What are these anonymous materials? There’s no need to speculate; materials are rarely anonymous. In this large, drafty group show, curator Susanne Pfeffer’s first here, the aim was to present an overview – a 3D scan, rather – of 23 seemingly similarly-minded artists and artist groups working mostly in New York and Berlin, and their relationship to strands of materialist theories now circulating. Imported to the Fridericianum’s monarchical halls was a trade fair of 3D printed objects, stock photos, ironized expressionistic ‘gestures’ and cynically-realist body scans. All delivering on the try-hard promises of the hashtags in the exhibition invite: #viewerscorporeality #immateriality #objects.
Arnold Bode opened Documenta in 1955 while there were still ruins in what is now the lawn outside the Fridericianum. But here was a post-apocalyptic scene where the broken thing had formed an assembly line into the museum. The feeling of ruin – technological despair, I think, was the exhibition’s real theme – was advanced by pieces like Yngve Holen’s Extended Operations (2013), with its title of strain and direness: rough, large 3D printed blocks of scanned cow carcasses resting on modular stage elements at different heights and angles, looking like veined, marble steaks on hospital gurneys. The sociopathy of several works was refreshing. For Josh Kline’s nicely pessimistic HD video Flattery Bath 2 (2012) he and assistants interviewed New York ‘creatives’ while bathing them in different bottled water brands in a luxury hotel bathroom (The Standard in New York). Trite conversation became inseparable from self-interest; no compliment is free. Oliver Laric’s 5 (2013) was a digital animation of five individuals interviewing each other in rotation, apparently in a speed dating setting, where each provided the same stock of questions and answers regardless of the interlocutor. Communication misfires these works seemed to assert. At the core of our technological hyper-linkage, it seems, is a deep solipsism, an inability to connect, a separation somehow enforced by our scripted, algorithmically informed self-direction.
How might this anti-connectivity manifest itself in an exhibition setting – in the relationship of viewer to work? That question was never answered; it was never properly posed. Aside from a few independent, self-consciously ambivalent works that didn’t fit or were unaware of the curatorial party line – Avery Singer’s poly-historical, black-and-white paintings; Simon Denny’s funny research-model meta-timeline Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Documentary Restoration (2011) – the exhibition was fatigued by its own chronic theorizing. One walked through a fractured series of ‘gestural’ hand-themed works – Josh Kline’s casted Creative Hands, 2012, Aleksandra Domanovic´’s reliquary hand sculptures, Ken Okiishi’s finger-painted scrawls on TV monitors, gesture/data, 2013 – apparently all referencing the etymological origins of the digital – the tired manual workings of digits.
In case anyone needs reminding, no ‘thing’ is inherently interesting. Objects gain meaning, and therefore import, only within communities, their social contexts. The curatorial desperation to play down any social component in lieu of the liberated ‘object’ came to overshadow those very objects exhibited. Such negation is unjustifiable; after all, what was really on show was a socially determined set of works by a group of individuals, often friends, who know each other quite well. While this social dimension shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, it at least deserves speculation: many works, after all, tried to parse the communal complications of meaning-production.
Along with last year’s Lyon Biennale, this exhibition will doubtless be seen, reductively, as an institutional validation of a moderately influential social network. This reading is unfortunate and jumps on a curatorial missed opportunity: instead of engaging with the questions at hand (most plainly, what does ‘community’ even mean in a very social age?), the exhibition’s neutralizing rhetoric dismissed these questions at the outset, replacing real problems with cute, imagined ones.
To be specific, nested within the exhibition’s vague title – and the subject of its well-padded symposium – was the cluster of neo-materialist arguments known as Speculative Realism. The biggest flaw of these arguments is not the tediousness of their determinism – let’s all read the Fibonacci sequence in a potato peel – nor their poetic construal of philosophy (a fuzzy reading of Hegel, a cheap shot at Kant). Speculative Realists – apparently unaware of the irony in their own title – tend, like self-replicating corrupted files, or like Enlightenment era philosopher-apothecaries to find new ways of constructing old problems. True to form, the exhibition-theory complex here generated a new chain of illogical fallacies: branding the philosophical with the generational, the generational with the aesthetic, and the aesthetic with the social, all under the bombast of a curious ‘anonymity’. It’s no fault of the artists, but what did the resulting ‘anonymous materials’ look like? Like seeing one’s baggage dumped onto a flat earth by an airport customs officer: contents, vague masses, some humanoid semblances, but mostly jumble, heaps of stuff among mouthwash and receipts and dross.
During the night of the opening, three of the exhibiting artists began to quarrel and were asked by guests who preferred to enjoy their dinners to take their argument elsewhere. Anyone who peeked over a balcony could witness a curious zoological display: a trio arguing various ‘positions’ on materialism, biological determinism, machismo. Regardless of the sides being argued, the real takeaway here was unfortunate. Everyone lost, because the playing board was already faulty. Just as enlightenment once to led to barbarism, now theory leads to dogma, and dogma leads back to unenlightened conflict – now in HD.