Works in Progress

Episode 5 Alan Burroughs Collection with Jennifer Roberts and Matt Saunders

April 11, 2022 ArtLab Season 1 Episode 5
Works in Progress
Episode 5 Alan Burroughs Collection with Jennifer Roberts and Matt Saunders
Show Notes Transcript

Matt Saunders, Professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies; Jennifer Roberts, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, and American and Contemporary Art and; Kristian Hardy & Erik Zou, Harvard Undergraduate Fellows, Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program (SHARP).

Diving into “artistic research,” we discuss what it means to Harvard professors and students. In today’s case study, we catch a glimpse into how artists and scholars engage with a specific set of images in the Alan Burroughs special collection at the Harvard Art Museums. To discuss its contents, we are joined in the studio by Harvard professors Matt Saunders and Jennifer Roberts who provide insights on how this collection inspired their scholarship and art making. We are also joined by Harvard college student, Erik Zou, an undergraduate Summer Humanities and Arts Research (SHARP) fellow. A Harvard graduate himself, Burroughs was interested in using X-rays to distinguish between original and repainted works of art. Join us in discovering what goes on within a painting and how technical analysis has radically altered our perception of art and artistic research.

Link to Alan Burroughs collection: 

Link to Matt’s biography: 

Link to Jennifer’s biography: 

Link to Jennifer’s Instagram: 

Link to SHARP undergraduate research programs: 

Link to Kristian Hardy’s biography: 

Works in Progress is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. The show is hosted by Bree Edwards and Kristian Hardy, engineered by Kat Nakaji, edited by Jemma Byrne, and produced by the ArtLab at Harvard University with help from Thinkubator Media. Theme music by Kicktracks and Gvidon.

For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard.

Episode 5 Alan Burroughs Collection with Jennifer Roberts and Matt Saunders


BREE EDWARDS: Welcome, and thank you for joining me for Works in Progress, a podcast about artistic research, inspiration, and collaboration. My name is Bree Edwards, and I'm the co-host and the director of the ArtLab. In this podcast, we will speak with contemporary visual and performing artists who are grappling with pressing issues and transforming ideas into action and art. The ArtLab is helping to create the conditions for the arts to flourish at Harvard. And Works in Progress brings those artists and their ideas to you. 

In this episode of Works in Progress, our focus is not a specific person or their process, but rather how an artwork or a set of images can inspire interdisciplinary research and artmaking. The Alan Burroughs collection is a special collection at the Harvard Art Museum that has inspired research, scholarship, and the creation of new artwork. A Harvard graduate himself, Burroughs was interested in using X-rays to distinguish between original and repainted works of art. 

Starting his research in 1925 and spanning almost two decades, Burroughs' research was the first systemic large scale X-ray documentation project for the technical study of paintings. To discuss this collection, we will be joined by Harvard professors Matt Saunders and Jennifer Roberts, who will introduce us to this unique collection and provide insight on how the Alan Burroughs collection has inspired them. We'll also be joined by Harvard college student and artist Erik Zou, a summer humanities undergraduate research fellow, with our co-host Kristian Hardy. 

During his fellowship, Erik researched and responded to the Alan Burroughs collection, while working under the guidance of professors Jennifer Roberts and Matt Saunders. Jennifer Roberts is the Elizabeth Carey Agassiz professor of the humanities at Harvard. An art historian, writer, and curator, she is a scholar of British and American arts from the 18th century to the present day. Professor Roberts was educated at Stanford and Yale and has taught at Harvard since 2002. 

Matt Saunders is associate professor of the humanities at Harvard, where he teaches studio art and photography and is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies within the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, known as AFVS. Professor Saunders was educated at Harvard and Yale and lived in Berlin for several years before returning to Harvard to teach. His artistic practice, while grounded in painting, often involves photography, printmaking, and film. 

So I was introduced to the Alan Burroughs collection at the Harvard Art Museum through an amazing post on your Instagram account, Jennifer. In September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic when the ArtLab and the Art Museum were closed, you had posted a photo of a 16th century X-ray shadowgraph of a painting with the comment-- and we can post the entire posting in our show notes, but I'll read an excerpt here. 

