Crossing the Boundaries 2012, ICONS: Abstracts

10:20-11:40am         Panel One

“Papal Archeology and the Catacombs: Early Christian Shrines and the Modern Italian State”

Natalie Espino, Binghamton University Department of History

During the second half of the nineteenth century, liberalism, revolution, and nation-state building challenged the spiritual authority, political power and historical prestige of the Roman Catholic Church. New ruling systems called into question the temporal sovereignty and political privileges of the clergy in general, and the papacy above all. For Italy in particular, the papacy and its temporal dominions represented the final obstacle to the unification of the peninsula and the establishment of a new capital at Rome. For the Catholic leadership, clashes with modern secular powers evoked the accounts of the ancient Roman state’s persecution of the early church. This paper examines the birth of modern Christian archaeology within this context of the nineteenth-century church-state crisis during the Italian Risorgimento. Papal-sponsored exploration of the early Christian Catacombs took place within the larger program of artistic and spiritual revival that commemorated the early Christian communities in Rome, their persecution by the Roman state, and their eventual triumph over paganism.

In the hands of modern papal agents, early Christian history and archaeology would demonstrate the origins of papal temporal sovereignty while defining the geographic territory over which the popes claimed political control. More specifically, care of these burial monuments by early Christian popes served as a precedent for ecclesiastical guardianship of Christian monuments, which were threatened with state confiscation and dissolution. Christian antiquarian rhetoric in the form of archaeological reports, museum catalogs, and tourist guides outlined the historical basis for papal control over Christian antiquities. At the same time, these texts defined these artifacts and sites as icons of current Christian worship, thereby exempt from expropriation under the cultural property laws of the nascent Italian state. While the papacy awaited vindication of history, papal archaeologists may have adopted a strategy to protect the monuments under the terms of either the church or the state.

“Bernal Díaz, Hernán Cortes, and Our Lady of the Conquest”

Kate E. Holohan, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

In The Conquest of New Spain, Bernal Díaz’s sixteenth century account of the Spanish conquest of present-day Mexico, Díaz describes how the Spanish forces, under the leadership of Hernan Cortés, again and again erect “an image of Our Lady” in the indigenous temples that they visit.  Díaz’s descriptions of the removal of cult statues from these temples, and their replacement with Christian crosses and images of the Virgin are formulaic literary devices intended to reinforce the reader’s belief in the “truth” of his narrative.  The devices help to naturalize the Spaniards’ Christianizing activities and thus to acclimatize the reader to the violence that often accompanies them; the reader begins to anticipate the events that Díaz describes, and is encouraged to see their conflation of violence and piety as the essential elements of conquest and conversion.

While the ideological aspects of Díaz’s “conversion” scenes are fascinating, questions of a more material, and art historical, nature also arise.  Were Cortés’ “images” of the Virgin paintings or sculpture?  Who made the images?  We they imported to Cuba, the launching point for Cortés’ expedition, or were they made locally, and by whom?  And, ultimately, what did it mean to replace an indigenous cult image perceived as pagan—and therefore idolatrous—with a Christian one that sixteenth century theologians feared could be confused “with what it merely represented” and veer dangerously close to idolatry itself?

Through a close reading of Díaz’s text and an examination of the primary role of the Virgin in the cultural, political, and religious life of the sixteenth century Spanish world (including a scholarly “excursion” to the Canary Islands and a consideration of the Virgin of Candelaria), I will attempt to elucidate the ways in which the “image of Our Lady” is made to act as guide, symbol, and marker of Cortés’ conquest.

“Making a National Icon: Minjung, Olympic, Museum, and Nam June Paik”

Yuri Chang, Binghamton University, art history

This paper examines the cultural projects of the South Korean state and the role played in them by Korean-born video artist Nam June Paik from the 1980s to the present in order to understand the process of the construction of a forward-looking national icon in a moment of incipient globalization. From the mid-1980s, South Korea initiated a series of cultural spectacles and urban reforms alongside state-led international events — the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul; the 1988 Summer Olympics, also in Seoul; the Taejon Expo ‘93; and the first Gwangju Biennale, held in 1995. Such government-led cultural events, and Paik’s involvement in them, should be read in the context of the political conflicts that have shaped modern Korean society, notably those between the dictatorship of president Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88) and pro-democracy movements, especially the so-called Minjung (People’s) Movement, which criticized the legitimacy of the state on the basis of its quasi-colonial dependence on Japan and the U.S. Paik’s video art and his function as sometime curator played a crucial role in these historical junctures, evidencing the strong ties between his activities and the state’s interests, which have continued even after the artist’s death in 2006.

