dance Performance

“There Is No Need to Hide”: The Visible Act of Dance, the Visible Act of Writing

Dr Ilaria Grando returns to Artsolation with a lyrical piece on the choreographic quality of art writing and its implications in this time of lockdown. Can online platforms become modes of embodied connection?

This article is the first part of a series on dance.

“What the dancer does is the most realistic of all possible things, and to pretend that a man standing on a hill could be doing everything except just standing is simply divorce […]. Dance is a visible action of life”.[1]

Merce Cunningham

Write, delete, re-write, delete again.

In the last month, I found myself shaping a choreography of the unspoken and the unspeakable. I wanted to write an article or rather a series of articles about dance, but I could not find the right frame, phrase, or lens. Which choreography would serve me best at this moment? Which piece would speak of endless time, a limited space, and a universe of stories that are at the same time personal and widely shared? Dance, the art of corporeality and present interaction, at the time of COVID-19 involves risks that are too high to take. What was there to write about then? On the white page, I danced a pas de deux with my words and my insecurities, using the backspace as the main musical score, and the delete button as a recurring movement. Just as a dance piece, my actions on the Word document were ephemeral and physical: confined to the now; destined to vanish; reproducible and yet never the same. To write about dance during a pandemic that forced the world in a long lockdown seemed impossible. 

Re-think, refocus, re-start.

I started by giving myself some boundaries. I decided that I was not going to be writing about a past performance, that would have meant hiding from my experience and losing my purpose. I established that I was not even going to share that piece I wrote mentally after seeing a ballet in a buzzing Sadler’s Wells last October when the situation was different, that would have felt anachronistic, unconsciously nostalgic, and emotionally forced. Images, momentum, and storylines clashed with my present activating an impending sense of fear. What kind of analysis was appropriate in the Now? The advent of COVID-19, I believe, imposes academics to reconsider more closely their approach to research and writing. At the beginning of a pivotal text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims: “[o]ur vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are”.[2] In the present, my vision cannot exist outside of the lockdown I am experiencing: it can expand, shrink, and work things around, but it will always actively bring me back to the persona I am now and to the unique set of emotions that are generated by and because of lockdown itself. I cannot and do not want to hide this in my writing. Thus, I have decided to become more selective of my words, my thoughts, and my academic actions. I stopped and I waited, passively observing a world that kept moving throughout my immobility, as if in a choreography of the whole, I was taking a stand, by staying still.

Sometimes “tout commence par une interruption”, everything starts with an interruption.[3]

Ballet connects dancers in lockdown – Dutch National Ballet.

In the introduction to the collection Dance. Documents on Contemporary Art published in 2012, André Lepecki writes about “dance’s main constitutive qualities,” reflecting on “ephemerality, corporeality, precariousness, scoring and performativity”.[4] One passage in his consideration captures my attention, resonating deeply with my vision on the difficulties the dance and writing worlds are encountering now. “Dance’s inescapable corporeality” to Lepecki “constantly demonstrates to dancers and audiences alike concrete possibilities for embodying-otherwise – since a dancer’s labour is nothing else than to embody, disembody and re-embody, thus refiguring corporeality and proposing improbable subjectivities”. How to re-inhabit that inescapable corporeality in a moment that prevents the happening of corporeality itself? How to narrate different subjectivities without an evident re/dis-embodiment exercise? Of course, the pandemic has not stopped the corporeal realm to exist, but it has limited it to one’s self. For dance then, it is no longer mine and your bodies interacting on a musical score, but it is my body, and my body only, moving in a constricted and constricting space, for no immediate audience. The one space where such newly inhabited form of corporeality can happen in a way that resembles the traditional form is now virtual. The precariousness of dance, compared by Lepecki, to the “precarization of life” translates therefore in an exploration of space, time and movement that not only favoured a refigured corporeality, but also enable a reconfiguration of individual and collective interactions in domestic spaces estranged from the performative side of dance, and yet profoundly embedded in its realm made of bodies, feelings, and stories.[5]

Hold on” debuted online on April 21, 2020.[6] The short choreography by Milena Sidorova is the touching response of the Dutch National Ballet to the present state of emergency. Like many artists around the world, due to the pandemic, the dancers of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet are no longer able to perform on stage, but this did not prevent them from performing on a different kind of stage, the online platform YouTube. A dance made of pieces of dances occurring on different real and virtual stages, Sidorova’s choreography is the emblem of a world that has changed, and is changing; of a precariousness that is re-inventing itself; and of a corporeality that is not staging, but it is living. The choreography dialogues with the song “Hold on” by DI-RECT, composing a subtext of movements, hands gestures, and bodily silences that even though immediately ascribable in the song’s lyrics, succeeds in visualising the unspoken, and narrating a story that is personal to each dancer and yet widely sharable without falling into a cliché. Embedded within a second choreography of well-thought video edits, Sidorova’s score connects, touches, and embodies the present without lying.

What goes on stage, is the “visible action of life” in its purest form. No costumes, no makeup, no filter: even the videos’ quality is left untouched. The ballet dancers move in their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, turning the domestic environment into an opportunity to let life enter the choreography with even more force. Domesticity becomes a tool of creation: the walls are partners to dance with, the ceiling a way of virtually reaching the person living in the apartment above. Expanding the space, reducing the distance, Sidorova’s work makes the best of the virtual realm to which the choreography is dependent, creating a space that just as much as dance is ephemeral, precarious and yet extremely tangible. The dance might not have happened all at the same time, the performers might not have felt their colleagues doing the same set of movements right next to them, but what the viewer sees is the work of a company: it is a togetherness that unites corporeality, time, and space in the precariousness of a four minutes long video, in the present “precariousness of life”.

The song chosen by Sidorova to build this extremely honest piece of work asks to avoid hiding, hiding from feelings, hiding from the present, hiding from oneself, and I believe that in the historic moment we are living now, such invitation needs further consideration. Just as a ballet dancer does not need to mask the domesticity of a precarious stage, and hide the concrete reality of what being a dancer during a lockdown means, so a writer cannot hide the radical shift in the words that frame the everyday life experience. Dancing, like writing, is “a visible action of life” and for that it requires courage.[7]  

[1] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 2008, first published in 1972), 9.

[3] Paul Valéry quoted in Alessandro Barricco, Mr Gwyn (Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012).

