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Illustrated Report of the Summer School 2012

Nov 21, 2012

The role of visual and material culture in the context of transcultural exchange processes between Asia and Europe was the topic of the Summer School "Seeing Matter(s): Materiality and Visuality". It was held from July 29 to August 4, 2012, at the Karl Jaspers Centre in Heidelberg.

Marlène Harles, a student of Cultural Anthropology, participated in the Summer School. In the following report, she reviews the five-day programme that combined lectures by the foremost researchers in the respective disciplines with interactive seminars and workshops.

Group of Participants

A Transcultural Understanding of Materiality and Visuality

Summer School Poster

The summer school "Seeing Matter(s): Materiality and Visuality" attracted over 30 students from various countries and academic disciplines, such as history, art history, literature studies, the social sciences and anthropology.

The group discussed the manifold interrelations of materiality and visuality and they focused on encounters with things, practices of seeing, transferring, collecting, framing, and representing objects.

Keynote Lecture on "Reflections on Sunaryo’s Titik Nadir"

Prof. Kenneth George

On Monday, July 30th, the Summer School kicked off with the participant’s presentations of their individual research focus and material. Visualized through posters, these presentations addressed important topics and raised interesting questions, such as how to deal with the sensory experience of objects and how seeing is both personal and culturally influenced. The examples the students engaged with ranged from magic lantern slides, films, and postcards to contemporary art markets, Muslim popular visual culture, performance, or "Indian Wear".
The day concluded with the first keynote lecture by Professor Kenneth George. The anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented a paper entitled "Companionable Objects, Companionable Conscience: Reflections on Sunaryo's Titik Nadir". He started his lecture addressing the ways in which people dwell with things, how objects become companions and how people attribute conscience to objects? Turning to the Indonesian art world, he presented a work by the artist Sunaryo Soetono. Titled Titik Nadir ("The Low Point"), this work was created at the fall of Soeharto’s regime in 1998. The anthropologist argued that Sunaryo’s wrapping up of art pieces, which was the central part of this work, was an iconoclastic gesture that gave form to the ways in which the artist dealt with the collapse of the national order, the situation of the local art world and his own conscience.

Flash is required!
Watch Kenneth George's lecture on "Companionable Objects, Companionable Conscience"

Delicate Materials: Embodying and Colouring Intimacy

The topic of the presentations held on Tuesday, July 31st was "Delicate Materials: Embodying and Colouring Intimacy". The discussion focused on the relation between the human body and things, as well as the creation, development and display of feelings and intimacy through this relationship. Like the following days of the Summer School, Tuesday’s sessions were divided in two parts; while the senior scholars presented their current research topics in the morning, the afternoon was reserved for related group discussions amongst scholars and students. With "Undressing Fashions: Intimate Bodies and Public Narratives in 21st Century Chinese Visual Culture", Professor Paola Zamperini (Amherst College, Massachusetts) presented her research on underwear in contemporary Chinese Visual Culture. She argued that a close analysis of the ways in which underwear is worn and depicted in visual media generates knowledge about intimate issues, such as perception of the body, changing gender roles, and economic and sexual preferences. Additionally, it proves helpful to reconstruct public narratives and expressions on these issues.

Lecture by Prof. Paola Zamperini

Colouring Companionship in Urban India

Thereafter, Christiane Brosius, Professor of Visual and Media Anthropology, presented her talk on "Colouring Companionship in Urban India". She discussed imagined and real space making through objects such as Valentine’s cards. These newly created spaces were then related to issues of class identity and consumerism. Christiane Brosius highlighted how intimate things and emotions, like greeting cards or the lingerie previously mentioned, are made public through gift-giving and consumption. On the one hand this can be seen as public indecency, illicit display of affection, associated with danger and restrictions; on the other hand, it creates private islands in the public sphere for middle class couples.

Using the examples of small feet and large hands in Chinese visual culture, Professor Barbara Mittler showed how the visual implementation of beauty and intimacy is constantly reshaped and how narratives of the body are subordinate to prescribed modes of seeing. In her talk on "Seeing Matters: Forms, Materials & Colours of Love and Life in China", she addressed the colour and shape of things and its changing significance according to political circumstances, highlighting the need for the ‘period eye’.

Lecture by Prof. Christiane Brosius

Session on Forming Material Worlds: Scale, Form and Substance

Prof. Kajri Jain

The sessions on Wednesday, August 1st, were entitled "Forming Material Worlds: Scale, Form and Substance". Professor Kajri Jain (University of Toronto, Mississauga) began the day with a talk on the emergence of monumental statues of religious figures in India. In discussing "How size does matter", the art historian related the increasing popularity of these monumental statues to the country’s neo-liberal changes, such as urban development, expansion of capitalism and the tourism industry. Her focal point was the meaning of size and its often negatively connoted moral/ethical and ideological associations with power and hegemonic consumer industries. In order to go beyond these assumptions on ‘the gigantic’ and ‘the monstrous’, Kajri Jain concentrated on connections and assemblages formed or engendered by the statues and their construction material.

