No better metaphor than a steamed gallery window could have asserted the connection between Huseyin Oylum’s window-space exhibition ‘Vitrine’ at Brussels NICC and ‘Pollination. Pansies.’- a series of talks that took place in the conference room at the exhibition’s opening night. Exiting the gallery after the event, the audience found that they had covered the glass with condensation, temporarily rendering Oylum’s installation invisible, yet also providing it with an extra layer of meaning. There was an intimacy to the ‘Pollination. Pansies.’ event, a sense of communal building of mythologies and histories prompted by witnessing “beautiful counter-normative herstories” (as the press release described it). After the steam had dissipated, the artwork bore an immediate quality, drawing upon what the viewer had experienced during the talks only a few minutes earlier.
For passers-by, Oylum’s window collage is first of all a collection of paintings, some of which are easily recognisable by any art historian as examples of established genres such as Pop Art or 19th Century Romanticism. Instead of approaching all the components of the installation with a precise and pedantic semiotic approach, its totality is perhaps best seen as a symbolic attempt to appropriate symbols through stylisation, a sort of statement that anything can be rethought through alternative taste and sensibility. In this case, “camp” is the word that according to the artist best describes the installation’s style.
With a clear social constructivist twist, aggregating and fruitful debates around specific words and language took place at ‘Pollination.Pansies’. The diverse cultural frameworks that kept emerging during the talks strongly showed that dismissing a mono-value system doesn’t logically result in pointless relativism. There was rather a very optimistic approach to forming narratives and abstractions based on culture struggle.
One of the words these narratives spun around was queer, or “cuir” (as some Mexicans rejecting traditional sexual identities would sometimes spell the North American expression). The audience learned about this anecdote through artist and researcher Susana Vargas who, in her talk ‘Queer Pigementocracy’ explained how counter-normative sexual subjectivation is also linked to social struggle in Mexico, a “pigmentocratic” society where skin tone is directly related to social status.
Unfortunately nobody amongst the audience took the stand to answer Vargas’ question about possible specific meaning and phenomena linked to the word ‘queer’ in Brussels, an enquiry that was prompted by her explanation of how the use of the word could shift from a practical tool for transnational solidarity to a symbol of class inequality within the social structures of certain countries, including Mexico. Bridging her theoretical analysis with historical accounts, Vargas also presented her book ‘Mujercitos’, the culmination of her research into men dressed as women who came to represent a specific sexuality in Mexican magazines in the 1960s.
The tool of historical record was also used by filmmaker Lionel Soukaz in his movie ‘Race d’Ep’, which was screened at the event. Made in collaboration with French writer and queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem in 1979, the film explores a history of homosexuality and its images from the late 18th century into the future. The film is striking in its attempt to break mono-signification of homosexuality, a phenomenon that too often hides its genesis in dominant mono value system. Particularly interesting is the film’s last chapter in which two men meet in a “cruise bar” in 1980. In the end they are unable to consummate because of their different political views rather than the social oppression of their sexuality. Already tasting how the great political ideologies would end in the 1980s and 1990s, the filmmakers seem to say that the time for general legitimation of homosexuality in civil society is over, since it is political struggle as we know it that has changed.
Just as the concept of homosexuality is freed from unique thinking, liberation of cultural ‘one-nesses’ was also the underlying context of ‘Arian V Ancient’ - a project presented by artist Kersti G. Andvig on the same night as the ‘Pollination. Pansies.’ event. Taking an explorative approach, Andvig embarks on a mission that passes by Africa, African-American pop culture and Eurocentrism, looking to expose how the classic image of Ancient Greece was in fact seen from a biased perspective that implied cultural supremacy. Although still a work in progress, ‘Arian V Ancient’ has for now taken the shape of a musical composition in which samples from Michael Jackson’s songs are assembled according to Central African polyphonies. The more tangible layer of ‘Arian V Ancient’ seems to reside in a specific African drum from which the music comes originates and that is also the focal symbol of much of Andvig’s research.
What was perhaps missing from ‘Pollination. Pansies.’ was a direct comment on ‘capital’ - the ultimate and upmost political abstraction - and its reliance on technology. Both the exhibition and talks gave a great account of cultural emancipations with the help of plural histories, significances and metaphors. Yet a contextualisation of these practices within the capitalist dominance and quantification supremacy in the global arena would have been the perfect conclusion. The city’s militarisation as a result of terrorism as well as the talks on climate change at COP21 were too close to the night of ‘Pollination. Pansies.’ for an attentive audience not to be drawn to an unsettling thought: perhaps exclusive cultural-constructivist approaches to politics are no longer sufficient in contemporary times.