Sharing Ladders

Notes on the group show as format


It is rumored that artists have fabulously large egos, that they are difficult, bitchy and competitive, especially when forced to share the limelight and the space. In my experience, however, we have usually managed to put our differences and egos aside in these situations — both in terms of helping each other, and by generally being quite reasonable and civil (at least before sunset).

The implicit assumption is that we are all on the same side. Together we have cursed evil curators, while sharing the one ladder to be found in a museum; sworn under our breaths at insensitive ignorant administrators who know nothing about what we are doing, while downing the third shot of grappa; vowed revenge on museum directors and accountants who’ve been slow to reimburse our flight tickets or deliberately neglected to tell us where and how we could get our per diem. Ironically, it is in the context of the group show — where competition should be fiercest — that I personally have experienced a sort of solidarity, albeit a vicious one.

I am not going to suggest anything as stupid or naive as doing away with the group show. Neither am I interested in demonstrating the essayist’s erudition of quotations and obsession with etymologies, nor in providing the entertainment of the journalist’s little gossipy stories. What follows are only a few ideas in response to one of the main activities of the working artist today — participating in large-scale, well-publicized international group shows documented by book-thick colorful catalogues.

Group shows are where you shake hands with politicians and kings in front of cameras, where the sidelong glance, the half-smile, or the deliberately insolent response are all carefully weighed and utilized. Where seated dinners in medium-priced restaurants go on for slightly longer than they should, and where invariably someone confuses someone with someone else. It is where, in retrospect, you realize that the question of losing yourself was actually pertinent.

Because group shows are usually marketed with a specific, clearly articulated political position (solo shows are also, of course, but less so — the stakes being smaller) one is immediately implicated and reduced by the logic of that agenda. Why participate, then? One highly intelligent, charming, and seriously concerned friend speaks of strategic essentialism as a way out. You use the conditions to slide your own agenda through — you accept being labeled (as Arab, African, Asian, et cetera) to get noticed and move on.

Solo exhibitions remain, almost by definition, a rare currency. Risk-taking, and having to truly invest in an individual artist and his moods, make it at best a long-difficult endeavor. It also means the curator, institution, and location ultimately become less important than the artist.

The argument for group shows, on the other hand, is that by placing works together, a resonance can be discovered, and the public may come to understand a context (of conflict, production), a condition (of malaise, neurosis), or a state (of urgency, emergency) and therefore discover more about what’s going on right at this very moment around the world. The curated group show usually attempts to bring works together that possess some (at many times tentative due to artists’ healthy insistence on producing what they want) relation to a theme or an idea or an approach or a strategy or a word or a fashion, by commission or selection or, as usually is the case, a mix of both. It thus positions the artwork under the thumb of a cruel, heartless, automated master sign; the individual logic of presence of each work is denied, while the possibilities of ambiguity are rejected. We, by extension, as the producers of these works stand categorized, framed, and explained. The very format ensures that the viewer is in a position in which the aesthetic experience has been transformed into the activity of gathering information. The viewing process has itself become functional and instrumentalized.

So we’ll have exhibitions fueled by the deep hunger for spectacle, information, and a well-orchestrated, carefully designed sense of urgency (I was recently addressed by a curator on the phone as an “urgent artist” — I imagine wailing sirens on my head). It seems, at the current historical moment, that this is an unavoidable condition. What responses are possible? Shall we engage with the conditions we operate under? Can we infiltrate the alienated logic of an economy of production and consumption? Can we be part of it without ever becoming it?

I personally would rather be a rock; obstinate and hard, yet willing to negotiate my head off.

In group shows, people look at a collection of objects (and they remain objects, whether they are ephemeral gesture or a performed intervention) and invariably compare. The hierarchy (of artworks and artists, of approaches and locations, of the powerful and the weak) stands firm, no matter how transiently or relationally the whole experience is framed. Personally, I am all for hierarchies. The game of cultural subversion where we act as if the hierarchy has been successfully negated seems to be just one more minor element in a much more complex and real power structure. All pretensions otherwise are at best a sort of willful mystification.

On the other hand, artists, of course, have fabulously large egos.