2017 Performing the Visual
In the basement of Burlington House is the warren of studios and workshops that houses the Royal Academy Schools. Founded in 1769 as part of the Royal Academy’s mission to promote and raise the standards of the visual arts in Britain, the Schools still offers its fifty students a free art education, largely funded through sales made at the Summer Exhibition. While the day-to-day work of the Schools is run by tutors and staff, it is overseen by the Keeper, who is elected from among the Royal Academicians and serves as one of the Academy’s four official officers, alongside the President, Treasurer, and Secretary.
The first woman to be elected to the post was Eileen Cooper in 2011. Originally, the Keeper was responsible for providing models for the life drawing classes, but by Cooper’s time, this was no longer needed. Instead, her contribution to the students’ education was the creation of new workshops giving access to digital printing, the latest film and video technology, 3D printing, and laser cutting. During her time, she also encouraged breaking down traditional, media-based silos of study and collaboration so that sculptors, video artists, painters, and performance artists shared studios rather than staying in discipline-based isolation, creating a liberating ethos of openness and experimentation.
Cooper is proud of the students and alumni of the Schools. Yet, beyond the annual Final Year School’s Show and Premiums, the annual showcase of second-year students work, she had had little chance to share it with a wider audience. When she was asked to be the Chief Curator of the 2017 Summer Exhibition, she found the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the Schools. To spotlight the work of artists she had known and supported as students or alumni, she encouraged many of them to submit works for selection and exhibition.
Yet Cooper’s intention wasn’t to make the 2017 Exhibition a Schools’ reunion. She also wanted to highlight those qualities of openness, welcome, and diversity that she felt the Schools shared with the Summer Exhibition. As a result, Cooper set out to break down some of the established silos and expectations associated with the Summer Exhibition, giving video works a more prominent space in the galleries, introducing performance art for the first time, and featuring the work of African and diaspora artists, including Hassan Hajjaj, Gonçalo Mabunda, and Abe Odedina. Under the direction of Yinka Shonibare, one of the 2017 Hanging Committee members, Gallery VI was transformed into a celebration of multiculturalism that stood out for its vivid colours and dynamic forms (Fig. 1).
One of the artists Cooper specifically invited to exhibit was the performance poet Alana Francis, a recent Schools’ graduate. Within the context of the paintings, prints, sculptures, and architectural drawings of the Summer Exhibition, Francis’ performances, made as she wandered through the galleries, inevitably stood out as distinctive, seeming to demand completely different rules of engagement and reception (Fig. 2). Normally the different extremes of contemporary practice never occupy the same space, but here they were in the 2017 Summer Exhibition standing side by side, demanding equal attention, and asking the inevitable question: what is it that allows both Cooper’s and Francis’ works to be classified as art?
Cooper’s simple, archetypal figures are neither abstract nor imitative, but are delineated by lines that both describe and are liberated from solid form. Her simple, unfussy works represent both the physical and the mental experience of being in the world; the seen and the internal, where the act of looking is coloured by those tastes, sounds, smells, and feelings that accompany every optical encounter. They are both considered and unconsciously intuitive, engaged with both the visible and invisible, demanding a physical, phenomenological engagement that incorporates all the senses because they are derived from the act of bodily looking.
Cooper’s lines are expressions of touch and sensation, capturing the feel of a remembered caress rather than an arbitrary outline. Sweeping, expressive lines echo a smile or frown; laying emotions bare in their dramatic shapes. Here are the pirouettes and arabesques we dance in our minds when we listen to music, the lyrical traces of Cooper’s arm moving through space, its probing gesture translating her imagination into graphic form.
Taut with a sense of barely contained energy, Cooper’s lines demand we move along their contours with a gaze that also caresses and dances, which is animated and intuitively physical. They give her drawings a performative quality, whose linear choreography weaves compelling narratives of freedom, love, liberation, despair, joy, and peace.
Similar physical gestures accompany Francis’ performances; her narrative reinforced and enlarged by bodily movements: her hands and arms beat time, her body subtly sways, her vocal chords vibrate the air. We can often overlook the relationship between physical movement and the act of drawing, but watching Francis perform, it seemed as though she was drawing her spoken narratives in thin air. Here were the lyrical tracings of Cooper’s arm movements without the final mark left on paper. Even without hearing what she was saying, a narrative seemed to be being told through her body’s abstract choreography. When the viewer’s gaze traces the lines of a drawing, the movement of their eyes is a physical response that connects them with the movement of the artist in making those marks. Similarly, the percussive beat of Francis’s hands and voice, in moving the intervening air to vibrate the ear drums of her listener, provides a moment of physical connection between artist and listener.
Those visitors lucky enough to be there on the limited occasions when Francis was present in the galleries, would have had the opportunity to realise, through the coexistence of Cooper’s and Francis’ very different approaches, that drawing can be performance, and performance art can be bodily drawing. The common thread is the body, which makes marks and sounds that connect viewer and artist together in a moment of shared embodiment.
Thematic categories: curation of exhibition and displays, Curators, figurative art, innovation in Exhibition, invited artists, Keepers of the Royal Academy, modernisation of Summer Exhibition, multiculturalism, performance art, Royal Academy Schools, Selection and Hanging Committee, training of artists, tuition at Academy, women Academicians