An Archive of Ideas



Guests: Jeremy Deller, Edmund de Waal, Karla Black, Ian Kiaer, Simon Bill, Martin Boyce, Lubaina Humid, Jocelyn Cammack, Kim Pace

Gravity begins with a new lecture series, specifically designed to examine the wider context of practice and discourse that surrounds one of SIA's newest courses, Creative Art Practice.

For the academic year 2010-2011 we begin with an interrogation of a quality of arts practice that is often seen as deeply unfashionable, spoken of only amongst friends or forbidden entirely. Stripped of vocabulary, how is it possible to speak of the beautiful?

What constitutes beauty has always been heavily contested and has always carried more significance than 'just what things look like'. The ability to discern beauty has been the weapon used to separate into classes those who have the right to name the world and those who don't. Owning the copyright of beauty has lead to loss of limb or even death (as in the Murano glass makers who dared to leave the island to trade their chemical secrets of colour). Religious battles have been fought over the representation of the divine in physical form. Arguments over whether what we see is Universal or individual have been at the root of social paradigm shifts and revolutions. This is how significant beauty is. However, more and more in the last couple of decades beauty has been aggressively or passively omitted from the vocabulary used for thinking and writing about objects.

The arts and sciences continue to have as a central focus the desire to confer clarity. And sometimes the institutional gravity and the awkwardness of conferring clarity can seem tonally out of register with the aura of fragility, temporality and emotionality that surrounds beauty. We see and feel beauty but critically we cannot respect notions of beauty. Interestingly this ambivalence has an historic precedence. One key example is Walter Benjamin. Alongside Brecht, Benjamin was keen to 'efface the traces' and unburden society of its past, but at the same time Benjamin was entranced by clutter, the mass perceptions of beauty that he saw in Kitsch.

We can't even begin to speak of the beautiful without encountering the complexity of the relationship between ideas of collective judgment and the secrets of individual subjectivity. This difficulty is most evident when we speak of looking- a simple act of receiving the same light as the next viewer, but endlessly complicated by the viewing subject. Has the 'gaze', or the act of looking become utterly discredited in a desire to flatten it into utility without pleasure?

As this omission continues, it becomes ever harder to imagine how the beautiful can be spoken about with any shred of criticality. Is the absence of beauty from our lives a benefit or a deficit? How does the act of looking forward and backwards affect the ability to speak of beauty: why is the past more 'beautiful' than the present? It seems reasonable to suppose that the absence of beauty is not necessary something we would wish to impose on future generations or as a defining aspect of our place in time. How, then, does the current regard of beauty affect decisions about what is preserved or what is lost? How do reconcile the way that beauty is unspoken, when its presence inhabits the very DNA of contemporary culture from interior d├ęcor to interface design? What is the relationship between style and beauty?

To begin to unpick the complex emotional and theoretical territory around the beautiful, a number of key artists, curators and writers have been invited to prepare a lecture. Each speaker is asked to begin with an object that moves them, to examine their relationship to it, and to attempt to examine its influence, on their work. Details of this object will be released prior to the lecture to encourage students to prepare in advance. Each object will be the catalyst for a strand of research. The fabric and construction of the objects will be studied in order to produce a replica. This will set up a collaboration that may involve scientists, engineers, bio-medical practitioners, conservation experts, historians and other specialists from across a broad spectrum. Gravity will develop an archive of information documenting the particular processes involved in the production of these 'replicas'. The research will be documented in the form of notes, diagrams and images to build a repository of information about the project. The project will also produce a collection of distinct objects in the form of scale models or replicas.

Gravity presents an excellent opportunity to develop cross-disciplinary conversations so the guest lectures are open to design students, all in ACES, and a wider public audience including specialist scholars in Curating, Archaeology, History and Social Sciences as well as the core audience of our own Creative Art Practice students. We hope that by focusing on what unites disciplines through the examination of the object, that further research can be generated. We also hope that this research can be shaped by its Sheffield heritage.