This study will address how an optimistic image of a globalized Korea was produced through these cultural events, and the particular ways in which they mobilized Paik’s image as an icon of media and technology guru. For example, his video works, and the international exhibitions held at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea during the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, attempted to occlude the clashing political realities of modern Korea with a spectacle of the capitalistic success. The Taejon Expo ’93 deliberately excluded the conflicted history of modern Korea in its connection of pre-modern, traditional Korea to future image suggest in the futurist architectures. In the Expo, Paik’s Fractal Turtle Ship (1993) and media art pavilion can be read as a cultural symbol of this intentional omission. Paik’s role as a curator of the exhibition “InfoArt” at the 1995 Gwangju Biennale (entitled “Beyond the Borders”) contributed to the narrative of globalization with the language of media art and technology in line with the desire of the administration of Kim Young-sam, the first civilian president, for reconciling with the political conflicts in Gwangju and campaigning for globalization and democratic ideal. In sum, this project examines the relationship between the imagined future of Korea as a globalized, technologically advanced nation, as represented in such state-led cultural productions, and the shifting meanings of the work of Nam June Paik.

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12:00-1:20pm           Panel Two

“(Not) Like a Virgin: Contemporary Relics, Sacred Themes and Spiritual Objects”

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Sweet Ceremony”

Melissa Fitzmaurice, Binghamton University, art history

In 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres staged what would be the ninth of his iconic “candy spills.”  What is remarkable about this particular work is its name—untitled, but parenthetically designated “Ross.”  It was the first of the candy spills to include the name of his partner, who died due to AIDS-related illness that same year.  It would be followed by a second candy spill, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),” in the same year; these are two of only four total pieces in Gonzalez-Torres’ body of work to refer to Ross by name, all created in the same year as his death.  Often, Gonzales-Torres’ candy spills are viewed as gifts, generously offered to the audience as a reminder of the sweetness of the love he shared with Ross.  But this idea of a gift is problematically one-sided—it assumes a passive acceptance of what the artist offers.  What if, instead of a generous gift, these works are viewed as a contract between Gonzalez-Torres and his audience—a contract that requires as much from the viewer as it does from the artist?

In his creation of the candy spills, Gonzales-Torres set up a uniquely contemporary ritual analogous to the ceremony developed around the cult of relics in the Middle Ages.  These works require audience participation to function, and as a virtue of this participation, the artist created an experience of contact and reflection.  And I do not think it is too far off to suggest that he was attempting to retain some representation or reminder of his lost companion on earth.  Like the medieval relic, the candy spill is a physical representation of a departed soul—a representation that requires the participation of the public for its creation as memorial.  In my comparison of medieval relic cults and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ contemporary practice, I am not suggesting that the two are completely equivalent or existed under entirely similar circumstances.  Instead, I am offering another method for understanding the work of this artist—a method which takes into consideration the necessity of the audience in order for the work to fully exist and function.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres was creating his candy spills at a particular moment in history—a moment in which Nicolas Bourriaud asserts that the public was “yearning for a return of traditional aura,” after the alienation of modernity.   I will argue that, at this particular moment and through his particular practice, Gonzales-Torres was producing an emphatically contemporary relic.

“The Vulgar Symbol: The Iconography of Léger’s Virgin of the Litany

Emily Leonardo, Hunter College

“The highest power of man consists of understanding the world, virtue, and beauty without the vulgar aid of symbol and the recourse to hidden divinities of the cult of the supernatural such as the Church has foisted on a timid and fearful majority.” –Fernand Léger (1933)[1]

 “The artist, writes Clément, must via a true transcendence of his closed subjectivity, submit to certain canons that allow the work to be faithful to its object. ‘Liberating submission: genius has nothing to lose by it, only narcissism is crucified.’”[2]

Tubular humans, keys, twisting plants, ropes, clouds, ladders, fences–these are the images that reoccur in the work of Fernand Léger.  By recycling familiar images, Léger created an easily recognizable set of prototypes that through their repetition became elevated with symbolic importance.  Léger’s visual language, based on conscious limitations and reiteration, is not unlike that of Byzantine icons.  The icon, as the continuation of a canon, functioned through known prototypes: the enlarged head and eyes, symbolic colors, radiating light, and hieratic composition, together served to establish intimacy with its viewers.  Léger’s disdain for the didacticism of religious symbols, and his unabashed worship of the material object, has been widely discussed by art historians and, of course, by the artist himself; little discussed, is Léger’s latent Catholicism, and the shifting ideologies that prompted him to participate, along with many non-religious members of the French avant-garde, in the decoration of two Dominican churches at Assy and Audincourt in the later years of his career. This project examines the iconography of Léger’s mosaic of The Virgin of the Litany, created for the façade of Notre Dame de Toute Grâce in Assy in 1946, in order to uncover the paradoxes inherent in the creation of a modern icon.

