I was in a conversation with the curator Lucia Schreyer the other day. We were discussing the latest exhibition at Palais de Tokyo; we have differing opinions about it. I enjoyed the show very much. Once again it seemed as though the PdT had curated an exciting, interactive exhibition, fully using the space they have available and successfully iterating the concept of "Inside." Lucia didn’t like it so much. Her complaint was that it is too spectacular, like "a Luna Parc" for adults, and to be honest, it is a fair criticism, including, as it does, a plastic cocoon-like structure suspended several meters from the ceiling that you get to crawl around in, an experience I found by turns captivating, scary, and, unfortunately, smelly (not in a good way). PdT have also used their space to perform disorientating tricks and reveals with the way you discover various pieces, which lends the show its immersive feel.
Mike Nelson, Studio Apparatus for Palais de Tokyo ou The Exorcism, 2014, Installation view of Inside, Palais de Tokyo; Photo : André Morin
But so what of it? Well, Lucia’s criticism is an interesting one as, in a sense, it calls on us to take art quite seriously, and this is something I’m loathe to do. My reasons for this are many: firstly, and on a most basic level, I like things that make me laugh, as I believe most people do. It is also a way of puncturing a lot of the chin stroking seriousness which goes with the art world, the kind of voice that says "this is very important," and comes with a lot of the pseudo-intellectual clap-trap so often served up with contemporary art in order to convince us that it is "very important" (and also worth lots of money). But then again, in typically contradictory fashion, I do also believe that art is very important. But more of this later.
On top of simple viewer pleasure at something light hearted, there is also, of course, the very serious side to joking, and even an argument that the form of the joke has become one of the pre-eminent forms in contemporary art since Mr. R Mutt. So often contemporary work likes to situate itself in proximity to the double meanings, ambiguity, the satirical power of humor, the double take, the unexpected, and also, crucially, the insider/outsider dichotomy set up by a joke, i.e. "do you get it?"
There’s a similar mechanism to this either/or question at work with the issue as to who the joke’s on. And this is a good question: is it the public who are somehow not being served by the work that is being made? Is it the institution who is treating it very seriously? Or is it the collectors who are, after all, paying exorbitant sums of money for—I don’t know—a plastic model of a chocolate Santa Claus holding a large butt plug? Or is it on anyone who doesn’t get it"?
There are, of course, no answers to these questions, and absolutely no way of ever answering them, which is, in turn, perhaps why they are so popular with artists because it lets them talk with multiple and contradictory voices. An amusing, if perhaps a little cowardly, position to take.
The other big problem with both these mechanisms is that they are elitist. The ones inside are all shiny and happy and part of the big art club, while those outside are confused, dissatisfied, and humiliated. Maybe not a good thing, but on a human level something we all clearly enjoy—when we’re on the inside.
Christoph Büchel, Simply Botiful at Hauser and Wirth in 2007 Photo: James Loks
However, coming back to Lucia’s comments, I don’t think that her problem with the PdT was humor; it was actually the level of immersion/interactivity, which is, in itself perhaps one of the big trends in art, as it currently is in theatre. Now, I love immersive works of art and can immediately think of two that stand out as some of the best experiences of art I’ve had (Conrad Shawcross’ Chord, and Christoph Büchel’s Simply Botiful, if you’re interested), and again I’d identify it as one of the really contemporary parts of the contemporary experience. But then what can be the criticism?
The way that I can understand Lucia’s criticism is that it’s perhaps too lazy of us, indicative of our society where everything must be easy, and fully on offer while demanding as little as possible—and there is some truth in this. Sure, experiencing Simply Botiful required that we climb down ladders and crawl around in tiny passages. Chord required trekking into the darkness of an underground tunnel. But, these are easy feats in comparison to—as I have spent a lot of time previously doing—sitting in front of one painting for any considerable length of time and actually looking at it. It is lazy in the sense that it doesn’t require any imagination of the viewer. We just have to be there. And the problem with this is maybe that we do value things.
Lucia Schreyer is currently curating a cycle of work at Galerie Primo Piano, Paris
(Image on top: © Numen/For Use, Tape Tokyo, 2013; Photo : Junpei Kato courtesy Spiral/Wacoal Art Center)
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