Author Archives: Beth Shepherd

Richard Hamilton’s Kent State (1970)

50th anniversary of the Kent State shooting

May 4, 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the Kent State University shooting of thirteen students by the U.S. National Guard. This is a good time to remember both the event and Richard Hamilton’s haunting Kent State print (1970).

On that bright May day in 1970 students and activists were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The National Guard were on campus to keep the protestors in line. While some students and faculty were actually protesting, others were curiously looking on; others still were just cutting across the campus on their way to class. Shots ring out. Nearly 70 shots in 13 seconds. The soldiers shot into the crowd and thirteen people were hit. In the aftermath, four students lie dead and nine wounded. Twenty-year-old Dean Kahler, was shot in the back and his paralysis from the waist down would be a constant reminder of that day. (1)

This was not the era of cell phones but there are cameras. Photos were snapped and even some video was captured by journalism students. News of the event spreads like wildfire. Within hours images of the event find their way to Richard Hamilton’s living room in London, England, showing up on his new colour TV in the form of a BBC news broadcast. Hamilton just happened to have a camera set up in front of the television hoping for some interesting images to use in an upcoming printmaking project. As a picture of the wounded Dean Kahler appeared on screen, Hamilton captured the image on his camera.

Dan Kahler being attended to by fellow students

When asked how he came to make his print series, Hamilton responded, “I felt that maybe it was necessary to look at the issues of our time and use the images that aroused questions. The things I began to do were usually the result of experiencing some image with a very strong impact. (2) He contemplated not using it because “It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance!! It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds.” (3)

He decided to use this image in a collaborative project with publisher Dorothea Leonhart of Munich and printer Dietz Offizin, Lengmoos, Bavaria, which would result in a series of 5000 silkscreen prints. This was a very big undertaking in those days. The complex printing process involved making thirteen screens, two of which were used twice, for the application of a total of fifteen layers of transparent inks in various shades and combinations of blue, red, yellow, violet and black. (4) Hamilton visited the print shop many times and verified and signed each work. Later he indicated that this work of art was the most difficult he ever undertook.

Most of the screens used in making the complex print

His idea was to make a large series so the image would remain in public view and would remain accessible to the average person – in fact, today you can buy one of these prints for between $1000-$2000. Kent State is in the collections of many prestigious art institutions across the world, including the National Gallery of Canada—which by the way, was the first place the image, most probably an artist proof, was shown in 1971. (5) The actual edition of 5000 premiered in Milan later that same year.

This print shares a blend of the indexicality of a photography (i.e., the sense of representing something real), mediated by many aesthetic decisions made in the printmaking process—the layers, the offsets, the colours, etc. The image is of Dean Kahler lying on the ground, legs truncated. He is tended by one person with another near by. We see the sun on his skin, the blue of his jeans… and the red blood. The black boarder – rectangular on its outer edge and rounded on the inner, we know is an old television screen. If we look closely we can see the pixilation and the horizontal scan lines typical of cathode ray technology of the time.

It is strange that the image is not centred on the paper. Hamilton wrote that it is printed off-centre to the sheet to express that “this was not just an image captured on TV, but a work about the mediation of this image by television.” In highlighting the televisual nature, the image embodies his concern that media transmits information indifferent to its content or meaning into the living rooms of the world, and the constant display of violence is desensitizing viewers. (6)

About Richard Hamilton (1922-2011)

Richard Hamilton and his Television, in his Living Room, London, 1970

In the 1950s Hamilton was a founding member of the Independent Group. Their exhibition, This is tomorrow (1956), for which Hamilton made the now iconic, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? signalled the beginning of British Pop Art.

I always thought of Richard Hamilton as a British Bad Boy artist of the pop art era. He was very much part of the swinging London scene, associating with the Stones, Beatles and other celebrities. But he was so much more — an artist, designer, multi-media experimenter, teacher, writer, exhibition organizer and political activist. In his practice he drew upon and critiqued a wide range of popular culture media and current events, including imagery found in newspapers, magazines, television, film and advertising. He used collage, painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography and printmaking to create a vast array of work. In the mid-sixties Hamilton began working with Marcel Duchamp on a number of projects. Collaborations with Duchamp seemed to free him from the trends and constraints of the art world, facilitating him to take his own path. (7)

Always a technology buff, Hamilton’s innovations included the use of the computer in art. Even though a fan of technology, he raised importance questions about the authenticity of the image in society and especially how technology leaves us suspended between illusion and the real. (8)

In 1992 the Tate put on a major retrospective and Hamilton was Britain’s selection for the Venice Biennale in 1993. Still working right up to the end, Hamilton helped design a major retrospective at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in 2011, which was subsequently presented at the Tate Modern in 2014. The exhibition included over 200 pieces spanning the 1950s to work he completed in 2011 in a wide range of mediums and genres including paintings, prints, sculpture, photographs, designs, and Duchampian reconstructions. (9)

Notes
(1) Kathi Valeii, Kent State, “Jackson State Survivors Talk Student Activism,” 2018, Rolling Stone website.
(2) Hal Foster and Alex Bacon, eds., Richard Hamilton, October Files 10, Cambridge, Mass/London Eng: The MIT Press, 2010, 11.
(3) Tate Galley Label, 2004, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043.
(4) Tate Gallery Catalogue Entry, 1988, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043X.
(5) Mark Godfrey, Paul Schimmel and Vincente Todoli, Richard Hamilton. London: Tate Publishing, 2014,Godfrey – Tate catalog, 239.
(6) Godfrey Schimmel and Todoli, Richard Hamilton, 240.(7) Ibid., 17.
(8) Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters exhibition was held at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010.
(9) Godfrey, Schimmel and Todoli, Richard Hamilton, 17.

