Impossible Vacation

[uds-billboard name=”IV”]The following review of the current group exhibition, Impossible Vacation, at White Flag Projects, was recorded by Sarrita Hunn and Ryan Thayer shortly after their second visit.

Sarrita: So, I think that there are three aspects of the show to talk about: there’s the statement, which kinda purports to be separate from the show, there’s the show, and then there is the actual relationship between those two things.

Ryan: I think that there is one other layer. There is the statement, or the curatorial forward, there’s the show, but then there is all the texts contributed by the artists which is like a printed version of the show that accompanies the exhibition.

S: First, maybe we can talk a little bit about the statement because it frames your expectations of what the show is going to be.

R: Sure. I think that is a common way someone approaches a show. The statement for this exhibition might be summarized as an attempt to remove the curator, or reduce the curatorial role, and to not impose any framework on the exhibition for the benefit of asking the viewer to experience the artworks directly. I think that it is a worthy goal, but I think it is a problematic goal.

S: In the statement it says, “the artworks and the exhibition are freed from superfluous interpretation.” So, obviously that is taking a really specific stance on ideas of interpretation.

R: Then the question for me is: whose interpretation are we talking about? One thing, in regards to this statement as a curatorial framework, is that it strikes me as a reaction. It’s a reactionary framework. I see it as a reaction against the idea that the curator is the new artist. This idea has become really prominent in the last five or so years and is promoted within certain programs and curriculum that look to curators, like Jens Hoffman and Hans Ulrich Obrist, who frame exhibitions in a way which becomes viewed as more important than the artwork in the exhibition, or…

S: …or, at least it overshadows the artwork in the exhibition.

R: Exactly. I think this model really took off, a model where the curator’s vision superseded, or overshadowed maybe, what some of the artworks were contributing to the group and I think that model is also problematic. Anyway, I see this specific curatorial statement as a reaction to that development.

S: I definitely agree with that.

Another thing that stood out to me in the statement was the idea put forth that you, the viewer, are suppose to approach the show “unencumbered by any edict or secondary scholarship.” I look at the catalog-sized “checklist” they give you at the gallery and wonder why would they tell you to look at the show without “secondary scholarship,” but then provide you with all of these texts, and a few images, contributed by the curator and the artists to give context to the work in the show. This catalog plays a huge role in how I look at the show and how the works relate to each other. It provides a whole other layer of how you could think about the exhibition….which is what the statement is telling you not to do.

R: Right.

S: In some ways the whole catalog seems at odds with itself. Somehow, by trying not to have any context for the show they are actually creating more context than is normally provided for an exhibition.

R: Yeah. I think so. I think to say that you don’t want there to be any supporting “secondary scholarship” or “edicts” or any of these things is ultimately ideological. It is an approach of thinking about displaying artwork. I think that this goes back to the idea of “superfluous interpretation.” This catalog even includes an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation.” I think that is a largely misunderstood text and that too often it becomes shorthand for “I don’t want to talk about it.” That misses the point of the article and undermines the radical premise the article sets out which is that it is important to realize you always bring assumptions to the work. You always bring baggage to the work. And to me, “Against Interpretation,” is about recognizing what those assumptions are and not just framing your experience through your assumptions, but being aware of how your assumptions are influencing your interpretation of the work, a self-awareness.

S: …and there is also the authority of the critic. You have your own experiences coming to the work and so it is impossible for you to have THE interpretation. There is not just the one interpretation that can exist.

R: Exactly. I think that the essay is an attempt to democratize the experience…of artwork.

S: Yeah. I think that is a good way to describe it.

R: I feel like some of the work in this exhibition suffered because of this curatorial framework and I don’t think that any of the work gained from it necessarily. There was some work in the show that I had a tough time approaching, specifically the Scott Olsen, Untitled, and John McAllister, Dusk Deserted Field Lights, paintings…

S: …and the bird [Lin May’s Slow Bird]…

R: Without any suggestion of why these pieces were brought into this presentation it was really hard for me to think about them in relationship to the group.

S: I think with those three examples, the work didn’t stand on its own. They all were sort of referencing an early Modern obsession with Primitivism, like the bird sculpture that is vaguely ‘primitive-looking’…

R: I agree. The Lin May sculpture was a styrofoam block that was carved into the shape of a globe with a pelican head and legs. The globe had the name of the continents written in Arabic on it, so I think that it does point to ideas of Otherness, or Primitivism like you said.

