‘Translating Cultures’, in 100 Objects?

I was delighted last week to receive from Genevieve Warwick at the University of Edinburgh the latest issue of Art History, journal of the Association of Art Historians. Genevieve was awarded an AHRC Research Fellowship for her research on ‘Sculpture in Painting: Medial Translations in Renaissance Art’, under the theme of Translating Cultures. The journal’s most recent editorial contains reflections and developments triggered by Genevieve’s engagement with the theme, and draws on research undertaken as part of her grant, giving a clear indication of the ways in which ‘Translating Cultures’ is having an international impact on the disciplinary field Art History represents. The journal has now introduced a regular focus on questions of translation, and is committed to making available art-historical criticism originally published in languages other than English in order to enhance further the internationalization of the discipline.

I was also particularly interested in the comments inspired by the BBC Radio 4/British Museum collaboration in 2010 on ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The editorial describes the increasing engagement of art history with phenomena of inter-culturation: ‘While acknowledging those canonical objects that seem to embody whole cultures within themselves, we have privileged study of the hybrid, transactional object that unsettles those conventional categories by crossing chronological and geographical borderlines as part of a ‘translation turn’ across the academy.’ The example cited of such an object is a bird of prey cup, a coconut-shell drinking vessel fashioned in the form of a hawk, produced in Germany around 1600 and now part of the Gilbert Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The editors describe the piece in the following terms:

A composite artefact both materially and culturally, it was purposefully constructed as an object of cultural migration, bringing together the exotic ‘rawness’ of a coconut with early modern European silver chasing. As a hybrid ‘object of translation’, it is a material testament to the processes of inter-culturation that produced it, and an apt illustration of a global art history, ‘according to a wider definition’.

Here is a clear invitation to identify other artefacts and objects of translation which—with equal eloquence—might illustrate the theme in all its breadth and complexity.


Modern Languages and Disability Studies

Thursday of last week I was very pleased to be able to participate in the Whose Tragedy? workshop at the Centre for Creative Collaboration (c4cc), an event organized by Hannah Thompson, author of the excellent Blind Spot blog. Liverpool University Press has recently published a book by Benjamin Fraser on Disability Studies and Spanish Culture, and one of the key innovations of last week’s event was its bringing together a group of scholars similarly working at the interface of Modern Languages and Disability Studies. Papers covered a range of topics, forms of representation and historico-cultural contexts:

Whose Disability? Challenging Stereotypical Representations of Epilepsy

Maria Vaccarella (Centre for the Humanities and Health and Comparative Literature Department, King’s College London)

Sur mes lèvres, Deafness, Embodiment: Towards a Film Phenomenology of a Differently Ordered Sensorium

Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, University of London)

Beyond the ‘Narrative of Overcoming’: Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Culture.

Sam Haigh (University of Warwick)

Ana García-Siñeriz, Esas mujeres rubias (2010): disability, gender, and the medical establishment

Abigail Lee Six (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The pain of itching

Prof Naomi Segal (Birkbeck College, London)

‘Raw data’: autistic aloneness and the category of insight in Elle s’appelle Sabine

Vivienne Orchard (University of Southampton)

Telling, not seeing: blindness and travel writing

Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool)

On not being deaf to the blind

Kate Tunstall (Worcester College, Oxford)

Disability and Sexuality: the poetry of Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595-1670)

Nick Hammond (University of Cambridge)

My own paper gave me a chance to present some of my own recent research on travel writing and blindness, part of a larger project on travel and the senses that has emerged from a longstanding interest in the sensory humanities (dating back to my doctoral research on Victor Segalen) as well as from the AHRB-funded project on ‘New Approaches to Twentieth-Century Travel Literature in French’ on which I worked in Glasgow and then Liverpool with Feroza Basu and Siobhán Shilton between 2000 and 2003. Feroza introduced me then to a substantial sub-genre of French travel writing by disabled authors, many of whom deployed questions relating to the impact of motor impairments on the practices of the journey in order to rethink many normative assumptions about travel and its textualization. Inspired in part by A Travel Without Visual Experience (2008), a piece by Pak Sheung Chuen included recently in the Liverpool Tate ‘Thresholds’ exhibition about which I have already written in this blog, I drew in my paper on the Hong Kong artist’s reflections on sightless travel  to explore a range of texts published by blind travellers between the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first. Pak’s project is a serious reflection on travel and the senses, leading us to deconstruct the privileged relationship between vision and memory, to reflect on the role of non-visual sensation in mobility, and to ask a series of questions that inform my own current research on blind travellers regarding the forms travel narratives might take were they to rely not on vision, but on soundscapes and smellscapes, on taste and touch. 

The aim outlined in my paper was that of developing, from a small but significant sub-generic corpus of narratives by visually impaired travellers, an understanding of (i) the norms and assumptions relating to able-bodied-ness that structure and regulate travel and regulate its textualization, (ii) the ways in which differing configurations of sensory engagement lead to differing constructions of space and place in the journey narrative, and finally (iii), the extent to which the travelogues of the blind and visually impaired often reveal sensory dimensions of the travel experience, and provide reflections on alternative modes of engagement with other places and their inhabitants, that are absent from narratives that privilege the visual.