Professor Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke University) led the participants from the scale of religious statues to debates on the globe and its influence on the formation of an early modern subjectivity with regard to the South Asian continent. The historian’s paper "Global encounters, Spherical reflections" followed itineraries of the globe as a tangible instrument through three ‘biographical’ stories and different media (painting, photography, film). Referring to Kenneth George’s argument on ‘companiability’, she particularly focused on the use of the globe for educational purposes in colonial and post-colonial India.

Keynote Lecture on Geisha Apprentice in Japanese Visual Culture

Before the afternoon group discussion, Monica Juneja, Professor of Global Art History at the Cluster "Asia and Europe", presented the example of the Millionenzimmer or Spiegelzimmer in the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna for her talk on „Cut, paste and reconfigure: bringing home mythical worlds”. She focused on the practice of decoupage in the Millionenzimmer, in which pieces from miniatures of South Asian albums were used. She argued that this practice allowed for a simultaneous creation and obliteration of materiality, destroying narratives while creating others.

In the evening, Professor Jan Bardsley (University of North Carolina, Chapell Hill) gave the second keynote lecture, "From Kitsch to Cool: The Geisha Apprentice in Japanese Visual Culture". The presentation addressed visions of girlhood in contemporary Japan and asked how traditions, in the form of the Maiko, become packaged as cute, consumable goods such as Maiko accessories, make-up products, postcards and candy.

Flash is required!
Watch the lecture by Jan Bardsley on the "Geisha Apprentice in Japanese Visual Culture"

Collecting and Exhibiting Material

On the fourth day, the participants dealt with matters related to "Collecting & Exhibiting Material: Assemblages, Performances, Museums". In her presentation, Professor Kavita Singh (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) brought the National Museums of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to attention. Starting with the question of how people have been collecting things, she argues that these three museums are expressions of a new national identity subsequent to independence and separation. Identity, she pointed out, is related to notions of heritage, religion, collective remembering and amnesia, as well as the reframing of a national past.

In the lecture entitled "Showcases: Isolation vs. Interrelation", Dr. Christoph Lind concentrated on the use of showcases in the display of exhibits. The former Vice Director of Fine Arts and Cultural History and Head of the Department "Exhibition Management and Education" at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums (Mannheim), reconstructed the dichotomy produced through this twofold usage of isolating and interrelating; on the one hand, used to ensure protection and security, showcases are perceived as barriers between the object and the visitor. Visibility and experience are reduced. On the other hand they can be seen as instrument to frame and/or set apart certain exhibits. The curator especially highlighted the importance of showcases as means to differentiate certain exhibits – which are presented in showcases – from objects used in daily life or other museum objects – and which are not. In the afternoon workshops students and scholars discussed the framing of objects and exhibitions, museums as contact zones, their potential differencing role and visitor reception, and other topics induced by the two lectures in the morning.

Lecture by Dr. Christoph Lind

Concluding Statements on the Final Day

The last, and fifth day, was used for concluding statements and discussion. Participants had time in the morning to prepare their statements in groups and thereafter gave short presentations on their view of how the Summer School had impacted their views of their own research materials and projects. One participant for instance felt that the Summer School enabled her to structure her own research topic: "The Summer School helped to reassess the direction my PhD project needs to take: it allowed me to choose the objects/subjects I was really interested in, rather than the ones I had decided fitted better with the overall project". Another commented "the workshop at Heidelberg has been productive to think about methods and approaches towards the study of visual and performative material in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The rich ethnographies and inter-disciplinary engagements have borne several fruitful discussions, especially on the vexing issue of the politics of representation alongside the ethics of 'following the object' [...]". Apart from the fruitful discussions during the daily sessions, the evening program, which included a guided tour of Heidelberg, a beer-tasting at the local brewery Kulturbrauerei, and a final garden dinner provided opportunities for social exchanges among the participants.

Concluding discussion
Participants discussing during break

Additional Information

About the Summer School 2012

The Summer School "Seeing Matter(s): Materiality and Visuality" was held from 30 July to 4 August 2012 at the Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies in Heidelberg.
It was organised by Professor Christiane Brosius (Heidelberg University) together with Professor Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg University) and Professor Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke University), coordinators of project B4 "Transcultural Visuality" at the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context". The next Summer School will be held in August 2013.

Marlène Harles

About the Author

Marlène Harles is currently a student of Cultural/Social Anthropology and History at the University of Heidelberg. During her studies she interned with the Reiss-Engelhorn Museen in Mannheim and the NGO Friendship, based in Bangladesh.


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