[4] André Lepecki ed., “Introduction// Dance as a Practice of Contemporaneity,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] National Opera & Ballet, “Ballet connects dancers in lockdown– Dutch National Ballet,” YouTube video, Apr 21, 2020, accessed Apr 26, 2020,

[7] Merce Cunningham, “Space, Time and Dance // 1952,” in DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. A. Lepecki (London; Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012), 28.

Further Readings:

  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 2008, first edition 1972.
  • Lepecki André ed. DANCE. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2012.
  • Barricco, Alessandro. Mr Gwyn. Milano: Economica Universale Feltrinelli, 2012.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 

Painting Politics

Going to Work (1943) (At Home): A Reflection on Isolation through the Work of L. S. Lowry

Ella Nixon brings our attention to Lawrence Stephen Lowry, the celebrated British painter of the working class, positing that the subjects of his paintings were his feelings of loneliness rather than the everyday struggles of the poor. What can his paintings tell us now, in this moment of social isolation?

A crowd of workers clad in clothing of dark blues, ochres, red, and black, walks away from the viewer without a backward glance. Some hold lunch boxes prepared for the long day ahead; some scurry forwards as if they are going to be late; some trudge towards the factory in an automatic movement. The mills rise as meccas of the industrial landscape. The anonymous people, like a whisper of moths to the light, cluster together in a journey towards the iron gates to begin their shifts at the mills. Going to Work (1943) illustrates how social distancing in twentieth-century industrial Manchester was an alien concept.

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), in a repetitive fashion, produced a copious portfolio of paintings which depicted urban crowds. His job as a rent collector for the Pall Mall Property Company brought him into close contact with the working-class inhabitants of Salford and he came to know the streets intimately. The 2013 Tate Britain exhibition, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, curated by T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, gave expression to these works. In the exhibition catalogue, they designated Lowry ‘as essentially a painter of the industrial city and its working class’.[1] In a rather Baudelairian fashion, therefore, Lowry was declared to be the painter of modern life. This article, however, will discuss Going to Work from a different angle to the modernity explored by the Tate exhibition: it will consider the nature of isolation in the twenty-first century.

In the winter of 1907-1908, Lowry attended an Impressionist exhibition. Here, Lowry could peruse the paintings of Impressionist masters, including Degas, Pissarro, and Manet. Despite expressing some admiration, he criticised the paintings because he ‘didn’t see the battle of life in them’.[2] Yet, he does not specify what ‘battle of life’ he was seeking in the Impressionist works. His admiration for Honoré Daumier’s paintings of dismal working-class subjects suggests that one of these battles was intended as the poverty and politics of the poor. A consideration of his later seascapes, however, suggests the ‘battle of life’ for him were his personal feelings of isolation.

The industrial scenes produced by Lowry are painted from an elevated perspective. The artist, invisible for the viewer, regards the bustling crowd from a distance. Despite entering the homes and drinking tea with his subjects as part of his job as a rent collector, Lowry admitted that he ‘did not care for them [his subjects] the way a social reformer does.’[3] Therefore, isolation from the bustling crowds was inherent in both the process and explicit in the perspective. It begs the question, in a time of social isolation, what is isolation and does it necessarily stem from the reduction of social contact?

The government imposed lockdown revolves around the phenomenon of social distancing. However, the isolation experienced by Lowry did not emanate from lack of human contact. Although the press presented Lowry as a recluse, the variety and number of friends he saw daily attest otherwise. Instead, his isolation was a psychological state rather than something we can use as a tape measure to numerically grasp.

Despite being surrounded constantly by people in busy Salford, it was the death of his mother which triggered his feelings of deep isolation. One of his closest friends described how ‘[e]ven if you had been quite intimate with him, you couldn’t ask him personal questions.’[4] In the 1940s, Lowry began to produce desolate seascapes after the death of his mother. Lowry’s Self Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966) (Figure 2) conveys a deep sense of loneliness despite his constant contact with friends. He portrays himself as a lone pillar surrounded by the endless waves of the sea.

L. S. Lowry, Self-Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966). Oil on panel, 38.8 x 15.3 cm. The Lowry Collection Salford, Private Collection. © The Estate of L.S. Lowry.

At a time when daily briefings report deaths in the hundreds and when people scroll anxiously through the news, it is easy for anxiety to disguise itself as isolation. In industrial Manchester, death was also visible daily on the streets. The omniscient presence of the fever van in many of Lowry’s paintings, such as Street Scene in the Snow (1941) (Figure 3) attest to this. However, the case of Lowry highlights the nature of isolation: he felt detached from a class of people he did not associate with and the death of a close one caused his loneliness.

L. S. Lowry, Street Scene in the Snow (1941). Oil on panel, 36.8 x 61 cm. Private Collection.

Lowry felt closest to his mother and, as he reported, sometimes these feelings of grief were overwhelming. After her death, he initially found it difficult to paint. He reported thirty years after the death that ‘I had no interest in life after my mother died’.[5] However, with time he came to cope with his feelings of isolation through painting. Michael Howard describes how, in his old age, the ‘relationship with his paintings developed into something rather like that of a father with his children’.[6] It was through his paintings that Lowry found his purpose and contact with life.

In these times, the message seems clear: keep contact with those who are closest to you and, alongside or at least, find purpose. In times of isolation – whether imposed by the lockdown or otherwise – contact with those who mean the most to us is paramount. It does not matter that the streets are not bustling, bars are closed, and parties are cancelled. In these environments, we can sometimes feel like the detached observer who surveys the crowd, or in Lowry’s case the crowds of workers on their way to the mills.

Lowry also shows us how, when contact is completely cut off, we must find purpose. The figures of Going to Work, like automata, were drawn to the mills. However, lest we confuse human company with lack thereof and dangers arise of losing a sense of purpose in life. Cultivate your interests and create that connection with yourself to share with others. Self-isolation need not be isolation.

[1] T. J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life (London: Tate Publishing, 2013), 18.

[2] Michael Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist (Salford Quays: Lowry Press, 2000), 19.

[3] Ibid., 123.

[4] Shelley Rohde, A Private View of L. S. Lowry (London: Book Club Associates, 1979), 116.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Howard, Lowry: A Visionary Artist, 21.

Further Readings:

  • Clark, T. J. and Anne M. Wagner. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life. London: Tate Publishing, 2013.
  • Howard, Michael. Lowry: A Visionary Artist. Salford Quays: Lowry Press, 2000.
  • Rohde, Shelley. A Private View of L. S. Lowry. London: Book Club Associates, 1979.

Ella Nixon is a History of Art MA student at The Courtauld Institute of Art specialising in twentieth century European art. Ella’s research interests lie in the curation of gender and postcolonialism, post-modern art, and the artworks of L. S. Lowry.

