Just before it was due to take place I received an email about a conference on cities. We are both interested in cities, the fee was only £5, the location was Birmingham, and the venue was an art gallery we’ve never visited: we signed up. It was a history of art conference, but we’ve been to conferences of various stripes in the past and never found any problems understanding or appreciating the papers.
Looking around at the rest of the attendees two things things were striking – we were the only ones in colourful clothes and Paul was the only man. It heightened our sense of being interlopers. There was a ‘Wulf’ scheduled to speak after lunch, but he was the day’s no-show.
The programme opened with what was essentially an advertising spiel from The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which would have been unproblematic had the speaker not attempted to draw links to the theme of the conference, making me want to yell ‘weaksauce’ and other interweb-inspired exclamations.
Keynote speaker, Dr Dorothy Rowe, talked interestingly, though at breakneck speed, about the representation of Berlin. Lesser Ury was an outsider on many levels including (but not restricted to) being Jewish and painting in a French style. I was struck by how much his painting felt like it was the product of a photographer’s eye.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work was very different; Rowe focused on his paintings of prostitutes.
In what felt like a disconnected second half of the paper, Rowe talked about the photographer August Sander and his project to photograph ‘People of the 20th Century’ according to a classification system of his own devising.
Rowe contextualised the work of these artists in terms of their relationships to their city, but I didn’t get what I had hoped for, a shift from the detail of specific representations to a consideration of the way we construct cities.
The next two speakers delivered glimpses of their very specialist work – a late fourteenth-century Magdalen fresco cycle in Northern Italy, and the Chiesa Gentilizia of Genoa – both were thwarted by trying to convey too much in too short a time. Odd nuggets of information snagged my attention, in particular the idea of a lactating corpse capable of feeding a child for two years.
The third speaker in the panel session seemed utterly out of place and out of her depth. Her starting point was that Birmingham and Glasgow are comparable cities with comparable arts schools, but that Birmingham somehow failed to market itself in the way that Glasgow did. That was also the extent of her content and argument. It was one of those insane twenty minutes where the listeners are filled with vicarious embarrassment for someone who is apparently oblivious.
At lunch we took a quick turn round some of the art galleries and, after a brief debate, decided we may as well stay and see what the afternoon brought.
It was a good decision; Dr Venda Louise Pollock delivered exactly what we’d been hoping to get out of the proceedings. She talked about memory and place in relation to the regeneration of The Gorbals area of Glasgow and specifically about the creation of and responses to public art as part of the regeneration. She talked about re-imaging and re-imagining, remembering and re-membering. I made notes of things to look up, things to read. Not only was the subject interesting and Pollock’s examination of it stimulating, but she was a good and relaxed speaker.
Maria Luisa Coelho spoke about Helen Chadwick’s Lofos Nymphon, the creation of an imagined city and its relationship to the female body and mother/daughter bonds, and again re-imaging and re-imagining. This was the sort of paper that triggers lots of ‘I must think some more about x’ thoughts – about memory, layering, collage, bodies and doubtless several other things I’ve already forgotten.
At this point, we were fully satisfied with having made the effort to attend the conference; that was the panel that made it all worthwhile.
After a tea break we went back to papers about Rome and Barcelona. What we got out of the latter, which was specifically about the Joan Miró Foundation, was ‘Catalan, yay!’. The former, fortunately, proved far more stimulating. Flavia Frigeri limited her examination of Rome to a single work by each of three artists, Angeli, Festa and Schifano. She analysed each work with insight and humour, relating each to the multiple identities of Rome and the tensions between the old and new cities.
It was a mixed bag of an event, then, tedious in places, stimulating in others, but I loved being able to drop into a different world, a different discipline and find out what they are talking about. I wish experiences like this were more available, to me, to everyone. I wish that education and understanding were valued as goals in their own right. I deeply regret the ubiquitous drive to consider higher education only in terms of employability and earning potential and the closing of University departments all around the country.