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15th Annual Undergraduate Art History Symposium


The 15th Annual Undergraduate Art History Symposium & UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History and Visual Culture launch took place on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, from 5:00 - 8:30pm in Frederic Lasserre Building, Room 102, 6333 Memorial Rd, Vancouver. Presented by the UBC Art History Students' Association, Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory.

About the Symposium: We aim to foster a supportive environment for research at the undergraduate level. Students present their research in order to receive feedback and showcase undergraduate research on art history and visual culture. Their abstracts are published in the physical print publication of the UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, and the entire essays are made available online.

“Wild Revival: The Photography of Edward Curtis and the Fetishization of the Wild West”

Jacinta Jones

Between 1897 and 1930, Wisconsin-born photographer Edward Curtis undertook the task of travelling across North America in order to visually document various Indigenous communities. Curtis’s undertaking was met with a deep fervor, as he was haunted by the looming pressure of colonial efforts that claimed these cultures and traditions would die off before they could be recorded. The consequent works were of an unprecedented magnitude, and Curtis’s photographs were soon compiled within a forty-volume collection entitled The North American Indian. Although the photographer was well aware of the impact European colonization had on his Indigenous subjects, he made an active choice to present the “traditional Indian” in his work, rather than a contemporary one. Using Curtis’s photography and legacy as a guide, this paper will look at how his work resonated at the time, and contributed to the nostalgia-driven stereotypes of Native Americans in popular culture to this day. By advertising Native Americans as if untouched by white settlers and in a pure, “primitive” form, Curtis actively cultivated the fictitious trope of the “noble savage” in his portraits. The North American Indian has undergone periodic moments of “revival,” particularly with the increased circulation of the collection in the 1960s and 70s, which coincided with an increased popularity of the Western genre of films and literature. The traditional way in which Curtis chose to present Indigenous bodies complemented the fetishization of the “Wild West” in popular culture, which spiked in relation to American desire for escapism during the era of the Vietnam War. This paper will unpack how Edward Curtis’s photographs manipulated the narrative of his subjects, and effectively became symbolic of the perceived success of Western civilization over “inferior” peoples.

The Perfect Ontological Nightmare: Understanding Alex Da Corte’s Slow Graffiti as Monstrous Drag

Karina Greenwood

The spectre of queerness has haunted both Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein (1818) as well as many of its subsequent adaptations and derivatives—making it rich source material to play with and explore a diversity of queer themes. This paper examines Alex Da Corte’s film Slow Graffiti (2017) for its use of Frankenstein’s Monster as a vehicle to communicate nuanced ideas about the artificiality and performance of identity. Da Corte’s film is a nightmarish shot-for-shot recreation of Jørgen Leth’s film The Perfect Human (1967). Full of garish colours and absurd props, Da Corte’s film features the artist dressed as both Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff in character as Frankenstein’s Monster, performing a series of mundane tasks with a grotesque or monstrous twist. This paper examines how Da Corte’s work engages with and transforms its progenitors: Shelley’s novel, Karloff’s performance, and Leth’s film.

Furthermore, I argue that Da Corte’s embodiment of Karloff and Frankenstein’s Monster should be viewed as a kind of drag performance: one that appropriates not codes of gender, but several ontological states of being, in order to trouble normative categories of identity. Da Corte’s choice of one of the most significant monsters from Gothic fiction, one already embroiled in a discourse that confuses boundaries, makes his use of the character as part of a drag performance a highly effective and subversive one. Da Corte’s incarnation of Frankenstein’s Monster is the ultimate deconstruction of the perfect heteronormative, stable-bodied human: not only does he perform multiple levels of identity, but he also exposes the normative identities themselves to be artificial and constructed.

Memory, Space, and Selfhood in Transition: Yin Xiuzhen’s Heterotopographic Vision of Beijing

Yue Yao

Since the mid-twentieth century, upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the undertaking of economic reforms, the city of Beijing has undergone a period of intense urbanization and renovation. The capital city’s former imperial organization, characterized by stratification and polarized power dynamics stemming from its centre, was made obsolete by the emerging new expansive cityscape on its periphery. This shifted residential space and perspectives, leaving local residents in a state of displacement and uncertainty. As an artist born and raised in Beijing, Yin Xiuzhen engages with these changes both as an observer and a victim. Through reconnecting with the city through her memory, Yin works on a map of personal memory to reclaim agency in a geographical state of dislocation and alienation. Since the government has destroyed many familiar sites, all that remains is heterotopography—a place in the placelessness.

This paper explores the introspective vision of Yin as she re-maps her memory, space, and selfhood in the heterotopographic city. Her installation piece Ruined Beijing (1996), featuring construction debris resuscitated in a counter-site, commemorates the lost and ruined places in the city. She created Portable Beijing (2001) five years later, the first piece in the series Portable Cities, which featured a new way of understanding her relationship to the city. Acting as an anti-site, the work reterritorializes the city through hand-manipulated clothing garments which navigate between present and past. In these five short years, the paradigm of her visions between memory of the individual and transformation of megacities has shifted. In a rapidly transforming landscape, Yin contemplates new social negotiations by paralleling the reflection, interaction, and reconstitution of the outside world in her artworks, becoming a cartographer of both memory and Beijing at the turn of the twentieth century.

Unbound by Preconceptions: Urination and Abstraction in the Artwork of Cassils and Andy Warhol

Alexandra Chalier

This paper compares artworks by Cassils and Andy Warhol, discussing the queering of minimalist and abstract expressionist art, and the very different goals and functions that each artist achieves. Cassils’s durational project and installation Pissed began after the 2017 court case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who was denied the right to use the bathroom of his choice at his public school in Virginia. In response to this injustice, Cassils proceeded to collect their urine in plastic medical sample containers for two hundred consecutive days. This effort culminated in the display of all the accumulated urine in a massive glass cube at the opening of their show at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. A potent protest, this work is an expression of both rage at the system and of intergenerational love from one transgender person to another.

Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, created in the 1970s, are a facetious parody of Jackson Pollock’s macho approach to painting. The works, which the artist colloquially referred to as “piss paintings,” consisted of canvases covered with shiny copper-based paint, upon which Warhol and his friends then urinated in order to oxidize the copper and change its colour. Urine is an unusual but crucial component of both bodies of work, transgressing social norms and upsetting the hierarchy of the art world with its connotations of dirtiness and impurity. Through the use of abject material, these artworks make tangible the abjection of the queer subject in society.