Sacred imagery was not foreign to the artist’s oeuvre: his Adam and Eve (1935–39) and La Grande Julie (1945) incorporated religious motifs, albeit within a wholly secular framework.  However, the permanent mark on the façade of a Catholic Church made by a self-professed atheist and sworn Communist points to ideological contradictions epitomized by the Assy mosaic.  As the commission followed Léger’s joyful return to France after his wartime exile in the United States, the church can be seen as the triumphant realization of a collaborative project finally possible in the postwar era, an emblem of nationalistic pride, and an opportunity for artistic reexamination and renewal.  Therefore, the litany’s subject matter–the intercession of the Virgin to ensure “perpetual health of mind and body”–is particularly appropriate in this context.[3]  The centralized Virgin appears in a circular medallion surrounded by brightly colored polygonal shapes, in which the six symbols of the litany (the Tower of Ivory, the Vessel of Honor, the Morning Star, the Ark of the Covenant, the House of Gold, and the Gate of Heaven) are “randomly placed” and marked by identifying titles.[4] Though Léger insisted that these objects were “integrated in the abstract nonfigurative spirit…[as a] a secondary consideration,” his varying preparatory sketches, several of which do not include the objects, reveal a clear struggle to reconcile pure forms with didactic subject matter.[5] Léger cites inspirations in the American “vulgarity of color” [6] as seen in flashing neon lights, and the transformative mosaics of Hagia Sophia.[7]  Indeed, the abstract, unsentimental, and architecturally integrative elements of Léger’s mosaic can be linked conceptually to the Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic periods.  And despite his rejection of metaphysical symbolism, I believe Léger’s aesthetic approach can be aligned with three fundamental properties of a Byzantine icon: its capacity to provide salvation, its ability to transcend the opposing forces of figuration and abstraction, and its intention to portray pure (meaning non-imitative) iconography (as opposed to the “illusionistic” naturalism of the Renaissance).[8]  It is my intention to prove that Léger found in the uniformity of Byzantine icons a form of “liberating submission” to a common dialectic, which appealed to his strong sense of collective social responsibility after the war.[9]  My study traces the conception of the Virgin of the Litany, revealing how sacred themes, under the guise of symbolic objects, were cautiously woven into Léger’s modernist vocabulary.


[1] Fernand Leger,Discorso agli architetti,” 1933, reprinted in Casabella Continuita no. 207 (September-October, 1955): pp. 69-70.

[2] Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000): 141.

[3] William Rubin, Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961): 119.

[4] Ibid, 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Carolyn Lanchner, “The Years in America,” in Fernand Léger (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998): 237.

[7] Rubin, 117.

[8] Besançon, 137-139.

[9] Ibid.

“Virgin Time”

Josh Franco, Binghamton University, art history

Two icons live in the West Texas desert. Donald Judd’s multiple, serial “specific objects” and an altar marking the apparition of La Virgen de Guadalupe are neighbors in the tiny town of Marfa. The former is a now canonical staple of American and international art history more broadly. The latter is an ecstatic perversion of Colonial Catholicism and Pre-Cortesian female deities. Their currencies lie in different aesthetic, psychogeographical, social, linguistic, and historical realms. However, in Marfa they live side-by-side, their awkward relationship is exposed, ripe for questioning. My work invites them into one another’s worlds. This paper brings the questions raised by the overt spirituality of the altar to bear on the “specific objects.”

What do they mean in their place, if this place ceases to be understood as many constantly rehearse it, as “the perfect blank canvas”? It turns out, with the altar as just one example, that this space was significantly produced long before Judd’s arrival by a population deeply constituted by faith in a spiritual realm. And ceasing to view Far West Texas as a blank canvas requires an accounting of what Judd’s arrival meant for these West Texans, including their faiths. As an art historian, I attempt to get at this meaning through the available works. So rather than eccentric, it becomes imperative to ask, “What is the spiritual nature of the blocks’ concrete presence?” This response is anchored in three features: color, embodiment, and time. “Time” here is both a category of questions and a signal of an imperative: for an art world who has now for decades understood Marfa in a limited, if dynamic, way it is time to think seriously about what else is there. It is Virgin Time.

