Understanding visual art practice as research
Before coming to the RCA, artist-researcher Harri Hudspith gained a BA in Fine Art from Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Originally from Norfolk, she is now based at the University of Bristol studying for a PhD in Religion and Theology. She spoke to RCA Stories about how the MRes RCA: Fine Art & Humanities Pathway helped her to understand her art practice as a research methodology.
Can you describe your practice in a few sentences?
My practice explores the intellectual and cultural history of Christianity in relation to questions of the soul, mind and body. The primary function of my practice is research; as an artist my practice is the framework through which I work something out, a methodology for tackling my interdisciplinary interests in history, philosophy, theology and language.At the moment my work looks at the ecstatic experiences and writings of female Christian mystics; what and how their ineffable and invisible experiences came to mean through language and the body.
Tell me about a project you are currently working on, or have recently completed?
This summer I undertook a project called ‘Running-As-Method’ through which I looked at exploring and appropriating notions of pilgrimage and ascetic practice, from the position of a secular female researcher. Practically speaking this involved running over 1050km over 40 days, from Irun to Santiago de Compostela to Finisterra across the coast of Northern Spain, a traditional route of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. I was interested to see how I might approximate this traditional Catholic act of devotion as an embodied mode of research, and what parallels could be drawn between the idea of a research journey and a pilgrimage.
Why did you come to the RCA, and what in particular appealed to you about the MRes RCA?
Whilst I was finishing my BA I knew I wanted to continue studying and move my practice forwards into a PhD, but I wasn’t really sure how, or with what specific project, even how to articulate how my practice could function as research.
Lots of my tutors at Winchester School of Art had done their MAs at the RCA and recommended I look there. Due to my interest in research and academia, working for an MRes rather than an MA made more sense. The MRes RCA also had the added attraction of straddling both fine art and the humanities, which is where I’ve always situated myself as an artist.
What role did research play in your practice before studying MRes RCA, and what role does it play now?
Before the MRes I thought of research as an essential, but supplementary part of my practice; something exciting that informed the work I was making, but not an actual part of the making itself. The main thing I’ve taken from my time at the RCA is a better understanding and articulation of how my practice can actually function as a methodology for research.
I had always struggled to reconcile being a visual artist with the fact that my interests were based more in the theoretical realms of history, philosophy and theology. The MRes was key in helping me to understand how my practice in its entirety – reading, thinking, writing, making – is actually an approach to humanities research, that just happens to deal in the visual as well as the theoretical.
What have you got planned next?
Since graduating I have accepted a place at the University of Bristol as the Arts Faculty Scholar, studying for a PhD in Religion Theology with a project which seeks to demonstrate how art practice can function as a methodology for interdisciplinary humanities research. My project aims to inform a new understanding of the theology of the female Christian mystic St Teresa of Avila, exploring the imagery within her writings and the visual imagery that survives her through emulation of her devotional and ascetic practices.
Currently this emulation involves an approximation of Teresa's practice of devotional reading and mental prayer as a means of analysing the written imagery within her texts. Later this emulation will also involve acts of ascetic pilgrimage to explore the visual imagery of Teresa in Spain.
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