"There are over 4,000 images in the Alan Burroughs collection of X-rays from the Strauss Center for Conservation. Between 1925 and 1944, Burroughs conducted the first large scale project for the technical study of art using X-radiographs. He used a portable Picker X-ray unit and traveled to major collections throughout the US and Europe." This was your quote, Jennifer, on Instagram. Can you tell us, just to start us off, about the discovery that you made that inspired your interest in this collection? 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Oh, yeah, thanks. And thank you for actually reading my Instagram posts - 

BREE EDWARDS: They're great. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Well, I had come across these X-ray images in the Art Museum's database. So I'm always having to search for things in the database, looking for objects to pull for a class or other research projects. And I'll often search something by a keyword. And then you get this keyword-based search result. And often, I would find that at the very bottom of some search for "landscape" or some artist, there would be an X-ray. And I didn't think much of it at the time. 

But then, over various moments in getting to know Matt and having conversations with Matt, he mentioned to me that he was really interested in this X-ray collection. So I wasn't thinking about it seriously, but I was primed to notice it by the time we got around to the pandemic. Because then, of course, all of my work with the museum was entirely limited to what I could pull up on the database. And I just found myself one afternoon-- I can't even remember what I was supposed to be doing, but all I know is that I ended up spending hours just falling into the rabbit hole of this collection. I just started searching all the X-rays and really looking at them. 

And they're absolutely stunning visual objects and works of art in themselves. I found myself confronted with hundreds of paintings and works of art, some of which were familiar to me as paintings, in this completely estranged and alien format where you would see the shadow of an image that you might recognize, but then it was scattered with staples or broken stretchers or all of these material entities coming through from behind the object. 

And I just fell into it. And I posted a few, and there was a lot of enthusiastic response. And so, then I did another post. And at that point, I was thinking that this would be something that-- this is something that's worth really thinking about and doing a project about someday. 

MATT SAUNDERS: Well like Jennifer, the same way actually that they come up all the time in the searches. And it was like the ghost that would appear in the middle of the search. And I was always more interested in those. I think explaining why I'm interested in them is almost so obvious. I'm embarrassed to even say it. But on one level, of course, they're these images made by passing light through these paintings or passing radiation through these paintings. And I'm working that way a lot in my own work. 

But that's not the interesting thing to me so much as a kind of animation or temporality that's in them. This combination, as Jennifer was saying, of the image and the structure and the fragment and the accident. A lot of them are having technical problems. Their lens flares, parts of their focus. And those are all in there, too. So there's a sense that you've got this shifting stability around the image. 

And I wouldn't say that I ever really was thinking about it in terms of being fascinating for reproduction or study, but that they had this kind of aura of enlivened presence for me. And in a way, they did something that I was chasing in my own work. But like many things you encounter in the world, you encounter this thing that's not in the category of being art. That's doing something better than the art that you're trying to make. And it's like, how do you use that in your own practice? So I've been fascinated by them for a long time. And of course, when I heard that Jennifer was also noticing them coming up, always wanted to talk about them. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Yeah, and I had been writing a little bit about Matt's work, which is another reason that these really resonated for me by this point during the pandemic, because so much of his work is about passing, as he says, passing light through a painting and using the weave of the canvas or the linen as really something more like a negative. So looking through, getting to the other side of the plane, is something that he's really interested in. 

BREE EDWARDS: And, I mean, right now, you made me realize the challenges of both talking about this collection on a podcast and writing about visual art. I mean, so one of the great things is that we do have show notes so that we can include a link so people can see the images and also your work. Have either of you actually been in space, physical space, with this collection of-- 



MATT SAUNDERS: I have. There are these latrines in the Art Museum that classes every semester can curate, organize latrines. And I always do it. And sometimes when I have a class that doesn't make sense, I use it as a space to really play and push the boundaries. So I decided one time I was going to show a shadowgraph in a lightbox. I only could show one, and I showed the Mona Lisa for cheesier reasons. But yeah, I went over there to the storage and looked at them and pulled one and presented it as an object in the museum. 

