Few fleeting thoughts after visiting Kusama and Saint Phalle exhibitions in Helsinki. 

It’s great to see more women artists being seen. More about that in this excellent article. But other than that, what are museums doing today, exactly? 

The shows of Saint Phalle and Kusama are framed to be about the inner world of the artist. But it’s not about accommodating for a chance to try different ways of being, but about creating a distance between the artist and us others.

In the latter exhibition, visitors are not encouraged to have an orgy in the style of Kusama’s old happenings, but to insert a dot-shaped sticker in to a room where a museum personnel oversees this performance of participation. This can either be seen as a lighthearted way to end the museum tour, or as a repressing reminder of what the role of audience really amounts to. After all that talk about relational aesthetics and turning audiences into participants in 1990-2014, we’re left feeling bad for a museum worker and thus unable to decline their offer to perform the sorry task of an “activated” audience member.

And while I was looking at Saint Phalle’s work, I was thinking, without passing a value judgement on the works per se, why are these inner visions worth seeing, and not someone else’s? I am not referring to the very real issues of representation, ie. showing works made by someone other than a white cis male. Instead, I'm thinking about the act of showing the works made by one person. 

Why are we still repeating these power structures, and representations of individual genius? Why can’t we entertain the thought that artists are not special, or different from other people at all? And that if we don’t want to do art ourselves but to more or less passively experience it and thus want to keep this system in place, then the people creating those experiences for us should be treated like anyone else working in service industry (which, according to Lawrence Weiner in 1980’s, is what/where art is).

Furthermore, when I criticise museums and galleries, it’s never about the choice of artists for me. It’s not that I’d like some other artists to have a solo show in a museum (well, I would, or that too. See the point above made about representation). What I want is to burn down the whole system of portraying artists and their inner worlds and thoughts as more valuable than everyone else’s. 

If Alfredo Jaar would state his views on the world in any other public forum, he would be laughed out, but in the art world we must take his one-dimensional washed-down slogans seriously because we’ve been told he’s a Great Artist. If we’d see the playful drawings of Saint Phalle or the repeated patterns of Kusama online made by a non-artist, we wouldn’t give them any chance. Or would we? Am I being too harsh?

Researchers studying social media behaviour have noted that we share posts based on “its coherence with [our] prior beliefs and the number of friends who had already shared it.” The content of a post itself has no value in the decision-making process. The same could be said of our experience with art, no? (I got this bit of info from this superb essay on social media warfare)

At the same time, museums are doing everything they can to make the museum spaces as approachable and immersive an experience as possible, with little need for audiences to contemplate unorthodox ideas and digest new information.

For example, Helsinki Art Museum has a slogan on their coat hangers, "World's best museum is located between your ears" (pictured below, in Swedish). This plays neatly to the ideas of "everyone's a professional" and "my experience is what counts", with American alt-right being the most visible example of this line of extreme anti-elitist thinking. And of course it's ears not eyes, because the most desired art today by museums such as the ones in Helsinki, is immersive and ambient (I'd like to refer to Seth Kim-Cohen's didactic "Against Ambience" essay for more on sound's prominent role in immersive art).

But if the museums would actually believe in that slogan HAM is using, why would they set up shows where people with the world's best museums inside themselves would be paying money to look into the world's second best museum collection, a.k.a. the minds of artists? And is it ineffective to see the contents of one best museum (the Great Mind of an Artist) being shown at a time, when you could organise for all of our collections to be available for us all?  Do you or do you not believe in what you are saying about this great museum between our eyes?

This brings me to my most pressing question about the Kusama exhibition. Who truly loves this? Who in the museum that organised this show believes in what this show is saying, and what is it that it's trying to say? What I felt when being there was stardom worship, over-seriousness, default installation strategies, and an aggressive underlining of Kusama’s “weirdness” (…), which was all I could hear people talk about at this crowded show. One person’s life catered to us as an afternoon delight.

I believe we should stop with this practice of worshipping artists. What I want is face value: a pile of sticks is still a pile of sticks even if it was assembled by someone famous. But I also want magic: a pile of sticks could change your life.  

I think it’s high time museums & galleries & art spaces & artists & public & art schools re-think their reasons for existence and their relations to each other. I don’t have any idea what this means but I do not want to promote these modes of production any more (although I do, sometimes). I’m happy when my friends make these sorts of shows, but it's still the same. Because it's not the scale: all exhibitions work like this, if they don't question these issues at the heart of our display culture. And it's not the content either: even the show with the most pressing, real-life issues on display still diminished into decor when witnessed in an art space, provided the power structure stays the same. 

last edited: April 3 2018 10:18pm

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