Mishka Henner: a “Post-Photography” Photographer

Mishka Henner, Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas, 2012

For almost two years I have been working on my Master’s degree in Art History at Carleton University. My major research project–“Mishka Henner’s Feedlots: New Perspectives on the Contemporary Ecocritical Landscape”– is handed in, so I am just awaiting the virtual walk across the stage.

In my paper I question why industrial animal agriculture is not a more prominant subject in contemporary art and art historical discourse, and particularly, in art exhibitions on the Anthropocene, eco art and ecocriticism.

Henner’s series, Feedlots (2012-13), comprises seven high-resolution digital images of Texas feedlots made by stitching together hundreds of high-resolution screenshots from Google Earth. (See Henner’s website.) This series has received significant attention in exhibitions and in various publications, likely more on account of Henner’s innovative “post-photography” practices than its subject matter.

The term “post-photography” has been used since the late twentieth century in conjunction with the transformation from analogue to digital media; more recently it has come to mean the integration of the image, technology and the Internet. Camila Moreiras explains that the “age of post-photography can be understood as the age of the inorganic image: a composite of littered information – collected, ordered, layered, buried, stored and discarded.” (1) In contemporary photographic practice, images may be built, fabricated, altered, and/or systematically edited with or without the camera. Henner has rejected the camera, using his computer and the Internet for image-making, which he feels is better suited for the age in which we live. (2)

I look forward to sharing parts of my paper and other musings.

References:

(1) Camila Moreiras, “Joan Fontcuberta: Post-Photography and the Spectral Image of Saturation,” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 18:1 (2017): 57 and FN3, 72.

(2) Mishka Henner, “Counter-Intelligence,” (Video Lecture).

Life of Plants


Every once in a while, when I say I am an “ethical vegan”(1), someone will pipe up “What about plants? Don’t they have feelings too?” This question is clearly a ploy to discredit animal sentience as a guide to our ethical eating choices…But it gets me thinking what about plants?

Since the seventies, interest in the intelligence and responsiveness of plants has been growing. In this blog I want to briefly discuss plant intelligence and sentience, introduce the work of an artist I metwho explores the luminous world of plants. and finally, to present a few plant mono prints I made specifically for this post.

Plant Intelligence – the Research

Since the pseudo-scientific book, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, was published in 1973, interest in the intelligence and sentience of plants has been growing. It is evident that plants move and communicate albeit in ways that are largely imperceptible to humans. According to many researchers, intelligence from a plant point of view entails intentionality regarding how plants grow to take advantage of resources or to defend against threats. More generally, plant intelligence is defined as the capacities plants have that enable them to do well according to their unique perspective as expressed at the cellular, organismic and environmental levels (2).

In a 2017 journal article “Are plants sentient?”, researchers contend that plants have distributed nervous systems based on bioelectric fields that are distributed throughout the plant. This nervous system provides the potential for assessment in all parts of the plant and resolving the signals would be similar to the function of an animal’s brain in arriving at physiological responses to the environment (3).

I watched a great TED talk by Stefano Mancuso (4) in which he describes distributed plant intelligence capabilities that enable plants to respond to gravity, light and to seek out resources, and also to communicate with other plants and animals through electrical and chemical signals. The intelligent is rooted in the plants’ apexes – the growing areas, which exhibit the same electrical potentials that neurons in our brain use to exchange information. Rather than centralizing intelligence in the brain, plants have evolved to use distributed processing which enables them to survive predation.

The luminous world of plants – the work of Marie-Jeanne Musiol

I felt the work of Marie-Jeanne Musiol was a wonderful way to illustrate the possibilities of plant intelligence.

On June 13, 2018 I attended an artist talk by Marie-Jeanne Musiol about her participation in the exhibition “Le Rêve des forms/ The Dream of Forms,” presented at the Palais de Tokyo from 14 June to 10 September 2017. Works of participating artists and scientists explored new possibilities of representation, to shake up our way of seeing and showing. Musiol submitted a small series of images entitled “Journeys into the Fields of Light” to the exhibition.

Bridging art and science, Musiol’s work represents new ways of looking at plants. Using electromagnetic photography she records the bio-energetic fields that surround plants to reveal intelligent vibrations and frequencies. Musiol became interested in moving beyond the visible while working at Auschwitz in the 1990s. In search of a deeper understanding of connections between matter and light, her black and white images and films reflect the dynamism of living plants. Her work has appeared in many Canadian and international exhibitions and she has a new book called The Radiant Forest, An Energy Herbarium. Marie-Jeanne Musiol was born in Switzerland and lives and works in Gatineau, Quebec. Check out her website.

Marie-Jeanne Musiol – Maple Leaf from the Radiant Forest

My Plant Monoprints

Early June is a beautiful time in my garden. I harvested a few ferns and asparagus fronds and some flower stems for mono-printing using my gel plate and Akua printing ink. These images do not purport to capture the intelligence or inner radiance of the plants but these two prints are visually interesting and were fun to make.