Artbollocks Theatre is back! As a friend of mine said last week upon hearing the glad tidings: “Oh shit, I’m scared.” More dramatic readings of the worst artist statements, gallery press releases and art criticism every week, except when I don’t do them every week. Today we’ll learn about places in spaces being in spaces that are places. Or something.
International Art English tropes in this episode of Artbollocks Theatre, rated on a scale of one to five stars
Tongue twisters ***, pseudoscientific claptrap *, bad grammar, typos or misused words *, telling us what we see or think **, spurious appeals to art history ***, art world jargon **, pretending artists are more [superlative adjective] than people who are actually [adjective] ***, justifying nothingness or lack of work ****, [gender or sexual identity/motherhood/minority status/nationality of the artist] is magic (0), everyday object, technology or phenomenon presented as if the artist is a virtuoso for being able to use it (0), “between [random noun] and [random noun]” ***, artist is unique ***, body horror (0).
The original text is below. The exhibition was in Oslo last summer so luckily there’s no chance of you seeing it. As with most contemporary art exhibitions in small independent galleries, it is in fact highly unlikely that more than a few dozen people saw it even at the time. That’s a large part of the reason why curator texts full of gobbleydgook exist in the first place, i.e. to validate things virtually nobody sees or has any interest in seeing. If they didn’t, there would be essentially no trace of the artist’s work in anybody’s memory or in any kind of public record, and their work would seem even less important than it actually is.
Anne Katrine Senstad has worked in a wide range of artistic expression in her practice. She has produced portrait photography, site specific installations in nature, projected films and light onto public buildings and made a series of surreal films.
“Surreal films”? You crazy, wild lunatic. Some artists do good outdoor work, but phrases like “site specific installations in nature” are usually cause for red alert, sound the klaxons, because it tends to mean she piled up a bunch of twigs meaningfully in some local woodland one time and took a picture of it with her iPhone, or something similar. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just piling a load of old crap up against a wall in gallery or in a forest clearing is not an installation. A thing is not necessarily an artwork just because you say it is. Art exists in the relationship between maker, artwork, and audience. Take one of these legs away and the whole thing falls over. Other people, even if it’s only a small number of people, have to be convinced by your argument and agree with you that something you say is art really is art.
Throughout her career she has focused on the intersection of nature and culture, the object and the perception of object, of rationality and the subconscious. In State of Space she combines all of these areas of interest in a collection of her works.
Her solo exhibition is a collection of her works. Astonishing. Call for Doctor Obvious on line two. Was her previous solo exhibition a collection of somebody else’s works? The whole first sentence of that paragraph, from “throughout” to “subconscious”, covers essentially every subject and everything in existence, which I would say amounts to focusing on nothing. It’s just a string of vague, platitudinous dualities that could describe perceptions and concerns belonging to absolutely any person of average intelligence: nature vs. culture, objective vs. subjective, thought vs. feeling. For example, what about the intersection of nature and culture interests the artist? The subject matter of English landscape painters before the Industrial Revolution? Landscape Art? Basket weaving? Evolutionary biology? Anthropogenic climate change? Chomskyian linguistics? The demographic and social effects of the Chinese one child policy? Photographic portraits of chihuahuas, pugs and other lap dogs?
Instead of giving us even the briefest, most cursory insight with regard to what really makes the artist tick, apparently it’s preferable to witter on at tiresome length about “space”.
And what is the state of space in Senstad’s art? What is the purpose of ‘space’ here in her art? I find a theoretical key for the understanding of the works of Senstad in, of all places, culture studies. One of the theories that are frequently in use in culture studies is named space/place theory. This is a theory that sees the place as one potential understanding of a space. What makes a place is how we physically use the space, how we perceive space and the practice of it, how we construct space through language and fill it with objects, history and meaning. A space might be inhabited with a selection of definitions of place at various moments in time. Simultaneously the same space might be perceived as different senses of place according to the subjective perceiver.
This game of perception is used by Senstad in State of Space, a collection of works shown in the space of a white cube gallery. The space of the white cube is normally used to display objects. What Senstad is showing us are different works that have the removal of the object as a theme. In Color Kinesthesia and Color Synthesthesia IV she shows us light perceived as color. Small technically modifications in the perception can alter even an empty space into a massively colored place. In the same way she shows that a sculpture is a three-dimensional object, obviously, but that this object not only fills the space in the white cube. It also contains a space inside itself. By folding out the sculpture she questions the function of the sculpture as a solid and defining marker of a gallery space, a way of seeing sculptures that minimalism taught us in the 1960s.
Her two small sculptures are replicas of a larger sculptural piece, originally made to project color and light onto, which would give the viewer an experience of colors in transit, light and reflected shapes in the art space. This focus on the formal is what makes Senstad’s art so interesting. Her aesthetics are close to minimalism, monochromes and formalism. Her works might look slick and polished. They might be seen as just another commentary on works of the modern and postmodern genres. This may be a conventional way of seeing her work. But, her work is not a tongue in cheek commentary on modernism or post-modernism classics. Senstad has an honest curiosity when she explores the physics of space and philosophy of perception. Beneath the smooth surface her art works deal with classical avant-garde questions: What is art? What is space? How do we perceive the same objects and spaces differently at separate times and with individual minds?
Senstad’s works owe more to 4’33’ by John Cage than to 60s minimalism, and more to Yves Klein and early experimental post-modernism, than to clean formalism. In this way Senstad’s works can be seen in two distinctively different ways at the same time. On the surface there is formalism. Beneath the surface there are some of the largest questions an artist can dare to ask and to work with. Senstad gives us two very different ways of seeing her art. In this she creates variable potentialities from a singular space. And between these multiple potential observations of her work, you will find a space – a space where your perception is the guide.
It’s the blithe, pompous arrogance of “dare to ask” that really gets me, even leaving aside the omission of what questions she might be daring to ask. Unless of course the questions are “What is art? What is space?”, which are not daring questions. On the contrary, they’re fairly trite and easily answered questions I’d expect any first year art student to be able to answer in a sentence or two. What are the stakes here? Is the artist’s life or wellbeing in danger? Ai Weiwei went to prison for being a mildly irritating thorn in the side of the Chinese government. It’s somewhat daring to still speak out and criticise after being intimidated and persecuted as Ai was. He even turned this horrible experience into a thought provoking art work. In other words, he shared something private and meaningful in a way that other people could (at least potentially) understand. He practised art. He walked the walk as well as talking the talk.
The man who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square because of his principles was really daring. Climbing Mount Everest is so daring it borders on plain stupid. Quitting your job and selling all your possessions to go and work as a doctor with refugees in a war zone is daring. It’s not daring to ask what art is. It isn’t even very important or necessary to ask what art is. Get the fuck out of here.