9 Artists in Search of…

By Ingrid Nordstrom

Part 4 of 5

When thinking on the exhibition 9 Artists, the Luigi Pirandello play, Six Characters in Search of an Author continually came to mind. The meta-theatrical play works through the relationships between author, characters, theatrical practitioners and the audience. A Director’s rehearsal is interrupted by Characters in search of a resolution to their plot. Many arguments ensue as the Characters watch reenactments of their scenes by the Actors. The reality of the stage is confused with non-theatrical reality and the nature of truth is problematized. All the while, the play is a self-aware narrative. No matter how emotionally attached the audience becomes to the realistic depictions of the motivations of all the characters (Characters, Director, Actors), the knowledge that it is the reality they are seeing construction is always present.

 The Walker dives right into the mess of converging realities and narratives that seem to typify our understanding of the contemporary world. In examining the power structures that create meaning it questions its own hegemony. In 9 Artists, on view from October 24, 2013- February 16, 2014, Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan pulls together Yael Bertana, Danh Vo, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Renzo Martens, Bjarne Melgaard, Hito Steyerl, Liam Gillick, and Nástio Mosquito in an exploration of the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture marked by increasingly complex interconnectedness. Through all the works offered in this exhibition there is a distinct sense of self-awareness: on the part of the artists, the Walker, and the viewer. We are all complicit in a machinery of culture production and consumption. These international artists all use their “identities,” as the primary material for exploration; however it is the post-modern identity of fragments, ephemera and constructed or deconstructed narratives. By engaging in the debate of the artist’s identity and exhibiting international artists who work vigorously to redefine their roles in a global market place of ideas and commodities, the Walker not only provides the forum, but allows questions to be raised about its own role. How to navigate what is to be considered art in the contemporary world and how institutions collect and display art marked by expansive practices or works that may not have a material presence in an ever-image saturated and commodity driven world are key questions that still remain to be answered. 9 Artists confronts this directly by addressing our complicity in the structures that grant power to creations by naming them art.

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Natascha Sadr Haghighian, I Can’t Work Like This (2007) Photo: Courtesy the artist and Johann König Gallery, Berlin

The exhibition begins with Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s I Can’t Work Like This (2007) an installation work of nails hammered directly into the wall. The white space in the bed of nails spell out the title in precise san-serif font. Two hammers and scattered nails lay on the ground as if she has quit being an artist and walked away, mid-install. This bold statement renounces the categories that define artwork, that are, according to the artist, defined by the market. She is, in fact, an artist, defined by her works. But she satirically attacks the oversimplified, market slogans and categories that distill her ‘self’ into a single- dimensional being of market/consumer indicators and define her work by the buyers. Many of her works deal with the self-representation and agency of objects themselves. This is firmly exhibited in de paso (2011). In this work the interaction of a roller-suitcase leaning its handle on a water bottle create a real time soundscape as the two objects interact and shift. In a performance commissioned for the Walker entitled performance/audience/file (2013) she recontextualized Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975) in which the audience was placed in front of a wall sized mirror as the artist gave real time commentary on what he observed. In Haghighian’s work, the mirror is replaced by the “selfie” and subject and object are conflated and complicated even further by the un-reality of the cloud and digital file. What is the object, subject and artist when they are all literally dematerialized into a coded file in the virtual reality of the cloud? A multi-step performance, it involved audience participation, drawing and a Hoover vacuum. She encouraged visitors to bring their own smart phones to take selfies with the artist, critiquing and complicit in the new reality of self-representation.

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Hito Steyerl. How Not to Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File, 2012. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam

Hito Steyerl’s wonderful wit is on view in a new work entitled How not to be seen. A fucking didactic educational .MOV file (2012). She continues the question, “What is the image and its agency in the digital world?” Our attempt to stay human online is presented like an absurdist joke, and is ‘lol’ funny. Red Alert (2007), also on view and in the Walker Permanent Collection, declares the logical end of documentary film making by displaying three monochrome red screens, referencing of Alexander Rodchenko’s formal investigation of painting’s logical end. The utopian vision of this modernist thought has given way, however, to a more dystopian view marking the contemporary world. Also, on view are works spanning the last twenty years of Liam Gillick’s career, marked by this same investigation of the failed utopian promises of the modern age. As if a microcosm of the expansion of practice, Gillick’s output is marked by diversity including: writing, sculpture, graphic design, film, music, and also critical and curatorial process. An influential artist, as part of the YBA and through his critical discourse, his inclusion in this exhibition brings with it the concomitant associations of Relational Aesthetics offering the debate a focal point to investigate the operation of the social systems in art production and display.

