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Accepted Paper:

Doing Harm in Exhibitions  
Chris Dorsett (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

I wish to present, from the standpoint of a practicing artist with a history of working with museum collections, a sequence of new videos in which aesthetic responses, and associated moral responsibilities, occur when exhibited objects embody a history of harm, or are themselves harmed.

Paper long abstract:

When Alison Wilding’s sculpture Blue-Black collapsed in front of me at the 1984 British Art Show I felt responsible for what had happened. My approach across the gallery floor dislodged the delicately balanced structure, destroying at a stroke the artwork’s adaptation to the environment of the spectator. Like any unpromising pile of materials in a studio, the sudden horizontal disposition of ‘parts’ made it much harder to understand how, of all the sculptures these bits and pieces might have become, Wilding’s arrangement remained the aesthetic optimum.

My accidental act of unmaking, occurring as I planned my first interventionist exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum, conjured, as if from nowhere, the dead matter out of which the living presence of the art work had been constructed. Unlike Mary Richardson’s attack on the Rokeby Venus in Gell’s Art and Agency, doing harm to Blue-Black prompted in me a lasting awareness of the fragility of artefactual agency. Whereas Richardson confirmed art’s power, Wilding’s sculpture punctured the aesthetic force that keeps art acting upon us.

My thoughts often return to this moment and I have recently extended the idea to inanimate materials that were once alive themselves. My new ASMR-style videos, utilising Holly Dugan’s 2019 article, offer a practice-based response to an unsettling juxtaposition of animals drawn on a calf skin manuscript now in the British Library. By transforming this biological artefact into contemporary media, I hope its 17th century approach to ‘harmed life’ achieves aesthetic validity once again.

Panel Speak22a
Art, response, and responsibility I
  Session 1 Wednesday 31 March, 2021, -