Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

New Position; Welcome Back to St. Olaf!

It is hard to believe that I just finished my first department meeting of the year back at St. Olaf College! It was wonderful to see familiar faces and to meet a few new ones as well. As you can see, my office is slowly coming together (although still in a bit of disarray). Slowly, but surely, things are feeling more alive.

The past week of orientation and meetings have been a major cause for personal reflection about teaching and learning. One of the key threads that wove itself through these intensive few days has been the importance of equity and inclusion, especially as it relates to our classes, our syllabi, and our connections to each other. It is always worthwhile to have these conversations together in community, rather than trying to parse out their meaning in a vacuum. I can’t help but reflect on several tenants provided to us by Rev. Dr. Jaime Washington, who delivered our keynote address. Without giving away all of the richness of his examples and metaphors, I kept going back to an idea he presented us regarding how to understand inclusion in real terms: a house versus a home. He spoke about inviting someone into your house (that you presumably own or pay for) and telling them to make themselves at home. While the words are coming from a heartfelt place, if the visitor changes something in the house, the owner will likely feel a certain kind of way. “I know I told you to make yourself at home, but this is my house!” Our institutions often operate in this manner. Colleges recruit students and faculty of color, tell them to be “at home” as members of the community, but never allow them to truly be at home. Instead, they are outsiders in someone else’s house. The question becomes how to we change this.

He offered us several tenants or ideas that I’ve been reflecting on (and I post them here for fear of losing them):

  • Communities are built through building relationships of trust and commitment
  • We are all doing the best we can (most of the time).
  • We don’t know all there is to know.
  • Just because you are, doesn’t mean you understand.
  • Oppression is pervasive and impacts us all.
  • Not our faults, but we must accept responsibility.
  • Conflict and discomfort are often a part of growth.
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  • Practice some forgiveness and letting things go.
  • Self-work, healing and self love are necessary for acceptance of others.
  • There are no quick fixes.
  • Individuals and communities do grow and change.
  • There is HOPE!

I’m grateful to have the next few days to think through what these things mean for me, my syllabi, and my students. How can I create a classroom that promotes inclusion and equity; a classroom that belongs to the students, rather than one they merely occupy? I’m open to any and all resources that you may have! Just post in the comments below…

2016 Senior Studio Art Show @ St. Olaf

Hard to believe that the school year is coming to a close. For those of you in the area, there are two exciting culminating exhibitions at St. Olaf College: the Senior Studio Art Show and Between You and Me: Portraits from Flaten Art Museum’s Collection.

I have nine current and former students exhibiting in the Senior Studio Art Show — hard to believe! It will be exciting to see the product of their time here at St. Olaf. I’ve been watching the students install the exhibition in the Flaten Art Museum and the Groot Gallery this past week, and the show looks to be a good one! There are a total of 38 students showing. It will be on view from May 8th to the 29th, with an opening reception from 12pm-3pm on Sunday May 8th and a commencement reception from 10:30am – 12:30pm on May 29th.


Between You and Me: Portraits from Flaten Art Museum’s Collection is an exhibition put together by St. Olaf art history majors as part of the annual series, Lasting Legacy. Students each select and interpret a work of art, and offer their own take on a variety of cultures, time periods, and media. This time around, the students are exploring the role of portraiture in the construction of identity. It features work from artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The show will be on view in St. Olaf’s Print Study Room from May 8th – 29th, and there will be an opening and commencement reception to coincide with the Senior Show.

Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima @ St. Olaf (April 15, 6pm)

This Friday, director Toko Shiiki and composer Erik Santos will be screening and talking about their documentary Threshold: Whispers from Fukushima. If you are in the area, the event is free and open to public and will be followed by a Q&A and refreshments. Threshold is an award-winning documentary that examines the experience of several musicians from the Fukushima area after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of March 2011.