The event confirmed my longstanding view that Modern Languages always has the potential to serve a catalytic role in emerging disciplinary fields, not only by revealing the risks of monolingual or monocultural emphases, but also by assisting in progressive internationalization—and in the processes of comparatism or ‘becoming-transnational’ to which this relates. This tendency was certainly evident a decade or so ago in postcolonial studies, an area in which the introduction of study of literatures and histories associated with languages other than English prevented the self-referential over-anthologization increasingly apparent in the 1990s. Whilst Disability Studies has not necessarily faced such an impasse, it is striking nevertheless to acknowledge its engagement with what—in Disability Studies and Spanish Culture—Benjamin Fraser has called the ‘global turn’, i.e., ‘an explicit commitment to the goal of pursuing a global or transnational vision for the field’ (p.xv). Citing two recent issues of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies—devoted to ‘Disabling Postcolonialism’ and the ‘Geo-Politics of Disability’—Fraser reveals the genuinely enabling possibilities of working at the juncture of Modern Languages and Disability Studies, on the one hand understanding what is specific about the social, cultural and political practices relating to disability in differing national and sub-national contexts, whilst on the other ensuring that we have the necessary knowledge to presents comparisons and contrasts between different experiences constructions and representations of disability around the world and across history. I was particularly grateful for the opportunity at the event last week to hear about some of the ways in which these debates are emerging in Modern Languages. At the same time, with these new emphases on transnational contrasts and connections to which Fraser alludes, I would suggest additionally that travel writing, with its inherent interest in border crossing and intercultural as well as intracultural contact, provides a privileged arena in which to ask questions about the historico-social construction of disability in national and transnational contexts.

With several notable exceptions, Modern Languages has been slow to engage with questions of disability; the same is true in studies in travel writing, where this significant cross-disciplinary rendez-vous manqué is perhaps all the more surprising given both fields’ emphases on corporality, the body and identity formation. The study of travel and blindness has wide implications for the reading of travelogues more generally, and encourages an understanding that at once identifies and challenges a discursive normativity associated with sight, whilst at the same time encourages an approach to a poetics of travel writing that reveals the multisensory as opposed to the mono-sensory, and—in the terms of the title of my own paper last week—privileges telling as opposed to seeing.

Molière on Merseyside

Affection I can endure, affectation I abhor. Empty phrases, meaningless gestures of faked good-will. These affable dispensers of embraces make me ill.

After previous versions of Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac, Roger McGough has now translated a third Molière play, The Misanthrope. Produced by Liverpool Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz, the play runs until the end of this week on Merseyside before travelling elsewhere with the English Touring Theatre. McGough – who studied French and Geography at the University of Hull in the 1950s – has written recently in The Guardian about translating Molière: noting that when he began work on Tartuffe, there were at least three dozen English translations, he was partly inspired in his own work by dialogues with ‘adaptations in verse by the American poet Richard Wilbur, Ranjit Bolt and Christopher Hampton, as well as Liz Lochhead’s wonderful Scottish conversion’. His version of The Misanthrope is inevitably more sombre than the two previous productions, but it retains the same linguistic verve and is a remarkable (and in places remarkably funny) work that is not so much one of translation as of transcreation. In McGough’s own words: ‘I hope to have done justice to the work of Molière, so that, on leaving the theatre, the audience does not think it has spent two hours in the company of actors dressed in period costume – but in a 17th-century Paris salon where elitism, litigation and deceit were as rife as they are in Britain today.’

‘Thresholds’ at Tate Liverpool

The theme of the 2012 Liverpool Biennial was ‘Hospitality’, and the festival presented work by 242 artists in 27 galleries, museums and other sites across the city. Tate Liverpool’s contribution was an exceptional exhibition curated by Sook-Kyung Lee entitled ‘Thresholds’, still running until 7 April. Last week, I was delighted to be invited to give a public lecture linked to ‘Thresholds’, the text of which I have included below:


‘Changing Cultures’. ‘Translating Cultures’. ‘Travelling Cultures’. A set of phrases that, in many ways, encapsulate the remarkable range of works gathered in the Thresholds exhibition that we will have the opportunity to visit at the end of this lecture. The first is the University theme, with which I was associated for several years as its champion in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The second is the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s strategic theme, for which I am currently the academic lead. The third is an umbrella term, coined by the anthropologist James Clifford in the 1990s, to which the other two are closely associated. ‘Travelling Cultures’ encapsulates what might be seen as the ‘mobility turn’ or the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ that has shaped arts, humanities and social science research for the past two decades or so.[1] My lecture focuses, to a large extent, on these developments, exploring the ways in which cultures depend on movement, translation and exchange for their historic constitution, for their contemporary development, and for their future sustainability. These are issues that have interested me since I conducted my doctoral research on the French travel writer and naval doctor Victor Segalen, one of the first theorists of exoticism, who used a tour of duty in French Polynesia in the early twentieth century to reflect on the balance within cultures between mobility and sessility, between introversion and extroversion, between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, between exoticism or parochialism. Segalen concluded in ‘Advice to the Good Traveler’, one of the poems in his Chinese collection Stèles—a book that is, in itself, a reminder that the act of reading is one of crossing a threshold:

