breaking earth*

Histories are trapped in the bog lands of County Offaly. As turf is cut and peeled back, remnants of the past are exposed, released into our present. The partial body of Oldcroghan Man, discovered in 2003, now lies behind museum glass in the National Museum of Ireland. Pickled in peat for over two thousand years, the skin on his long arms is remarkably well preserved, retaining something eerily specific, personal. Stabbed, decapitated and cut in half below the torso, he was found near Croghan Hill, an extinct volcano and the site of kingship ceremonies in the Iron Age. His manicured fingernails and plaited armband are indications of high status, and the contents of his stomach (a last meal of wheat and buttermilk) suggest he was sacrificed, possibly after a run of bad harvests. Such narratives, presented in museum captions alongside bog bodies and artefacts, tell of rulers, travellers and thieves that were murdered, punished for their crimes or otherwise betrayed by their kinsmen. Depositing victims in bog pools might have been a further punitive measure, condemning them to a purgatory where high acidity and lack of oxygen prevented their decomposition. A return to earth, but of another, darker kind.

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

View of peat bogs from Craghan Hill, Co. Offaly, Ireland

More recent human casualties have been recovered from the bogs, too close to living memory to be displayed in museums. Objects are also found: barrels of butter, shoes, tools, weapons and ornaments dating from various periods and contexts. Their unearthing, facilitated by industrial mining, produces new histories. Museum curators decide which examples are appropriate, educational or of particular significance; anthropologists and archaeologists come up with theories and explanations to give them meaning. Yet a different logic of preservation runs through and across the layers of peat: an arbitrary historical record that evolves separately from our oral, visual and written narratives. Human histories are filled with hope and tragedy, remorse and redemption, causality and consequence. Bog history is a hall of echoes. Partial and diffused, its objects refuse a cohesive overview of events unfolding, of beginnings, middles and ends.

The Good Hatchery is an experimental initiative that hosts artists, curators and writers in a converted eighteenth-century farmstead near Croghan Hill. Its directors, Ruth E. Lyons and Carl Giffney, with the help of friends and fellow artists, have transformed a former stable and hayloft into an open plan live-work space and lower workshop. It looks onto a central courtyard where hens and cats amble through the detritus of past projects – a stage fashioned from a trailer, a mirrored shed and an enormous canoe carved from the trunk of a nearby fallen tree (Bravo Serotonin, curated by Giffney, 2012) – while a trampoline and Canadian cedar sauna sit like playful invitations. The part-ruined, part-renovated stead once belonged to a much larger estate, its stone borders extending for acres. We begin with a walk through a forest of hazelnut trees and arrive at a peat field, its rows of turf turned and stacked like so many tiny primitive structures.


live-work space, the Good Hatchery

live-work space, the Good Hatchery

We eat, and Ruth tells us about the nearby town of Daingain where a prison barracks-turned-reformatory now houses oversized items from the local museum, which sit like dusty relics hidden from public view: a symptom of the failure of local councils to deal with the atrocities of recent memory. History feels close here, time is heavy. I am one of three volunteers on the Follies of Youth project, a collaborative initiative by Leeds-based arts organisation Pavilion, who have travelled to the Good Hatchery to work with Lyons on a project called Pilot Light. Over five days, and with the generous help of a number of collaborators, we will teach ourselves how to make quicklime, which will be used in an installation on the site of a former Capability Brown landscape in Byram, North Yorkshire, in the coming months. This initial stage is also a conversation with history. We will be performing an anachronism, extracting and refining natural resources as a way of engaging with technologies of the industrial past.

On our second day we collect limestone rocks, testing their veracity with vinegar, lemon juice and hydrochloric acid. If they contain limestone, they should fizz. The acid works best. Next we break them, smashing them into smaller pieces with hammers and drills, opening up their insides. Fossils show themselves in smooth grooves and calculated patterns. Limestone is rich with crystalline calcite, partly comprised of fossilised sea life. Cockles. Shells. Coral. Little puffs of captured time escape into our present moment. Later on we watch films in the bunkroom, a programme vaguely linked to rocks and mining. The earth seems to pull; a dilated moon hangs low in the night sky.

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Doug Bowen and Miriam Thorpe (Pavilion) breaking limestone

Day three sees us build our first kiln with cement blocks. Our efforts are rudimentary; we watch YouTube videos and look at diagrams, guestimate and make adjustments as we go along. We build the kiln collectively, the blocks laid speculatively and then with more certainty. We add a metal flue and christen it Gertie. It is tall and narrow; smoke billows out of its cracks as wood, coal and rock burn for twelve consecutive hours. We take turns stoking the fire and keep vigil with food, music and stories. Ideas collect, hold, disperse.

We learn about the history of the farmstead from its owner, Eileen Hanlon, who lives in the converted coach house. The Magan family, hailing from Galway, built its foundations in the early 1700s on the grounds of a castle. The walled neoclassical manor suffered a fire in 1846, the gutted structure later dismantled by the monks of Roscrea Abbey. Scandal hangs about the Magans: William Henry ‘the Bad’, who continued to live in the gate lodge after the fire, is rumoured to have dressed the resident butcher as a priest and set him alight as a party trick, and to have married his mistress before strangling her to death. A recent visitor to the farmstead reported the sensation of cold hands closing around her neck while she was ascending a staircase. William Henry’s sister Augusta is thought to be the inspiration for Dickens’ Miss Haversham, a wealthy woman who fled her Dublin residence after being jilted on her wedding day. When the Loreto Nuns purchased the property almost fifty years later they found the breakfast room still set for the wedding, and Augusta’s bridal dress draped over a chair.

Hanlon is descendant from the family of caretakers who took over the property in 1908. She is also the gatekeeper of its tales and oral histories. Responding to an online advert by Lyons and her co-founders in 2007, graduates looking for a contemporary workspace and residency venue, she opened a door onto a new era of the property’s history. Artists use the Good Hatchery as a space for converging, talking, eating, thinking and making. It is a safe haven, an incubation chamber and a platform for ideas, located a manageable distance from the bustle of Dublin. Its interior walls have recently been painted with white lime render and a number of its furnishings recycled from the black wooden planks of Lyons’ 2012 architectural installation, The Forgotten Works at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. The bunkroom is black on white and smells of woodstove. Everywhere I am reminded of the soil and rock beneath us.

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

Rows of footed turf in the raised bog lands of Co. Offaly

I meditate on materials. How they come together and fall apart. Their power to preserve, transform and destroy. Lime, peat, rock, soil, matter. The systems of making and unmaking that churn below the earth. How do our interventions interrupt, augment, enhance these movements and cycles, and mark our presence as natural or unnatural? What is modern industry but yet another process? We have entered the age of the Anthropocene, geologists warn, a new stage in which the human impact on the natural environment is indelible and irreversible. Our technologies now rival the earth’s destructive potential, but lack its healing powers. I read on the news that oil mining in the Middle East has exposed the earth’s mantle. The headline evokes a vision of open wounds, of big claw marks tracking across vast territories, of hot bubbling crevasses.

