Elizabeth Lee and Andrea Nitsche-Krupp

 

At a moment of dogmatic division and rising fanaticism, we need connection and subtlety. As the editors of this issue of Shift, a journal generated by graduate students, we were excited to take advantage of our status as scholars-in-training. As graduate students, we are learning to articulate the underlying mechanisms and implicit content within our visual and material world. We practice identifying the space between: revealing that which binds our present to our past, exposing an enduring core across acts of translation, and showing the means by which objects and images—and our understanding thereof—are formed. Our work is idiosyncratic and deeply specific. Yet our collective inquires create a web of knowledge founded on the aspiration to take nothing for granted, delight in nuance, and establish connection across a divide.

Issue 10 of Shift brings together articles that address an array of objects and eras: the sonic interventions of a tape recorder, a socially critical fin de siècle self-portrait, the Paisley patterns of a cotton shawl, the gold-accented ceramics of a Persian interior, and a little traffic light man who outlived the Iron Curtain. While disparate in their objects of study, the authors featured in this issue of Shift share a keen interest in exposing the nuanced substructure of their chosen material; they revel in crucial moments of translation and transition. As such, we are very pleased to introduce the issue with a project that stands as a visual corollary of this shared investment. Our unusual cover art, and the project that engendered it, is a visualization of digital printer algorithms through time-lapse representation. Situated within the discourse of predigital design workflows, Jonah Marrs’s  project asks how we can recoup the “productive friction” between types of representation, thereby visually exposing a previously automated process and reintroducing time into a nearly instantaneous—and overlooked—operation.  Visually beautiful and conceptually intriguing, the resulting “drawings” reclaim a space for creativity and unexpected variance historically present in the translation of a sketch into a three dimensional model.

In “East-West Relations at a Crossroads: German Reunification and the GDR Ampelmännchen,” Rachel Boate examines the iconic embodiment of a crucial moment of political and social transition. Boate deftly interrogates a ubiquitous German symbol—the pedestrian traffic light, or Ampelmännchen—such that we understand its implicit message: a deliberately propagandistic purpose, fraught cultural history, and specific implications for the relationship between East and West. She follows the translation of the Ampelmännchen from signal to symbol, revealing its dual identity as a tool of assimilation within reunified Germany, yet one that actually perpetuates Eastern stereotypes and maintains East-West distinction.

In her article, “Descent from the Cross: James Ensor’s Portrait of the Symbolist Artist,” Kaylee Alexander repositions Ensor as a Décadent via the artist’s literary contemporaries, chief among them Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Through the lens of these authors, Alexander traces a turn towards decadence in Ensor’s self-portraits, recasting their surface and content as a formal expression of cultural criticism. She identifies a “Dorian Grey effect” in the artist’s self-portraits, which she compellingly argues allowed Ensor to demonstrate materially, as well as representationally, the folly of self-indulgence.

While the above authors delight in the communicative power of objects, in “Reading Sound and the Body in Krapp’s Last Tape” Jane Boyes takes as her subject the anxiety induced by the object—an object that literally communicates, the tape machine—in Beckett’s play. The audio device in Krapp’s Last Tape brings the recorded voice of the protagonist out of the past and into the perpetual present; yet, as Boyes cogently argues, in Beckett’s formulation it only serves to underline the irrevocable distance between that past and present. Boyes demonstrates that rather than forge connection, the tape machine exposes a deficit: the mediation of tape technology and the passage of time deny Krapp the physical copresence that might overcome his isolation and communicative failure.

In “Likely to Continue as Fashionable as Ever: Kashmiri Shawls, Luxury, and the British Empire,” Kristina Molin Cherneski presents the problematic historicization of the Kashmiri shawl and exposes the layers of consumption, imperialism, and appropriation hidden within the warp and weft of its stylish fabric. She posits that technological advancements in fashion in late nineteenth-century England contributed to the democratization of a once highly elite garment, leading to the oft-contradictory meanings associated with the Kashmiri shawl in the West. Incorporating its literary representations as both a domestic product (printed instead of woven in Paisley) as well as an exotic luxury item (handmade in the “Orient”) into her analysis, Cherneski lays bare the complex and constructed vogue for shawls as a cultural and consumer process built on narratives of empire, desire, and adaptation.

Also exposing an assumed process, Ariana Panbechi unpacks the multiple identities of a Qajar period (1785–1925) portrait of a Persian aristocrat now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. She demonstrates how Portrait of an Emir constitutes a concerted effort to craft an identity that is in between Qajar and Zand—two groups with incommensurate political pasts. Isolating the pictorial elements that indicate the emir’s affinity to traditional Persian, tribal Zand and modern western customs, Panbechi reveals the representational mechanisms that construct the compound identity of the sitter and in the process brings to light the frictions inherent in such a project.

Taken as a whole, the projects included in this issue of Shift affirm a shared commitment among emerging scholars of visual and material culture to explore the “in-between” processes that construct historical and contemporary epistemes. The ways in which they do so take up Shift’s ongoing mission to expand the ways our cultural products can be discussed. Shift exists at a threshold between institutions and across disciplines, and publishes work by graduate students at a crucial moment in which we are forming our critical voices. All of our contributors embrace this “in the seams” state to push disciplinary boundaries, question tired tropes, and advance novel analyses of understudied topics. We hope this edition of our online journal will inspire others to do the same.

 

Elizabeth Lee is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in East Asian art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Her dissertation examines the role of rock-cut Buddha images in the spatial narratives of Koryŏ period Buddhist and indegenous religious traditions. She is currently engaged in a GIS project mapping the locations of Buddhist images in the peninsular landscape. In addition to medieval Buddhism, she is also interested in modern and contemporary East Asian art and has worked in China, Korea and Taiwan. 

Andrea Nitsche-Krupp is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Her primary fields of research are the history and theory of sculpture; postwar sculpture and installation art; materiality; and the application of concerns and methodologies of ‘technical’ art history and conservation to art historical practice. She most recently served as Assistant Curator of the Kramlich Collection in San Francisco. Her dissertation under the supervision of Jeffrey Weiss examines the first five years of Matthew Barney’s artistic production and its engagement with the history of postwar art practice, specifically the activity of so-called Postminimal and Process artists of the late 1960s.