A town at the end of the road & a road extending
a town: do not choose one or the other, but
one & the other by turns. […]

Thus, without stopping or stumbling, without
halter & without stable, without rewards
or punishments, you will attain, friend, not
the marsh of immortal joys,

But the intoxicating eddies of the great river

He extends here a reflection on the constant processes of change that characterize world cultures, a reflection whose genealogy can be traced back to Montagine, comments in whose Essays refer to what he calls ‘le branloir perenne’ – ‘the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving’ – and then back further to the work of Heraclitus of Ephesus, for whom nature itself is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’, he noted. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before. Like Segalen, Heraclitus uses the figure of flowing water: ‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.’

The title of the exhibition—‘Thresholds’—reminds us, however, that there is no movement, no mobility, no travel without moments of crossing. Sometimes figurative/ sometimes physical, sometimes reflecting a passage over the boundaries of self, sometimes over those of geography—stepping over the threshold marks the beginning of the journey. In an often quoted phrase from the chapter 64 of the Daodejing, the Chinese thinker Lao Tzu claims: ‘The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout; the tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step’, a reminder that even considerable undertakings have modest beginnings—but also a reflection on the need, in the achievement of such goals, for the crossing of initial thresholds. The works in the exhibition represent, in multiple ways, a reflection on that observation, suggesting that the crossing of that threshold is often transgressive, disruptive of the established order, forcing us to view the world in different ways. Before moving to these works, I would like to return to my initial comments in which I evoked the University research theme with which this lecture is associated, ‘Changing Cultures’.


The University has designated ‘Changing Cultures’ as one of its seven institutional research themes, in part as an indication of (i) its commitment to the legacies of the Capital of Culture in 2008 and (ii) its parallel commitment to understanding of culture not only as a means of expressing Liverpool’s identity but also as a vehicle of social change. At the same time, ‘Changing Cultures’ allows us to federate and make more visible, inside and outside the institution, the world-class research in the Humanities and Social Sciences that is conducted in the University under that umbrella, not least through our research centres such as the Centre for the Study of International Slavery and the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts (in whose activity Tate remains a key partner). ‘Changing Cultures’ recognizes that, in a hypercomplex contemporary world, cultural change is accelerating, as is evident in globalization and migration, in rapidly evolving technologies, and in the effects of climate change. We are not only interested in observing the ways in which cultures have changed, still change and will continue to change, but also—as we become increasingly aware of the potential impacts and external resonances of our research—in understanding how we, as researchers, can also be agents of change. One of the cultural changes that interests and concerns me the most at present, in particular in my role with the AHRC, is indeed that within academia itself as in the Arts and Humanities we seek to communicate and translate our research to and for new and often unexpected audiences. Within the University, ‘Changing Cultures’ has allowed researchers from all three Faculties to explore collaborative activity across the institution, to develop international partnerships to support such collaborations, and to engage with external partners in facilitating cross-disciplinary approaches to some of the most complex problems people face today. Research at Liverpool is looking at the cultural impact of urban regeneration, at questions of migration (forced and voluntary) and mobility, at digital transformations in the media, and at cultural understandings of health issues. It is the identification of such enabling research themes that has permitted genuinely cross-disciplinary working, reminding us that academic disciplines in themselves are never statuesque, and depend on dialogue and negotiation for their ongoing development and redirection.

In terms of disciplinary identity, my own area, Modern Languages, is a telling illustration of how such an approach can encourage renewal of the field. To borrow the analyses of Julie Thompson Klein, who sees disciplines as late nineteenth-century inventions with identities that tend towards openness and closure, Modern languages may be seen ‘less codified’ rather than ‘highly codified’, meaning that there is considerable room for manoeuvre as Modern Linguists benefit from thematic opportunities and cross-disciplinary working in order to adapt their practices in the light of twenty-first-century challenges.[2] When President of the MLA, Mary Louise Pratt claimed that what unifies Modern Linguists is an awareness of the ‘importance of knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’, and this is a definition with which I would strongly concur. In her 1992 study Imperial Eyes, Pratt had developed the idea of the contact zone, a peripheral location at the threshold of different geographical entities, often associated with colonial encounter, in which languages, peoples and cultures encounter each other with unpredictable results. In Pratt’s own terms, the ‘contact zone’ is: ‘an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal co-presence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect’.[3] Modern Languages is a disciplinary field that operates at such a threshold, or in such a zone of encounter, allowing its practitioners to operate with intercultural sensitivity, crossing borders, understanding the gaps between cultures and developing what Martha Nussbaum has recently named as the essential ‘ability to see one’s own nation, in turn, as part of a complicated world order in which issues of many kinds require intelligent transnational deliberation for their resolution’.[4] These are skills, this is knowledge, to be seen as generated through mobility, through the crossing of thresholds, and through forms of homecoming that are not merely a matter of renewed familiarity with what we know, but instead depend  on rediscovery of everyday phenomena that are in themselves de-familiarized. As we will see, this is a manoeuvre on which many of the works in ‘Thresholds’ depend, summed up in the well-known opening lines to ‘Little Gidding’, the fourth and final poem of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.



