‘Y O U’ at MOSTYN
12 Vaughan Street, Llandudno, LL30 1AB, Wales
27 April - 7 July 2013
Review by Ciara Healy
Arthur Koestler began his seminal ‘Yogi and the Commissar,’ by describing a machine he imagined to be capable of splitting up the spectra of society as the physicist splits the rays of a beam. The separation Koestler imagined is now arguably a reality, in as much as we have become more accustomed to regarding a human being as a statistical unit, as a collection of numbers, which constitutes what Zygmunt Bauman eloquently calls the Great Global Anonymous.
Many writers like Bauman and Claire Bishop question whether art can find a way of overcoming this atomization and resulting loss of sensitivity. ‘Y O U’ at MOSTYN is one of an increasing number of exhibitions in Wales, (‘Keeper’ at the Mission Gallery is another excellent example), which seeks to connect art, the institution and the public in a more meaningful way, and in so doing a new ethico-aesthetic emerges.
This notion is strikingly apparent in Rivane Neuenschwander’s ‘[’]’ (2005), which consists of a collection of typewriters with modified typebars. (Typed letters have been removed and replaced with dots.) Presented on wooden benches, the tactility of these old machines is accentuated by their titanium grey, tweed brown and faded topaz facades. Surrounding the typewriters on a billiard green, felt coated wall, are hundreds of dotty drawings made by the public. From the skyline of New York to a Louise Bourgeoise-style spider, it is clear that these typewriter sketches have been made with playful consideration. Pinned together in overlapping layers, they constitute a portrait of the people who visit MOSTYN. This approach gives ‘[’]’ (2005) an immeasurable sense of endurance because it can be reconfigured each time it is exhibited, thereby challenging the rigid and reductionist nature of presenting a people as the Great Global Anonymous.
In a similar vein, Julius Koller’s ‘J.K. - Ping-Pong Club (U.F.O.)’ (1970-2007) invites visitors to engage one another in a game of ping-pong whilst being surrounded by documentation of all the previous projects that incorporated the artist’s use of the game. Placing a ping-pong table in a small dimly lit room, away from the other larger works in the gallery, illustrates curator Adam Carr’s empathetic understanding of the way in which people are often intimidated by participatory artworks in contemporary art institutions. This ping-pong room feels naughty, like a playroom, an irreverent den of laughter and swearing, tucked away from the chapel-like white cube spaces adjoining it. On one level, Julius Koller’s work has a lineage in conceptual art that connects clearly with Yoko Ono’s ‘All White Chess Game’, but the most memorable aspect of the work is the fun of simply playing ping-pong, and the sense of connection that it elicits between players.
Play is further encouraged by Aurelien Fromet’s ‘Debuilding’ (2001), which invites people to build Jenga-like structures using wooden blocks of different sizes. Initially stacked inside a single wooden trunk in the corner of the gallery, the blocks have since been scattered across the white floor by participants eagerly engrossed in the process of building their own imaginary dwellings, vehicles and towers. Like Neuenschwander’s ‘[’]’, this work will also endure, because each creation is carefully disassembled by gallery staff every evening, ready to be reconfigured anew by visitors the next day.
What is striking about ‘Y O U’ is the curatorial equilibrium Carr has developed between the ecologies of the institution, the participant and aesthetics. This is something Claire Bishop argues is lacking in so much participatory artwork today, because ethics so often tends to eclipse aesthetics. Felix Gonzales-Torres’s small rectangle of sweets on the floor of one of the naturally lit rooms of the gallery maintains this equilibrium. Shimmering like a small topaz lake, patches of grey gallery floor appear here and there in the work where sweets have been removed and consumed by visitors. The diminishing overall weight of the sweets refers to the loss of weight experienced by Gonzales-Torres’s partner who suffered from AIDS related diseases. The artist’s use of formal aesthetics consequently facilitates a reconnection with the rawness of our existence; and reminds us that even in pleasure we are always in close proximity to pain. This concept gains a further poetic currency in Llandudno, where under an hour’s drive away sits a decommissioned nuclear power plant.
The artworks that make up ‘Y O U’ provide an opportunity to question who we are and why we are here. When value is attached to these subjectivities, value is by proxy attached to the unique, to the authority of the first hand experience and, ultimately, to freedom. It is significant then that this exhibition is occurring at a time when a greater emphasis on social scientific practices is taking place. Carr acknowledges this issue through the inclusion of Jeppe Hein’s ‘Upside Down’ (2011), a telescope that presents an upside down panoramic view of the gallery space, along with a collection of devices for measuring light, sound and cognitive brain activity that were acquired from the School of Psychology at Bangor University. The presence of these empirical instruments highlights the way in which intuitive experiences can be rationalized, gauged and even controlled through scientific observation.
In the context of this show such a realisation is powerfully troubling. How did we engage with those blocks of wood, the sweets, the ping-pong’ Did we follow a typical pattern’ Was someone watching us’ Parallels can be drawn between this experience and our existence today. For when we are at our most open, our most confessional and our most vulnerable in a public sphere (such as a social network), are we not also unwittingly complicit in surrendering the last of our freedoms’ Under surveillance, our collective individuality runs the risk of being rendered back into that single archaism, back to a neat category: back to the statistic.
We know it is not possible to unite a split atom, but is it possible to unite the split elements of a society through art’ ‘Y O U’ proves that it is - as long as art, the institution, and its participants remain in constant flux. This is how beauty survives. And beauty, Dostoyevsky once argued, is what will save us all in the end.