Medievalists in the Art Gallery: A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere

A few weeks ago, my supervisors took a group of their undergraduate students to the Whitechapel Gallery, and Fran B, a current PhD student, and I were invited along too. We weren’t really sure why we were being asked to join an Old English undergraduate class trip to a contemporary art gallery. But really, at the moment, studying an art course has helped me be a lot more relaxed about not really understanding why I’m being asked to do something!

In any case, we went to look around the exhibition, ‘Adventures in the Black Square’, which explores abstract art from modernist Russia to today. As we were ushered in, we were given the simple provocation: ‘what do we, as medievalists, see in the gallery?’. Fran and I were then asked to come up with a more formal – or at least a more actualised – response to this hypothetical question, for an event which happened this week at the Whitechapel studio space led by artist Caroline Bergvall.

But back to a few weeks ago. This open provocation lent itself well to my state of mind. Free from essay writing and the need for bibliographies on my Art Foundation course, I had a lot of fun in the gallery just letting myself be drawn to whatever caught my eye – whether that be because of colour, form, content, or movement – and making connections between the stories in the artwork, and the medieval stories I’ve encountered in the classroom.

I think it’d be fair to say Fran B found the experience similarly full of opportunity for playing with anachronism, subjectivity, and aesthetics. So, following a couple of meetings where we scribbled out ideas and played with layouts and text, our response to ‘what can medievalists see in the art gallery’ can be seen in this book:

We’ve called it ‘A Gift for the Illuminated Sphere’, ‘Adventures in the Illuminated Sphere’ being the name of Caroline Bergvall’s Whitechapel studio event this week, where we presented the book as part of the evening. I made six physical copies of the book alongside this digital version, each one hand bound and cut to size – a labour-intensive but very rewarding way of working!

I think the ‘Gift for the Illuminated Sphere’ is more interested in asking questions than providing answers to the provocation of the what medievalists can ‘see’ in the modern. Or at least it skirts the provocation in its responses.

I’d like to talk through a couple of the juxtapositions in the book, and my thinking behind them… but at the same time, I’d sort of just like the book to stand alone! May change my mind about this in the future. [edit 26 October 2015 – see my new blog which has text from my presentation at ‘Students as Creators’ conference held at Brasenose College, Oxford, 24 October 2015].

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