As the various flavours of institutional critique have now become “institutionalised” as part of the practice of contemporary artists, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back curated by Biljana Ciric at the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou aims to reassess the origins, methodologies and effects of this practice.
It can be said that One Step Forward… builds on the work of the curatorial team within the Times Museum (and those of its invited curators) since its formal opening in 2009. They have approached their practice with a self-awareness that has consistently led to exhibitions, symposia, and publications that have productively investigated the ideas and roles of the institution as a structural body within the art system – in a way performing their own institutional critique through their daily work.
This exhibition deliberately moves the focus away from a canon of Western artists associated with the development of institutional critique, onto artists and groups from other parts of the world who develop out of it and/or trace parallel trajectories to it.
Aphorisms hand-painted on cardboard by the artist Mladen Stilinović (born in the former Yugoslavia) have been employed around the exhibition halls as rough signs over the openings between spaces. The nature of their statements follow the curators’ characterisation of this particular artist’s work as an “active withdrawal,” a critical stepping out of the systems of production and consumption that seem ubiquitous in the world today. Stilinović’s statements such as “Prodajem strah” (Fear for sale, 1983) and “Radn je bolest (Karl Marx)” (Work is disease (Karl Marx), 1981) create a kind of impromptu framing for the other works in the exhibition, highlighting their abilities to critique while avoiding becoming assimilated by their subjects. In another room a banner by Stilinović states that An artist who cannot speak English is no artist (1992), bringing to the fore the part that the English language plays in visibility within the artworld (and elsewhere). With these works, Stilinović represents one the “agents that linger between power and powerlessness” (in the words of the curator) and an element of bathos lingers in these powerfully pathetic signs.
The works presented here by Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu from 1995, also seem to take on such a feeling. Expressing frustration at the restrictive policies strictly regulating performance art brought in the previous year, the artist approached the President of the country at the Singapore Art Fair wearing a suit with the words “Don’t give money to the arts” written on the back, and gave him a handwritten card stating “Dear Mr. President, I am an artist. I am important. Yours sincerely, Tang Da Wu.” The complexities of such an action, in such a context, are made even more apparent by the fact that the artist had asked (and received) approval from the President for his actions immediately prior to this. Such works are extremely powerful in their ability to take place under circumstances that would seem to entirely militate against them. The uncertain meaning and results of these actions seem to force open a possibility for directly addressing the issues being touched upon.
Vandy Rattana, Bomb Ponds, 2009; Courtesy the artist.
Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds (2009) feature apparently idyllic photographs of Cambodian landscapes, each featuring an area of water created by an American bomb during the Vietnam War – the effects of violence living on in these lush landscapes. Also in relation to the American presence in Vietnam, but in a more direct fashion, a poster produced in 1970 by the Art Workers’ Coalition shows an image of dead bodies of civilians on a dirt road following the My Lai massacre by American troops. The words “Q: And babies? A: And babies” printed over the image make plain this group’s indictment of the military’s actions through their work.
As what became one of the more controversial introductions of non-Western art into a Western context, the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre from 1989 is represented by a rare copy of its catalogue and documents focusing on the solicitation and participation of Chinese artists. A contemporary photograph shows Jean-Hubert Martin (curator of Magiciens de la Terre) and Chinese critic and curator Fei Dawei, recording their studio visit with the artists Huang Yongping and Liu Jiahong of the Xiamen Dada group. This is coupled with a handwritten letter to those artists instructing them on how to prepare their works effectively for what proved to be such an important visit, paving the way for their entry into the international art scene.
The point at which the critique exists is an interesting question in the current context: are these documents recording an act of institutional critique, or is the inclusion of the works in this show in itself an act of critique? These documents seem to act as evidence of the structures in play at the time, which were in themselves institutions that the artists must work within (the power relations within the Chinese art world, the expectations of the international visiting curator, etc.). On another level, Magiciens de la Terre in itself created a particular set of international institutional relations that these artists were liberated by but in some ways subsequently became constricted by, and has since become something of a case study for the investigation of institutional practices.
The nature of institutional critique is such that it is radically dependent on context, and many of the works included in One Step Forward… require existing knowledge of those contexts from which an understanding of their meaning can then be derived. The critique that each piece practices varies as a product of their specific situations, leading to unique results depending on the interactions they have with their subjects. The catalogue effectively supplements what is on display, providing background through interviews between Ciric and the artists, as well as related texts. But it's perhaps because of this heterogeneity of subject matter that the show suffers from an apparent lack of coherence. It is arguable, however, that this lack of coherence actually reflects a valuable feature of this type of work, and that this show effectively relates this.
(Image on top: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Us and Institution, Us as Institution Installation view, Times Museum, 2013; courtesy of the Times Museum.)