The writers and their chosen artworks

Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland (2018), Matthew Bellwood, Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the challenge of creating and reading a description for my event on 19 July. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.

The artworks that the writers chose to describe were:

  • Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach – Brian Lewis
  • The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer – Matthew Bellwood
  • Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd – Emma Bolland
  • The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker – Peadar O’Dea
  • The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot – Eleanor Snare
  • Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage – Terry Simpson.

IMG_7227Brian Lewis’s detailed examination of an abstract work showed how much was represented in this painting of the pulling down a furniture store in London: Maples Demolition, Euston Road. Through the context of the artist’s body of work and the post-war period, we discovered how the layering of thickly applied oil paint reflected the subject matter and the period. Brian’s use of directional navigation to guide us round the picture was appropriate and effective. The tactile qualities of this work were not lost on us, even though we were unable to touch.

DSC00595Meanwhile, Matthew Bellwood told a fascinating tale of Botany Bay and its links to Leeds. A contemporary work in neon, quite minimal and stark, the layers of The Remains were revealed through research – into the artist’s other work and previous exhibitions, the woollen trade and industry of Leeds, the meaning of words and names, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the erasing of Aboriginal culture in Australia. A complex description arose from a deceptively simple installation. We made discoveries of our own, centuries after Discovery sailed.

EmmaIn the same gallery, showing contemporary works in the collection, Emma Bolland found her route in to her description of Movie through the letter form. This set up a conceptual dialogue with the visitor. Her description was an interrogation of what it means to see or to look at things differently, for gallery visitors to have different perceptions of artworks – from the artist, from other visitors and from curators. In addition, the bright daylight in the gallery all but obscured the moving image element of this installation, a fact that Emma wove in to her description, musing on what is and isn’t visible.

PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-38Peadar O’Dea, with his story of an agnostic Mother Superior, challenged by a novice in The Convent Garden, had introduced disabled characters, “… because I just like to write about disabled characters. I thought: Why not?” And why not introduce a fleeting bluebird, if it improves the plot? Playing around with timelines and describing the poses of the characters “as if caught in a painting” was inventive, introducing humour and playfulness. The painting was originally created to prompt viewers to make up stories. The stories we tell today may be very different from those imagined by the artist.

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around

One of the research participants had suggested that poetry is a good way to bring paintings to life. That was certainly the case with Eleanor Snare’s poem which accompanied The Bridesmaid. She wrote from the point of view of a messenger boy who appears in the foreground of the painting, chosen because he is the nearest person to the audience. Her beautiful poem described the scene with longing and wonder. This proved that a good description need not include every last detail in a picture – that would be boring and difficult to follow. Instead, Eleanor cleverly revealed key details through the observations of the boy.

Terry Simpson chose the mammoth Victorian painting Retribution. Such a significant and well-known (loved?) presence in the gallery seemed an appropriate ending to the event. It’s certainly a controversial picture, painted at the height of the British Empire.
Heroic Britannia is PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46

shown exacting revenge on the Indian tiger. The painting in fact represents a shameful series of events provoked by Britain’s savage treatment of the people of India. Terry was able to put this into context and give a contemporary interpretation. Conflicting feelings arose from this work: condemning the injustice of empire while admiring the representation of a strong woman, “A Victorian super-heroine”.

In the discussions that followed the readings, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination. People picked out phrases or sentences that they particularly liked, or styles that they felt were evocative of a mood, scenario or historic period. Reading the drafts of the descriptions before the event, I had been impressed with the high quality of the descriptions, as well as the varied styles.

 

References

Armitage, E. (1858) Retribution [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Auerbach, F. (1960) Maples Demolition, Euston Road [Oil on board]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Bolland, E. (2018) ‘Silvery, Silvery’ Emma Bolland – Artist, writer, 3 August.Available at: https://emmabolland.com/2018/08/03/silvery-silvery/ (Accessed: 3 August 2018).

Lloyd, H. (2015) Movie [Digital film with sound, fan and fabric]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Palmer, R. (2007) The Remains [Neon]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Tissot, J.J. (1883 – 85) The Bridesmaid [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Walker, F.S. (1878) The Convent Garden [oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.

Ways of Seeing Art

I’d filed a reference to this Tate Exchange and Shape Arts event from February 2017 in my “other” section, something of interest but not in my key documents list. I’d skimmed the information on the website: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art  I noted that the event was about audio description, clearly of interest to me but not the only approach I’m interested in.