BREE EDWARDS: That's fascinating. I know that we were also thinking about the ways in which an artist, a writer, conservator see these images really differently or maybe work with them differently. I'm curious if you think that there's different ways that an artist or a historian or in your conversations with the conservation staff that they're thinking about these objects or that these objects are working differently. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Well, I think something that for both Matt and I is a factor here is that we understand that conservators have a very specific reason to use these images. They have a very specific purpose in terms of what they can reveal about the history of the process of making a painting, for example. You see the underlayers, you see what a painter may have covered over. You see a history of repairs. 

Many of these X-rays have these incredibly beautiful hidden wounds in them. So you're seeing the surface of the painting, but you're also seeing the tear in the canvas that somebody lovingly patched over the years. So it's this stratified history of conservation that helps museum professionals understand what they have in their collection and what's invisible and how can they best care for these objects. So there is a very important and very specific conservatorial role for these images. 

But as an art historian who is interested in thinking about the broadest possible meanings and ways of thinking that art can produce, I'm interested, for example, in mining-- thinking about these images as also propositions for, what's the relationship between interiority and exterior? How do we think about our capacity to reach private interiors of people or of objects? How do these images help us think about painting in a different way? 

For example, for me looking at one of these shadowgraphs, you become intensely aware of how careful the medium of painting has been over the centuries to hide its own back. That it tries to pretend that it's a one-sided object. And all of its address is to the front. It's all about showing what it wants to show. But that every painting is backed by this material reality. All of this external information about how it got to be where it is and how it produces its image out of mere matter, all of that is on the back of the painting and under that canvas, under that paint surface. 

And one of the things that the X-ray does is it fuses those two surfaces together so that you really see the front and the back at once. And for me, that's a class A philosophical proposition right there. That really makes me think a lot about painting as a medium and its relationship to sculpture, its relationship to photography. All of the ways we can think differently about painting and the kind of questions that it asks about the world. So I think-- and I'm sure Matt will have something to say about this, too, but we're interested in the shadow graphs precisely in as much as we hope to take the questions-- take new questions from them. Think of them as ways of thinking beyond their stated purpose. 

MATT SAUNDERS: Yes. I mean, absolutely. And I think while you were talking, I was thinking about obsolescence and the shifting framework when something is out of date. I mean, part of what you're saying about the physicality of a painting, we could run that back through the second half of the 20th century and a lot of art that deconstructed the stretcher bar. I feel like in some sense, that's an idea from art school. But it feels fresh when considered through the shadowgraphs. 

And it makes me think about my generation coming out of our school, we were all just doing slide works and 16 millimeter works but. There was a kind of retro quality to the work which had something to do with the body of those images, the way that the materiality of that type of celluloid. And it was appealing to us, and people were trying to stitch their thoughts into that material body. And I have always been fascinated by that-- how you make a studio practice out of that kind of attraction to a form. 

And I can imagine a million artists just getting their hands on the shadowgraphs and showing them as artifacts and doing an institutional discussion about the museums or whatever spaces they're in. But I was really fascinated about how you can look at this thing which seems so powerful in ways that you understand are completely matter of fact in their time and context. But that time in context is gone enough that that body becomes exotic and complicated. And it makes you look at the work you're doing and what type of materiality that has and wondering if you can get something of that extra distance or that extra transformation that we find in the king, photostock. 

Or it's the appeal of the just over the horizon is so present in those objects for us, because we're not looking at them as analytic tools or state-of-the-art tools for conservation in any way. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Right. And I think that notion of obsolescence, one of the things that's really powerful for me in the X-ray images is that this whole question of decay and obsolescence and fragility is folded into the images themselves. I mean, especially when you look at some of the images of sculpture, for example. What you see in an X-ray of a sculpture is all of the buttressing. All of the desperate-- all of the desperation inside of that form that's trying to keep it held up and held together. 