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2:40-4:00pm             Panel Three: “Conversing with Icons: How Icons Obtain Ideology and Culture”

“Lapses in Memory: Icons, Memorials and the History of Slavery in the American Imaginary”

Tiffany Barber, University of Rochester

In Rebuilding the Monument (1995-99), artist William Pope.L adhered a Xeroxed image of Martin Luther King, Jr. to bags of manure, critiquing the martyr’s legacy and iconic status within the public imaginary. In distributingmartin (2001-), Pope.L injected random batches of supermarket fruit with a rumored strand of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s DNA, thereby dispersing the icon’s mythic body. Artist Kara Walker first troubled the narrative of slavery in 1994 with the exhibition of her hand-cut silhouette cyclorama Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart at the Drawing Center in New York. Taking the question “How do icons acquire the particular value assigned to them?” as a point of departure, Lapses in Memory will focus on the relationship between iconicity, memorialization, and national identity specific to the trauma of antebellum slavery in the United States.

I will focus first on literal monuments because of the specific materials that were often used in 19th and 20th century monument sculpture; for instance, stone, concrete, and bronze, which were all opaque, solid, static materials. After tracing a brief history of the sculptural language of monuments, I will briefly discuss how Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. function as icons through brief analyses of the Freedmen’s Memorial, the Lincoln Monument, the recent installment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and William Pope.L’s artistic interventions Rebuilding the Monument and distributingmartin. Finally, I will use artist Kara Walker’s silhouettes, installations, video and text-based works as a springboard for thinking through counter-monument strategies and the challenges that the memory of slavery poses to the national narrative of progress and liberty. Overall, this paper will explore the politics around the history of slavery in America, the issue of irreconcilability in terms of federal monuments to slavery in the United States, and how this absence in memorialization disturbs the United States’ national narrative of progress and equality. Through the disciplinary lenses of art history, sociology, media studies, memory studies, and cultural studies, this paper will unpack how imagined identities, communities, and nations arrive at and are produced through iconicity in monuments; and how dominant ideologies, grand narratives of statehood and nationhood, and power regimes are each constituted through visual and linguistic codes.

“Bayeux Tapestry: Icon of Conquest”

Heather Allen, Binghamton University

“The Reclining Pregnant Woman on Tour”

Valerie Garlick, University of Connecticut

These are but a few testimonials that speak of one plastinated body from Gunther von Hagen’s Bodyworlds, a travelling anatomical exhibition of preserved, authentic bodies. Posed as a pregnant Venus the remarkable yet complicated, Reclining Pregnant Woman has been on display for more than a decade. My paper begins to untangle this body’s form and content to consider its intersecting signs of motherhood, technology, and appropriation; she is a model that moves to educate, to entertain, and to interrupt disparate cultures and customs.

The flayed and skinless limbs of The Reclining Pregnant Woman bring our gaze to a cut stomach revealing her child inside. She seductively models classical and gendered representations of Western master paintings but unlike other plastinates hers is a most abject body. It is isolated and aesthetic while at the same makes pregnancy explicit in total viscera. This paper responds to various interpretations of the plastinate’s travels spanning over seven years with visits to eleven locations. A specimen, a semiotic, an archive of stopped marginalities, a commodity – each embedded signification that travels with her slides depending on where, or who, she visits. I read between the marvel and the outrage at her body as a complicated marker of travelling iconography. As witness to the accounts of her exhibition, the deconstruction of her visibility reveals new significance and signification at the rest stops of her historic and cultural spheres.

Maria Chaves, Binghamton University

Caliban, Shakespear’s monstrous character has, since Retamar’s famous essay “Caliban,” experinced a growing relevance in political discussions of colonialism, imperilalism and post-coloniality in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, the matrix of characters from The Tempest have continued to garner notoriety in the European context because they are a part of Shakespear’s celebrated ouvre. Consequently, there have been several works inspired by Caliban, such as  Aime Cesaire’s adaptation of the play Une Tempete (1969)  as well as the novels Caliban’s Hour (1997) and Prospero’s Daughter (2006) in addition to numerous academic articles. The earliest film adaptation dates back to 1911( a silent film) and since then there have been two other releases in 1979 and 1982. In 2010, the latest film adaptation, The Tempest , was premiered at the Venice Film festival. It stars Helen Mirren as Prosperto and Djimon Housou as Caliban.

For the first time Prospero is a white woman and Caliban a black man. This paper is interested in interrogating what this latest visual representation contributes to the debate over Caliban as the iconic character of coloniality and post-coloniality. How does this representation adhere to the analysis of Caliban thus far? How does Helen Mirren’s Prospero open or foreclose a discussion of gender and how does this new relation between these two characters affect the possible conversations over colonialism and gender?

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