From October 2009 until Summer 2010, Witte de With is presenting an in depth study on the theme of Morality. The project includes a series of group exhibitions, performances, films, gallery “interventions”, lectures and discussions, a book, and an interactive website.
A couple of weeks ago I visited Acts I and II of this project. It has been on my mind since then – yesterday I described something as “morally reprehensible” and immediately rebuked myself for such thoughtless invocation of the term! I’ve been tracing connections between the challenging combinations of work in the shows. Nothing overtly screams morality!, and there are few expected references to religion, ethical codes, or principled dichotomies. Instead, the curators present an inclusive take on this loaded theme, with the artworks addressing a variety of seemingly unrelated topics. The exhibition posits no code or philosophical definition of morality, attempting instead to locate morality’s diverse sites and transformations in the real world.
I reckon that morality is personal and culturally relative (and considering their diverse picks, I suspect curator Juan Gaitán and director Nicolaus Schafhausen agree). The codification of nearly any system of thought can constitute moral values. If we think of morality as relative and non-absolute (though pervasive), does the term then lose all currency? By meaning everything, does it, in effect, mean nothing? It is the uncertainty of this paradox – and the way it is reflected in the breadth of artwork at Witte de With – that has kept the exhibitions in my thoughts.
Act I, entitled “Beautiful from Every Point of View” (a twist on a Horace maxim), explores the multivocality of contemporary positions and opinions, all of which – through ambiguity, flexibility, and rhetorical gymnastics - can spin or justify their right to exist. Consequently, and presumably by design, the exhibition can be a bit vague at times, with the links between the works and the theme unclear. It claims no absolutes, except perhaps regarding morality’s malleability; its plastic fibers are knit and unraveled into ever-changing forms onto which new meanings can be inscribed.
Act I is heavy on video works, with Artur Zmijewski’s politically charged medley Democracies, Tobias Zelony’s fantastic photo-animation Le Vele di Scampia, Ron Terada’s “Blade Runner” inspired Voight Kampff, and Sarah Morris’s dispassionate and epic Beijing. These videos artfully probe the aesthetic dimensions of power as it relates to performance, architecture, technology, and media respectively. In light of the theme, we are left wondering how moral systems are embedded in these spaces, and who it is that defines them.
Photographer Philip-Lorca DiCorcia is the only artist who reflexively admits his own position in this relationship between images and power, offering a clear set of guidelines, a personal “moral code”. In his now well-known series of photographs depicting L.A. hustlers, DiCorcia exhibits a rigorous methodology considering prostitution and photographic ethics. He pays each subject, titling the work after his name, age, previous residence, and compensation.
The second act, “From Love to Legal”, investigates the space between the personal and political, the individual and society. If moral codes are unique, how are these synthesized in the public or political sphere? The works in this act cite personal phenomena where they might intersect public opinion. Libertarian enthusiasm meets social accountability and prejudice in works like Isa Genzken’s colorful installation on homelessness, Joachim Koester’s moody environment, Hashish Club, and Christodoulos Panayiotou’s GuysGoCrazy, a two-channel video depicting an empty gay porn set, before and after an orgy.
The exhibition also considers less controversial desires than pornography and drugs. Danh Vo’s Oma Totem is a nameless gravestone designed for his grandmother, incorporating a marble TV, refrigerator, and washing machine, topped with a wooden crucifix. It suggests ideology materialized, not as religious testament, but in a cult of consumer objects. In Act I Josephine Meckseper’s window-display photographs and assemblage consider the aesthetics of capitalism and consumption. Oma Totem artfully personalizes the subject, confronting us with the value of the banal objects in our own lives.
Despite that fact that they include less than twenty artists in total, the exhibitions can occasionally feel overwhelming in scope. They do little to define what morality is (a question left to be debated by philosophers ad finitum), asking instead how and where it is manifested. With this inquiry, Witte de With enters a complicated dialogue at an important historical juncture. Whether or not moral systems are artificial constructs, their vectors are very real. In a shrinking world, linked by petroleum and telecommunication, conflicts on moral terrain become increasingly common; codified moralities have been invoked to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history. With these exhibitions the curators take an equivocal position, suggesting an evasive morality embodied in the everyday, subject to far more than the expected disciplines of politics, philosophy, theology, and psychology.
(Images: Sarah Morris, Beijing , 2008, 35 mm/HD, 84:47 min; Danh Vo Oma Totem, Tombstone for Nguyên Thi Tý Wood, Installation view Witte de With, October 2009, Photo: Bob Goedewaagen, marble, granite, bronze and wood relief of the sculpture, 216.5 × 65 × 62.5 cm; Courtesy of the artists and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art)