Showing and Hiding

Showing and Hiding

A Calcite Revolt Event
May 28th, 14.00-18.00 hrs
Cafe de Pont, Buikslotermeerweg 3-5, Amsterdam

Showing and Hiding will be a round table talk on the display of artworks in contemporary exhibitions, situations that are often experienced as both desirable and acutely problematic by all parties involved. With its recurring issues, starting with the destructive mechanisms attached to the act of displaying itself, exhibiting is a riddle which, in the discussion, we will examine from different points of view and with participants from various fields of experience.

Contributors and speakers:
Murat Aydemir: university lecturer in Comparative Literature and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam.
Anke Bangma: curator and editor, currently curator of contemporary art at the Tropenmuseum, the national ethnographic institute in Amsterdam.
Banu Cennetoglu: artist who also founded and runs BAS, an Istanbul based initiative focussing on artists' books and publications.
Rita McBride: artist and professor of sculpture at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf.
Sophie Nys: artist living and working in Brussels.
Zoë Gray: curator at Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art, co-author of the symposium series "Rotterdam Dialogues: Critics, Curators, Artists" (2008-9) and Vice President of IKT, the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art.
Georg Schöllhammer: curator, writer and editor, co-founder and the editor in chief of the art magazine Springerin, initiator, head and editor in chief of the Documenta 12 Magazines and chairman of Tranzit.at.

Initiator and moderator: Philippine Hoegen: artist, co-founder and board member of Calcite Revolt, teaching visual arts at St Joost Art Academie, Den Bosch.

Calcite Revolt

“Showing and Hiding” will be the first of a series of public events organised by Calcite Revolt, an organisation for professional exchange between different actors within the artistic field. Calcite Revolt was founded in 2009 with the specific aim to provide and research models of interaction and collaboration between artists, curators, theorists and intermediaries. Since its foundation we have experimented with different forms of organization and types of exchange. At the root of our development is the reflection on artistic production and questioning of conventions or habitual modes of thinking, relating and operating within the art context.

The Discussion

The discussion will be held following a “three ringed” principle. The inner ring are the speakers who are invited as a consequence of their specific knowledge or ideas on certain areas of the subject matter and who will hold a short introductionary address. The second ring is made up of ‘stakeholders’, people who are specially interested in the subject and who will contribute by actively stimulating and precipitating the discussion. 

Second ring participants are: Mariska van den Berg (independant curator, editor and writer), Isabel Cordeira (artist), Ruth Legg (artist and PhD researcher at Goldsmiths University), Vesna Madzoski (curator and writer), Franziska Koch (artist and musician), Robert Suermondt (artist).

The third ring is the public, invitees who are welcomed to question, interupt and interfere. 

Introduction

In “Showing and Hiding” we would like to pose a number of specific questions about the display of artworks in contemporary exhibition situations. Exhibitions, with their rituals of installing and un-installing, opening and closing, displaying and concealing, are often experienced as acutely problematic by all parties involved. Like a repetitive and unsolvable riddle, the same issues appear again and again, starting with the destructive mechanisms attached to the act of displaying itself. Yet surprisingly, exhibitions everywhere are comparatively uniform, not only in the presentation of the individual artwork in biennales, museum exhibitions, gallery shows etc but also in the social rituals that accompany them, how information is dispersed and how entrance into a general discourse is sought.

Initially the angle from which we would like to approach the subject is more analytical than it is revolutionary, the questions being “Why and how do we do this, what do we gain?” rather than “What are the alternatives?” However it won’t be possible to ignore the crucial question playing in the background: “Is this the best we can do?”.

“Showing and Hiding” will be the first of a series of public events organised by Calcite Revolt, an organisation for professional exchange between different actors within the artistic field. Calcite Revolt was founded in 2009 with the specific aim to provide and research models of interaction and collaboration between artists, curators, theorists and intermediaries. Since its foundation we have experimented with different forms of organization and types of exchange. At the root of our development is an ongoing questioning of, and critical thinking about conventions or habitual modes of thinking, relating and operating within the art world.

