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Unruly Objects: the Impact of Material Culture on Art History #2

10 December 2021 at 3:00:00 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 Priya Vaughan, University of New South Wales

Session Speakers

Dr Christina Clarke, Australian National University
Dr Elisa deCourcy, Australian National University
Bojana Rimbovska, University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha
Dr Mark De Vitis, University of Sydney

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.

(Re-)making from the archive: thinking about process and using practice as art historical methodologies

Dr Christina Clarke and Dr Elisa deCourcy, Australian National University

This paper makes a case for extending existing material culture methodologies, increasingly employed by art historians, to an examination of making and its associated artisanal processes. We advocate for applying a material analysis not from the point of an artwork’s completion or encultured use but from its conception, following the decisions which informed its creation. The historian can cultivate a makerly consciousness by diagnosing production methods and technologies; by considering authorship beyond attribution to an embodied sense of craftspersonship, and through identifying how social and geographical constraints influenced decisions around the work’s completion. Our paper will use our very different media of study: mid-nineteenth century photography and late-nineteenth century metalwork to make a case for the productivity of re-orientating object biographies to be attuned to stages of design and construction. We will then conclude our paper by arguing that a knowledge of artistic processes can additionally provide the basis for practice-led research and a practical execution of methods. By stepping into the role of artisan, even in a temporary or limited sense, it is possible to generate new knowledge, not always captured in traditional archival material.

Learning from the ‘ends and odds’: the use of plaster casts as teaching tools at the Canterbury College School of Art

Bojana Rimbovska, University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha

Central to the teaching of art and design at the Canterbury College School of Art (CCSA) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the numerous plaster casts that hung on the walls of classrooms and filled the school’s corridors. Despite their convincing form, these monochromatic copies of largely canonical works of Western art (or fragments of such works) appeared to have been marketed by cast-making companies and viewed by the staff and students who used them as ‘teaching tools’ more so than works of ‘art’ in their own right. Through an examination of selected student works made in response to the CCSA’s plaster cast collection, this paper considers how these objects prioritised the formal aspects of a work in the teaching and learning of design at the school at the time. By highlighting the fragmentary nature of plaster casts and their abundance across arts schools in this period, this paper also brings attention to the thriving cast-making industry and the imperial networks that facilitated the global flows of this type of material culture.

Gauze Versus the Microbe: the Materiality of Masking during the 1919 Influenza Pandemic in Australia

Mark De Vitis, University of Sydney

As with COVID-19, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic impacted the lives of Sydneysiders in a multitude of ways. At the most intimate level, the inhabitants of Sydney were required to wear face-masks while in public spaces over many months. These multilayered gauze devices were the first line of defence in a health crisis that killed some 50 to 100 million people worldwide. Despite the monumentality of the pandemic event, it remains little studied, especially in terms of the impacts it had on the lives and bodies of those who lived through it and the material cultures it generated.
Archival sources that document the materiality of face-masks underline their unruly nature. Public health advice which framed the mask as a vital tool of protection against the influenza had to contend with the reality of the mask wearing. As objects applied to the body, masks had the power to generate behaviours through their own materiality and connect with established systems of culture, such as fashion and dress, expanding the discourses of these practices. A study of the influenza mask then reveals the extent to which object histories may expand our understanding of major historical moments, acting as determining forces within them.



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 Christina Clarke, Lecturer in Early Modern Art, Design and Material Culture; Centre for Art History and Art Theory, Australian National University

Dr Christina Clarke is a lecturer at the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory. Her specialisation is the history of metal material culture and her current research projects include investigations into the manufacture of Louis XIV’s lost silver furniture, representations of metalworking and metallurgy in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and the life and practice of Australian jeweller Rhoda Wager. In 2018 she undertook an Endeavour Research Fellowship at the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, to investigate early modern silversmithing. Her first monograph, The Manufacture of Minoan Metal Vessels: Theory and Practice, was published in 2013 by Astrom Editions.

Dr Elisa deCourcy, DECRA Research Fellow; Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University

Dr Elisa deCourcy is an art historian, specialising in early photography and based at the Australian National University. She holds an Australian Research Council (ARC) DECRA fellowship for a project entitled: ‘Capturing Foundational Australian Photography in a Globalising World’. In 2018 she was awarded a Harry Ransom Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin and an Australian Academy of the Humanities Publishing Subsidy Award in 2019. Both of these grants contributed to an extended book project, Empire, Early Photography and Spectacle: the global career of showman daguerreotypist J.W. Newland, co-authored with Martyn Jolly and released by Routledge in 2021. Her work has been covered by The Guardian, The Smithsonian Magazine, and The Conversation.

Bojana Rimbovska, University of Canterbury Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha

Bojana is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Canterbury. Her research primarily explores how weather has been visualized within an ‘Antipodean’ context throughout the nineteenth century, and locates it at the intersection of discussions around landscape painting, meteorology, and Victorian attitudes towards colonization and the environment. More recently, her research has focused around the movement and use of imported collections in design education in Aotearoa New Zealand with a specific focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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