Date: 4/15/2016 (Friday)

Time: 6pm

Location: Tomson Hall 280, St. Olaf College

Official Blurb: Director Toko Shiiki focuses on the role of music as a positive and unifying force that supports a recovering community. She writes, “Finding and nurturing one’s happiness to continue living a healthy life is a fundamental human concern. No matter where we live, we must face this. The people in Fukushima have such inspiring sounds and stories to share with the world. From these positive people, perhaps we might learn and remember something important and unexpected.”

Whether you are in Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, Film, Music, or Art — I think the film will bring a lot of unique perspectives. Congratulations to Kendra Strand for all of her hard work organizing. Hope to see you there!

Flaten Memorial Lecture: Noritaka Minami @ St. Olaf College Today (7pm)

I am extremely excited that Noritaka Minami will be coming from Chicago to give a talk here at St. Olaf College as part of the Flaten Memorial Lecture Series. I have been following his work since we were in the same critical theory courses in graduate school, and he continues to do amazing things in the field of photography. He uses the medium to explore the various histories and memories of specific sites, such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower in his latest book 1972. As the Nakagin Capsule Tower faces an uncertain fate, Noritaka looks to the actual future of the site while invoking the unrealized hopes for an alternative future embodied by Metabolist architecture. 1972 uses photography to traverse these overlapping temporalities, or as he describes, “a vision of the future from the past.”  My students will be examining his project in both the History of Photography and Arts of Japan this semester, but I am (personally) excited to hear about new directions in his work.


Date: 3/7/2016 (Monday)

Time: 7pm

Place: Dittmann Center 305, St. Olaf College


Noritaka will be talking about his path and process, so if you happen to be in Minneapolis, please join us and the Senior Studies students at St. Olaf College in an exploration of his work and career.

Ruminations on Teaching in Another Discipline

Back in December, I was asked if I might be able to teach Japanese Civilization. This was not to be an art history or visual culture course, but a class positioned squarely within the discipline of history. In addition, the course would be taught at “winter interim” speed, which translates to meeting 5 days a week, for 2 hours each day, for four weeks. As of Friday, we have completed 50% of the class in a quick and steady two-week march from the Jomon to the Muromachi. Tomorrow, we get into the sengoku jidai, or the Warring States period. It has been intense! I feel like my hand is constantly on the fast forward button…

I must say that teaching a course that is so deeply related to my own discipline, and yet different methodologically, has been an enlightening experience. I see my work as interdisciplinary, and I’m intimately aware of how historians do from my time affiliated with the History Department at Hokkaido University. But knowing this also makes me sensitive to how my own approaches to teaching and scholarship do not always “fit” concretely within that disciplinary framework. Designing and teaching a history course has given me a new appreciation for the analysis of primary texts, but it has also been self-affirming in a variety of ways. More than ever, I see the importance of using visual culture to help concretize our understanding of a period.

Other professors have commented on the challenges and rewards of venturing outside one’s own discipline in teaching. Adam Kotsko wrote an essay titled “The Courage to be Ignorant,” where he describes his own experiments with the transition from text-based courses to one that explored art/music/architecture in the liberal arts. I agree with Kotsko in that becoming a version of Jacques Ranciere’s “ignorant schoolmaster” causes us to facilitate the classroom differently. I find myself exploring material with a more open mind alongside the first-time readers in the course. The definitive meaning and relevance of certain primary texts have not yet firmly settled. The process reminds me to remain open to interpretation, since the academic “mastery” of content that we cultivate through graduate school and beyond can occasionally shut down and obscure alternative approaches and possibilities.

I surely have my challenges ahead, especially with effectively managing time as the grading picks up, but I’m having a lot of fun with the class. I already know that the lessons learned are going to help me to take a fresh look at my approach to Arts of Japan this spring.

2d5aae7de939e4c25cb0fcb4b4815ea3(As just an aside, I have also had a few crucial realizations… One is that different disciplines tend to compress space and time in different ways at the survey level. As a simple example, several readings that I vetted for Japan’s pre-history tended to deemphasize the long Jōmon period to discuss the Yayoi in more depth, using it to frame later Kofun developments as described in Chinese dynastic texts. But in Art History, the pottery and architecture of the Yayoi is usually a brief mention between the fantastic flame pots and dogū of the Jōmon and the haniwa of later kofun tombs. Quite a difference there!)