Our first kiln produces only a few chalk-like bits of lime. We decide to try again, following a visit to the ruins of a nineteenth-century limekiln at Ballindoolin estate in County Kildare. Built into the side of a hill, with only a small opening, its design leaves me with more questions than answers, but my collaborators are determined. Back at the Good Hatchery we build a shorter, squatter model and call her Bertha. Our second vigil feels less focused, thoughts and lines of inquiry fragmented and dispersed. The sauna beckons. I ponder, after Lucy Lippard, over the ‘reconstructive potential of an art that raises consciousness on the land, about land use, history and local culture and place’. [i] Are contemporary earthworks as provocative as the colossal land art of the 60s and 70s? Is it enough to simply raise awareness about the fragile state of our planet when our energy demands far exceed its resources? We are on borrowed time. Lippard reminds us that

‘If we fail to heal what Marx called “our metabolic rift with nature”, it will just go on without us. New species will arise to replace the ones we have killed off. We need nature. Nature doesn’t need us. It will simply be a different world.’ [ii]

'Bertha', lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

‘Bertha’, lime kiln attempt no. 2, The Good Hatchery

What that different world might look and feel like is the stuff of science-fiction: toxic gases hanging over deserted cities and suburbs, parched or flooded landscapes, the charred or drowned ruins of civilisation left to rot. In many post-apocalyptic narratives nature emerges victorious, shrugging us off with a disaster and returning to pick up the pieces, mending itself in our wake. The image of the overgrown Romantic ruin holds a special place in our collective unconscious, for it embodies our endgame: our final, inevitable return to earth. For all the recent buzz around ecomaterialism and thing-theory, models that call for a deepened understanding of the human in relation to other ‘things’, both natural and artificial, we may be too late to negotiate a working relationship with the complex ecosystems that make our existence possible.

Downtrodden, broken up, emptied out – our time here will one day be recorded through the ceaseless pressures and flows of nature. Compressed and bound together, fragments of our bodies and material cultures will form constellations under the earth. Perhaps one day they will be discovered by some other civilisation, reordered and given meaning according to categories similar to or perhaps altogether different from deep time, prehistoric time, historical time, ahistorical time, etc. Our stories will be lost, but new narratives and interpretations will spring up in their place, based loosely on the remnants of our anatomies, physiologies, buildings, furnishings, tools, languages and artforms. Evidence will be gathered to explain and shed light on our extinction, the circumstances of our final days and hours. Lessons will be learned.

Bertha yields a generous crop. We watch transfixed as Lyons pours water into a bucket filled with chalky stones. Instantly corrosive, they begin to steam, soften, expand, and almost breathe, exceeding the limits of the container. The volume of the powdery quicklime nearly doubles. It makes me think of sinkholes caused by naturally dissolving pockets of limestone, of fossilised sea life being released after millennia, their delicate lines and textures merging, receding and sinking back into the soil. It is extraordinary and terrifying how nature pulls together temporary worlds; snatches things from our continuum, holds onto them a while, and lets them go. It is not interested in permanence or legacy, and never hesitates to kill its darlings.


*Thanks to Ruth E. Lyons, Eileen Hanlon, Miriam Thorpe, Doug Bowen, Carl Giffney, Emma Houligan, Kathryn McGuire and Barra Dinan for their participation on Pilot Light, and to the directors at Pavilion for their support. 

[i] Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (The New Press, 2014), pp. 8-9.

[ii] Lippard, Undermining, p. 179.

Research as folly, or how to productively ‘ruin’ your research

(Paper given on the session ‘Slow Scholarship in the Digital Age I’ at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, 7-10 July 2014)

Three years ago, almost immediately following my PhD viva, I gave a paper at the IMC, dazed and full of questions about what direction my research would take. Given the transhistorical and thematic nature of my thesis, a monograph seemed the wrong approach, so I set about the task of chopping and changing it into a series of chapters and articles. I learned that the Alhambra, an Islamic fortress-palace turned Castilian residence, turned global tourist destination in Spain, is an historical object far too big for a single study, encompassing multiple material and immaterial histories. The very thing that had attracted me to the monument – its potential to blow apart historical and disciplinary categories – was precisely what made it so difficult to contain. My central assertion – that the Alhambra cannot be understood through a singular synchronic lens, but must instead be viewed across and between its periods of transformation – led me to conclude that through its constant appropriation and reimagining it remained permanently displaced. Throughout my time studying this slippery and illusive object, I dabbled in being a medievalist, an Islamicist, a Mediterraneanist, a Renaissance/early modern scholar, a Victorianist and even a ‘Medievalismist’. Having taken up the problem of ornament or decoration as an intermediary category elided by the Western canon, I also found myself at odds with my own field. Non-Western art historians have made significant headway challenging the discipline’s Eurocentrism in recent years, but progress is slow and methodological tools thin on the ground. My peripatetic and at times combative scholarly journey has led to my having a somewhat pluralistic if not fragmented research profile. As a result I have experienced a great deal of anxiety about how to define my specialism and my work, often against the grain of job specs and postdoctoral funding remits.

The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

The benefit of all this, is that I have learned to see the value in slowing down, in pausing to consider the strengths and versatility of my research, in recalling the joy of writing, researching and teaching. I’ve become more discerning when using the term ‘interdisciplinary’ and developed a more carefully considered rationale for entering into particular collaborations. Rather than grabbing my nearest colleague and leaping through a series of funding hoops, I’ve identified mutually productive links both in and outside academia. I’ve also pursued avenues for my writing that are off the beaten publishing track, and that have allowed me to explore ideas responsively and creatively.

Today I’d like to talk a bit more about my current research and parallel projects that grew organically out of a need to let my research can take on a life of its own. Only some of these activities have led to academic publications, but it has convinced me that the secret to a healthy and nourishing career is allowing space for ideas to evolve, or devolve, in line with the natural rhythms of our interests, influences, preoccupations and concerns. In this way, slow research might be imagined as a kind of ruin – a structure that becomes naturally subsumed and integrated into its surroundings, embodying changes to the researcher and his or her subjects or objects, over time. It is a gradual becoming, incorporating aspects and losing others, eventually coming to resemble something entirely new. In this way we can think of ruins as productive and generative entities, made better by their flaws and failures, a synthesis of the natural and the synthetic.

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, 4 March – 18 May 2014

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain, 4 March – 18 May 2014


There has of late been much talk about ruins. The recent Tate Britain exhibition, ‘Ruin Lust’ attracted a surprising degree of criticism – most of it negative – while conferences and university lecture series have favoured ruin-related themes. In a discussion with a friend about her recent trip to China, we observed the Western-centric fascination with ruins, compared with nations that seem to prefer historic monuments artificially returned to their imagined ‘original’ state. In contrast, British monuments are often restored to a particular stage of ruin, and a number of architectural follies of the Romantic period were actually conceived in this transitory, disintegrating image of the past. A potent symbol of the transience of civilisations and the human condition more generally, Brian Dillon (curator of Ruin Lust) has remarked that ‘we ask a great deal of ruins, and divine a lot of sense from their silence’.

