adventures beyond the black square

Lately I’ve been thinking about geometry, or more precisely, about the straight-lined. For me, geometry evokes a pleasant schoolroom setting, protractors, compasses and straightedges (rulers) strewn about desktops. It involved an exotic vocabulary: quadrilaterals, isosceles, octagons, tetrahedrons, etc., conjuring visions of prehistoric creatures and faceted gemstones. A kind of maths I could get my head around, it was Round shapes of a gemstone. Wireframea visual practice that resulted in making objects. I loved filling pages with precise lines and shapes, closing gaps, outlining, filling. It was an opportunity to create beautiful things, and helped me see the patterns that were in everything around me.

When I teach Islamic art, which involves a good deal of geometry, I often find myself struggling to remember the basics and to relay them to Art History students who are rather shocked at being confronted with maths. This has made me think about why these two categories exist separately in Western pedagogy, and why geometric patterns are more associated with engineering than art. I get a kick out of challenging these established modes of thinking – I ask them why they think geometry is ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘naturalistic’, and then ask them to think about snowflakes, or crystals, or DNA. The fact is, geometry is not a modern, industry-inspired style or form – like everything else it evolved from examples found in the natural world, from its underlying structures and patterns. There’s also a stigma surrounding geometry (like maths) that its processes are somehow uncreative, fixed in a way that making naturalistic or gestural lines and shapes is not. As if using a straight-edge robs the artists of his or her expression, or that having to calculate is a distraction from creative thinking. What is lost here is an appreciation for the endless possibilities allowed by geometry, the infinite number of variations and combinations of shapes. This is where designers of Islamic patterns truly shine; by innovating within set rules, finding new paths along those well travelled. Novelty is found only through careful adherence to basic principles and steps. And, for some reason that is not known or understood, the large majority of Islamic designers since the medieval period have preferred straight lines over curvilinear ones – omitting the basic circle that is the basis for any geometric pattern (Eric Broug, a designer and writer, explains this and other key concepts on his website and in his recently published book, Islamic Geometric Design. The V&A collections also have a great learning page).

Lampas silk fragment, 14th c., Spain. V&A museum no. 1312-1864

Lampas silk fragment, 14th c. Spain. V&A museum no. 1312-1864

The Victorians, obsessed simultaneously with nature and with the technologies used to control and tame it, caught on to this tradition in the Islamic world and used it as the basis for developing new, modern designs. Owen Jones and later generations of design reformers used these more mathematically minded traditions, and their roots in nature’s underlying principles, to create patterns which were versatile in their replicability and machine-like finish. The medieval Orient thus came crashing into the modern era, a movement that was not without its critics (of them, John Ruskin was perhaps the most vocal). For many 19th century thinkers, geometric designs sat uncomfortably between the ‘straight-lined’ forms of nature, and the abstract fantasies of the undeveloped, uncivilised mind, which was threatened to warp and stylize ‘actual’ things as the objective, trained eye might see them. For every privileged Victorian authority who embraced difference, there was another one waiting to shut it down, and still others who managed to do both at once. Ruskin, despite being an amateur mineralogist, struggled to accept the use of abstract and geometric forms in art, associating them with the evils of mechanical production.

Christopher Dresser, 'Botanical lecture diagram', c. 1855. V&A Museum no. 3981

Christopher Dresser, ‘Botanical lecture diagram’, c. 1855. V&A Museum no. 3981

But enough about the Victorians. What I really want to talk about, if only briefly here, is the relationship between geometric form and the way different cultures seek to order or make sense of the world. The ubiquitous pie chart, to give an obvious example, holds sway because it is instantly graspable; powerful and authoritative in its simplicity. On the other hand, kaleidoscopes splinter and multiply its subjects to a point of complete obscurity. Both offer ways to organise and reorder space, subjugating the visual experience to the logic of lines and shapes. There is something undeniably reassuring about a patterned surface: evenly distributed, balanced, precise. I’ve always thought it an interesting paradox that societies which produce pattern as a primary visual output have historically been seen as primitive, their artforms as craft. The tendency to cover buildings or objects with ornamentation has been associated with ‘horror vacui’, a term suggesting an innate fear of empty space. Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle claimed. Art historians have read anthropological meaning into certain cultures’ penchant for decoration, particularly nomadic desert peoples who were surrounded by, well, lots of empty space. This fails to account for the raft of other stylistic periods that span the globe, which are liberal in their over-the-top space filling (i.e. Baroque, Victoriana, Postmodernism), and dabbles in a racially or ethnically determined explanation of style which is best left were it belongs, in the past. It also focuses on the issue of quantity rather than the medium or style in question. How much is too much, and who decides?

