Sitting With It — Will Rea

Ways of losing oneself in an image. I – Tarrying with the feeling of being overwhelmed by the number of things … Aby Warburg.

At times fieldwork was overwhelming but also at times inherently boring. Days of drift, of nothing much happening, seeming ennui, seeming stuck in the claustrophobia of a small village surrounded by forest. Maybe not such a good idea to have Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain as companion reading. The story of Hans Castrop’s isolation at Davos is nothing if not claustrophobic. Sit with it – it’s a good book. Sit with it – fieldwork will finish.

In the practice of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, particularly as applied to the sufferers of OCD – that pernicious snarling wolf of an affliction that demands feeding with anxiety – sitting with it is a term that implies exposure – exposing yourself to the thing that is causing you anxiety. Sit with it.

Is that what we are doing as viewers of images? Exposing ourselves? Sitting with it? Surely that is the work of the artist; exposing themselves to the world – anxiety making if nothing else. But what are we, the viewer, the audience doing sitting with it? What is our own exposure – is sitting with it cause (of anxiety) or resolution.

Warburg provides a clue. Sitting with a work of art is an inherently risky proposition. It is a way of losing oneself. Whereas exposure therapy asks us to confront the Wolf of anxiety, sitting with an art work risks being overwhelmed. Sit too long, tarry a while and lose oneself. The project becomes one of madness – or more precisely – as Holly suggests – a form of melancholia. Sit with it.

Is that what sitting with art means? The attempt at capture is an attempt to find the thing / object that is / was lost. That loss is always melancholic. It is also true of anthropology. Marilyn Strathern suggests that there are always two fields. The field of fieldwork and the field of the study. The first is anticipatory, not knowing (and even not even knowing about not knowing), but being open to the social relationships that people allow you to have with them. The field of the study can be equally surprising but that too is tinged with melancholia – writing backwards. As with the art historian the attempt is in capturing something lost. Sit with it.

The problem I have with the subject of my work – masquerade – is that it never sits still. Always moving, its declaration is to avoid the gaze (of the art historian, the anthropologist, the audience). It is transient, interstitial, miraculous – never still. Putting this into writing is a loss; an attempt to stop, freeze even kill the movement. Stay still – never.

So – what do we come to? Sit still? Or sit with it? Maybe not. Come down from the mountain . Move, expose yourself, choose life. etc etc. Perhaps the best advice comes from the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – the motto of Madness – ‘F**k Art, Let’s Dance!’.

Dr Will Rea, Senior Lecturer
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

Einwirken lassen… — Claudia Sternberg

‘Sitting with it’ does not seem to have a straightforward equivalent in the German language. Or at least none came to mind when I began thinking about the meanings and implications of the phrase. Some brain digging and dictionary searching ensued.

In an art and exhibition context, the English phrase suggests spending time with the work(s) – ideally seated (albeit not reclining), at rest, with the intention to stay on for a while. Literally sitting down, however, is often not an option in art spaces. I recall that a student of ours planned a dissertation on seating arrangements in museums and galleries. I am curious now how the question was approached and what the student’s research revealed. Perhaps that it is the gallery assistants and invigilators who ‘sit with the work’ more than anyone else? Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibition Guarding the Art,guest-curated by the museum’s security officers, pays tribute to this circumstance. Such musings also got me wondering: Do artists ever ‘sit with’ their work upon completion, assuming the role and pose of custodian or viewer? What might this do?

In the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, ‘sitting with it’ – in the more abstract sense of giving art enough attention for connections and relations to emerge – is rare and even difficult. Timeframes are tight. Space demands are acute. Other needs and wants are relentless. In a workplace (rather than a place of works), sitting with a degree show, a showreel or open studio can feel like an extravagance, a transgression even. A swift walkthrough or passing glance may be the more common gestures of recognition. Can ‘sitting with it’ be encouraged? Enabled? Facilitated? The recently opened exhibition Shifting Perspectives at Leeds Art Gallery puts listening ambassadors in place to hear what visitors may have to say. Would a sitting ambassador make sense at all? Someone one can ‘sit with’ alongside the work, speak to or contemplate with?

A possible German translation did come to me in the end: auf sich einwirken lassen. While this phrase also suggests process and duration, it does not share the embodied aspect of ‘sitting with it’. But it offers different associations. Etwas auf sich einwirken lassen means for something (‘etwas’) to take effect (‘einwirken’) on oneself (‘auf sich‘). Einwirken lassen can be understood materially: to infuse, soak, saturate; to wait for something to show Wirkung, bring something to bear. The phrase has an implied imperative: one must take the time for an effect to materialise. Then there is lassen: to let rather than make it happen. ‘Sitting with it’ is not passive but contemplative. Some things come to those who sit, as ‘sitting with’ may also insinuate ‘sitting out’, for example the pressures to rush on.

