All posts filed under: Reviews

Migrations of Gesture

Reviewed by Jane Van Slembrouck, Fordham University Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness, eds. Migrations of Gesture. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2008. 296 pages. For critics in the arts and humanities, the term “gesture” is a seductive one, suggesting a sensual affinity between aesthetic expression and the variability and subtlety of physical movement. If pressed to explain gesture, many of us would compare it to language, while perhaps qualifying the analogy by noting that gestures are more organic—and more ephemeral—than either speech or writing. Migrations of Gesture, a collection of nine essays that range in scope across the visual and performance arts, sets out to undo these assumptions. The volume offers several fresh approaches to thinking about movement as constituting individual identity as well as a social field that extends through bodies and cultures. While this transmission can happen gradually, the collection points out the more rapid ways that aesthetic forms are “co-opted” or extracted from their original bodies and locations, whether through commercial appropriation or geographical migration. The term “gesture” almost inevitably invites a …

Culinary Art and Anthropology

Reviewed by Helen Vallianatos, University of Alberta Joy Adapon. Culinary Art and Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, 2008. 160 Pages.1 Envisioning salsa made with spicy chilies makes my mouth water. So it was with some excitement to me that Joy Adapon, in her book Culinary Art and Anthropology, included recipes at the end of almost every chapter. I began with trying the tomato salsa recipe, playing with the flavors, and in the process embodying and digesting Adapon’s thesis and ideas that were based on 24 months of fieldwork in Milpa Alta, the smallest municipality of Mexico City. Adapon presents us with a unique contribution to anthropological food studies through her utilization of Alfred Gell’s ideas of art as a technical practice—a system of actions embedded in a dynamic social matrix or a network of intentionalities.2 In this framework, cooking is a creative process that requires technical expertise; such skill is not unique to trained chefs, Adapon argues, but can be found in the everyday culinary traditions of Mexican households. “Good” food, which is food with sazón (i.e. made …

Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

Reviewed by Amy L. Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison Kobena Mercer, ed. Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers. Cambridge, MA: Institute of International Visual Arts/MIT Press, 2008. 224 Pages.1 If we consider Kobena Mercer’s latest anthology, Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, in relation to the title of the InIVA/MIT Press series “Annotating Art’s Histories” in which it appears, a potentially productive space opens up between annotation as a practice of adding notes to existing narratives, and annotation as a revisionist methodology that challenges the ground upon which these narratives have structured the histories of modern and contemporary art. In this volume, Mercer makes relevant the question of what happens to art history’s disciplinary frameworks when we take diaspora, exile, and movement as the basis for inquiry.2 Contributors therefore reveal the varying stakes, benefits, and limits involved in the ways we approach the art historical legacies of both modernism and diasporic art practices in light of contemporary forms of globalization. Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers is the fourth and final publication in the series, which also includes Cosmopolitan Modernisms (2005), Discrepant …

No Caption Needed

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 419 Pages. In Susan Sontag’s final book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), the literary critic, political activist, and controversial theorist of photography argues that, whether photographs are understood as “naïve object[s]” or “the work of an experienced artificer,” their meaning and the viewer’s response to them depends on how pictures are identified or misidentified—that is, on how textual discourses are constructed through the act of individual viewing. Sontag concludes that whatever excess of understanding is suggested in a given image, a caption will eventually “be needed” to help read the image.1 It is to this bold claim that Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites appear to respond with their collaborative work No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. This book is at once a study of iconic photographs as public art in American culture, and an unabashed rebuttal of what the authors term the “hermeneutics of suspicion” around visual …

Bill Brandt: A Life

Reviewed by Lucy Curzon, University of Rochester Delany, Paul. Bill Brandt: A Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. 336 pages. ISBN: 0804750033 In this lengthy biography of Bill Brandt, author Paul Delany presents the renowned British photographer as a shy and complex individual. Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany as Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1909. His father’s family was successful in banking and international trade, while his mother’s kin were members of the Hamburg governing class, thus Brandt and his five siblings lived their early days according to the highest bourgeois standards. As Delany suggests, “it was a life of wealth, comfort and order; of lavish food and drink” (15). Yet despite (or because of) this privilege, Brandt spent the duration of his life actively trying to escape this past. Delany’s description of Brandt’s childhood has all the makings of a colorful Freudian case study. He was a sensitive and thoughtful boy who was constantly subjected to the whims of a despotic father. Unable to seek protection from his vulnerable mother, he consequently sought …

The Integrated News Spectacle

Reviewed by Ivan Castenada, University of Idaho Compton, James R. The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance. New York and Berlin: Peter Lang, 2004. 275 pages. ISBN: 0820470708 Charles Lamb, in his excellent study of the work of Howard Barker, remarked that television “exhibits two convergent tendencies, the authentication of the fictional, and the fictionalizing of the authentic.” 1 One of the great emerging contributions being made within the field of visual culture encompasses a more nuanced and broader version of this observation: Mainly, that not just television but all media function to aestheticize the fictional and fictionalize the aesthetic. This important area of inquiry includes directing attention toward the issues involved in what we might call media aesthetics. More broadly, the examination of the implications and provocations of the aestheticizing of media fits into a wider critique of what has been called the political ecology of the senses. 2 Such a critical trajectory invariably needs to address the workings of media through the ever-growing effect of information-as-surface, which in turn entails the …

