BLOG Category: StudentAmbassadorProgram

Sarah Lucas – The Weird and The Wonderful
Carsten Holler: Art or Commodity?
Cold War Steve: The Satirical Art of Now
Painting Snow
The Art of Early Modern Map-Making
The Politics of American Art in the Mid-20th Century
Playing with the Boundaries: Isamu Noguchi’s Playscapes
Chris Burden: Exposing the museum’s system of power
Looking Back to Move Forward in the Time of a Pandemic
Alchemy as Science: The Surrealist Works of Leonora Carrington
Postcolonial symbolism in the work of Hew Locke
Egon Schiele: Depictions of the female nude as empowering or egotistical?
Windows to the World: Windows in Art
Artemisia Gentileschi: The Long Road to Recognition
Sol LeWitt - Why is this art!?
When museums went online: a guided tour of world galleries’ online online.
Embodying Post-war Angst: Kazuo Shiraga’s Choreographies
Exclusive Modernism: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Marcel Duchamp.
The Classical Male Nude and its Damaging Legacy
The male gaze made marble: The Aphrodite of Knidos by the Ancient Greek Praxiteles
The Art of Change: Women on Waves Activist Art Org
The Underwater Museum
The Emotive Landscapes of Wu Guanzhong
The Agnes Martin Experience
Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Art of Change: Women on Waves Activist Art Org

Activist art is a combination of strategic actions for social change and the ability of art to move our hearts, provoke deep thoughts, and start looking at the world differently. The trend of activist art began to take shape in the 1990s, but it does not have a single origin. One can look to Ricardo Dominguez, an American artist and professor at the University of California in San Diego, and the meetings between the Zapatistas and American artists of Mexican origin (Chicano) in 1997 in east Los Angeles, for early examples.

Although activist art has been discussed in art discourse since the 1990s, it still lacks a clear definition. It is a manifestation of global artistic initiatives that come from different backgrounds, theories, and social motives, and, consequently, it is defined by many different terms: Socially Engaged Art, Committed Art, Community Art, Dialogic Art, Intervention Art, Relational Art, Artivism, etc.

This trend is one of the key practices of contemporary art, as activist art projects aim to prove the inextricable relationship between art and everyday life. Artists involved in this practice do not have a common style like Surrealism, Cubism, or Pointillism, or a similar medium such as sculpture, film, music, or performance, but many of the artists describe their art as inter-human exchange.  Following this idea, the only link that connects activist artists is that people are integral to the artworks.  

Rebecca Gomperts, head of Women on Waves. Copyright Free Image

One example of this practice is an activist organisation, Women on Waves, started by Rebecca Gomperts, who wanted to call attention to women’s situations in countries that outlaw abortion. In her opinion, the inability for women to make the choice to end a pregnancy with medical support leads to unsafe operations that very often end with health problems or even death. The aim was to create a fully-equipped boat of medical supplies where every woman would be provided with the required sexual health-services, including a consultation with a specialist or even an early medical abortion pill.

Logo of Women on Web organisation

Since 2005, the organisation also works online as Women on Web and provides information about safe abortions, pregnancy, birth, health and sex. Women are still able to receive legal abortion pills through contact with a specialist.

The grant that funded Women on Waves came from the Mondriaan Fund, a Dutch non-profit organisation for visual art that helps artists. Rebecca Gomperts earned a degree in art at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam before going on to attend medical school. Women on Waves used what is referred to as the “A-Portable”, a specially rigged boat designed by artist and sculptor Atelier van Lieshout, as a mobile gynaecological clinic, which also functions as an art installation and was exhibited in Portugal at the Ute Meta Bauer’s Women Building exhibition and in Amsterdam at the Mediamatic art space.

The purpose of creating this organisation as a part of the art world wasn’t just to draw attention to the matter of women’s rights, but to actually make changes and give people choices. Women on Waves was created as an art project in order to raise the money to start the campaign. “We’ve always been interested in the link between activism and art,” says Kinja Manders, project manager for Women on Waves, “and in finding creative and conceptual solutions that are on the edge.”

Artistic activism combines two very different concepts. Art is supposed to have an emotional impact on us, as well as a certain affect, while activism aims to change something and achieve a desired effect. The Women on Waves organisation shows how different artistic activism is compared to traditional ways of creating art. It shows that art can be everything, even a fight to have a legal and safe abortion, and that activism can be designed and exhibited.

Written by Zofia Nowakowska, Student Ambassador for The Art Story. I recently, graduated with a BA Fine Art from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I’m passionate about conceptual and socially-engaged art, and my research focuses on the impact of digitalisation on the art world.

Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Underwater Museum

“It is named a museum for a simple reason. Every day we dredge, pollute and overfish our oceans, while museums are places of preservation, of conservation, and of education. They are places where we keep objects that have great value to us. Our oceans are sacred.” Jason deCaires Taylor

When most people think of a museum they think of a grand building in a thriving city, full of treasures from the past. The museum spoken about here resides not in a bustling city but on the seabed of sunny Caribbean island of Grenada.

In 2006, the artist Jason deCaires Taylor made the bold decision to take his 75 sculptures underwater to form an ‘ocean floor empire’.  By moving the artwork away from the traditional modes of exhibition, he created an entirely new art-viewing experience for the viewer — one in which they have to physically dive to the ocean floor or take a trip on a glass bottomed boat.

What is most special about these sculptures is not just their submerged location, but that the sculptures themselves act as artificial coral reefs, encouraging the growth of marine life. The artist crafted them from a long-lasting and pH neutral cement that acts as a stable platform on which coral and algae can grow.  This underwater sculpture park was made with the rejuvenation of the coral reefs in mind. Not only do they stimulate growth and re-population, they also draw visitors away from the natural coral reefs, protecting them from any harm that may be inflicted upon them by inexperienced divers.

Inertia, 2011. Jason deCaires Taylor, The Underwater Museum.

Taylor’s work is a social commentary on environmental concerns, as portrayed in his work titled Inertia (2011). He depicts a man lounging on a couch watching TV surrounded by waste and junk food. Taylor here criticises the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and exposes how this issue is rooted in our consumption habits. The presence of the plastic bottle and fast food shows how, as a society, we are in the habit of developing an unnecessary amount of waste and a certain of percentage of that waste end up in the oceans. It makes us think about the refuse we produce and how we can alter our consumption habits in order to better protect our planet.

Jason deCaires Taylor, The Underwater Museum.

Taylor also intends with these works was to merge art and nature; creating something that can be both at the same time. One viewer understood this intention, posting on social media, ‘how magnificent the way nature, life merges with your creations, becoming more beautiful every passing year.’   The sculptures possess an air of shifting permanence, in that they stay fixed in place at the bottom of the ocean but are slowly transformed by the organisms living on them.

Even though taking his works underwater creates something new and exciting in the world of art, it does come with its issues. The most obvious one being that to view these sculptures one must spend a considerable amount of money — on renting scuba gear and traveling to a remote and expensive tropical island — much more money than one would spend visiting a traditional gallery or museum; the cost adds an air of exclusivity around the work and prevents some from experiencing it.

Although these works may have their issues, it is undeniable that they are not only beautiful sculptures but also serve an actual function within the real world.

Environmental Art developed alongside rising global concerns surrounding the state of the environment’s health and our impacts as humans upon it. Taylor’s work exposes our negative impact on the coral reefs and how we, as a collective, can help restore the ocean’s reefs. While creating artificial eco systems that are repopulating the ocean’s reefs, Taylor’s work also comments on race, politics, and other social issues.

We live in a time where our positive impact on the environment is more crucial than ever; I therefore think pieces like the ones Taylor creates could not be more necessary and relevant. He uses the power of art to raise awareness of the issues our oceans face and draws visitors into the environment in which he is trying to save; spurring them into action. His work leaves you with an admiration of art and the natural world and I truly believe this combination of art and activism is the key to making a difference.

My name is Hannah Stokoe and I am part of the second cohort of Student Ambassadors at the Art Story. I am a postgraduate in Art History with a passion for heritage and museology – I am most interested in the recent measures taken in the museum and heritage sector, to keep our institutions up to date and culturally relevant. An example of this is decolonisation in Museums, a topic that is close to my heart and hopefully one that I can actively participate in as my career develops.

Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Emotive Landscapes of Wu Guanzhong

Individualism and subjectivity are central to art, and art is the product of an artist’s unique expression of human emotions. This was Wu Guanzhong’s belief, which he carried with him throughout his artistic career. Throughout his practice, he explored multiple mediums and subject matters (ranging from nude paintings to landscapes), but landscapes form a large part of his oeuvre and became the predominant subject matter through which he demonstrated his belief.

The dynamic quality and tendency of natural landscapes to evolve over time lends itself well as an endless source of inspiration to Wu’s practice. As Wu said, “Sketching from life is drawing and composing and creating” (See: 2010 video including an interview with Wu).  Thus, the process should be organic, led by emotions, followed by observation. A work which exemplifies the creative product of this process is Running Stream (1988). Trees emerge from bold, organic strokes of black ink, standing firmly in the foreground; their leaves are rendered in wispy brushstrokes, as if blown by the wind. Faint washes of ink wind around the trees to become the running stream that sweeps across the entire landscape. Further back, a misty grey surrounds distant trees, and amongst them, flowers are represented by Wu’s signature dots of colors. His dynamic strokes capture the movement of the landscape, whilst preserving the calm that accompanies a natural retreat. Instead of just capturing how a stream might look, Wu emphasized the movement of the stream and the feelings of the observer – calm and pensive when faced with the beauty of the landscape. Wu brings a unique subjectivity to his interpretation of such scenes to create his poetic landscapes.