African Art

‘ReVoduation’: The immaterial network(s) of material things

Niklas Wolf writes on the West African religious practices of ‘Vodun’, considering its potential ritualistic developments through new technologies and social media.

Pictorial objects from the religious practice of ‘Vodun’ (a term originated in West Africa, globalised and hybridised following the Black Atlantic routes, which refers to both religion itself and its protagonists in the form of spirits and powerful things) are characterised by formal-aesthetic, content-related and material syntheses as well as accumulations.[1] As part of a syncretistic religion, they are open to ‘foreign’ images, forms, techniques and contents that they encounter in intercultural inner-African and global contact zones.[2] Continuously updated through performative treatment, they are temporary or permanently displayed in shrines. Like a museums presentation, they have therefore a share in material and immaterial cultural heritage and thus in the culture of memory of society itself.

What happens to the images of Vodun through the translation of new media into new, again performative images of digital spaces? What does the perpetuation of ephemeral objects and moments through the camera – itself a ‘mimetic machine’ – do?[3] Do the possibilities of global exchange and the mobilisation of artefacts via social media such as YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram change the power of identity-forming images? What are the characteristics of the ‘prosaics of digital media’[4] and their technical ‘virtuosity’ in the reformulation and dissemination of Vodun images?[5] Do records of ephemeral ritual practices create ‘ritual genealogies‘, as Martin Zillinger postulated for images and media of North African Sufism?[6]

‘By appearing in different places, material objects connect the places of their presence through their materiality.’[7]

The networking behaviour of these pictorial objects does not obscure the questions immanent to them about their provenance, but rather reinforces them, whether in West African shrines, European museums or the virtual space of the Internet. The material and formal aspects of these pictures are often critically reflected upon, but also opened up to new attributions by the respective image authors. The necessary performative strategies of image genesis and display are closely related to bodily practices in ritual – things appear as carriers of traces and, just like human bodies acting in rituals, can have a performative effect. Both are places of sedimentation of history, making use of elaborate techniques of inscription and embodiment.[8] Hence, commemorative pictorial objects function in virtual space as ‘ritual inventory’ and as archives that bring history to life at the same time.[9]

In the Edo language of Nigeria, ‘to remember’ literally means ‘to cast in bronze’, the bronze plates of the Kingdom of Benin are material witnesses of the country’s history. In contrast to the performative images of West African Vodun, the past is unchangeably fixed in these objects; especially in the spatial concepts of western museumisation, which are foreign to them, they can only be material for historical studies that work retrospectively.[10] In contrast, the image objects of West African Vodun, which are constantly updated in their use, were described in the past as ‘multifunctional objects’, ‘performative metaphors’ or ‘ritual enactments’.[11]

Between techniques of oral history and object-based, quasi-museal historiography, performative art can be understood as oral literature of fluid archives.[12] The interweaving of concepts of the ephemeral (orality, performance) and the permanent (literature, text) – especially when considering imagological questions between cultures – could be a first approach to solving problems inherent in these images.[13] This simultaneously tangible and metaphysical potential raises further questions about the organisation of images, their interconnectedness and corporality in global and virtual networks, like the ones mentioned above.

The image production of the African Magick Temple in Accra is an example of the constant change of Vodun and consequently a reaction to contemporary local and global issues. Christopher Voncujovi is the founder and spiritual leader, the trademark of his philosophy is the determined internationality of the priest.

Screenshot from Afrikan Magick Temple., Accessed 28.3.2020.

Under the catchphrase ‘ReVoduation’, an imagological revaluation of traditional pictorial practices and their transformation into virtual spaces takes place. Images and their practices thus become available worldwide, specifically addressing an African diaspora.

Photographs of performative actions and interactions document and systematise the order of objects, create encyclopedic-accumulative archives of material culture, depict people, their things, spirits, plants and animals, and thus bring together concepts of material and immaterial cultural heritage. Like the shrine itself, virtual images can be read as places of knowledge and performative texts at the same time, showing an inventory of networks and actors on the homepage of Temple. In a specific aesthetic, reminiscent of photographs in international fashion magazines and established strategies of the advertising and pictorial medium Instagram, the imagery of the African Magick Temple globalises this knowledge in the media translation into Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Images and films show just that – a kind of ritual inventory of the material culture and performance of West African Vodun of the present.

Screenshot from Afrikan Magick Temple., Accessed 28.3.2020.

Performances transported to virtual spaces confirm the status of the images by constantly updating them through formal-aesthetic and content related practices of actualisation. Formally that would happen through material accumulation and the restructuring and treatment of surfaces and the arrangement of those objects. Apart from this, a kind of semiotic and medial flexibility allows religious practices and the objects associated with them to react to new social contexts, social challenges and even new spaces and techniques. The ‘ReVoduation’ of the African Magick Temple has an educational mission; the homepage of the shrine offers pictorial insights into practices that are often difficult to access: Adepts are shown exercising religious practice, apparently the audience is international. They reproduce dynamic processes of medial and formal translation and (re)appropriation and typical visual vocabulary of Vodun at the same time, which has found its way into the museum display of the global West and images of the Diaspora: they thus show their possibility of ‘presentificatio’, an actual realisation of the otherwise intangible in objects of material culture, which goes far beyond concepts of presentation (masquerade), representation (objects) and metaphor (content).[14]

In such virtual space, container-like images, clearly inscribed properties of materiality, aesthetics and spirituality mutually reinforce and confirm each other. The connection of things with ‘practiced modes of action’ or the ‘ambiguity’ of these and the ‘changeability of object-related meanings and modes of use’[15] – their ‘cognitive stickiness’ as Alfred Gell would perhaps put it – makes them of interest for questions related to material culture and the archive at the same time.[16]

Martin Zillinger operates with an intriguing pair of terms in his investigation: ‘downscaling’ examines the translation of complex contents into ritually or medially simplified images, ‘upscaling’ describes the global distribution of such images in, for example, digital networks.[17] By digitising aspects of material culture and the archive through the application of these medial techniques, the images of the African Magick Temple create a dedicated ‘ritual genealogy’ for a specific audience, especially the diaspora, and form the basis of a tradition-based, contemporary African identity.

[1] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).

[2] ‘Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.’ Mary Louise Pratt, ‘Arts of the Contact Zone,’ in Ways of Reading, ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), 1-7.

[3] Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular Study of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993) 16.

