December 31, 2007

Fine Art’s death wish

Filed under: Documenta12,Fine Art System,Political,Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 12:20 pm

Graham Coulter-Smith, Fine Art’s Death Wish, 2007. Digital artwork.In another post I wrote about the “Documenta 12 effect” deploying a Baudrillard-like methodology of pessimistic futurology. The endpoint of the fictional Documenta 12 effect is a Pruitt Igoe-like demolition of the institution of fine art: which from an anti-capitalist standpoint may not be such a bad thing.

Looking into where the European Biennial of Contemporary art, Manifesta 7, will take place in 2008 it struck me that the cancellation of Manifesta 6, sheduled for Nicosia, Cyprus in 2006, was, from one point of view, an even worse disaster than Documenta 12. Although it is half the size of Documenta, Manifesta is still a major international art exhibition. But this failure was not only more catastrophic it was also more complex.

Detail: Manifesta 6 Department III: Abschlussball Dis-/Agreement

The curators of Manifesta 6 were far more ambitious than the Documenta curators Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack because not only did they choose a politically fraught area of the world as the venue for Manifesta 6 they also decided to ditch the outmoded institution of the exhibition in favor of an “art school”. The parallels with Documenta 12 become even stronger because of the latter’s use of “education” as one of its “themes”. Of course Documenta 12 completely failed to educate because it made no attempt to give visitors anything but basic information on the works shown. But then perhaps we are defining education too rigidly. Perhaps we should adopt a “creative” mind set, which since Dada and Surrealism, and indeed since late 18c romanticism, has entailed throwing reason out the window. Which is to say we educate via visual osmosis rather than via language.

The ill-fated plan for Manifesta 6 attempted to push the envelope in many respects. Firstly there was the plan to ditch the exhibition format; secondly, there was the notion of setting up an art school; thirdly there was the choice of a venue on the absolute margin of Europe: Cyprus, an area of the world in which two nations Greece and Turkey have been locked in a cold war since the mid-1970s. The chosen venue for Manifesta 6, Nicosia, is the only divided capital city in the world (Wikipedia), the Greek southern part of the city being separated from the Turkish northern part by a UN Green Line On the other hand Cyprus is also a major tourist destination. But the problematic political situation in Cyprus ultimately led to Manifesta 6 being cancelled. A Manifesta 6 press release stated:

In a letter dated of 6 April 2006, Nicosia for Art, the host organisation chaired by Mr. [Michalakis] Zampelas, the then Mayor of Nicosia, suddenly reversed his course and issued a letter that his administration does not wish any part of Manifesta 6 (specifically the “Department II”) to take place in the Turkish part of the city, although negotiations for this were far advanced and a lease on the proposed venue for this was on the verge of being signed. At that point, NfA insisted on exercising the right to take the final decision on the choice of venues for Manifesta 6. (neme)

The choice of Nicosia as the venue was a political gesture on the part of the Manifesta 6 curators and they were playing with fire. What they were dealing with here is real politics not the theoretical politics that informs art theory or most of what we call “political art”. What is interesting is that it was Greek and not Turkish interests that were offended. As the majority of Nicosia are Greek the mayor is, unsurprisingly, Greek. It is true that he had made noises regarding his desire to broker a raprochement with the Turkish sector of Nicosia, but politicians do not always mean what they say. The Manifesta curators seem to have banked on the mayor being true to his word, but then found to their surprise that he was not. The fundamental problem with the curators’ strategy is that they placed themselves in a political checkmate situation in which they had no way out. They could not submit to the mayor and run Manifesta only in the Greek zone, that would be totally unacceptable. They banked the entire event on the assumption that art would be able to overcome a cold war situation.

One can see the situation from the perspective of the curators but one can also take into consideration the fact that Turkey is not exactly an underdog. Turkey failed to gain admission into the European Union due to the situation in Cyprus, and one can also mention human rights abuses (Amnesty), and the notorious Article 301 (2005) which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness”. The role of the military in Turkish politics is also worrying. The military in Turkey is not simply a defence force but one of the three major political parties. In September 1980 the military took over the government of Turkey via a coup d’etat, something quite foreign to western democracy. They may have done so for good reason, the nation was falling apart under the weight of fascist violence, but then one worries about the stability of a nation that still, even implicitly, relies on the military to keep it stable; although today it might be more accurate to say that consumer capitalism keeps it stable.