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Liam Gillick: The Whatnot Itself Becomes a Super State, 2008, vinyl text on wall. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, NY. Photo: Adam Reich.

Many of the works included are, in some form or another, a collection of objects, mirroring a trend in contemporary art of ‘artist as curator’ or archeologist of the self.

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Museum goers inspect the contents of Danh Vo’s I M U U R 2 (2010), Photo Gene Pittman, @Walker Art Center.

The installation of Danh Vo’s I M U U R 2 (2012) epitomizes this trend as a deeply personal display of the effects of the late painter Martin Wong. Mickey Mouse and Asian paper scrolls live amid furniture pieces and the tools of Mr. Wong’s trade. The exploration of this need to collect, to categorize, takes on a multileveled role in this work. It is the construction of an identity of an immigrant, of clashing cultural objects living together. It is the construction of the identity of an artist; define by his work and tools. It is a memorial, evidence of a life that has passed. The memorial, is carefully constructed by a third party collaboration, a much younger artist in conjunction with Wong’s mother Florence Wong Fie. These objects tell us this is a window into a man’s life. It is a memorial not of stone, but of everyday minutia. This artwork, a collection, is displayed within the framework of an institution devoted to the collection of objects to which it ascribes meaning and narrative. The viewer looks at objects that apparently held some meaning for a particular man, curated through the lens of another artist, then curated again in the context of an institution. What does this intensive mediation do to this work that is both memorial and exhibition art? Does it illuminate or obfuscate the man who was Martin Wong? What does it say about Wong’s interaction with the world at large? How do we ascribe meanings when they are fluid, mediated, and based on a multiplicity of interactions? And yet, the work has emotional and visual power that seem to reach beyond the particulars of the objects, Martin Wong, Danh Vo, and the Walker.

This exhibition is incredibly conceptually rich. The name, itself, is a clever knot. There are only eight artists in the exhibition; which begs the question, “Who is the ninth? Am I? Is the Walker?” Some of the artists directly react to the legacy of modernism, some provide social commentary, some focus on object creation while other focus on its dematerialization, and yet others on the object’s agency in different levels of reality. The exhibition is a deep investigation of the differing ways in which objects, whatever their manifestation, are given power and meaning. It repudiates the ideas of objective reality, of utopian perfections, of Platonic ideals and suggests we are all tainted. Nor is this intersubjectivity moralized. The exhibition does not plead, “if only we could get free we would see the truth,” or even “if only I could get free I could express the truth,” but rather argues that the hyperreal is, in fact, our reality. The chimera of self is the way in which to understand it. How we construct our individual identity as a reflected and permeable surface within these fluid systems is the analogy to investigate the very frameworks of agency. Moreover, it is generally done with self-deprecating humor. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is ironic and what is earnest…and it is probably a bit of both. By admitting one’s own role, as viewer, artist, or institution, a sort of community of complicity is created. We are all victim and perpetrator, all creator and consumer, object and subject, we all have the power to reframe the narrative yet are characters written by our circumstances. I will borrow another author’s artwork to close with, and perhaps this was all that needed be said about the exhibition.

The Father: Now, if you consider the fact that we, as we are, have no other reality outside of this illusion. . .

The Manager: And what does that mean?

The Father: As I say, sir, that which is a game of art for you is our sole reality. But not only for us, you know, by the way.

Just- you think it over well.

Can you tell me who you are?[i]


[i] an interchange between the “character,” Father and the Director (Manager) in Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author: Unabridged Dover Thrift Edition, translated by Edward Storer, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998), 44.

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