These beautiful wood sculptures that you-- the arms and hands are full of nails. And again, that itself is just a fantastic work of art. A way of thinking about any number of ways of wounding and holding together. But they're works that we appreciate from a particular historical distance. But we also see in them these records of people in the past holding together technologies and meanings that might have been falling apart even at any point in the history of the object. 

BREE EDWARDS: It's really nice to sort of see how you have been responding to each other. And shifting gears, I wanted to ask a question because the two of you have been developing courses together that have been evolving over time. I mean, Jennifer, I know that you encourage a process of deep looking and also encourage your art history students to dive deeper into the making, just as you're describing here. And Matt, you're sought out for this innovative teaching but also mentorship that you provide students at Harvard. 

But now you've joined forces. And I'm curious about the first class that you taught together and how teaching, co-teaching, collaborative teaching has evolved, both through the pandemic and over time, getting to know each other's work a bit better. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: So I do remember having lunch with you in the cafe and asking if you wanted to put together this crazy class, which we eventually did end up teaching. Namely, a class that would be a true hybrid of a sort of art history seminar and a studio course. 

MATT SAUNDERS: Which I don't think is so crazy. I feel like I'm constantly in conversation now about developing more classes for our department that are taking advantage of being at Harvard and making clear sense of the way that these types of close looking and talking and reading can feed into a studio practice. There's such a model of reading theory in art school that is a little bit out of date. 

And we're doing it in a kind of vacuum. And so, it was such a pleasure to teach a class like this. I feel like the first-- you asked about the development of the course. The first time we taught it, I think we got lucky, because we had really six art history graduate students and-- five or six art history graduate students and five or six undergraduate art majors in their senior and junior years. And so it was this perfect model of what we were trying to do and it helped us think-- I think it helped us think through what each group-- where people would struggle and where the class needed to think about new models or articulating the context for ways of thinking. Ideas like what is a critique caught me by surprise. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Right. Art historians don't know this. 

MATT SAUNDERS: And so it's really developed, I think, through iterations into something where we now have more up our sleeves. And have had a more-- we had to-- I was a stranger. We had a different type of-- a broader range of demographics for the students coming into the course. And I think that the course then has got more and more of its own center of gravity or its own methodology that is now interacting with people coming more from a curatorial perspective or an architectural perspective. And I think that that's been really interesting to see how it's been able to expand once it found its center. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Right. I mean, the class is called Critical Printing. And we have just been basically repeating that class. We're on our third iteration now. And we have some schemes I think we're cooking up of maybe doing this with other media. But-- 

MATT SAUNDERS: Like shadowgraphs. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Yeah. It's a strange class. The registrar didn't know what to do with it. It basically meets three hours a week for a studio and then another three hours a week for something that looks a little bit more like a graduate seminar where students are talking about readings and looking at prints that we pull in the art museums. And the goal is that there is something that gets sparked in the intersection of theory and practice and reading and doing. 

From my perspective as an art historian, we were just talking about this yesterday actually, we're trying to find a way to make students who are functioning simultaneously as artists and as art historians. And what does that look like? What does that mean? What does that do to your brain as an artist or as an art historian? And I think artists are actually much better at this. Artists are always thinking like art historians and working through the history of what they're making. 

And there's a kind of asymmetry, though. Because I think art historians are actually not trained at all in how to think about art history through practice, through making something. So from my side of the Quincy Street area, I'm really eager to-- and thrilled to now have a group of graduate students who are able to write and think about art in ways that I think are much richer and more creative than they could have without having tried to make things themselves. 

BREE EDWARDS: I have early memories of being at the site of the ArtLab in hard hats or at the grand opening. You were both involved in the conception to some degree of the ArtLab before I was even here. But I'm just curious if you have impressions about the work that a space like this that's interdisciplinary, that brings together the arts and sciences, engineering, making, that there's a role that the ArtLab can continue to play at Harvard that maybe connects with your teaching or the art that you make or the writing. 

