While an emotional encounter with a single art work remains the classic example of the ‘power of art’ – e.g. people moved to tears by Guernica (1937) or, more recently, by Marina Abramovic´’s face – the themed group show, as an affective and effective system of display, has since the 1960s threatened to dislodge the dominance of that Romantic model. Of course, governments and local councils have been using the spectacular power of large-scale or monolithic exhibitions to boost the economic viability and cultural status of cities and countries since the 19th century – an impulse that still drives biennial fever today. But it was a collection of smart and conceptually rich exhibitions during the late 1960s and early ’70s, such as Lucy Lippard’s ‘Numbers’ shows (1969–74), Harald Szeemann’s ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (1969–70) and Jasia Reichardt’s ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ (1968), that demonstrated how the relatively compact group show could yield as significant an experience as either a city filled with art or time spent basking in the auratic glow of some old masterpiece.
In the last decade, two significant developments changed how we perceive objects and images in the gallery: the shift from web 1.0 to 2.0 and the increasing popularity of a new branch of philosophical enquiry known as speculative realism or object-oriented ontology (OOO). Web 2.0 – a term that broadly describes the informal evolution from static HTML-based pages to dynamic, highly interactive websites – birthed a relatively open culture in which Internet users were able to access, manipulate, order and link materials with unprecedented ease. Emboldened by the web, we became comfortable forging our own connections between things, as well as recognizing the cultural value of that gesture in the work of others (cf. Tumblr). The result? The subject achieved a new mastery over objects, which were now as pliable as any other tool waiting to be articulated by human hands. In other words, everybody became a curator.
Whereas Web 2.0 placed the human firmly at the centre of the material universe (online and off), speculative realism – a set of ideas that reached a wider audience in 2002 with the publication of Manuel De Landa’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy and Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects – deflated anthropocentrism by encouraging people to place objects on an equal footing with humans. As Harman himself claimed, ‘the true chasm in ontology lies not between humans and the world, but between objects and relations’. This has led to a situation where some in the art world are seriously considering the implications of an art in which the viewer is there, but is no longer central – last year’s ‘Ungrounding the Object’ conference at Centre International d’Art in Limousin, France, where Harman was a guest speaker, saw this proposition puzzled over by panelists and audience members alike.
Today, visitors to group shows are as likely to encounter spaces in which objects are to be read and understood by human subjects, as they are to walk into spaces in which their presence (as just another object among other objects) is negligible. The question is, though, which of the two models produces the most satisfying results? This summer, four shows at commercial galleries in London – White Cube, Lisson, Carl Freedman and Paradise Row – were located at various points between these two poles of exhibition-making.
The guest curator at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard space, São Paulo-based Adriano Pedrosa, opted for a purportedly irreverent strategy of faint institutional critique with ‘Open Cube’, a confused and contradictory exhibition. Gallery interpretation had it that he sought to ‘challenge the identity of White Cube as an organization, as physical space and as concept’. But instead of removed walls and exposed office staff (à la Michael Asher), Pedrosa utilized the hackneyed methodology of an ‘open call’ to select 17 mostly young, mostly London-based artists. Although framed as an act of curatorial generosity, in which artists outside of Pedrosa’s normal network could be considered via a process of submission that was open to all, the work still required his and the gallery’s sanction for inclusion. This system of vetting transformed the open call into a kind of audition for commercial representation, an act of co-option using the rhetoric of inclusivity as an alibi.
Brian O’Doherty’s 1976 series of Artforum essays, now collectively titled Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, were cited as an inspiration, but for anyone familiar with the text this will immediately signal some potential incompatibilities. O’Doherty famously described the white cube as an ideological construct that – with its pretensions to purity, sanctity and timelessness – was anything but neutral. There is something of this spirit of exposure in some of the work Pedrosa selected. São Paulo- and Paris-based Daniel de Paula’s Ascension (2013) saw public street lights installed around the reception area, and London-based Nada Prlja’s Peace Wall (2012), a graffiti-covered gallery wall, both foreground the austere interior by bringing inside fairly astringent elements that we associate with the street. But the edges were softened and incorporated into the gallery’s antiseptic air as opposed to dislodging it – an effect compounded by the relatively conventional tenor of other works on show, favouring abstraction, geometry and process over politics. An unexpected installation pitched Frank Ammerlaan’s marbled metallic swirls caused by chemicals on canvas (Untitled, 2013) as a possible close-up image of the stainless-steel firehose and lift it was placed next to. But even this is a by-product of the white cube’s sacralizing ability to, in O’Doherty’s words, make ‘the firehose in a modern museum look not like a firehose but an esthetic conundrum’. ‘Open Call’, then, was less of an institutional critique than a performance of that tendency as a curatorial style.
