COUNTER THEMES (FOR MARTIN)
I propose an end to thematic art exhibitions. I address this to everyone who does exhibitions.
Themes are especially problematic when one wants to present new ideas that have the potential to change the way one understands the world. How come anyone thinks such ideas are best served by forcing them into preconceived aesthetics, display forms, and production modes? Because that's what you sign up for when you choose a theme.
Do you always produce the cage before catching the canary? To people like you, one can only say two things: “Do you have it?” and “I need proof.” That is the rhetoric around thematic exhibitions.
Themes are about something. They are not the thing itself, nor made of the thing. They are a mental tool for keeping things separated, from themselves, and from you. With this distance, and division, you can assure yourself what you're doing is not a thing, totally not a thing. It's the legacy of looking at the world while pretending you're outside of it and can thus make balanced judgements on the things you see from afar.
A thematic exhibition wants not to be something, but to claim something happened in a certain way, there, in the world, not here, in the exhibition space. Thus the exhibition becomes proof. Its legitimacy as such is championed in the catalogue text, where additional authentication is given in the form of timely academic references and quotes from art world players of the day.
In engaging with the thematic show, you let both the exhibition and the agents of art world be taken seriously. The interest you show is the leverage they, or we, all need.
This is one reason why the proposition of the audience making the show has gained traction. The curators and producers of an exhibition want to share the liability with you. As a visitor, I dislike being told I made the show happen, or that I have to make it.
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.
When did you, OK, we, fall in love with themes? Why do we allow for the so-called art world, even here in “off-sites” such as Bielefeld, dictate our interests? Also, why do we accept the idea of off-sites and hotspots? Isn’t there a more pressing need for, say, an epistemic change, or stories closer to your heart? Is it truly enough to change the name but not the form?
The thinking behind making shows today seems counterintuitive to the way I experience life. In the quantum age, I have no need for insistent separation of things, but instead want to feel and know the myriad connections and amplitudes reverberating in the exhibition space at once. Choosing a theme for an exhibition forces bogus 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 radiate from the artworks is offensive to one's intellect, to the art works, to everything, really.
I interpret the show through the names of the sponsors, the people I see working at the space, the location, the cost of the coffee downstairs, the choice of the invited speakers on a panel, the speed of the complimentary wi-fi, the interior design, the clothes worn by people that comprise the audience, the art works, the political climate in the country we're in, and so on. An overarching theme denies these things agency, and gives no space for such interpretations.
Be the show about post-humanism, anti-capitalist struggles, or the history of apples, it seems to always end up proving the same things: we flew international people over; we spent money on hand-made shelves, HDMI connectors, young illustrators, and alcohol; we ordered books from Amazon about the topic; we had drinks with these people whose work you're now looking at. The show is the proof we did all of this, and it doubles as a veil to cover our crimes.
I do not want to believe or question any of that. I simply 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. This is a revised version made for the "Lehmä pitää viedä jäälle, jotta se tanssii " group show at Samuelis Baumgarte, Bielefeld, Germany, 2017.
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