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An unexpected “25th artwork” of the “Being Good” exhibition

Being NOT good 0

Vandalism in contemporary art exhibitions, or the interaction between viewer-artworks-space

By Sabīne Jermaloviča [1]

The organization of cultural and art events in abandoned, lost, forgotten or decaying venues is not a new tendency; neither is the attempt to withdraw from the confines of comfortable and correct spaces like museums or galleries. More and more curators and artists, especially those who represent contemporary art, search for new locations in order to create new environments in which to exhibit artworks. Their reasons can be very diverse, ranging from the wish to re-conceptualize artworks, to practical considerations such as availability or financial issues. However, such projects also open up to a wider audience places that are usually closed off to them, and sometimes even forgotten. In such places we usually accept the “touch of time” as a patina, one that is hard to achieve in a regular museum/gallery/art space experience. But what is the interaction like between the audience, the artworks, and the space in such situations?

Markus Kåhre. Untitled, 2016. Exhibition “Being Good” at Sculpture Quadrennial Riga 2016. Photo: Lauris Aizupietis

I would like to discuss this matter further in the context of the central exhibition of Sculpture Quadrennial Riga 2016, titled “Being Good”, which was held in Wagner Hall, in the city center of the Latvian capital. Over the last ten years, the fate of Wagner Hall has been in a quite critical situation. Having once been one of the most splendid and central concert halls in Latvia, it has turned into a forgotten and burdensome object under State care. Only a few cultural and art events, like Survival Kit, have opened up the venue for a wider audience, events in which one could still feel the presence of the Hall’s bright past.

As I found out from the organizers of the festival, Wagner Hall was not their “first choice”, but there were several reasons led them to this location, and they decided to go for it. Already at the opening of the exhibition, I felt that the vibes or signals coming from the space itself were strong – for me personally, even stronger than those of the artworks in some cases. I found it engaging to explore the interaction between audience-artworks-space because of the inside stories that I had heard from the organizers about the exhibition and the bizarre activities going around in the space; my study resulted in the public discussion: “Vandalism in Contemporary Art Exhibitions.” One of the inspirations for the discussion was an entry in the guest book that said: “You have a very cool roof on which to smoke cigarettes! Thank you for that! Linda and Laura.” Obviously, these young women broke the rules and visited parts of building which were not part of the exposition.

Nele Müller & Florian Deeg. Cold Wall, 2016. Exhibition “Being Good” at Sculpture Quadrennial Riga 2016. Photo: Lauris Aizupietis

The accounts of “vandalism” and the “vandals” themselves were various and different in nature, but my gut feeling, and one of the deductions arrived at during the discussion, was that most of the accounts of vandalism were not done with malicious intent. Most of the instances of vandalism were along the lines of people stepping on an artwork when there was a sign clearly stating not to do so; peering behind doors on which there were signs stating: “The end of exposition (sic)”; or making “cute” selfies while sitting on Johannes Säre’s “window” (an artwork titled “Ascent to the Abyss of Lost Ideas”). Instagram is the best place where one can find such evidence.

One of the conclusions of the discussion was that the general public lacks knowledge (is uneducated) about contemporary art – people just do not understand that it, too, is valuable. There’s a simple formula for that: “I do not understand, so I destroy/break the rules.” People are used to being restricted in art galleries by signs, cameras and staff, but when there is nothing of that sort to be seen, people feel free to express themselves. So, there arises the question of: Why is that? Does the fact that restrictions and rules exist invite us to break them?

 Johannes Säre. Ascent to the Abyss of Lost Ideas, 2016. Exhibition “Being Good” at Sculpture Quadrennial Riga 2016. Photo: Lauris Aizupietis

From my personal experience, I can say that the exhibition space, Wagner Hall, interacts with one very directly and strongly. It invites you to participate, to interact. I noticed drawings and hand prints in the dust; somebody had left a chestnut next to an art work. People like to take a lot of photos, and for some, there comes a point when one no longer wants to follow the orange line (the guiding line that takes visitors through the exhibition) because of the urge to explore the space itself. Accordingly, I don’t think that one can fault a lack of education or a low level of cultural knowledge in all cases of vandalism (of course, sometimes these are precisely the reasons behind it). Instead, I believe it is the public’s wish to interact, to communicate with the artwork and the space. On the one hand, it could be an answer to the restrictions; on the other hand, it could be an effect of them. But in both cases, I believe it is a wish to answer, to be present, because art invites one to react (I am intentionally using the verb invite instead of provoke). It carries an agency in the sense of Alfred Gell’s theory, according to which, viewers can react to artworks as if they were living beings or even persons that act upon the viewer.[2] He explains how such a notion as agency can be applied to an artwork, and how an artwork can be associated as a living being in terms of power. The power to influence its viewers, to make them act as if they are engaging not with dead matter, but with living persons, make artworks similar to living beings, and this power or effect of agency acts on the viewer’s behavior or beliefs. It means that artworks do not carry only symbolic value, but in the words of Gell, are “a special kind of technology” which brings the viewer into a direct relationship with it.

I suggest that a similar idea can be applied to vandalism in contemporary art exhibitions – in the sense that interactions or relationships occur between the viewer, the artwork, and the space in which the space either empowers the art or functions as a catalyst between the artwork and the audience. The space serves as a background that fosters the relationship between the viewer and the artwork. It is along these lines that I think that the space is important in the context of the exhibition “Being Good,” and in the context of some works, especially so. For example, in his installation Untitled, Markus Kåhre constructs a new spatial experience, filling it with self-reflection.

One of the last incidences of “vandalism” that I heard of in terms of the “Being Good” exhibition, is that of the show receiving a unexpected “25th artwork” (in total, there are only 24 official works on view). A visitor to the exhibition left an almost invisible stencil on a bookshelf that was used to block off the corridor. Underneath the stencil someone had written: “25. Ave Maria”, and a signature. In my opinion, this is a manifestation of the direct wish to communicate – it is an answer to the exhibition and to the presented works. Nowadays, viewers want to have a relationship with the artworks that they see.

[1]   This text was written in the context of the course ‘Art and Anthropology’ at the Art Academy of Latvia.