Nevertheless, there are ideological reasons why the curators would insist upon involving the Turkish sector of Nicosia. There is a strong impetus within the art world towards a cultural globalisation with particular “postcolonial” emphasis on the developing world. Turkey provides a major interface between Western and Eastern culture, whereas Greece is almost stereotypically western European, having provided the historical foundation for the European Renaissance.

Nevertheless, it was something of deathwish to plan to stage Manifesta 6 in Nicosia and involve the Turkish sector. It was utopian rather than pragmatic: one might say it was typically artistic, typically creative. It failed dramatically but, interestingly, it is ethically very difficult to blame the curators. One thinks here of those instances when the banning of political art only serves to underscore its value.

Yet, the cancellation of an entire exhibition is extreme, even when it is only half the size of a Documenta. But then, of course, it was not going to be an exhibition. The curators decided that the exhibition format was just too last year and they plumped for an “art school” model instead. Another way of putting it would be that they plumped for a “master class” model.

One of the problems with political correctness is the elitism implicit in its high moral ground. It is necessary, therefore, for politically motivated art and curation to be subjected to scrutiny and criticism. It can be argued that the art school model favoured by the Manifesta 6 curators was even more elitist than the biennial model. In fact the biennial model is the least elitist mode of fine art that I can think of. The biennial model has proliferated across the world providing a space for a broad cross-section of artists who otherwise would not be offered a venue. The biennial has become viral in the manner in which contemporary art museums became viral, becoming a necessary addition to every major city. The contemporary art museum race became so frantic that the most major cities had to have more than one.

Surely any viral proliferation of contemporary art should be encouraged. But, no, instead this is the point at which the fine art deathwish (which we can trace back to Duchamp and Dada) kicks in. Take for example the fine art star Maurizio Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999 which was a sarcastic stab at the proliferation of biennials and, implicitly, the concomitant proliferation of those who seek to call themselves “artists”. Significantly, this stab came from the artistic elite, the canonical artists of the 1990s.

The high profile installation artist Maurizio Cattelan and the curator Jens Hoffmann sought sponsorship for what they referred to as ‘The 6th Caribbean Biennial’ to be held on St. Kitts in the West Indies. Potential sponsors were told that this event would consist of ‘site specific’ works by leading members of the contemporary canon: Olafur Eliasson, Douglas Gordon, Mariko Mori, Chris Ofili, Gabriel Orozco, Elizabeth Peyton, Tobias Rehberger, Pipilotti Rist, Wolfgang Tilmans and Rikrit Tiravanija. This list of luminaries helped Cattelan and Hoffmann obtain the sponsorship, added to which is the fact that there are so many biennial’s springing up all over the world (Sao Paulo, Gwangju, Montreal, Werkleitz, Busan, Sydney, Manifesta, Berlin, New York, Liverpool) that a Caribbean biennial must have seemed quite plausible. It was, however, a spoof, and the ‘site specific’ work of art consisted of using the money to give the lucky artists a holiday on St Kitts. Cattelan eloquently explains:

It’s like spitting in the hand of someone who pays your salary. I’m not trying to be against museums or institutions. Maybe I’m just saying that we are all corrupted in a way; life itself is corrupted, and that’s the way we like it. I’m just trying to get a slice of the pie, like everyone else. (in Siegel 2004)

One can appreciate Cattelan’s frankness, and The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999, could very well be the masterpiece of art at the turn of the millennium. I say that because it pushes the absurdity of the application of traditional values to deconstructive art that little bit further than its many transgressive predecessors. Cattelan is richly rewarded by the art market on the basis of the principles of artistic genius and the preciousness of his works of art ( Yet he is, as he puts it, ‘spitting in the hand’ of this system, pouring scorn on the very values that keep him and his colleagues in business.

What is mind-boggling is that such japes only serve to increase artists’ credibility. Similarly, the reputations of the curators of Manifesta 6 were no doubt boosted by its catastrophic failure. One also wonders about Roger M. Buergel in the wake of Documenta 12. Will the massive amount of criticism that Documenta 12 received be translated into a positive for Buergel? Will he be framed as a courageous and ambitious risk taker? Then will it become the norm for curators to push the envelope for major exhibitions so far that it bursts at the seams?

