Brass Art is the collective practice of Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican, a Northern trio known for fusing twenty-first-century digital technologies with nineteenth-century optical devices. The intersection of science and art is a major interest for them, rendering their current installation at Chetham’s Library all the more apt. As the oldest surviving public library in the UK, Chetham’s is renowned for its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century printed books in Theology, Medicine and Science, lending a scholarly atmosphere and eclectic collection for the artists to investigate. In The Order of Things (1966), Michel Foucault posits that the shape of historical understanding changed following the invention of the microscope, allowing new powers of observation. Developing their long-established interests in lens-based media, and using the raw materials of this unique library collection as a catalyst, Brass Art draw on this period of reshaping of knowledge.
Gestured offers an esoteric language of object relations, yet interventions are economical in their imagery, often using minimal means to say rather a lot about epistemological enquiries and pseudoscientific preoccupations. The viewer is invited to go on a quest to discover a series of installations, many of them presented as theatrical natures mortes, secreted throughout the architectural enclosures and stacks of the Library. The selective, jewel-like exhibits are predominantly sculptural, although there are also two moving image artworks. A glass vessel filled with water and balanced in the palm of one of the artist’s hands becomes a microcosmic lens, overturning the street view outside the Library. Passing pedestrians become inadvertently ‘trapped’ inside the glass. The everyday is refocused as marvellous. Elsewhere, a golden ring suspended on a fine thread evokes simultaneously the Midas touch, the social contract of marriage and the ambitions of alchemy. This dinky adornment is pinched between the thumb and index finger of an enlarged hand that has been 3D printed. This cryptic hand pose could be read as a reference to Masonic rituals or even a prod at the default expression of the current American president.
Such tableaux are the outcome of Brass Art’s research into the historical dovetailing of alchemy and gesture, and their visual languages, constituting a revival of sorts. The satirical prints and illustrations of William Hogarth (1697-1764) and alchemical treatises of John Dee (1527-1609) are chief among their sources. For the purposes of the exhibition, key examples of Dee’s experimental paraphernalia, illustrated in his books, have been realised as three-dimensional forms. In a related vein, close inspection of Hogarth’s detailed visual narratives has led to a multitude of carefully articulated hands and fingers forming specific gestures. In Hogarth’s social universe, these alternative modes of communication hint at underlying propaganda, creating a visual and tactile sign language which itches to be decoded. Brass Art go some way toward translating such gestures whilst enticing the viewer to participate in this interpretive game. Pinching, pointing and clasping are tactile, sensual responses, both to the feel of sculpture and to the interaction with books.
Another dominant theme is the material of glass as a device for viewing, reading and displaying. Glass lenses found inside a range of scoping instruments enable us to see beyond, to enlarge the infinitesimal and to close distances as well as sharpen our perception of reality. Brass Art similarly toy with the material and poetic properties of glass, manipulating its ‘alchemical’ characteristics as well as its literary associations. André Breton was curious about the dialogical possibilities of ‘communicating vessels’ as a meeting of reality and sur-reality as well as a reincarnation of archaic apparatus. In Carol Mavor’s new book, Aurelia (2017), glass plays a significant role, particularly in terms of epiphany. As a substance typical of the fairy tale genre, Mavor traces its transformative qualities, from the ubiquitous (if mistranslated) Cinderella slipper to the glass stomachs and intestines in artworks by Kiki Smith and Asta Gröting. Snow White’s translucent coffin is also cunningly overlaid by Mavor with the glass plate photographic negatives of the Victorian era as memento mori.
The ancient technique of glassblowing has been deployed by Brass Art for its transformative potential, and seems fitting given the historical period under scrutiny. In their contextual research, presented as a video, they focus on a peculiar melding of glass manufacture and alchemy found in the ‘crystal-gold ruby glass’ of Johann Kunckel (1637-1703), and make volcanic analogies with molten glass. Throughout these studies, Brass Art highlight the complex process and intricate performance of glassblowing as well as its finished objects. Often the resultant blood pigment of such material crossbreeding has been utilised for its mimetic effects. The shiny surfaces and malleable-looking glass forms, cradled by 3D printed and porcelain-like cast hands, evoke the slippery attributes of bodily organs (a heart, a bladder, testicles, ovaries). Such associations chime with the anatomical discoveries documented in the Library’s collection, such as the grisly public dissection staged in the concluding sequence of Hogarth’s engravings ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ (1751). Anubis would enjoy this show.
Brass Art have always been drawn to the darker, gothic-inspired corners of the imagination. Writing on the ‘assembly of phantasms’, Marina Warner tells us that: ‘The intrinsic subject-matter of phantasmagoria turned to spectral illusion, morbid, frequently macabre, supernatural, fit to inspire terror and dread, those qualities of the sublime’. Like glass, shadow play can be used to conjure liminal and ambiguous visual encounters. For the opening evening of Gestured, hand shadows were performed by guests in the Library’s Baronial Hall, directly combining gestures with image-making. An echo of this event can still be found in the shape of ghostly, disembodied hands mimicking the antlers of a mounted stag.
An elongated evening glove swirls into this space, luring us back upstairs into the diminutive Scriptorium. In the Reading Room next door, we become conscious of the strange gesticulations in the early modern portraits of learned scholars. Ultimately, Brass Art’s work functions to provide such site-specific awareness, yet artistic interventions into libraries are mutually reinforcing. In exchange for resources and collections as source material, artists can activate these sites of inquiry and produce new forms of knowledge. The practice of the ‘library artist’ is becoming ever more discernible, and Northern libraries are proving especially resilient as spaces for their curation. Gestured is the outcome of one of ten contemporary art commissions courtesy of Meeting Point2, under the auspices of Arts&Heritage and funded by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund.
A key achievement of Gestured has been to rediscover and pinpoint interlacing practices of arcane craft and experimentation, and to take seriously the artistic possibilities of the so-called pseudo-sciences as alternative knowledges which have much to teach us about how conceptual art might be interpreted three or four hundred years later. In sum, Gestured seeks to enflame further inquiry, corresponding with the past through historical aesthetics, signals and objects. This erudite exhibition also enables us to dwell on the unfixing of meaning-making, and to question what secret messages our own body language may be imparting.
Brass Art: Gestured, Chetham’s Library, Manchester, 16 October – 8 December 2017.
Catriona McAra is University Curator at Leeds Arts University.
 Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 147-148.