[4] E. Gabriella Coleman, ‘Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media,’ Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 495 (487-505).

[5]  Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), VIII.

[6] Martin Zillinger, ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco,’ Social compass 61, no. 19 (2014): 44 (39-47).

[7] Hans Peter Hahn and Friedemann Neumann, Dinge als Herausforderung. Kontexte, Umgangsweisen und Umwertungen von Objekten (Bielefeld: transcript-Verlag 2018), 18.

[8] ‘(…) the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body.’ Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 72.

[9] Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin. Könige und Rituale. Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria (Gent: Snoeck Publ. 2007), 21.

[10] They are objective in the true sense of the word and part of historical construction. Connerton, How Societies Remember, 13.

[11] See: Tobias Wendl, ‘Slavery, Spirit Possession & Ritual Consciousness. The Tchamba Kult among the Mina of Togo,’ in Spirit Possession. Modernity & Power in Africa, ed. Heike Behrend and Ute Luig (Oxford: James Currey, 1999), 113 (111-124). Judy Rosenthal, Possession, Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 98. Paul Stoller, ‘Embodying Colonial Memories,’ Americanhropologist, New Series 96, no. 3 (1994): 639 (634-648).

[12] Fritz Kramer, Kunst im Ritual. Ethnographische Erkundungen zur Ästhetik (Berlin: Reimer, 2014), 31.

[13] An imagological approach would focus on the cross-national contexts of pictures and the pictorial manifestation of subjective perception of cultural differences in the sense of intercultural hermeneutics, reflecting upon constructions of the self and the other in such pictures.

[14] Jean-Pierre Vernant and Froma I. Zeitlin, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 151.

[15] Hahn and Neumann, Dinge als Herausforderung, 11.

[16] Gell, Art and Agency, 86.

[17] Zillinger, ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco,’ 39-47.

Further Readings:

  • Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency. An anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular Study of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Zillinger, Martin. ‘Media and the scaling of ritual spaces in Morocco.’ Social Compass 61, no. 19 (2014): 39-47.

Niklas Wolf, M.A. is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Art History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. As a research associate he is assigned to the professorship for the values of cultural heritage und provenance research. His research interests focus on the art history of Africa (especially tradition-based art), photography, material culture, visual studies, art history and cultural anthropology, interculturality and aesthetics. Currently he is working on his doctoral thesis (Voodoo and the state of inter. The (re)production of images and media in the context of West African Vodun between identity and alterity – working title), dealing with superordinate discourses of ownership and provenience, as well as the performative effects of specific, multifunctional objects in the construction of identity and alterity.

Latest exhibition (curated with Kerstin Pinther): Photobook Africa. Tracing Stories and Imagery, Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte München, 20.2 – 27.3.2020


King Arthur’s Westminster: A Virtual Medieval Walk

Matt Clancy takes us on a virtual tour of Arthurian London. In this article, he reflects on the traditions and reiterations of the medieval legend of Arthur, and its continued association with Westminster Abbey.

In these uncertain times, we may find ourselves without many of our usual networks and support groups. This blogpost is inspired by a walk I designed for the Medieval and Early Modern Reading Group at Birkbeck, University of London. Naturally, the walk could not go ahead as planned, but the pandemic has left me thinking about how we might revise and replicate this kind of collaborative experience in ways that are safely socially distant.


Our theme for this walk was ‘King Arthur’s Westminster’, based on my wider research into how medieval audiences regarded the Arthurian tradition. Westminster was the medieval seat of monarchical power, separate from the mercantile City of London, so it is unsurprising that Arthurian connections have recurred there across the centuries. I planned a short walk around ten points of interest, all within a mile or so of Westminster underground station. A map and key follow at the end of this blogpost, which the enterprising online walker can follow using Google Streetview.


Inevitably, in an attempt to find a walking route that logically linked the ten locations, the associated narrative would have to be told in a non-linear order. This in itself represents what Arthurian Studies is like – we do not have any facts about Arthur himself, if you wish to believe he existed, so the associated traditions themselves become the facts that we have to interpret. We cannot prove whether Arthur existed, but we do know that Arthurianism, the belief in the legendary king and his chivalric knights, did exist, especially in the medieval period.

My focus here is on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the first full Middle English prose version of the Arthurian tradition, written c. 1469-70, and first printed by William Caxton in 1485. Malory adapted a range of sources, notably the French Vulgate Lancelot-Grail cycle, but he consciously located his Arthurian narratives in recognisable fifteenth-century locations. For example, he places Camelot at Winchester, perhaps inspired by the location there of a Round Table created for Edward I (r. 1272-1307).

Malory similarly incorporates Westminster into the narrative. For example, after the death of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat (now better known as Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott), her “corpse and the bed all was led the next way unto Thames, and there… were put into Thames; and so the man steered the barge unto Westminster,” where her lover, Sir Lancelot, ensures her burial. The location of this sequence in Westminster is original to Malory; he also uses “the meadow beside Westminster” as a testing ground, where Lancelot defends Queen Guinevere’s honour. Malory maps the events he found in the French romances on to contemporary locations which he associated with the monarchy.


This association is rooted in the use of Westminster Abbey for coronation ceremonies, a tradition dating back to 1066 (although Arthur was traditionally crowned in Caerleon in Wales, following Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century chronicle History of the Kings of Britain). In keeping with this tradition, ‘Arthur’s Crown’ was given to Edward I after his victory over Llewellyn ap Gruffydd of Wales in 1283. Although neither side believed this to be an authentic Arthurian relic, there was political power in the English naming it as such. When the crown was taken to Westminster, it was used to crown both Edward and his son Alphonso as the symbolic successors of Arthur, emphasising their new authority over Wales.

At the heart of the Abbey stands the shrine of the saintly king, Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66). In his ‘Preface’ to Le Morte Darthur in 1485, Caxton wrote that “in the abbey of Westminster, at St. Edward’s shrine, remaineth the print of [Arthur’s] seal in red wax closed in beryl, in which is written, Patricius Arthurus Britannie, Gallie, Germanie, Dacie, Imperator” (“The Noble Arthur, Emperor of Britain, Gaul, Germany, and Denmark”). Possession of this forged seal demonstrated the monarch’s imagined right to wield the same authority as Arthur, including a right to rule over the listed countries. Even though it held no legal weight, the seal presented itself as a useful propaganda tool, and its placement at the Confessor’s shrine implied its authenticity.