Topics of discussion emerging within Calcite Revolt and also in the larger context of the artistic field we are part of, indicate that a fundamental questioning of artistic practices and the role of art in society are particularly urgent in our current social and political climate. The series of Public Discussions that we propose are an effort to contribute to these topics in a pertinent way.

Habitat

In his essay "The Valéry Proust Museum", Adorno discusses, through two texts, one by Proust and one by Valéry, the experience of encountering art in a museum. He holds that art has lost its natural habitat and the only place left for displaying and encountering art is in its tomb, the museum. He concludes that the museum, though restrictive and authoritarian, is also the best (perhaps only) option open to us and can best be negotiated thorough preparation, knowing in advance what one wants to see, choosing and concentrating on certain pieces.

The aim of a white cube is to diminish or prevent unwanted, unforeseen, extra layers of meaning in the form of uncontrolled information and ‘noise’, from interfering with the artwork. This leaves the piece standing stripped and stark on its pedestal, free of interference but also, according to Adorno and Valéry, banned from its natural habitat, or with Proust: in a death-like state, signified by its surroundings, the context of museum and exhibition; the way it is held up for view and what is said about it.

Is the museum a tomb or a habitat? And how, in our contemporary understanding, do we conceive of an artworks’ natural habitat?

Dialogue suggests full integrity to viewer and viewed. But the relation between museum object and viewer suggests not a dialogue of equal volition so much as an interrogation – a forced, often tendentious meeting in which certain priorities clearly dominate. For the mute, passive object lies under the active, controlling gaze of the viewer, and under the ideological protocols of the institution arranging the viewing”.[1]

Whilst the ‘museum object’ referred to in this article belongs to the historical, anthropological realm, it is possible to draw a parallel to a contemporary art display.

Does an artwork find its home in a museum or is it, like Bohrers museum object, estranged and forlorn? Besides the context of its display, the context in which a work is made is of equal significance. In many cases these two contexts collapse into each other (works that are site-specific, commissioned, exhibition-specific, conceived or simply installed with a particular exhibition in mind). But even so, the work is always made within at least one other crucial framework: that of the artists own work. The oeuvre is the development of a language, an exploration of preoccupations, a series of different approaches. Each work always has the information that is collected in the making of other works at its base. The scope, logic or language of a piece is nourished by the body of work it is a part of.

In many contemporary exhibitions a large number of artists show one or few pieces in a shared or isolated space, directly or indirectly surrounded by other artists’ pieces. Could it be said that in these cases what is effectively on display is a specimen? And does that lead to the idea that the natural habitat could be found within the oeuvre?

The Gesture of Exposing

What is on display? A piece or object with an inherent meaning of its own or somebody’s conviction, idea or ideology about that piece? Is it at all possible to distinguish between these factors?

“In Double Exposure: The Subject of Cultural Analysis, Mieke Bal [] views exposition, the subjective agency that organizes an exhibition, as a specific form of discursive behaviour, involving “the posture or gesture of exposing.” In this gesture, a first person or ‘I’ points at the objects on display, inviting a second person or ‘you’, the visitor, to ‘Look!’ []
However, the seemingly innocent invitation to just look at the exhibited objects also implies the transmission of a series of statements about the objects, which motivate their selection, juxtaposition, and signification. Thus the things themselves affectively recede before the statements made about them and the order imposed on them. “The thing on display” Bal writes, “comes to stand for something else, the statement about it. It comes to mean.[2]

Together with artist Banu Cennetoglu, I had a peculiar experience in relation to this when we compiled and installed in recent years several exhibitions of work by the deceased artist Masist Gül. We had very few leads to understand how he would have wanted to see his work installed or under what conditions it should be displayed, as Gül, during his life was not a recognized artist nor functional within the art world and subsequently left no information on the subject. Based on trial and error, scrupulous research and a gut feeling for the work, we came up with a format that we felt was close to, and right for, the work, using a specially constructed wall and a glass show-case placed against it. Though not closed off, what we made was essentially a space within a space. The wall is black, the case carefully constructed. It is not a ‘neutral’ installation, but one we felt was what the work requires. However, during every installation, each step of the way we wrestled with the impossibility of what we were doing. While trying to let the pieces speak optimally for themselves, what were on display were as much our ideas about the work, the way we position it, how we value it, as the work itself.