Much like a ruin, my research has shed layers and gone through a number of transformations, with some layers receding and others emerging in response to various outside forces. One shaping factor is my membership in what is being called in sociological circles ‘the precariat’. In our current era of funding cuts and departmental downsizing, it is arguably in my best interests to diversify my skills and areas of interest. But rather than a haphazard or compromising approach, there is potential for me to deepen and enrich my research, and expand my methodological repertoire. Moreover, the benefits of doing independent research are clear: free from the fetters of impact agendas, target outputs and corroborating evidence imposed irrespective of disciplinary distinctions or methodological approaches, it is possible to let one’s research breath and take in the view, so to speak. In the arts and humanities it almost always pays off to nurture a project to maturity, as opposed to cranking out an optimum number of publications to meet quota. While part-time or sessional work may not provide stability, it does allow for the gradual accumulation of knowledge, experience and inspiration from a range of contexts which culminate in more considered, if less frequent, outputs.

I take up the metaphor of the ruin because it has resonance within literary, visual and material histories. It can serve as a reminder of rot and decay, or point to regenerative potential through disintegration. A return to earth. Tim Edensor, in his keynote address at a recent conference, Big Ruins, at the University of Manchester, argued that any building or urban setting fallen into disrepair could be called a ruin, whilst heavily restored and maintained monuments, such as Rome’s Coliseum, could not. By this logic the agent of ruin might be interpreted as neglect, whereas Florence Hetzler has identified ‘ruin time’ as the principle cause of ruin, which also serves to unify. She has defined ruins as ‘the disjunctive product of the intrusion of nature upon the human-made without the loss of the unity of the original structure’. In line with this, each ruin has a maturation time or a cycle of maturation times.

The ruin and its related schools of thought crept onto my radar at the exact point when I was grappling, like so many of us, with the temporal and cultural boundaries that restrict a deeper understanding of historical objects, texts or monuments. It was impossible for me to specialise and acquire the many languages necessary to discuss the Alhambra across its many lives and afterlives. However, having time to contemplate and delve further into different periods opened up a space to consider recurring themes and problems, such as the politics of reception, the dynamics of difference, and the irreducibility of style and corresponding cultural identities. Allowing different periods of production to sit together allowed their seemingly disparate elements to cross-pollinate, and the more difficult or seemingly incommensurate corners of history to emerge. I was thus able to focus on the objects that caused the most problems when I was trying to pull together my thesis into a coherent whole, and, more importantly, consider which categories or lack thereof rendered them so problematic.



To give one example, the secret life of a large marble chimneypiece that occupies an upper room of the Palace of Charles V on the Alhambra grounds, provided me with a fascinating opportunity to discuss both the politics of style in post-conquest Granada, and restoration agendas in the early 20th century. While I don’t have time to explain this case study in any detail here, it reveals the transformation of a commissioned Italian Renaissance fireplace into an altar for use in royal chapel that had formerly been converted from a Nasrid council chamber following the Catholic monarch’s conquest of the Alhambra in 1492. Its integration into the Islamic decorative programme was only discovered and reversed in the 1930s, and its unusual history attests to a crisis of stylistic identity at two distinctive points in history. Taking a cue from Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, I have argued that this might be seen as an example of ‘citation’ through the reuse of art objects, what they describe as ‘the transfer of parcels of coded meaning from one text to another’. While this began as a footnote in my thesis, developing this case study allowed me to isolate and refine my interest in style and its reception across cultures and power identities.


Developing another strain of the thesis, Victorian travel encounters with the Alhambra, led me to spend additional time looking at travel descriptions and testimonies, and the effects these have had on popular and critical historiographies of Islamic art and architecture of the premodern age. Initially interested in the way that a sense of the Islamic Other emerged through these descriptions, I have since broadened my geographical scope to include of surviving monuments and ruins in southern Spain, Portugal and Morocco. This exotic frontier provided a new generation of sightseers with a glimpse of the Islamic world without the inconvenience of long-distance travel to more threatening locations. This influx of tourism would have lasting implications on perceptions of Spain and its Muslim and Jewish heritage, which are closely tied to the historiography that has sprung up around it, from the 18th century to present day. These written and visual accounts also have implications for the way that Muslim cultures in general have subsequently been viewed by European and American audiences. Through the descriptions of early tourists, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of pervasive models of speaking and writing about architecture in the Western world. We can cross reference these with the formation of disciplines, and popular and critical constructions of Otherness. My methodology has thus become decidedly reception focused. I am interested in the phenomenon of experiencing objects; how people approach, encounter and interpret historical monuments, and how these experiences have in turn shaped our current understanding of so-called Islamic visual culture and its place in relation to shifting global perspectives.

This approach necessarily denies a fixed or constant view of the object by introducing human perception as an affective force in the development of our material world, and it upon us. Taking a page from anthropologist Tim Ingold, the growth of embodied skills of perception and action can tell us much about changing relationships between humans, animals and other living and non-living things. Rather than projecting backwards from an artwork or building as a way of understanding artist intent, researchers should adopt a ‘being with things’ approach. In this way they might gain insight into the processes, skills and materials that constitute meaning. By developing an ontology of travel, I hope to isolate particular historical instances of being with objects, and how these encounters shaped popular and critical opinion. For this reason, Mary Louise Pratt’s work on the transcultural also continues to resonate within my work, particularly through her focus on the anthropological event of the encounter.


While I did apply some these theories in my PhD, it has taken much longer to realise the importance of bringing together multiple, individual perspectives to build a larger historiographic picture. The key methodological contribution of anthropology has been the focus on direct experience, both in terms of field research and the nature of human-object relations. Bill Brown’s Heidegger-derived work on thing-theory and Jane Bennet’s more recent forays into ecomaterialism are indicative of part of a new branch of material studies that takes such relations into account. As this field has grown, I have begun to grasp the importance of critically understanding the perceptual frameworks which inform our perceptions of the world and the things in it, which falsely prioritise and grant authority to human subjectivity above all else. To foster a deeper sensitivity to human-object-environmental encounters can also help us to see built and natural environments from different cultural perspectives, and thus circumvent dominant narratives within art and architectural histories.

Focusing in on encounters with Islamic monuments as established destinations throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, I am currently working on a concept of Victorian tourism that considers both passive and active forms of reflection, or more precisely, a negotiation of both the familiar and exotic elements of foreign locales within the structures of leisure travel and commercial tourism. Whether through fascination, wonder and awe; or confusion, frustration and exhaustion, travellers’ descriptions of the built environment reveal a highly reflexive process of situating – or failing to situate – these monuments in relation to existing categories. In turn, their views influenced the expectations of other travellers, as well as popular perceptions of medieval non-Western art forms that were paradoxically situated in Western Europe.

