Sunday, January 13, 2013

How to Change the World

- This article was originally published by The Skinny on January 1st 2013 -

Believing that contemporary art is a trustworthy judge on the role of the economy may be a bit like believing that the tabloid press is a trustworthy judge on the value of privacy. While ECONOMY, an upcoming exhibition at CCA, aims to generate constructive public discussion, it seems doubtful that discussion will be heard over the roar of a $45 billion global art market. Indeed, many of the works in the exhibition will re-enter circulation as art commodities once the show has concluded. They might even enjoy a higher market value for their increased visibility. Although this seems unlikely for Andreas Gursky, whose 'art star' status was already an attractive promotional hook before his work was garnered for this show.

Of course, the apparent futility of it all isn't lost on the artists themselves. Jenny Marketou's video work We Love Candy but Our Passion Is Collecting Art stages the artist's confrontation with the economic function of art as it erodes her artistic ego and aspirations for 'changing the world.' No doubt a 30 minute video about rich kids and their art collections would make any artist feel disillusioned, if not nauseous. So why make it, unless your real intention is to illustrate some foregone conclusion?
One of the most powerful attributes of art is its ability to explore the truth without commanding us to follow a master ideology. Despite this, many artists prefer to simply conceal their ideology under a few layers of meaning so their audience can unwrap it for themselves and feel special, like a child on Christmas morning. One issue with an exhibition like ECONOMY is that its meaning has already been laid out by the curators before the viewers even enter the galleries. Their skill is not to conceal but to declaim the merits of their ideology. For ECONOMY it's a case of: Rich guys, bad. Poor guys, righteous.
When art is hijacked by politics in this way, nobody wins. The politics is reduced to dumb emotional gags and the art becomes a vessel with little value of its own. The latest and greatest example of this is 'socially engaged art,' a phrase that's all the more irritating in its implication that other art is somehow socially disengaged. Socially engaged artists don't make objects, they manipulate people into participating/collaborating in seemingly helpful activities. Basically, it's charity work with the pretence that artists are more creative than ordinary people, so that when they're doing charity work, it's actually art.
ECONOMY brings to Glasgow the artist collective WochenKlauser, who have been pioneering socially engaged art projects across the globe since 1992. In the Drumchapel area, they will "help to set up an association to encourage and support the foundation of a small worker self-managed cooperative." Although the cooperative movement has a long and rich history in Scotland, WochenKlauser will explore "what role art can play in effecting sustainable change – no matter how small – within the social fabric."
For all their sanctimonious horizon gazing, it's still doubtful that the devoutly Marxist artist is more annoying than the unapologetically capitalist one. They occupy opposite ends of the same boring fascination with money. In between, the vast majority of artists are busy inventing ways of sharing a sense of meaning that goes beyond money. Theirs is a difficult task, impossible actually, but it at least keeps them busy – they're discovering the infinite subtleties of how the world actually is, rather than how to change it.

Dexter Sinister at Tramway

- This review was originally published by The Skinny on Nov 8th 2012 -

There's something very appealing about an exhibition that politely ridicules global art brands like MoMA and Tate. Maybe it's because we've already noticed that something's amiss when those brands treat contemporary art like a fairground commodity. Personally, it's exactly the kind of critical discourse I came to Scotland to discover. Back home in Australia we have a long tradition of dutifully following European trends without assuming the authority to ridicule their direction. We usually have enough trouble simply justifying the existence of contemporary art, which most Australians treat with an air of suspicion. Having just arrived, I'm curious to discover whether Scotland suffers from the same affliction. Secretly I'm hoping that my new home is close to the action but with enough breathing room to avoid the hype.

The New York-based publishing and design duo Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt) have charted the malignant romance between art institutions and the world of corporate branding, especially graphic identity. Recently shown at Tramway, their work Identity consists of a half-hour video projection that alternates over three channels, accompanied by an annotated essay. The video narrates an abridged history of branding, the voice-over employing its commercialised semiotics.
I couldn't avoid the feeling that Tramway’s space had become a lecture theatre but it was the kind of lecture I was happy to receive because its structure demanded interpretation. So I sat and let the projection fill my brain with information and afterwards I felt smarter, partly because it made art institutions look a bit silly.
It seems that the big problem with branding major arts institutions is that the tail can start to wag the dog. When Tate brands itself to be "EVERYDAY not esoteric, ENJOYABLE not worthy," it's only a matter of time before artists strive to make everyday, enjoyable art that's anything but esoteric and worthy. In this way, marketing consultants formulate the vision for contemporary art that eventually trickles down to the artist who waits at the bottom of the food chain. The museum-going public is at the top of the hierarchy, so whatever gets 'em through the door at Tate Modern must be good. Once marketing starts to pull the strings, novelty takes over. The eventual benefactors of this cycle are the smaller arts communities that don't trivialise their practices in order to fulfill a brand. After all, why would anyone choose art that's been trivialised by branding when they can choose mass culture that's always going to be better at being trivial?
But rather than spelling out the end game of art's increasingly corporate mentality, Dexter Sinister's Identity concludes with the origins of identity, which the work's triangular structure conveys in a neat geometric metaphor about the nature of ideas: If you're at an impasse between two opposing points - let’s say, modernism and postmodernism - then you need a new idea, a third point to form a triangle and inside the triangle you'll have a new field of possibilities. After being shown the mess of generalisations that is corporate branding, this image of a clean, unadulterated triangle seems so simple that the complicated stuff appears all the more suspect. Perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism isn't such a bad thing after all?