Unruly Objects: the Impact of Material Culture on Art History #1

10 December 2021, 12:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Mark De Vitis, University of Sydney
Dr Priya Vaughan, University of New South Wales

Session Moderators

Dr Mark De Vitis, University of Sydney

Session Speakers

Dr Georgina Cole, National Art School
Dr Molly Duggins, National Art School
Dr Harriet Edquist, RMIT

In the last decade, art history has been challenged and expanded by the neighbouring field of material culture studies. While objects are being increasingly recognised by art historians as agents of social and cultural change, they often remain occluded in conventional definitions of art and art history discourse. This panel aims to draw attention to objects that do not easily fit the criteria of art and to explore productive interdisciplinary methodologies for interpreting them. Building on the material turn in art history, we seek to explore the intersections of art history and material culture to develop new areas of scholarly research. Papers may address an object’s material and sensorial properties and the specific aesthetic frameworks through which it has acquired meaning and value, including how production, use, circulation and exchange has shaped the life of the object. Papers may also consider how these objects connect with, undermine, or complicate notions of art, taste, authenticity, tradition, value, identity, and nationhood broadly defined. The proposed session is designed to be broad enough to encompass diverse research interests and is likely to appeal to curators and GLAM professionals as well as academics.

PAPER #1
The matter of ambergris

PRESENTER
Dr Georgina Cole, National Art School

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ambergris was a familiar odour thanks to its widespread use in physic, cooking, and personal grooming. It was often encountered as nondescript grey-brown lumps or grains in an apothecary’s shop, or an invisible component of a favourite powder or splash. Despite its ubiquity, the materiality of ambergris remained intriguingly obscure. Members of the Royal Society in London, from chemists to ship’s captains, debated its status as animal, mineral, or vegetable. Within this forum, natural philosophy was put into conversation with folklore and commerce: mythic explanations of ambergris mingled with the methods of experimental science and the practical testimony of commercial whalers. These attempts to position ambergris within the system of nature were paralleled by its shifting categorisation from the physiological domain of medicine to the ornamental arts of perfumery. Throughout this period, ambergris is a substance in motion, slipping between categories and definitions. This paper examines the ambiguous materiality of ambergris as an unruly object crafted not by human hands, but the processes of nature and the movements of the sea.

PAPER #2
Shellwork, Decorative Labour, and Island Identity in Barbados

PRESENTER
Dr Molly Duggins, National Art School

In the Mariners’ Museum, VA, USA, lies an unassuming octagonal cedar-wood case which opens to display a striking, tessellated array of Caribbean shells. Colloquially known as sailors’ valentines, these hinged shellwork plaques were produced in nineteenth-century Barbados, a global hub of trade with a developing tourism market centred on the island’s marine resources. An adaptation of commercial Victorian fancywork sold at coastal resorts in Britain and the United States, they combined craft practice and conchological display into a singular souvenir that provided income and agency for Barbadian manufacturers. Occluded in art historical discourse because of its marginal status as a colonial craft, Barbadian shellwork is integral to the visual culture of empire, presenting a case study in the creative transformation of circulating artistic practices into creolised material forms. Shellwork plaques promoted island identity through associations with industry and refinement embedded in their hybrid craft and conchological medium. As a form of decorative labour, they symbolised productivity in the post-emancipation era, and showcased in microcosm the natural wealth of the island. Packaging Barbados as a consumable marine paradise, Barbadian shellwork worked to rebrand Caribbean culture through the material elision of a landscape of labour with a landscape of leisure.

PAPER #3
Enlightenment Pug: an unruly object in the Holy Roman Empire 1730-1770

PRESENTER
Dr Harriet Edquist, RMIT

The 'unruly object' of this paper is not an object at all, but a valued member of many a household. The pug dog is first recorded in England around the 1680s which is probably more or less when it was bred from mastiff stock. Who achieved this monumental feat of imagination we do not know but Pug's historically documented adventures begin in England and France in the late seventeenth century. Initially depicted as a black dog she sometimes shared pictorial space with slaves, but this changed in time along with the colour of her coat and her agency in human affairs. It is this last matter that this paper will address by turning to Dresden in the 1730s and in particular, to the Meissen porcelain factory. Here sculptor J J Kändler transformed Pug into rare and valuable cultural objects that embodied new ideas about animal sentience, sensibility and the humane movement. As multiples produced by the new technologies of industrial scale porcelain production Meissen pugs were disseminated throughout Europe and Britain. Far from being merely decorative, the transformation of Pug into material culture and art carried with it an implied critique of Enlightenment reason based on empathy and feeling.

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Biographies

Dr Mark De Vitis, University of Sydney

Mark De Vitis is a lecturer in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney. His research seeks to understand how materials and discourses of materiality shape the reception and status of a work or object. Most recently, he has co-authored a chapter on the intersection of law and material culture during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, to be published through with the University of London Press in 2022. He has received research funding through the Power Institute (Cité internationale des Arts, Paris, residency program), the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and the Newberry Library, Chicago.


Dr Priya Vaughan, University of New South Wales

Priya Vaughan is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute and a lecturer in Art History and Theory at the National Art School. With a research background in social anthropology and art history, Priya’s current research explores art and health. Recent projects have focused on embodied experiences of anxiety, women’s experiences of stigma and discrimination, narrative-based responses to Covid-19, and the evaluation of arts-based mental health interventions.


Dr Georgina Cole, National Art School

Georgina Cole is a Lecturer in Art History and Theory at the National Art School. Her research focuses on sensory themes in eighteenth-century art and intellectual history. Recent publications have addressed the representation of blindness in British art, and the nature of ambergris in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This research has been supported by fellowships and grants from the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Georgina currently serves on the International Advisory Board of British Art Studies.


Dr Molly Duggins, National Art School

Dr. Molly Duggins is a lecturer in the Department of Art History and Theory at the National Art School, specialising in the visual and material culture of the British Empire. Current publishing projects include edited volumes on nineteenth-century marine material culture and the Australian object in art history, as well as a monograph on albums and the colonial world. Research for these projects has been supported through fellowships at the State Library of New South Wales, the Yale Center for British Art (CT, USA), the Strong Museum of Play (NY, USA), and the Winterthur Museum and Library (DE, USA).


Dr Harriet Edquist, RMIT

Harriet Edquist is a historian and curator, professor emerita of architectural history at RMIT, founding director of RMIT Design Archives and founding editor of RMIT Design Archives Journal. Her research investigates women's labour in the arts, modernism in Australian architecture, design, material culture and literature, European diasporas, and architecture at the colonial frontier. She was a founder of Automotive Historians Australia and its inaugural president from 2015-2019. Her recent work includes the exhibitions Melbourne Modern. European art and design at RMIT since 1945 (RMIT Gallery 2019) and Dream Factory. GMH Design at Fishermans Bend 1964-2020 (City Gallery Melbourne 2021).