It is important to acknowledge that the development of my postdoctoral research has been informed and augmented by my extracurricular activities, which are varied and often in response to artists, exhibitions or other cultural phenomena. I collect some of these in my blog, Folly Matters, which I use as a mouthpiece for thoughts and ideas around forms of artifice and fakery, a theme loose enough to allow commentary, review and collaborations that touch on my areas of interest. In the spirit of slow scholarship, averaging a post every 2 or 3 months, I have explored everything from actual architectural follies, to reflective discussions about the power of forms of artifice, such as facades and faked documents, to communicate something about human behaviour. I’ve also used the blog as a platform for discussions with artists, where I can explore the interface of theory and practice, extending beyond the limitations of traditional scholarship.

Last year I conducted a dialogue with artist and curator David Steans on the subject of Medievalism in relation to themes that recur in his work. In it we discuss the symbolic currency of the medieval in contemporary art and popular imagination, drawing out dichotomies of the sacred and profane, the ritualistic and the superstitious, as elements of enduring fascination, especially for predominantly secular art audiences. In 2013 I reviewed a work by Matthew Crawley that was a replica of the poster drums found dotted about Leeds, appropriately called ‘temple’. A folly of a sort, I was interested in how the piece projected a subtle anti-commercialism whilst drawing on a modernist or monolithic aesthetic. I have also ventured into other histories in my art writing: discussions with Spanish artist Hondartza Fraga about the surface of the sea and its potency in maritime visual culture led to a commissioned essay for a Leverhulme-funded publication based on her residency at the University of Hull. In it I explore the natural, formal and metaphoric qualities of the sea and their complex relationship to seafaring and whaling technologies. Being able to explore ideas and histories with living artists has shed new light on my own theories of viewing and reception, and allowed new angles to emerge.

My online writing has attracted further collaborations: last year I became involved with the Follies of Youth project organised by the Leeds-based arts organisation Pavilion and a number of volunteers. A number of research-based commissions, interventions and performances have since been developed in relation to the concept of folly, most recently in relation to 18th and 19th century ornamental garden traditions. As part of the next phase of the project I will spend a week as a resident writer at The Good Hatchery, a rustic artist residency in county Offaly, Ireland, responding to a new commission by artist Ruth Lyons. She and a group of volunteers will build and operating a traditional lime kiln as a way of doing hands-on research into early lime production. This will form the basis for Lyon’s subsequent commissioned public piece in Yorkshire in the former Capability Brown designed landscape Byram Park, located near a number of disused limestone quarries, and more recently, Ferrybridge coal power station. Lime will be highlighted as a key binding element in both the geological and industrial history of the area, and a catalyst for discussing a longer history of the human harnessing of natural resources in the service of industry.

Such collaborations have contributed to the diversification and refining of strands of my research. In moving away from a single specialism that might have branded me an Islamicist, or ‘Alhambraist’, or even a medieval Mediterraneanist, to the exclusion of other periods, I have chosen to pursue multiple themes and temporalities that at times cross over and overlap into one another. Art writing has been an effective way for me to explore ideas and write freely outside academia, which has in turn enriched and enlivened my research and teaching. Rather than thinking purely about objects and their histories, my collaborations with makers have allowed me to focus and linger on issues surrounding creative and material processes, and the drive to create art more generally. Moreover, it has made me think about how the past is received and interpreted by audiences, and how hierarchies of perception ultimately determine the value of things.

My continued interest on the superfluous and the decorative, thick concepts that recur within different areas of my research and discussions with artists, has fed back into my academic activities. In March of this year I co-convened a conference with a colleague at Leeds on the subject of ornament, or more specifically its production and reception over time and across cultures. Our call for papers attracted a broad range of scholars who shared an interest and concern for the place of ornament within, or more specifically outside, traditional formal and temporal categories. From this we have plans to publish special issue to highlight the important questions raised by ornament and the middle ground that it occupies in different art and architectural traditions and historiographies. One particular strength of the event was its transhistorical scope, which allowed scholars to discuss ideas in more abstract and thematically focused terms.


These projects, collaborations and events reflect my investment in what the slow scholarship manifesto calls ‘the deep patterns, structures and ideas that are part of cultural foundations’, and, I would add, the inner rumbling engines of artistic production and reception. Increasingly, I see my roles as an art writer and collaborator as equally important to my academic research, and integral to my continued interest in multiple subject areas. After all, if slow scholarship is to be likened to sharing a carefully prepared, organically grown meal in a leisurely fashion, it should be both nourishing and enjoyable, and communicate some of the passion and dedication that went into it. Much like ruin, its layers and complexity should inspire genuine dialogue and exchange, from which something original might emerge.


Ornament: a space between

Review of The Production of Ornament: Reassessing the Decorative in History and Practice, a 2-day conference hosted by Lara Eggleton and Richard Checketts at the University of Leeds, 21-22 March 2014

Last month my colleague Richard Checketts and I organised a conference in Leeds based loosely on our shared interest in how ornament might be ‘productive of its objects and sites’. Our call for papers attracted a large number of proposals from which we selected (no easy task) a diverse but complimentary selection of papers (see full programme here). These in turn prompted an equally rich series of discussions, which opened out beyond the limitations of period style or formal classification. By the close of the second day I was thoroughly convinced that not only is there a need to challenge pejorative associations with ornamentation (e.g. decadence, superfluity, corruption, deceit, etc.), but also for a more careful consideration of its multiple registers of meaning within histories and historiographies of art, design and architecture. How does the failure of terms such as ‘ornament’ and ‘decoration’ point to a liminal or even volatile intersection between form and function, one that creates a space in which to discuss material, context and process of making and consuming within networks of production?

'The Wayland scene' from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

‘The Wayland scene’ from the Leeds Cross, Leeds Minster, 10th c.

Catherine Karkov started off the first day with her paper, ‘Entanglement, Enchantment, Stone: The materiality of ornament in tenth-century Leeds’, which explored the meaning of the interlace patterns found on the stone carvings of an Anglo-Saxon cross currently residing in Leeds Minster. The original function of such crosses relates to wider social practices of story telling and community cohesion at a time when religious and political identities were in rapid flux. Explaining that the Old English word for knotting or binding, ‘cnotta’, can also mean to ensnare, entrap or enchant, Karkov discussed the interlace in relation to the secular and sacred iconography found on the four faces of the cross. While the partial legibility of the heavily restored pictorial components deny a comprehensive analysis, Karkov’s focus on the function of intertwining lines and plaits as a form of social binding was compelling. Drawing the attention of the viewer through and between narrative scenes and contemplative abstractions, the ornament of the cross may have been designed to bring together apposite systems of Christian and pagan belief.