S: Similarly, the paintings stylistically reminded of early Modern painters that had those sort of interests, like Gaugain and…maybe even Paul Klee a little bit, but that is as much as I could get out of these works. Without any additional pieces or context, the works didn’t really go anywhere for me. Maybe some sort of curatorial framework could have assisted with those pieces? Or, maybe this lack of curatorial direction actually does let the work stand on it own…to succeed or fail on its own.

The other works I think stood on their own and I could start to make connections. I didn’t need a curatorial framework in order to do that. Even how they were placed in relationship to each other really contributed to that.

R: I thought that was happening between Virginia Overton’s piece, Untitled, and Tony Matelli’s pieces, Nina and Jew Town. Overton’s piece was the really huge sculpture, right when you walk inside the door. Untitled was made of three pieces of timber, two boards that were leaning against the walls with one lodged between them to form a huge upside-down triangle. Matelli’s pieces in the back were mirrors that also existed as sculptural leaning objects.

Another thing that struck me was how Overton’s piece involved a real struggle, to stand the work up, and marks were left all over the walls from the end of the boards that had blue paint on them. So, essentially blue drawings were left on the wall. This created a connection to drawing and painting for me that I didn’t expect from such a monumental sculpture. Similarly, the surfaces of Matelli’s pieces had the appearance of dusty mirrors with words and images drawn on them with fingers, like you would see on a dirty car or in the bathroom mirror. These also had a strong relationship to painting.

Those were a few points of connection for me between some of the works in the show. Were there other ones that you saw?

S: The connection that stood out to me the most was Mitzi Pederson’s Untitled, and Thomas Helbig’s Liegende, in front of it. For me the connection was more of a formal thing. When I first saw the sculpture, the Helbig piece, I thought that it was a roughly cut up piece of plaster, something he had made by hand, that was just an impression of a classical looking torso that had lost its head and its arms and legs. This black shiny torso is on a large plinth that is simply made from MDF cut just to size and screwed together. Pederson’s piece is made of a piece of roughly cut black velvet on top of a kind of brownish felt with silver paper lines going through it, and so the two pieces were really literally formally constructed in a similar way. But, when I saw the show the second time, I realized that the form of the bust was actually a found piece of wood, so it was similarly a discarded material like the velvet that Pederson had obviously used to cut other things out of. There was both a formal parallel between how the two works were constructed and between the materials themselves.

R: The description you made of Helbig’s’ piece makes me think of the video that was upstairs in the library, Tommy Hartung‘s The Ascent of Man. It was a stop motion animation with a lot of biomorphic imagery and references to alchemy….there were lots of references to the human body and artificial materials decaying, with algae growing on plastic things and with dead trees that were painted…

S: …but made to move in different ways. They were animated.

R: The Hartung video also made me think of the William Kentridge animated films that are on view at the St. Louis Art Museum right now.

S: That is what I was going to say! I couldn’t help but think about the William Kentridge films.

R: What was the connection that you thought about?

S: Well, specifically, I was thinking about the Kentridge film that is of his studio, Journey to the Moon, where he goes to the moon and back in a teacup or whatever. The Hartung video was also a fantastical journey but I think that Hartung was trying to make it an even a larger metaphor than Kentridge because his was about The Ascent of Man, it was describing both man’s individual life but also the history of mankind in general. I think that Hartung also relates that to an artist’s perspective, or an artist’s studio at least. I think Kentridge was more focused on a personal biography, but, other than that, they were really parallel kinds of narratives.

R: Yeah. I think Hartung set up a metaphor for the artist’s studio by creating small models that were meant to look large scale, but incorporated things like a live birth video and a decaying mouse, so it sets up this span of time at a human scale, but shows humans as part of nature…also, with his use of terrariums. Terrariums actually slow down time, but because he was using time-lapse they were speeding up time, which I thought was an interesting manipulation of these artificial natural environments.

S: I also thought the use of sampling was really fascinating.

R: Yeah, I thought that the sound was also a really strong component, too.

S: I just thought it was an ingenious approach to how to deal with sound in an animation, a way to make it both about the history of mankind and the present at the same time.

R: Right. Even the technology he was using, like an iMac and recording devices, became props in the piece. I think that the specific samples that he was using were also important. There was a really familiar voice narrating throughout. I associated it with something from an older Disney animation, or education films, or even nature films. In a way, these types of films teach you the story of how things were created and they shape your experience of the world.

S: Those videos are the ones that present the public narrative, well not public, but the common cultural idea of history.

