After the Exotic: The Beach and other Heterotopias in Contemporary Art
The thesis ‘After The Exotic: The Beach And Other Heterotopias In Contemporary Art’ deals with notions of the exotic, cannibalism and heterotopia and explores these ideas in relation to representations of the beach in contemporary painting, with particular emphasis on the work of Dana Schutz. The thesis culminates in an analysis of how these issues are worked through in my own paintings.
The first part of the thesis questions representations of the exotic, covers a number of short case studies and traces the locus classicus of Western exoticism and Orientalism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It then continues by focusing on the topos of cannibalism. This theme grows out of the first chapter since Western fascinations for (and fear of) cannibalism are built on an Orientalist and exoticist worldview. The topic takes some of the same issues encountered in the exotic (what it does to other-places, for example) and rehearses them in the territory of the body. The final chapter in this theoretical part of the thesis deals with Foucault’s conception of heterotopia. This conceptualises the relationships between places, spaces and new conceptions of borderlands, of which the beach is an exemplar, and their radical potential in disturbing representational norms. All three main topics impact directly on artistic practices since they all bring to the question of what can and cannot be represented an enrichment and a critical turn. More specifically we can say that these issues impact not only on thematic questions but also fundamentally on the formal preoccupations of visual artists in the twenty-first century.
Part two of the thesis falls into two larger sections both of which seek to take the theoretical frameworks of the first section (the exotic, cannibalism and heterotopias) and test them against artworks, especially those of American painter Dana Schutz and, in the final chapter, my own work. Schutz’s paintings offer ways of working through the tensions between abstraction and figuration. This formal problem is a productive site for the thematisation of issues such as liminality, borderlands and the dissolving of figure into background.
The final chapter of the thesis picks up the theoretical challenges of the first part and focuses on the question of how to address figuration in contemporary painting. In my own work, I had to develop strategies that created a kind of visual alienation or distance by choosing subject matter that raises questions about location, space, and setting such that the images do not present themselves as immediately recognisable. Throughout this process I found that the same topics presented themselves over and over again (the exotic, cannibalism and heterotopia) and these helped me to develop the ‘distance’ I sought in the image, but also, paradoxically, notions of flatness, of levelling and of isolation and autonomy.
Issues explored in my thesis have been further developed in the international conference ‘Revisiting the Beach’ funded by the AHRC (2010, Newcastle University, organised by Philippe Cygan and Christian Mieves). For further information and list of contributors see http://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/beachconference/. For an extended discussion of the beach in contemporary art see also the special edition of Journal of Visual Art Practice 2010, 9.3 (ISSN 1470-2029) (edited by Philippe Cygan and Christian Mieves) http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=1954/. Recent samples of my practice can be also seen on http://mieves.info .