Dr Claudia Sternberg, Senior Lecturer
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies
6 June 2022

Sitting With It — Liz Stainforth

Sitting has always been a favourite activity of mine, certainly to the detriment of other things in my life. And my working life has been more or less sedentary for many years. As an invigilator, I sat with art a lot, so much so that it became invisible and I could barely take in my surroundings anymore. The art on the walls, but also the act of sitting, being ‘vigilant’, all resolved itself into a kind of blank stupor. In office work, the quality of the seating improved and I enrolled myself in the art of ensuring as many tasks as possible could be completed from my chair.

The countless hours spent online during the pandemic introduced a new phase of sitting. Whether chairing a meeting, taking the hotseat in a lecture, or putting my feet up on a social call, I was transformed into a neatly delineated, socially isolated talking head-in-a-box. Once, during this online regime, I saw two people sitting together on the screen. It was such a relief to feel, even vicariously, their closeness, throwing my own flat, boxed existence into sharp relief.

Where I sit, when, and for what purpose, tell me something about how I live now. And those elements which are missing speak to how I could live differently. If the now is a time of work-discipline, then the hopeful time is one of revival, when ‘sitting with’ is not a numbing weight, but a way of being together, not an obligation, but a shared occupation.

Dr Liz Stainforth, Lecturer
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

Sitting on, after and with … via Laura Mulvey and Chantal Akerman — Elspeth Mitchell

In 1973, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey published an important essay, You Don’t Know What is Happening, Do You, Mr Jones?’ Appearing in the British feminist magazine Spare Rib, the Mr Jones being addressed was the artist Alan Jones and his series of sculptures ‘Women as Furniture’. In these sculptures, life-size realistic model figures of women dressed in fetish-wear doubled as a hatstand, a table and a chair. At the ICA in 1978 protesters let off stink bombs at a Jones exhibition, and on International Women’s Day in 1986 a demonstrator poured paint stripper over Chair in the Tate, attempting to literally deface it. The sculptures became infamous and deeply criticised in feminist circles in the UK and beyond. Happily for Jones, however, the series of sculptures have been acquired by many adoring collectors. The Tate even acquired Chair for its permanent collection in 1981 (although it does not remain on permanent display).

As its name suggests, Chair can be sat on. In the 1970s a German collector posed sat on the sculpture for the Sunday Times Magazine. But sitting with the sculpture is a much more uneasy affair.

In the essay Mulvey’s point is that Jones’ sculptures are not actually the obvious and well-trod play on the ‘exhibitionism of women’ and the ‘voyeurism of men’. They are images of (psychoanalytic) fetishism. Their subject is the displacement of castration anxiety by fetish for the masculine unconscious. Thus, Mulvey writes, ‘[t]he achievement of Allen Jones is to throw an unusually vivid spotlight on the contradiction between woman’s fantasy presence and real absence from the male unconscious world.’[1] Jones’ artworks, although comprised of many, many images of woman, are nothing about women themselves. To sit with women, for example, is precisely what (as Chair reveals) Jones’ unconscious cannot allow. Mulvey’s rallying cry at the end of her essay states: ‘The time has come for us to take over the show and exhibit our own fears and desires.’[2]

At the 2001 Venice Biennale, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman was among several filmmakers who was commissioned to create an installation exploring the relationship between film and the visual arts. Woman Sitting After Killing (2001) is a video installation comprising seven monitors that replays in a loop the last sequence of an earlier film by Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In the original film we watch for three hours and twenty minutes as Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) cooks, takes a bath, has dinner with her adolescent son, shops for groceries, and looks for a missing button. Jeanne’s predictable schedule, and Akerman’s minimalist precision, deflects our attention from the brief signs of Jeanne’s afternoon sex work, until it all begins to unravel.

It is a film to sit with in the sense that Akerman’s film simultaneously allows viewers to experience the materiality of cinema, its literal duration, and addresses the meaning given to a woman’s work. There is one three-minute-long scene in the film where Jeanne does nothing but peel potatoes. After unexpectedly having an orgasm with a client, Jeanne gets dressed, tucks her shirt into her skirt, picks up a pair of scissors, and stabs the man. The film’s last seven minutes show Jeanne sitting at the highly polished dinner table, a flickering light across her face.

