Open Call for ROYAL TRASH



More information here.

“We are now accepting proposals for a new episode of Deep Trash, the unique multi-disciplinary exhibition and performance club night in London.

Calling for performances, videos and artworks to be shown on Saturday 29 April 2017 at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London. We accept proposals by artists of any artistic background and nationality. We are also keen to hear from writers and academics responding to the call either in written form (theory and cross-genre) or through a performative lecture.

For the next 3 episodes of Deep Trash, we are delighted to have the support of the Department of Drama at Queen Mary University (London) – one of the leading research centres for performance and drama across the UK – who will host our symposium on Thursday 27 April 2017 entitled ‘Power, Subcultures & Queer Stages’ with a keynote talk by Dr. Shaun Cole, fashion historian, curator and writer. Our headline artist for the live art night will be the one and only “Un-Royal Variety” Star Jonny Woo.

This call mainly looks at the relations & tensions between subcultures & high society, state & monarchy, class & sexual expressions, empires and colonialism. We welcome proposals at the intersections of queer, feminist, postcolonial discourses or artistic frameworks.

This event’s applications may include, respond to, be affected by, but not restricted to:

– (Un)making the Empire: examining the social construction of Whiteness.
– A cabinet of curiosities: colonialist and patriarchal spectacles re-imagined.
– Contemporary takes on Victorian literature & class discourses.
– Kings and Queens: royalty and drag culture.
– Royal Scandals: revival and re-appropriation of Royal chronicles.
– Dancefloors, podiums & other queer stages: sub- and counter-cultures at the club.
– ‘Jubilee’: Punk & Anarchy as a resistance to monarchy.
– Aristocrazy: middle/upper class Bohemia and extravagance.
– Camp: style, subcultures and sexual politics.
– ‘I want a Dyke for President’: counter-actions, anti-heroes and alternative role models
– Rulers & Responsibility: eco-feminist critiques of Earth Crimes.
– The Golden Cage: female domesticity and oppression in the house, the castle or the Harem.
– Vajazzles, Golden Showers, Royal Albert and Pearl Necklaces: Royal Slang & Sexual PracticesOrientalism and Occidentalism: Art as social distortion.
– ‘Let them eat cake’: inequalities between the people and the monarchy.
– Waacking and Voguing: the relation of dance and dance spaces to the queer community.
– Oligarchy, kleptocracy and plutocracy: critiques of wealth and state corruption.
– Non-noble entities of wealth and power, such as mafia, “nouveau riches”, yuppies, socialites and media personalities.
– Sex and power in Dynasty and contemporary soap operas.
– An Un-Royal Variety: subverting the canon of mainstream culture.

To apply please follow the link:

The programme is supported using public funding by Arts Council England.”

For further information:
Arts | Feminism | Queer


The Everyday Battlefield: Hito Steyerl & Juliana Spahr

A few weeks ago, I went to see Hito Steyerl’s exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London. Unfortunately, the exhibition has since ended, but Steyerl’s performances have stayed with me as some kind of lightbeam that flags up disturbing ‘facts of life’. The exhibition showed her films as well as her performance lectures, although the films seemed to take centre stage (they were displayed in a more cinema-like manner). While these films were already very interesting (especially the one about security in the gallery space, entitled ‘Guards’), I found her performance lectures even more striking – in the case of ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’, quite literally. The talk, screened back to back with ‘Guards’, traces the intimate connections between the art world and the military-industrial complex. Here is a version of it:

Is the Museum a Battlefield? by Hito Steyerl on Vimeo.

(This is a different version to the one at the gallery, which was a live recording from the 13th Istanbul Biennial whose theme was ‘Mom, am I a barbarian?’)

In the talk, Steyerl keeps on emphasising the mundaneness of atrocities: the battlefields that look unremarkable, the software that is used by weapons manufacturers as well as artists and designers, the military coups that open art and architecture markets, the arms money that circulates through public institutions, the mobile or internet communications of ordinary citizens that are routinely under surveillance. All around her, Steyerl discovers traces of bullets, highlighting their ubiquitous but obscured presences by holding up and even catching invisible ammunition. She finds that, when she shoots her videos, she inadvertently shoots people (including her friend Andrea Wolf), thanks to the technology’s implication in ‘toxic data clouds’ and common manufacturing processes. For Steyerl, bullets fly in circles: if you trace a piece of debris on the battlefield to its origin, you might end up with yourself, picking up said piece of debris. Her talk ends with the question: can we reverse or interrupt this cycle, to prevent more people from getting killed on this ever-present battlefield?


