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Untitled: Agatha Gothe-Snape on the threshold of the 8th Berlin Biennale
by Sonja Hornung


Berlin, May 2014: An artist rejects the visual to provide words for a Biennale without a title. Since January this year, Melbourne-based artist Agatha Gothe-Snape has been stringing together compositions of words. Her enigmatic phrases appear splayed across the splash page of the Berlin Biennale, placed where you would ordinarily expect to see a curatorial concept. No explanation provided. Title: Untitled.

{EVERYTHING HAS TWO HANDLES} was my first hit. Yours might be something else.

{ACCRUE! ACCRUE!} or

{OCEANIC FEELING} or

{YES DISSOLVE}

When I interviewed Gothe-Snape I began to understand how it is that, between the square brackets, these nuggety truisms of hers explode into being. The aesthetic presentation of her offerings and the context in which they appear are determined not by Gothe-Snape but by the Biennale curator Juan Gaitán and its design team, Zak Group. She has relinquished aesthetic control, raising the stakes on the words themselves, which must work as stand-alone compositions.

Agatha Gothe-Snape, Untitled, 2014,  screen grab of text on splash page of the 8th Berlin Biennale website; Courtesy of the artist

 

Whittled down to that, each contribution of Untitled carries the sharpness and density of a bullet. Gothe-Snape's words are bracketed by silence, although I am full of questions. (Where is the body here—your body and the body of the viewer? What's your relationship with memes, advertising slogans, PowerPoint presentations, copywriting? What's going on with this Biennale? It has no title, no theme—just your obtuse words? Is this work a political conversation or just a playful one?)

However, it turns out it is hard to talk directly about the impact of the words. We talk instead, and for a long time, around them. Perhaps they erased themselves as we tried to chase them. My own recording of our interview, mysteriously, deleted itself. As it turns out, the weight of words—their impact—is most noticeable when their meaning becomes volatile: when they are withdrawn, displaced, perhaps even misunderstood.

Situated just outside the limits of conversational language, earlier works by Gothe-Snape are anchored in the experience of the body as it pushes against the parameters of space. DO NOT APPROACH THIS END OF THE ROOM DO NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE. Writ large on the gallery wall, these words are accompanied by a yellow line on the floor which must be crossed in order to enter the space (2011).

EVERYTHING ELSE. These words, suspended in the window of a gallery space, form a taunt that provokes a heightened physical awareness. I may dare to cross the yellow line, but I certainly can't jump out the window.


Agatha Gothe-Snape, Text Work and Line Work (DO NOT APPROACH THIS END OF THE ROOM DO NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE), 2011, Vinyl, Variable, TCG2101; Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Courtesy of The Commercial Gallery and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney

 

I encounter Untitled, however, in the fleshless space of my laptop, yet Gothe-Snape tells me that the words generated for the Berlin Biennale come directly from her own body, coughed out after long and intense periods of contemplation and then relinquished to Juan Gaitán and Zak Media to be reformatted and uploaded. The lines of trust run in two directions: from artist to curator, and from curator back to artist, since Gaitán has, quite remarkably, opened a space where Gothe-Snape's words hijack the framework of his entire Biennale. It's a form of trust built on sparse communication. According to Gothe-Snape, after a studio visit in Melbourne Gaitán wrote to her simply asking for words. “We didn't ever talk too much about what exactly he wanted, or what he wanted them for, and actually I think we both intentionally avoided interfering with that space where the words come from.” 

It strikes me as somehow miraculous that these words, born of the body, might move via such tenuous conduits into the bland interface of the flat screen and yet retain all their power and intimacy. Gothe-Snape channels her work through what she calls an “economy of means,” a form of efficient minimalism in which the work is brought into being using the simplest of materials. Forty years ago, Minimalists drew on the same method in order to emphasize the pure stuff of material itself. If Gothe-Snape's material here is text, then what of the materiality of words? Constrained, disembodied, resituated onto a flat grey background, the words themselves retain a surprising directness, an unruly humor.

Here, too, a tension lingers between the framework and the aberration, the corporate and the corporeal. In the same way the body is delimited by the parameters of space, our words are delimited by the forms they take. The headline, like the meme or the status update, packages emotion into the form of universal banality. Gothe-Snape reverses this process, slipping confusion in between the curly brackets and allowing a kind of density to take shape. There is an offer here for the recipient of her words, a threshold space where engagement might take place. But only, Gothe-Snape reminds me, if you want it. Meeting in the middle is a two-way effort, and perhaps this is where words become more complicated. I think of long-distance communication, slippage of meaning behind clean interfaces, crackly Skype conversations attempting to bridge vast distances. And {EVEN UNTOLD TRANSLATIONS}.

