James Putnam
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'Human Image Right Now!'

British Museum, Clore Centre, 27 January, 2001.

A special one day conference organized by the Contemporary Arts & Cultures Programme, with Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley, Gavin Turk and Michael Clark, Martin Kemp,Jonathan King, Oliver Bennett, Sacha Craddock and James Putnam

This conference coincided with the British Museum exhibition, 'Human Image' and focussed on the representation of the human form both historically and in contemporary culture. The panel comprised of three high profile British artists, the critically acclaimed contemporary dancer/ choreographer, Michael Clark, BM Trustee, Prof. Martin Kemp in the role of art historian/curator of ‘Spectacular Bodies exhibition, Jonathan King ,anthropologist/curator of ‘Human Image’ exhibition and Oliver Bennett , journalist, from The Independent on Sunday. The discussion which was chaired by art critic Sacha Craddock, explored fundamental ideas about the representation of the human image and form, and its link with contemporary icons, myths, identities and images covering the fields of art history, contemporary art, music and media/journalism.

Sarah Lucas also created improvised sculptures at the front of the stage using a dead chicken, melons and other fruit. Throughout the discussion there was a continuous slide show of 200 historical, ethnographic and contemporary images relating in broad terms to the human image and included works by the artists and images to which the various speakers referred. These had been carefully researched in advance and were projected in deliberately random, uncontrived sequence to stimulate thought around the subject. In order to avoid these images diverting the attention away from the speakers the house lights were kept on. Members of the audience remarked afterwards that they found this experimental idea of viewing images simultaneously with the conference, very enjoyable and thought provoking.

Each artist and curator gave a short speech in response to various questions from Sacha Craddock which was followed first by discussion with the panel and then opened to the floor for questions or contributions. Oliver Bennett was the only speaker who gave a more formal yet lively presentation from the podium for which he projected a number of images from books using an epidiascope. He spoke about the use of the human image in photojournalism from tabloid newspapers to ‘Hello’ Magazine and was able to illustrate an intriguing link between the definitive press images chosen by picture editors and the compositions of celebrated historical paintings. Some of the discussion focussed on the exhibitions ‘Human Image’ and ‘Spectacular Bodies’ and also addressed topics like museum labelling and the increasing phenomenon of artists working with museums. Gavin Turk talked about his current ‘Che’ project and Michael Clark spoke about the body in performance and had an interesting dialogue with Sarah Lucas and Antony Gormley, mentioning how much he was looking forward to his residency at the Museum.. Sacha Craddock gave an illuminating introduction relating the subject of the human image to the broader arena of contemporary and did an excellent job of chairing the discussion - a challenging task to coordinate and sustain four hours of discussion and questions from the floor. There were no gaps or awkward silences and there was a sense of continuity to the discussion with the audience feeling relaxed and keen to participate and their contributions were often very articulate.

This was a ‘sold-out’ event and the audience was mainly from the 25-45 age group. Although there were students from Central St. Martins, the Royal College of Art, Camberwell, the Slade, City University, Institute of Education, the audience consisted mainly of art world and media professionals, artists, art critics, cultural studies writers, art college and university lecturers. The success of this event shows that the British Museum can revive the philosophical role of the ‘original’ museum, providing a forum for reviewing the past, present and future, effectively linking its collection to relevant cultural issues which will attract a different audience. The entire conference was recorded with a view to future publication after it has been edited and transcribed.

All images photographed at the event by Johnnie Shand Kydd.

Sarah Lucas
Gavin Turk
Antony Gormley
James Putnam

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