Still from ‘Is the Museum a Battlefield?’ Source: e-flux

A few days after seeing Steyerl’s exhibition, I encountered the work of Juliana Spahr through a poetry reading and a conference talk in Milwaukee. At the conference, Spahr described her current project with fellow poet Joshua Clover as an attempt to bridge between two poetic trajectories that do not seem to speak one another: environmental and political poetry. This lack of dialogue, for me, also manifests itself in academia, between environmental or ‘new materialist’ theory and political or ‘historical materialist’ theory. In her talk, as well as her poetry, Spahr’s struggle to create bridges emerged as a productive one, through its density and its sense of the depths and levels of our current predicament. Moving between skin cells and war, kisses and labour movements, air composition and species extinction, she thoroughly stripped away barriers through her renderings of mechanisms and relations.

Juliana Spahr – Gender Abolition and Ecotone War

What she also very viscerally rendered present, for me, was the struggle with one’s own implication in both environmental and geopolitical destruction as an artist, academic and ‘ordinary person’. Given the magnitude of her question, I was rather saddened by some of the stereotypical academic responses to her talk, which tended to focus on trivial definitions or mockings of Marxism where, instead, some empathy or brainstorming support in terms of related strategies would have been more appropriate (although any response was arguably more productive than my silence).

Another remarkable thing is that Spahr reads without drama – the whole time that she is seemingly running through her poems, the drama (horror, exhilaration, lightbulb moments) unfolds relentlessly in the listener’s head. The effect, for me, is a sort of energising exhaustion. This tension between the casual, everyday and the drama and obscene violence of the geopolitical stage appears to be central to Juliana Spahr’s poetry in general. Whether she speaks about the Iraq war, the poetry scene, trade unions, bird species or the Anthropocene, Spahr’s emphasis lies on uncovering and grappling with mechanisms that tie us in our homes (or desks or beds) to very big and interconnected problems:

‘In bed, when I stroke down on yours cheeks, I stroke also the carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the guided missile destroyers’ (from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs p. 74).

If one were to generalise the essence of her question, it might run something like: what does it mean to be human and what can we do, as humans, to change our predicament?

Juliana Spahr reading the poem ‘Things’ (from Penn Sound Archive)

The connection between the two artists is their emphasis on the fact that – and how – any of us on this planet are permanently at war: not only are there wars around the world all of the time, but we are involved in them all in some way or another. Moreover, they both state that they are not satisfied with merely highlighting the problem. In their efforts to come up with possible modes of intervention, they do not only seem to address fellow artists, but ‘audiences’ (not just art audience, but especially those who do not see themselves as such). Steyerl is particularly cynical about the role of art as a carrier of resistance. As she put it in her essay ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy’, ‘[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ (The Wretched of the Screen p. 93) She acerbically diagnoses high art’s predicament as follows:

‘The Global Guggenheim is a cultural refinery for a set of post-democratic oligarchies, as are the countless international biennials tasked with upgrading and re-educating the surplus population. Art thus facilitates the development of a new multi-polar distribution of geopolitical power whose predatory economies are often fuelled by internal oppression, class war from above, and radical shock-and-awe policies. Contemporary art thus not only reflects, but actively intervenes in the transition toward a new post-Cold War world order.’ (p. 94)

According to Steyerl, art shies away from these connections and, instead, matches the ambitions and self-image of the harbingers of ’post-democratic hypercapitalism’ in its advocacy of opportunism, unpredictability, unaccountability, individualism, brilliance etc. Instead, she calls for the disenfranchised publics to reclaim art as a public good, using the repeated storming of the Louvre as an example.