The significance of his landscapes intensifies with the knowledge of his experience during China’s Cultural Revolution. Much like how restrictions now form a large part of our lives, Wu Guanzhong lived in a time of restrictions under the Communist Party. Penalized for deviating from state-supported, Social Realist subjects, he was banned from painting for seven years and later bound to strict rules that only allowed him to paint once a week. Still, Wu rejected the notion of art as a servant to politics. Instead, he insisted that emotions came first in the art-making process, which then determined the content of the work. After destroying his figural works which risked being labelled as counter-revolutionary by the Red Guards, Wu dedicated himself to landscapes, a way for him to continue art-making despite unfavorable circumstances.

Yearning for hometown, 1998
In the late 1990s, Wu, then in his 70s, painted many works corresponding to memories of his childhood and hometown.
Copyright – Fair Use

With the expression of emotions as the connecting thread throughout his oeuvre, Wu was never bound by geographical or cultural boundaries; he melded Western abstraction with Chinese ink aesthetics, painted Europe with ink techniques, and captured historic towns in China with oil paint. Two personal favorites which exemplify his fusion of East and West are Yearning for hometown (1998) and Childhood (2003), both set in China. The former depicts a water town, not unlike Yixing where Wu grew up, with clustered houses reduced to semi-abstract structures, trees by river banks growing from calligraphic lines, and scattered patches of green, red and yellow for foliage. The bright, lively colors are reminiscent of flowers growing in spring. These elements evoke the pleasant memories Wu had of his hometown and convey the nostalgia he has for the place. In Childhood, the houses are represented by geometric forms with soft edges, only vaguely distinct from the murky grey of the stream that washes down the middle. He utilizes abstraction to convey the familiarity of a distant memory, recognizable yet blurry, expressing the wistfulness he feels for the past.

Beyond his native China, Wu had a deep attachment to Paris, where he studied between 1947 and 1950 before returning to China. Inspired by European artists such as Impressionist Maurice Utrillo, Wu adopted a viewpoint similar to Utrillo’s La Rue Norvins à Montmartre in his 1989 painting Montmartre of Paris (V), and captured the neighborhood in expressive strokes and a semi-abstract style when he returned to Paris that year for a commission. Wu painted Montmartre because he felt that it was “the hometown of his artistry” and “the Mecca of artists around the world”. The colors in Montmartre of Paris (V) are reminiscent of the color scheme of Chinese ink paintings with white, grey, and black. With his mastery of both mediums, the differences between Chinese ink-and-wash and Western oil painting were not barriers, but rather, tools of his intercultural artistic expression.

Wu Guanzhong’s emotive landscapes, ranging from the mountains and water towns of China to cities of Europe, are testaments of his firm belief that art making was a subjective process in which emotions held a central role. His landscapes speak of his life story and artistic practice, which transcends geographical borders and pushes cultural boundaries.

Hi there! I’m Constance, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little piece of work from me, and do keep a look out for more here on The Art Story!

Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Agnes Martin Experience

As a recent graduate of art history,  there are few things in the world I feel certain about. General life queries aside, I’m struck by the feeling that learning about something in depth can amount to more questions than answers. For example, when asked recently something as easy as my favourite artist, threeyears ago it would have been a simple response (Gustav Klimt), yet now, several nights in the library and many 9am seminars later,  I wouldn’t know where to begin. This uncertainty is irritating but not all bad, it shows an openness to new things and a knowledge that art is not something easily categorizable into ‘favourite’, ‘least favourite’, ‘modern’, ‘historic’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. One thing that I am confident in,however, is that of all the images that have titled my lecture slides and library books, it is consistently the most aesthetically simple pieces that ‘do’ the most for me. This post is designed to delve into some of the work of American-Canadian artist Agnes Martin and understand how, by changing the way we as viewers look at art, there is much to consider in the most uncomplicated of works.

