15th-23rd November 2014 saw the launch of the first UK festival of the humanities. Organised by the School of Advanced Study (University of London), with support from the AHRC and the British Academy, the festival used the theme of King’s College London’s successful 2013 festival: Being Human. Institutions and groups from Orkney to Buckingham offered film screenings, performances, exhibitions and events in an effort to present to the public cutting edge research going on in the humanities and raise general awareness of the role of the humanities in society. The festival organisers provided online advertising, support and booking assistance and linked the various events to a platform which includes a blog featuring descriptions of events and articles about issues facing the humanities within and outside the modern academy.
Experiencing images at the Warburg Institute
The festival became one of the first opportunities for the Bilderfahrzeuge research group to present some of its ideas and approaches to a wider public, following on from the successful workshop on the Rhetoric of Images, and feeding into the developing lecture programme which the group organizes, and which is already attracting new and familiar audiences to the Institute. It also offered the group’s first, but hopefully not last, chance to collaborate with Central St Martin’s (University of the Arts, London). The exhibition, open from 17th November to 12th December was a chance for members of the group, based here in London and at partner institutions elsewhere, to contribute ideas and material to experiment with presenting research in an exhibition format. Rather than simply presenting the research projects of individual group members, the exhibition focused on four broad themes:
– Image Contemplation
– Image Production
– Image Interaction
– Image Collection
This is quite a long post, so if you are interested in reading further, please click here…
Each of these areas, put together by smaller teams within the project, brought together material and approaches drawn from modern political uses of art to ancient monetary production, cryptic and distorted use of images to scientific diagrams. Images and text were brought together to sit alongside objects and books from the Warburg collections. It was a chance not only to present but also to experiment with ideas about the materiality of objects and the relationship between physical and metaphorical movement. This is reflected especially in experiments with mirror imaging of parts of the display and the use of trollies as display space. It also provided an opportunity to present examples of the incredible resources which the Warburg Institute makes available to the research group and to humanities research more widely. Besides the library itself, there are the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection and Archive, as well as external collections housed here, such as the libraries of the Royal Numismatic Society and British Numismatic Society.
Staging the exhibition
As ideas developed during the Autumn leading up to the exhibition, so too did the staging of the material. From original ideas for a table-top display, the group moved to an exhibition designed around four library trollies, part of the furniture and fabric of the Institute as a physical and intellectual space. What is unique about working not just at an institute of art history, but in a library, with its famous open stacks and the movement and circulation of books and ideas? Using trollies helped the group to think about and present a range of issues or questions, which a static display would not have allowed.
First, and perhaps most importantly, this project is interested in the ways in which images move. ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ literally means ‘image vehicles’. Thus, the chance literally to move the images on display and to let other people do the same provided a wonderful opportunity to think about this central theme of the group’s research differently from bibliographical or even archaeological approaches. In particular, it allowed experiments with some of the ideas about movement of images and the impact of that movement, often researched by group members at the level of countries or continents, on a micro-scale.
Above all, for this exhibition, the most important result of using trollies was that the group did not, as in the format of a static exhibition, a book or an article that would have demanded an artificial ordering on the categories of production, interaction, collection and contemplation. As the exhibition texts explored, these ways of understanding images are crucially interdependent. Contemplation inspires production, collection encourages interaction, interaction leads to new types of production which generate new collections, and so it goes round in an infinite web of human relationships with images. Having the four trollies meant that these interdependencies could stand together with no narrative structure implied or imposed by a specific order, and with visitors free to move the trollies as they wished or as made most sense to them.
One of the key things which using trollies also involved, and which was wonderful to see in the library setting, was visitor interaction with the exhibition. Not only did the use of trollies physically embed the exhibition in its library context, but in so doing it also, however briefly, incorporated its visitors into that setting. This interaction was fostered by the other element of staging which was crucial to the exhibition: mirror imagery. The front of each trolley featured a brief outline of the relevant theme and an explanation of some of the books or objects one display, which visitors were encouraged to browse and examine.
The board at the back of each trolley continued the theme from the front, exploring ideas beyond the material held in the Warburg Institute, and setting these in a wider scholarly context. This material, however, was presented in mirror image, with a standing mirror to reveal its meaning. Visitors could move the trollies to discover the meaning printed on the reverse, though many of the images could also be enjoyed and experienced separately fro their accompanying text and without the use of the mirror, thereby enabling new perspectives and interactions, and provoking different dependencies between image and text.
Finally, the objects and books on display were intended to broaden perspectives on how images are presented, experienced and constructed. From a plaster-cast bust to folders of photographs of collections of sculptures, to a catalogue of coins (now often unavailable in their original form), images circulate, are produced and reproduced endlessly. Books chosen for the trolley shelves provided relevant material for visitors to browse, including some of the rare or unusual publications of which the Warburg Institute Library has such a magnificent collection.
