Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

The Life Cycle of the City: Photography and Urbanism after Disaster @ MiA

I received an invitation from the Curator of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Yasufumi Nakamori, to attend a symposium that coincided with the exhibition of Naoya Hatakeyama’s photographs titled Excavating the Future City. I last saw Hatakeyama’s work in 2009, and I was excited about the opportunity to hear him speak and to see the show. I am so grateful that two of my students could come with me — the conversations and images were of the sort that left you in a strange contemplative space with a want and a need to talk to someone. I was glad that we could hash out these difficult ideas together.

Hatakeyama used his keynote talk to think through his own position as a photographer and his relationship to 3/11 disaster, which consisted of an earthquake, a tsunami, and a subsequent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011. Hatakeyama’s hometown was a small fishing town named Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, which was directly impacted by the tsunami. Hatakeyama’s talk vacillated between extremes — between life and death, between insider and outsider, and between the past and the future. Hatakeyama’s slow and deliberate delivery was set against quickly changing slides featuring his photographs. He asked us how we consider works like this that are factual, but not photojournalism. Images that exist between art and something deeper. Photographs that render us speechless.

Hatakeyama began by showing us photos that he had taken in Rikuzentakata before the tsunami. This record of a town and its life was not in preparation for the tsunami, and yet the images were filled with ghosts. Our relationship with the people and sites in the photos cause us to think about what was lost. Hatakeyama also discussed his own personal grief surrounding the loss of his mother and his hometown, both of which cannot be retrieved. Even during the rebuilding process, the local government will never be able to reconstruct traditional homes and historical sites because of an aging population and a slow, but steady, exodus from rural areas to the more urban Tokyo. It would be rebuilt in a new manner befitting the current residents, who will remember a history that was physically ingrained in and then erased from the landscape.

What was powerful to me was the process of thinking through the various personal relationships we have to disaster. Victims of a disaster extend far beyond the immediate flood zones. Hatakeyama felt very much affected by the tsunami, and yet, was perceived as an outsider by those who directly experienced it in Rikuzentakata. It is a strange sensation to feel so intensely connected to an event, even to the extent of losing one’s parent, but to be on the outside looking in at the physical trauma to the people and the land. And there is that nagging and ever-present sense of “what if” that lingers — what if I had been in my parent’s house; what if I had never left.

Two engaging panels followed the keynote. The first focused on issues of representation. We hard from Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator emerita of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gennifer Weisenfeld, a professor of art history and visual studies and Dean of the Humanities at Duke University, and Manny Fernandez, the New York Times Houston Bureau Chief who covered Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Weisenfeld is an academic hero of mine (I saw a talk by her at UPenn when I was in undergrad, believe it or not). I thought it was valuable to think through not only the power of images, but how they often work in concert with each other to further some message or story about disaster.

The second panel focused on architecture and urban planning around issues of disaster and crisis. It featured Shohei Shigematsu, an architect and OMA Partner whose work includes an urban water strategy for New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy, Kate Knuth, the former Chief Resilience Officer at City of Minneapolis, and William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. As an art historian, I was really intrigued to think about the relationship of visual culture to policy making in today’s world.

After the symposium wrapped up, my students and I went upstairs to see the exhibition, which was impressive. I needed far longer than one hour to process everything in the room and plan on going back soon. One of my students had never really seen (or even seen the point) of seeing photography in an exhibition before that day. I hope that the experience changed her perception of how the exhibition context can change our relationship to photographs that we sometimes take for granted when seen online or in a book. There is a flat, but tactile quality to the image that is hard to express. We spent a long time looking at details, colors, and the use of line in his earlier works on limestone quarries — it was easy to talk about those aesthetically. But the transition to his work on Rikuzentakata really underscored the issue of how we read and comprehend images of disaster.

Lessons Learned: 2nd Annual Art Historians of the Twin Cities Symposium

Thank you to Amy Hamlin for taking this great group photograph of both panels!

Many thanks and congratulations to the Art Historians of the Twin Cities for a second year of fascinating presentations! I was so honored to be a part of this event for a second year running. My paper on crepe-paper books (chirimen-bon) went over better than I had anticipated, and I left with so many new avenues to consider. It was great to hear the work of the six other presenters: Curt Germundson (Univ. of Minnesota, Mankato), Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson (MCAD), Frenchy Lunning (MCAD), Christopher Tradowsky (St. Olaf College), Damon Stanek (MCAD) and Maria Zavialova (Museum of Russian Art).

