“Memories Live in Our Bodies:” Review of Well Contested Sites at Columbia University

Well Contested Sites was part of a three-day symposium at Columbia University, “Art and Mass Incarceration,” Feb. 27th – March 1st

by Irini Zervas

“Over-incarceration is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. We are killing our own country’s future. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower. “ – Randall Robinson, lawyer, author and activist


Walking into the auditorium at Columbia’s Barnard College, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was walking into. It turns out that Columbia’s screening of Well Contested Sites (see link here), a 12-minute film produced in 2012, brought a diverse mix of public policy and art students, lawyers and human rights activists, dance professors and ex-convicts into the same room. The screening was followed by a few audience ice-breakers and a Q-and-A with some of the individuals mentioned above.

The film is a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, Bay Area performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. With Alcatraz as its backdrop, the dancers move about the decaying space in movements that are at times symbolic, cathartic and utterly quotidian. Well Contested Sites’ actors are both its performers and the subjects of the piece. It is these dualisms of subject and object, confined and freed, that play out in the piece, challenging the viewer’s conception of the complex site that is the modern-day justice system.

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“What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” A Collaborative Lecture by Professor Kim de Beaumont

On Wednesday, February 26th the Graduate Student Lecture Series continued in the Zabar Art Library with a presentation by Professor Kim de Beaumont, Ph.D. on her latest research on French eighteenth-century artist Gabriel Saint-Aubin. Professor de Beaumont’s engagement with Saint-Aubin is extensive, having written her doctoral dissertation on his work and guest curating the retrospective exhibition Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780) at The Frick Collection, which opened in 2007 and traveled to the Louvre.

Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l'année 1753, etching Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l’année 1753, etching
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Professor de Beaumont’s talk was a preview of her collaborative lecture entitled “What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” given with her musicologist colleague Dr. Beverly Wilcox from the University of California, Davis on March 1st at the Sixth Biennial Conference of the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Saint-Aubin was a prolific artistic innovator, injecting his scenes of contemporary Parisian social life with imagination, wit and humor. His drawings of the Concert Spirituel at the Tuileries Palace were no exception. A center of activity for Parisian socialites, the Concert Spirituel was an internationally renowned concert space where people went to listen, but also to see and been seen.

Trained as a history painter, Saint-Aubin was no mere documentarian. In the course of her research, Professor de Beaumont has been able to identify many scenes in which Saint-Aubin took liberties with events both on stage and off when his artistic motivations required it. An excellent example was his large drawing of Quinault and Lully’s Armide, in which Saint-Aubin’s Rinaldo wears a sword, despite the fact that at this point in the narrative he had given up arms. He also animated his social scenes with lively gestures and well-thought-out arrangements. In one drawing of the Concert Spirituel, Professor de Beaumont pointed out how the figures resemble musical notation, anchored by a staunch, cleft-like figure to the left. A master of architectural rendering, he altered both decorative and structural elements to suit his vision, adding or subtracting as he saw fit. Saint-Aubin gives us a nuanced view of Parisian contemporary society that he innovatively enlivened and interpreted in a way that had never before been attempted, and would not be for many years to come.

The Graduate Student Lecture Series continues tonight in Zabar Art Library at 7 pm with Wayne Salazar, MFA Candidate, presenting Against Late Postmodernism and Silvia Benedetti, MA Candidate, presenting The Censured Biennial: The Boycott and the Contrabienal.

Megan Hines

Graduate Student Lecture Series

The Graduate Student Lecture Series kicked off Wednesday, February 19th in Zabar Art Library with presentations by Janet Yoon and Francesca lo Galbo. Janet is a Hunter MA candidate specializing in modern and contemporary art. Her thesis on Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and German photographer Thomas Demand will compare both artists vis a vis their explorations on the notion of the everyday, postwar visual culture and memory, and the quasi-documentary or journalist identities of their works. In the course of her time at Hunter, Janet has interned at the Whitney Museum of American Art,  The Drawings of Jasper Johns: A Catalogue Raisonné for The Menil Collection, and The Museum of Modern Art where she is now an assistant in the Paintings and Sculpture department. Francesca is also a MA candidate at Hunter specializing in modern and contemporary photography. Recently completing her coursework, she is currently writing her thesis on the influences of transcendentalism on Edward Weston’s photography.

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 1975
Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 1975

Janet presented her thesis-in-progress, Jeanne Dielman and The Dailies: Chantal Akerman and Thomas Demand’s Hyper-attentive Intentions, in which she explores Akerman and Demand’s quotidian images through the lens of Michael Fried’s concerns of theatricality and absorption. Both artists, using everyday material and the saturation of color and light, employ pure absorption. In Jeanne Dielman (1975), Akerman allows the weight of duration to play out by filming much of the protagonist’s daily routine in real-time. Working from photographs he took from his cell phone, in Dailies (2008 –  Present), Demand similarly focuses on commonplace objects that often go overlooked. Both Akerman and Demand’s simultaneous obsession for detail, relation to the body, and eerie removal from reality recall Minimalist practice by artists such as Donald Judd, Tony Smith, and Robert Morris. What distinguishes them from their 1960s predecessors, however, is Akerman and Demand’s inscrutable artistic intentionality as demonstrated in their fixation on the minutia of the everyday. In the words of Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known…to make the stone stony.” The works of Akerman and Demand embody Schklovsky’s words as they lure viewers into uncanny worlds based on reality.

Thomas Demand, Dailies, 2008-present
Thomas Demand, Dailies, 2008-present

Francesca presented her research paper Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Aaron Siskind’s Pursuit of the Sublime from Max Weintraub’s Fall 2013 Theory and Criticism class . Many are aware of the re-exploration of the concept of the sublime in postwar American painting, but few understand Siskind’s exploration of the concept through his photographic series Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, a study of individual male divers plummeting through a spacious void. The sublime, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Burke, is a physiological experience, inspiring both extreme terror and pleasure in the viewer. Through strategic cropping and a focus on the body’s response to gravitational and centripetal forces, Siskind inspired both terror and pleasure in the viewer with this photographic series. His fellow artists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman similarly aimed to envelop the viewer in a physiological experience, but by way of abstracted color fields. Avoiding the question of the human body, Rothko and Newman averred the universality of human suffering and the possibility of transcendence. Siskind provides an interesting contrast in American artists’ exploration of the sublime; his use of the athletic male body challenges preconceived notions of attitudes towards figuration and the body in postwar art.

Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors and of Levitation , 1954 / print ca. 1972
Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors and of Levitation, 491, 1954 / print ca. 1972

The Lecture Series continues tonight in Zabar Art Library at 7 pm with a presentation by Professor Kim de Beaumont on her recent research.

Megan Hines