• Image as method: Nigel Henderson and the art of research

Ram, Rosie, 2022, Thesis, Image as method: Nigel Henderson and the art of research PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

This thesis argues that the work of the British artist Nigel Henderson (1917-85) generated materials that eschew fixed attribution and are incompatible with the conventions of museological codification and display. In post-war London, Henderson advanced a mode of practice that was indeterminately collaborative, authorially complex, photographically replicative, and replete with readymade elements. This form of work was not oriented towards the production of finite artistic forms; rather, it sought destabilising and disruptive ways of looking at and thinking about the modern world. This thesis proposes that the artist’s work during this period should be reconceived as a kind of research practice. Comprehending it as such, I argue, not only allows the most processual, provisional, and obscure elements of his output to be analysed and valued, but it also challenges rationalized and positivistic understandings of research itself.

This thesis takes as its focus highly ephemeral traces of Henderson’s practice that have an uncertain status in the present, which are divided between the archive at Tate and the holdings of the Nigel Henderson Estate. Rather than relegating these items – which comprise photographic negatives and photographically replicated positive prints – to the role of archival documentation or elevating them to the position of artworks destined for a collection, I argue that they should be mobilised methodologically as research materials that are irreconcilable with such classifications. Furthermore, I argue that the research function of Henderson’s practice cannot be understood unless the interstitial position of this photographic work is sustained. My handling of these materials is informed by Gregory Sholette’s notion of dark matter, and my conception of research work draws upon John Roberts’ theorisations of artistic labour and the avant-garde.

This thesis is structured by the four most significant sites in which, I claim, Henderson’s practice emerged as a mode of research in post-war London: the art school, the private interior, the exhibition, and the photographic negative itself. Crucially, I demonstrate the value in reconceiving of these as dynamic research scenes in which the images Henderson mobilised can function methodologically. By tracing the transition of his practice across these different zones of activity, I reveal the ways in which it operated in tandem and tension with modes of labour in other fields. In doing so, I demonstrate how the artist’s investigative practice remained obfuscating and inchoate and, therefore, critically misaligned with more regimented and recognised forms of research work, which could be instrumentalised in industrial, commercial, academic, or governmental drives towards progress and prosperity in Britain after the Second World War.

Ultimately, this thesis positions Henderson’s research practice across the inverted interface of the photographic negative, revealing how his work functioned through the alternative temporalities and spatialities of photographic technology. I argue that photographic negativity served as the material, technological and conceptual basis of this form of research, fostering its strategies of latency, displacement, self-elision, and dissociation. In conclusion, I claim that the knowledge generated by the artist’s work was itself inversional, offering a darkened lens through which to perceive a negative image of modernity. This concluding analysis invokes Theodor Adorno’s method of negative dialectics to argue for a negative kind of knowledge production. However, I argue that the curatorial presentation of the traces of Henderson’s practice within museological contexts – which conventionally seeks to resolve the uncertainty of his photographic work and sees his negatives converted into positive form – suppresses their capacity to function methodologically as research materials and to generate knowledge negatively.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Other > RCA Additional Subjects > Curating
Creative Arts and Design > W900 Others in Creative Arts and Design
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Funders: AHRC [AH/L503940/1]
Uncontrolled Keywords: Artistic research practice; Photographic image; Visual culture in post-war Britain; Museum archives and collections; Nigel Henderson
Date Deposited: 09 Feb 2022 16:40
Last Modified: 09 Feb 2022 16:40
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/4984
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