As Akerman returns to this scene twenty-six years later for gallery and not the cinema, the change of exhibition context and presentation for this closing moment brings with it a shift in interpretation and effect. The title points backwards – towards an unseen event, to the ‘killing’ prior to the ‘sitting’. Although divorced from the rest of the film, the installation multiplies the opportunity to encounter ‘the Woman’ seven times as she sits. It suggests that what is important is not the murder but the sitting down afterwards.

Dr Elspeth Mitchell, Lecturer
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

[1] Laura Mulvey, ‘Fears, Fantasies and the Male Unconscious, or “You Don’t Know What is Happening Do You Mr Jones?”’, Visual and Other Pleasures, p. 7. (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

[2] Mulvey, p.13.

Sitting With It — Simon Lewandowski

Exhibitions happen in Real Time for the spectator but it’s they who determine what that consists of. How long? How slow? The quantity of the experience. To complicate matters, though, we’ve introduced little pockets of predetermined Time into the slowness of objects in the form of moving images and sound, starting and stopping when they feel like it in that irritating way they do. Apparently the longest ever film is called Logisticsand was made in 2012 by Erika Magnusson and Daniel Andersson in Sweden and is 857 hours (35 days and 17 hours) long.  It follows the manufacture of some electronic device in Real Time.

Some years ago I went to see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (3 hours 25 Minutes) in the old Renoir Cinema in Bloomsbury – shortly before it was renovated. I was the only viewer; this was fortunate because it took me quite a few tries to find a seat that wasn’t worn out to the point of actively causing me damage. Once I was installed, though, the miracle of Art happened and I was completely in the Moment of the film, its time becoming mine. As the only person in the room I also had the luxury of weeping openly and profusely at the end of the episode of the Bellfounder’s Son (watch the film, how can anyone not be moved?).

It’s very rare that curators of Moving Image art bother to provide somewhere comfortable to sit while watching the work on offer, even, on occasions, screening long works in rooms completely devoid of anywhere to sit. In contrast museums of historical art often have comfortable seating. I frequently walk on Hampstead Heath and can drop in to Kenwood House and sit for as long as I want in front of Vermeer’s Guitar Player. I might be waiting for another miracle – for her to look out at me from the canvas and play her guitar. On one occasion I wept there too…

Sitting with Art doesn’t have to involve weeping- it can involve laughing or being angry or scared. It can also be an occasion not to feel anything because feelings can be very overrated these days. Whatever it involves, though, it is important to be aware that in aligning your time with the art’s time you are not only becoming a part of it but completing it.

Sit with it and it sits with you.

Simon Lewandowski, Visiting Research Fellow
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

‘It’ Plays a Trick — Nick Thurston

‘It’ plays a trick in the title of this show. ‘It’ postures as a simple pronoun — as if pointing in language at, you know, it — but lacks the context of a referent needed to identify anything in particular.

What is ‘It’?

Stranded and stray, ‘It’ could be a proper noun. If ‘It’ is the name of a thing or person, it seems destined to circulate on the edge of anonymity by curse of its non-name. Sorry, It 🙁

But I think these artists are pointing at something else, maybe even pointing in a different way. Stranded and stray, ‘It’ turns declarative certainty into a paradox. By pointing at nothing in particular, ‘It’ points at everything as particular — as particular, and maybe strange or unnamed, but definitely tangled up, an infinite mesh of ‘It’s.

‘It’ is every thing and everything together. ‘It’ points every which way at once, including, I suspect, given the last few years, to the insides of those who named the show. ‘It’ is the soupy mess of everything, which has been horrible and wonderful in unequal measures since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic — a global time bomb that exploded cruelly soon after this cohort of students had just settled into their studio-based studies.

If I am thinking in the right direction about what ‘It’ is, then I take ’Sitting With’ to be both a description and invitation. It is a description of what these artists have had to do throughout the pandemic (to be artists in the soup), and an invitation to us, the audience, to reciprocate (to stay close, even get in, to pay attention to what they have chosen to share).

I accept the invitation 🙂

Look forward to sitting with it soon.

Nick Thurston, Associate Professor
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

Sitting with It — John Mowitt

In 1989 the Manchester based band, James, released “Sit Down.” The music video that accompanied its release depicted a variety of chairs framed against a white backdrop, chairs in which band members sat while holding instruments.  At one point the lead singer and co-composer, Tim Booth, sits on the floor holding an unshorn sheep.  The lyrics: “Oh sit down; oh sit down; oh sit down; sit down next to me; sit down in sympathy,” echo here both to pose the ethical question of eating meat, but also to extend outward the concept of who or what might deserve our sympathy.  Played live “Sit Down” assumes anthemic stature with huge audiences reaching to hold, to carry, to accompany the friends and strangers near, while faithfully bellowing every word in the song.   Obviously, to sit, is more than a verb even if it is also that.