The lecture is followed by an opportunity to tour the exhibition during which you will be drawn to the pieces which particularly interest you. What follows is my own personal response to a small selection of the works on display, and my comments are inspired by the notion of ‘journeys around an exhibition’, a phrase I shall explore in greater detail in a moment. As you will see, my choice is in part dictated by my own research interests, but it also reflects my own journeys through the gallery on several occasions. Visiting an exhibition is inevitably an ambulatory experience. It is not so much linear as labyrinthine, as we retrace our steps to reconsider pieces previously viewed, and experience the feedback loops and interconnections that inevitably occur as we process, absorb and then seek to understand and enjoy a body of work either previously unfamiliar or at least not presented before according to the selected juxtapositions. Museologists have considered the ways in which we travel through an exhibition space, with the labyrinth understood not so much an aspect of poor museum or gallery design, but rather as a way of understanding how we engage with the apparently linear space of the exhibition, and the apparently ordered artefacts within it, in a manner that is digressive, ‘characterized by circuitousness and meandering, by detours, delays and diversions, which serve to fragment and frustrate progress’.[5] Mieke Bal has written about such a process in a particularly helpful way, describing the exhibition as a ‘text’ and the visitor as a ‘reader’, and reminding us that, although the discursive strategies of the curator or designer remain invisible but ever present, in walking through the gallery, we are drawn in to a series of associations to become not simply observers, but rather participants in making sense of what we see.[6]

Having worked for a number of years on the function of walking in contemporary culture and society, I am particularly attracted to this idea of the gallery visitor as walker, to the understanding of the visit itself as a walk. A clear illustration of the phenomenon is provided by ‘Waterlog’, a 2007 exhibition in Norwich—at the Castle Museum and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts—devoted to W.G. Sebald. Inspired by The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s 1998 digressive, poetic, reflective account of a walking tour in Suffolk, the exhibition brought together film, photography and other works inspired by the author’s work. A collection of essays inspired by ‘Waterlog’ was subtitled ‘journeys around an exhibition’, a phrase to which I have already alluded. ‘Journeys around…’ refers to the types of perambulation within the exhibition space to which I have just alluded; but the ‘around’ also suggests a spilling-out of the exhibition space too—a moving beyond, via allusions in the works displayed to other journeys beyond the gallery, not least those recounted in the texts of Sebald himself, but at the same time via commissioned artistic projects, such as Simon Pope’s Memorial Walks: having identifying landscape paintings (including many from the ‘Norwich School’), Pope asked a number of invited participants to select one of the images and memorize it before walking with the artist to a different location in the Fens, where they were asked to describe the painting from memory; the process of recollection was recorded on audio and also documented in photographs. In a text on Sebald himself as walker, Robert MacFarlane describes the ways in which the author, whose fiction has a deeply unconventional biographical purpose, walked his subjects—invariably ‘refugees, melancholics and wanderers’—back to life, and in following previous footsteps, seeks ‘not to replicate but to innovate’.[7]

The work of Sebald has been central to a recent consideration of the place of walking in contemporary culture, a trend particularly evident in 2012 with the publication of a number of texts that recounted journeys on foot. Close to home, poet Jean Sprackland published Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, a series of meditations triggered by walking through the seasons on Ainsdale Sands between Liverpool and Blackpool.[8] The poet observes intensely the eclectic objects that emerge from the sand and sea, and her repeated and slow engagement with the narrow strip of beach allows rediscovery, even re-enchantment of the everyday. The poet Simon Armitage also produced a walking journey, an entertaining account of his experience as ‘a troubadour on the Pennine Way’, following the path north to south, from Kirk Yetholm towards his own home in Yorkshire, and paying his way with nightly readings from his work.[9] Armitage describes a process of deceleration, of discovering the world at three miles an hour, and although his initial goal is to cross the domestic threshold back into his own home, his experience is that of a ‘dwelling-in-travelling’: ‘my habitat,’ he writes, ‘has become the journey itself’ (p.251). The emphasis is on the physicality of walking—‘It is a trudge. A grind. I slog along’ (p.273)—, although what Armitage privileges, not surprisingly perhaps given the well-trodden nature of his chosen path, is the way in which his journey intersects with that of other fellow walkers, past and present, and even resonates with the routes of other travellers, such as Odysseus and Sir Gawain. These are concerns addressed also by Robert MacFarlane in The Old Ways, subtitled A Journey on Foot.[10] A combination of the author’s essayistic reflections on walking with accounts of his own journeys, the book suggests that walking allows us to understand space as a palimpsest, with diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface to those willing to take the time to look: ‘the old persist[s] alongside and despite the new, surviving as echoes and shadows, detectable by an acute mind and eye’ (p.48). What strikes me in particular in MacFarlane’s book is the reflection on walking as a means of revealing the otherwise unrecognized within the familiar, an experience he describes in terms of transition or crossing borders and thresholds:

These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them. Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. […] Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known placed outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries. (p.78)

Walking is not simply ‘transportational’ or ‘recreational’ (p.235), but allows consideration of, and even renegotiation of, the relationship of humans to their surroundings. I focus on this recent literary material because it encapsulates themes that I see as central to the works in the exhibition on which I would like to reflect: (i) travel as a means of exploring, rediscovering and ultimately disrupting the everyday; (ii) the notion of interconnected journeys, and the awareness of various thresholds that such interconnections evoke—thresholds between people, between cultures, between languages, between historical moments; (iii) the importance of acceleration and deceleration, and the implications of relative speed for the ways in which travel operates as a form of multi-sensory engagement with vision playing an important but certainly not exclusive role.

As we visit ‘Thresholds’, we are reminded that the self-propulsion of walking—despite its fundamental and persistent importance for human beings as bipeds—is but one form of mobility. Underpinning the exhibition, evident implicitly and explicitly in the works displayed, is a variety of other means of propulsion that have served our evolution as a species, ranging from horseback through the internal combustion engine to jet travel. Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘mobility studies manifesto’ has encouraged those working across a range of fields in the Arts and Humanities to consider the constitutive role of various forms of travel and mobility in the emergence of our objects of study as well as in the development of the tools we adopt to analyse them.[11] To study the literatures and cultures of travel is, in terms of the first statement of Stephen Greenblatt’s manifesto, to explore mobility in a highly literal sense:

Boarding a plane, venturing on a ship, climbing onto the back of a wagon, crowding into a coach, mounting on horseback, or simply setting one foot in front of the other and walking: these are indispensable keys to understanding the fate of cultures. The physical, infrastructural, and institutional conditions of movement – the available routes; the maps; the vehicles; the relative speed; the controls and costs; the limits on what can be transported; the authorizations required; the inns, relay stations and transfer points; the travel facilitators – are all serious objects of analysis. (p.250)

The material conditions of mobility that Greenblatt outlines reveal the ways in which modes of locomotion, and the practicalities of physical displacement, may be associated with various forms of travel, ranging from necessary and even coerced journeys to those associated with leisure and enjoyment. Studies in tourism – and in particular an attention to the history of tourism – is a well-established international field of research, but exploration of the intersections of leisure travel with the forms of movement associated with, for example, migration, has emerged relatively recently.


Such juxtapositions of forms of mobility are central to ‘Thresholds’, and are evident in the three overarching themes that structure the exhibition: Stranger than Self, an exploration of the ways in which artists in the UK have responded to British identity in a context of rapidly changing national culture and history’; Shifting Boundaries, a wider consideration of the ways in which mobility and migration relate to globalization and diasporization; and Territories in the Making, a concluding focus on very different forms of mobility, considering the impact of regional conflicts and their global effects.

Picking up on the ‘Stranger than Self’ theme, Keith Arnatt’s ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, photographs from the early 1980s directly questions notions of Britishness, but also explores the phenomenon that sociologists have called the ‘tourist gaze’, i.e., the set of expectations that tourists have of places and local populations when they participate in tourism, relating in particular the search for an ‘authentic’ experience. The AONB designation—first used is the 1950s—recognizes landscapes distinguished by their natural beauty, allowing for enjoyment of the countryside by visitors from outside, whilst acknowledging the need to respect the interests of those who live and work there. Enjoyment may depend in part on the types of walking I have already discussed, but is linked also to looking and to the forms of guided contemplation associated with viewpoints and other designated sites from which the visitor is invited to gaze. Numerous tourist destinations associated with nature—Niagara Falls, on which I have worked, is a particularly striking example—have been constructed according to such a logic, and reflect the links of tourism to a privileging of looking, a connection epitomized in postcards and in the act of tourist photography. Keith Arnatt was a photographer of the everyday (an early series was called ‘Walking the dog’), known for his interest in paradox and for what one critic has called ‘serious humour’. In an earlier work, ‘The Visitors’ (1974–6), Arnatt had photographed tourists en route to Tintern Abbey, and he returns to this site, near his home in the Wye Valley, in ‘A.O.N.B.’. Focusing on the theme of rubbish that was central to much of his other work (other series that dwell on garbage were called ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ and ‘Pictures from a rubbish tip’), Arnatt inverts the traditional structure of landscape photography, relegating the beautiful to the backcloth of the image, and placing in the foreground something that is unexpectedly everyday, such as a pile of rubbish, a twisted fence, an old pub sign. The photographer himself called this approach the ‘conjunction of “beauty” and “banality”’, and in this series he seems not only to question the role of tourism in the construction of ‘quintessentially British’ locations, but also to look behind the scenes of tourist sites and to disrupt the expectations of those looking. David Bate wrote on Arnatt’s work:

The old famous complaint by Walter Benjamin, that photographers were ‘incapable of photographing a tenement rubbish heap without making it look beautiful’ is precisely what Keith takes up, not to reject Benjamin’s remarks, but to show the viewer that what you see depends on how it is photographed, that photography organises what it sees.[12]

IMG_5779‘A.O.N.B. works according to this logic, selecting objects or details  that many would dismiss as worthless or ugly, and challenging us to re-evaluate how we define beauty, or at least to rethink what is worth looking at. I would suggest that a similar logic is evident in Sophie Calle’s series ‘The Hotel’. Calle is known for her project-based art, work that is often self-performative, but also regularly unsettlingly voyeuristic as she engages in various forms of surveillance, violates the thresholds of public and private, and subjects the details of other people’s lives to forensic attention. Central to her art is an interest in travel and mobility—in one of her earliest projects, ‘Suite vénitienne’ (1979), she followed from Paris to Venice Henri B., a man she had met at a party, and then clandestinely observed and photographed him in his movements around the city. Two years later, in a project titled ‘The Detective’, she reversed the project and arranged for a private detective to be hired to follow her around Paris, leading him to sites of particular significance to her. ‘The Hotel’, from 1981, is one of a number of Calle’s works that focuses on the hotel room as a site of passage, inhabited sequentially by those passing through, but with traces of previous inhabitants systematically (although never entirely) erased. The project is characterized by the series of constraints, spatial and temporal, that regulate much of the artist’s work, and reveals the exhaustive, even microscopic attention to everyday detail evident in many of her other creations. Each room is subject to daily observation as Calle eavesdrops on its inhabitants, photographs and records the contents of suitcases, wardrobes and bins, keeps an inventory of reading matter, peruses correspondence, and notes the various traces left by the guests. The project resulted in a book-length diary account of the three weeks, and also in a series of diptychs, juxtaposing texts and images, of which a number feature in the exhibition: a colour photograph of the bed in a pristine state, three columns of text, and then black and white images of recorded objects. The impact on the viewer—at least on this viewer—is inevitably one of uneasiness, and Calle’s projects have often attracted controversy: The Address Book involved her getting in touch with a number of those whose contact details she discovered in a lost address book and asking these acquaintances to help her to construct a portrait of a man she had never met; when the book’s owner, Pierre Baudry, read the resulting articles in Libération, he threatened to sue Calle for invasion of his privacy. ‘The Hotel’ triggered no such response, and the project stands as a reflection on the threshold that exists between, on the one hand, an individual who is herself out of place—Calle is after all a Frenchwoman in Italy—and, on the other, people similarly in transit, temporarily constructing home in the hotel, with whose ‘lives that remain unknown’ her own travel story intersects.

IMG_5784Although clearly fascinated by looking, especially in places where the others are not necessarily welcome, Sophie Calle has also produced works exploring the absence of sight. In 1986, she developed a project entitled Les Aveugles, asking blind people to outline their idea of beauty and then attempting to represent this in visual form. This has been supplemented more recently by another project, commissioned in 2010 in Istanbul during the city’s Capital of Culture year, in which she asks blind people who had suddenly lost their sight to recall the last image they can remember. Whereas the works of Arnatt and Calle included in ‘Thresholds’ explore a travelling gaze, and reflect on the links between moving and looking, the Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen, in A Travel Without Visual Experience (2008), imagines sightless travel. The installationwallpaper (in a style that the artist imagines to be Malaysian-style decorative print) and photographs printed on stickers in a darkened room—is the result of a trip to Malaysia during which Pak, blindfolded for the entire duration of the trip, took photographs whilst unable to see his surroundings. Visitors are handed a camera as they walk into the space, and it only thanks to the flash that they can catch a glimpse of the work in a momentary, violent explosion of light. On the one hand, Pak engages, from a very different perspective, with the questions of tourism, photography and visuality that underpin Keith Arnatt’s work, offering an amusing commentary on the ways in which travel is experienced vicariously, often on return home, via the lens. Robert MacFarlane talks of ‘[f]ootfall as a way of seeing the landscape; touch as sight’ (The Old Ways, p.28), and as Pak tours Malaysia, he experiences the country whilst physically seeing nothing. By inserting sightlessness back into his work, he creates an experience in which viewers are also blind, and can only be fully aware of what they have experienced in retrospect, via the screen on their digital camera. Pak’s project becomes a very serious reflection on travel and the senses, leading us to explore the privileged relationship between vision and memory, to question the role of non-visual sensation in mobility, and to ask a series of questions that also inform some of my own current research on blind travellers—important figures such as the nineteenth-century writer James Holman—regarding what form travel narratives might take were they to rely not on vision, but on soundscapes and smellscapes, on taste and touch.

