Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Contesting Space - Biennales and Protest?

On August 24th 1967 Abbie Hoffman staged an anti-Vietnam war protest at the United States Department of Defence, also known as, the Pentagon. Over 50,000 people focused their psychic powers in an attempt to levitate the building. Almost forty years later, at the inaugural Singapore Biennale, artist Daniel Malone reworked the action as an exercise in relational aesthetics and performance. Malone rallied together 400 school children, local business people and biennale visitors in an attempt to levitate one of the exhibition sites, the Singapore City Hall. The title of the performance ‘Steal this :-)’ at once pays homage to Hoffman’s anarchist politics, while adding artificial sweetener to the slogan, playing off a surface cuteness with a strong undercurrent of irony. Within the climate that Malone’s work was staged, it prodded at local issues of conformity and the state’s imaginative takes on the meaning of free speech, and reflected back upon more global issues of the decay and indeed failure of the protest format in contemporary western society.

Furthermore, this work is a point to begin a discussion of certain works at the Biennale of Sydney 2008 because its meaning doubles back and forth based upon the site the protest is levelled at; the specific site of the city hall-come-white cube. This is a site both loaded in terms of its political and social status within Singapore, and secondly as a space that embraced many of the tropes of the curated gallery for the duration of the biennale. What is most significant about Hoffman’s protest, Malone’s performative artwork and the contestations of the space of the Gallery of New South Wales by Renata Lucas, Dan Perjovschi and Nedko Solakov is that they level criticisms of larger issues or cultural tendencies toward the spaces which both symbolise and epitomise these things.

Hal Foster’s article ‘Archive without museums’ perhaps gives inroads in to why these artists graffiti the gallery’s exterior, turn its central foyer into a work site, and refuse the premise of the gallery as a set and controlled space. Foster posits that the gallery is a turbulent site because of its historical desire to both separate art from the world, to give it its own history and autonomy and yet also connect this art with the social conditions in which it was made and exists in the present. Obviously these two desires ‘are in tension, and the tension runs through the discipline like a fault line…how can art be autonomous and imbricated in social history?’ (101). In many ways the contestations and attacks upon the traditional gallery space constitute a working through of this tension; a question asked of the gallery as a white cube (and as specific site loaded with its own history and politics) but unfolds a parallel dialogue into criticism of museums and galleries as sites symbolic of broader political and social situations.

Nedko Solakov’s work consists of two wall painters locked into a Sisyphean loop; one paints a large wall of the foyer white, while the other paints the other main wall of the foyer black, and then they swap. A mess of blue painters’ tape, plastic drop sheets and conspicuous labourers dressed in paint splattered overalls, the work exposes the systems of labour and construction which the gallery as a white cube so painstakingly hides in the presentation of final exhibitions. Not only does the work call into question the totality of the gallery in the full throws of a major exhibition there is a second level apparent on closer analysis of the work. While the workers’ presence continues pervasively throughout the show, what they paint is also highly pervasive. This is a stark reminder of the ways in which certain politics of the white cube as a space are incumbent. In the context of the Gallery of NSW an example of this would be that the gallery held no works by Aboriginal Australians until 1956, at which point a small collection was donated by an independent organisation.

Renata Lucas’ work consists of wall segments on tracks that the audience can shift around the greater part of the Biennale space in the Gallery of NSW. Lucas’ work undoes the white cube in a literal sense; for example the first segment in the piece, which, although not fully detached, disrupts the long line of Fischli and Weiss, photographs. Aside from disrupting the white cube as a literal space, her moveable walls allow for the viewer to define the space of the gallery within the frame of their own personal agendas, undercutting the notion of the gallery as a space that reflects the ideologies of an institution. Power over the space is placed in the hands of an individual’s concerns.

Perjovschi covers the exterior of the gallery in notebook style, chalk drawn graffiti. Perjovschi is able to negotiate the façade of the gallery in a way that is complex and meaningful in terms of both the autonomous and imbricated nature of the space behind. As a third and final example of the negotiations of the autonomous nature of art and its overlap with broader social politics Perjovschi evokes the autonomy of the gallery with the humour he employs. Much of the humour in these drawings relies on a prior knowledge of art and its history. For example, the drawing that juxtaposes a character flexing its bicep (labelled modernism) with another character with no arm, but a speech bubble containing an image of a flexed bicep (labelled post modernism) relies on an understanding of what the two labels mean for the cleverness and humour of the image to be fully realised. Perjovschi’s work also doubles back on itself, the façade as an austere border between the gallery and the art it holds and the rest of the world is contested in a way that is meaningful to a broad audience by evoking the long history of the vandalism of walls in traditional graffiti as representative of an undercurrent of dissent in society.

Hal Foster, “The Archive without Museums” in October Volume 77 (Summer, 1996), pp. 97 – 119.

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