Venice Advice: Humanities PhDs and Writing on Glass

By Jo Taylor (Keele University)

There’s one, crucial thing that I’ve learned from this week’s Glocal Victorians Professionalization Workshop: don’t sell yourself short. You’re an academic, and that opens doors.

These doors lead to various opportunities: publications; transnational collaborations; jobs.  But they can also lead to more outlandish places, ones you would never think you were able or qualified to access.

For me, this has essentially been the most uplifting message from this week’s workshop: that your PhD is something of value – a great deal of value, in fact. And the recognition of its worth is not limited to the academy. You have a PhD (or are in the process of working towards one). You are, by definition, a world-class researcher and communicator. Who doesn’t want to form an association with, and/or work alongside, someone like that, either within or outside of a university?

But of course we think a PhD is of some kind of value – why else would we do one, right? It can be all too easy, though, to forget how well-thought of a PhD – and a humanities PhD at that – is in the ‘real world’, where economy-stimulating STEM subjects seem to reign. So it was with some degree of scepticism that I nodded along to the message that we are all working towards something that will be well-recognised wherever we eventually want to work. Until, that is, a walk around Venice on Wednesday afternoon.

Via Giuseppe Garibaldi marked by a Biennale exhibition. Photo: Jo Taylor

This conference coincides with the 55th Venice Biennale, an interdisciplinary, international art event first held in 1895. The Biennale brings together artists from all over the globe in a riot of artistic expression that takes over the city. You can hardly turn a corner without coming across a troupe of dancing cats, a huge, dripping block of ice, or one of the huge variety of sculptures and paintings that have been steadily appearing throughout the city over the course of the week.

Let me set the scene: it’s a sunny, hot Wednesday afternoon in the middle of tourist-packed Venice. Five early career Victorian scholars are in search of a Spritz following a workshop on publishing, and in anticipation of Thursday’s discussion of the job market. We turn a corner and, as so often happens here, stumble upon a surprising space. It is an alley of trees, leading to the Glasstress exhibition. Four of the five of us talk about how cool this exhibition looks as we move to continue walking past. Alison Wood, however, has already gone on in through the doors of the impressive building, and is talking to the woman at the desk.

We enter behind her to see her produce her university business card, as she explains that we are a group of writer-academics who would just love to see the exhibition. We raise our eyebrows, thoroughly sceptical.

And then we watch as the woman (the exhibit press officer, Lindsay, as it turns out) takes the card, produces her own, and proceeds to lead us up the impressive, glass balloon-lined stairway. We are among the first people to enter London-based artist Ron Arad’s Last Train exhibition.

The press pack we received explained the inspiration for the project:

‘I was going to catch the last train from Naples – I arrived on the platform just as the doors were closed.

The train lingered a little and I saw that in an empty carriage there was a guy (I assume it was a guy) with a ring on his fist, doing the most amazing drawings on the glass. It reminded me of the images of Picasso drawing with a match in the air.

Although I didn’t know how I would get out of Naples that night, I felt like I was compensated for missing my train by witnessing some beauty that no one else had seen before. These pieces are about this memory.’

Ron Arad, Last Train. Photo: Jo Taylor

The exhibition replicates the memory; in the centre of one wall of the small room is a model of a fist behind a pane of glass. The fist wears a real diamond ring, and is controlled via an app. The possessor of the app draws their piece on the screen of their tablet, and the fist etches out the design on the pane of glass. Arad’s exhibition demonstrates the power of collaboration; it contains pieces by Ai Weiwei (‘scratching’ remotely from Beijing), Anthony Gormley and Sara Fanelli, amongst many illustrious others. The artist is thus both creator and spectator, mediated through the technology by which the art is created. It follows the long tradition of glass-art, joining the likes of Elizabeth I and Robert Burns, and the collaborative practices it espouses recall the episode from Defoe’s Moll Flanders in which Moll secures her second husband, the linen-draper:

One morning he pulls off his diamond ring, and writes upon the glass of the sash in my chamber this line– You I love, and you alone.
I read it, and asked him to lend me his ring, with which I wrote under it, thus–
And so in love says every one.
He takes his ring again, and writes another line thus–
Virtue alone is an estate.
I borrowed it again, and I wrote under it–
But money’s virtue, gold is fate.
He coloured as red as fire to see me turn so quick upon him, and in a kind of a rage told me he would conquer me, and writes again thus–
I scorn your gold, and yet I love.
I ventured all upon the last cast of poetry, as you’ll see, for I wrote boldly under his last–
I’m poor: let’s see how kind you’ll prove.
This was a sad truth to me; whether he believed me or no, I could not tell; I supposed then that he did not. However, he flew to me, took me in his arms, and, kissing me very eagerly, and with the greatest passion imaginable, he held me fast till he called for a pen and ink, and then told me he could not wait the tedious writing on the glass, but, pulling out a piece of paper, he began and wrote again–
Be mine, with all your poverty.

The switch to paper is revealing, and their marriage, like the paper on which the marriage is finally proposed, inevitably degrades. Arad’s return to this technologically-controlled glass-etching hints towards the project’s future potential in the modern, global marketplace: it is permanent because it is drawn on glass, and will not decay in the same way as paper; it is permanent because it is digitised, and is both created and preserved through online systems.

Last Trains exemplified the ways that art – and discussions of the arts – must move forward. As we’re constantly being told in the UK and Australia – and as is becoming increasingly important in the US – we need to be communicating with people outside of our profession. We must still collaborate with our colleagues, as Arad collaborates here with his, but we must also demonstrate our willingness and ability to work with people outside of our own professional worlds. The potential for community involvement in Arad’s project is clear, and, indeed, there is a platform outside the exhibition for the public to draw designs along the same kinds of lines as the displayed artists. The relationship between the material and the digital text is also brought to the fore here, just as it is being in all kinds of ways in contemporary academia.

Arad’s exhibition offers a tantalising demonstration of the ways in which art can – and must – engage with colleagues, with the digital and with the public. It encapsulates the kinds of skills that we ‘professionalised’ early career researchers have been discussing throughout this week, whilst our very presence at the exhibition indicates the potential for our place in the world outside academics: we are academics, yes, but we are, more broadly, writers, and we all have something important to offer in whichever professional world we would most like to reside.

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