Similar to the Abstract Expressionists, as Martin also often labelled herself, her work has a distinct reduction of ‘visual language’. By this, it is to say that her work consists not so much of pictures of  things, like we may be more accustomed to seeing in traditional works of landscape and portraiture, but instead it’s comprised only of the minimal components that ‘make’ a picture. For instance,  her large canvasses are most often covered in repeated lines  and blocks of colour. A question often raised by viewers is the extent to which something of such seemingly basic composition can be considered art, and a judgement often cast is that works of Martin’s ilk (see Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse, and Mark Rothko, the latter of whom I shall discuss in more depth later on) can be aesthetically pleasing but serve a similar purpose to decorative wallpaper. However, my belief is that these opinions are due to the fact that we as a collective audience are used to assessing works of art as something objective, as we may a storybook where we are mere recipients of information and therefore very separate from the piece itself. Yet now as we metaphorically stand before an Agnes Martin piece, in order to try to fully understand the work (take Friendship 1963 below for reference) we must change that and properly involve ourselves in the work by asking not ‘what can I see?’ but ‘what can I feel?’ and ‘what does this piece do to me?’.

Friendship, 1963.
Spanning just over 6ft on each side, Friendship is one of three images that Martin made of gold leaf and gesso.

I’m aware I may have lost some of you already. Asking an audience to actively ‘engage’ with something hanging on a wall takes a large leap outside of many people’s comfort zones, perhaps it feels a little new-age or ‘arty farty’ as my parents call it. It’s understandable, many people go to a gallery to be told stories by the paintings, where history is readily accessible in frames to look at and digest; there is a comfort in the fact this kind of art delivers a particular message. However, with work such as Martin’s, we ourselves become far more involved than we had perhaps bargained for. Instead of looking for information or a character’s narrative in the works,  we should experience the piece first hand for ourselves. As we scan our eyes across the rows from left to right and back again, our experiences are likely to vary. For instance, for me, the process is a physical one as my eyes engage in a repetitive motion row after row after row, it becomes almost hypnotic. For others, this may be more mental as they perhaps allow themselves to make their own associations between the repetition and the proximity of the blocks, the sparkling gold leaf and the title. Maybe this makes you feel something about your friendships? Maybe it doesn’t. Ultimately, the simplicity and openness of Martin’s work gives the viewer space and time to consider the piece for themselves rather than dictate a scene or story directly to each member of the audience. 

 Upon the reduction of visual language, what I personally experience is a heightened interest in the components I can recognise here. Take another example below, though Martin did not design On a Clear Day to communicate a particular message for a viewer, I am particularly drawn to think more about the decisions made regarding the background colour, the making of the grid, the scale of the canvas. As we envisage the work’s making (how did Martin draw these lines? What was the sky like when she chose the colour of this background?), it is worth noting that there is a shift in the emphasis of what the actual “art” here is. We should begin to ask, is art only ever what is on the canvas, or does it consist of something more than that? From what was once a total interest inwhat hangs on the wall, we now begin to think more seriously about how it came to be, and then, as we consider and interpret, we ourselves become integral to the creation of a meaning to the work. This merging of art and its audience is something that Martin herself craved; she said, ‘the value of art is in the observer’.

On A Clear Day, 1973.
This piece was one of thirty individual screen prints. Shortly after this series was finished Martin returned to painting.

This ability for Martin’s works to make a viewer authentically feel something rather than search for representation of feelings in characters’ faces is what makes Martin an ‘Abstract Expressionist’. Another example of this can be seen if we take, for instance, the Mark Rothko painting below:

Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, 1947.
This piece is very typical of Rothko’s later style as he experimented more in darker palettes.
Copyright – Fair Use

The 8ft 4in canvas towers above its audience, with deep hues of black and red. We, as viewers, can stand in front of these expansive pieces and know the shadow they cast, the depth of the colours,  their sublime quality. Some may feel overwhelmed, or impressed, or perhaps disinterested, but nonetheless it invokes something that we ourselves truly feel. In a similar sense to Martin, we are invited by the simplicity of the piece to engage with it directly as we would any object occupying a space that we are also in. Martin’s  geometries may transfix us, Rothko’s hues may dwarf us, either could make us turn our heads to the side in an attempt to deduce some form of image, but importantly, in some shape or form, we end up interacting with the canvas as a feature of the real world. 

Some sceptics may claim that the landscapes of John Constable and the portraits of Hans Holbein will always inform or educate a viewer more than plain blocks of paint. While this may be true, I implore you to consider that learning and experiencing are not in fact mutually exclusive but too often considered so. Once we become practised in the alternative way of looking that Martin’s work requires, where we become an important part of the chain in the total making of the art,  we may look at more traditional paintings with fresh eyes and be better equipped to experience a Constable or a Holbein piece than we ever have before. 

Hannah Kettles
Hannah is an art history graduate from the University of Nottingham (UK), she has focused predominantly on post-WWII art throughout her degree and has a keen interest in Abstract Expressionism. Hannah is one of five members of our first cohort of the 2020 Art Story Student Ambassador Programme.