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Visualise: Making Art in Context

by Bronac Ferran, Editor
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK, 2013
80 pp. Paper,
£6.99
ISBN: 978-0-9565608-6-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Associate Research Scholar
Department of Transtechnology, University of Plymouth

Bronac Ferrans recent edited book Visualise: Making Art in Context provides a record of events that took place during the program by this name held at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge School of Art in 2011 and 2012. [1] For the Cambridge community itself, both for the university and beyond, the book provides a fascinating and highly readable record of a chapter in the citys most recent history. It bridges its past and its future as it concerns art, science, engineering and technology. It returns us to John Ruskin and invites a consideration of where these contemporary artists fit into the canonical trajectory of British Art History.

There is no statue or bust dedicated to Ruskin in front of the Cambridge School of Art. In fact, as Chris Owen draws from Ruskin in his introduction “
Visualising Cambridge,” what endures is more a matter of word and idea than image, that students must above all be enabled to see, that “to be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true” (John Ruskin, Inaugural Address, October 1858, in Visualise, p. 8). The project was then about putting legacy into action towards the future rather than to create and leave a painting on a wall in a museum or a sculpture in front of a building. As the outcome of a percent art scheme with the funds provided through the construction of the new business school it was an exercise in anti-monumentality in which artists were invited to engage the city and the public in innovative ways.

In the typical percent scheme, one percent of the cost of a new building is set aside for permanent works of public art. However, in the case of the
Visualise program, the decision was made to break with that long tradition, the commission of monuments. Ferrans book, with its contributions by the artiststhemselves, in order, Bettina Furnee, Eduardo Kac, Rob Toulson, Giles Lane and David Walker, Liliane Lijn, William Latham, Alan Sutcliffe, Tom Hall, Ernst Edmonds and Duncan Speakman, should be read in the context of a philosophy of anti-monumentality in contrast to conventional British art history as given in Margaret Garlakes New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society (1998) and James Hymans The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War 1945-1960 (2001) all important studies. There one might notice that the only artist from Visualise included, naturally enough either for reasons of age and prominence, is Gustav Metzger (Garlake pp. 146-148). Accordingly, Ferran concludes that Metzgers presence at some of the Visualise events “remains an honor far greater than a monument” and a handwritten text by Metzger, torn from spiral notebook, is illustrated on the back of the last page, giving him the last word as it were.

In the history of the reception of government supported percent arts in the UK projects that focused on the commissioning of monuments in the post-war period and the propaganda potential of art, critics, and adjudicators vociferously disagreed with each other over the awards. There was often a stark gap between the art critics
positive appraisal of the value and aesthetic importance of the works and the publicsinitial objections. The iconic instance was the disastrous case of Reg Butlers “Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner” (1955-1956), the winner of the ICA international competition announced by Henry Moore in 1952. [2] I find Butlers unrealized sculpture useful for the issue of anti-monumentality in British Art History as it speaks directly to key themes of Visualise, about the relationship between humanity and technology.

Though Butler’s model resulted in such controversy that it
was never made into a monument, it calls for renewed attention in the context of Visualise, for example with Liliane Lijn's Art Industry manifesto that figured large in the Future Fluxus event during the program. Why? Butlers unrealized sculpture was about technology and the future of man as it was in the 1950s. Though Butlers iconic work was, perhaps, too far ahead of its time, it certainly speaks to those who might be interested in looking back at the Cambridge show. The difference seems to be that the bleak view of the future, the profound sense of alienation in Butlers model, is replaced by a romance with technology that allows us to extend art from the purely visual domain into the interactive and socially productive.

Considering there is no chapter on the type of art shown at
Visualise in Elizabeth Mansfields Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and its Institutions (2007), a relatively recent and signal text for 21st Century canonical art history in the United States, how might artists like Eduardo Kac, Liliane Lijn and William Latham fit into an expanded canon? Because of the explicit link to Ruskin and the exercise in anti-monumentality, how might we best situate the Visualise projects in relation to the larger history of British art? How do they return us to Ruskin and his unprecedented success in engaging an expanded public in the appreciation of the arts and for their importance to building more socially conscious and humane industrial societies? That is an important question future canon building texts might ask.

Notes:

[1]. Details of the
Visualise Programme can be accessed at www.visualisecambridge.org and at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rw8gpfmp6ps. For a review of the art and artists in the Visualise show, see: http://www.caldaria.org/2014/06/visualise-making-art-in-context-review.html.

[2]. For a photograph of Butler’s model (see Garlake 1998, pp. 225-227 and Hyman 2001, pp. 158-160).


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