A Response to Marcus Young

A clay bowl in your hands.

Touch the earth as you take your food.

Eat with friends, sensing the horizon.

Today, I walked to campus under the shade of burning red maples, and entered a bustling cafeteria sheltering a clay bowl. It made my hands look incredibly small. I circled from station to station choosing only food that would give me pleasure. Some honeydew and cantaloupe; scrambled eggs and black beans. A little sriracha for good measure.  I held the earth in one hand, while delicately arranging my selections. I did not want overlap; I wanted to enjoy each flavor. I wandered in to the seating area, where small blue place-mats were arranged across two tables, and I took my seat at a sunny corner. With the ring of a bell, we began eating in silence among friends. The conversations of the room flowed around us in one mass, and we were invited to think of the horizon and our ancestors; to make eating an artful and aesthetic experience. The sunlight played with my food, highlighting hidden textures and caverns in my eggs and making my fruit glow in luminescent green and orange. I thought about the way that my mother used to make breakfast for me on weekend mornings, and how her mother probably made breakfast for her. I wish I had slowed down to enjoy them at the time now that I am far away. I thought about the sweetness of cantaloupe and honeydew, thanking each soft piece while apologizing to those that were still hard and unripe. Taken too soon. With another subtle ring of the bell, conversation flowed and we compared thoughts and stories. We took three deep breaths, and started the day.



I wrote the above anecdote shortly after eating mindfully with behavioral artist Marcus Young, who has been in residence this week living in the Groot Gallery as part of the St. Olaf Artist Series. His work, Life All Along: Instructions for Living at a Small Liberal Arts College or Someplace Similarly Wonderful, encourages participation in the activities that make up our daily life. During a community time discussion, he explained, “We are all artists creating this masterpiece called our life.” He asked if we ever really wondered if this is all that life is; if all the daily practices add up to what we think life should be. Marcus encourages spontaneity. Students have not only been “eating mindfully” in the cafeteria, but they have been dancing to their own rhythm in the quad, noticing the ringing of the bells and the dancing of pale blue fabric between the autumn leaves. They have also meditated in the gallery and performed Yoko Ono’s cut piece once a day in various locations. In various ways they have followed the instructions of Life All Along to dance foolishly, to eat mindfully, to cut revealingly, to ring regularly, to live artfully, to be quietly, and to live plainly. Small, subtle disruptions in campus routines.

Life All AlongIt has been refreshing. The conversations that have followed have been reflective and insightful: students spoke with me about the inability to slow down in our lives and about our tendency to fill every silence and every gap with a new activity or responsibility. There seemed to be a real desire to press the pause button on routine to enjoy food or company or dance or music. A will to collaborate. A wish to live authentically.

And speaking of spontaneity… Just as I was writing this post music professor Therees Hibbard and her talented students decided to conduct class in the Groot Gallery, where Marcus has been living, and their sounds just came alive throughout our entire building. A happening of sorts, and a change from the routine, but it truly warms the soul. Students stopped in their tracks to listen and faculty emerged from their offices, and it was a real treat to see Therees in her element surrounded by her students. A really beautiful day at St. Olaf.

Pace Prints: A Master Printer’s Perspective

Pace Prints: A Master Printer’s Perspective is currently on display at St. Olaf College’s Flaten Art Museum! The show opened on September 10th (so I am a bit late with the update), but it is open until November 8th. Still plenty of time to check out these amazing prints. Here is the official blurb:


Fine art publisher Pace Prints issues work by some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists. Lesser-known are the master printers, whose technical expertise allows these artists to achieve the precise effects desired in their prints and whose innovations push the boundaries of the medium. This exhibition explores the intertwined relationship between artist and master printer through a collection of more than 20 prints including etchings, lithographs, monoprints, silk screens, woodcuts, and new technologies that synthesize digital tools and traditional approaches. Contemporary artists such as Ghada Amer and Reza Farkondeh, Chuck Close, Tara Donovan, Sol Lewitt, Claes Oldenberg, Kiki Smith, and James Turrell have partnered with Pace, collaborating with master printers to solve thrilling technical puzzles and challenge the boundaries of contemporary printmaking. Curated by Bill Hall, Master Printer, Pace Prints; Justin Israels, Master Printer, Pace Prints; John Saurer, Associate Professor of Art, St. Olaf; Jane Becker Nelson, Director, Flaten Art Museum.


