Research Diary: Inspiring Lectures

On late Wednesday afternoon I ventured in the Cardiff National Museum with a few friends of mine to attend to a lecture about Victorian women's scrapbook tradition in 19th Century England. The talk was given by Dr Patrizia de Bello, a tiny but enigmatic and engaging woman.
The topic as such isn't exactly relevant to my ongoing projects but in my opinion, one should never discard an opportunity of listening to a specialist presenting their research in a beautiful lecture theatre of a big museum just because the content of the talk doesn't directly relate to one's own interests. And besides, you can never know what you can learn.
Anyhow, we went there and my, was that lecture just absolutely fascinating.
It is always such a pleasure to see someone who's clearly 100% committed to their subject, and enjoys sharing the vast knowledge with an audience. The amount of hidden messages and meanings that can be picked up from those Victorian photo-collages is mindblowing. What seems like a silly, childish hobby on the surface, actually depicts complicated quirks of the social structures and games that were so important for the upper social classes of the time. A subtle questioning and criticism of strict gender roles may be read as an undertone of these surreal collages - but it is obviously impossible to say how much of that interpretation is due to pure chance and how much really intentional from the part of the women who put these books together.

What made this particular lecture all the more intriguing to me is that exactly a year ago I was working on a project, quite similar to these scrapbook collages. I, too, was playing with gender roles in a strikingly similar way to some of the images that Dr de Bello showed us - except that before that I wasn't even aware of such a tradition.

As much as I'd love to go on about this lecture I'm going to move on to the next one, because indeed this afternoon, in the great Visiting Lecture programme of my university we had a talk by a photographic artist, now working on his PhD, John Sunderland.

Again we are somewhere else in the art field than in my area but as I said, you can always learn something new. In fact, I like it better when things are not spoon-fed to me but I have to really think and process what I'm being offered.

So, John Sunderland is working on memory and experience in landscape, and lot of his theoretical research is based on phenomenology - a field that I too have briefly explored in one of my previous uni projects. Perhaps the vague familiarity with his topic was one of the reasons why I got absorbed in the presentation. Also, I think there is a part of me that is very attracted to landscape photography even though my current interest in making art lie elsewhere. The idea of sublime in landscapes but also in other associations - that is, something of overwhelming beauty that it is almost terrifying - is something that I find really interesting. What makes an image so powerful, so captivating that it takes the spectator's breath away?
And then he, Sunderland, mentioned something called 'apocalyptic sublime', which is one step closer to the aspect of terror over the magnificence of a view, how it pictures an actual danger that we can safely enjoy without having to physically engage with.

Which brought me back to my own research of images of Victorian madwomen, and how too, their pictures evoke a sense of disturbed fascination in their viewer. The pain, physical and mental, narrated through these photographs is there for us to be seen and analysed along with the horrifyingly cruel treatment methods of the time. But unlike the subjects in the photographs, the glamorised and victimised starlets of hysteria, we have the privilege of being able to stand back and enjoy the spectacle they are presenting to us.

one example of the kind images I'm talking about

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