Le Morte Darthur was the main inspiration for T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), the great twentieth-century version of the Arthur legend, now best known through Disney’s 1963 adaptation of its first part, The Sword in the Stone. Like Malory, White locates key events in real locations, and he places the ‘Sword in the Stone’ narrative in the heart of Westminster, with Arthur and his adoptive family staying at an inn on Old Pye Street.

Screenshot from The Sword in the Stone (Disney, 1963).

As White describes it, “There was a quiet churchyard at the end of the street, with a kind of square in front of the church door. In the middle of the square there was a heavy stone with an anvil on it, and a fine new sword was struck through the anvil.” Needing to find a weapon for his foster-brother Kay, Arthur pulls out the sword, and is subsequently confirmed to be “rightwise king born of all England.” White’s vision of a quiet churchyard is at odds with Malory, who says the sword was found “in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul’s or not the French book maketh no mention.” However, relocating the sequence to Westminster emphasises Arthur’s right to kingship.


Malory and White both locate Arthurian narratives in the world as they inhabited it. The associations with Westminster are really associations with kingship, and symbolise monarchical power, in the same way that the Sword in the Stone and the seal symbolise Arthur’s imagined right to rule.

I have been thinking about what has been lost and gained by moving this walk online. The loss of our ability to meet in person is keenly felt, and clearly scholarship will be the last thing on many of our minds now. However, there is also comfort to be had in a growing sense of collaborative scholarship rapidly adapting to a virtual environment, and I hope that something of the creativity and connectedness we are now seeing may be carried forward when we eventually walk out of our isolation.


A Virtual Medieval Walk

  1. Westminster Bridge, representing where the body of the Fair Maid of Astolat arrives at Westminster in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
  2. The Palace of Westminster, where the Queen’s Robing Room is decorated with nineteenth-century Arthurian murals, depicting scenes from Malory.
  3. The Jewel Tower, a fourteenth-century tower originally used to house the treasure of keen Arthurian Edward III (r. 1327-77).
  4. Parliament Square, representing the meadow beside Westminster, used in Malory as a testing ground.
  5. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  6. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  7. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  8. Caxton Street, named after the first English printer.
  9. Old Pye Street, the site of Arthur’s lodgings in The Once and Future King, represented here by the Munich Cricket Club pub.
  10. St Matthew’s Westminster, the closest church to Old Pye Street, and a possible location for the ‘Sword in the Stone.’

Additional details of the walk are available on my Twitter feed.

Further Readings:

  • Barron, W.R.J., ed. The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001.
  • Ditmas, Edith M.R. ‘The Cult of Arthurian Relics.’ Folklore 75.1 (1964): 19-33.
  • Rouse, Robert, and Cory Rushton. The Medieval Quest for Arthur. Stroud: Tempus, 2005.

Matt Clancy is a PhD candidate and Associate Tutor at Birkbeck, University of London, working on medieval material culture associated with the Arthurian traditions.


Through Fire and Chemical Burns: Lucile Dizier’s Vitriol

Lauren Rozenberg delves into the photograph series Vitriol and interrogates the creative powers of destruction. What happens to bodies when they are attacked, fragmented, set ablaze?

A shadowy hand, cut at the wrist, penetrates the frame from the bottom left corner, leading the viewer’s gaze upward. The fingers hold, almost delicately, an undulating glossy and nebulous photograph. No detail is directly discernible. In fact, the viewer can only make sense of a purple, pink and golden texture on the shiny surface of the photograph. Upon closer inspection, one can start to discern small indentations and an extra level of texture amid this sea of colour.

This shot is taken from the Instagram of Belgian artist Lucile Dizier. It shows the making of a new test for her ongoing series Vitriol (2015 – onward). The image accompanies a close up of the photograph itself (figure 2) intending to better showcase its reflecting properties. The hand shot is not part of the series but, I contend, is telling of Dizier’s approach to and manipulation of photographs into new bodies that can be equally marked or displayed in Vitriol.

Lucile Dizier, Vitriol, expérimentation, 2018. 14 October 2018. Screenshot from @luciledizier  ©Lucile Dizier

Dizier describes Vitriol as ‘a series of drafts and experimentations’[1] The photographs are taken digitally, printed then burned with a lighter. Afterward, they are either scanned or photographed again. Passing through different media, they undergo a lengthy process that is simultaneously destructive and generative. The series started in 2015 as a visceral response to a recent spurge of vitriolage, or acid attacks, especially carried out against women. Since then, however, the series has constantly changed, evolved or regressed. Photographs are added, then retracted. While the project is at times left aside, unfinished but not abandoned, the series exists both within and alongside Dizier’s practice. Vitriol becomes a meta-series: it goes beyond being a series but rather became a form of experimentation, a way for the artist to reflect on her own practice.

Burning images has long been associated with artistic practices, either as a form of political contestation or as part of the creative process. Most famously, twentieth-century artist Yves Klein produced Fire paintings. He used gas flames propulsed onto the canvas, because, he writes, he wishes to record traces of human sentimentality as well as the fire that engendered it. Fire, declares Klein, is contradictory: it is concurrently sweetness and torture.[2] In 2012, the director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum (Cam), Antonio Manfredi, publicly burned paintings from the museum’s collection to draw attention to the institution’s dire needs of financial support.[3] Cam’s political actions have been construed as ‘Art war’, protesting against governmental cut in the cultural budget. Many artists joined the protest by burning their own work and sending the ashes to Cam.

Dizier mobilises fire to explore torments, forms of tortures and emotions. In her first vitriolic experimentation, Dizier placed a topless woman on a concrete industrial floor. The woman diverts her face from the camera, as if passively offering her body to the omni-present male gaze. Dizier then came to burn strategic part of the picture: the underwear, nipples, hair and face are the most marked zones. When the body has definitely been attacked, the background is also scorched, providing texture to the image. Here emerges the paradox embodied by the hand shot Dizier published on Instagram in October 2018. The hand is the one that burned. The artist’s hand becomes the hand of the tormentor, the one that almost charred the object it now offers. This gesture embodies the essence of Vitriol: creation requires destruction, thinking requires dissolving, the melting of chemicals transforming the image anew. With this experimentation, Dizier dissolves not only the image, but her very own practice.

Lucile Dizier, Vitriol. 2015. ©Lucile Dizier

For another experimentation, Dizier created a collage. She cut parts of the upper body of her model and glued it onto a photograph of an artist’s studio, a wooden easel visible in the back. Dizier then heavily burned the face, arm and neck of the woman, with golden sparks radiating toward the borders of the photograph. The female body in the image is, therefore, not only ignited but also cut and fragmented. The fragmentation is reinforced by the cracks on the woman’s face, threatening at every instant to resume the burning and dissolve fully the pictorial space.