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and 'arabesque' pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550

Lidded bowl, brass with silver inlay and ‘arabesque’ pattern, Damascus, 1500-1550, V&A

Soersha Dyon took us on a materially grounded journey through the Arabesque from its Islamic origins to its subsequent emergence via adaptation in Europe, predominantly through the portable objects produced in sixteenth-century Venice. In questioning to what extent these objects and their patterning were actually perceived by contemporary makers and consumers as ‘exotic’ (versus German wares, for example, which were considered at least equally unfamiliar), Dyon exposed the construction of our own historical perspective. If the arabesque was viewed by Venetian artisans and merchants as a domestic element, why do art historians continue to trace it back to ‘non-Western’ origins? Correspondingly, descriptive terms such as ‘damascene’ might refer to material, process and surface effect, rather than to an Oriental style as such. Primary sources can thus give important insight into how process and technique were concomitant with the development of pattern and motif, and how the development of style was subject to wider networks of production and trade.

Carol Bier continued this discussion of materials with a fascinating paper on the impact of mathematics on the development of architecture in Seljuk and pre-Mongol Iran. Underlining the etymological link between the Persian word for geometry (handasa) and the Arabic for engineer (mohandes), and returning to commentaries found in Arabic translations of Greek mathematical texts, Bier made a convincing case for seeing both number studies and theology as a fundamental part of Islamic architectural design and decoration in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Building plans, features and facades can similarly be aligned with innovations in engineering, logic and other forms of ‘number puzzling’ – products of a competitive court enterprise that turned complex mathematical formulae into powerful and evocative statements of erudition and progress.

The fourth speaker of the day, Steven Lauritano, unpacked the Überbleibsel (German for ‘remnant’), as a categorical holding place between the ruin and the fragment, a word that suggests a certain ‘staying power’ or lasting significance. In his early nineteenth-century descriptions of buildings that incorporated antique elements, architect-designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel utilised the term to denote the resonance of certain objects which held the attention and possessed a certain aura. Parallels with Walter Benjamin’s ‘loss of bloom’, the Überbleibsel problematizes a gestalt-oriented view of the ruin. Whilst the remnant may also be understood in terms of waste and decay – a leftover of history – it can also be given new life through its cycles of reception and appropriation. Precisely how a remnant is to be distinguished from a fragment, and their tenuous relationship to a perceived whole (the building it once was), tests the boundaries of the ornamental and the structural as predetermined categories.

The first of two speakers dealing with the production of cast iron, Jason Nguyen showed the ‘kit of parts’ that characterised architectural projects in seventeenth-century Paris. The division of labour that resulted from competing interests and financial speculation was such that the classically derived banisters and railings of the period came to reflect something of the legal and economic processes and interactions that both enabled and restricted their production. Nguyen demonstrated how the established relations between architects and wood and masonry workshops were upended with the emergence of ironworkers, the ‘obedient’ qualities of their materials requiring a new set of rules and subsequent hierarchies. As iron manufacturing entered into artisanal and patron networks, the value of labour and limits of autonomy were destabilised.

Viollet-le-Duc, 'Warwick armor', c. 1870

Viollet-le-Duc, ‘Warwick armor’, c. 1870

Our first keynote speaker Alina Payne introduced the body as a dominant feature of nineteenth and twentieth-century writings on ornament. Linking nineteenth-century thinkers such as Ernst Kapp and his theory of armour as an extension of the machine (a natural response to the machine replacing manual labour) to Viollet-le-Duc’s obsession with joinery, Gottfried Semper’s tectonic cladding, and Wolfflin’s psychology of architecture, Payne identified the body as a template or starting point for ornamental production within industrial architecture. In its ability to convey a sense of energy – an interior force pushing outwards – ornament can be likened to parts and dynamics of the body, something Le Corbusier would return to in the early twentieth century in his ‘machine for living’. Modernist ornament can thus be seen as growing organically and self-consciously from the mechanisms of the body, even in their ability to ‘swell, expand and contract’. To account for this shifting discourse surrounding ornament, Payne argues that ornament should be understood as a highly versatile and scaleless element, haptic in nature – the ‘nerve endings’ of architecture.

Day two commenced with a paper that explored empathy from an entirely different perspective. Our second keynote, Susanne Küchler, brought with her a wealth of anthropological knowledge, exploring inter-subjectivity in the maritime societies of the South Pacific as the basis for understanding ornamental production. Connecting the ‘logic of assemblage’ with patterning on bodies and objects, Küchler linked ornamental production to performance, repetition, imagination, and social interaction. Communities that share an unmediated experience of the everyday (unimaginable to citizens of post-industrial societies) produce ornament as an extension of their social worlds, imbedding understandings of spirituality and interpersonal links through making. The charting of these systems through acts of material production – whether collective stitching, assemblage or choreography – can be read as sets of societal inscriptions, yet another form of knotting or joining that becomes emblematic of societal bonds (indeed, the carful arrangement of three-dimensional objects used as a kind of legal contract can also be viewed as a form of heraldry). Evoking Barbara Maria Stafford’s ‘echo objects’, Küchler proposed that quilts and transactional objects produced by indigenous societies might be read as compressions of space and time, and as an index of behaviours and the ordering of human consciousness. Moreover, she provocatively suggests that such objects have the potential to communicate across cultural borders through their phenomenological and empathetic dimensions.

Elizabeth Athens followed with an equally rich paper that probed the intermediary space between ornament and natural history. Comparing William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753) with Carl Linnaeus’ botanical text Species Plantarum, published the same year, Athens explored the ‘reanimating of ornament in the service of natural history’ found in Hogarth’s elaborate inventory-style illustrations. Revealing the primary role of ornament in the development of both artistic and natural taxonomies, she explored recurring eighteenth-century debates around the ‘true outlines’ of nature versus the stylisations or abstractions that threatened to corrupt its ‘pure’ essence. Tracing the visual relationships between Hogarth’s natural and artificial objects, Athens considered the subversive and at times monstrous power of ornament to convey the dynamic interrelationships between the living and inanimate, between imagined and material worlds.

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

William Hogarth, illustration from The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste, 1753

Continuing the themes of science and monstrosity, Frances Connelly treated us to a deeply engaging paper on the ‘boundary creature’ of the grotesque. Considered by Giambattista Vico in his 1725 New Science as the ‘original language’, grotesque ornament could bring together disparate elements and communicate complex, poetic ideas through its combinatory effects. In the intermixing of humans and beasts, and the natural with the unnatural, the grotesque has the power to debase, unsettle and torment, producing excess meaning that functions on multiple, metaphoric levels. At once primitive (essential) and highly articulate, the grotesque was a indication of of a society’s ability to reconcile disparate elements. Extending her historical scope to include an analysis of Yinka Shonabare’s recent installations, Connelly unearthed the terrifyingly productive force of ornament in contemporary art, both in its refusal to fit within established categories and its ‘insistence on speaking’.

