Art in Focus: The Provocation of Conditions

Online Films from The Yale Center for British Art

By: - Jun 21, 2021

The Yale Center for British Art opens a student-curated online exhibition that showcases four decades of experimental British filmmaking.

How have the changing conditions of living under a global pandemic impacted our daily lives? The Center’s student-led exhibition Art in Focus: The Provocation of Conditions began with this question as the curators and the artists explored ways to collaborate under the restrictions of a world-wide lockdown and working remotely across the US and the UK. The project became an unprecedented model of curating at the Center during the closure instigated by COVID-19.

The result is the Center’s first exhibition presented exclusively online. Art in Focus: The Provocation of Conditions features four short films. Margaret Tait’s Colour Poems (1974) is a nine-part elegy to her native Scottish archipelago of Orkney, beginning with the repercussions of the Spanish Civil War. Lis Rhodes’s Orifso (1999) takes the form of a historical fable, using archival and cartographical research to interrogate structures of power and surveillance in France and London between 1942 and 1998. Ori Gersht’s The Forest (2005) is a personal meditation on the reverberations and afterimages of the Holocaust. Finally, shown here in its first public screening, John Akomfrah and Trevor Mathison’s Numen (2014) is a fictional journey of postapocalyptic survival.

All four films can be viewed exclusively on the Center’s website from June 21 through August 23, 2021.

The title of the exhibition is taken from Rhodes’s essay “Noise of Memory” (2012), in which she wrote “the provocations of conditions arrests continuity. This pause, this catching of breath, captures the illegality of inequity. Public resistance is one of the few possible ways for voices to be heard—and that can now be dangerous in many places.”

Each of the films on view is a response, and a form of resistance, to different conditions, real and imagined, of their time. Distinct in subject and style, the films evoke our contemporary moment in relation to political unrest, civic protest, and enforced isolation. They explore the relationship between sound and image and push the boundaries between film poetry, documentary, and the claim to narrative truth.

“The themes of these films reflect the questions that bought the students and these artists together,” said Indie A. Choudhury, Postgraduate Associate in the Research department at the Center, who worked with the students and the artists on the exhibition. “What are the possibilities of resistance, and in what forms? These may seem to be the essential questions of our time, but as these films depict, they resurface and reshape historical and political understanding that are as relevant now as when each of these films were made. The nature of film as a form that could cross both digital and geographical space allowed us, the students, and the artists to share experiences, build consensus, dissent, and resist, in ways that further extend the radical nature of these experimental yet deeply prescient works.”

In developing the exhibition, the student curators Merritt Barnwell (SY 2022) and Adam Chen (TD 2022) had the opportunity to engage with the artists Ori Gersht and Trevor Mathison in online workshops with the Center’s cohort of student guides. Through a series of email exchanges between Barnwell, Chen, and Lis Rhodes, the artist shared her insights about Orifso and her multidisciplinary practice. The subsequent interview with Rhodes is featured in the exhibition as an accompaniment to her film.

“When working with the Center’s collections, student guides often have to piece together the artist’s intent using available historical documentation,” noted Chen. “It was a unique and exciting opportunity to be able to discuss our curiosities and questions about the works directly with the artists who created them.” Reflecting on the experience of organizing an exhibition remotely, Barnwell added, “Although it was challenging not being able to meet with the team in person, the pandemic allowed us to explore a medium with which I had no prior experience, and one that viewers can enjoy wherever they are.”

“The student guides are Yale undergraduates who represent a wide range of academic majors,” explained Linda Friedlaender, Head of Education at the Center. “Their enthusiasm for this special program culminates annually in an exhibition to illustrate, and thus animate, a subject of their choice.”

Art in Focus is the annual exhibition curated by members of the Center’s Student Guide Program. The project introduces Yale undergraduates to museology by providing them with curatorial experience. The student curators of The Provocation of Conditions are Merritt Barnwell (SY 2022) and Adam Chen (TD 2022). In researching and presenting the exhibition, the students were led at the Center by Linda Friedlaender, Head of Education, and Indie A. Choudhury, Postgraduate Associate in the Research department.

The online exhibition and related programs were generously supported by the Marlene Burston Fund and the Dr. Carolyn M. Kaelin Memorial Fund.