Agatha Gothe-Snape, Everything else, 2012, Vinyl, 50 x 4m; Courtesy of the artist

 

At this point I have to admit something: I'm deeply suspicious about this thing “the unrepresentable.” Since encountering the book When New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, I've become troubled by the possibility that ideology might slip into the gap art often opens between the seeable and the sayable. Guilbaut's book, written at the end of the Cold War, suggests that due to all of its inherited associations with the freedom and individualism of the artist, modern art has become a form of exercising soft power. This is a problematic the European art scene is encountering all over again due to the presence of the upcoming Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg. The posturing of “freedom” bracketed by the institution is something that needs to be carefully examined now more than ever.

Gothe-Snape tells me that this process of word production has made her hypersensitive to her duty of care as an artist, and that the weight of this responsibility sits heavily on her shoulders. She finds the thought that her words are at large in the world totally terrifying. This strikes me as curious. Aren't things like “responsibility” and “duty” the opposite of freedom? And hasn't Gaitán given her a small space of total, public, and uncensored freedom (delimited, of course, by the brackets of the splash page)?

Since words exercise both potential and power, I ask Gothe-Snape if she considers her use of words to be manipulative, if this is where the terror she experiences arises. Her immediate answer is no, but then she pauses for a while to figure out why, before drawing a parallel between the copywriter's manipulation of words in writing and the choreographer's manipulation of the body. She tells me about another work she completed this year at the Gallery of Modern Art in Queensland entitled Other ways to enter and exit, in which she invited dance students to choreograph and perform in the gallery space. A key part of this process was the presentation of the resulting choreographic scores as sediments of the participants' creative agency. Gothe-Snape quotes: BY BEING EXPLICIT AND BY MAKING HIS STRUGGLES AND SCORES VISIBLE HE ACCEPTS RESPONSIBILITY. These are the words of Lawrence Halprin, husband of the postmodern choreographer and dancer Anna Halprin, in his book RSPV Cycles (1970).

Gothe-Snape sees Halprin's emphasis on the score as an insistence on transparency and a heightened self-awareness about process: a duty of care to produce the right gesture (the right words) at the right moment, and a kind of blind faith. Yes, I agree, that is a terrifying responsibility—the turning point at which freedom is experienced as an obligation to do things right when honestly, most of the time we are taking a stab in the dark.

More precisely, the terror lies in not knowing how the words will arrive, or where, or in what context, when they acquire a life of their own in the world, outside the brackets.

1.2 BILLION AUSTRALIAN DOLLARS

is exactly the amount of money Transfield Services, sister firm of Transfield Holdings, will earn per annum from its new contract to run “garrison and welfare services” for approximately 4,200 asylum seekers detained on two small islands far north of the Australian coast. Transfield Holdings was until recently the sole private sponsor of the Sydney Biennale.

{ONE POINT TWO BILLION DOLLARS FOR CONTEMPORARY ART}

were the words Gothe-Snape sent to Gaitán shortly before local and international pressure led the resignation of the CEO of Transfield Holdings as Chair of the Sydney Biennale. He took with him Transfield's financial support (although the company continues to sponsor a number of prominent arts institutions in Australia).

Agatha Gothe-Snape, Yellow line variation 6, 2011, gouache and pencil on paper, 76.50 x 57.00 cm, TCG18681; Photo: Jessica Maurer; Courtesy of  the artist and The Commercial Gallery, Sydney

 

Displaced from this context, these particular words are imposters in the marketing system of another Biennale far away. Gothe-Snape was herself shocked to see this phrase alienated, quoted back at her not just on the website but also on Biennale invites. The parallels are there to be drawn: art and luxury sit uneasily next to one another. More specifically, the Sydney Biennale requested that its artists use its tainted money to clear a free space for uncensored critique, just as Manifesta 10 is presenting an ideological vision of the free agency of artists in a Russian context associated with political oppression and censorship.[1] In contrast, the previous Berlin Biennale, curated by Artur Zmijewski, presented a platform where art, social engagement and protest could, controversially, freely mix. Given that the threshold of the current Berlin Biennale, hijacked by Gothe-Snape's words, seems so open, I am intrigued to see what emerges in the program of events when the Biennale goes public this week.

For Gothe-Snape, this moment where the words are misfits in a new situation is the point at which they may acquire another specific meaning, or perhaps—depending on the viewer—return back to their point of origin having been complicated by a foreign context. This is the point where problems materialize in all their complexity. It is this manifestation of the volatility of words that remains, for Gothe-Snape, a source of constant curiosity.

 

Sonja Hornung

 



[1] The sponsors of Manifesta 10 remain at the time of writing unpublished: watch this space

 

ArtSlant would like to thank Agatha Gothe-Snape for her assistance in making this interview possible.

 





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