Another Fine Mess: Sally O'Reilly Ponders Themed Group Shows

Article excerpt


HOW GLORIOUS TO HAVE TRANSPORT LAID ON, IN THE FORM OF ART, TO CARRY US TO ALL CORNERS OF THE AESTHETIC, SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL, EPISTEMOLOGICAL, FANTASTICAL AND ABSURDIST UNIVERSES. In any one exhibition we might be invited to think about Albanian Communist Party rallies, the camouflage tactics of stick insects and the intensity of a wall, in genres that might run from autobiography to poetry to pedagogy. For the writer or curator a limber approach to this heterogeneous thing called art is at once invigorating and exhausting. It invariably mutates into impostor syndrome on a regular basis, as art generally has a very casual relationship to epistemology. The artist, on encountering an image, document or idea, does not necessarily worry about its authority, veracity or authenticity, but values its interestingness and malleability. And critics are more drawn to what artists do with the scraps or swathes of knowledge they possess, generally favouring mensuration over facticity.

While this liberates us from traditional modes of history and knowledge, it not only leaves us somewhat adrift, but can also have a diluting or flattening effect, as James Elkins wrote in an article in Frieze magazine (Issue 118): 'Visual studies was to provide serious political critique, an analysis of the operator, a renewed interest in the gaze, a rethinking of post-colonial theory, a genuinely international scope, a reach beyond the art world and beyond the narrow precincts of the humanities. But that promise has been dissipated, and the field remains a collage of special-interest studies that fail to cohere into a larger project or extend beyond the familiar confines of fine art and mass media.' The upshot of Elkins' beef is that 'the art world is a productive mess, and that's fine if you are not interested in saying what the art means', by which we can surmise that this is not fine with Elkins. What the art 'means', though, is notoriously difficult to establish. In fact, meaning in general has become so problematised through insistence on relativity, pluralism and subjectivity that at times it seems impossible to use the word at all.

According to The Guinness Book of Records the word 'set' takes up more space than any other word in the Oxford English Dictionary (in the 6th edition of the Shorter English Dictionary there are 138 entries under the verb, noun and adjective form of the word, while in the full-volume OED, the definitions, sub-definitions, examples and citations run to over 24 large pages of small print). The potential rift between interpretations is widened if we consider the interlinguistic homograph, or words that mean different things in different languages (for example, in French 'chair' means 'flesh', which is a potentially messy confusion). But rather than producing a sense of frustration or disempowerment, this drift of meaning can be generative. The recent exhibition 'Voids: A Retrospective', at Centre Pompidou, Paris, for instance (see review p24), hinges on the illusion of parity between artworks that span 50 years, from Yves Klein to now. A series of empty galleries hosts artworks by nine artists that appear to be identically formulated--ie they amount to nothing--but have come about through divergent means and intentions, from radical dematerialisation and institutional critique to architectural appreciation and transcendentalism.


The many impetuses and meanings behind a lack of physical presence demonstrate how an apparently cogent theme, based on form, can harbour discordant ideas within it. More familiar approaches to thematics, where cultural phenomena, art historical references, groupings of typologies, methodologies or lines of enquiry, or simple pictorial recurrences (the dog in art being the prototypically dumb, but nonetheless fascinating, theme) guide a selection that is then honed through the curating process, which constitutes a melange of connoisseurship, personal taste, academic enquiry and a perceived need for even demographic spread. …


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