German speakers, for whom Sitte has the connotation of custom or tradition, and Sittlichkeit that of morality, might be forgiven for thinking that James is tapping the inner sap of their language, but they have their own word for “to sit.”  Similar, but different.  Uttered in the echo-chamber of etymology “sit “ricochets off “seat,” “to set,” and “to settle” (both sedate and to occupy).  Yes, sit down next to me.  Calm me.  Be my sitter.

Yes, but sitting with it?  Another German speaker, Sigmund Freud, upon reading Karl Abel’s little pamphlet on the antithetical senses of Urworte (primal words) decided that this linguistic characteristic (words having opposing signifieds) coincided with what he had been discovering about language in dreams where, notoriousy, negation does not exist.  In the dream nothing can be taken back; it can only be elaborated.  Among the words Abel included on his list was the preposition “with.”  His reasoning has been challenged, but something about his idea that “with” always preserves the separation that it gestures to override retains its pertinence.  “Sitting with it” is thus always not sitting as or in it.  “With” is another way to spell “next.”

Yes, but “it”?  For Freud, “it” (das Es) was always what his English translators rendered, in a legitimating Latin, as “id.” Sitting with the unconscious?  Too Freudian, no?  Useful here is a related formulation confected by Donna Haraway: “staying with the trouble.”  By this she means to summon up the respons-ability of working with the difficulties and contradictions of the present.  Theorists, artists, politicians need desperately not to turn away, to daydream their ways out of the torn paper bag of the present.  This is the trouble (not troubles) one stays with; this is the “it.”  To sit with it, is to work patiently and with drive on, but also in, the trouble.

This trouble, being everywhere, is something one sits with, sits next to on a page, on a canvas, on a keyboard, in an algorithm.  You name it. The discipline of this tenacity is where new pleasures become feasible.  Sitting with it. May I trouble you?  Or me?

Professor John Mowitt, Leadership Chair in Critical Humanities
School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

How does Sitting With It sit with you?

A great deal of thought has gone into the name ‘sitting with it’ and how this sets the precedent for the space and the aims of our degree show exhibition.

As a curatorial team of graduating students, we have had many conversations throughout the process of realising our degree show. We have really considered what ‘sitting with it’ individually and collectively means, both within the wider context of the art world and on a more local scale of our exhibition.

We thought that rather than asking members of the curatorial team, we would ask teaching staff within the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies to write a short piece about these reflections and interpretations of our show title. We have received a range of responses from a variety of staff, each with different academic interests and artist practices which entailed interesting thought-provoking responses to our show title.

We are extremely thankful for the time and effort put in to each article. Sitting With It has become a title we are very proud of, and we are happy it has taken the interest of so many. So watch this space, and our Instagram, as twice a week we will release a new blog post with a piece written by someone new.

We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we have.

Sitting With It Curatorial Team

Sitting With It: an introduction

Welcome to the University of Leeds Fine Art Degree Show 2022.

Our BA Fine Art, Fine Art with Contemporary Critical Theory, and Fine Art with History of Art finalists invite you into their School and studios to engage with them, their artwork and their thoughts. 

Sitting With It encourages contemplation; a seizing of your time to consider how attitudes and concerns have changed in recent years and to observe what is truly of consequence in this precarious and ever-changing world.

Sitting With It showcases the work of 62 emerging artists, not only their respective outputs, but a collective exhibition meticulously selected, designed and curated as a group response to both the requirements of the academy and self-imposed demands of professionalism and rigour.  As artists, the ethicalness of making art during times of turmoil is often questioned, but if not them, who else will make us sit up and take stock of our actions? Who else will provide us with an alternative to the daily grind? Who else will provide the seeds for future creative thinking, making and learning?

It would be a remarkable achievement under normal circumstances to bring together a large group of individuals from such a variety of backgrounds and life experiences to produce a show that has both criticality and focus, but more so when we consider the hurdles encountered by this particular cohort and how they have risen to the challenge to produce an exhibition that exudes confidence and highlights future directions.

As you progress through the exhibition, consider the journey that each of the artists has travelled, question their aims and motives, and then enjoy sitting with it.

Chris Taylor
Fine Art Programmes Leade
r, University of Leeds