“Everything we see could also be otherwise (My sweet little lamb)”
through November 11, 2017
My London tip just now is to visit “Everything we see could also be otherwise (My sweet little lamb)” at the Showroom. I was back there this morning and it’s even stronger than I realized at the opening. The show consists mostly of pieces from the Kontakt art collection, a Vienna-based collection of works made in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe in the 1960s and since, with a few additional pieces; it was co-curated by the Zagreb-based collective, WHW, a strong curatorial team. They were responsible, for instance, for the Istanbul Biennial in 2009.
WHW stands for What, How & for Whom, and it’s made up of four young curators, Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović, all women, who work with the designer and publicist Dejan Kršić. They conceived the show with Kathrin Rhomberg, the artistic director of the Kontakt collection, in collaboration with Showroom director Emily Pethick . Many of the artists in the exhibition were working in Vienna, Prague, Zagreb, Belgrade, Warsaw, Bratislava, or Bucharest in the 1960s and ’70s. Some of them are familiar names, like Jiří Kovanda and Mladen Stilinović, and some of them, like Geta Brătescu, who is now in her 90s, were relatively unknown outside their home countries until fairly recently. Sanja Iveković is likewise recognized as a very important figure historically in Croatia, but it’s only in the last few years that her work has come to wider attention.
The show looks at the art-making strategies of artists like VALIE EXPORT from a contemporary perspective, so it also includes artists like Oscar Murillo, who has some of his black, banner-like paintings hanging from scaffolding outside the gallery. And they’ve brought in the British conceptualist Stephen Willats. Tim Etchells, whose partner Vlatka Horvat is also in the show, gave a performance at the opening, pumping out clichés and quasi-bureaucratic phrases and interspersing them with more colloquial, at times jarringly revealing statements. I felt he was constantly throwing us off-balance as he moved back and forth between different rhetorical modes, different tempers and forms of address.
Much of the art in the show is slight. There’s a lot of text-based work, a lot of work on paper, much of it black and white. Most of the pieces are relatively small and on the face of it, unassuming, but formally and ideologically astute. Many of them are abrasive, but quietly abrasive, and witty. Stilinović’s work is a thread running through the whole show, with collage pieces made from banknotes that he’s tampered with, or stuck things to, hanging from the ceiling. They have a discreet presence, but they’re also funny and jarring, and a lot of the other works in the show strike similar notes.
Appealingly, it doesn’t feel like an ordinary, themed, white cube exhibition. In a related show, held in Zagreb, many of the pieces were shown in private apartments around the city. While here the works are all collected under one roof—and the show is very tightly packed—the curators have achieved a similarly provisional feeling. I mentioned the scaffolding on the outside; as you approach the gallery you think OK, it’s being refurbished, but actually it’s not—they’re using the scaffolding to hang works. And inside, they’ve found similar solutions. For instance, many of the works on paper are shown on boards that are just propped against the gallery walls.
The feeling that the show is a slightly precarious arrangement is underscored by individual works. For instance, the artist Marcus Geiger has contributed a piece that’s just brown paper and tape. The paper is the kind builders use to protect floors when they’re painting. It’s held in place with masking tape, and on it you can see the footprints of people who’ve visited the gallery before you. It gives the show a temporary look, and at the same time suggests process of a kind—I thought it worked really well, it chimed with the emphasis on process in many of the earlier pieces.
The exhibition is cleverly curated, with a number of recurrent motifs. There are several pieces, for example, that play on flags. There’s a collage by Iveković that uses the colors of the old Yugoslav flag and in the middle, where the flag has a star, she’s put clippings from a man’s beard, so that the flag has a hairy center. And Stilinović has created a Union Jack with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the middle of it and a star blocking out her face.
The show engages in subversive, mostly ironic ways with gender politics and notions of national allegiance. In this, too, it’s tightly conceived. At the same time, as I’ve said, the work is light on its feet, it’s modestly scaled and conceptually nimble. At a time when we see so much big work, work that speaks in loud, confident terms, that combination of material thinness and conceptual sure-footedness is refreshing.
Marcus Verhagen is an art writer and director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, masters program in contemporary art. His book Flows and Counterflows: Globalization in Contemporary Art was published in February of this year by Sternberg Press.