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Exhibitions

Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

The post-human thinking at the time of Anthropocene is not only an accelerating direction in art but also an influence on art museums. Comprehending the connection between humans, objects, animals, technologies and nature is an issue that moves into the center stage of art. The key requirement for this critical thinking and practice is the position outside of predetermined conceptions of existing  knowledge and social value mechanisms. As Keith Armstrong distinguished, when it comes to the realm of “ecological art practices” – it is not about “management” , but a completely new image of the human or rather a form of self-realization as part of broader processes that will then guide our engagement with the world. [1] Ecological disasters and the concrete effects of global warming make it urgent to feel and to operate within “the real,” – and the last years have seen art production that is occupied with the material environment.

New media art cultures and public art practices take up active and problem-based positions in order to re-orient human knowledge – to make sense of the human interrelations with non-human agents on the basis of praxis and empathy. It is useful now to apply imagination derived from science-fiction and tales such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to be able to sometimes expand and sometimes – shrink the perspectives of the human. With their project “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human” the Council followed this wisdom while bringing together experts and non-experts for one-to-one dialogues with the goal to create multi-dimensional and “hallucinatory knowledge space.” [2]

When we look at the classic exhibition format within art institutions, it is interesting that representational aesthetics grounded on inquiries for new knowledge enter these social institutions that have their conventional role to embody and transfer humanity’s knowledge. Nicolas Bourriaud claimed that human consciousness literally left forms of representation in the event of Mark Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) and Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou (2013). [3] Bourriaud discussed these two major exhibitions with respect to the theme of art in Anthropocene. According to him, Leckey related to the objects without human mediation in order to connect with them sensually, whereas Huyghe proposed a “world without humans.” [4]

On the one hand, these practices are reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional project Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department  (1968-1972) that, through its perfect system of object gathering and classification, achieved elaborate and sophisticated deconstruction of institutional knowledge systems (in the frames of the museum itself). On the other hand, Leckey’s systems of objects that may produce “weird complexities” [5] and Huyghe’s interest in constructing situations that “take place within reality” [6] resonate with contemporary cabinets of curiosities, a widely celebrated trend of self-reflection and re-interpretation following the model of MONA in Hobart (as predicted in my blog post back in 2013).

Strictly speaking, the perspective of Anthropocene eliminates the existence of museums as we know them, yet of course they will exist, and the state of Anthropocene comes with opportunities for museum interplay with antithesis.

Image: Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

[1] Keith M. Armstrong. “Grounded Media – Expanding the Scope of Ecological Art Practices Within New Media Arts Culture.” QUT Media-Space-Journal (2008). http://eprints.qut.edu.au/8802/.

[2] Council. “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human, 25/4/2015.” Council,  http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/115_on_becoming_earthlings/737_on_becoming_earthlings_737.

[3]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[4]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[5] Kathy Noble. “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey: in Conversation with Mark Leckey, 2013.” Goldsmiths – Research Online, https://research.gold.ac.uk/9375/.

[6] Contemporary Art Daily. “Pierre Huyghe at Centre Pompidou, December 30th, 2013.” Contemporary Art Daily: a Daily Journal of International Exhibitions, http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2013/12/pierre-huyghe-at-centre-pompidou/.

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Ant in Amber (under magnifying glass), Sam Noble Museum. Photo credit: fine_plan. Creative Commons licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

I would like to pick up from the previous post, especially with regards to the importance of waiting areas preceding the experience considered as strictly “art experience.”  Whether we are reading labels or instructions there is no reason to differentiate and leave outside the “art experience” any elements, any modes of communication and constitution of exhibition. Perhaps such split of the wholeness of “experience” is not only unnecessary but also impossible. All associated activities and communications – such intense social acts as opening and closing drinks, could be measured within the framework of “paths” that constitute an exhibition experience. Even if one is encountering that experience as mediated by personal media, in a real-world situation. It is like we are seeing our bodies moving through the space and with this feeling of distance our condition is similar to that of the entanglement of ants in amber.  Then, the question is – how does this awareness change exhibition making?

Such view of curatorial methodology has been exercised in relation to museums. As Terry Smith has pointed out in his analysis of contemporary curatorial thought and types of exhibitions, the experience of museum architecture constitutes the event of exhibition. The most eminent case is of course Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. If architecture manifests as exhibition, what other things should be counted into the constellation of exhibition experience? Because museological perspective is naturally focused on the figure of viewer, the formulation of “exhibition anthropology” could emerge. Erkki Huhtamo has insisted on exactly this approach considering structural, ongoing and variable (viewer-related) constituents that are present to shape the experience. To explain the exhibition anthropology approach which comes hand in hand with close observations, Huhtamo has noted: “The approach should not be conceived of as purely empirical, focused on case-by-case analysis. My basic idea is to treat the museum as a kind of experience apparatus – a combination of material features, social roles, and institutional practices and policies that provide a framework for visitors’ experiences.”  [1] The continuation of this thought is particularly interesting: “Understood as an apparatus, the museum is a system of anticipations and regulations visitors are supposed to follow. One of its functions is to analyze potential deviations from its norms (including transgressive actions).”  [2] It is perhaps through these “transgressive actions” that we can detect the workings of exhibition apparatus and generate experiences specific to a particular moment. In 2015, I curated an exhibition in George Paton Gallery (Melbourne) that I started with a vision of a cafe as an implant into the gallery room – a different kind of exhibition context, enabling the space of communication, and sympathetic in relation to busy eateries and cafes on the ground floor. By the end of this project I had witnessed that the gallery walls were not, metaphorically speaking, a blank canvas – they contained the social relations of the art establishment.  This gallery-cafe was perceived through the experiences of individual visitors depending on the interplay of their interpretation and memory or knowledge of this gallery as a space to come to see art exhibitions.