Spahr also criticises the appropriation of ‘public art’. In her opinion, it is too frequently used by governments as a means to justify the continued perpetuation of a cycle of violence. For instance, the commission and display of monuments not only serves to superficially appease, but to actively naturalise violence:

‘At moments, once they [the writers/poets] got sufficiently theorised, they tried to think their way through this by thinking about Antigone and the public need to bury a body. But the minute they thought this, they then realised that Antigone was a figure of resistance against the state, not the state putting up one more piece of art to support its endless and unjustified killing of people of other places as well as its endless and unjust killing of a disproportionate number of its own people and of certain races and classes in the pursuit of endless and unjustified killings of people in other places.’ (from The Transformation, p. 162)


September 11 memorial ‘Tribute in Light’

The key, for Spahr, despite its problems, seems to be to reappropriate the tools that were, in turn, appropriated in the service of destruction, in her own case language. Steyerl seems to second this strategy with her reappropriation of the audio-visual space.

Further, Spahr finds that artistic interventions frequently preach only to the converted and seems to echo Howard Zinn’s mantra ‘everyone must be involved – there are no experts’ (from ‘Artists in Times of War’, p. 11). By minutely detailing her own struggle as well as that of people around her, she almost creates a manual for possibilities of resistance. Yes, this manual also includes multiple failures and even humorous instances (both Spahr and Steyerl share a dark sense of humour, with Steyerl on the more satirical end), but it shows the struggle at a human scale and the need to recognise and make connections to related struggles.

Here, Spahr’s wrestling with the tension between treating humans as a species (‘this connection of everyone with lungs’) and humans as a society with antagonisms that lead to environmental and political problems adds another dimension to the ‘everyone’. Everyone is already involved through the physical processes that come with being alive, but not everyone is in an equal position in the social mechanisms. In her talk ‘Gender Abolition and Ecotone War’, Spahr extends this critique to authors who argue that all humans are equally affected by environmental changes. Emphasising that environmental changes cannot be seen independently of political changes, she reverses Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument that ‘unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged’ into ‘I don’t know where Chakrabarty’s been looking, but the rich are buying life boats right now’.

In grappling with the perceived abyss between the everyday and the geopolitical – the apparent isolation of events such as sleeping, celebrity weddings, sturgeon poaching and full-scale war – Steyerl and Spahr keep returning to the question of the agency of the individual. There is no shortage of desperation in their writing. In one of Spahr’s post September 11 poems, for example, she writes: ‘beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency outside of our bed’, and repeatedly attempts to tie this emotional and bodily agency to the scale of the planet. Steyerl echoes this loss of agency in her depressing vision destitute (art) labourers dancing to ‘viral Lady Gaga imitation videos’ rather than rousing protest music. Yet both artists stubbornly refuse to give up either the content or their medium of struggle. As Spahr asserts: ‘‘We want to get ourselves out of bed.’ Here are two quotes that, for me, sum up the refusal of the medium despite its obvious taint:

‘If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labour, conflict, and.. fun – a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.’ (Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen’ p. 98)

‘With grief, with worry, with desire, with attachment, with anything and everything, they began listing, inventorying, recognising in the hope that a catalogue of vulnerability could begin the process of claiming their being human, claiming the being human of their perverse third Sapphic point, claiming the being human of the space in the palm of their writing hand, in that space that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way to hold a pencil.’ (Juliana Spahr, The Transformation, p. 214)

At the same time, both artists/authors stress that art practice and poetry are not the only means, and that even armed resistance or defense may need to be considered, given the pervasiveness of militarisation. In this context, Spahr’s and Clover’s insistence on an Ecotone War serves both as a provocation to shock people out of their set ways of thinking about – and responding to – the current crisis (although Spahr also wonders about its usefulness and whether they should hold on to it). By contrast, Steyerl explicit terrorism references in films such as ‘November’ emphasise the question of what counts as terrorism and point to a dependence on circumstances and on who tells the story. Who is terrorising whom in the various ‘wars on terror’ around the world? Although she does not call for people to become terrorists (in her worldview they more or less already are), she seems to ask for a re-evaluation of terrorism and a potential rewriting of violent histories. She does not do this naively, showing the disturbing aspects of terrorism such as martyrisation and other forms of glorification of violence, and the loss of usefulness of violence.

November – Trailer by Hito Steyerl on Vimeo.

What I appreciate about both artists is their challenging provocations, both in the kinds of questions they ask and in the means they offer as pathways to action. In setting examples that clearly state the double-edgedness of all interventions, they leave us with uncomfortable tools, but with tools nonetheless.

