Montag, 27. Juni 2011

Art + Argument at Kopfbau, Basel

On 18 June the question of whether art fairs are today’s grand tour was debated in the bookshop of e-flux’s temporary Kopfbau hub in Basel during the period of the Art Basel fair. Debating that art fairs were an apt equivalent were Karen Archey and Kilian Rüthemann, while on the opposing side Adam Kleinman teamed up with Jan Verwoert, who very kindly stepped up at the last minute when Juliane von Herz was unable to make it to Basel that day.

Kilian opened with praise for art fairs, which provide an important opportunity for artists to meet collectors, to know their market and to interact with it. He spoke of the artist’s role working in tandem with their galleries, and indeed proposed an alternative model for emerging galleries: that they should no longer rent expensive permanent spaces, but rather invest in touring the art fairs of the world, going there to unite with significant consumers and producers of art.

Adam on the other hand pooh-pooh’d the real prestige of art fairs. He took the example of Art Basel, mentioning the clock on the fair centre exterior as the sign that it is in truth home to a much bigger watch fair, a market that puts the art market to shame. If those on the Grand Tour were gaining knowledge of art as the predominant cultural form, this has now been overtaken by other soft powers such as Hollywood and Bollywood. He finished his opening gambit: “People went on tour to see adventure and go across the Alps and do all that kind of jazz. And in reality you know we have safari tours that CPAs and lawyers go on and go look at lions and make their tours with guides which is actually much more concurrent to the Grand Tours. In effect the only thing, if such a thing as the Grand Tour exists today, for a young person from an upper-middle-class background going out for adventure to learn about culture, it’s study abroad programmes from college and backpackers.”

Karen looked at the Grand Tour from the perspective of the most recent use of the term in 2007, when the Skulptur Projekte Münster, Documenta, Venice Biennale and Art Basel all coincided. Then a young undergraduate student she undertook the Grand Tour and did her best to see everything she could, or should, have. “I felt like it held a lot of cultural cachet, now I am a lot more jaded about it… In today’s terms I don’t think that the Grand Tour is necessarily even reproducible, based on the fact that the internet exists, so we can’t have these erratic experiences with music and art that’s tied to the fact that you can only see it in these cities. Because the Internet exists basically, you know, this pilgrimage is not necessary. So what the Grand Tour is, for example in 2007 was, the biennials and art fairs colliding, is an enlightenment on the context or social structure or economic structure that brings forth the production of art, but maybe not the art itself.“

First Jan echoed Kilian’s support of the idea of art fairs, being the places where artists sell their work and money can be made. Those who suggest otherwise are misguided. His challenge to the comparison between art fairs and the Grand Tour started with the idea that fairs, like the Grand Tour, can not only educate but also edify. “You don’t just get knowledge, you build a subjectivity, you send some rich kids around the Old World and with the hope that in the end they will become subjects, that was the idea, the idea of the Grand Tour. Of course you could be a little bit philistine and say, what subject are we even still creating here? Are we producing consuming subjects or what is the form of subjectivity that’s being produced on this tour?” But this was not his principal point, where instead he wanted to celebrate the “endless possibilities for misunderstandings” the Tour offered. Henry James described the adventures of Americans in the Old World, such as in The Portrait of a Lady beautifully. These experiences cannot be repeated unless there is the potential for misunderstanding, and “the initial protocol of the Grand Tour was so loose that people didn’t actually know what to expect, so there is also I think one of the birthplaces of aesthetical theory ... So lots of experimentation with feelings that are not actually specified or qualified, and I’m just feeling that today the Grand Tour, the protocol is clear, we all know where to go, what to expect, what to do with these experiences, so the possibilities for absolute emotional chaos and disastrous misunderstandings are seriously inhibited by the fact that these fairs follow such a clear protocol. So if there’s anything I would argue for it’s, I would definitely argue for cash, but I would argue against a protocol of professionalization that these fairs are bringing into the world and would strongly argue for a form of edification that might actually get close to the havoc and uncharted itineraries of the original grand tours.“

The resulting discussion circled ideas of art fairs as an induction into the art world, and whether this world’s power is opaque or can be accessed. Looking to the past, the speakers considered the different awakenings that also made the Grand Tour experience, not just a new sense of culture but identity and sexuality; the incoherence and confusion that were possible back then may no longer be attainable now we are ineluctably networked. There was some swapping of sides and no shortage of nostalgia, and the debate ended in a clear win for the opposition.

Many thanks again to Adam, Karen, Kilian and Jan, and to e-flux for the invitation to join in the Kopfbau project.

Dr James Hay as Bear Leader, Pier Leone Ghezzi, 1704-1729
'Bear leader' was a term for the guides, frequently clerics, who accompanied unwilling participants on the Grand Tour, taking charge of their education. The term was borrowed from the men who would tour with (literal) bears offering popular entertainment.