Men's urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Men’s urinal in Mina Park, Walter McFarlane and Co., Bristol, 1886

Paul Dobraszczyk took us from the grotesque to the obscene in the world of Victorian public toilets (not to be confused with Loos), in a fascinating paper that demonstrated the concealing power of ornament. The decorated cast iron structures that populated the streets of nineteenth-century Britain were explored as semi-private domains that were designed to be both chaste and unobtrusive. In the attempt to hide or disguise their ‘true’ function, manufacturers such as Walter McFarlane and Co. borrowed from Owen Jones’ Alambresque to produce Oriental patterns and mashrabiya-like screens as a way to defer or mask associations with obscenity and dangers associated with these enclosures. Dobraszczyk pointed out that the use of vegetal ornament and the placement of the urinals in green spaces was a further measure of this naturalisation or glamorisation process. The frivolity and humour of the Victorian toilet reveals both conservatism and playful reflexivity, its ornament mediating between the realms of public and private, and the exotic and the banal.

Sabrina Rahman gave a lively penultimate paper on the vernacular folk style produced in early twentieth-century Austria, unpacking the nuanced eclecticism of a surprisingly understudied period. The designs of Josef Frank and other members of the Austrian Werkbund display a unique blend of regional motifs and a range of influences from across the Hapsburg Empire that is simultaneously local and transnational in its composite vocabulary. Yet while these patterns appear minimal and streamlined, almost simple in their sharp primary palettes, they are also rendered indiscernible through their fusion of global styles – from Eastern European to Isnik – what Rahman identifies as a form of ‘diachronic modernity’. Touching for the third time on the universalism of Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, the polylingual Werkbund aesthetic appears to address everyone and no one simultaneously. In speaking, its multiple voices seem to cancel each other out.


Josef Frank, ‘Mirakel’, ca. 1830.

Mark Crinson brought us further into the twentieth century with a focused exploration of New Brutalist wallpaper (what might at first glance appear to be an oxymoron). Asking us to look up, quite literally, from our notes, Crinson shed light on a little-known ceiling installation of an Eduardo Paolozzi wallpaper design. Its immersive surface upsets the typology of interior spaces both through the compositional logic of its pattern and the repositioning of the viewer’s gaze. Its overall surface remains an undifferentiated void while its details (including the insertions of paisley and other recognisable motifs) betray irregularities born of the creative process. Drawing parallels with scientific diagrams and airport landing strips, Crinson discussed the work in relation to technologies of vision and movement through space. Placed above our heads, the wallpaper was possibly meant to operate as what Anton Ehrenzweig called a ‘gestalt-free zone’, a product of the unconscious or that transformed the room into a kind of technical support for the inscription of Paolozzi’s mental acrobatics.

The themes that emerged across the two days were numerous; my own opening thoughts on the chimeric qualities of ornament coming full circle after a journey through through the hybrid and the interstitial; the monstrous, grotesque, the obscene; the contemplative and psychological. The human figure loomed large (along with biology more generally), whether through the design and production of ornament or its theorisation and channels of reception. The recurrence of particular motifs (interlace, paisley, arabesque, polygons, vegetal), materials (stone, wood, iron, textile, ceramic), and processes (engineering, performance, installation, reproduction, translation) demonstrated the breadth and depth of meaning produced through substance, site and context. Ornamental production also emerged as a generative and concretising force throughout history, offering ways to think about societal and cross-cultural relations, as well as a shared human tendency that binds us to these histories and contexts. What became increasingly clear is that there is a need within the discipline (particularly in Art/Architectural History) to redefine the insufficient and fraught category of ornament, and rethink its contingent or incidental relationship to art and architectural objects.

My sincere thanks goes out to all who participated in the Production of Ornament. Please feel free to add your thoughts or continue the conversation below.

Download full conference programme here: The Production of Ornament

Castles made of Sand

2013-11-20 08.57.53Rising from the desert, Dubai is a consortium of ascending shapes that tilt, teeter and bulge, gleaming by day and glowing by night. They form dense forests that scream with architectural bravado, and with nary a solar panel in sight. I enter this place of concrete, steel and glass bewildered; it feels like a dark near future already arrived, the opening scene of a science fiction film, minus the levitating transport (watch this space?). I’m told that sometimes the tops of the buildings catch fire in the blazing heat, explaining the charred skeleton of a tower I point out as we pass. I mostly experience the city from the seat of a car, peering upwards at impossible angles.

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As far as first impressions go, Dubai lives up to its reputation as an empty shell of capitalist ambition. Unfinished building sites, abandoned after 2008, expose wiry, rusted guts protruding from half poured concrete. On the other side of the spectrum, hotel vestibules ring with grand notes of artificiality, dripping with gilded ornament and garish lighting. The coffee is heaven, as rich as the fittings. An aquarium at the Atlantis Palm Hotel and Resort is so enormous, chocked full of artificial ruins and fish of all species, that it threatens to be the highlight of my trip.

2013-11-18 10.38.14Deira shows me something more, with its old port and painted dows moving back and forth across the narrow channel. We enjoy grilled fish in a restaurant that I’m told used to be much cheaper and more ‘authentic’, run by a local fishing family. But the steady stream of comfort-seeking tourists has left its mark here, with factory line furnishings replacing the former character of the place. Tatters are for the Old World, it would seem. Afterwards we get lost looking for the museum sector, and I lose my temper. Newly built heritage villages show us how life was once lived in this desert civilisation, vacant mannequins staring out from staged sets, making traditional crafts and pouring hot drinks. They inadvertently draw attention to a strange and unsettling absence: history has no place here.

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An empire of privilege, Dubai is a city reserved for those who can afford it. Pleasure and indulgence are promised to those who visit and spend. For those destined to construction and service industries, the ceiling stops at the meagre wages that feed their families back home. Air conditioning seeps out from every interior, cold compartments that make the heat bearable in the summer months. I sit on the patio and drink my coffee. I complain because they served it in the wrong kind of cup. The waiters misunderstand my English because I am speaking too quickly. Impatience and cruelty are contagious.

2013-11-20 07.02.57The epic proportions of the Jumeirah Mosque are matched only by the richness of its interiors. Delicate floral designs inlay the marbled entrance where tourists mill about after removing their shoes. The cool surface of the floors is sensuous on my bare feet, and I am suddenly struck by the inappropriateness of such a pleasure in this sacred space. As we move throughout the vast prayer hall I am moved by our barefoot procession, a motley bunch from across the globe (primarily non-Muslim, by the look of many a skewed headscarf) shuffling along the carpeted floors and looking about with jaws agape. This experience is no different than the livestock herding experience of most iconic religious monuments, except that it was built in 1976. The tourist board promotes the ‘open doors, open minds’ policy of the mosque, which offers access to tourists 6 days a week.

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Cars are fast and lanes congested, so when it starts to thunderstorm (a rare event, with only 3-4 days of rain per year), accidents abound. We are driving through the desert when it hits, and the rain collects in the wadis, or dry riverbeds, and overflow onto the roads. It’s dangerous, but exciting. We drive to a hotel at the edge of the emirate to eat, where tourists in the waiting lounge look on lost and disappointed at the downpour – there’s not much to do without the sun. I’m glad their dreams of an effortless packaged holiday have been shattered. I came here as a cultural tourist, I think smugly… but then why then do we find ourselves in the same place?