Mshatta palace facade, 8th century (under Caliph Al-Walid II, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (excavated from site in modern day Jordan)

Mshatta palace facade, 8th century (under Caliph Al-Walid II), Pergamon Museum, Berlin (excavated from site in modern day Jordan)

Where does geometry come into all this? Well, the covering of surfaces with pattern is best achieved through the use of repeated grids (as opposed to pattern radiating outwards from a central shape, which can lead to irregularities), which means that some form of geometric calculation must take place before an object – whether a Greek amphora or an Islamic palace facade – is ornamented. This is something Muslim designers mastered as early as the 7th century. To make a clear, bold statement about the sophistication and power of a ruler and his court, geometric designs were developed (with the help of Euclid), to project from buildings, textiles, furniture, luxury objects and books in a way that boasted mathematical and artisanal mastery. Pattern was a language that everyone understood, if only through its visual and tactile qualities. This is arguably still true today. Successful patterns are ones that catch and hold the eye, and become easily identifiable signs of culture and status, of identity and affiliation. Think of the subtle but important differences between tartan (plaid), check and gingham. Or Louis Vuitton and Cath Kidson. Iconic patterns articulate complex social messages in an instant, and transcend the language barrier through their organisation of colour, line and shape within a repeatable grid. The building blocks that unites them all are the square and the circle, which underpin each and every design that patterns our world.


Whitechapel Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015‘, is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the geometric escapades of modern and contemporary art, with a strong nod to international and ‘non-Western’ traditions which are part of the legacy catalyzed by Kazimir Malevich’s ‘black quadrilateral’, first exhibited in Russia in 1915. I was particularly struck by the way that the curators attempted to elevate geometry under the rubric of abstraction, following the Conceptual Turn. In plain speak – geometry was only considered art-proper when it it became a receptacle for avant garde ideas. Emancipated from the realm of craft and decoration, it was given pride of place amongst other fine/high art modes of production. Standing on a Carle Andre and looking at Dan Flavin’s strip-lit Monument I for V. Tatlinit was clear that geometry for geometry’s sake had no place in the history of Modernism. In their attempt to empty art of all reference, these archetypal minimalist works are always, unavoidably about the Western art canon and its discontents: the triumph of ideas over medium and process. The contemporary galleries confirmed my suspicions – the work of Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia is an overt example of how traditional Islamic pattern is in the service of a concept or idea, in this case it functions to scramble news headlines. According to the curators, it’s the way that Ansarinia ‘links Persian and Arabic decorative arts with Modernism’ that is important here.

Nazgol Ansarinia, from reflections refractions series, 2012, 'Enemies Should Know that Syria Will Never Fall Assad, newspaper collage, 15.6 x 13.4 cm

Nazgol Ansarinia, from reflections refractions series, 2012, ‘Enemies Should Know that Syria Will Never Fall Assad’, newspaper collage, 15.6 x 13.4 cm

What is left out of this and other rather late arriving discussions about abstraction is the value of geometry as a creative practice and form of inspiration in its own right. Its history reaches much farther back than Modernity (a nebulous temporal category in the first place), and often overlaps with representation in that it borrows from and mirrors the underlying features of the natural world – the mostly hidden realms of rocks, minerals and crystals. As my friend and art historian Anirudha Dhanawade has observed, crystals have proved not only to be ‘curious’ in themselves, but have also inspired representations which ‘invite reflection upon the nature of images’. Their clean lines and complex formations appear to our eyes as somehow fabricated or constructed; they are magical, miraculously produced things. The replication and interpretation of these systems and their structural logic is the basis for technological as well as artistic developments, something that is often left out of discussions of the ‘representational’ in art. The Whitechapel exhibition acknowledges this through its second organising category, ‘Architectonics’, but mainly through the lens of Constructivist idealism. Similarly, the ‘Everyday’ picks up on textile compositions by Sophie Taeuber-Arp and truisms by Jenny Holzer as the basis for discussing the slow incursion of geometric abstraction into our daily lives since the birth of Modern art.

If this has turned out to be a critique of ‘Adventures of the Black Square’, then I hope it also acts as an incentive to see the exhibition before it ends (6th of April). I think its clever curatorial vision is worth exploring, and the works themselves (by over 100 artists!) are a feast for the senses. Yet there’s something incredibly partial about its scope – not so much in geographic terms, as it charts a truly global path – but in its pondering of the geometric and the abstract as a Modernist invention, at least in a populist or avant-gardist sense. What about the history (histories?) of geometric art production that can only be considered innovative by an entirely separate criteria? What about artists who perfect the art of elaborating and complicating the rules, rather than breaking them? While we are able to recognise patterns and their association with brands or types of people, the average contemporary viewer has no idea how they are designed or executed. Certain audiences of the past, by contrast, may have grasped the language and principles of geometry in a way that allowed them access to the complex variations of shapes and lines within repeated grids. Indeed, for many it was a dynamic and contemplative act that we might liken to entertainment, or cultural enrichment.


Muqarnas or ‘stalactite’ domed ceiling, Hall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra palace, Granada

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.