In previous posts on the Biennial I have focused on video, in this post I will treat the work of Czech artist Katerina Šedá which was the best sculptural material on exhibition in the Biennial’s principal venue, the KW Institute. In addition, Šedá also had an apparently related grunge sculptural installation in the Skulpturenpark, which was accompanied by a document (see end of post) which suggested that it might have some kind of “social” aspect, although this was expressed in a very vague manner.
The KW exhibition of her work, which was the larger, gave the viewer absolutely no information about what this group of objects was about apart from a basic exhibition label (click image above). Accordingly one had to take them on face value—as aesthetic objects—which is what I will do here. And so if this is “social art” I am sorry. All I can say is that if it is social art then try to make that clear in the exhibition via text, otherwise it just looks like an exhibition of sculptural objects. The lack of information may have been the fault of the curators, but artists—especially artists who want to transmit some kind of message—really should think very carefully about how their work is shown. This review is, therefore, a response to how this work was exhibited, deliberately without any attempt to “read up” on the artist. And if the response is criticial (which it is) and misses some hidden social meaning, then that is due to the mode of exhibition.
The sheer size of Seda’s installation at KW was evidence that she was highly regarded by the curators. They are not alone, Šedá (b. 1979) is a rising contemporary art star of the newest generation. Šedá has had various solo exhibition at museums including the prestigious Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (06 Jan–10 Feb 2008), which is something of a coup for a 29 year-old artist. Her other solo exhibitions in public galleries include one at the Galerie in Taxispalais, Innsbruck and another at Modern Art in Oxford, England. Her commercial gallery (if you want to be more precious call it a “private gallery”) is Galleria Francosoffiantino Artecontemporanea, Turin.
In the context of the Berlin Biennial her work can be compared with certain sculptures at the Neue Nationalgalerie which I have treated in a previous post. In that post I tried to rationalise the kind of work being produced in terms of an aesthetics of abjection, boredom and I could also add exhaustion. Such terms do not refer to the artists personally, but rather to the apparent condition of object-based fine art in the 2000s: at least as revealed by Documenta 12 and the 5th Berlin Biennial.
It is certainly the case that the expansion of materials and practices that occurred in the discourse of sculpture in the 1960s and 70s seemed like a very positive development. And then we had the explosion of installation art (originally developed in the 1960s) into a movement in the 1990s which enabled sculptural practice to compete with the maturing of video art that took place in the same decade. Although Šedá’s Over and Over can be called an installation it does not possess any of the most effective qualities that installation art can offer. It is too opaque to have a narrative dimension. Neither does it have an immersive impact nor does it engage the viewer in a mise en scene. It is above all a collection of objects, and not especially interesting objects. I was told that they may maquettes for sculptures but, nevertheless they are being exhibited here as works of art in-themselves at a period in the history of sculpture where any material is permissable. So, unless they are going to be thrown away, they are aesthetic objects. And one also witnessed a similar return to the object in the works exhibited at the Neue Nationalgalerie.
One can understand why there would be a return to objects: quite simply they can be sold. One of the disadvantages of the more radical modes of installation art from the point of view of marketing lies in the fact that once dismantled they either depend upon photo-documentation (which can be sold in limited edition) or detritus from the installation. If one wants to actually sell work, it makes more sense to make aesthetic objects. The quandary is that the conceptualism of the 1960s was so revolutionary that it has skewed the notion that art can be defined in terms of painting and sculpture. Accordingly artists such as Šedá feel that they have to find some way of deconstructing the precious object and introducing a “conceptual” dimension. In consequence, we have a large array of cut-out craft card objects that look a little bit like a high school project, except for the very smart art gallery presentation with plinths and shelves etc; in addition, we have to remember, of course, that Šedá’s practice is conceptual. But if it is conceptual then very little provision for this aspect of the work was provided in its mode of exhibition which was carried out in the style of a traditional presentation of precious objects. Video has an advantage here because it is an inherently informational medium that is much less affected by its mode of exhibition.
The problem I find in confronting an exhibition such as Seda’s objects in KW is that it cannot speak for itself. We are forced to read up on Šedá in order to grasp the full gravity of her work. One could liken this to reading a novel that was highly opaque but which would become very good when one read another book, which explained the first. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake certainly fits this pattern but, significantly, Finnegans Wake has had very little impact on contemporary literature. In contrast, in the field of fine art, Duchamp and John Cage are hyper-venerated as superhuman geniuses and their influence can be best described in religious terms: the religion of conceptual art.
What we appear to be witnessing in Šedá’s contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennial is confirmation of what I referred to in a previous post as the Documenta 12 effect. This effect can be described briefly as the replication of anti-art within the compromised conditions of an acceptance of the commercial gallery system. The result is a self-consciously abject art that bores most visitors to death. It is art for the art community’s sake not for the sake of the viewer. This is over-intellectualised art, over precious, and visually unengaging. The photographs of the KW Institute installation shown here show a lot of objects but relatively few viewers. I find that interesting because the images were taken on the occasion of the press launch and the gallery was crowded with people
As for Šedá’s Skupturenpark offering, it was yet another grunge installation. After almost twenty years of the dominance of grunge in sculpture at the turn of the millennium one is getting just a little tired of it. But it seems to be the best that contemporary sculpture can muster. Anyway you can read the text accompanying Šedá’s Skupturenpark installation and hopefully you will find it enlightening (you may have to click the image even when it is expanded to see it full size).