I come to realise that universalism has come to stand in for internationalism, a bleak reality that is the source of my recurring bouts of despair. Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee chain, has taken off in Dubai (52 locations and counting), and I find myself wanting to return to them because they remind me of home. I’m having a cultural identity crisis, I think, as I sip my predictably mediocre filter coffee and munch my bagel with light cream cheese.

2013-11-23 14.47.59Later, observing from a balcony of the colossal Dubai mall, I’m amazed at the diversity of this place. So many nationalities and regionalities, and all the nuanced pockets in between – and yet it all moves behind a wall of glass, inaccessible and removed from an actual cross-cultural experience. These citizens of the world, a magnificent polyphony, are like so many fish in an oversized, over-embellished tank. They move past each other in shoals as I watch transfixed, always on the outside. In this mall-city we share nothing but the consumer culture that envelops us at every turn.

Art Abu Dhabi is a playground for agents, sponsors and dignitaries, and I find myself strangely out of place. I try to focus on the art, which has a wide international spread but is not on the whole very daring. Over half the works have sold by the private opening, and there are triumphant orange stickers everywhere. The majority of my attempts to discuss artworks are met with business cards and sales catalogues. My own freshly printed cards are regarded with little interest – I learn from an ex-pat curator that ‘Art Historian’ is not a favoured title here, and that criticality and art are not easy bedfellows. I witness this first hand at a panel discussion with Jenny Holzer a few days later, when the famous conceptional artist was cut short after 4 minutes to make room for the heavy-handed promotional agendas of architects and curators. I feel alone in my desire to talk about the ideas and concepts that underpin artistic practice. Surely that is the fastest route to transcultural exchange and understanding? Maybe I’m missing the point.

2013-11-22 10.04.26My glimpses of traditional UAE life were few, and easy to cherish. They happened in the desert, where Emirati culture still exists in some form. Early one evening we passed some vehicles parked in the dunes off the side of the road, with groups sitting together in the sand. I ask what they are doing, and my ever-knowledgeable host explains that this is a normal after-dinner ritual for families, a relaxed social time that is framed by the silence and calm of the desert. I am inspired, and relieved. This is the antithesis of the mall and hotel culture that I thought had replaced whatever culture or history once existed here. I celebrated the desert by riding an Arabian horse with my equestrian friend, and enjoyed a brief sprint across the dunes a few days later. Casting my gaze back on the shimmering dystopia that is Dubai, I found myself comforted by the endless sea of sand that lay between us.

My trip was last November, and now seems like ages ago. I hesitated to write this post because I couldn’t make my mind up about this place and my experience of it. I didn’t expect to like Dubai, for reasons that I have confirmed and clarified above, but it did challenge me in unexpected ways. I’m disheartened by the failure of these new global cities to celebrate their diversity, and by the irreversible damage that capitalism (neoliberalism) has done to the cultural and environmental fabric of the Middle East. At the same time, the UAE is building cities that reflect in no uncertain terms the social and economic realities of our time. It is not a mirage but a mirror held up to our greed, complacency and individualism. Whilst developed nations elsewhere make valiant claims for their attempts at social, racial and gender equality, Dubai is unashamed of its hierarchies. It is a place where the edges of difference are sharp and uncompromising. For all its false pretentions, this city shows its true colours.

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An Indifferent Matter?

Marin R. Sullivan

This is a joint post by Dr. Lara Eggleton of Folly Matters and Dr. Marin R. Sullivan of Sculptural Things.

In the wake of the de-installation of Indifferent Matter: From Object to Sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (25 July – 20 October 2013), two friends and art historians decided to co-write a blog based on our own  conversations about the exhibition and on a casual interrogation of one of the show’s curators, Pavel Pyś (and the mineralogist consultant for the show, Mike Rumsey), over Japanese noodles. The exhibition made waves and rustled feathers, particularly evident through a public programme that included talks by Peter Osborne and Richard Checketts, often calling into account its curatorial motivations.

The controversy sprung mainly from the decision to showcase a number of objects that are clearly – and in some cases famously – designated as artworks alongside artefacts and things not commonly…

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Why the medieval past has presence

Lara Eggleton and David Steans in conversation

Lara Eggleton: Neomedievalism is anything but new. The reuse of medieval themes, narratives and motifs is a tradition within the arts that stretches back to the Gothic revival and neo-paganism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An interest in folklore, which goes hand in hand with revivalism, echoes within the visual and aural practices of many if not all cultures. As an art historian I’m interested in exploring the motivations behind the appropriation of the medieval past at various points in history. As an artist who borrows and incorporates medieval elements into your work, I’m wondering what for you is the basis of their symbolic and/or aesthetic appeal?

Army of Darkness promotional poster

Army of Darkness promotional poster

David Steans: I don’t know as much as I’d like to about medieval history, so I understand the medieval as the synthesis of these ongoing visitations of it. The Middle Ages are like an enduringly popular time-travel destination. If I talk of ‘the medieval’ I’m talking largely of my own subjective, aesthetic, perhaps quite mainstream understanding of it – more Army of Darkness [1] than Decameron. So with that disclaimer in mind…

I think the symbolic currency of the medieval – or what a contemporary reuse of a medieval past might symbolize – has something to do with the intellectual and spiritual ardour of medieval people. In them we see a wealth of ingenuity and imagination, and great endeavour. They fervently seek the world around and beyond them. They are beset on all sides by mysterious and often inimical forces, yet they systematise knowledge and pursue the irrational – which we imagine governs them completely – with a dogged methodical rationality. We’re also interested in the quotidian lives of medieval people, and are as fascinated by the medieval toilet as by the medieval church. For me it is this spectrum of the sacred and the profane, so vividly rendered in our medieval imaginary, that is its aesthetic currency. The medieval world is full of shit and piss and venereal diseases, at the same time as it is totally fantastic. When we think of the Black Death, we share the medieval plague-sufferer’s horror, both at God’s mighty wrath and the inadequate sanitation, both the imminent apocalypse and the failure of medicine.

In talking of how I imagine ‘we’ imagine the medieval, I suppose I’m trying to underline what I understand by the neo-medieval. For me the neo-medieval is like a prosthetic, a strange proxy tool for using history.

LE: I can completely relate to your selective engagement with the medieval – I consider myself more of a ‘medievalismist’ than a bonafide scholar of the period. The other problem with studying monuments and artefacts that date from an age vaguely classified as ‘dark’ is that many scholars are focused on unearthing the ‘truth’ or filling in the missing pieces of its history. This can lead to a dangerous practice of speculation that is motivated by precisely what you’re talking about – our contemporary fascination with the experience of people who lived during this time. You’re right to point out the sacred/profane dichotomy as central to its allure, but I’m wondering about this idea of the fantastical and to what extent it is a product of a post-secular fetishisation of things like magic, ritual and superstition. Can we truly relate to the horrors of these societies, or their deeply religious experience of life, from the armchair of Western Modernity, or are we simply rummaging through history looking for things that appear fantastic to our own sensibilities? I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, but what can it tell us about what’s missing in our own lives?

