Expansive Presentations

Exploding Collage explores how avant-garde artists of the early 20th century expanded the notion of collage into immersive, often ephemeral, formats. It is comprised of presentations by three contemporary artists – Nadia Hebson, Linder, and Ursula Mayer – whose work examines, celebrates or reinstates such avant-garde figures. Madeleine Kennedy, Curator, discusses the evolution of the show in terms of its legacy.

 A: The Exploding Collage season has launched one year after the Hatton Gallery re-opened following a major refurbishment. How did the project come about?
The seeds for the project were planted four years ago, in the first month of my role as Keeper of Contemporary Art at the Hatton Gallery. I came into the team at a really exciting moment in the gallery’s development, when colleagues were well underway with planning and attracting funding for the much-needed refurbishment of the building. A central part of this redevelopment would be the conservation of the Merz Barn Wall, a three-dimensional artwork by Kurt Schwitters, made up of plaster, paint and found objects, which is on permanent display in the Hatton.

It was at a consultation meeting about the Merz Barn Wall’s future conservation that the idea for this exhibition was born. The meeting brought together some of the world’s most esteemed experts, including Dr Isabel Schulz, director of the Schwitters Archive in Hannover. In the course of her presentation, Dr Schulz referred in passing to Schwitters’ “genre-exploding collage-principle.” I found this phrase fascinating, and it began to take on a life of its own; I started to wonder about the potential meanings of considering the Merz Barn Wall itself as an “exploded collage.” applying the spirit of collage on an architectural scale, and what other kinds of early 20th century practice this could speak to.

The fact that this seedling idea found its way into the re-opening programme is thanks to Julie Milne, Chief Curator of the Hatton, Laing and Shipley Art Galleries, who leads the exhibition programme at the Hatton. At the time, she was developing a vision for the gallery’s programme that would explore the canon of modernism in relation to key artists in the Hatton’s collection, but do so in new ways that foreground the hidden stories behind iconic moments and movements. She saw the potential in Exploding Collage to contribute to this, and it was scheduled as the second gallery-wide show following the refurbishment. Over the intervening four years, the project went through multiple stages of evolution, benefiting from the support of many colleagues within and beyond the gallery team, not least Nadia Hebson, an artist who I was thrilled was able to come on board as an exhibitor in the last year, but conversations with whom had been formative from the outset.

A: The exhibition takes an unusual approach to exploring the work of avant-garde artists whilst in fact showing contemporary artists’ work. What was the thinking behind this?
MK: Schwitters’ Merz Barn Wall was the last of four Merzbauten (Merz Buildings) which he embarked on in his lifetime, and is also the largest surviving fragment of these boundary-defying works. His first Merzbau in Hannover was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943; only small parts of his second Merzbau in Hjertøyain, Norway survive; and his third Merzbau near Oslo was destroyed by fire in 1951. This history of loss and erasure prompted me to consider the significant risk of radically different artistic practice becoming lost, often due to the difficulty of preserving and exhibiting it.

In fact, in researching towards Exploding Collage, I realised that the work of many of Schwitters’ contemporaries could be said to have expanded collage in fascinating ways, but would have been impossible to exhibit. This was either because it was ephemeral in the first instance, had since been destroyed, or was simply in an inaccessible collection. In fact, the project began to seem like a logical impossibility, with the truly paradigmatic examples of “exploding collage” in many cases proving either hostile or indifferent to preservation, or finding the preserving institutions of their day hostile or indifferent to them. This would have been less of an issue if the exhibition was destined to be a book, as it is possible to write about absent works thanks to traces in archives or surviving images, but exhibitions tend to be dependent on exhibitable objects. Where an artwork is not available, it tends – by necessity – to be left out of the exhibition.

This predicament made me reflect on how the show’s traditional reliance on exhibitable objects renders curators especially liable to perpetuate “blindspots” in art history, at risk of inevitably repeating narrow stories dictated by the limited availability of loans. Indeed, in this case, to have relied on available loans would have meant sacrificing boundary-defying work for two-dimensional collage, and presenting a show almost entirely comprised of male artists’ work. It was in the face of this unacceptable compromise that I resolved to find a way to represent works regardless of whether they could be exhibited; to circumnavigate the exhibition’s traditional reliance on historical artworks and objects in order to sidestep the skewing effect it would have wrought.