Lucile Dizier, Vitriol. 2015. ©Lucile Dizier

Linda Nochlin has famously argued in her book The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity that the fragmentation of female bodies is contingent upon a new development of male spectatorship.[4] She states that in post-revolutionary France, and especially in Paris, the fragment accomplishes a liberation from the repressive past and destroys previous modes of representation. As such, the fragment, she argues, is a 19th-century symbol of modernity. Although Nochlin’s work is concerned with a very specific historical moment, Dizier approaches the fragmented female body in a similar way. Vitriol is a response to violent attacks that intended to hurt, disfigure or kill women. Her fragmentated visions of attacks on the female model reflects our contemporary culture surrendered entirely to the male gaze.

However, while Yves Klein painted with fire, Dizier uses fire and fragmentation to transform her digital photographs into new and hybrid objects. The digital version only offers a single, frontal, point of view of the object. The light is only reflected as it was when the digital rendering was made. On the other hand, the objects Dizier created are alive: their visual aspects change and evolve constantly, dependent on a myriad of factors. The surrounding light, influence of the humidity on the undulation of the paper, viewpoint or involvement of touch and smell transform the experience of the original project simultaneously transfixed in its digital form.

In Vitriol, Dizier created new non-human bodies that she physically attacks, permanently marks and then displays as a way to reflect on her own artistic practice, which also evolves, melts away and recomposes itself into new forms.

[1] Accessed 12 December 2018. ‘Vitriol, 2015, est une série de brouillons et d’expérimentations.’

[2] Yves Klein Archives. “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”. 1961. Archived from the original on 15 January 2013. Retrieved 26 April 2013.

[3] Accessed 12 December 2018.

[4] Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, (London: Thames and Hudson: 1994).

Further Reading:

  • Nochlin, Linda. The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity. London: Thames and Hudson: 1994.

Lauren Rozenberg is an art historian and co-editor of Artsolation. She is currently finishing her PhD at University College London. (See more here)


Good Things Coming: On Julian of Norwich and Living Through Pandemic

Hannah Lucas introduces us to the medieval anchorite Julian of Norwich and her divine visions. In this time of confinement, she considers the meditative qualities of isolation.

‘al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner of thing shal be wele’

– Julian of Norwich (1342/3–1416)

‘I believe in the good things comin’, comin’, comin’ comin’’

– Nahko and Medicine for the People (2013)

If you know nothing else about Julian of Norwich, you might know her above assurance that ‘al shal be wele’. It’s one of a few quotes from the fourteenth-century visionary currently doing the Twitter rounds, as we all reach for comfort amid the strange anticipatory weight of recent days and weeks.

The maxim is part of Julian’s longer text, A Revelation of Love, which remains to this day one of the most powerfully affective literary and theological statements about living through disease, and choosing love in the face of fear. As far as we know, A Revelation was written during Julian’s own isolation, or enclosure, as an anchorite—a kind of medieval hermit—in a cell attached to a church. Here, she would spend over forty years meditating on the events of a single week, which altered the course of her life and work irrevocably.


It is May 1373, and Julian—whose birth name remains unknown—is thirty years old. She has contracted a sickness so debilitating and so blindingly painful she is certain it will kill her. Later, Julian will write movingly of how she languished in her sickbed, losing movement in her lower body, then her eyesight. The rest of her body begins ‘to die’, and Julian becomes numb and breathless. Her pains come and go, fluctuating between ‘ese’ and ‘disese’. In her nightmares, she is visited by fiends.

In March 2020, I’m reading a Facebook post entitled ‘COVID-19 IN THE ATTIC’. It’s the account of a woman with a suspected case of Coronavirus, who writes of her self-relegation to an attic room to avoid infecting her household. She FaceTimes her family so they can be together; she watches her children playing chess. Her leg muscles feel as though she’d walked days through sand. ‘The headache comes and goes, the fever comes and goes’. Dreams turn nightmareish. Her chest is tight.


Julian was five years old when the Black Death arrived in England in June of 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London. By the following year, Julian was six, and the country was in the midst of a pandemic. The disease would kill at least a third of the population, causing tears in the social and political fabric of society that would last for decades to follow.

We don’t know how many people Julian lost to the Black Death, or the wars and other widespread hardships common to fourteenth-century living. Nor do we know whether Julian’s sickness was associated with the plague; from her description, it was likely not. We do, however, have Julian’s account of her own survival. More than this, we have an unparalleled series of meditations on the meaning of survival; that is, on finding meaning out of the disorder and dissemblance of the everyday which accompanies illness and trauma.

For Julian, her sickness suspends her out of space and time, in a liminal zone between presence and absence, positive and negative. She is at once in the room, and out of the room. She at once trusts in God’s mercy, and is also terribly afraid. The only light in the darkness is ‘in the image of the cross’, the crucifix held before her by a curate in attendance. The visual focus of the cross brings to Julian’s mind compassion for Christ’s own pains; she wants to feel as he felt, to join him in his own, superlative and paradoxical act of healing pain. With this, the figure of Christ begins to bleed.

What follows is a series of sixteen ‘showings’ or visions: visual, verbal and mental apparitions, which together constitute Julian’s ‘revelation of love’. Among these, Julian witnesses all of creation contained within a little thing, round and the size of a hazelnut, held in God’s wise care. She sees the scourging of Christ’s body; his blood, which spreads like the scales of a herring; his woundedness, and his broken heart for love of the world. She understands that the oscillations of ‘wele and wo’ with which she is afflicted are part of this revelation: a reminder that it is ‘spedeful’ to some souls to be sometimes in comfort, and sometimes ‘to faile and to be left to hemselfe’.

This idea that pain is inevitable, and maybe even beneficial, is a difficult pill to swallow, and Julian deals with this more fully in her theology of sin. But for Julian herself, the sickness does indeed function as a radically transformative experience. Her illness, and the accompanying revelation, calls Julian out of her everyday existence and into a profound new perspective on the world. She is reminded of the love which connects ‘al thing’, and of the opportunity in each moment to reconnect with an inner state of wholeness or ‘hele’, even in the face of disease or pain.

