B. What Do Pictures Want? Picture Theory in Archaeology

Organizers: Jen Thum, University of Oxford and Rob Persson, University of Oxford

Saturday, May 7th
9:20 – 12:00
Ida Sproul Room


From the University of Chicago Press Web site: ‘According to W. J. T. Mitchell, we need to  reckon with images not just as inert objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with  desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own.’    Picture Theory investigates our ‘powerful response’ to images. Participants will be asked to read  W. J. T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (The University  of Chicago Press, 2004) and respond to it in the context of their own research or fieldwork.  Participants may find themselves applying Mitchell to paintings, mosaics, statuary, monuments  and other types of art with which they regularly engage, or perhaps with contemporary pictures  (or ‘pictures’) from excavations and other images encountered during everyday work.


What does the Standard Inscription of Aššurnasirpal II want?

Anastasia Amrhein, Metropolitan Museum of Art, achaplygina@uchicago.edu

This paper will argue that the Standard Inscription running across the represented figures in the reliefs of Aššurnasirpal II should be considered visually and perceived concurrently with the imagery—as the king’s presence. The paper will discuss the physical and conceptual relationship between the text and the imagery on which it is superimposed; addressing not only how the imagery and inscriptions take on lives of their own in accordance with the Assyrian conceptualization of the world, but also the issue of “double consciousness” and the question of how we are to regard the reliefs today.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Visual Poetry in the Temple of Hathor

Barbara Richter, University of California, Berkeley, richter@berkeley.edu

During the Graeco-Roman period, Egyptian scribes exploited an extensive repertoire of hieroglyphic signs and creative spellings, playing with visual images to foreground particular words or phrases. This paper examines several categories of visual poetry (“sign play”) in reliefs in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, showing how layers of meaning, perceptible only to the eye, combine with the aural poetry of the texts to create a tapestry of sound and sight. These subtle techniques bring into play questions of process, agency, and the relationship of image and beholder, making these reliefs a perfect case study for Mitchell’s “Picture Theory.”

Bodies Making Images Making Bodies

Jen Thum, University of Oxford, jen.thum@univ.ox.ac.uk

This paper will explore the interaction between viewer, image, and subject with the Fayoum Portraits and their audiences past and present. As true portraits in the aesthetic and artistic sense, the faces in these painted panels are shaped by the attributes of the real face of the subject as it once was, and by the desires of the living to replicate the likeness of the deceased. At the same time, the image also “makes” the body–or rather tries to convince the modern viewer that what we see is what the subject once looked like–and in doing so controls our perception of this tradition and its adherents.

What do the stones of Chavin want?

Mary Weismantel, Northwestern University, mjweis@gmail.com

When we look at the famous monolithic carved stones of Chavín de Huantar as things in the world (rather than as texts to be read), one odd fact stands out: they are difficult to see. The stones impede vision in several ways: through the complexity of the designs and the manner of carving; by making only fragments of the images visible; and by placing kinetic demands on viewers. These rather perverse characteristics raise an inevitable question: to paraphrase W.T.J. Mitchell, what do these difficult objects want? Why impose such demands on the pilgrims who travel to Chavín to see them?

Who wants what. Reflections and Suggestions on Assyrian Images

Davide Nadali, Sapienza Università di Roma and Università di Parma, davidenadali@gmail.com

The agentive subject (the image-maker) wants images to tell and do something. But, once images are fashioned and they are “told” what to do, they themselves become the agentive subject in front of the viewer who faces the image and interacts with it. Examples of agency and performativity of images in the Assyrian culture will be accordingly analysed to question the desire of the images, the image-maker, and the viewer. Images reflect what we want. We are reflected by images. In the end, we should reflect on this relationship and on how our mind interacts with the images it produces.

Presence in and Presentation of Paradise: A Case Study on Bojia Jiaozang

Xin Chen, University of Oxford, xin.chen@orinst.ox.ac.uk

This paper explores the ways in which a sutra cabinet of the tenth century in a Buddhist Monastery in Northern China had managed to convince its viewers as the heavenly palaces in Buddha’s Pure Land. With its vivid architectural appearance but in miniature, this remarkable structure successfully created the illusion of paradise to viewers, completed and reinforced by both their imagination and bodily movements as responses to the image. Yet the ‘double consciousness towards images’ suggested by W. J. T. Mitchell was maintained in viewers’ mind regarding the nature of ambiguity of this miniature architectural model.

The Battle of Kadesh: Its Pictures and Texts.

Rob Persson, University of Oxford, rob.persson@orinst.ox.ac.uk

In his first chapter, Mitchell discussed what Richard Rorty called ‘turns’. Turns are, broadly, shifts in the foci of scholarship and teaching. The most recognizable turn is argued to be the ‘linguistic turn’ that sits adjacent to the present ‘pictorial turn’. This paper will briefly introduce how these turns manifested in Egyptology and synthesize them to examine the famous scenes that recount the Battle of Kadesh.