Genesis P-Orridge has been a controversial figure in British art since the late 1960s. This chapter explores the national scandal of the Mail Action (1976), a performance at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court that consisted of P-Orridge’s indecency trial, after the artist was charged for sending pornographic mail art through the Royal Mail. P-Orridge’s performances with and as COUM Transmissions suggest the vital intersections between performance art, pornography, counterculture and crime in London in the 1970s. The Mail Action is placed in dialogue with P-Orridge’s subsequent exhibition (with COUM Transmissions) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in October 1976 to document the threats posed by explorations of sex, crime, controversy and esoteric ritual, in the context of the performance of extremity.
Since the late 1960s, Anne Bean’s performances, public interventions, drawings, videos and writings have been actively pursued as a ‘continuum’, and she strives to diminish the distinctiveness or iconicity of each in favour of a democracy of forms and effects. Bean’s pursuit of a continuum is discussed as a performance of extremity with regard to specific works of performance, as well as her broader assault on critical and theoretical understandings of performance and art, in terms of the potential of performance art to blur the boundaries between art and life. The argument is channelled through the theosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff – a touchstone for Bean in the 1970s – and the dubious critical methods of magic and the occult, ending up at the persistence of her refusal to be fixed or found by history.
An Eight Day Passage (1977) is an exemplary example of a performance of extremity. This chapter looks at Kerry Trengove’s landmark performance of endurance, in which the artist was bricked into a breezeblock cell in a gallery and tunnelled his way out by hand over eight uninterrupted days. The performance was accompanied by a sophisticated invitation to active participation, co-co-creation and conversation by its audience. By reading this work in the aesthetic context of other practices of endurance art in the 1970s and the historical context of the miners’ strikes in Britain, as well as in dialogue with the decolonial pedagogy of Paolo Freire, this chapter discusses An Eight Day Passage in relation to duress, masculinity, limit-acts and limit-experiences, work, agency and relationality.
Unlimited action concerns the limits imposed upon art and life, and the means by which artists have exposed, refused or otherwise reshaped the horizon of aesthetics and of the practice of art, by way of performance art. It examines the ‘performance of extremity’ as practices at the limits of the histories of performance and art, in performance art’s most fertile and prescient decade, the 1970s. This book recounts and analyses game-changing performance events by six artists: Kerry Trengove, Ulay, Genesis P-Orridge, Anne Bean, the Kipper Kids and Stephen Cripps. Through close encounters with these six artists and their works, and a broader contextual milieu of artists and works, Johnson articulates a counter-history of actions in a new narrative of performance art in the 1970s, to rethink and rediscover the history of contemporary art and performance.
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.
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.
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.
Hamo Thornycroft’s The Mower and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’
This chapter applies the idea of a non-hierarchical, creative exchange of meaning to Hamo Thornycroft’s 1884 sculpture of The Mower, and its accompanying epigraph from Matthew Arnold’s 1866 elegy for the poet Arthur Hugh Clough: ‘Thyrsis’. The chapter argues that sculpture and epigraph, taken together, constitute a third intermedial artwork in which the compromised relationship between the aesthetic act and the desire to apprehend the ‘real’ is manifested through a complex series of textual and, more importantly, genre citations – including classicism, naturalism, realism, pastoral elegy and Romantic lyric. These coalesce and interrogate each other in this most ‘realistic’ and ‘democratic’ of Thornycroft’s sculptures to date, establishing a competitive and a co-relational dialogue that is enacted on and by the body of the artwork. Placed in the context of social, industrial and political developments in the later decades of the nineteenth century, sculpture and epigraph combine to reveal ethical, ideological, and moral dimensions that might otherwise remain hidden in what Stephen Cheeke has described as ‘the sensuous field of the visual’ and the logocentric pretensions of the verbal.
The chapter explores the double quality of the image via the work of the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, notably through his notions of ‘exscription’ and touch. In Nancy’s thought, signification and presence, the readable and the visible are articulated in a relation of mutual touching and withdrawal that is lateral, metonymic, and works in both directions. And if this is what W. J. T. Mitchell might term an ambivalent account of ekphrasis, it is not a relation of indifference. Rather, the signifying surface and its non-signifying other are turned towards one another in a non-appropriating embrace. If ekphrasis is a writing-out, it is only in so far as all writing exscribes. And if the image is written out in ekphrasis, the image in its turn exscribes something within it – that which is not reducible to signification. Each mode is inaccessible from within the other, but, in Nancy’s thinking of ekphrasis, they press up against each other at the surface where they meet.
This book offers a comprehensive reassessment of ekphrasis: the verbal representation of visual art. In the past twenty-five years numerous books and articles have appeared covering different aspects of ekphrasis, with scholars arguing that it is a fundamental means by which literary artists have explored the nature of aesthetic experience. However, many critics continue to rely upon the traditional conception of ekphrasis as a form of paragone (competition) between word and image. This interdisciplinary collection seeks to complicate this critical paradigm, and proposes a more reciprocal model of ekphrasis that involves an encounter or exchange between visual and textual cultures. This critical and theoretical shift demands a new form of ekphrastic poetics, which is less concerned with representational and institutional struggles, and more concerned with ideas of ethics, affect, and intersubjectivity. The book brings together leading scholars working in the fields of literary studies, art history, modern languages, and comparative literature, and offers a fresh exploration of ekphrastic texts from the Renaissance to the present day. The chapters in the book are critically and methodologically wide-ranging; yet they share an interest in challenging the paragonal model of ekphrasis that has been prevalent since the early 1990s, and establishing a new set of theoretical frameworks for exploring the ekphrastic encounter.