In Julian’s account, the crucifix is the entry point for this transformation: it is, Denys Turner writes, ‘the embodiment of her theological epistemology’.[1] A symbol for the possibility of salvation—of being saved from pain—the cross is a way into the Christian narrative of redemption. Contemporary material from the rich literary and visual culture of the Middle Ages evidences the ubiquitous function of the crucifix as a tool, or access point, for remembering Christ’s history. The hanging body of Christ on the cross becomes a visual shorthand for the all-encompassing and sacrificial love of God.

The image of the cross thus pulls Julian’s focus away from the darkness and distraction of the sickroom—an anchoring of her attention which becomes a neat analogy for a broader way of living, which she calls the ‘wey of Christ’. It strips away the busyness of the world around her, cluttered and disturbing, ‘as though it were occupied by fiends’, and draws her awareness to a single point. Out of the darkness and into light, Julian’s understanding is led towards Christ, to his pain, and to the love that grounds it.


Julian’s revelation is that this ‘homely love’ is always available to us—homely because of its familiarity, its closeness. We find it in the little things: in the domestic, a game of chess, the scales of a fish. These are the ‘#TinyJoys’ which make themselves known when we are compelled to slow down, to be truly and fixedly present. In Julian’s case, this is effected by sickness, though she advocates the more intentional method of contemplation.

I wonder if the threat of pandemic functions in a similar way: calling us out of the everyday and into isolation, we are asked to ‘stay at home’ in every sense. Though we can’t make plans for the days and weeks to come, we can seek out homely love even among the chaos and anxiety of present times. By focusing our attention in this way, we can find a home within the self, a place of safety and security, which promises good things to come; a place of light in the darkness, where ‘al shal be wele’.

[1] Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 22.

Further readings:

  • Gillespie, Vincent. ‘Seek, Suffer, and Trust: “Ese” and “Disese” in Julian of Norwich.’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 39 (2017): 129–58.
  • McAvoy, Liz Herbert. A Companion to Julian of Norwich. Cambridge: Brewer, 2008.
  • Watson, Nicholas and Jacqueline Jenkins, eds. The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.

Hannah Lucas is writing her D.Phil on Julian of Norwich at the University of Oxford.

Murals Street Art

Life And Love At The Time Of Covid-19: Story Of An Impossible Touch

Dr Ilaria Grando shares a personal account of the Coronavirus emergency in Northern Italy, explored through the lens of Milanese urban art culture.

Can you imagine living in a world where you cannot give a hug, a kiss, or even a caress to your loved ones? Can you imagine living in a world where you relating to the other implies at least 1-metre distance?

“We are only left with a window view,” said my mother watching the moon shining bright and free in a dark sky. I cannot remember which day of the Italian lockdown it is. Time in quarantine runs as dense as honey, days overlapping with each other. Out there the world as I knew it has changed. The cities are deserted, the hospitals overcrowded. My country is padded in a noisy silence. And for me, a quarantined person in the North of Italy, it is a war within. I am not living with the virus, but I am living under its dictatorship.

In a red area country, the rules to follow are simple. Do not leave the house; clean often; if you have to leave the house for exceptional reasons keep at least 1-meter distance from and to another individual; avoid handshakes and hugs; do not touch eyes, mouth, and nose with your hands; cover mouth and nose when you are coughing or sneezing; wash your hands frequently; wear a face mask if you believe to be ill or if you are taking care of someone who is ill.[1] More simply: minimise and if possible avoid any unnecessary form of physical interaction. 

A humanity who has been deprived of touch, the humanity living at the time of COVID-19 has elected as its symbols face masks and hand-sanitisers. In the age of a celebrated virtual living, the pandemic has confined us to the sole use of the web as a way of communicating and interacting with other human beings, generating a crisis within the crisis. Italian street artist Tvboy has captured the problem in an image soon elected as a symbol of the COVID-19 reality in Italy. 

‘L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19’ ©Tvboy 2020.

“L’Amore ai Tempi del CO…VID-19” (Love in the Time of CO…VID-19) appeared on the 28th of February 2020 in the streets of Milan. The announcement, given by the artist himself on social media, did not reveal the exact location of the work, leaving an aura of mystery.[2] Colouring an outside that is no longer accessible, Tvboy’s work appropriates a painting, symbol of the Italian Romantic movement, Francesco Hayez’s Il Bacio (The Kiss). Presented for the first time in Brera in 1859, Hayez’s work was meant to celebrate the positive outcome of the Second War of Italian Independence.[3] Set in an imagined Middle Ages, Il Bacio conveys the hopes of a soon-to-be nation in the tender kiss of a young couple.[4] The success of the painting is immediate: the audience likes the subject and understands the message clearly.[5] Eight years later, Hayez decides to approach the work again, and realise a second version to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle.[6] The political situation has changed, Italy is now an independent reign, and the colours can become livelier. The Italian and the French flags shine with decision in the clothes of the young lovers: in their kiss a story of alliance and national independence, in their kiss, the story of those who have left their country and loved ones to fight for their nations.[7]

1867, Il Bacio as the emblem of the individual’s sacrifice for the common good.

A hundred and sixy-oneyears later, Hayez’s young lovers are still engaging in a tender kiss but the premises are completely different. Tvboy, an artist living at the time of COVID-19, has thoughtfully provided the main characters with face masks. Once again, Art exits History to make sense of the present. This time, however, the image becomes paradoxical. The kiss is not a passionate expression of love but a representation of a past that, for now, can no longer be. Looking at Tvboy’s work, the audience will probably recall the adolescent beauty of Hayez’s painting, some will even remember its historical meaning. But in the clashing evidence of the differences standing between the two images, they will also start to question the realities depicted, confronting them to what it means to live and love at the time of COVID-19. Observing the image and comparing it to its original, it is soon clear that Tvboy’s lovers have very little to do with Hayez’s. The couple is close and yet extremely distant: they are protecting themselves from each other. The embrace is clumsy, unsure; their hands are too busy holding onto a hand sanitiser bottle to hold each other, and the kiss is obstructed by a safety mask. Touch but not touch. Kiss but not kiss. Tvboy’s couple is the perfect depiction of a virtual love that cannot exist in the practicality of life. I imagine the instant after the kiss, and I see a sudden departure of the two, almost as if, waking up from the suspend time of History, the lovers would finally realise how things have changed, and how their present, which is my present, can no longer permit their kiss.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization has officially called the COVID-19 crisis a “pandemic”.[8] 416,686 cases, 18,589 deaths in 196 countries (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm CET). 57,521 cases, 7,503 deaths, and 9,362 healed only in Italy (data as of March 25, 2020, at 6pm). Over 15 days upon changing my status from Italian citizen to Red Area inhabitant to citizen of a world facing a pandemic, I listen to the news with increasing concern letting tears streams out of my eyes.

