in Frieze | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Plane Talking

Globetrotting curators and anxious artists; the trials of aviation and placelessness

in Frieze | 01 MAR 11

Ilene Segalove Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, ‘Lavender Mist’ (1974)

As an airline brat, I flew free of charge until the age of 24. At the time I could find no better use for this than intercontinental shopping. Among my fellow teens this used to be considered quite exciting, but nowadays flying is banal and excessive flying is vulgar. No attempts at green-washing relativism (‘boats are worse: did you know the 15 largest boats emit as much sulphur dioxide as all 800 million cars worldwide?’) will rehabilitate aviation. The limelight now firmly belongs to the exotic few who’ve never set foot on a runway.

Few things are as telling in this regard as the ‘Concorde Fallacy’, a matchless example of dialectics in action. The supersonic airliner was developed in the 1960s, at a time when flying was still exclusive. But the march of mechanical progress – of which Concorde was itself part – took such strides that flying became not a supersonic luxury but a subsonic commonality. Concorde became an awkward relic – like a carphone, or an airline brat striving for attention.

My upbringing also involved being moved from one continent to another every three years, so over time flight cabins became one of the few reassuringly unchanging environments in my life. A sense of home became associated with a universe of comic-strip emergency manuals, marine-blue sick bags and barnyard feeding methods at the hands of sturdy women and tender men, with subtle accents and strange incantations – disarm slides, doors to manual and cross-check – and Cailler chocolates before landing. Not to mention the in-flight magazines – too dim to be informative, but too weird to be spam. I shudder to think what effect this fascinatingly useless corporate folklore has had on me over the decades.

In Up in the Air (2009) George Clooney captured the figure of the hyper-frequent flier to perfection, and his demeanour was predictably reminiscent of that of art professionals: from the easy check-in routines to the post-Fordist service ethos and the self-romanticization, flying around the world to ‘give people something they didn’t know they wanted’. Yet it seems that attention is turning to the grinding materiality of travel, replacing the fascination for placelessness. There hasn’t been as much talk of ‘globalization’ lately as there used to be, and the art-world dramatics of planetary urgency currently seem a little more subdued, as we’re slowly conceding that spotting curators in Dubai or Gwangju does not mean terribly much one way or another.

In my experience, the one place where international travel still raises fascinated eyebrows is Switzerland. This is where even close friends will inquire about my recent activities, and then loudly sneer ‘jetsetter!’ or ‘globetrotter!’ And the Swiss are right. This stuff is not to be taken lightly – something happens to you up there. Studies have proved the in-flight consumption of tomato juice to be several times the rate on earth, owing to changes in the average tastebud. William Gibson even famously suggested that human souls cannot move at the speed of aeroplanes, and can only be gathered up afterwards, like luggage. Considering that aeroplanes produce so much scatty superstition, it seems the synapses of the mind go equally out of kilter. (Ed Force One, the Boeing 757 owned by Iron Maiden, needed a complete overhaul after its ‘zombie chic’ exterior had passengers worried.)

Aeroplanes also seem to lead to scatty art (generally, when the camera aims at the wing, you know you’re doomed). An exceptionally strong example though is the series ‘Fear’ (2002–3), by artist and aerophobe Nedko Solakov. Each work consists of two crinkly chunks of Italian clay, which Solakov squeezed in his hands while en route to the Albisola Ceramics Biennial. If Solakov sardonically externalizes the artist’s innermost existential angst, then Ilene Segalove’s Today’s Program: Jackson Pollock, ‘Lavender Mist’ (1974) uses the motif of flight to comment just as sardonically on visual regimes and their material props. Her collage has passengers absorbed by Pollock’s drip painting, hung where the in-flight film is usually screened. An even more forceful shift in viewing modalities ensued when Segalove’s piece graced the cover of Thinking About Exhibitions, a 1996 Routledge reader that has reached canonical status across the disciplines.

As for curating-from-airplanes, once a ubiquitous slur, in his book The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude (2010) the sociologist of art Pascal Gielen makes compelling comparisons between international freelance curatorial projects and institutional activities that require the cultivation of regional relationships. Your typical ‘visiting international curator’ gig is rarely dependent on, say, networks of owners of given artefacts, and it – apparently – only produces fleeting interpersonal negotiations that barely scratch the given surface. Which implies that a faraway biennial is somehow placeless when compared with in-house curating, with its endless meetings, drinks and dinners with politicians, patrons, collectors and directors. Rather than address the extent to which this is true, and the extent to which Gielen might agree, it’s important to dwell on the very perception of the hypothesis at hand.

The idea of placelessness emerges as being related to the endearingly bourgeois impression that ‘audience’ is an abstract, universally self-same entity. Unlike many people, however, I consider this a relatively harmless working premise, a strategic essentialism far less destructive, curatorially speaking, than its opposite – namely, that local context needs to be dug up and carefully accounted for. Like Ginseng shoots. Or childhood trauma. The most unfortunate offshoot of guilt-ridden internationalism is the attempt to escape from the flight deck carrying bits and pieces of the supposedly indigenous shrapnel. As if local context didn’t know how to fend for itself – simply shutting up will allow you to witness it doing a better job at vocalizing and visualizing than you could ever dream for yourself. It’s somewhat wide of the mark to assume that artists and curators are entitled or even obliged to share site-specific opinions everywhere they fly.

Even before the volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull shortly brought European air travel to a grinding halt in April 2010, dystopian scenarios of long-term mass grounding were slowly emerging. Many are grudgingly conceding that the carbon footprint of the art world must be as large as Canada, while fantasizing not only about ecologically sustainable travel but also about socio-professionally sustainable engagements. And about slowing down. And re-evaluating the bonus-mile imperative, all the hastily planned trips that are to be greeted with joy, as though marine-blue sick-bags and inflight magazines were the markers of a transnational, flourishing lifestyle.