CFP: Art and geography – aesthetics and pratices of spatial knowledges

Image: Helen Scalway, Image from the Grid & Graphite Series, part of the MiceSpace project with geographer Gail Davies

Just got a CFP for an Art and Geography themed conference in Lyon, France. The conference is apparently bilingual. Here is the abstract:

‘With the latest developments in how space, place and environment are experienced in contemporary art, it is necessary to take a critical look at how relevant the various geography responses to this “spatial turn” have been. The conference “Art and geography: aesthetics and pratices of spatial knowledges” aims at exploring the contemporary contours of what is “geographical” and at questioning the boundaries between cultural activities (in this case, art and geography). It also seeks to examine the latest geographical approaches to and the hybridization of geographical knowledge in contemporary art as part of a broader discussion of their respective contributions. The conference is at the crossroads of contemporary geography and art and ambitions to unravel the implications – in factual, methodological, theoretical and epistemological terms – of the convergence between contemporary art and geography.
We welcome proposals from geographers and artists from diverse backgrounds and with varying experiences in the field. All liberal arts researchers with similar interests in the spatial or geographical dimensions of art are also welcome to contribute.’

The full CFP can be downloaded here.

Spaces without stories – Managing the risk of public art

As promised, some notes on the public art conference in Paris… Did not manage to catch all of the sessions, but a fair chunk of them. Having witnessed quite a few discussions on public art, I found this one surprisingly refreshing. Despite the appearance of very familiar elements, which can hardly be avoided, such as the definitions of a ‘public’ and ‘public art’ (the bit where people quote Habermas etc) or references to the relationship between art and architecture (usually including jokes about architecture as ‘art with plumbing’ – this time, supplemented by the evocative imagery of Monica Bonvicini’s ‘Wall Fuck’), I felt that the presentations highlighted issues that normally end up resonating in the background rather than appearing at the centre.

The first day of the conference took place in the new town of Cergy-Pontoise. Discussions began with aforementioned  definition(s) of public art, which are naturally conflicting: public art as underlining the identity of a place, public art as reflecting democratic participation, public art as giving meaning to a place, public art as a vehicle for an artist to make a particular statement about the relations in a space – the result of which may be uncomfortable for particular publics – and, lastly, public art as a project for stirring the imagination, giving rise to new kinds of interactions and producing new visionaries from spectators.

Left to right: Jean-Louis Cohen, Elizabeth Auclair, Peter Eisenman, Antoine Grumbach, Rem Koolhaas.

Different architects, scholars, institutional officials and artists presented a spectrum of takes on public art. Architect Peter Eisenman, for instance, explained how he tries to highlight different times and their affiliated spatial organisations (historical, virtual, digital) in his work, such as medieval street patterns merging with contemporary forms and infrastructures. For Eisenman, such intersections but present opportunities to re-think urban space. It was not quite clear whether he meant opportunities for architects in the design phase (the architect/artist as ‘expert’ or visionary) or opportunities for anyone experiencing the finished result. Unfortunately, no questions from the audience were invited during this session. Other views were represented by Elizabeth Auclair (local institutional take, art as ‘for the locals’), Antoine Grumbach (architecture in the service of governing/economic forces, art as purely symbolic) and Rem Koolhaas (critic of public art/public art should challenge society).

There was frequent mentioning of the word ‘crisis’: the crisis of public art, the impact of economic, ecological and social crises on public art and/or how public art should respond to them – or whether people should bother with it at all given such (costly) challenges to society or general overbuilding (cultural sustainability versus ecological/economic sustainability). It was Rem Koolhaas who drew attention to what could be described as the crisis produced by the wish to avert crisis: the compulsory making-safe of public spaces. To Koolhaas, the urban past was full of adventure: one could encounter the unexpected, the ugly, the evil, the disgusting – but also the beautiful. Today, he argued, one only encounters manicured, sanitised spaces from which evil is increasingly ‘edited out’: no ‘hoodies’, no stretch of urbanity without CCTV, no challenging art or architecture. As a visual emphasis, Koolhaas used the safety net around London’s fourth plint – at the time of Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ project. (There was some confusion at this point whether Koolhaas had built the CCTV headquarters or not, but it turned out to be China Central Television…).