The answer, as with most things, lay with artists. Inspired in part by 2053: A Living Museum (a project at Tate Liverpool that saw members of the public “perform” absent artworks), and in part by Schwitters’ Hannover MerzBau (which concealed niches dedicated to his artistic heroes), I began working with artists whose work carries within it the influence of such avant-garde artists, and testifies to their continued relevance and valued legacy, which can persist independently of whether their artworks have survived.

A: What is the significance of looking at collage in terms of social themes, including gender identity and revolution?
MK: As mentioned, an issue with relying on exhibitable objects would have been the effective exclusion of female artists from the exhibition. But this, of course, is not just an issue with public collections, their absence from which is indicative of a wider, systematic erasure that has affected female artists work for centuries. In Dada’s Women, Dr Ruth Hemus examines how women were largely written out of accounts of Dada and early collage practice, even by their male peers – artists who otherwise advocated for ostensibly progressive, anti-establishment values. This is where the notion of “exploding” takes on a second meaning, beyond the descriptive sense of expanding rapidly in scale: namely that of disproving, negating or challenging. In this sense, to explode collage is to highlight the need to critically reassess its definitions and limitations, refuting some of the myths and mistruths that surround it, and challenging the absence or exclusion of certain artists from its history.

The contemporary artists in the show take precisely this critical perspective. Linder’s practice is paradigmatic in this respect. Since emerging from the Manchester Punk scene in the 1970s, she has become internationally-recognised as a leading figure of feminist art, best-known for her early collages in which domestic objects and sexualised female bodies are combined as a comment on the treatment of women in society. But rather than simply working with collage as a medium, Linder casts a critical eye on its history. For instance, one of the bodies of work she presents in Exploding Collage is a series inspired by the paintings and writing of Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988), an English artist whose reputation remained obscure after she was expelled from the Surrealist movement for being “too occult.” This evocation of an “overlooked” woman artist through her own work is a continuation of the radical feminist practice that has characterised Linder’s career.

Likewise, Ursula Mayer’s earlier films often recast art-historical figures, interiors and objects to create an ambiguous space between reality and fiction, reopening questions of artists’ recognition and disappearance. Equally, the recuperation of less-considered artists’ work is an important part of Nadia Hebson’s practice, whose new commission for Exploding Collage is also grounded in the consideration of creative female friendships, such as that believed to exist between Marion Adnams (1898-1995) and Eileen Agar (1899-1991), and how these can be made tangible in order to counteract the tendency for such ephemeral connections to become or remain invisible. It has been a remarkable experience working with these artists and witnessing first-hand their thoughtful approaches to dealing with these complex but fascinating legacies.

A: How does the show traverse film, costume, and performance – connecting various media through the shared concept of collage as an expanded practice?
MK: When talking about Exploding Collage, I often find myself describing it as a show about collage that contains no collages. Nevertheless, a collage sensibility very much underpins the selection of works, which harness its spirit in a new medium. For instance, a very considered collage aesthetic is evident in certain aspects of Nadia Hebson’s practice, which includes three-dimensional objects made of cut and folded paper, and wall prints that surround the viewer, essentially expanding collage techniques into immersive scales and formats. Having said that, the true sense of collage at stake in her work is its exploration of clothing and apparel as instinctive forms of collage, engaged in by avant-garde women as sites for creative expression, autobiography, political agency and non-verbal communication.

Ursula Mayer’s 2008 film Lunch in Fur takes – which its name from the iconic fur-lined teacup made by Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) – was originally captured on 16mm analogue film, and betrays an essentially collaged process of cut and overlaid footage, jumping sharply between black & white and colour film. The film is structured around a fictional meeting between Oppenheim and two other prominent women of the Parisian avant-garde: performer and activist Josephine Baker (1906-1975); and Dora Maar (1907-1997), an early pioneer of photomontage whose promising career was overshadowed by being seen as Picasso’s muse. The collage sensibility is amplified by scenes in which the women repeat refrains out of context, speaking over each other with reflections on how artistic contributions can too easily become forgotten, their words becoming reassembled into new and sometimes surreal patterns.