There are obviously problems inherent in such a revolutionary strategy, which is to say we won’t have any exhibitions. But perhaps we did not need any exhibitions, perhaps exhibitions have outlived their usefulness.

This seems to have been The conclusion of the curators of Manifesta 6. It is interesting to read the blogger Mirjam van Tilburg’s comments on this decision:

Taking a cue from the … Black Mountain College, a cultish North Carolina-based experiment in zany intellectualism founded in 1933, co-curators Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle and Florian Waldvogel propose to challenge the conventional large-scale exhibition format by establishing an art school in the capital city of Nicosia for a period of three months-from September 23 to December 17, 2006. Inviting cultural producers of all varieties to propose novel works-from visual artists to writers to architects and curators-the school’s aim will be to produce a series of site-specific works via both short and long-term residencies. Biennial project advisers include Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, Jalal Toufic and Tirdad Zolghadr. (mirjamvantilburg)

You can see what I mean by “master class” because only one of “advisors” mentioned, Martha Rosler, is female. And, interestingly, if we examine the percentage of women in Manifesta exibitions we also find a preponderance of men. In Manifesta 5, for example there were 12 female artists out of a total of 55, which is pretty pathetic, and indicates an underlying confusion of values.

The “former curators” of the ill-fated Manifesta 6
The “former curators” of the ill-fated Manifesta 6

I have just Googled a little bit more and found a rather sad letter dated 6 June 2006 from Mai Abu ElDahab , Florian Waldvogel and Anton Vidokle (shown above left to right), who describe themselves as “former curators” of Manifesta 6. The letter spells out the plan for the “art school” a little more clearly. The former curators state:

Manifesta 6 was planned to take the form of a temporary art school, the Manifesta 6 School, comprised of three departments revolving around diverse cultural issues and debates, and each proposing a different structural model for art education. The proposed Manifesta 6 School is a postgraduate, trans-disciplinary program for approximately 90 participants from many parts of the world lasting about 12-weeks: (see full list of Manifesta 6 participants below). Inspired by such historical examples as Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus, the School would be a meeting ground for cultural producers in the region and beyond, and a platform for discussion and production. (eflux) [emphasis added]

From this initial paragraph it appears that the school was going to be closed to anyone apart from invited participants. There appears to have been a quota of 90 “postgraduates” and the names listed in the various “departments”, outlined below the paragraph quoted above in the former curators’ letter (eflux), indicate that those selected, although emerging, were already artists recognized by the fine art system, and so the “art school” seems to be more like an art club. This is really taking the concept of “art for the sake of the art system” to a new extreme that totally cuts out the viewer.

But when you consider the politics of the fine art system the viewer is pretty redundant. In the context of mass producible media such as literature, film and music the audience has a strong voice via its purchasing power, but this is not the case for the humble viewer of fine art. The viewer has no voice, viewers’ opinions are irrelevant, in most circumstances they do not even have the right to take photographs. Basically they are just punters to sell tickets, books and merchandise to. Apart from that they are useless, expendible. So yes the “art school” or “art club” concept makes much more sense than the exhibition.

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, 1972

At first, naively, I thought that the art school, art education idea might have been inspired by the long-standing goal to bring art into life; but now I can see it was inspired by the goal (conscious or unconscious) of making fine art an even more closed system than it already is. Maybe the idea of the self-obsessed fine art system eventually crashing to the ground under the weight of its self-absorption, like Pruitt-Igoe, is actually not that far-fetched.

1 Comment »

  1. Dear Graham,

    I am working on an online publication as part of my Masters in Visual Arts Practices, in IADT, Dublin, Ireland. We have been researching curatorial practices over the past thirty years and Manifesta 6 was assigned to me.

    I very much enjoyed your article on Manifesta 6 and was wondering if I might use the images featured in your article. If this is possible I will ensure that the work is correctly captioned and credited, and that it will only be used in these circumstances.

    Thanking you in advance for your consideration,

    Yours Sincerely,

    Jennie Guy

    Comment by Jennie Guy — September 25, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

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