced to this. On the contrary, their intimation of dystopia is as much a function of other – in some ways utopian – aspirations and politics, as well as of a relativisation of value. These all contribute to transforming the nature of curatorship more widely.

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Walking the fine line

From Samoa with Love? at the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich

Hilke Thode-Arora

This chapter explores the conceptual planning, organisation and reception of the exhibition From Samoa with Love? Samoan Travellers in Germany, 1895–1911 at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich, 2014. It does so by taking into consideration competing obligations among the Samoan descendants and community, the responses of mainstream museum visitors in Munich with no prior knowledge of fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) and the expectations of the Bavarian government, who strictly controlled costs but wanted large audiences. Museums are not as free to create, or as powerful, as is often assumed by outsiders and critics. Being the curator responsible for this exhibition meant juggling positions, demands and interests in a setting affected by Samoan perspectives and claims, German audiences’ pre-knowledge and viewing habits, structural constraints imposed by the Bavarian museum administration system, and even the Foreign Office and diplomatic agendas. For the curator, trying to meet these contradictory demands and reconciling them with her own academic and ethical ideas of curatorship indeed meant walking a fine line.

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Vilsoni Hereniko

Although I am a strong advocate for access to collections in museums and although I see new technologies as a necessary part of this goal, I do not think that technology and its associated impacts and benefits should be the end goal. Rather, they should exist collaboratively with physical museums that mirror the robust developments in digital technology. The physical museum needs to be transformed so that their material collections can stimulate cultural production by living artists and cultural practitioners. This juxtaposition of the past and the present, the dead and the living, ensures that museums remain vibrant and vital spaces for the multicultural communities around them.

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James Clifford

The museum is an inventive, globally and locally translated form, no longer anchored to its modern origins in Europe. Contemporary curatorial work, in these excessive times of decolonisation and globalisation, by engaging with discrepant temporalities – not resisting, or homogenising, their inescapable friction – has the potential to open up common-sense, ‘given’ histories. It does so under serious constraints – a push and pull of material forces and ideological legacies it cannot evade. This chapter explores the ‘times’ of the curator, in terms of both these times we live in, in which curatorial theory and practice seem to be ever-present, and a sense of the curator’s task as enmeshed in multiple, overlapping, sometimes conflicting times. It is concerned primarily with the later, the discrepant temporalities, or perhaps that should be ‘histories’, or even ‘futures’, that are integral to the task of the curator today. In contrast to the history of museum curating, curatorial work in recent years has been transformed by the re-emergence of indigenous cultures in former settler colonies which suggest the decentring of the West. Drawing on research in the USA, Canada and the Pacific Islands, and analysing several diverse case studies and examples, the chapter explores examples of ‘indigenous curating’, that is to say, working with things and relations in transforming times. In doing so, it contributes to a world-wide debate, which this book is part of, about museums and the future of curatorship.

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Thinking and working through difference

Remaking the ethnographic museum in the global contemporary

Viv Golding and Wayne Modest

This ambitious chapter draws on a range of voices to examine what the ethnographic museum is and what it can be for the benefit of diverse audiences around the world. Taking their 2013 publication Museum and Communities: Curators, Collections: Collaborations as a starting point, the authors critically consider their own work internationally, for example with ICOM (The International Council of Museums) and ICOM Namibia, as well as at everyday level with local communities, such as youth groups in Europe. Against increasing fear of difference, and movements to the right in world politics, they foreground the values of human rights, artist collaborations and the development of feminist pedagogy in museum work. Theoretically, the chapter unpacks the notions of the ‘human’, the ‘cosmopolitan’ and the inextricable relation between theory and practice that can underpin collaborative activities in museums of ethnography and world culture today.

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Swings and roundabouts

Pluralism and the politics of change in Canada’s national museums

Ruth B. Phillips

If you are standing on the shores of the Ottawa River looking at the Canadian Museum of History, the national library and archives and other national repositories of Aboriginal heritage, you might well despair at the comprehensive losses of curatorial expertise, programmes of research and will to work collaboratively with Aboriginal people which befell these institutions under the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Looking harder, however, neither the shifting political ideologies nor the era of financial constraint that began with the global financial crisis of 2008 seems to have thrown processes of decolonisation and pluralist representation that began to take root in Canada during the 1990s into reverse. Two exhibition projects that unfolded during that same period provide evidence that the changes in historical consciousness of settler–Indigenous relationships and the acceptance of cultural pluralism have provided a counterweight to the intentions of a right-wing government to restore old historical narratives. This chapter discusses them as evidence of this deep and, seemingly, irreversible shift in Canadian public’s expectations of museum representation. The first involved plans for the new exhibition of Canadian history being developed for the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation in 2017, specifically a fishing boat named the Nishga Girl which was presented by a West-Coast First Nation to mark the successful resolution of its land claim. The second is the Sakahàn exhibition of global indigenous art shown in 2013 at the National Gallery of Canada and which marked a notable departure from its past scope. While utopia has by no means been achieved, neither, surprisingly, was dystopia realised during the years of conservative reaction.

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Jenny Lin

Chapter 2 considers how Shanghai Tang, a Hong Kong-founded fashion brand, exploits Shanghai’s imagined cosmopolitan legacy towards the building of a multinational luxury brand. The author considers the rising political tensions between Hong Kong and Shanghai, as Hong Kong was handed over from British to mainland Chinese rule in 1997. The chapter discusses a 1997 Shanghai Tang advertisement featuring Chinese actress Gong Li, addressing how the image signals the return of class-based society while sanitizing mainland China’s immediate socialist past. This chapter also examines the powerful influence of Shanghai Tang’s founder, art collector Sir David Tang, on the international dissemination of contemporary Chinese art, exploring key Shanghainese painters promoted by Tang, including Yu Youhan, Wang Ziwei, and Ding Yi. Referencing these artists’ connections to Shanghai Tan and also the French fashion brand Christian Dior, the chapter theorizes the rise of a contemporary Chinese art/fashion system. The final section focuses on Shanghai-based sculptor Liu Jianhua, who has been supported by both Tang and Christian Dior, and the artist’s subversion of mainland China’s presumed role as “the factory of the world” through his ceramic-based practice.