Sergey Guskov

Exhibitionless Exhibition

This issue of Sreda online magazine publishes an essay by the critic Sergey Guskov, in which he reflects on art exhibitions as places where spectators and works of art collide. Art exhibitions have mutated over the last decade, separating into two main types—“blockbuster” exhibitions and small, hermetically-sealed events, oriented exclusively to the professional community. On the basis his own personal observations and rich theoretical material, Guskov—an active participant in contemporary artistic processes—proposes a hypothesis for the development of the exhibition format, anticipating possible paths for its transformation.

As a format, a genre, and a media, the exhibition is dying. Alas and hurrah! Hurrah and alas! However saddening this may be, it is an inevitable process, an unavoidable consequence of the evolution of culture, and, as was once customary to say, of production relations. The global transfusion of art through a system of communicating vessels—networks of institutions and biennales—is becoming more and more difficult, due to both logistical and political rifts (and this not just true of Russia). The unprecedented escalation of exhibition plans at venues large and small over the last decade has undermined the foundation of the system. The cultural industry has gradually brought itself to ruins, falling into superfluity and uncontrolled development. In the end, the transfer of not just artistic activity but a significant part of the exhibition itself to virtual space has seen the latter change from within.

In the middle of the previous decade, it was already possible to see that the ways in which exhibitions were organised were becoming strongly polarised. Projects opening in galleries and especially in independent venues often had a lifespan of a single evening, for the few hours of the vernissage, after which they stood empty, were often even taken down the following day. It had once more become common practice (as it had been in the time of the non-conformists in the Soviet Union or with the neo avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States) to organise short-lived exhibitions that ran for only a few hours and were assembled by artists and curators on the spot—in fields, apartments, country houses, empty industrial spaces. This was what was done by the Opytnoye Pole (Experimental Field) and Dungeons’n’Stuff collectives in the Moscow and Greater Moscow region, and how the Samara Apartment Triennale appeared. Throughout the rest of the world, this was also the heyday of improvised off-site, one-night projects.

At the other extreme, museum blockbusters and the lavish biennales adjoined to them were doing all they could to attract large audiences—crowds of visitors would quite literally break through the doors of exhibition halls, form seemingly endless lines, and entirely fill up exhibition spaces. These mega-exhibitions would go on for many months. Today, after all the shocks of the last three years, it can be difficult to recall the excitement that would run through the Moscow public in the middle of the 2010s at the news of the extension of one or another blockbuster at the Tretyakov Gallery, the flagship of this process—“in response to the stunning interest of Muscovites and visitors of the capital.” And in other world capitals and large cities, things ran according to exactly the same scenario.[1]

Both these extremes undermined the very logic of exhibition work. The creators of blockbuster exhibitions were focused on commercial success—exhibitions had to recoup vast expenditure on production, insurance, and logistics. Moreover, in the case of state-run institutions, numbers had to be shown to high-ranking officials and sponsors, and constantly growing attendance reported. The conditions were created for a fluid viewing of exhibitions, in which masses of spectators would squeeze out those that had come before them, forcing them to move faster towards the exit. In the case of smaller projects, two things were of importance: a short party at which intensive networking would take place and high-quality documentation filmed in the days that followed, when the number of visitors was already tending towards zero. It was also in the 2010s that aggregator sites with photos of exhibitions began to play an active role, spurring on these trends. Real understanding of a given exhibition was usually postponed—discussion often only began once it had been dismantled, and centred around publications on social networks and the above-mentioned aggregator sites. Documentation acquired its own artistic significance—it no longer simply served the purposes of exhibitions, but worked alongside them, even sometimes independently of them.