Following a proper look yesterday, I’ve reviewed my thinking and moved this resource up the list. Particularly useful was the filmed recording of a panel discussion (pictured below) about audio description. The whole event was organised in partnership with Shape Arts, one of the UK’s main disability arts organisations, controlled by disabled people.

Six people sit behind a table with a screen behind, audience in front.

I learned a lot from the contributions of Zoe Partington, a consultant with a visual impairment who has worked extensively with galleries and museums. Dr Louise Fryer, a teacher of audio description at University College London, also provided lots of insights. Interestingly, both exorted galleries, curators and even artists to be creative about audio describing, to have a go and to experiment:

It’s about bringing galleries to life for everybody including blind and partially sighted people … Have fun! Use description in a fun, creative way to get people through the door. (Partington, 2017)

It’s always good to hear from people who use a service themselves, and in the Shape discussion we hear from visually impaired people who both use and produce audio description. A strong message for getting it right is to work in partnership, with blind and partially sighted people at the centre.

References

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Shape Arts and Tate Exchange (2017) [Workshop series] Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Bibliography

Fryer, L. (2016) An Introduction to Audio Description: A Practical Guide. London: Routledge.

Partington, Z. (2013) ‘Opening Up Creative Culture’ [Video series] Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnviddUNHn5ynIPAXO6x5EQ (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums

Perhaps my key text, this book by Simon Hayhoe (2017) covers his research on why blind and partially sighted people go to art galleries (called museums in this and other texts). Mainly through in-depth case studies, he shows that visually impaired people have as many reasons to visit galleries as sighted people.  To think otherwise shows basically disablist thinking: applying limiting assumptions about how visually impaired people perceive and engage with art.

While I find Hayhoe’s definitions of active and passive exclusion of disabled people confusing and not altogether coherent, particularly when the concept is extended to active and passive inclusion, I have taken a lot from his writing. He seems to have carried out, in more depth, some of my ideas in my research proposal, especially talking to individual blind and partially sighted people in art galleries, particularly New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have chosen Leeds Art Gallery as a focus of my research with blind and partially sighted people for (I think) similar reasons that Hayhoe carried out research at The Met: while Leeds Art Gallery is nowhere near the scale and global reputation of The Met, it nonetheless is Leeds’ most well-known, historic and prestigious gallery, as demonstrated when it re-opened following refurbishment last year (Blow, 2017). I thought it would be more likely that my research participants had visited it before and indeed, several of them know it very well.

Hayhoe robustly challenges the ocular-centricity of art galleries, arguing that this goes hand in hand with the idea that sight is the primary and most important of the senses, which leads to perception through other senses being overlooked and not properly catered for. Hayhoe points out:

As the consumers of fine art – or what we can also call physical, plastic or tangible art – people who are blind find that touch and residual vision play a significant role in their understanding, as it lends something to their emotional appreciation of aesthetics and the purpose of art. (p. 21)

As I shall show through my literature review and other references (e.g. Candlin, 2010; Hetherington, 2003; Pye, 2007), touch provision in art galleries is generally very poor, if it is available at all.

A stone sculpture of a boy seated on a toy train, on the right, is being touched at its base by a kneeling woman
Touching a sculpture in Leeds Art Gallery

Importantly, Hayhoe is one of a growing number of people who argue against blindness and art as being characterised purely in terms of deficit and hopefully suggests that:

We are now on the edge of a new form of the post-deficit model of blindness and a truer understanding of the holistic relationship of creative activity, picture comprehension, and a more complex notion of identity. (p. 43)

My own research aims to take an asset-based approach and to consider whether this is a relevant approach to curation. I have noted Hayhoe’s parallel emphasis on a post-deficit approach.

To end at the beginning of this book, Hayhoe sets out his hypothesis in the preface (his italics):

Artworks hold significance and value beyond their perceptual content, and a misunderstanding of this content leads to exclusion. That is to say, we do not need to see, touch, smell, hear, or taste artworks to garner meaning from them or develop some value in our minds of knowing they exist and understand them. (p. xviii)

I’m looking forward to hearing the viewpoints of blind and partially sighted people in Leeds about the understanding, meaning and enjoyment that they gain from artworks.

 

References

Blow, J. (2017) ‘First Look: ‘Stunning’ rediscovered Leeds Art Gallery roof revealed after decades’, Yorkshire Evening Post 12 October. Available at: https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/first-look-stunning-rediscovered-leeds-art-gallery-roof-revealed-after-decades-1-8801139 (Accessed 25 April 2018).

Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Hetherington, K. (2003) ‘Accountability and disposal: visual impairment and the museum’ Museum and Society, 1(2) pp. 104-115.

Pye, E. (ed.) (2007) The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.