Generosity Is the New Political
McLean-Ferris, Laura, Art Monthly
Generosity is the new political Wysing Arts Centre Cambridge
5 September to 1 November
Made to prove itself over and over again as an activity related to the public good--to education, interaction, community and even economic stimulus--art often takes on the awkward mantle of altruism. Generosity, as a result, is often a presumed undercurrent to artistic activity. But this is a questionable, ill-fitting crown, as we are reminded in 'Generosity is the New Political', an explorative group show at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire that follows a year-long investigation into the subject of generosity. Time spent with this subject (a gift indeed) has paid off, and Wysing curator Lotte Juul Petersen, along with the artists included in this tight and considered exhibition, reveal that beneath the calm waters of giving lurk complex and conflicting riptides.
Take Katerina Seda's It Doesn't Matter, 2005-07, for instance, which wrongfoots viewers by playing to, and then confounding, our expectations of the generously minded art project. The installation consists of a wall of thickly scrawled, uncertain drawings made with a black marker pen on paper, which could have been made by a child. Equally shaky handwriting labels the objects, many of which appear to be kitchen implements. The drawings were made by Seda's grandmother in exercises set by the artist in an attempt to bring her out of an apathetic, listless depression following the death of her husband, and as an alternative to watching television. She is forced to draw from memory every item that she used to sell in her hardware shop, an activity that causes us to wonder about the process of mourning, of memories attached to objects and of the energy of creativity. However, an accompanying video depicts Seda barking questions at her poor grandmother, who clearly would rather be doing anything else. 'Why are you drawing it like that?' she interrogates, pushing the older woman to respond until she says that she feels ill. Suddenly, we don't know why the artist is doing this, and who the project serves. Is it Seda who finds her grandmother's lack of activity unbearable? Her grandmother doesn't care, a fact that the title of the piece, which comes from one of her most oft-given statements, makes clear.
The issue of caring is also central to Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson's musical film The Caregivers, 2008, originally shown in Manifesta 7 in 2008. The soundtrack is an operatic piece of music sung in English (though there are subtitles) which describes the lives of two migrant careworkers from the Ukraine and Romania, while the visuals depict them looking after their elderly Italian clients: feeding, bathing and caring for them. The grandiose theatricality of the music lends high drama to narratives that are both tragic and mundane--these women have been forced to leave their families in order to send money back home. 'Sending goods and money home brings some relief', trills the singer, while the protagonists and others in their situation, working long hours for low wages, save the Italian economy millions of dollars.
Luca Frei's Untitled (... Sun is the tongue, the shadow is the language), 2009, consists of a row of achingly lovely discs of green glazed ceramic, reminiscent of iridescent clock faces. …