How much control can one, and should one want to have on the consequences of the gesture of exposing?

However, even if Gül had been present, as an artist one is still only one of the parts of the structure of statements and the order underlining or overlaying an exhibited work. Intrinsic to the complex tangle of contexts surrounding the exhibition situation, the institute, the partaking individuals, stakeholders etc, there is a balance or a battle between signifiers. This can be experienced as both a gain and a loss; an enrichment of the work by its serendipity or the opposite: an unwanted distortion of the intentions of the artist.

Taking Time and Taking Space

Do we use specific media like film and installation as strategies to exercise control over signification? Are these media even possible habitats in themselves?

The individual artworks and the exhibition as a whole are in a constant skirmish with one another, with the works either critically positioning themselves to, or seeking refuge from the exhibiting context, and the overall thematics trying to hold them all together.

With regard to forms of seeking control over or withdrawing from imposed contexts, Hito Steyerl and Boris Groys discuss two such phenomena in their respective essays “Is the Museum a Factory?” and “The Politics of Installation”. Following comparable lines of thought and using remarkably similar jargon, Steyerl discusses the cinematic in contemporary art displays and Groys the artistic installation.

Hito Steyerl states that all actors in the exhibition are sovereign dictators: the artist rules in his or her installation or cinematic space, the curator directs the exhibition and the spectator pronounces the verdict. In contemporary displays, this is frustrated by the time and concentration needed to see many film or video pieces that are to be found in their black boxes within the white cube. To multiply cinematic duration is to blow apart the vantage point of the sovereign judgement of the viewer as it requires a degree of ‘labour’ to see works in their entirety that is often hard and sometimes impossible to give. Steyerl offers the example of the Documenta 11 which required 100 days of viewing to watch all the films completely. Watching such pieces in their entirety becomes a matter of commitment, of subjecting oneself to an unusually, perhaps even inconveniently temporally controlled experience.

In his essay “The Politics of Installation” Boris Groys describes the artistic installation as a space created by the artist within the art space, in which the artist is the legislator of that limited space. Visitors who enter the artistic installation do so as outsiders entering into the ‘private’ space of another. They are subject to the order laid down by the artist but are free in their movement in or out of that confined area and, more importantly, are themselves sovereign in their power to evaluate and in the verdict they pronounce. The artist, like the spectator, also enters as an outsider, an outsider to the art space where his work will be shown. By creating a space within that space the artist is in a way turning his or her back on, or withdrawing from, the existing rules, creating a space within the space with its own specific rules, a game within the game. Groys calls this ‘self-exclusion’.

An image or object can of course also function as a space, a mental or pictorial area, but creating an actual physical space that can be entered and exited, even if this is no more than a line drawn on the floor, is a symbolic gesture of appropriation that works on a very direct level. In our daily negotiation of social space we are conditioned to be sensitive to the power of borders. On entering the domain of the installation there is, as Groys says, a feeling of coming into a sort of private space of the artist.

Showing and Hiding

Whilst Groys concludes that the installation is a space of unconcealment, (“The space of the installation is thus one of unconcealment (in the Heideggerian sense) of the heterotopic, sovereign power that is concealed behind the obscure transparency of the democratic order.”[3]) one could also perceive both the cinematic as the installation as a forms of concealment. Rather than delivering an object or image over to the stark ‘white cube’ context, the artist creates a kind of habitat, an environment. The viewer has to make a conscious choice to enter, to discover, to spend time on exploring what is there. The artist gains time. He or she can build and elaborate, holding the viewer in place so that there is time for muttering and stammering, layering and uncovering.

Philippine Hoegen

 


[1]  Frederick N. Bohrer, The Times and Spaces of History: Representation,Assyria, and theBritishMuseum,

in Museum Culture, edited by Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, Univertity of Minnesota Press, 1994

[2]  Murat Aydemir, essay: The Ghost of the Present: The Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium published in Looking, Encountering, Staging, Piet Zwart Inst. and Revolver, 2005

[3] Boris Groys: The Politics of Installation, e-flux journal reader 2009,Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp. 27