Dancing Machines

Reviewed by Odetta Norton McCarren, Felicia. Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 254 pages. ISBN: 0804739889 In my work, I move from creative writing to academic writing to dance practice and theory. An editor and mentor once told me that he despised dissertation titles. Wordy, stuffy, overstated, the academic title too often tries to bear more weight than it can handle. In the case of Felicia McCarren’s second book I would have to agree with this mentor. Harking back to Walter Benjamin’s famous treatise, McCarren’s Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is too big a buffet. The colon between Machines and Choreographies is a poor substitute for a proper digestif between courses. The actual work inside follows in this manner; a bloated text, much to this reader’s dismay. But once sifted out, the kernels of scholarship that McCarren presents still make some tasty food for thought. In McCarren’s first book, Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine, the author reveals the ways in which Romantic poets such …

A Theory of /Cloud/

Reviewed by Brian Curtin, Raffles Design Institute Bangkok Damisch, Hubert. A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 313 pages. ISBN: 0804734402 The “destruction”of linear perspective by modern art did in fact everything but — given the extent to whichlinear perspective preoccupied twentieth-century thought on European art and its histories. Amidst a plethora of texts including Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, there is John White’s The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space and James Elkins’s more recent and comprehensive account of the historical shift from geometry to metaphor in The Poetics of Perspective. Though concerned with how linear perspective can be linked to its “opposite,” the affective indeterminacy of the image of clouds, Hubert Damisch’s book is more than an adjunct to these writings. Damischis also concerned with establishing the necessity of semiotics to challenge his recognition of limits in how art and art history are written. /Cloud/ appears between forward slashes in order to render a signifier rather than representation and cloud appears …

Derrida

Reviewed by Mark Denaci, SUNY Geneseo Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, Derrida (documentary, 2002) Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, the makers of Derrida, seem to have willfully set themselves up for failure. How, after all, could anyone not end up disappointed by a film whose title’s singularity suggests that it will get to the “essence” of one of contemporary philosophy’s most resolutely anti-essentialist thinkers? To their credit, however, the filmmakers turn the documentary into a paradoxically entertaining meditation on the very (im)possibility of making a film with a title like Derrida. Ostensibly, the documentary offers itself up as a sort of “day-in-the-life” portrait of the controversial French philosopher: we get to see the proverbial “father of deconstruction” buttering his morning muffin, getting a haircut, looking for his keys, talking to earnest American graduate students, visiting his own archive at UC Irvine, visiting Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell, etc., all of this interspersed with a number of brief interview segments. Those who might be expecting a PBS-style documentary outlining Derrida’s career and putting it …

Writing Machines

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 144 pages. ISBN: 0262582155 In Writing Machines N. Katherine Hayles offers both a discussion of her budding theory of Media-Specific Analysis (MSA) and a practice devised to outline its applicability. More precisely, Hayles’s book as realized in Anne Burdick’s design — and the publisher’s execution of it — emphasizes the importance of a text’s materiality. Hayles argues that a text’s instantiation in a particular medium shapes it in ways that cannot be divorced from the meaning of its “words (and other semiotic components)” (25) and calls for the need to develop a theory that takes into consideration medium as a crucial aspect of the content of a work. The implementation of Burdick’s design consistently draws attention to the book as a physical artifact. The cover, with its tactile ridges running lengthwise down front, back, and spine, forms a contrast to the sleek pages of the interior — both invite the reader to stroke the book, reveling in its materiality. The page layout, changing fonts, and bubbled …

Sure Seaters

Reviewed by Daniel I. Humphrey, University of Rochester Barbara Wilinsky. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN: 0816635633 In a remarkable turn-around from the discipline’s formative years, recent American film scholarship has largely ignored the art cinema movement of the post-war era. Academic engagement with the texts of Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, and Buñuel has seemingly been left to scholars in other disciplines, such as Modern Language departments or Religious Studies programs. And much of this critical work, sadly, is either underdeveloped (such as Thomas Elaseser’s compelling by frustratingly brief Sight and Sound essay) or simply ignored (Marilyn Johns Blackwell’s valuable work on Ingmar Bergman, for example, is almost completely overlooked). Recently, however, a number of emerging film studies scholars, many still in graduate school, have sought to renew discourse on this neglected subject. Barbara Wilinsky’s short but fecund new volume, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (2001) marks an encouraging, praiseworthy start. Sure Seaters focuses on the sites of exhibition rather than the films …

Animal Spaces, Beastly Places

Reviewed by Lisa Uddin, University of Rochester Philo, Chris and Chris Wilbert, eds. Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. London: Routledge, 2000. 310 pages. ISBN: 041519847X In his important 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?” critic John Berger lamented the marginalization of animals in modernity. Animals, he argued, have been rendered invisible within modern capitalist society. We can no longer see, neither conceptually nor perceptually, the authentic animality of animals, for it has slipped out of our view. A reductive human relation to the animal world has transformed them into commodities, degraded them as members of the bourgeois family unit, contained them in national parks, game reserves and – most tragically – zoos. How to get these invisible animals into view? How to put animals into the center of modern social life? Though not a direct response to these questions, Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert’s edited volume Animal Spaces, Beastly Places addresses the legitimate, though somewhat nostalgic, problem of the marginal animal with theoretical sophistication and a lively set of case studies. Animals …