Pak Sheung Chuen is increasingly well known for his disruptive, provocative, tangential approaches to travel, as is apparent in other project, Tokyo Journey, in which he took a residential map of the city and laid it on the floor so that the arched folds resembled mountain ridges. The 2D representation becomes a 3D object on the basis of which the artist proceeded to imagine an alternative, ‘virtual’ urban space. His journeys followed the line of the arbitrary folds in the map, which he treated as mountain ridges, creating itineraries in which everyday spaces became unfamiliar. Mapping has long been associated with the control of space, with the prescription of borders and thresholds; the map—and in particular questions of the fidelity of mapping—has consequently become a privileged site of often playful artistic intervention, as the work of Layla Curtis also makes abundantly clear. Curtis has conducted a series of cartographic projects, either manipulating old maps or, in much of her more recent work, creating new maps: Polar Wandering, for instance, is the result of three months spent in Antarctica and shows a continuous line drawing, recorded on a GPS tracking system, charting her 28,000 mile journey; Kielder Water & Islands was created closer to home, in Northumberland, but again uses mapping to combine a contemporary plan of Kielder Water with a map of the valley before a dam was constructed and it was flooded—on the new map, an archipelago of imagined ‘islands’ is created as a spectral reflection of the now submerged settlements and communities that existed before Kielder Water was opened in 1982. In the piece included in ‘Thresholds’, Curtis takes a road map of the UK with which, at first glance, we are very familiar. On closer scrutiny, however, unfamiliarity and even unease creep in: Northern Ireland is absent; Wales is peculiarly truncated; places and place names of England and Scotland have been randomly transposed. Scotland has been denuded of lochs and glens to become urbanized, industrialized and heavily populated; England has been transformed, conversely, into a primarily rural space, and the only remaining conurbation—Glasgow—is located firmly in the centre, somewhere between Liverpool and Manchester. Produced during the devolution debates of the late 1990s, the work now clearly has a renewed relevance. Curtis explores and challenges the role played by maps in the way we imagine our national space in relation to history, culture, demography, economics and politics.

IMG_5796The jumbling-up of cartographic space in United Kingdom is developed further in Curtis’s other collaged maps, in which British locations are replaced by places and place names from the USA, Japan and elsewhere. Such destabilization of the nation as a spatial unit in a globalized world is also central to the final work on which I would like to focus, Yukinori Yanagi’s Pacific (1996). The piece underlines the progression within the exhibition from a focus on national culture, via a reflection on tourist practices, to a concluding emphasis on the politics of travel and mobility—an aspect of the show that has a particular relevance and resonance in a town such as Liverpool with its rich and often troubled history of involvement in the global movement of people, with its status as a place moreover that many would like to see a contemporary ‘city of sanctuary’. In his initial project from 1990, The World Flag Ant Farm, Japanese artist Yanagi created a series of world flags by pouring coloured sand into a series of plexi-glass boxes connected by plastic tubes. Into this, he released his unorthodox artistic collaborators, thousands of ants. In patterns of movement suggesting global migration, the insects cross national thresholds, carrying food and sand, create visible traces through the system, intermingling colours as a result, and slowly cause the distinctiveness of each flag to disintegrate. ‘I question the concept of a nation’, Yanagi has commented. ‘A nation, its border and national flag, has become an imaginary fiction.’

IMG_5764We live in a globalizing world in which increasing mobility means increased interdependence, and in which the traditional distinction between host and guest, traveller and resident, becomes more and more blurred.  As we move around the exhibition, our own modest journey through the gallery creates connections between the exhibits, and undoubtedly triggers memories of our own personal experience of travel and place; at the same time, this journey is integrated into a wider network of itineraries presented or evoked in the exhibits, some of them individual and deeply personal, others associated with the mass movements of people. We are also reminded that works of art are themselves mobile artefacts that have itineraries of their own—an aspect made very clear in Message in a Bottle: From Ramsgate to the Chatham Islands, another project by Layla Curtis, not included in the exhibition, and in To Return (RTM) Airmail Painting No.103, Eugenio Dittborn’s reflection on the phenomenon of mail art. Dittborn, working in Chile, uses a collage combining found texts and images relating to travel to suggest the ways in which art crosses geographical, political and linguistic boundaries [36]. In an echo of Curtis’s From Ramsgate to the Chatham Islands project, he sees himself as living on an island producing artworks that are themselves like bottles thrown out to sea for us to find and interpret.

‘Thresholds’ is about journeys that are intersecting, interconnecting, overlaid—and I would like in conclusion to leave you with reference to a local phenomenon with which a number of you will be familiar: the prehistoric footprint trails that appear periodically a few miles north of here, on the stretch of coast known as Formby Point, exposed by the tide, and then washed away until the traces of another foot-journey are revealed beneath the next layer of silt. I mention this phenomenon not least because is discussed in the texts by Jean Sprackland and Robert MacFarlane to which I referred at the outset of the lecture. MacFarlane writes:

The Formby prints are so evocative because they record specific journeys, and they are so mysterious because we know so little of the walkers who left them. [I]n their shape and spacing they remind us of a kinship of motion that stretches back as far as 3.6 million years ago. […] It’s this combination of intimacy and remoteness that gives these trails their unsettling power. They are among the earliest texts, from a period of history devoid of recorded narrative. Following them, we are reading one of the earliest stories, told not in print but in footprint. (The Old Ways, pp.362-63)

The footprints—like the exhibition we are about to see—are a reminder that we never travel, we never walk, alone. The questions raised by Thresholds—about history and geography, place and identity, borders and mobility, home and belonging—these are questions that retain an urgency we cannot afford to ignore.