The principles of collage also inform all of Linder’s work, whether it manifests as works on paper, performance, photography, or installation. For Exploding Collage, she presents two deeply interdisciplinary, experimental, and collaborative bodies of work, inspired by her extensive research into Ithell Colquhoun’s writings about collage, and a lesser-known aspect of Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth’s work (1903-1975), namely her costume designs and stage-sets. The range of mediums through which Linder explores these artists’ work – a ballet, various costumes, a series of photomontages, and a gun-tufted rug – exemplifies how Linder herself is constantly testing the boundaries of collage, expanding it into previously undreamed-of formats, the blueprints for which could nevertheless be found in the pioneering work of avant-garde women.

A: How do the other two projects in the wider Exploding Collage season – Gathering and The Loud and the Soft Speakers – relate to these central ideas?
What is so important when confronting a problematic canon is not to criticise it only to then offer another equally limiting alternative. In recognition of this, the Exploding Collage season is purposefully speculative; the aim is not to tell a categorical and finished story of collage as an expanded practice, but to continually ask how elastic the idea can and has been. The architectural commission which accompanies Exploding Collage, entitled Gathering, grew out of this commitment.

At the same time as researching the erasure of avant-garde women, I started to become fascinated by Kurt Schwitters’ first MerzBau made in Hannover as a strange counterexample, in that it contained ‘shrines’ to (amongst others) iconic female Dada artists Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) and Hannah Höch (1889-1978). It struck me that the MerzBau’s prototype for hosting and celebrating the work of others could make for a generous and inclusive exhibition-making model aimed at rehabilitating obscured legacies. Of course, this hosting function of the MerzBau was inextricably tied up with its design as an inhabitable, three-dimensional artwork, so I knew this element of the exhibition had to take an extremely different form to the clinical style of the white-cube gallery space.

I took this rough brief to collaborators Julia Heslop and Ed Wainwright, an artist whose practice centres on issues of housing and urban development, and an architectural designer and researcher interested in Schwitters’ Merz practice. The resultant project, Gathering, is comprised of an interconnected sequence of ‘grottoes’ assembled from found and given material. Each grotto has been designed as a blank canvas, awaiting the intervention of an artist or researcher who will dedicate it to an avant-garde female artist they consider to have experimented with collage as an expanded, immersive or time-based practice. This programme of interventions is unfolding throughout the exhibition, with another artist honoured each fortnight.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent gallery, Heather Ross is presenting a work much more directly linked to Kurt Schwitters: a two-screen projection entitled The Loud and the Soft Speakers which depicts a contemporary restaging of his lesser-known performance work entitled The Silence Poem. The film is is the outcome of Ross’ practice-based research excavating the varied meanings of a largely unstudied collage artwork – the ‘Pointless’ collage, also known as Untitled with Porcelain Shard – which Schwitters made a year before he commenced work on the Merz Barn.

A: What do you hope the legacy of this exhibition will be?
The idea and ethics of legacy is absolutely central to this exhibition.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for the rehabilitation of women artists to come in and out of vogue, with little meaningful longevity. Curator Marian Casey, whose intervention in the Gathering programme focuses on the work of Frances Macdonald (1873-1922) (one of the ‘Glasgow Four’ along with Charles Rennie Mackintosh) explains that: ‘The repeated physical destruction and rebuilding of Frances’ legacy mirror the cycles of erasure and rediscovery visited upon women artists by the fashions of art historical discourse.’ In response to the precarity of such legacies, in Casey’s intervention, visitors could opt to be tattooed with a design inspired by Macdonald’s work, which due to its location on the sole of the foot, will disappear over time, mirroring the erasure of Macdonald’s own work, much of which was destroyed by her husband after her death.

The permanence – or in this case semi-permanence – of this physical legacy fights against the inherent transience of the exhibition as a medium, researched towards for years only to be on display for a few weeks or months, and then dismantled again. In a further attempt to resist this, the exhibition will be documented in various ways, including a digital legacy commissioned to capture the diversity of interventions taking place throughout the programme, and act as a resource for future enquiry into these artists’ radical, boundary-defying collage practice.

Exploding Collage runs until 12 January at Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. For more information, click here.

1. Stills from Lunch with Fur, 2008. Courtesy of Ursula Mayer.