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

David Steans, Shit Divination Outfit (back), Handmade woolen onesie with bumflap, embroidery, 2009/2011

DS: Of course, it is a fetishisation. What wouldn’t appear fantastic from your armchair?  I think it’s perhaps the more earthly aspects we relate to, or want to relate to. The quotidian medieval, as if it might accord with our own times, or the sense that modern civilisation somehow begins in the Middle Ages. This makes us feel closer to the fantastical, to the horrors, to the spiritual. The question of whether or not we can truly relate is not what’s at stake. Does ‘post-secular’ give the game away as to what’s missing (i.e., the comfort and allure of credulity, belief, rapture, passions, of feeling at the utter mercy of God, or being ignorant of the minor details of a supreme plan)?

I find the myriad forms of divination rites practised in the Middle Ages fascinating in this regard. They are elaborate, ingenious procedures engineered to elicit chance, random gestures or happenings. The engineer believes that if successfully facilitated, otherworldly forces will use these openings to communicate with him. The more elaborate, violent or obscure the method (scapulomancy, oculomancy, scatomancy or anthropomancy, for example) the more these practices can be put to service as metaphor for the human struggle to reconcile the rational with the irrational. If the metaphor is of any use, or even compels, I think it’s probably because trying to talk to God seems a more acceptable sort of scrabble for ‘immortality power’ than that of trying to acquire an inequitable personal material wealth [2].

LE: I like your reading of divination as metaphor as a way of understanding our fascination with the medieval. This idea of ‘accessing’ the divine or the magical is an interesting way of thinking about these practices, and how they appeal to a modern sensibility. Forms of engineering, or indeed, ‘form’ in general, operate at the interface of the material and the metaphysical – they give tangibility to that which is imperceptible. Early Christian icons, for example, are caught between being human constructions and being actual embodiments of holy figures, hence their venerable status. Art historian Hans Belting has subsequently argued that icons should not be considered art objects but as conduits for divinity, or as portals or windows to the sacred realm [3].

These portals can also lead to dark places, and I think it is the inheritance of paganism from Antiquity that makes Christian medieval symbolism so rich and layered. There is an internal tension between polytheism and monotheism, and between Jewish, Christian (and later Islamic) doctrine, that is inherent to imagery and other art forms of the early medieval period, especially in eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium. Iconoclasm emerges out of a fear of the power of the image, and of the sacrilege of idol worship. Do you think that returning to this age where art had such an affective and at times threatening role is a way of reinvigorating art within a secular context? Are artists today trying to recuperate some of this magic (dark or otherwise) within their own work?

Portable Mosaic Icon with the Virgin Eleousa, early 14th century Byzantine, probably Constantinople. Miniature mosaic set in wax on wood panel with gold, multicolored stones, and gilded copper tesserae; some portions restored. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

DS: Artists want to be affective. But there’s also a fear of losing the particularity and reflexivity of contemporary art practice as artists look to entertainment, history, religion, literature, anthropology, and wherever else, for affective models.

As for recuperating magical properties, I think the dynamism of magical process definitely appeals. I think artists would like their work to operate in that way, or operate that well, but with different ends in mind. For the sake of discussion let’s follow Belting, and refuse to consider images that function – as embodiments, conduits, portals, as anything – as art. Artists want to make art, predominately. If you produce an icon, you lose the modern ontological basis for it being art, and for you being an artist. It could be argued that there is no ontological basis for art. But my supposition would still hold. If art has no ontological basis then that becomes the basis for its definition. Therefore, if your art starts to be something else then it’s no longer art, and the artist ceases to be an artist.

LE: I’m glad you brought up the idea of fictions in relation to (contemporary) art making. I think this is relevant to all periods of artistic production, including those that Belting might not accept as part of art history, as least in a Western sense. The fictions and narratives that are produced and perpetuated through icon painting are highly codified, but their variation through individual interpretation arguably puts them in the realm of art, if not a very sophisticated form of craft. The medieval icon painter was expected to anonymously produce icons in a workshop, often with the aid of handbooks or templates, and absolve himself of a sense of personal achievement or authorship. But in this way the painter himself became a conduit for spiritual meaning, creating individually nuanced versions of established tropes.

Belting’s theory breaks down at the point of artifice: for the history of art is ultimately grounded in the construction of fictions (material or otherwise) that help us to make sense of, or reflect upon, the world around us. The problematic nature of man-made devotional imagery is reflected in the emergence of ‘acheiropoieta’, holy images that were purportedly produced through direct contact with holy figures, such as Turin’s Shroud or Veronica’s Veil. But is it possible to separate meaning from the production of an object, at any point in history? I think that what allows art to transcend our immediate sphere of reference is what happens through the process of making, how an object comes into being through the artist’s unique sensibility and world view, an alchemic translation of the (imagined) immaterial through the language of the material. Perhaps there’s some magic in that?

DS: I like to think of art making as akin to magic making. In the past I’ve likened artworks, art exhibitions and creative acts in general to ‘glamouries’ – a glamourie being a Celtic spell in which a lowly or mundane place or thing takes on the appearance of something far grander. I think this is a nice way of thinking about what it is we actually do as artists, or what we have the potential to do. I agree that it is alchemical. I also agree that much of what we’ve been talking about is relevant to all periods of artistic production, within and without art history. So what of the neo-medieval? What do you understand to be the meaning of this term?

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

David Steans, Hand with Finger Missing, 2008

LE: Yes, I suppose I am interested in how artists appropriate historical periods within their work more generally, but I think what we’ve been discussing here – the use of medieval themes and tropes – is quite specific. The schism between the sacred and profane, and the potential for material objects to have metaphysical properties, for example, seems to strongly resonate with many artists working today. As you’ve pointed out, medieval life continues to attract and hold our attention precisely because it is underpinned by such fecund dichotomies.

A final question: in your view does this reuse of the medieval past – a practice we might loosely define in terms of the post-medieval – simply entail a ‘glamorising’ of the mundane?

DS: I don’t think it’s simply about glamorising the mundane, but certainly there is, as you’ve pointed out, always a fetishistic dimension to artists’ plundering of the past (or of anything else for that matter). However I think there is a socio-political bent to our contemporary interest in the medieval. We can locate things there that enable a certain purchase on our own epoch and its predicaments. It also enables us to understand ourselves as belonging to a continuum. The neo- or post-medieval is perhaps a means of gaining perspective on that.

[1] Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, Dir. Sam Raimi, 1992.

[2] Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1975).

[3] Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).


Dr Lara Eggleton is a Visiting Research Fellow and part-time Lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Her current research focuses on Victorian encounters with Islamic art of the Medieval Mediterranean. She is also the author of Folly Matters.

David Steans is an artist currently based in Leeds. He is currently working on an anthology of original short horror stories that go on to inspire related artworks. In March 2013 Steans won the VANTAGE Art Prize, and throughout 2013 is participating in The School of the Damned, a free MA project in London. He is also, along with artists Matthew Crawley and Harry Meadley, co-founder of the Leeds Weirdo Club.