The politics and the poetics that have defined Il Bacio since day one are once again summoned. Mediated by Tvboy, the painting adapts its meaning to the contemporary time, exiting its historical dimension. In the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see the big little sacrifices everyone is doing for the common good; in the impossible kiss of the two lovers, I see a past memory, and the hope to make it a present reality soon.

2020, Il Bacio as an emblem of tomorrow when we will take those masks off, and kiss again. 

[1] “FAQ – Covid-19, domande e risposte; Prevenzione e Trattamento,” Ministero della Salute, Mar 10, 2020, accessed Mar 12, 2020,

[2] Tvboy (@Tvboy), Tweet. Feb 28, 2020, access Mar 12, 2020,

[3] Giovanna Galeschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (Sep 1, 2007): 346.

[4] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020,—Puntata-del-06122015-cc4b6ef1-3d55-406e-970a-337c67c3625a.html

[5] “Il bacio, Francesco Hayez,”Pinacoteca di Brera, accessed Mar 25, 2020,

[6] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346; Fernando Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[7] Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History,” 346-347; Mazzocca, “Il bacio di Francesco Hayez raccontato da Fernando Mazzocca,” Rai Radio 3 Museo Nazionale, podcast audio, Nov 6, 2015, acessed Mar 12, 2020.

[8] Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020,” World Health Organization, Mar 11, 2020, accessed Mar 12 2020—11-march-2020.

Further Readings:

  • Nancy, Jean Luc, Georges Didi-Huberman, Nathalie Heinich and Jean Christopher Baily. Del Contemporaneo: Saggi su Arte e Tempo. Edited by Federico Ferrari. Milano: Pearson Paravia Bruno Mondadori S.p.A, 2007.
  • Faleschini Lerner, Giovanna. “Visconti’s SENSO: The Art of History.” A Journal of Italian Studies 41, no.2 (2007): 342-358.

Ilaria Grando is an art historian, writer, and researcher. Her PhD thesis looked at representations of the male body made during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS epidemic in the USA, to explore the impact the epidemic had and continues to have on the contemporary understanding of healthy and ill bodies. Ilaria is currently interested in questioning the visual culture that surrounds health and illness and developing an intimate art history. 


Staying in Touch

Dr Marta Zboralska looks at embodied expressions of vicinity and exchange in this piece about hands and performance.

I have been spending a lot of time on my phone. Scrolling through TikTok, I came across the ‘gesture challenge’: rhythmically gesticulating a sequence of emojis, as if you were dancing with your hand – just one – instead of your feet. I was reminded of Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966).

See Yvonne Rainer Hand Movie from Performa on Vimeo.

Hand gestures have long played a signifying role in artworks. In a Christian icon, it is the hand raised in a blessing that makes Christ readable as the Pantocrator. Giorgio Agamben has described this as the gesture’s ‘communication of a communicability’.* ‘I am a sign!’, the gesture seems to exclaim. ‘Read me!’

One of art history’s most recognisable hand gestures appears in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. There is a symbolic dimension to the fresco: it is a painting about humanity. But it is also, without doubt, a painting about touch. It relies on the palpable tension between two outstretched fingers, the expertly depicted state of almost-but-not-quite touching.

When they are held, hands indicate varying degrees of intimacy. At the more detached end of the spectrum, the handshake symbolises a formal, distant kind of familiarity. And yet, beyond its iconography, it is also a hug once removed – direct skin contact. If you were wearing gloves, you would take them off before shaking someone’s hand.

In Handshake Ritual, part of her Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-1980), Mierle Laderman Ukeles set out to shake hands with every employee at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Moving beyond the imaginary realm of hands whose ‘dirty’ work means that we can feel more ‘clean’, Ukeles’ ritual acknowledged the workers in a physical, haptic way. She recognised their bare hands as the hands in which collective responsibility lies quite literally and visibly: the individual hands of collective responsibility. Her handshake was more than just a ‘nice gesture’.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles from Artforum on Vimeo.

It was accompanied by a verbal expression of gratitude: ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive’. Here the word ‘alive’ is figurative, in the sense of metropolitan motion and liveliness, and simultaneously tangible: what keeps the public, all of us, alive are not only clean hands, but the hands-that-do-the-cleaning.

As we try to reconcile social distancing with constant thoughts about our hands (wash your hands for twenty seconds, do not touch your face), Ukeles reminds us of the need to stay in touch with each other: to think beyond the gesture.

* Giorgio Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’ in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 58.

Further Readings:

  • Agamben, Giorgio. ‘Notes on Gesture’ On Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, 48-59. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Molesworth Helen (ed.). Dance/draw. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz/Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2011.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Marta Zboralska recently completed her PhD on the studio of Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński.

call for interest

Introducing Artsolation & call for submission

By Lauren Rozenberg and Laura Scalabrella Spada

Artsolation is a platform about visual cultures created by Lauren Rozenberg and Laura Scalabrella Spada. It materialised in a time of isolation, of social distancing and fearful uncertainties about the future. This blog aims to disseminate research and to reflect on any expression of visual cultures.

Were you meant to present a paper at a conference that has been cancelled, or take part in a seminar? Perhaps you simply have something, somewhere in your files, that you wish to share. We view artsolation as a digital networking platform, a community.

We welcome short article submissions from all fields and career stages, but we especially want to relay and amplify the voices of young academics, writers and artists. Whoever you are, if you have an idea, get in touch with us. This platform is about sharing.

Here are some guidelines on what we are looking for:

  • Content: we welcome submissions on all periods, sites or aspects of visual cultures. This can be a short extract from your research, a personal artistic practice or a think piece about something that happened recently. All we ask is that your contributions contain at least one image, free of rights (or with a right to reproduce).
  • Length: we welcome submissions between 500-1000 words. If you wish to write something longer or a series, please in get touch.
  • Reading reference: we ask that each contributor provide between 1 to 3 reading suggestions, so that we can keep a digital bookshelf.
  • Turnaround: we aim to have a quick turnaround, to keep the sharing as active as possible.

We hope you will join us in amplifying our voices and sharing cultures. Please, get in touch with us at or through the contact form.

We look forward to reading you.

Image: Grasset, Eugène-Samuel. Encre L. Marquet : [affiche] (Epreuve du tirage sans mention V.D.H. sc.). Affiches Artistiques G. de Malherbe. 1892. BnF.