Koolhaas proceeded by accusing artists of being complicit with such forces, of producing safe, smooth art, ‘without edges’ or confrontation: by claiming that public art is something for, about and by the public, art risks becoming the equivalent of a reality TV show. As an example, he showed the decorative ‘artwork’ which now replaces Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ – the arc having been removed after a public petition. He further argued that public art is excluding – certain groups of people or certain kinds of experiences – the artist being in danger of becoming a tool for furthering this exclusion, contributing to a growing ‘Berlin Wall in public space’.

Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981). Source: Culture Shock

New ‘humorous’ shapes occupying the same space. Source: Harvard University

Koolhaas concluded that ‘there is a lot of space to fill, but no stories to tell’. Thus, we are faced with a growing appearance of ‘narcissistic and megalomaniac’ monumental art, which even ends up being critically acclaimed. Here the example that triggered the most audible reaction was Anish Kapoor’s ‘Leviathan’ installation and the advertisement and other spectacle surrounding it (as an example for narcissism he mentioned Kapoor’s ‘Cloudgate’ in Chicago). Currently being exhibited in Paris at the Grand Palais, Koolhaas’ mentioning of the ‘Leviathan’ was not the only cynical comment on Parisian engagement with public art. Koolhaas called this phenomenon ‘consolation instead of confrontation’. His presentation ended on the question whether the link between the growing popularity of the virtual vs the declining vitality of ‘real’ public space may have something to do with application of a ‘security blanket’ to the urban.

Moderator Jean-Louis Cohen had the unenviable job (twice!) to bring the seemingly irreconcilable views of the above mentioned participants (with the later additions of Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini) into dialogue with one another. The first part of the discussion mainly focused on Koolhaas’ points: the ‘tyranny of programmatic restraints’ (Cohen), whether the current emphasis on the virtual could prompt a rethinking of the ‘real’ (Eisenman) or whether city official can engage in ‘risk-taking’ (Elizabeth Auclair). Later questions around art and democracy, and public art and functionality, culminated in Cohen’s ingenious term ‘espace poubellique’ (a merging of ‘espace public’ = public space and poubelle = rubbish or rubbish bin): public space as the space where ‘crap’ art is dumped. The lack of critical currency in the art world for most of public art (e.g. the much ridiculed French ‘roundabout art’) was also the basis for the question what motivates artists to produce it.

Yona Friedman and Monica Bonvicini

Another provocative presentation was made by artist Monica Bonvicini whose opener ‘I don’t like public art very much!’ resulted in a mixture of nervous giggles and disbelief on the part of the audience. Making further statements about the function of public art such as art being invited to embellish bad architecture, publics not being interested in public art (‘What do people think about public art? I don’t think they think very much!’) or public art being invited seemingly as an aesthetic addition to increase the value of public life (’Of course, everybody likes art, but what kind of art?) , she outwardly came across as someone who was making fun of the whole event, but, in a jester-like fashion, was able to make statements that hit a lot of the right nerves, especially around the connections between public art and politics (‘Politicians have very different idea of what art is and what art should do.’). Her own public art seemed to take further Koolhaas theme of narcissism: after struggling with all the different demands made upon her as an artist, she ended up displaying words ‘SATISFY ME’ in big letters – to be read out by all the different stakeholders.

Image Source: Wikipedia. User: Arnoldius

Against this cynical view, Yona Friedman offered his ‘socialist’ vision of ‘new urban spaces’, in which artists and architects become (re-)interpreters and mediators of existing public space and public art. Presenting his work in hand-illustrated slide-shows, Friedman invited thoughts around the value of public participation and improvisation in public space (‘Laissez les gens improviser!’). A quote that stuck with me was: ‘we like to imagine the improbable and are surprised when it becomes real’. Of course, this sentence could be interpreted in both positive and negative ways, but maybe that’s what I like about it – that there are not only extreme negative surprises, but potentially also positive results of ‘improbable imagination’. As I was told, Friedman was part of the reaction against the Modernist project alongside people such as ‘Team X’ who tried to disseminate alternative urban visions (e.g. see this book for more information on this).

Anish Kapoor and Jean Nouvel in conversation with Jean de Loisy (and each other)

On returning to Paris, the remainder of the day was spent at the Grand Palais, where a debate was staged between artist Anish Kapoor and architect Jean Nouvel, during which the theme of ‘art vs architecture’ continued. In the audience, I spotted a handful of museum assistants wearing T-shirts bearing the job title ‘médiateur culturel’. Could not help but think that Yona Friedman would appreciate their wider distribution!

