Exchange Relations. On the relevance of artistic interventions in the contemporary exhibition business
The exhibition business is defined by more than just representative locations. Galleries, for example, are based on structures that go far beyond economic conditions and personal networks. Even the decision to organize an exhibition or to establish an exhibition space—whether it is characterized by an interest in sales or not—is already a posit as such, with which the initiators assert a critical overlap between relevant (art) discourses and (economic) considerations. Curating an exhibition therefore not only makes it clear in an ideal way that a market exists for respective positions put on display; particularly in the world of contemporary art, successful shows are also a sign of urgency—they grasp and convey relevant (historical) trajectories for the art scene or the art discourse. Hence, a curator not only validates artistic activities, he or she defines contexts, embeds artistic positions in the tensional field of virulent social issues, and thus generates readability.
It is self-evident that such a position cannot be established exclusively and without a countermovement. Artists have also been founding galleries and curating exhibitions for decades. But if one calls to mind that the artist Christian Jankowski is currently curating the Manifesta 11 and the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset is in charge of the 15th Istanbul Biennale, one can speak of a special urgency that is obviously being attributed to artistic interventions at the moment. But what sort of positioning is being carried out by engaging artist-curators? What must be said about even such acclaimed projects as Mauricio Cattelan’s “Shit and Die” is that they reveal a kind of gesture of dominance, an attitude that appropriations of exhibition spaces classified as artistic are supposed to be able to create higher density and authenticity. For Cattelan’s exhibition, the inherent ability of artists to call classical narratives into question by creating non-linear exhibition structures, for example, was invoked in order to mark those power positions of classical curators defining readability and contexts as replaceable. But is it really possible to replace the complex reference system of curatorial activities by artistic work processes? In other words, what is actually replaced by what in these appropriations?
To answer these questions, it is helpful to look back at the 1960s. One can say that during this period the social relevance of artistic modes of production were both critically questioned and expanded. An important example in this context is the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who in her “Manifesto for Maintenance Art” from 1969 contextualized reproductive labor (unpaid domestic, family, and social work) as artistic activity.In her manifesto, Ukeles shifted the focus of her art to actions and working methods deemed “low” and in doing so explicitly criticized the tendency of the art business (at the time) to offer a platform primarily for heroic artist-subjectivities. Through interventions like those of Ukeles in the 1960s, not only the question of the social relevance of fine art was newly negotiated. The artists also began analyzing the contexts of art production and opening up new approaches and fields of activity from this critical perspective.
The need to communicate the increased social relevance of fine art, to show how deeply contemporary artistic positions are involved in social, technological, and societal issues, can be regarded as one of the central curatorial impulses of the past decades. However, precisely the “narrative” of critical opening, the expanded concept of art aiming at social dynamism, is up for debate when exhibition venues and their latent economic structures and discursive spaces are transformed into material for artistic interventions. What happens in such an appropriation in productive cases can be elucidated by the example of Cattelan’s already mentioned Shit and Die exhibition. In 2014 Cattelan succeeded in rewriting the socioeconomic machinery of the exhibition business and “constructing” a bachelor machine with this working method (a desire-machine in which a self-produced myth is assisted in becoming a universality). The bachelor machine is a special phenomenon that can by no means be realized according to a formula. Without approaching “radical” (unleashing the foundations of our meaning-worlds in their artificiality) “imaginations,” artistic exhibition architectures arranged in a non-linear way also only posit the existing structures of the exhibition business as absolute or place the artist at the center of an unleashed machinery. Behind the gesture of progressive revaluation one must then read the quite unabashed demand that artists shouldn’t be forced to deal with the socioeconomic conditions of their own environment, or that their shows should focus on (pleasure) gain. One would then have to speak of mere self-gratification orgies that against the backdrop of the currently still virulent unleashing of the financial markets would have to be described as virtually chumming up with the zeitgeist.
On the other hand, something that can be called radical in the context of artistic interventions in the contemporary exhibition business is currently on view in a gallery show in Berlin. The exhibition titled presently curated by Tobias Rehberger at Galerie Neugerriemschneider also unfolds as an artwork spanning numerous rooms of the gallery created in non-linearly arranged exhibition structures. But in this show, the production machinery of the location was by no means subjected to an almighty artist-subject. A socioeconomic intervention was indeed the starting point of Rehberger’s exhibition project. During the planning phase, he invited a number of close acquaintances to support his project work. Rehberger asked artists, designers, fashion designers, and musicians to select artworks that in their view might appeal to the artist. He furthermore compensated them for their effort with hand-folded paper sculptures as presents. In the end, he gave these paper sculptures to his cooperation partners and placed further (identical) versions of his “present boxes” along with the selected artworks in the exhibition space. (Fig. 1)
In his show, Rehberger thus stages the result of an exchange economy which he initiated. One could speak of a declaration here that the pivotal “values” of art cannot be found in exhibition displays and artefacts, but in joint interaction, or in relations that cannot be ultimately economized. Rehberger refers to a social dimension of depth in art production that must be negated in ordinary gallery shows and in doing so subtly points out that due to this disposition only very few actors of the art business can be paid properly. In this sense, Rehberger critically sheds light on the social backgrounds of the production of artistic “surplus value” and reveals both problematic economic structures and the dubiousness of positioning stars in the art business.
But the presently exhibition cannot be grasped solely as a critical statement. When walking through the many rooms of the show, one even has the impression of navigating through a biotope of artistic contemporaneity. The location’s “architecture” geared to a sales display and thus to a space shaped by traditional customers/recipients was entirely overwritten by Rehberger. The socioeconomic structure of the gallery and the location as such were activated by the artist as material of an artistic intervention, so to speak, something which occasionally gives visitors the impression of having been dropped in an aquarium full of exotic “plants, objects, and artifacts.” Rehberger therefore also curates a special kind of “transference.” He transforms Galerie Neugerriemschneider into a structure (one could even speak of a social sculpture) that spatially condenses the social spectrum, the common dimension of artistic activity. Rehberger turns the gallery into an ensemble both eluding and subjecting itself to the economic structures of the art business. He creates an artwork in which the exchange of ideas, participation in the process of development, and thus an ideal of common creativity is placed above the exclusivity of a production of sales objects performed in isolation.
In his artistically curated spatial installation, Rehberger elucidates that the references of usual artworks are far more complex than can often be suggested in exhibition displays. Hence, one could also read presently as a hint to present-day curators and gallerists that the narrative of expansion and emancipation, which is so relevant for contemporary art, has by no means been thought through to the end, as long as the contexts of curatorial working structures are not also opened up for critical interrogation.
“Start again from the beginning.” The ability to artistically place such references at the center of the exhibition business would indeed strengthen the relevance of the artist-curators, who are currently active in an ever more present way. The attitude that artists are the better curators would then have to be banished to where it belongs—the archive of narratives long refuted in the course of history.
Tobias Rehberger, presently
April 29 - May 21, 2016 at neugerriemschneider
Linienstrasse 155, D-10115 Berlin
Tobias Rehberger: presently , installation view
Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin
photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin
Tobias Rehberger: presently, installation view
photo: archive of the author
Heiko Schmid is an art historian and curator. He realised diverse exhibition, research and publication projects on issues like artistic concepts of materiality, media art, contemporary installation art, trash aesthetics, theories of the virtual. He lives and works in Zürich.