A closer look
In no particular order…
Familiarity was the theme of image production. Images may be produced because they are unfamiliar and surprising or startling, or because they are intended to evoke a particular emotion or feeling, or their success and production may depend entirely on being easily recognized in a given social context, as in the case of coins or advertising logos.
The Warburg Institute houses, as well as its collections, a wide array of objects and unique art works, which constitute or contribute to its unique character and history. Amongst these, the image production trolley analysed the life-sized reproduction of Rembrandt’s large painting Claudius Civilis, which sits in the stairwell of the Institute. Aby Warburg commissioned this copy after seeing the original in 1928 and being moved by what he saw as its representation of a uniquely human moment, as the conspirators sit frozen between consideration and action. The painting then moved from Hamburg to London in 1933, and continues to inspire interaction and contemplation.
Image contemplation took an approach focused on the writings of Aby Warburg, in particular concerning the relationship which Warburg saw between humans and contemplation. For Warburg contemplation – the ability to see an image of a frightening reality and by contemplation to control that fear, was a crucially human quality. His own background also included time spent studying medicine and psychology, exploring the physical act of contemplation as well as its effects.
The front of the trolley showed some of Warburg’s scientific diagrams examining human perception of images, as well as a unique, hand-written copy of a chapter from a nineteenth-century dissertation on the subject, one of the gems, which can be found in the Warburg Library.
The rear of the trolley featured a playful interaction between images of Aby Warburg contemplating, including one of him sitting at his desk, painted by his wife, and images of animals contemplating images of animals, raising from different perspectives Warburg’s own questions about the role of contemplation in specifically human relationships with images.
Images intentionally subjected to distortion or requiring devices to see them demand a particular sort of interaction, visible on this trolley in an examination of anamorphosis, which fitted particularly well with the use of the mirror in the display.
The reverse continued this theme in its examination of visual poems and riddles and the use of images as learning diagrams. Here, in the products of the early modern New and Old Worlds, the lines between language and meaning, image and word, became sophisticated playgrounds for educated elites. Tapestries provided another focal point for interaction, not only between images, often printed or painted, which were then turned into designs for tapestries, but also between tapestries and viewers, and the different reactions inspired by interaction with images woven into fabric rather than painted onto wood or plaster.
Collection of images may be an accidental or an intentional activity and may be motivated by aesthetic, economic or other factors. The image collection at the Warburg Institute, for example, presents thousands of images categorized by their iconographic content, and a folder from this collection was available for visitors to browse.
The selection of images for a collection may itself constitute image or meaning, however, and the back of the board reflected on the ways in which artists, such as Eric Beltran have used gatherings of images and their presentation as collections, to convey political, historical or artistic messages.
Putting together this exhibition provided a wonderful opportunity for members of the research group to compare and combine approaches, bringing together elements of the group’s own but also new or related research. Contributions included elements from researchers not based in London, with Pablo Schneider contributing the analysis of Warburg’s reproduction copy of Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis (see above).
It was also a chance to get to know and work with other staff at the Warburg Institute, for whose support the group offers its warmest thanks. In particular, this exhibition would not have been possible without: Dr. Raphaele Mouren, Dr Francois Quiviger, Ian Jones, Dr Paul Taylor. Special thanks go also to the library staff for use of their space, equipment and books!
Finally, following a number of conversations and expressions of mutual interest, this project provided the first concrete collaboration with Mick Finch and Martin Westwood at Central St Martin’s, who contributed to the development of the exhibition idea and generously undertook the printing of the materials. Their experience in exhibition design and installation was crucial, and the group looks forward to working with them in the future.
Participating in the Being Human festival was a rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience for the Bilderfahrzeuge group. The Bilderfahrzeuge group hopes it was for the research associates and for the many visitors, who came to see it. Thank you to you all! Exhibition provides a unique vehicle for presenting research, and an opportunity to reach different audiences to other forms of academic output. It is a particular research interest of some group members and is a hot topic in modern academic discourse for good reason.
The project Research in Translation, also supported by the AHRC, is currently exploring the ways in which research in a range of fields, and as process as well as outcome, might be presented in exhibition settings. Rebecca Darley’s work with that project (here), currently thinking about how it might be possible to exhibit ‘the archive’ as a research concept, looks set to continue the group’s interactions with exhibition design. It is also hoped that the exhibitions like this, and collaborations with Central St Martin’s will also be part of the group’s future work, so watch this space (or an exhibition space near you)!
All images of the exhibition used here courtesy of and thanks to Ian Jones (Warburg Institute).