With symposia such as this one that are purposely constructed to be inclusive of a wide variety of work, it can sometimes be difficult to find themes that unite multiple papers aside from the fact that we are all connected to art history or visual culture in one way or another. But there was one concept brought up by Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson that I kept seeing throughout our papers. Citing Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998), she discussed the artwork of Chris Larson (particularly his recreation of Marcel Breuer’s Kacmarcik House as the “Daylight Center” in Kapenguria, Kenya). She said that Larson’s work was more concerned with the processes of formation, rather than the finished form. Form, she argued, is concerned with what is desired, while formation is concerned with what is possible. Gasterland-Gustafson related this to the collaborative possibilities inherent in Larson’s art. The crucial moment is when the artist’s initial ideas about a project meet the local constraints of environment, workers, and eventual inhabitants. She explained that form served as a blueprint of sorts, with participants bringing the work of art into being.

Christopher Tradowsky comparing the poetry of Wallace Stevens and La Monte Young.

After her paper, I began to see our collective preoccupation with issues of formation. In the first panel, Curt Gemundson explored the work of Carl Buchheister and his idea that copies could somehow liberate us from our obsession with the original work of art (7 years before Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” mind you!) Despite his grand ideas, Buchheister eventually fails in this goal, as he still held on the original work of art, making art speculation possible and thus raising the price out of the price range of those he wanted to be able to afford it. Buchheister, in his own way, seemed to be engaging with these very debates over form and formation, and the problems that arise when we privilege form over the creative process more generally. In contrast, Christopher Tradowsky turned to Fluxus and imperative poetry, and challenged us to take poetry seriously. Over the course of his presentation, he spoke about performing a “Fluxus Festival” with students so that they could fully grasp the goals of this kind of performance. We saw a photograph of his students aggressively pushing a piano into the wall, following La Monte Young’s instruction. But this photograph reminded me that such acts require not only active participants to bring the work to being, but also an ability to relinquish control over a finished product. It is about the process, rather than the “finalized piece,” which could only be documented through the medium of photography (or video). And finally, Frenchy Lunning spoke about the gradual codification of an aesthetic called “hirahira” in girl’s ballet comics (shojo manga). The style derived its name from Japanese onomatopoeia for “flit and flutter.” While Lunning provided us with plenty of finished works to analyze, one of her main points was that ballet manga was, in a way, an act of adolescent self indulgence. At the same time that ballet manga strove to depict the perfection of form through the dancer “on point” at the height of lightness and thinness, the aesthetic itself was often a way of working through the identity formation of young girls defiantly standing outside the world of men.

Q&A for the morning panel.

In the second panel, Damon Stanek allowed us to think through the relationship between jazz and images that were projected on a screen in a gallery space. In a theoretical exegesis that moved between music and art, he asked us to consider the differences between presentation and representation. The question rattling in my mind was the striking contrast between the improvisation of jazz where music avoids the overdetermination of form, and the desire to create works of art intended to preserve that generative process in the gallery space. And finally, Maria Zavialova explored the collection at the Museum of Russian art from the perspective of the curator. She focused her talk on the collecting practices of Soviet Art, and it made me remember that collections go through their own formative processes that are subject to the whims of the market and history.

And with regard to my own paper, I actively chose to focus on how these crepe-paper books came into being, rather than offer an analysis of the final form (which is scholarship already being carried out by scholars more qualified than I). I find that by focusing on process, I am better able to account for voices and narratives typically left out of the history. The labor of women is typically invisible if we analyze these books only in terms of significant artists and publishers. What is infinitely more interesting is how these things come into being through a process of cross-cultural collaboration.

The way that I am seeing form vs. formation is likely a far reach from Bourriaud’s (and by extension Gasterland-Gustafson’s thesis), but it served as a productive way for me think through the variety of work at the symposium. What made the presentations interesting is that each person was invested in the collaborative possibilities inherent in the journey, rather than the destination.

Looking forward to next year!

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