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The island as a model for the interpretation and development of exhibitions of contemporary art beyond a gallery setting

Mansfield, Laura (2016) The island as a model for the interpretation and development of exhibitions of contemporary art beyond a gallery setting. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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The written thesis is presented in conjunction with a documented body of curatorial practice that together seek to examine and develop a proposed notion of ‘the island’ as a conceptual model for the staging and analysis of exhibitions of art beyond a gallery setting. The initial conception of ‘the island’ as model follows from a discussion of the function of the setting of islands in literature that identifies and abstracts their unique spatial and structural properties before reapplying them in a different context. On both a practical and discursive level, the ensuing research arrives at a thesis that puts forward the island model as an innovative and productive tool for contemporary curatorial practice. The initial research presents the literary island as a contained site where subversive, fantastical or critical alternatives to a dominant norm are enacted. Appearing unexpectedly through the event of storm, shipwreck or loss at sea, the literary island interrupts the intended trajectory of the castaway who finds himself severed from the customs and routines associated with a homeland. In doing so, the setting of the island in literature often comes to figure as a test-site for new possibilities upon which a blurring between the real and the imaginary readily occurs. Retaining the identified properties of the literary island but divorcing it from its geographical setting, the proposed notion of the island as curatorial model conceives a space located within, yet always at the slightest remove from, the everyday itself – disrupting the familiar to facilitate a playful or subversive alternative to the status quo. Here, the structural effect of the island no longer depends on its physical distance to a ‘mainland’, but describes a spatial practice that facilitates a process of distancing from familiar norms. Occurring outside of the confines of a gallery, the presented curatorial practice stages artworks that are physically situated within a given location whilst simultaneously providing an experience of the virtual possibilities for its transformation. In so doing, the thesis argues, these and similar artworks invite a re-imagination of familiar and everyday culture by blurring the distinction between the real and the imaginary in a manner that reflects - and can thus be productively modelled upon - the function of the literary island. In proposing an alternative strategy for the discussion and development of curatorial practices beyond the gallery, as well as putting into play a new mode of analysis and an innovative space of discourse, the thesis presents an original framework for contemporary curatorial practice.

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