Strike an Iconic Pose: Exhibiting a dissertation

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Graduating BA (hons) Visual Culture student, Kate Wildblood, reflects on the ways in which her personal, professional and academic interests intertwined in her dissertation, soon to be exhibited as part of Brighton Pride 2013.

Collages of gay club flyers constructed by Kate Wildblood

Having spent most of my professional career either DJing within or writing about LGBT cultural and social life, when I became a mature student at Brighton University in 2010 it was perhaps destined that I would bring something queer to my Visual Culture degree. As they say, you can take the girl out of the disco, but you can’t take the disco out of the girl. My dissertation topic, Strike A Pose, There’s Something To It: Imagery in gay clubbing 1989-2013 examined the event flyer designs of Club Shame, Trade and Wild Fruit, showing how they reflected the 1970s Gay Liberation movement along with the challenges of the 1980s and early 1990s when HIV and AIDS dominated the public, political and media perceptions and portrayals of gay men.

By exploring Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory of myth, my research revealed how the flyer designers Mark Wardel (a.k.a. Trademark), B_Art, Pete Hayward and Paul Kemp created new meanings by reappropriating cultural iconography and signifiers, gay or straight – be they Oscar Wilde, Grace Jones, Aubrey Beardsley, Alice In Wonderland, Metropolis, Tom of Finland or Herb Ritts – to deliver images that challenge heterosexual ideals of masculinity.

In creating new images or subverting existing images for their own ends, gay flyer designers signified certain meanings, rooted in historical context, that connect the viewer to a particular aspect of gay culture, be they childhood memories, icons, subcultures or ideals of gay male beauty. By visually representing my research through the collages Trading Poses and Fruity Benders, I too reappropriated the images of gay clubbing to create further layers of meaning. Having spent so long surrounded by gay clubbing imagery I was keen to strike new poses with the material and to represent the rich queer history we have all played a part in developing. If you will excuse the puns, I wanted to Trade in the glorious Fruit-iness of it all.

I’m genuinely delighted that my two collages will feature in the Icons exhibition as part of Brighton’s new LGBT arts festival during the Pride events of 2013, and am honoured that my work will sit alongside artists including Keith Haring and Mark Vessey. The purpose of Pride, for me, has always been more than a party; it’s about celebrating the people of Brighton and our shared pride in our city. The Icons exhibition is a perfect reflection of that pride and a showcase for the artistic achievements of our seaside city. As so many of the images I used in Trading Poses and Fruity Benders originate from Brighton’s gay clubbing scene, it feels like they are coming home.

The Icons Exhibition is at Brighton Jubilee Library, Jubilee Square, Brighton until 1 August 2013. For further information on the event, please see the Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/events/153509038156320/

For more information about Kate Wildblood’s writing and research, see her blog:

http://www.perfectdistractions.com/strikeapose

Design and Culture in Spain, part III: Almudena Cathedral

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Alice Power, first year student on the BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies degree pathway, completes the short series of blog posts resulting from a recent study trip to Madrid by examining the distinctive traditions of Spanish Catholic art.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig 1. An interior arch in Almudena cathedral, Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

As we stood outside the Almudena Cathedral in the heart of Madrid, I turned to my student colleagues and set them a challenge, asking: ‘How old do you think this building is?’ Here was a chance to put into practice what we’ve been learning in our first year History and of Art and Design lectures by looking at a building of which none of us had prior knowledge. The four of us looked carefully at the decoration that adorned the ornate exterior.  It didn’t seem to fit clearly into any style or movement that we were familiar with.  There were certainly Baroque influences, which complimented the neighbouring Palace nicely, but as a whole it looked too fresh to be from that period. Our collective brain power estimated that it probably dated from circa 1875. We weren’t far wrong. Construction started in 1879. However, due to despites over decor and the turbulent political conditions in Spain during the twentieth century, it wasn’t completed and consecrated until 1993.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

Fig. 2. Exterior of Almudena catherdral taken from Calle Mayor , Madrid. Amy Lou Bishop. 13 February 2013.

The interior was, somewhat unexpectedly, neo-gothic in style. Nevertheless, the bright whiteness of this still-young building gave it a very different atmosphere to the countless neo-gothic churches I’ve visited in the UK, Ireland and France. The ceiling decoration was very fluid and modern, marked with the bright colours that one often associates with Spanish imagery.  We visited on Ash Wednesday, so the space was active with worshippers as well as tourists. Despite this, the space felt somehow bare. Due to its age, it isn’t cluttered with tombs and monuments. One of my fellow students mentioned that it felt more like an art gallery than a place of worship.  With little uniformity in the scale and style of art displayed in each chapel, it was easy to view them as exhibits. As I had been educated in Catholic school, I’m fairly familiar with what each of the religious signs are meant to indicate, but here things weren’t so typical. Christian art, as a category, is vast and ever changing, yet within Catholicism, traditional styles and forms usually dominate.

Two years ago I visited a church called Parroquia Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Marbella. It was situated down a rather unassuming alleyway in the old quarter of the town.  I found the style of the interior, however, to be completely overwhelming. Many of the statues were life-size, draped in velvet robes and featured real hair. Each one was richly decorated with gold. They were extreme examples of what I’d anticipated. The iconic, highly decorative images of Catholic saints produced in Spain and other Hispanic countries are globally recognised as distinct to their cultures. Hispanic-style images of the Virgin Mary are a staple of any tattooist’s repertoire and are also often recreated in kitsch novelty items.  Examining the chapel of Ave Maria Purisima sin Pecado Concebida  in Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, however, challenged all my preconceived ideas about Catholic art in Spain. The chapel was focused on an oil painting of the Madonna. Instead of highlighting her holiness by covering her in regalia, this Madonna was depicted in white with her head exposed, carrying a light. The most striking aspect to me was how clearly youthful she was. The gospels say that Mary was in her early teens at the birth of Christ, yet in most of the art created in her image she is more like a doll than a child. The painting did exactly what religious art is supposed to do. It made me think. Although I’d heard the gospel passages countless times, I don’t think I’d really ever connected the stories to the condition of a modern day young mother. Above the painting was a stained glass window made up of strikingly modern angular shapes. This is something I’d often seen in Protestant churches, but never in a Catholic cathedral.

In many Western cultures, the presence of a cathedral is still an unofficial sign of city status.  Yet, for centuries, Spain’s capital lacked an operational Catholic cathedral.  As an outsider I found this peculiar. I’d always assumed that there was something almost innately Catholic about Spanish national culture. In reality, Spain’s religious identity is a result of a long standing power struggle between Jewish, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic traditions, as well as the amalgamation of many strong regional identities. Nonetheless, 92% of people living in Spain consider themselves Catholic although many infrequently attend church. In some regions, parishes broadcast masses on local television networks. Perhaps this explains the diversity of the art in their churches. While in the UK, we’re predominantly interested in preserving the past, in Spain religion is much more connected to the present.  Not long after I returned from Madrid, a news story about a Catalan church that commissioned local graffiti artist to paint its dome was widely reported: www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21529832. This shows that modernising trends are evident in churches all over Spain.

Ultimately, Madrid’s Almudena cathedral is not just a place of worship and tradition. It is a boast that Catholicism survived attempts by other faiths to become dominant. As a site that incorporates elements of the past and the present, as well as local and universal iconography, it’s also a showcase for the diversity of Spanish national history and culture.