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The one-day symposium sets out to interrogate the trope of ‘illegibility’ and erosion in contemporary artistic practice. By looking at painting, photography and sculpture/ architecture the symposium interrogates the extent to which contemporary art denies ‘a palpable legibility’ (Geimer 2012, 22/23). Illegibility and ‘failure’ of the image to represent the subject, consequently heightens the self-reflexivity and questions radically our understanding of agency and materiality. The key focus of the symposium will be the impact of illegibility and erosion in recent contemporary art in the beginning of the 21st century. Artists including Jane and Louise Wilson and their work on derelict buildings, Idris Khan’s superimpositions of prints and photographs and Maria Chevska’s layered paintings will offer an original insight into the restriction of vision and legibility. The symposium is complemented by an exhibition, drawing on the permanent collection of The New Art Gallery Walsall.

Theoretical Framework:

We wish to argue that the tendency of restriction of vision can be applied to a wider group of contemporary artists in the 20th and 21st century, where a limitation of formal aspects allow artwork to become ‘quasi-subject’ (Geimer 2012, 34). The obfuscation and the erosion of vision leads to what has been described ‘an unprecedented act of self-concentration, self-reference, and self-reflection’ (Bersani and Dutoit 1993, 128). Departing from the modernist model we will inquire the contemporary context where our capacity to look fails, and we are confronted with the question to what extent ‘the very act of seeing may become irrelevant …’ (127).

The concept of self-reflexivity proves here in particular to be useful, not only in order to liberate the artistic practice from a narrowing mimetic framework, but to question the dualistic understanding of agency and materiality. Approaches such as Latour’s concept of artworks as ‘actants’, Stoichita’s Self Aware Image or Mitchell’s conceptualisation of active artwork deviate radically from a Cartesian scopic model and allow a further exploration of the ‘agency, motivation, autonomy and aura of images’ (Mitchell 2005, 6).


Work cited:

Peter Geimer (2012) in Thinking through Painting. Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas. Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York.

J. T. Mitchell (2005) What Do Pictures Want? The Lives And Loves Of Images. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Leo Bersani, Ulysse Dutoit (1993) Arts of Impoverishment Beckett, Rothko, Resnais, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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