It was great to Rhexia, Paul Morrison (2011)be in the audience for the gallery talk by Justin Israels (Master Printer of Pace Prints) on September 25th, who spoke about the many works on display as “old friends.” Printmaking is collaborative by its very nature, and it was a refreshing perspective on works that sometimes never escape the aura, personality, or dominant narrative of the artist. It was fascinating hear about the challenges involved with finding the right sized pin to create Tara Donovan’s pin matrix relief prints or learning about the process needed to make Corban Walker’s hardground etchings. In all cases, these works would have never been possible without the synergy of the artist’s vision and the technical skill of the printer, whose identity often remains hidden from view.IMG_7215

There are a wide range of prints on display to showcase a variety of processes, but my two favorites were Rhexia by Paul Morrison (2011, linocut, printed by Justin Israels, Kathy Kuehn Bill Hall, Ann Aspinwall & Kyle Simon) and Faith by Jane Hammond (2001, iris print with relief, collage, wood veneer, silver foil, and hand-coloring printed by Ruth Lingen, Kathy Kuehn, Mae Shore, and Andre Ribuoli). The former because it toyed with the visual codes of older landscape prints writ large, playing with scale and style in one gigantic linocut. The latter because who cannot forget the image of a sinking Kamakura daibutsu, candles, and a ballerina on a retro television set. It reminded me of the strange imagery of a tourist poster with the pastel background punctuated by bold forms. Although none were featured at the Flaten Art Museum, Pace Prints has also worked with Japanese artists such as Okada Kenzo, Shibata Yasu, and Nara Yoshitomo.

The secret labor of the printer is nothing new, however! I have been working with nineteenth-century woodblock printed engravings, and I also find that the identity of the printer or engraver, if known, is always overshadowed by the author of the text. Even when the images found in these works become iconic, they are exclusively associated with the writer.

Major Transitions: Filed, Moved, and Starting at St. Olaf College

Me and my awesome advisor, Bert Winther-Tamaki

As I rounded the final stretch of my dissertation, life didn’t give me much opportunity to come and update this blog. It has certainly been a time of major transitions for me, both personally and professionally. I am jazzed to report that my dissertation, Ainu Fever: Indigenous Representation in a Transnational Visual Economy, 1868 – 1933, has been filed with the University of California, Irvine for Ph.D. in Visual Studies. This closes a long and important chapter of my academic life! After so many years of research–both in the United States and Japan–it is hard to believe that the 300+ page document is finally wrapped up. Dissertations are works-in-progress in so many ways, and I look forward to seeing the new ways that it will evolve in the coming years… But for now, I plan on enjoying the huge wave of relief!


This is a photograph of “Old Main” at St. Olaf College. It reminds me so much of Akarenga in Sapporo.

But perhaps more crucial than the dissertation, I accepted a position as a visiting assistant professor. We arrived here in Northfield, MN after an arduous road trip across the country and I am thrilled to call St. Olaf College my home for 2015-2016. I will be teaching four courses here: History of World Architecture (Fall 2015), History of Photography (Spring 2016), Arts of Japan (Spring 2016), and Visual Culture in Modern Japan (Spring 2016). I’m currently putting together the syllabus for World Architecture which will be a fun, but challenging, topic to cover in a semester.

I will certainly miss many aspects of academic life at UC Irvine, but I’m ready for a new adventure. Although I’m not totally convinced that I can survive without easy access to Japanese food… Time to flex by culinary creativity here in Minnesota!