‘A History of Irritated Material’ includes Group Material, Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, Sture Johannesson, Ad Reinhardt, and Lygia Clark, from Object to Event, produced by Suely Rolnik. Activist films from Disobedience, an ongoing video archive will also be shown.
The exhibition samples art’s relation to politics and the archive, using examples from each decade since the Second World War. The archive of the New York artists’ collective Group Material has been made available for the very first time to record four of their radical exhibitions from the eighties and early nineties. Sture Johannesson’s Cannabis Gallery from Malmö in the sixties will be revived, and the exhibition will also include two installations by Inspection Medical Hermeneutics (a collective from Moscow of the ‘Glasnost’ years), as well as both the abstract and graphic political work of Ad Reinhardt. Significantly, Raven Row has commissioned the translation of part of Suely Rolnik’s compendious research on Lygia Clark, Lygia Clark, from Object to Event, which documents the otherwise invisible culmination of Clark’s life-art project. Sections of this video archive will be shown for the first time in English.
Alongside these positions, a selection of activist films from Disobedience, an ongoing video archive, will be shown within a structure designed by Xabier Salaberría, and political films made by collectives in the UK from the seventies and eighties will be screened and discussed in a programme of events during the course of the exhibition.
Review Rye Holmboe
The pervasiveness of exchange relations in Western society has suppressed the non-identical and the heterogeneous in the name of identity. The qualitative has been abstracted and transformed into the quantitative. Through this process of exchange-oriented reification thought becomes restricted to socially affirming tasks; labour becomes intangible; art becomes consumable.
And it is, I think, a refusal to accede to the reifying effects of late-capitalism that unites the various artists and collectives assembled in ‘A History of Irritated Materials’ at Raven Row. Each offers a distinct way of ‘seeing through the reified objectivity of the given world,’ to borrow György Lukács’ words.
Brazilian artist Lygia Clark (1920-1988) is a case in point. From around 1963 the artist ceased to produce objects for the spectator’s passive contemplation (and consumption). Instead, in an effort to collapse the gap between art and life, subject and ‘work,’ as well as the hegemony of the art institution, the spectator was asked to interact with Clark’s sensorial propositions. The experiential nature of these ‘relational objects’ meant that the work only ever existed in the moment of its enactment, in the lived time of experience. The spectator had in a sense turned author. This, together with the quotidian materials used - an inflated plastic bag with a stone placed on top of it that the individual is asked to squeeze and release, for instance - meant that the objects were not marketable. Nor could they be exhibited. After all, sealed in a display case in a museum or gallery a plastic bag and a pebble are no more than a plastic bag and a pebble.
And this, to me, is why Suely Rolnik’s production of Lygia Clark, from Object to Event is so stimulating. Instead of trying to re-create and appropriate what was by its very nature ephemeral and resistant, filmed testimonies provide fresh insights into Clark’s artistic practice. Among the contributors are Guy Brett, the life-long champion of the Brazilian avant-garde, and Yve-Alain Bois, a friend and critic who has written extensively on Clark’s work. There is, perhaps, a slight element of ‘what it would have been like’ to these interviews. But this is inevitable. Embodied experience can never really be retrieved. It is fleeting, momentary. And this, no doubt, partly explains how and why the body can become a space of resistance.
The new archival material concentrates largely on Structuring of the Self, where relational objects are used as a form of therapy, engendering a union between the subject and the physical object. In this way the spirit, alienated from the corporeal, is reunited with the primordial flux of the material world. The somatic is emancipated from the mystification of the semantic, as it were. And so Structuring of the Self floats in the liminal space between the therapeutic and the aesthetic but cannot be reduced to either.
Inspection ‘Medical Hermeneutics,’ a collective associated with ‘psychedelic realism’ that was founded by Pavel Pepperstein, Sergei Anufriev and Yuri Leiderman is perhaps the most enigmatic room in the exhibition. A lone boot stands on one pedestal; on another a hat with ear flaps; on another a single glove. There is something quite uncanny about these objects positioned as they are. It’s hard to tell whether this is simply because of the incongruity of the exhibition space or something else. Perhaps each object can be read as an index of an absence, suggesting a kind of disembodiment. Or maybe these are fetishised commodities that have acquired new valences because of their unusual context, pointing to the possibility of resistance to the levelling effects of reification. It is difficult to know. This undecidability, however, may be the point. A kind of multiplicity of meaning in the mundane. I was, admittedly, left feeling a little perplexed.
Curated by Marco Scotini, Disobedience, An Ongoing Video Archive is a work-in-progress. It is presented as a non-comprehensive and provisional archive which comprises of eighteen videos. Each focuses in very different ways on the possibility of disobedience and resistance to regulative discursive formations. The work explores the relationship between artistic practices and political action. ‘A Cause des Mouches’ (1979) stood out as a particularly thought-provoking, if at times elliptical, conversation between Gianfranco Baruchello, Alai Jouffroy, Felix Guattari and David Cooper. It considers the problematics of Freudian psychoanalysis as a superstructure (Deleuze and Guattari had published Anti-Oedipus in 1972) through the unlikely coupling of death and sweetness.
Group Material is an artists’ collective that was founded in 1979 in New York. The group has tried to exist outside the systematic contradictions of the art-world. Their collaborative, unorthodox method results in situations that afford glimpses of a very different ‘culture,’ one that privileges alterity over sameness, pluralism and social justice over the maintenance of canonical laws. Tracing Alienation brings together a kind of montage that samples documentation and artworks from four exhibitions which took place between 1979 and 1996. Perhaps the most striking was the group’s appropriation of Kafka’s Castle, a work which addresses the effects of alienation and isolation in the face of invisible socio-political powers. The work is accompanied by a soundtrack of kitsch versions of revolutionary songs, reflecting capitalism’s all-consuming nature.
Sture Johanesson offers contrasting forms of resistance through relatively conventional mediums. Associated with psychedelic art, the Swedish artist turns the reifying effects of late-capitalism inside-out, so to speak, in the fulfilment of their own logic. In this way alienation is turned into an ambiguous form of pleasure which proves resistant to the homogenisation inherent to capitalist exchange relations. A gruesome photograph of a forced sterilisation (A Cut in the Groin) Johaneson suffered at the hands of the Swedish state in an orphanage is a particularly disturbing example of this resistance to assimilation.
‘A History of Irritated Materials’ may be a little sweeping in its curatorial approach. There is a huge amount to get through, each room utterly different from the next. And yet the inclusion of such a variety of fringe figures does provide a remarkable overview of some of the ways in which artists have sought to resist or exploit the alienating and reifying effects of capitalist society. Each threatens the seemingly autonomous power of economic processes by offering new forms of authentic communal or social expression.