Big thank you to Mireille Roddier for vital clarifications on debates in architecture & post-event discussions!

eARTh – Climate change and the role of the artist

Today, I ended up by accident in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts called ‘Earth – Art of a changing world’. I saw the poster while standing in the queue for the Anish Kapoor show, which a friend had recommended seeing. Finally arriving at the desk after queueing in the rain behind some far too cheerful people, I asked for a joint ticket for Anish Kapoor as well as Earth. The ticket I received read Anish Kapoor/GSK contemporary. What on…er… Earth was a GSK exhibition? An arts movement I had not heard of? The initials sounded somewhat familiar, though. After checking with the ticket lady, I was assured that it was the right exhibition, Earth, and that this exhibition was located in a special gallery at the back of the building. So, after indulging in the spludgy goodness of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, I trekked around the building, through the slightly surreal Burlington Arcade (even more surreal if you are walking through it in a black hoodie sporting a bright biohazard logo, trousers and shoes that are on the brink of falling apart and no make-up). At the other end, I found the mystery entrance, framed by Oyster stalls (the animal, not the travel pass) and hot water bottle carrying waitresses. Even more confused by this point, I entered the building. There, I indeed found myself in the right place, and GSK turned out to be the initials of the sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline – whoops! So now I knew why the initials had had a familiar ring – just had not expected to find them in such a place. But then, I should not be surprised, having just finished writing my chapter on the politics around museum engagement…

Ticket queue at the Royal Academy of Arts

The exhibition, once I had acclimatised, was actually rather good! I liked that it addressed a few themes that I am currently thinking and writing about, such as the role of the artist and the bridging of public and scientific spaces. The exhibition booklet, for instance, hints at the debate around the changing role of the artist in the face of ecological/technological issues. Will artists become negotiators, translators, de-mystifyers and visionaries – or ‘provocateur(s), upholder(s) of the collective conscience, observer(s)’? Pointedly, one of the forewords is written by Chris Rapley, Director of the London Science Museum. I was also lucky to catch quite a bit of the curator talk during which Kathleen Soriano and (as far as I could determine) David Buckland gave a substantial amount of background to the exhibition. The aim of the exhibition, for instance, was described as ‘not wanting to display photos of polar bears or icebergs’ to communicate the topic, but deliver a ‘fresh, poetic approach’ through art.

‘CO2morrow’ by Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni

I was pleasantly surprised that the curators were not overselling the exhibition. The artwork came across as very diverse, tackling the subject matter from a healthy variety of angles and offering surprises even to the most jaded geographer. Obviously, I could empathise with some works more than others, but most of them could relate to – through empathy with the artistic approach, the choice of topic, or the artists’ technique of making the visitors trace their journey. Something important that ‘eARTh’ addressed for me was the often tragi-comical and clumsy ways in which humans interact with their so-called environment: ‘macho’ car cult(ure), damaging love for nature and fascination with disaster (at its most comical portrayed in Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Doomed’). This is a nuance often left out of the communication of environmental issues. I always have the feeling that the message of ‘buy smaller cars, use less water, bring your own bags’ will not work unless the complexity behind such seemingly banal behaviours is addressed. There is much more to say about this exhibition, however, I am quite exhausted from cycling around in London traffic for hours and from a general overload of sensory impressions after cramming too many things into one day! I am curious, though, how other visitors have experienced/are experiencing the exhibition. If you have seen it (or even if you have not seen it!) – please leave a comment!

Ah, and I almost forgot to mention that there are a few more events coming up in connection with this exhibition. I’d especially recommend going to the ‘Fire’ debate on Friday, 22 January 2010 (6.30–10pm)!

Spilling beyond the edges – A morning of wading, crunching and groping through Cildo Meireles’ retrospective


Last Thursday, a friend (thank you, Simon!) ecstatically waved a catalogue of the Tate Modern’s Cildo Meireles retrospective in front of my nose. As soon as I saw the first few pages, I knew I had to go – and just about managed to do it the day before the exhibition closed! I am a big fan of exhibitions where the audience is subjected to multi-sensorial anything – especially after being tied to a desk to write a chapter on policy engagement… And Meireles’ installations provided exactly that: ‘good sensations’ (if I may say so!). They handily came with a lot of inspiration for my project on aspects such as space, scale, matter and boundaries, but, most of all, I had a lot of fun wading around in a dark room filled with layer of fluffy talcum powder about one foot deep! (I can already imagine the Tate technician after-party in that room – I wish I was invited! *hint*) I found a few telling post-visit pictures here. Unfortunately I was so busy exploring this exhibition that I forgot to take my own!

