Counter Themes 
Jan 30, 2017

I propose an end to thematic art exhibitions. I address this to everyone who does exhibitions. When the experience of art is served wrapped in a theme, it presupposes what the artworks are about, and how the show should be looked at. This is especially problematic when one wants to present new ideas that have the potential to change the viewer’s understanding of the world. Are such ideas best served by forcing them into preconceived aesthetics, forms of display, and production modes?

Do you always produce the cage before catching the canary? That makes sense only if you're in the business of trafficking something, like animals, or ideas. To people in that line of business, one can only say two things: “Do you have it?” and “I need proof.” 

This is the rhetoric of thematic exhibitions. 

Themes are about something. They are not the thing itself, nor made of the thing. They're the last remaining mental tool for putting bars between things. With this distance, and division, you can assure yourself what you're doing is not a thing.

A thematic exhibition represents the hope that you wouldn't have to dirty yourself by being in the world. It's the safari ride through reality. Perhaps that's why thematic shows are so popular in Helsinki museums -just look at listings for any of the big art museums here. They give a taste of being part of something while excluding yourself from the messiness of it.

A thematic exhibition wants not to be something, but to claim something happened in a certain way. The exhibition is evidence on the righteousness of its own vision. From studying it, you can't tell whether it's the only one, or one of many pieces of evidence, ie. is this all there is to this topic? The generality and legitimacy of the show are dealt with in detail in the catalogue text. There, further proof is offered in the form of hot academic references and quotes from art world players of the day. 

In engaging with the thematic show, you let both the exhibition and the art world at large be taken seriously as proof. The interest you show is the leverage they both need. 

This is one reason why museum curators love the proposition of audience making the show. They want to share the liability with you. Which is why I as a visitor dislike being told I made the show happen, or that I have to make it, especially when I'm presented with binary options that diminish me to a switch.

As a random example, think of the side room at Yayoi Kusama's exhibition at Helsinki Art Museum, still running at the time of writing. The visitors were encouraged to insert a sticker anywhere in the room downstairs from the exhibition. This was marketed as a chance to make the artwork happen together.

On one hand, my aversion of being forced to engage numbly with a show is a question of labor: I wouldn't want to do more unpaid work in addition to creating value by bringing my body, a body, into the show. On the other, the statement is untrue. Everyone makes the show, not just the audience, and some more than others. The show is the living sum of its connections. Without my body, any body, the show weights less.

Curators, artists, and producers working at museums and galleries in Helsinki: Stop proving there is something we all need now to take seriously because the international biennale circuit has decided so. Start telling us who put this here and why.

When did you, OK, we, fall in love with proof? Why do we let the art world, even here in distant places such as Tallinn and Helsinki, dictate our interests? Isn’t there a more pressing need to write and rewrite local histories, instead of forcing the lore of postwar, post-modernist North American art into our lives? 
But what really confuses me with the current logic of making shows is that the thinking behind it seems counterintuitive to the way I experience life. In quantum age, I have no need for insistent separation of things, but instead desire the myriad connections and amplitudes reverberating in the exhibition space at once. Choosing a theme for an exhibition creates artificial coherence where stimulating chaos could reign instead.  

The artworks are simply just one part of the whole experience. Trying to keep everything else out so as to make the theme shine off from the artworks is offensive to one's intellect and to the works, and alien to my experience. 

I interpret the show through the names of the sponsors, through the people I see working at the space, the location, the cost of the coffee downstairs, the choice of invited speakers in a panel, the speed of the complimentary wi-fi, the graphic design, the art, through everything. The theme denies these things agency, and gives no space for such interpretations.
My criticism could be pointed towards all of the Helsinki-based galleries, as well. Be the show about post-humanism, anti-capitalist struggles, or the color blue, the underlying logic is the same: we flew international people over to Helsinki; we spent money on wooden hand-made shelves, and lightning-to-HDMI connectors and young designers and alcohol; we ordered books from Amazon about the topic, and we had drinks with these people whose work you're now looking at; the show is the proof we did all of this.  

I do not want to believe or question any of that. I want out of this business of proof. 


This article appeared originally in Estonian on Kaasaegse Kunsti Eesti Keskus/ Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia's newsletter.

back to