MATT SAUNDERS: The lab quality of it is what interests me. I think that actually the more-- often when people lean into prioritizing the interdisciplinary, they lose the sense of what type of site that actually plays out in. And you end up in a seminar room. When I came to Harvard to teach, I was shocked that so many of the facilities like the old printing presses were just essentially wrapped under plastic, because the classes were perched on top of them. And that lab-based focus, they had thrown away the analog dark room to make room for the digital dark room. 

There's not a sense of the importance of maintaining these spaces as sites of production outside of the immediate needs of each class. And we've done a lot of work to try to re-establish these old analog labs, which are out of date perhaps. But there are these facilities that push people's thinking in other ways. So sitting here in the sound studio, the ArtLab. I was thinking when we walked in the door, fantastic that this space is here on campus and we're using it today for this purpose. 

But I have a lot of ideas of what could happen here. So I think that the establishing facilities, even if they're not clearly programmed at the time you build them is so important and is often underserved in the expansions of programs. And ArtLab could be a vital site for people to discover other ways of working. 

BREE EDWARDS: And it was nice to hear when we walked in today that you said, it's starting to feel like a campus over here. That I was just over at the science and engineering complex and came through the back door into here. And it is starting to feel like a campus where the arts and sciences are coming closer together. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Yeah. No, I think that's the location right next to the new CES complex. A great advantage and also I think a great challenge for the ArtLab, because it seems to me that there are so many unsatisfying and bad ways to bring, say, the arts and engineering together. And I say that mostly from the perspective of someone who often feels that art and science come together, and people who aren't already really well versed in contemporary art and artistic strategies don't really understand how difficult and complex and intelligent artists are. 

Often, artists are brought into a discussion to help people visualize their data or to serve as a gratuitous space of this vaguely defined imagination. And there isn't as much, I think, emphasis as there should be on art itself as a form of truly advanced and radical modes of intelligence and thinking that scientists and engineers should be borrowing from. There's, I think, just a completely blank slate in the future on how artists and scientists can be talking to each other. And this is a place where I think that can start to happen in experimental ways. And the more open and experimental, the better. 

MATT SAUNDERS: I would also point out it goes the other way, too. 


MATT SAUNDERS: I feel like we don't pay enough attention to what's happening over there. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Yes. Right. I think a lot of people in the humanities side, arts and humanities side, are suspicious of science, they're suspicious of engineers. There's a sense that the two cultures are still very much separated, and it is a bilateral problem. 

BREE EDWARDS: So the two of you collaborated to support or host and propose as summer undergraduate research fellow in the humanities, as did the ArtLab, Kristian and Erik. And I just wanted to ask you what motivated you to put in a proposal to have a research fellow for the summer and what that experience was like. 

MATT SAUNDERS: For us, SHARP. It was also interesting, because it's a research program. And as far as I know, it's not very unprecedented to have an art practice research project in this framework. And I wanted to do that. I felt like we're increasingly seeing the way that artists are thinking substantially about materials, about archives, and taking it to new places. And we really spoke in a very busy moment about whether we would put in a project. We both were like, oh, no. We need the summer. 

But I wanted to do it really to have the presence of some artmaking as one of the options for research. Not just to hold that place, but to open that avenue and hopefully do more of that type of thing. So that was why Erik was terrific, because of his really split interests and how seriously he took the artmaking as part of the research he was doing. 

JENNIFER ROBERTS: Yeah, I mean, in our case, we threw him the extra curveball that we were expecting him to do artistic research, but also do more typical research. So he did library research on the Burroughs collection and read up about the history of X-radiography not only in the arts, but in medicine. And I asked him to also look at astronomy, which is my favorite place to think about X-rays. 

So he did all kinds of book research and learned about the history of this technology and its use in the arts through the Burroughs collection. And that is all happening in parallel with making his own works of art that are in response both to the Burroughs collection objects and also to what he's learning in his more traditional humanities research. And that I think was what was really special about this SHARP project is that the two parallel research streams were constantly coming and weaving together and generating questions that would pass over into the other stream and back. 