R: Yeah. It’s an authoritative voice, of PSA announcements or whatever. I think that there was with this video, and even within the curatorial statement, an attempt to question and undermine ideas of authority. I also saw this referenced in some of the other artworks. I am thinking about Overton and Matelli’s work again. Overton’s banner out front is called Untitled (Upending) and is the printed vinyl banner that White Flag Projects regularly asks one of the artists in the current exhibition to create. Overton uses that cartoonish symbol of a woman that you see on trucker mudflaps, a sort of cartoon idea of femininity, and she has just turned it on its side. So, it is this upending, a subtle shifting. It is not so much a subversive gesture as one that destabilizes its familiar association. This banner piece makes me think about how her sculpture, Untitled, may be dealing with identity politics in the same way. It is more than just a sculpture tentatively propped in space, it is also an upside down triangle, a symbol of feminine empowerment.

S: I never thought of this before but would you see those as two specific representations of femininity, two sides of the same coin? Where the sexualized image of a woman would be the trucker imagery and the triangle would be…well, I think there are a lot of different associations with that, but I think about essentialist feminism, a Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, triangle table 70’s era feminism, and that actually both of these representations are problematic.

R: What I would say is the way that the artwork potentially deals with that conversation is in the sense that the sculpture could fall apart at any minute…that it is tentative and subject to outside forces and it is not permanent.

S: …and so, I think that they are actually more similar in some ways than they are different.

R: That is an interesting thought. I also saw this use of symbols with issues of identity in Matelli’s pieces. In one mirror, there is a Star of David that appears to have been written in dust, and then erased, with the words “Jew Town” right next to it, and, on the mirror leaning next to it, the words “art fag.” So, there is this defacing, this use of symbols in taunting a kind of Otherness. I feel like they are also a little destabilizing because it makes you uncomfortable to see this in a gallery context, and also, because they are on a mirror, you are reflected in these symbols. It directly implicates you as the viewer. In a way, I think that almost denies this whole idea of diminished interpretation. All of a sudden you are confronted with these words and symbols and you have to fall back on your experiences of slanderous graffiti and negotiate how to reconcile those experiences with this piece…it forces you to bring your personal history and assumptions into the artwork.

S: You’re right in that those pieces sort of epitomize the whole show because if you approach these works, you can’t be separate from them. If you look at the mirrors, you are in the artwork. It literally reflects you into it. And so, therefore, you can’t get away from that relationship with it.

R: Right. I think that is the strength of these works. You have to acknowledge your participation with them. That’s something that was happening with other works in the show, especially Pederson’s piece. When I was at the opening someone in the gallery told all the attendants that the show was getting really touchy-feely and that they needed to go guard the artworks. I really think of Pederson’s piece in this seductive way. She combined felt and velvet in a totally tactile piece, yet you are not allowed to touch it. It is a super soft sculpture but I can’t actually experience it.

S: So you can only conceptualize the idea of it being a soft object. You can only experience it conceptually.

R: I guess what I am saying is that it forces me back into my head.

S: Do you think that the fact that the show was framed by the curator as trying to remove themselves from the exhibition created an air where people felt like they could be closer to the work and that is why they were being so touchy-feely with it?

R: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. Like there was no authority and therefore no boundaries.

S: (laughs) Yeah. Yeah. Some of the works, like you said, beg to be fondled on some level, but I was just wondering why this exhibition, of all exhibitions, did they have this issue.

R: I think that there was also a danger in it. I mean, if you had touched Overton’s piece and it collapsed, the wood would have crushed you.

S: That’s true. And, a lot of the other pieces, if they were not a threat to the viewer, they were easily damaged, like the dust or the sytrofoam, or even the plinth.

R: I think that could be seen as a place where the curatorial framework succeeded in opening up this space to experiencing the work and that in the end the title of the show was really appropriate.

S: I think actually that the title was key. If you wanted to do a show where you said you didn’t want to have a curatorial framework and to see what happens, you couldn’t say that. So, you have to say what this statement says, which is that this show doesn’t have any curatorial framework and you just have to look at the work, without added context. Then the viewer has to decide whether or not that is actually possible. Because they titled the show Impossible Vacation, then you know, that they know, it is not actually possible.

R: Right. The idea is that they are taking a vacation from the role of a curator. The word “vacation” there implies taking time off from what your job is and, in this case, refers to the curator in an attempt to not curate, but at the same time it is impossible to take that vacation.

S: Yeah…an Impossible Vacation. That sounds about right to me.

Impossible Vacation is on view at White Flag Projects, in St. Louis, MO through June 4th, 2011.
Images courtesy of White Flag Projects.

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