Mittwoch, 15. Juni 2011

Art + Argument at the Kunstmuseum Bern: the results

On the 24th May Jacqueline Baum and Ursula Jakob joined forces to open the defence of the motion: real life has no place in an art gallery. They started defining the kind of real they wanted to discuss, using Hal Foster’s two ideas of the real – that of the obscene and gross, and that of identity, community and human relations. In the latter art movement, which they would focus on, Nicolas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics is a key text. “Now” they stated, “the problem is that museums and art galleries are a concept dating more or less from the romantic period when museums were built as an answer to the French revolution and the end of feudalism, to show works of art created by genius artists. (The artist being a lonely individual chiselling away in the studio all day long.)“ While this idea of the artist genius was challenged by Duchamp, his doing away with the need for artist to be producer created new problems. Objects like Duchamps urinal are easily accommodated by the art market, in the process becoming “aestheticised and formal, creating a distance to real life”. Given the takeover of life by neoliberal values, art needed to move into the realm of human relationships. “By staging that (cooking with participants), for example, in the museum a process orientated work is turned into an art product, thereby entering a place where singular authorship and products of art are still the predominant concepts. But: art has moved away from the object oriented-ness towards forms and structures of communication and relation.” Because this new kind of art is time-based, “there is a conflict between the process and the attempt of displaying it in the White Cube, which is designed for art set apart from everyday life to experience, for example, moments of the sublime. The transitivity of time based processes doesn’t need a specific place for it to happen, but is a never ending discourse with no fixed and closed concept. It creates relations outside a traditional art practice, which is normally presented in an art gallery. And in fact it should be the other way round: Art should move into real life and it is desperately needed there as well. The last consequence of this would maybe be the vanishing of art as a specialised field of practice and its merging with life. The white cube in its present form is definitely not apt to stage real life at all.”

Beate Engel, on the other hand was convinced that art is, and has always been, part of real life, and that real life has equally always been part of the art world and all its institutions. “Art is not about things, it’s about interaction.” She showed the examples of Courbet’s Origin of the World and the Scottish artist Ross Sinclair, who has ‘real life’ tattooed on his back. Which of these is more ‘real’ is not clear. Beate showed this constant thread of engagement through the example the impending Kunsthalle Luzern exhibition ‘Think Art, Act Science’ with artists whose work is inspired and influence by contemporary science, akin to the many facets of Leonardo da Vinci’s work across art and science centuries ago. Today’s relational aesthetics were foreshadowed also by Alan Kaprow’s work, and she cited his 1958 text The Legacy of Jackson Pollock in which he said “we must become preoccupied with, and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of 42nd Street…we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are the materials of the new art”. And this is demonstrated in the work of Ai Weiwei, when, for example at the last Dokumenta his works included not only 1001 historic chairs, but equally a journey for the same number of Chinese people to Kassel. “People like Ai Weiwei, they strongly believe that art can transform life. They include everything which is happening in their activities. They open up new channels on the banal and hidden agendas of world politics.” Beate closed by citing Claes Oldenburg, the quote that is placed above the desk she works at. Oldenburg said “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a staring point of zero. I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.” Beate finished: “I love to work with this stupidity of everyday life, and I enjoy artists who do this, and this is why I am working as a curator. This is my reality.”

Michael von Graffenried was ready to jump straight into a discussion, but started his defence by demonstrating the dangers of reality – as in when Ai Weiwei was arrested, not in the art context but by the Chinese regime. “I just came back from New York, I was in the show of Alexander McQueen… There was one room with Highland Rape, the whole week we read about [Dominique] Strauss-Kahn who [allegedly] raped his femme de ménage in the hotel room, and this work became real life in the Metropolitan Museum. And I’m sure if the Metropolitan Museum would have known that this would get so strong – because there were torn dresses, you could see the rape in the dresses of Alexander McQueen, which was really realistic, you can’t stand it any more - I think they would not have put that in, if they had known that they opened the exhibition in the week when everybody is talking about rape all over the world. So, there is reality in a museum, but only the reality which is controllable, I think.” He then cited another example of his own work photographing drug addicts, and the unwillingness of some museums to show the work for fear of scandal. In short: “I think real life is always good, but not too real life in the museums”

San Keller, on the other hand, thought the motion impossible. “Maybe my position is that I think it is not possible at all to exclude [it]. It is not about if real life has no place in an art gallery or not. I think it takes place anyway in a gallery.” Visitors bring real life and experience with them. Art institutions have their own kinds of reality, in how they exist and are run and financed. In comparison with other artists San’s own work is more direct in its engagement with this reality, not going the abstract route that does not enunciate this relationship with real life. “And so I propose to start there, the real place, also the real institution, so I need it not making any difference, in a way, so if you are out or in, I don’t see a border there.”

The ongoing discussion covered the difference between being a spectator and experiencing something, and the role of the contemporary art institution to allow interaction. Ai Weiwei came up yet again, whether his work allows or resists engagement. How can an institution protect art and still promote this meeting between art and viewer? The discussion closed wondering if the museum was still required to show art that exists beyond its walls. In the final vote the opposition, Beate and San, were seen to be the more convincing when they argued that real life does indeed have a place in an art gallery.

Many thanks to the Kunstmuseum Bern and to Ingrid Wildi Merino for the generous invitation to debate in the context of the exhibition ‘Dislocacion’, thanks also to the audience for joining us and I am, as ever, indebted to the panellists for their enthusiastic participation.

Montag, 13. Juni 2011

Art fairs are today's Grand Tour

Karen Archey, Adam Kleinman, Kilian Rüthemann and Juliane von Herz debate art, travel, education and privilege.

Saturday, 18 June 2011, 4.30pm as part of Kopfbau Basel by e-flux

Directions: At Messeplatz Basel look for a large clock, make a left and walk to the end of the fountain, look for Currency Exchange sign, enter the door to your left.

Art + Argument is an itinerant event bringing together exciting minds from the Swiss art scene and beyond. To know more, write to aoiferosenmeyer (at)