On 17th November 2017, I was, like a moth, instantly attracted to the bright lights of the Bruce Nauman exhibition (Tate Modern). His work demanded the viewer to (literally) take a step back and consider the purpose and context of his work. Nauman's extensive and imaginative use of media transmits a multitude of different ideas simultaneously. It is clear that his previous studies in Mathematics and Physics informed his practice and are a domineering influence on his work. One piece which caught my attention was 'Violins, Violence, Silence' (1981).
Violins, Violence, Silence
The artwork itself was made of coloured neon tubing with a clear glass suspension frame. As the letters overlap, it is hard to initially distinguish what the piece is actually conveying, proving rather disorientating. Additionally, the buzzing noise which accompanies the piece (originating from the neon tubing) is somewhat distracting. However, it is ironic that while reading 'violins' evokes a pure and unpolluted noise, in reality you are faced with a low, droning buzz. I enjoy the irony of Nauman's work and the complex ideas which lie behind the lights. There is much more to this piece than is initially apparent and I hope that other visitors to the gallery take the time to consider its complexity.
Another piece in the exhibition which caught my attention was 'Raw Material Washing Hands'(1996). The video, which documents one individual washing their hands constantly for 55 minutes is difficult viewing. It is reminiscent of a person suffering from obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) in which the individual is performing a routine repeatedly, as though it were a ritual. The video becomes painful to watch as we see the individuals skin being overworked by the soap and water and I must admit that although the video runs for just under an hour, I watched it for no longer than 10 minutes.
Raw Material Washing Hands,
After seeing Nauman's work, it is clear that he questions and stretches the boundaries of what it is to make art. He has purposefully left behind traditional notions of 'fine art' and has distanced himself from paint as a medium.
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, was nominated for Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay, and, Best Supporting Actress) at the 2016 Academy Awards and tells the inspiring story of three real-life African-American women working for NASA at Langley Research Centre, during attempts to get an American into orbit around the Earth during the early 1960s Space Race with the USSR. The women – mathematician, Katherine Johnson; computer/programming specialist, Dorothy Vaughan; and, engineer, Mary Jackson, played an important role in getting John Glenn (who died, aged ninety-five, a few days before the film premiered) into space. The first-rate cast includes Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons.
Jane Monae plays Mary Jackson, pictured attending what was, until her arrival (following a fictitious court hearing), an all-white college.
I wanted to see Hidden Figures because it is an affirmation of what can be achieved when restrictions are removed and people are appreciated for what they are, and not judged by the colour of their skin or their gender. Whilst there are a number of historical inaccuracies in the story, I took the film to be a celebration of three intellectually gifted black women in an era that, today, hardly seems credible. There are some memorable scenes driven by racial segregation – for example, when Johnson is required to run half-a-mile to the coloured ladies’ toilets, and then run the half-a-mile back, in the rain. Whilst this apparently never actually happened to Johnson, and certainly never during 1961, when the film is set, as such segregation at NASA was abolished in 1958, as a piece of drama it works very well indeed.
Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, who became NASA’s first black supervisor (though in reality she became a supervisor for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, in 1949)
The film also tackles some gender stereotyping even within the black community, such as when a black colonel (who later becomes Johnson’s husband) questions the role of women as mathematicians.
There are also some nice historical points too, such as when mathematicians were actually referred to as ‘computers’. The art direction and period setting are spot on.
The real Katherine Johnson who will be a 100 years old on the 26th August, 2018
Hidden Figures is, in my opinion, a well-crafted if slightly heavy-handed and over-simplified piece – as Shoard put it: ‘A movie that knows right from wrong and doesn’t see any use in complicating matters’(Shoard, 2016), and one that succeeds in conveying how ridiculous the notion of segregation based on colour, actually is. However, we must take note of what Johnson once said: “I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."(HistoryvsHollywood.com, 2016) In true academic circles, colour and gender are not important (and probably never have been), it is what is in your brain and the contribution you make that counts. As Tim Robey noted: ‘Hidden Figures isn’t pushing the cinematic boat out in any new directions, but it steers its prescribed course nimbly and nicely'(Robey, 2017).
The real Dorothy Vaughan who died in 2008, aged 98. The real Mary Jackson who died in 2005, aged 83.
o "KATHERINE JOHNSON INTERVIEW: NASA'S HUMAN COMPUTER". HistoryvsHollywood.com. CTF Media. 2016. Citation:http://www.historyvshollywood.com/video/katherine-johnson-interview-nasa/
o Robey, T. (2017) Hidden Figures review: a space-race segregation drama full of star power. Telegraph.co.uk
o Shoard, C. (2016) Hidden Figures review – black women Nasa boffin pic defies its formula. The Guardian.com
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson