It seems that ‘in this part of the world’, referring to contemporary art as a product of the consumer society’s ideology is considered to be ill-mannered, subjecting to similar censorship all those aspects of artwork which refuse to fit inside the boundaries of a certain visual experience. Whilst admitting that contemporary art can induce emotionally or intellectually affective states, the two exhibitions on show at the kim? Contemporary Art Centre in December and January provoke thoughts of institutionalised curatorial practices, the structure of which appears to have been embraced in Ezra Wube’s ‘Palindrome’ and Donna Huanca’s ‘Polystyrene’s Braces’. Both exhibitions have been organised in partnership with kim?’s longstanding collaborator Art in General in New York, and the curators Kristen Chappa and Anne Barlow. Although both curators worked with each artist individually, the resulting exhibitions are even (thankfully avoiding the term ‘dialogue’), and thus can be perceived as a uniform exposition, which features similar thematic dispositions and issues.
The aforementioned ‘consumerism’ refers to the external narcissism of the type of art that is supported by both of these artists and institutions: it is a system of locked and self-sufficient codes, not accessible to the viewer, which simultaneously strives to preserve the visual impressiveness and ‘hotness’ of artwork. In relation to the binary relationship between external and internal, form and content, this sort of art practice has started increasingly to resemble design, which strives to beautify, fetishizing objects and branding identities. The creative practice of Ezra Wube, Donna Huanca and many other ‘influential and important’ contemporary artists strikes a chord with these design-like ideas, where the concept becomes simplified in favour of visual expression. On one hand, it would be rather naive to condemn commercialism and indulge in an overly moralising leftist rhetoric; however, we should not forget that contemporary art is part of a wider economic system, and thus mirrors its principles in a certain way, for instance, by developing and strengthening the systems of assigning meaning to art, which then enable artists and their supporting institutions to operate comfortably within these frameworks.
In line with the unwritten rules of the neo-conceptual art scene, the narrative of both exhibitions is founded on certain key words, in this case introducing the themes of ‘migration, mobility and belonging’. Initially, both exhibitions invoke associations with the currently trending ‘refugee issues’; alas in vain, because the artists’ views of these political events are not revealed, nor is there a vaguely socially critical interpretation (something a Latvian viewer hardly expects to witness anyway these days). These artworks reference Ezra Wube and Donna Huanca’s personal feelings, and contemplate life away from their ethnic homelands; although both artists have long been successfully ‘integrated’ in Western society, so it is rather about their origins having an exotic twist. Here, issues of national identity are not explored, for example through the prism of colonialism, or the theory of ‘otherness’. Instead, identity has been generalised as an abstract experience, something that the viewer is not required to identify with.
The accompanying texts written by curators include a few generic references and key words that serve as the only explanatory guide through both exhibitions. These signposts allow us to suppose (but not to ascertain) that both artists have attempted to express their search for belonging, selecting visual motifs of mobility/irregularity/transience. The functions of abstract phenomena such as memory or experience have been materialised, endeavouring to apply the same logical processes to their analogies.
The exhibition ‘Polystyrene’s Braces’ by Donna Huanca can be interpreted largely as a broad metaphor for the relationship between time and space: part of this process-based installation was created during the exhibition launch, during which two painted women moved across the exhibition space in a choreographed manner, which resembled a ritual, and touched the exhibited objects. Attempts to de-code this system of signs, aided by the curator Anna Barlow’s text, evoke associations with food recipes: certain aspects of gender issues, a little bit of feminism, and psychoanalysis, all of which have been hastily whipped together, whilst adding references to various ‘action painting’ styles, and using the body as the most direct medium of art. This eclectic ‘a little bit of everything’ strategy has been utilised in a predominantly superficial manner, and thus fails to articulate a clear message that could be received by others and would indeed correspond to the referenced discourses. Instead, this is a rather loose interpretation of theories, which is nothing dreadful, of course, as every creative personality can apply academically recognised knowledge to non-academic purposes, although this approach does not always equate with qualitative artistic research. The rich multidisciplinary relationship between theory and art has, in this instance, resulted in an artificial construing of meaning (‘over thought’), in the hope that mentioning various concepts from the humanities will automatically provide the desired context, thus allowing the meaning to emerge by itself, independent of the author’s conception. The method of ‘body-space-movement’ used by Donna Huanca in her identity search is straightforwardly comprehensible and visually interesting; however, on the whole, it has the aftertaste of school homework, something that carefully repeats the learnt conventional formulas of how to create an art project.
A similar algorithm is at the core of ‘Palindrome’ by Ezra Wube: his own ideas about the spatio-temporal disjunction and perception displacement have been portrayed as a montage of static and moving images, animations and collages, superimposing characters and spaces. While Huanca’s language of expression is based on a ritual, consisting of a limited number of elements, Wube works with everyday impressions, transforming their oversaturated nature into the ‘poetry of social life’. The surrounding tangible reality of ‘Palindrome’ plays on the very same mechanisms in our consciousness, which contribute towards forming a mental image of a certain geographical location. By fixating the ‘trivial things’ and processes of our external world (for example, a short video sketch featuring graffiti-like slogans on glass being washed away by the rain at regular intervals), through these amalgamated fragments, the artist has attempted to symbolically represent the constant and often unnoticed changes that also govern our search for a sense of belonging and identity. Uncomplicated, yet contrary to the overly serious installation by Huanca, this simplicity is counterweighed by a boyish buoyancy, which reduces the impression that this work has been over thought.
The methods and principles used by these artists and curators are legitimate tools of formal conceptualism within the global system of art, whereby the relationship between form and content is unintentional, indefinable and utterly unnecessary. Art projects are presented as thought experiments that arouse the imagination, although their language has already exhausted itself. The simulated conceptualism becomes an idea-based design: the content of artwork is reduced to certain multilayered terms and their associatively supporting forms. As with every ‘style’, this aesthetic has successful and futile examples; however, problems arise from its institutionalised status. It is very comfortable to operate within the bounds of one system, and once learnt, the rules become clear and the formula for success can be replicated again and again, almost like in pop music. However, in practice, this creative comfort is rarely able to leave a significant impact on the emotional or intellectual level of an audience, because predictability can only generate new predictabilities.
Originally published in Punctum Magazine (http://www.punctummagazine.lv/)