Myvillages, the collective behind ‘Setting the Table: Village Politics’, was set up in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra and Antje Schiffers. On their website the group give an indicative statement about the exhibition: it seeks, they write, to ‘equip the gallery as a space from where to access our and your own interest and knowledge about the rural’.
The choice of ‘where’ - not ‘which’ - chimes. For in ‘Setting the Table’, the quiet upstairs of the Whitechapel Gallery becomes a wide ‘where’, as disparate voices, experiences, objects, and means of production ask us to engage with the premises we bring to the rural, and to the gallery. Across a wordsearch, a tractor tyre, a vending machine, a video installation and a mocked up village shop, the gallery space unfolds map-like, as ‘our ... your’ and many others come together with ‘our ... your’ multiple and distinct ‘interest and knowledge’.
The first room of the exhibition kicks us off playfully. The ‘International Village Wordsearch’ spans one wall with a jumble of villages across the world. It’s simple, until it isn’t. Grein, Simla, Raalte, Celo Karmnow: we’re made instantly aware of the knowledge or lack of that we bring to the rural, and the walls of the gallery become, or fail to become, a geography under the application of our interest. In the centre of the room there’s a used tyre, its tread worn and impacted with earth. I walk around it, lean in, never touch. My deference is quickly exposed when a group of teenagers enter and immediately drape themselves over it. It’s a used tyre. I sit on the floor, back to the gallery wall instead.
In ‘The Rural’, a critical collection that accompanies the exhibition, Böhm and Feenstra note the importance of ‘questioning our knowledge and systems of knowledge production as a foundation for questioning our imagination of the rural’. As the exhibition progresses, this enjoyable provocation of the gallery viewer becomes more insistently focused on the economic realities of the rural. A battered vending machine contains slots with products in them - horse milk soap, little bottles of tonic - which we’ll see across the exhibition. A label, jarringly new against the aged metal, says that it takes €2. I have euros, but move on, nervous of interfering with the installation.
We’re made aware of the kind of assumptions - in my case, gallery-reverential idiocy - that we bring to the rural and the economic realities of rural experience. A video installation is made up of rural communities showing their experiences of production. Hungarian watermelon farmers grapple with rock bottom prices, labouring on their smallholder plots. In ‘Farmers and Ranchers’, young Coloradan and Dutch farmers visit each other and trade knowledge: the Dutch farmers dig dirges to protect against climate change; an American boy indicates quietly the strain of the Coloradans: ‘they’re not serious all the time like we are in America’.
In the final room of the exhibition, goods that we’ve seen variously created or displayed come together in the ‘International Village Shop’. The Freesian horse milk soap; linseed oil ‘cooling towers’; a giant pestle for preparing fufu; a stack of the tonics, made in Dagenham and Barking with fruit picked in Kent; a ‘sleeping bag for potatoes’, produced collaboratively by locals of Neuenkirchen and design house FUCKS+FUNKE. The centrepiece is a communal table, and together with the gathered wares, it’s a culmination of the bounded plurality, the rooted polyvocity that guides the exhibition. And the table is dominated by a glass display case, protecting small items including a water bottle, nearly all drunk. It’s a reminder of the contrivance of this shop, of the responsibility of engaging with an awareness of difference, a sense of ‘our’ and ‘your’ knowledge.
A semi-transparent curtain creates a permeable boundary between The International Village Shop and the gallery. The exhibition similarly opens negotiably outwards: to ‘The Rural’; to the functioning International Village Shop, in which you can actually buy many of the items on display here; to the ongoing collaborative and global projects organised by Myvillages. ‘“Rural art is …” will remain an unfinished sentence throughout this book’ write Böhm and Feenstra in ‘The Rural’. We’re encouraged to participate in that ongoing discussion in our engagement with ‘Setting the Table’ and the continuing work of Myvillages.