Curator Hannah Redler-Hawes reflects on the commissioning process for Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s first ever ‘real world’ commission curated with Master's degree students across the Institute.
Hope as an Act of Resistance – a sonic monument by Katriona Beales builds a collective sonic monument from people’s whispered hopes. The new commission launches at the Victoria and Albert Museum in September 2023. A year earlier, an international group of Sotheby’s Institute of Art Master's degree students came together with art world experts to develop our ‘Reimagining the Monument’ project. They have worked collectively to consider personal responses to the meaning of monuments today in the context of shifting public attitudes in the UK.
A series of workshops kick-started the project. We thought about the huge range of roles monuments play, from those that have lost their meaning or had their original functions transformed through public use, to those whose meaning against a shifting socio-political landscape has presented itself as ripe for immediate revision. We considered monuments as markers of establishment views, designed to dictate what should be celebrated, remembered or immortalised, and examined the breadth of possibilities that emerge when artists and activists subvert traditional expectations. We thought about notions of fluidity and permanence, asking if a monument can ever hope to remain fixed in one meaning, or if it could stand for stability regardless of material or physical structure? We asked if a monument could be ‘multilingual’ and thought about how its place in space and time is as important to its context as its physical environment.
Working together in a world in which the post-pandemic condition collided with the permacrisis of global conflict and climate-disaster provided an impetus to consider how the monument might play a positive, even healing role. The student curators were keen to recognise that the pandemic had transformed our relationship with technology and each other, in both welcome and unwelcome ways. As young adults who had recently experienced social isolation at a point in their lives that would normally be a time of peak social contact, the student curators had a keen sense that now is a time for community and relationship building.
The group was clear from the start that rather than commissioning a physical object they wanted to commission an experience. They wanted something that would create space that might represent inner rather than outer worlds, to celebrate the fragile and ephemeral as opposed to the bombastic and permanent, something that might be capable of engendering collective positivity. As they formulated the artist brief, they imagined a monument through which audiences might share something of themselves, where they might become involved in a potentially transformative act of social exchange.
The group’s explorations join decades of work by artists and activists to rethink the monument. Our conversations touched on practices engaging with notions of the counter-monument and the fierce debates about which statues or monuments should endure or potentially be ‘retired’.
We shared examples of inspirational practice which felt particularly pertinent to the group’s ambitions. British sculptor and contemporary visual artist Hew Locke provokes questions around persistence and complexity of meaning. His strategies, from ‘dress up’ costumes to assemblage and re-sculpting around existing forms, add new historical dimensions which may destabilise original intentions, whilst keeping the originals intact. Although he questions the value of doing so: ‘In Britain, we seem fixated on keeping everything, as if it’s all valuable – but it’s not all valuable.’¹
The idea that a single person’s desire to contribute to the well-being of others could continue to resonate across generations also inspired us. The re-opening of the Joseph Toynbee water fountain in Wimbledon has the dual positive impact of providing clean drinking water within the local community alongside the potential to reduce single use plastics, leading to wider environmental benefits in years to come.
The not always comfortable entanglement of past and future is powerfully presented by American author and poet Caroline Randall Williams’ position on confederate monuments across the southern United States. She argues that the very structure of her body, as a Black woman born of descendants of both enslaved people and their owners, provides encoded scars and trauma of that history of racial oppression that provide all the "confederate monument" she needs. A profound observation at a time of intense debate on the subject.
Amidst all of the conversations about how monuments negotiate our relationship with our past(s), the student curatorial group wanted to rethink the temporal space of the monument, arguing “our concerns are more with the future. Our objective is to monumentalise hope as a positive and forward thinking outlook to allow our project to rethink the value/function of monuments for their ability to commemorate our futures.”
Katriona Beales response to the brief, Hope as an Act of Resistance – a sonic monument offers us the potential for a work that is collective, that is future-focused and conceived to embed care for self and others at every step of the process. Each whispered hope will join a database of sounds which the artist will modulate over a pre-arranged melodic soundtrack to create an ASMR-inspired sound bath.
Absorbing, mesmerising and healing, here digital technology – for all its granularizing, dividing and tracking of individuals – will be employed to convene, converge, and submerge in the service of a greater whole. In anticipation of the new work the artist writes:
“It feels a bit tender to announce it's happening. but the idea comes out of some of the personal and political challenges of the last few years and the opportunity to monumentalise something deeply felt, absolutely essential but very intangible & to build up collectives rather than individuals. The title comes from a Rebecca Solnit quote from her book 'Hope in the Dark'. I hope the work and accompanying installation will be a place to soak in hope and emerge recharged.”
¹Hew Locke in conversation with Indra Khanna in Frieze Magazine 21 August 2020 [accessed May 2023]
Image: Hope as an Act of Resistance - a sonic monument (2023) Katriona Beales. Artwork for print and fabric elements of the installation. 3d models by SergiVFX.
Hope as an Act of Resistance – a sonic monument by Katriona Beales will premiere at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington in September 2023 as part of Digital Design Weekend.
The piece has been commissioned by MA students from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. The team are: Francesca Christodoulou, Pedro De Siqueira Soares Costa, Olivia Nelson, Alexandra Oliver, Findlay Reece, Quan Wan, and Lena Wiesmuller. The student curators are working with a team of professional experts including independent curator Hannah Redler-Hawes, art historian Dr Barbara Lasic, and arts professional Rachel McHale. The project was initiated by Institute faculty, Dr Juliet Hacking and Dr Amy Mechwoski.