Symposium Review: Making, Place, and Protest with Decorating Dissidence

Frith Taylor & Jenni Råback, Queen Mary, University of London

Decorating Dissidence is an interdisciplinary platform looking at craft and decorative art practices in their political, conceptual and aesthetic contexts in the modernist longue durée. This symposium featured a range of academics, artists, and creative practitioners examining the political powers of craft. Brilliantly coordinated, the panels were cohesive without being narrow in scope, allowing room for some fascinating conversation.

The day began with Sanja Bahun’s keynote on Soviet artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova and the role of decorative art in the revolutionary project in 1920s Russia. Popova and Stepanova challenged commodity fetishism through constructivism; privileging use value over composition, they recast decorative art as a mode of industrial production. Both artists’ homes doubled as studios, and Bahun’s lecture probed the richness and contradictions of a domestic work space, a place that both shelters and stifles, at once sovereign and subject to a particular performativity.

The first panel examined foreign exhibitions with Megha Rajguru and Kasia Jezowska. Rajguru’s analysis of the ‘Vistara—The Architecture of India’ exhibition politicised and historicised the ethnographies implied in the associated catalogue and its version of Indian modernity as presented to international audiences. Jezowska continued this commitment to alternative modernisms in her study of the Western reception of Polish exhibitions at the Milan Triennali during the Cold War. Jezowska voiced questions relevant to both panellists about the homogenisation of mid-century modernism and our frequent difficulties in understanding the possibility of modern design developing in diverse contexts. In fact, given the prevalent colonial and western standards, can even international exhibitions be trusted as sites of convergence?

The second panel with Rosemary Shirley and Madi Acharya-Baskerville evoked British localities and yet observed the transnational seeping in through the cracks. Shirley introduced us to a mostly unheard-of Derbyshire practice, well-dressing. This custom, Shirley argued, articulates a local, national identity for those involved, and yet, as she evinces, the local tradition can no longer afford locality; what, we wonder, do the commercially grown Kenyan and Dutch flowers in well-dressing do to the Derbyshirean identity? Describing her work as contrapuntal, the artist Acharya-Baskerville spoke of the transnational influences in her art and its use of materials washed up by the sea. Her reflections on the definitions of home—‘the centre of the world’; something defined by its relationship to the outside—again drew our attention to how porous and liminal even the most locally grounded practices can be.

In a panel on domestic protest, Hope Wolf transported us into the inner world of Reuben Mednikoff and Grace Pailthorpe, whose remarkable partnership was based on an exchange of skills of visual artistry and psychoanalysis. Wolf offered us fascinating, and amusing, examples of Pailthorpe’s psychoanalyses of Mednikoff’s creations, which, apparently, demonstrated his ardent desire to prove himself no longer a ‘dirty baby’. Reflecting on the things that stop rage or protest from happening, Wolf proposed that Mednikoff and Pailthorpe were demarcated by psychological barriers: their focus on childhood experiences avoided socio-political analyses. Louise Purbrick continued thinking about the home as a space for protest, identifying it as a site of anti-consumerist and matrilineal economy. Purbrick made a case for seeing the typically marginal textile rag as a fitting representative of modern, protesting subjectivity, and aptly questioned the assumption that textiles denote absence of aggression and division by pointing to the long political history and collective nature of cloth banners.

Next, the artists Nicole Morris and Maria de Lima introduced their exhibition series INGEST / DIGEST / EXCRETE, which records and reproduces the living body’s activities. A sample of mouth sounds invoked a strange sense of spaciousness and yet its intensity was distressing. The art was a welcome addition to the conference in its ability to capture the laboriousness and viscerality of modern urban existence. Yet this panel, perhaps more than any of the others, suffered from the short time afforded questions due to the day’s late start: more connections could have been drawn between the academic papers and the art, and it would have been fascinating to hear the delegates’ assessments of self-referentiality and its place in art—and even, perhaps, academic work.

The roundtable ‘Creating and Curating Resistance: The Gallery and Beyond…’ featured artists and practitioners expanding the gallery space. Enam Gbewonyo’s brilliantly polemical paper made the case for the restorative powers of weaving as an arts practice, as well as providing a necessary rebuttal to patriarchal, colonialist and capitalist narratives. Claire Mead’s report on a recent exhibition in the Middlesbrough Institute of Art addressed the gatekeeping of arts spaces and the gallery’s role in the ‘blurred frontier’ between activism and artistic practice. By facilitating collaboration between a gallery and the local LGBTQI community, Mead centred the exhibition around queer experiences as well as the art pieces themselves. Priya Khanchandani confronted the whitewashing of British colonial history, and the ways in which this is reproduced in exhibition pieces dating from the British Raj. Khanchandani questioned accepted curation practices, stressing the importance of challenging cultural narratives told from imperialist perspectives. The Q&A that followed saw a fascinating discussion on the supposed ‘objectivity’ of archival curation which erases the institutional and political history of galleries.

The day concluded with a screening of The Famous Women Dinner Service: In Conversation with Contemporary Art, followed by a Q&A with Hana Leaper and Jenni Råback. Exploring questions of feminist genealogy, the film began with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s ‘Famous Women Dinner Service’. Commissioned by art historian Kenneth Clark, the service is comprised of fifty dinner plates featuring portraits of famous women. Also covered were other female artists who use decorative ceramics to make space for women in history: Judy Chicago and her seminal piece The Dinner Party, which figures a symbolic conversation between famous historical women, and Women’s Art League artists Julie Maren and Joy Alice Eisenhauer, whose Vagina China provocatively demystifies women’s bodies. The works spoke to each other with ease, paralleling the truly dialogic mood of the symposium. From these conversations and the imaginative meeting point of academic discourses and arts practices erected by the Decorating Dissidence project, we hope to see a new definition of modernism emerge, enlivened by feminism, political activism, and decorative art.

Featured Image: Florine Stettheimer, Natatorium Undine, 1927, oil and encaustic on canvas, 50 1/2 x 60 inches (Vassar College, Gift of Ettie Stettheimer)

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