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

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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.

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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. The trans-historical themed show has its pitfalls, similar to cross-cultural projects, as Paul O'Neill comments in 'Curating U-Topics' (AM272), that run the danger of 'presenting art from other places as if other places are all the same'. And they can also tip into populist packaging, promising an easily digestible, single pill of understanding.

Themes are better wielded to perform contingent rearrangements rather than logical recategorisations, and as such they have been used as a blade for slicing up the art pie along any number of axes, as a rummage through the Time Out archive reveals. Taking the current issue at the time of writing, and going back in five-year increments (as unscientifically arbitrary an approach to statistical data as any), the list of thematic group shows shrinks and their individual scope changes considerably. From this list it is possible to imagine a typology of strategies for theme shows, such as the Venn diagram approach (as in 'women and photos'), subsets of genres, iconographic parity, methodological echoes, coaxing out cultural tropes, the projection of critical theory and the collation of instances.

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Broadly speaking, though, we might identify two main types of thematics as teleological and heuristic. The former unearths connections or tendencies within the works, while the latter actively produces or projects links between elements. For example, the zeitgeist thematics of the Tate Triennial, or 'Altermodern', according to curator Nicolas Bourriaud, 'designates a field of what's next after postmodernism', which comprises 'a cluster of singular, local answers to globalisation in the political field'. While Bourriaud claims to be filtering out a phenomenon that is extant in art, Mark Wallinger has taken a similarly non-totalising approach in the Hayward touring exhibition 'The Russian Linesman' that conversely acknowledges the selection as the point of production of meaning. Wallinger's show started as a rumination on liminality but soon devolved into an associative methodology similar to that which underpins his own work.

This associational and loose process is likely to irk a marketing department bent on a nice tight theme that can be communicated in a single sentence, unlike 'La Sombra' ('Shadows'), a two-part show currently at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Fondacio Caja Madrid, which considers the role of the shadow in art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The first half of the show includes six paintings of the mythological origins of painting, when a young Corinthian girl drew round the shadow of her lover, innumerable interiors where a central light source creates allegorical atmosphere and a smattering of the multi-coloured shadows of Impressionism. The intention is to 'draw the visitor's attention to the host of implications, problems and solutions inherent in the representation of the shadow in art'. But simply grouping typologies within figurative art as a means to 'draw attention to' something so phenomenally complex and rich as the phenomenon of shadows falls short of the subject's potential. Although the 20th-century part of the show is a little more effusive, winkling out the metaphysics of surrealist painting and photography and the allegorical facets of film noir, without extemporisation the show can never approach the analytical depths of, say, Victor I Stoichita's book A Short History of the Shadow. Here the shadow is cast by the historical sweep of western thought, from the origins of painting and representation in a broader sense to psychology, the uncanny, the double, reproducibility, photography and the eternal return.

Rather than a discussion on curating, though, it is more the impact on epistemology that interests me. The shortfall of a show like 'La Sombra' is not necessarily its theme, but its application as an almost arbitrary filter or glue. At their most penetrating, themes do not produce a solidifying effect but demonstrate the friability of art and, in many cases, the cultural relativity of knowledge. They might be used as a lateral vehicle, a diagonal knife or radiating fabric that passes through various discourses, disciplines and media. Sina Najafi, editor of Cabinet magazine, recently described themes to me as 'a tool for making the various disciplines and fields confess to their secret liaisons'. Cabinet operates with reference to 17th-century cabinets of curiosities which, generally, were collections of exotica collected and arranged according to typological groupings, in humble or hubristic attempts to accrue knowledge and rationalise the universe. More recently, though, epistemology, the study of language and the history of ideas, cultural studies and art discourse have been more concerned with disruption and discontinuity rather than completion or stability. The fractured approach of a publication like Cabinet makes no completist claims, but reflects innumerable fields of constitution and validity.

In The Archaeology of Knowledge Foucault describes history, as a discourse, as having changed from the definition 'of relations (of simple causality, of circular determination, of antagonism, of expression) between facts or dated events' to the study of series of events, the issue now being the scale of study:

The problem now is to constitute series: to define the elements proper to each series, to fix its boundaries, to reveal its own specific type of relations, to formulate its laws, and, beyond this, to describe the relations between different series ... The appearance of long periods in the history of today is not a return to the philosophers of history, to the great ages of the world, or to the periodization dictated by the rise and fall of civilizations; it is the effect of the methodologically concerted development of series. In the history of ideas, of thought and of the sciences, the same mutation has brought about the opposite effect ... It has led to the individualization of different series, which are juxtaposed to one another, follow one another, overlap and intersect, without one being able to reduce them to a linear schema. Thus, in the place of continuous chronology of reason, which was invariably traced back to some inaccessible origin, there have appeared scales that are sometimes very brief, distinct from one another, irreducible to a single law, scales that bear a type of history peculiar to each one, and which cannot be reduced to the general model of a consciousness that acquires, progresses, and remembers.

This is worth quoting at length as, although written 30 years ago, it offers us an epistemological model through which to consider thematic thinking now. Foucault warns that the reflection on 'long periods', which we could consider equivalent to the epochal claims made by Bourriaud, are a symptom of looking, rather than meaning. His characterisation of a mobile field of shifting interconnectivity, while fashionably and perhaps tiresomely Deleuzian, offers a model of 'series', which we might read as 'themes', that release us from the need to find coherent meaning altogether.

In The Book of Skin, Steven Connor describes the process of compiling such a wide-ranging thematic appraisal of human history: 'The sequence of my discussion in this book should not be thought of as a simple tally or telling off of the functions of the skin ... The work in this book does not describe (draw lines around, contain) the structures and movements that are its subject; it follows them out, in the sense in which the finger follows the contours of a substance or a solid object. It uses the skin's own mode of touching things. If I were a Jungian, I might say that the task of this analysis is not to rouse a dream or slumber into wakefulness, but to dream the dream of skin out.' Elsewhere, when explaining the role of cultural studies in relation to his writing, Connor draws on a quote by Foucault: 'We know what we do and we know, up to a point, why we do it: what we don't know is what what we do does.' In response to this, in The Book of Skin Connor applies its theme to a heterogeneous field that takes in epistemology, medical, political and cultural history, etymology, philosophy and religion, measuring the phase-space between meanings.

To readdress Elkins' horror of the art world as 'a productive mess', and my own suspicion that the theme is often used as populist packaging, this meta-focus on what a cultural activity does rather than what its about is a difficult but necessary two-step. It requires a shift of emphasis in thematic practices, from ever-increasingly sophisticated references or categories to a consideration of its own methodology, and the development of a vocabulary of meaning-making.

SALLY O'REILLY is a writer.

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