Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2020

Surface Matters in the Visual Arts: Giuliana Bruno’s IDSVA Commencement Address

by Eileen Doktorski, Cohort ’18

Dr. Giuliana Bruno, Emmet Blakeney Gleason Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, gave the 2020 IDSVA commencement address “Surface Matters in the Visual Arts” at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, on January 11th, 2020. Bruno’s speech traversed both personal and public spheres as she conveyed the texturally-rich experiences of her youth in Naples, shared her reflections on public art, and discussed her meaningful philosophical work and publications. She entered into her investigation of “surfaces” by describing distinct cultural impressions of her initial travel to New York City. Her observations created a parallel connection with the IDSVA cohorts ending a week-long residency absorbing Mexico City’s rich history and visual culture. Explaining how her fascination with surface evolved, she stated, “when I arrived in New York my books began to emphasize more and more this topology of movement, migration of ideas, material and aesthetic phenomena of motion, the sensorial and emotional dimensions of public spaces and interior lives.”  These last words reflecting on public spaces and interior lives resounded with particular emphasis as they were spoken within the intimate El Generalito Assembly Hall, embellished with richly-carved 17th century choir stalls.

Dr. Giuliana Bruno lecturing in El Generalito, Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, on January 11th, 2020. Photo by Andrew Fierberg
Dr. Giuliana Bruno lecturing in El Generalito, Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, on January 11th, 2020. Photo by Andrew Fierberg.

Bruno articulated concepts of immersive surface, connective movement between spaces, and public intimacy. Descriptively tactile language permeated her speech; words indicative of action, yet positioned within the realm of conceptual thought. The conjuring phrase, “I walked between two cultures” suggested an atmosphere of elasticity, in which, “surfaces have the capacity to project time, space, atmosphere and effect.” She evoked the actions of experiential and individual handling of surfaces, “unfolding, crumpling,” and then returned attention to their identities and physical objectness; “skin, fabric, canvas, wall and screen.” Bruno’s observations exemplify that the fluid movement through and empathetic responses towards the frequently elusive presence of material contributes to the transformative abilities of its surface.

In her commencement address, Bruno mentioned her book, Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts (MIT, 2007) which includes a chapter devoted to walls and screens. She writes about Crying Wall, 1997, by Ann Hamilton: “On its white surface, drops of feeling drip, seeping through, as if all bodily fluids were conjoined on the architectural surface” (Bruno 183).  Crying Wall necessitates close viewer proximity. From a distance, the seeping is indistinguishable and the surface appears nondescript—a white, mundane and seemingly empty museum wall. The viewer must step within a foot of the wall to observe the small droplets emerge—like tears forming or perspiration from unseen pores. Hamilton’s work demands the viewer's close proximity to “feel” the emotion that Bruno describes as “the pain that the surface bears” (183).

Ann Hamilton
Ann Hamilton Crying Wall Detail  (Welles).
Ann Hamilton  The Even of a Thread
Ann Hamilton  The Event of a Thread. Image Source

As Bruno concluded her commencement address, she spoke with optimism about movement and journey. Though Bruno did not mention it specifically, her words brought to mind a later work by Hamilton, The Event of a Thread, 2012, installed in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. The substantial public installation features expansive curtains that seemingly dance in direct rhythmic response to the pleasurable back and forth movements of people swinging below. Bruno spoke of “a journey of motion, which is also a journey of emotion.” Hamilton’s Crying Wall and The Event of a Thread reflect the possibilities of surface as possessing both optimism and depth. In each of these artworks as in life, the viewer too must journey into proximity to or interactivity with these ever-pliable and shifting surfaces.


Bruno, Giuliana. “Surface Matters in the Visual Arts.” Commencement Address. 11/1/2020, San Ildefonso College Museum and Cultural Center, Mexico City.

Bruno, Giuliana. Public Intimacy Architecture and the Visual Arts. MIT Press, 2007.

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