29 Jan - 16 March 2003
Institute of Contemporary Art, ICA Galleries, The Mall, London - UK
Contemporary art now thinks of the relationship between 'art' and 'society' as a question of direct interventions and immediate responses, artistic practice becoming a form of minor intervention into the bigger realms of culture, media, economy and society. So the work in 'Publicness' gets a lot of attention, because it offers the gallery-going public a spectacle of artistic practice that seems less distanced and cut off from everyday reality, injected with serious intent and an ability to make a difference.
Take Jens Haaning, whose projects highlight the invisibility and lack of representation of immigrant groups through a range of quirky urban interventions: A loudspeaker attached to a lamp-post in an Arab area of Oslo, broadcasting jokes told in Arabic; or the relocation of a Turkish garment-makers' business into an art gallery, complete with paid immigrant workers. These might be worthy projects, yet Haaning's projects rarely tell us something we don't already accept as received opinion. What should we make of Haaning's relocation of the ICA's old café seating to a street in Karachi, where locals can help themselves to plastic chairs previously sat upon by London's well-heeled culture-bums? That ordinary Pakistanis are poor, that such acts of 'generosity' are mere crumbs from globalisation's unequal table, or that we rich westerners are complacent in our consumption of culture? There is something curatorially bankrupt and decadent, rather than boldly critical, about these acts of ascetic ephemerality and hectoring political symbolism, such as Haaning's exchange of street light bulbs between Kassel and Hanoi. Haaning's work may contrast the global reality of the poor to the art world's cultural privilege, but such institutional self-criticism does not however lead to the art world's self-abolition.
Similarly, Matthieu Laurette's increasingly megalomaniac antics pretend to being embroiled in the circuits of the global spectacle, whilst providing plenty of spectacular entertainment for the 'critically correct' art spectator. Laurette offers representation to all the countries not represented at the Venice Bienalle in return for citizenship—cue worthy discussion of globalisation and cultural representation, without explaining why non-representation at the Biennale is such a problem, or how to solve it. He organises conventions of celebrity look-alikes, revelling in these facscimiles of the already inauthentic media personality—cue worthy discussion about the society of the spectacle, even whilst offering nothing in its place, other than Laurette as earnest media clown for fashionable situationists everywhere.
The effect of both is the easy condemnation of art through its own resources and means of presentation, whilst leaving the professional economy of artistic practice and curatorship secure. Laurette and Haaning represent the vogue for low-calorie critical gesturing which feeds the artworld's ongoing anxiety about what stand it should take towards the broader culture and the world around it. Significantly, both artists tend to exaggerate their work's supposed effect in its 'original' context, because it in reality only gains significance once transferred to the art world's secure space of representation. Haaning's and Laurette's projects provide a spectacle of engagement whilst changing nothing in the usual functioning of the art institution, or its audience, except to offer a kind of moral absolution for the aesthetically guilty and politically disaffected.
'Publicness' is however rescued by Aleksandra Mir, whose hippy-ish projects of carnavalesque urban and media interventions avoid the slick resolution of her colleagues. Mir is no less stuck in the interstice between professional art and public culture, but she refuses to hide behind received ideas to legitimate her activities. Mir's projects may be dreamy idealisms for a sweeter world, yet in their wayward ambitions and regular failures they at least highlight the boorish reality of public arts commissioning (a flower-garden in Glasgow cancelled at the last moment because her initial statement suggested it as 'a place for teenagers to have sex in', or the replanting of disused Christmas trees, sabotaged by the NY fire department's fire hazard regulations). Mir's projects reveal that supposedly critical displays of 'public' art are often the outcome of deadening curatorial policies, dominated by concerns for 'critical correctness' and public etiquette. Mir addresses what 'Publicness' as a whole does not; the co-opted ideology of the world of public art which, instead of encouraging moments of cultural excess and critical play (like Mir's bright pink repainting of a derelict tank in South London), increasingly conspires with a professional establishment to promote displays of politically correct sentiment, restraining the disruptive and celebratory potential through which art offers a different culture to the one that already exists.