And so I think what I'm happiest about is that I do think that Erik found himself at the end of the summer in a position where he understood that the works of art he was producing raised multiple new questions about art history, about science, about imaging. Questions that I don't think would have been raised without threading them through the process of working with materials, working with transparency. All the ways that he's working with the ideas of these X-rays in his dorm room with materials that, of course because of COVID, he had to be able to fit in his dorm room. He didn't really have a studio. I mean, Matt, maybe you can talk about the challenge of doing studio research in a pandemic. 

But it was really exhilarating to talk to him about the work that he had made every week. We would have these Zoom meetings. And, I mean, I just felt like my head was exploding every time we were talking, because he was raising these incredible questions that could immediately be fed into a series of research questions in another realm. 


BREE EDWARDS: After the break, we'll be joined by Kristian Hardy, who is an undergraduate research fellow at the ArtLab and a sophomore at Harvard College, pursuing a joint concentration in theater dance and media and African American studies. 


KRISTIAN HARDY: Hi. My name is Kristian. I am a student at Harvard College studying theater dance and media and African American studies. And in this segment of the podcast, I speak with the different artists of the episode to get a little bit more about their overall research process, their artistic process, from a student's perspective, and what I think is important to up-and-coming artists in today's time. 

So today, we are here with a very special artist who I actually worked closely with this past summer, Erik Zou. He was a 2021 summer humanities and arts research fellow at the Harvard Art Museum, where he worked closely with the Alan Burroughs collection, which we're going to get into very shortly. And along with his general research, Erik created his own paintings and artwork inspired by the shadowgraphs in the collection, which showed how these shadowgraphs can be used for more than just research and you actually can create art and create new works from looking back at history, which I think is super cool. 

So welcome, Erik. We're so happy you're here. 

ERIK ZOU: Hi. So great to be here. Thank you so much, Kristian, for the lovely introduction. Yeah, hi, I'm Erik. I'm a sophomore at Harvard. Probably studying applied math and economics, living in Adams House. And yeah, over this summer, I worked as a SHARP fellow on the shadowgraph collection with the Art Museums. And it was more than just art historical research, but we also tried to combine a lot of studio art research by creating works of art as well. So very happy to talk. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: Yay, we're so happy you're here. So to dive straight into it, what drew you to research in the arts, like specifically with SHARP? Because for those who are unfamiliar, Harvard has summer research programs and lots of disciplines-- science, social sciences, arts and humanities. So what drew you to research in the arts and humanities? And then part two of that question is specifically the project with the Alan Burroughs collection. 

ERIK ZOU: Yeah. So I come from a very traditionally studio art background, I suppose. I grew up doing a lot of painting and drawing just casually, but then doing some competition work. And I really fell in love with it. My favorite medium is watercolor, but I also like oil painting. Sketching, colored pencil, ink, just a lot of different kinds of things. And when I came to Harvard, I actually really also enjoyed the practice of art history, because it felt like an academic extension of creating or looking at or thinking about art. 

And so these sorts of two subjects, art history and studio art, were just two passions of mine. And for your second part of the question, I was looking at some of the research opportunities and thought SHARP was really cool because it was research in art history and the humanities. And in particular, I thought this project was particularly special because in the description they said, this is not just traditional art history research. We also want to do some more speculative work incorporating studio arts and actually using the artmaking process as a form of research. So I really want to try that and see how it went. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: I think the work that you did is super cool. In the name of art history, we typically think of it as something that's in the past, historical. And you view it for what it was. But we don't really see people take that into the practical world of art and make new things from it. So I think it's super cool, groundbreaking, trailblazer of you to embark on this project. Now I know that as all of the different research fellows this summer had our different advisors, your advisors were Matt Saunders and Jennifer Roberts. And I was wondering if you could explain a little bit what it was like working with advisors in this realm of student research. And had you worked with them prior to this project, or was this the first time? 