Many things attract me to Meireles’ work. First of all, I appreciate that he manages to create spaces in which I, as the visitor, feel comfortable playing around in: unlike in other exhibitions at the same institution, I had few hesitations picking stuff up or poking a few things (retrospectively, so to speak, I hope that that was the intention…). I also liked the diversity of sensations: the onslaught of colour in The Red Room, the buzzing of potentially destructive sonic power (imagine all radios were on at full volume!) in Babel, the warm, eerie glow of the copper coins below the organic bone ceiling in Missions, the glass crunching and the puzzling see-through, artificial-looking living fish with the strange feelers in Through, the physical and sonic experience of navigating the clocks and rulers in Fontes, the weight-lifting in Blindhotland or (literally) walking the boundary of pleasure and fear in Volatile.

Photo: Wilton Montenegro, Source:

The geographer in me likes Meireles’ playing with space and scale. He attends to the relevance of scale in ‘Ringbomb’, a lens-covered ring filled with gunpowder which would explode if you directed enough light at it, and in Southern Cross, in which two tiny blocks of wood carry the potential to invoke a ‘god’ and set the enormous gallery afire.

For his ‘geographical mutations’, he collected soil from two sides of a border, uniting, yet separating them in a leather case and a ring. Some other musings on how we define, create, need/don’t need, bump into, cross and otherwise interact with boundaries are apparent in Through, a maze-like installation built on a square of partially broken glass tiles.

Bringing out the circulatory nature of networks by printing politically controversial (to say the least) messages onto banknotes in a totalitarian regime is also an amazingly simple and clever project, if a little daring…

As Meireles likes to emphasise, ‘I like dealing with paradigmatic things, material things that are recognised by the public in their everyday lives, things that are at the same time matter and symbol.’ Money is one of those things. He also uses it in other artworks which play with the symbolic and real value of things: Money Tree, in which he sells a bundle of banknotes for twenty times the amount, or his tragic-comical counterfeiting project during which he produced ‘zero value’ currencies embellished with portraits of disempowered minorities such as Amerindians. Live chickens are another medium, albeit one that part of him would rather forget about…

This wish to engage with the everyday and to involve visitors also determines the artist’s medium. In an interview with Art Journal’s J.A.Farmer, he explains why he cannot be a painter: ‘The problem with painting is that the artist is always authoritarian, even if you don’t want to be. By giving people a space to interact with, you also give them freedom. When we give someone freedom, we get freedom ourselves.’


Our own visual, sonic and tactile engagement with matter is also taken up in Meireles’ work. He questions our reliance on the visual in the Mirror for the Blind, a mounted frame filled with a mouldable plasticine-like substance, and the playground-like installation Blindhotland in which visitors are led to misjudge the weight of things by their appearances (they are also gives sonic clues). In the little booklet accompanying the exhibition, Meireles traces the inspiration for this piece back to a story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which the narrator of the story tries to picks up a small alien object, but is unable to lift it. This perceived disproportion causes him to feel intense fear and revulsion. How come we expect and need a particular symmetry?

The relationship between matter and space is something the visitor can think about in Glovetrotter, where the material creates and imposes itself on a particular space, whose otherworldly landscape surprisingly comes out better in reproductions.

Reading reviews of the exhibition, critics make very different themes central to their articles. A short piece in The Independent mainly talks about the ‘paradoxical nature of objects’, and The Guardian writes about the play with fear and danger in Meireles’ work. What amused me about both articles was their descriptions of the ‘mess’ that some of the exhibition’s installations produced. The Guardian critic only felt comfortable entering Volatile armed with wellies and a dust mask, the Independent critic relates a vivid image of gallery attendants ‘wielding dustpans and brushes, clearing up all the stuff that’s spilling beyond the edges – bits of glass, clock hands and, oh yes, that filthy talcum powder, which, even now, is sticking to my typing fingers’. Well, at least, some more writers got their fingers dirty – hooray for messy artwork!