The notion of museum as experience apparatus aligns with Gilles Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The metaphor of ants in amber, a view of the whole, including ourselves within the entanglement of all elements, serves well in relation to the materialist social ontology, from which the concept of assemblage extends. As Manuel DeLanda notes – “our minds need to be there”, but social ontology, “is independent of the contents of our minds” [3]. In Deleuze’s concept of assemblage, each part stands in active relation to others, whereby the emergent properties of the whole cannot be reduced to its parts: a horse, warrior and weapon is an example of assemblage – “each part amplifies the other parts”  [4].  Therefore, for Deleuze, the key to assemblage is that the warrior is a skilled user or connector in relation to horse and weapon (and we should assume that the horse and weapon are functional, and so forth), alternatively, it would be a mere collection of things rather than an assemblage [5].

And yet – why not use the assemblage to explore possibilities? For example, thoughts, are usually mere collections, but, what if they are treated as assemblages? Art often presents methodologies of collection, to the extent of absurd, yet with the claim of assemblage – active insistence on meaning even though there might not be any. We can also think of an artwork and a viewer as an assemblage. Thus, this theory is attractive through the potential of tension between its realism and “idealism”: awareness of entanglement and the potential of relationships.

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[1] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[2] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[3] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[4] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[5] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

Brevard Zoo. Viera FL. Photo credit: Rusty Clark. Creative Commons Licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

Quite often the strategies of exhibition making in the field of contemporary art prioritize an approach of multiple entries and thus a possibility for multiple perspectives and journeys within the space of exhibition. And yet this democratic and empowering model poses a challenge in the form of the gap that exists between the potential of experience and physical traversing, or walking through in the time between “in” and “out.” Also, we should not forget about the sharp change to be dealt with by the viewer (and the exhibition maker) characterizing the transition from the outside world to the space of art. Perhaps the most difficult (and rightly criticized) dilemmas for exhibitions are presented by video and film works: screens next to each other offering narratives impossible to grasp unless one spends hours in the gallery room. If screens and their moving contents are not intended to deliver dramaturgy of the space then it seems rather logic to wish that the whole content of a film or video is presented as a spatial object to be walked around and perceived in its totality.  Of course, such solutions as embedded cinemas, bean bags, used extensively in contemporary Kunsthalles and art museums are helpful. While being engaged with the format of visual art, I have been enjoying (not without envy) the theater and other forms of performing art that possess viewers’ time and bodies.

On the other hand, an inscribed path and direction of viewing attracts with the possibility to consolidate the space of art with its experience. At the recent 20th Biennale of Sydney (18 March-05 June 2016) one of the most demanded art experiences – as evidenced by queues – seemed the works by Cécile B. Evans within the Cockatoo Island’s Dogleg Tunnel.  Preamble to a Prequel (of Sorts), created for the Biennale, was an audiovisual walk through the tunnel, a walk “inside” the digital video played back from a smartphone integrated in a headset. This journey transitioned gently at the end of the tunnel into an intimate spectacle of another dreamy and surreal digital narrative – Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014). All this preparation – waiting one’s turn, receiving service and instructions from staff while adjusting the headset, was important. There is certain weight in the role of lobbies and waiting rooms (bright in my memory is an event about six years ago when in a soft-spoken way I was offered a seat and a cup of tea in a “living room” arranged in a youth theater, at the entrance….). The whole experience of Cécile B. Evans work was complete. Visitors (and myself) took their time to lie and watch the second video in the chamber-like space at the far end of the dark tunnel.

I recalled my Dogleg Tunnel experience just few days ago upon another striking but different and deeply personalized event – Gardens Speak  by Tania El Khoury in Adelaide festival. Joining a group of ten in a guided ritual within a somber space I uncovered, as I dug in the soil and attached my ears to the ground and listened to the voice speaking in the first person, the life story of an ordinary Syrian man who lost his life during the brutal and still ongoing conflict. Relating to the concept of path for experience – interestingly, or coincidentally, the grand exhibition at the gallery of South Australia, Versus Rodin (04 March – 02 July), in which curator Leigh Robb has weaved a cluster of narrative lines by thoughtful and tightly knit compositions of modernist and contemporary works, includes a room with walking “tunnels.” In this room, objects are placed on shaped floor structures elevated to the eye level.

“From labels to instructions” can be thought as a provocation that sets a direction towards awareness of the viewer’s bodily experience in frames of exhibition making. It appears to add to the critique of the label (for example, Jon Ippolito in his article Death by Wall Label referred to the use of classic wall labels; in the case of new media artworks requiring active rather than passive preservation this is problematic enough to signify their death). It is of course impossible to eliminate labels altogether and re-orientate to performative aesthetic positions. Ironically, instructions accompanying works of art appear as labels generating, again, an imperative to read. A path through or “instructions” is an offer that can benefit the experience of art in pursuing narratives or as one is invited to construct a narrative of her/his own.