ERIK ZOU: Yeah, so this is the first time I worked with them. And actually I think one of the biggest appeals of SHARP or just Harvard-run research programs is the fact that you get faculty mentors or advisors. Because personally, I didn't have that much or really any experience with research before this. And it felt a little daunting to go into, oh, what is research? And try to explore something new. 

So I really thought working with the professors gave a lot of direction. In a lot of ways, they let me do what I want because of the nature of the project, which was just very exploratory based on your own creative instincts. But I did find that whenever I had questions about like, oh, what new directions do you think I could take this piece in, or how can I build upon this or analyze this or understand this? I think it was really great to both have a very solid art historical foundation in Professor Roberts, but also just talking to an actual practicing artist, Matt Saunders, about-- the actual artmaking process really guided me as well. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: I definitely agree with what you're saying. Having those advisors who are working in the fields that your project falls into is so important. And we talked about-- well, you talked about researching and reading and seeing these images and then actually creating them. So you have the traditional archival work and then the studio component. Did having that duality in your project influence how you approached it, or was it pretty similar to other research you've done? 

ERIK ZOU: I think it definitely changed a lot. I think, in a lot of ways, reading the literature can be very restricting in that there hasn't really been, comparatively I guess, that much done about this shadowgraph collection in particular and shadowgraphs in general. And I think most of what has been said is very, in a lot of ways, specific to what the shadowgraphs have been used for. So mostly conservation efforts or different ways of seeing the materiality of these paintings that are famous. 

And so I think having the studio part immediately made the project seem a lot bigger or a lot different from that. It wasn't just, yeah, we were just going to investigate how people have looked at this before. But now there was this clear agenda to push what we can do with them now in a more modern context. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: Yeah. And it's perfect that she brought that up, because the work-- art history, and more specifically the Alan Burroughs collection, was viewed in the art history world as a reference point, I guess, and something to look at and to analyze how Alan Burroughs used these shadowgraphs. But people didn't necessarily take that next And I was wondering how you can see the work that you accomplished this summer by taking that next step and actually creating different works of art, which we're going to get into next, so don't worry. How can you see that impacting the broader field of art history or how people approach art history work in the future? 

ERIK ZOU: Yeah. I'm hesitant to say that this is a first time thing, because I really do believe that great artists always reference art history in whatever they do. And everything you make always builds on what has been created. I think this project was just very explicit in mapping an archive of documents and really saying, we're going to use these as inspiration for studio art. And I think that's what makes it different. In treating these objects, which are traditionally used for conservation and art historical work, but then treating them as sources of creativity that any artist really can build off of and use to create new compositions and further new ideas. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: Funny story for the listeners is that in this research community at Harvard during the summer, the arts and humanities kids are the small little table in the lunchroom in the far corner. We are definitely outnumbered. So I highly relate to what Erik is saying about, seeing what other people are interested in and all of that. But not to interrupt you, please keep going. I just thought it was important for them to know. 

ERIK ZOU: It is important. And I think part of that, at least for my project, was seeing the ways that art history or studio art is not fixed into whatever subject it's called. I gained so much from reading scientific texts or talking to my peers about what they were doing in the sciences and reading about medicine or astronomy. And I think that is an approach or a mindset of just exploring and grabbing from different disciplines that I think is important in not just any research that you do, but just learning in general. 

And I think I definitely want to try doing other kinds of research in different subjects and think about how those experiences compared to this experience that I had over the summer, because I really do think research is just a really fun and exciting and great way to learn more and to create a knowledge in a sense. But also just engage in what has been created in the past. 

KRISTIAN HARDY: I highly agree. Retweet everything that you just said. I want to thank you so much for coming and chatting with me today. I know you were a little nervous at first, but I think you killed it. We learned so much about the research that you did, who you are as an artist, and I'm just so grateful that you shared a bit of your knowledge with us today, Erik, so thank you very much. 

ERIK ZOU: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast. 


BREE EDWARDS: Thank you for listening to Works in Progress, a production of the ArtLab at Harvard University, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts People, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. This podcast is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab. For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard. I hope you'll join us for the next episode.