The gauntlet was thrown down early in the day. In a talk titled Parasites Like Us: Studies of the Possible in Impossible Times, educator and researcher Janna Graham described most exhibition models as following what Paulo Freire had described in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968, as the ‘banking model’: the audience is an empty vessel filled up with culture, which is handed down from above by the artist via a curator. Graham, a member of collective Ultra-Red and curator at the Serpentine’s offsite Centre for Possible Studies on Edgeware Road, proposed a series of other possible bottom-up and lateral models where these roles could be shifted, shared or dispersed.
Her critical and claustrophobic talk was a keynote presentation as part of ‘Exhibition as Medium: End Symposium’, a day of presentations at The Showroom capping off a year-long programme at Margate’s Crate Studio and Project Space curated by Toby Huddlestone. Huddlestone had sought over six ‘experimental’ exhibitions and various events to explore process over product, ‘alternate modes of exhibition format via the presentation of research through production’. Much of the day consisted of talks describing the six exhibitions, and though each proposed a slightly different approach – such as a group of artists collaborating in reaction to Fischli & Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987, or six curators creating works based on instructions from Scottish artist Desmond Church – each time the constrictions of the framework imposed were raised as an issue. It seems that Freire’s hierarchical model ran through much of the project and by the end of the day was still standing.
The only speaker to raise the issue of audience in the equation was Dave Beech, who began to speak about hospitality and the viewer of an artwork as a form of guest, only for his Skype link to break off. Huddlestone, in the closing discussion, further qualified this: ‘we want curators, writers, artists to be our primary audience’. Together, these statements implied some sort of sustained relationship and involvement, and precipitated a discussion of the contradictions inherent in the day: the paradoxes involved in presenting a series of Margate-based projects, which were spoken of as ‘ongoing, middle points’ rather than end points, at an ‘end symposium’ with an uninvolved, though not uninterested, London audience. Given the necessary mediation and narration that process-led, self-generating projects require, perhaps it is not so much exhibition as medium or, as participant Neal White jokingly commented in passing, more ‘symposium as medium’.
But despite the symposium’s silent implication that object-based exhibitions were more ‘finished’ and somehow less involving, a number of concurrent exhibitions around London lit on different aspects and problems brought up that day. For instance, according to the press release for ‘Maquette for an e-card’, Gino Saccone’s solo show at Supplement, ‘It’s all of a process, but a process is resolutely not a story (let’s not get carried away)’. The physical contents of the show itself are scattershot, a constantly shifting arrangement of hastily painted cardboard, draped cloth, piles of varnish and wood. Two cat-flaps sit at either end of a length of unprimed canvas covering one wall, while a projector lights up a dull orange bulb protruding from its socket. A lit candle sits next a photo of a drawing on a dilapidated billboard, and in this light it seems we are part of an odd séance. The gallery has effectively been Saccone’s studio, all of this merely a preparatory sketch to culminate in a digital image available on the gallery’s site at the show’s finish. The conglomeration of working materials and quirky objects, like the glazed ceramic that looks something like a swollen jester’s hat, are an alchemy of arbitrary essentials that will be eventually distilled to more digital ephemera. Saccone seems to deliberately overstate the flattened, provisional nature of the objects in front of us, staging the whole thing as an anti-climax, a long-played-out pun on being just another exhibition you could see from your computer screen.
Similarly precarious, but on a very different timescale, was the gathering of over a hundred sculptures, images and objects in Gareth Jones’s ‘Untitled Structure’ at Raven Row. Spanning from 1987 to the present, the gallery’s ground floor was a dense madhouse of found and gently reworked materials. The works ping pong between a homemade formalism and a playful manipulation of pictorial representation, whether it is six years’ worth of milk-bottle caps collected in a glass cube (Untitled,2006-12) or the pieces of a puzzle glued back at intervals onto a square mirror (Untitled, 2012), making the Venetian postcard scene just barely comprehensible. It is an effective cumulative portrait of a practice, the works retaining a sketch and maquette-like quality but in their sheer volume suggesting more of an attitude, a constant anarchic reshaping of the stuff that surrounds us. Jones’s ever-expanding ‘structure’ seems an underappreciated contributor to the post-readymade dialogue, and also reminds us that ‘research through production’ is not the alternative but the norm that is often willingly overlooked.
Such a glimmer of hope is barely visible in Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’, an archive, curated exhibition and research proposition inhabiting Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. The institute is an unpacking of the work that went into his film Robinson in Ruins, 2010, widening his historically aware dérive by including artworks from the Tate collection. Though this third film in the Robinson series lacked the pace and narrative tension of the first two films, here Keiller productively revisits his exploration into the history of British land ownership, the rise of the industrial and oil-reliant society, and the perception of the countryside, by means of a fertile range of images and artefacts, such as Situationist maps of Paris, meteorites fallen in 1795 and 1830, and a clip from Quatermass 2, 1957, where a Shell oil refinery is presented as a food factory housing a giant, evil alien organism. Keiller’s critical pastoralism, seen alongside the work of Henry Moore, John Latham, Jiri Kovanda, and Nigel Henderson, feels like an unspoken thesis, one that grounds artistic experimentation in the possibilities determined by political events. The 2010 film’s fanciful suggestion to ‘establish an experimental settlement … to pioneer the renewal of industry and agriculture, after the decline of the global dollar, and the disappearance of cheap oil’ seems now even more prescient and idealistic, as if Keiller has laid out the geographical and cultural maps for exhibiting after the apocalypse.
Originally published in Art Monthly no. 358, July-August 2012