Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

John Berger passed away on 2 January 2017, (New York Times, 2 Jan, 2017), and reading about his life reminded me about his impact on my art education.  Berger was a British art critic, amongst other roles, and the host of the television series Ways of Seeing.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb.  Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name.  The series and book criticise traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.  The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon. (Description taken from Wikipedia).

I first came across Ways of Seeing in the early 2000s at art school, and it rocked my world.  It made me look at everything with a new need to understand and deconstruct the layers.  It really appealed to my youthful inner conspiracy theorist and detective instincts, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Trust nothing on face value.  Question everything.  What is the hidden meaning and what/who has orchestrated you to come to this idea.  A painting was no longer only different coloured paint on a canvas, it became a work with multiple layers of meaning to peel away to understand completely.  Who made it?  When was it made?  Why was it made?  Which critic wrote about it?  Why does it hang in this gallery?  Who decided to buy it?  Why did the museum buy it?  Was there a political agenda?  Let alone the concept of the reproduction of the image.  Being a photography student at the beginning of the wave of digital photography entering the mainstream (pre iPhones, imagine!), this blew my mind.  Context, meaning, death of the author, copyright… And these concepts are applicable now more than ever with the internet and social media.  Images are copied and replicated at an alarming rate.

The series is very dated, for the classroom.  Not sure if a student would also be able to resist John Berger’s lisp.  Even I cant but help imitating it after watching an episode. There is the text, Ways of Seeing, which could be brought into the classroom, and snippets of the series could be used to initiate discussion. It is in itself now a classic. And like classics, sequels, remakes and homages are spawned to honour them. Welcome New Ways of Seeing. The New York Times T Brand Studio and Tiffany and Co. have come together to create a new five part series called New Ways of Seeing.  To view all episodes visit http://paidpost.nytimes.com/tiffany/new-ways-of-seeing.html.

New Ways of Seeing, Episode One: Art Contains Multitudes presented by Jerry Saltz

The series is so new, that only episodes one to three have aired yet. The series is essentially presenting the same principle, almost picking up where the last series left off. The episodes are short, catchy, and easily digestible for the classroom.  It is almost like an advert for the episode, with short snippets of interviews and soundbites of information. Episode three deals with art in the digital age, and is presented by Tavi Gevinson, the young Rookie editor.



Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

Lara Thoms

Lara Thoms is an artists who researches, investigates and explores.  Her main area of research tends to be centered on people.  Her work is serious, but deep down it is very funny.  Satirical and smart funny.  But she is not making fun of the people.  Operating on multiple layers and levels smart funny.  Thoms’ work introduces you to aspects of society, and people, who you may never encounter, or even dream of encountering.  Joy Hurub, 87 year old Sydney resident who broadcasts television form her garage, is one of these amazing people.  And so are the 150 people Thoms’ interviewed as part of her Experts Project.

The Experts Project was a two year participatory performance work project where Thoms spoke with 150 unofficial experts and general members of the public, to learn about and understand their specific expertise, culminating with Thoms posing as the expert and having her photo taken by the original expert, to signify the exchange of information. This work explores ideas of pedagogy, skill and learning, voyeurism and also traditions of craft and the passing on and sharing of knowledge. Lessons include how to host a medieval dinner party; slice frozen fish; and even how to enter and exit combat zones. As previously mentioned, Thoms is a smart funny artist. But when she presents her expert lessons, she does so with the utmost respect for the person. There is a faint level of parody, but above all her lessons show that event eh everyday jobs require expertise.

Video interview with Lara Thoms by Real Time, artv studio: Lara Thoms, The Experts Project from RealTime on Vimeo.

Practice: Students could engage in a number of art making activities to emulate Thoms practice. They could research a topic, or an expertise, and give a presentation to the class on that topic.
Students could pair off, and one student identifies an expertise of theirs, such as stamp collecting, video games, dancing etc, that they teach and pass on to the the other student. The student who learnt the expertise then presents their knowledge to the class.
Photography exercise of portraiture.
The final photographs of Thoms dressed as the expert, to me, are reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits.  The introduction of Sherman’s work could contrast nicely with the Thoms, in relation to the study of people, and their representation. Sherman works with series, often portraying Caucasian women and dressing up in elaborate costumes to portray the characters.
Cultural: You could compare the culture represented in both Thoms and Sherman’s work. Even though there is an element of parody and jest that can be interpreted from the works, both artists are dealing with true themes, respecting their subjects. You can explore the film noir aspect of both works, and discuss what it is that each artist is attempting to gain through dressing up as someone else.
Structural: Lara Thom’s work is a great way to explore different mediums, and the  ephemeral aspects of performance. What is the artwork? When Thoms talks to the expert? When she give the presentation? Or the photograph at the end, the recording of the work? You are discussing a work you have not or cannot view in entirety as it occurred in the past? How does this change the understanding of the work?

Resource links:

Lara Thoms

Dämmerschlaf at Artspace

Mikala Dwyer, ‘The hanging garden of moonman marigolds’, 2016, installation view, ‘Dämmerschlaf’, Artspace, Sydney. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Photo: Artspace.
Accessed on 23 January 2016:  http://www.artspace.org.au/program/exhibitions/2016/daemmerschlaf/


Right now and throughout mid January to mid February, above the Australian sky, there is a planetary alignment that is happening.  If you look up to the predawn sky, all five of the visible (to the human eye) planets, being Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, can be seen all together, hanging out in the universe above us like a gang of celestial buddies.  The planets are brought together by invisible forces, and during this same period of celestial connection, three artists are also brought together to explore the connection of the physical and conceptual thresholds between the studio and the gallery.

Nick Dorey, Mikala Dwyer, Clare Milledge are exhibiting in Dämmerschlaf, the first exhibition of the Artspace 2016 program.  All three artists were 2015 One Year Studio Artists at Artspace, and this is their resulting body of work.  Dämmerschlaf is the German word for ‘twilight sleep’, a form of calming pain relief.  Dämmerschlaf is an evolving experience taking place throughout the month of January, slowly growing and moving and aligning throughout the course of the exhibition.  All artists have relocated their working environments from the upstairs studio to the downstairs gallery, creating together and aligning their ideas in the exhibition space. The artist is actively present throughout the exhibition, creating and designing the space where you can watch them in-situ, much like the planets in our night time sky.

Why the link between Dämmerschlaf and the planets? Well, the works are of a spiritual and supernatural perspective.  The artists explore the occult, the moon, perceptions of realities and physical and conceptual thresholds.

Stage 6
This would be a good experience for Stage 6 students to go and visit an artists studio in preparation for creating a major body of work.  Artistic collaboration and different art making practices can be viewed in-situ and compared between the artists.

The Conceptual Framework can explore the notions of space, the studio space vs exhibition space. The physical and spiritual space.  The artist and the audience in the same space.  The performance of the creation of the work can also be explored.  There is a public program from GreenUps, which indicate concepts of sustainability will be at play throughout the exhibition.  Another concept to explore is the title: What does Dämmerschlaf mean? (The German word Dämmerschlaf is translated into English as ‘twilight sleep’, which describes a state induced by a combination of analgesia (pain relief) and amnesia to combat the pain — or the memory of pain). Why is this title significant? How does twilight sleep, amnesia and an induced state of calm and relief feature in the exhibition?

Dämmerschlaf at Artspace