[1]               See Mimi Sheller, ‘The new mobilities paradigm’, Environment and Planning A, 38.2 (2006), 207-26.

[2]               Julie Thompson Klein, Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory and Practice (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), p.104.

[3]               Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p.7.

[4]               Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010), p.26.

[5]               Paul Basu, ‘The labyrinthine aesthetic in contemporary museum design’, in Paul Basu and Sharon MacDonald (eds), Exhibition Experiments: New Interventions in Art History (Blackwell, Oxford, 2007), pp. 47-70 (p.50).

[6]               Mieke Bal, Double Exposures (London: Routledge, 1996). Discussed in Basu, ‘The labyrinthine aesthetic’, pp.53-54.

[7]               Robert MacFarlane, ‘Afterglow, or Sebald the walker’, in Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition (London: Film and Video Umbrella, 2007), pp.77-83.

[8]               Jean Sprackland, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012).

[9]               Simon Armitage, Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way (London: Faber and Faber, 2012).

[10]            Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012).

[11]             Stephen Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[12]             David Bate, ‘Keith Arnatt: 1930-2008’, Photoworks 12 (May 2009), pp 4-7 (p.7).

Chinese workers in the Great War

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was pleased on Saturday to return to the Société littéraire de Liverpool (founded in the 1890s, and still meeting regularly) to talk about my research on the role of Chinese workers in France during the First World War. I will be interested to see how much this aspect of the conflict – ‘ce qui fut, après les exécutions des soldats du Chemin des Dames, le second fait inavouable de la guerre 1914-1918’, according to Michel Cournot – will be evident in the commemorations of the centenary of the war that begin next year.[1] I first came across accounts of these workers via my research on Victor Segalen – although they were not discussed in detail in much of the previous scholarship on Segalen, the poet’s last trip to China in 1917, shortly before his death in 1919, was to serve as the doctor for one of the French recruitment missions. Over 140,000 Chinese volunteers were employed by the French and British to dig trenches, carry ammunition, serve as medical auxiliaries and perform all manner of manual duties at the Front. When the conflict was over, a number of stayed on to clear mines, bury corpses and contribute to the task of rebuilding France. About 3,000 remained in France, with many settling in the vicinity of the Gare de Lyon in Paris and working in the car factories the numbers of which grew rapidly in interwar France. The Chinese community in the capital is now concentrated in the thirteenth arrondissement, but a plaque in the îlot Chalon is a reminder that this site remains an important lieu de mémoire for the Chinese community in France. The lives of these early workers are beginning to attract the attention they deserve, and Gregor Benton has described how several of them joined the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War.[2] Travel stories that reveal the complex itineraries by which diasporic communities evolve…

After decades of silence, the slim 1939 volume Les Travailleurs chinois et la Grande Guerre  by Pên-chung Wu has recently been supplemented by two substantial studies, Strangers on the Western Front by Xu Guoqui (2011), and Les Travailleurs chinois en France dans la Première Guerre mondiale, a collection of essays gathered by Li Ma.[3] These new histories are recounting processes of recruitment, the journeys to France, working conditions and the hostility with which the Chinese were often met in France. These stories linked, inevitably, in part to language, not least because the workers’ access to interpreters was often wholly inadequate. Some officers were Chinese speakers, and translation services were offered by groups such as the YMCA. But the cultural isolation of the workers was often accentuated by their linguistic exclusion, and it is clear that the lack of interpreters led to orders being misunderstood and was linked on occasion to miscarriages of justice. An eloquent historical example of the importance of understanding the role of languages in the field of war.

AnfieldTo talk about the Chinese Labour Corps in Liverpool has an additional dimension worthy of note. In Anfield cemetery are the CWGC graves of five Chinese workers who died in the city in 1918 and 1919 – KUO CH’ING SHAN (died 06/06/1917), SUN CHEN SHENG (died 03/09/1917), FAN CHUAN SHENG (died 25/01/1918), KUO TE HSIANG (died 06/07/1918) and LAN FUNE SHENG (died 09/08/1918). Little is known about these men’s lives or the manner of their deaths, but their presence on Merseyside is a reminder of the global impact of the First World War and of the entangled personal itineraries of those involved in the conflict.

[1]              See Michel Cournot, ‘Victor Segalen, poète de la Chine’, Le Monde, 1 January 1999.

[2]              See Gregor Benton, Chinese Migrants and Internationalism: Forgotten Histories, 1917-1945 (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

[3]              See Pên-chung Wu, Les Travailleurs chinois et la Grande Guerre  (Paris: Pédone, 1939), Xu Guoqui, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), and Li Ma (ed.), Les Travailleurs chinois en France dans la Première Guerre mondiale (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2012).

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search