Over at Lisson Gallery, the Lithuanian artist/curator Raimundas Malašauskas’s ‘Fusiform Gyrus’ featured 14 artists – although, with 14 works by the Belgian Koenraad Dedobbeleer, it seemed at times like Malašauskas only had eyes for one – managed to be both sprawling and, at times, unforgivingly sparse. Mystification, or rather a meditation on perceptual ambiguities, seemed to be the general theme. Malašauskas’s curatorial statement explained how each art work’s title was an anagram of ‘Fusiform Gyrus’, a part of the brain used for complex pattern recognition. Cyprus-based Elizabeth Hoak-Doering’s series of white line-drawings on clear Perspex seemed to drift in and out of focus, and Malašauskas’s own Hologram (2007), a holographic image of ghostly but contemporary black and white figures, lurched in and out of definition depending on where one stood. Tucked away on the second floor of the smaller of Lisson’s two spaces, however, was an extraordinary sound piece: the Argentine Eduardo Costa’s You See A Dress… (1970), a deadpan monologue in which the narrator casts you, the listener, as the central character in a short sequence. It begins: a theatre interval is recalled, you return to the theatre, see an attractive woman in a black silk tunic, ‘forsee nudity’, and are shocked to discover – once the performer disrobes – that she is a female impersonator. It was the inculcation of those elements as such clear images in the mind that made Costa’s work a thrillingly intimate moment in an otherwise distant display.
The young London-based Italian curator Attilia Fattori Franchini has been exploring the information age’s effects on artistic practice for a while now. And with ‘The Instability of the Image’, featuring seven artists at Paradise Row, she presented another dispatch from the technological singularity (the term used by techno-futurists, like the American authors Raymond Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, to reference humanity’s progress towards full computer symbiosis). The digitization of culture, and the juggernaut of image circulation it launched, has essentially thrown the status of representation, truth and indexicality into a kind of mélange (rather than crisis) of indeterminacy. Nobody really knows what this current moment is, but it’s clear we’re living through a sort of portmanteau temporality – and capturing something of that state of affairs is OK too. The paintings of Gabriel Hartley, Israel Lund and Max Ruf bypass figuration to produce colourful abstractions, a move that certainly makes sense vis-à-vis instability and indeterminacy. Elsewhere, Hannah Perry’s Untitled #1 (2013), a glossy black rubber square that bares the diagonal indentation of a tyre mark, bursts with a kind of lustrous, even belligerent, tactility. It seems to dare you to touch its perfect surface, to leave your own marks.
‘The Instability of the Image’ was a proposition on digital culture aimed squarely at a physically present audience. But what it was saying was not entirely clear. There is the sense, however, that the prolific Franchini – who, with artist Rhys Coren, is a co-founder of the online gallery Bubblebyte.org – is on to something, and that perhaps a definitive moment, between the cadre of digitally cognisant artists she presents and the concepts underpinning her displays, will soon arise.
By far the most unsettling, taxing and curious exhibition of the bunch was the London-based artist Jess Flood-Paddock’s seven-man show ‘£5.34’ at Carl Freedman Gallery. Accompanied by a cryptic text (actually an inventory of the various art works on display), there was an air of quiet austerity, a certain fastidious neatness to the order of things that seemed to be disturbed by human presence. On the one hand, ‘£5.34’ felt like an exhibition as ecological proposition, a space in which the human presence was physically and intellectually unnecessary; on the other, it seemed to be arranged according to a deliberately impenetrable logic, a logic that, however hidden, still demanded conceptual unravelling by a human subject.
Nathaniel Cary’s Stop Making Sense (Father Tongue) (all works 2013) – a grey suit jacket and trousers left, as if discarded in the act of undressing, at two ends of the gallery – provided the first clue. With its reference to David Byrne’s famous Talking Heads-era oversize suit, now without a body, it seemed feasible to infer that perhaps ‘£5.34’ could also be about the absence of the body, or how the centrality of the fully human subject (i.e. neither cyborg nor posthuman) continues to recede against an increasingly technological horizon. Elsewhere, Cary’s A Tixel is a Portmanteau, digital prints of hands hung on a freestanding frame, supported this reading by referencing the development of touch-sensitive and gestural interfacing (‘tixel’ is an agglutination of ‘tactile’ and ‘pixel’, used as shorthand by technologists) and the eventual standardization and patent protection of certain bodily movements as computer commands. While Florian Roithmayr’s Inhaler and Contact Lens, two banners printed with digital images of the objects for which they are named, underscored the fragility of the human body by depicting the technological enhancements needed to make it perform. Still, the unnecessary ambiguity of the exhibition kept the viewer at arm’s length, detached and remote from the invisible linkages Flood-Paddock envisaged when pulling the art works together. While not quite a posthuman ecology of objects, ‘£5.34’, with its almost ascetic disregard for the viewer, revealed something of that model’s inherent austerity.