Natalia Serkova, the co-founder of TSVETNIK, an aggregator site, has always underlined[2] that what we have to do with is a distinct phenomenon—one that can neither be reduced to photography as a means, nor to archives and documentation as a goal, nor to a new breed of artistic media born of the viral nature of social networks and influenced by changes in the civilizational paradigm that have seen us move away from texts and back to images. Considered separately, the different facets of a given aggregator led away from an understanding of aggregators in general, but even together, formally listed, they did not allow us to see or understand the phenomenon—the whole always turned out to be larger than the sum of its parts. Contemporary Art Daily, a protoaggregator created in 2008, may really have been constructed according to the logic of archives and documentation (for those who could afford it—that is, wealthy galleries and museums). This said, OFluxo, TZVETNIK, Art Viewer, and other spaces that emerged over the course of the next decade—all either had their own sites or existed exclusively on social networks—already worked entirely differently. Formally, they may have seemed to follow the example of their predecessor, but in fact they increasingly oriented themselves towards independent spaces. These aggregators did not so much document and advertise as they set a bar, established a certain direction: publications were a challenge for artists and platforms. It goes without saying that this system, like any other, faced inevitable crisis situations—it generated its own “aesthetics,” that is, imitations and conjectures—yet it spurred on the art processes of the second half of the 2010s more effectively than any other instrument available at the time. Aggregators created networks that spanned the world, bringing together collectives, galleries, sites, and authors. This was an important moment—with a readership whose geography stretched from Vorkuta to San Paolo, an absolutely heterogenous audience was inevitable, and this audience’s influence (the notorious “feedback” that took the form of exhibitions created in the most mysterious of places throughout the world, and the documentation these produced) was no weaker than the curatorial authoritarianism of which the creators of aggregator sites were accused.[3]

But there was also a problem. Online distribution, which was reinforced by then-new-fangled theories of objectivity,[4]dealt a hard blow to the coherence of the exhibition. Photographs of individual objects in the void prevailed, as they looked better this way than as parts of a larger, unified narrative. In the end, narrative itself began to lose its raison d’être. A complex spatial structure was no longer required to assemble exhibitions in independent venues and galleries. In their work, curators gradually turned away from architectural, theatrical, and musical analogies (ensemble, orchestration, scenography, and so on), turning instead to a cloud of tags held together by short, poetic, and essentially abstract statements. That was it. An ideal example of this process is provided by the Money Gallery—in both its Moscow and Saint Petersburg iterations, it generated exactly this kind of project, as if mechanically following a set pattern: a minimum of works separated from one another by empty space, optimal conditions for photography, “instagrammable,” short, vague texts. This was neither good nor bad, just the meticulous observance of a framework honed over a few years.

In this regard museum blockbusters were, of course, old-fashioned: out of inertia, organisers invested in architecture and proposed non-trivial display solutions. Suffice to recall the spatial complexity of curatorial thought brought to bear on Daniel Libeskind’s Dreams of Freedom exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2021. Yet an incessantly moving crowd of spectators has neither the time nor the space to truly appreciate complex curatorial thought. The significance of one or another exhibition could usually only be gleaned long after its opening, from art critics, rare representatives of a dying profession—but in any case, these reviews were usually only read by a small percentage of visitors.

The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to have buried the idea of the museum blockbuster—but this death proved short-lived. The restrictions that followed, which began to require that institutions limit the number of visitors in exhibition spaces and generally rationalise bloated exhibition plans—where every sneeze had turned into an exhibition[5]—brought positive change. But there was a flipside—budgets became more modest, the cost of tickets rose, and discounts (for example, for museum workers and other groups of the population) began to disappear. At the same time, many experts across the world began to talk of environmental awareness, causing the number of traditional, foreign artist projects with large carbon footprints to gradually decrease. And so, in May of 2020, the critic and founder of the Hyperallergic website Khrag Vartanyan confidently declared: “I’m glad that the touristic component of the artistic process, which caused more harm than good, has become a thing of the past. […] Not long ago, the international art process functioned in this way: a critic or curator would have to travel around the world to view or arrange endless works. This model of artistic life can hardly be considered viable, at the very least from an ecological point of view.”[6]

Some pinned their hopes on digital and video works that could be sent by email, as well as on the online-exhibition format. Others felt that, at last, the time had come for the deep development of the local context, for the addressing of regional subjects, for intensive work with existing foundations and with the archives at hand. Aspirations of decentralisation began to be realised. These aspirations were strengthened by the global mood for decolonisation and other progressive deconstructions in the museum sphere. Over the course of the first months of the pandemic, ideas of varyingly utopic degrees had made all those involved in the artistic community dream, but these dreams never materialised. Once again, everyone was talking about decolonisation, and once again, it fell to the wayside—disassembling collections was not as easy as it might have seemed, online exhibitions looked ridiculous, and no one dared make exhibitions composed entirely of video works. (And thank God: it would have been unbearable for viewers. The author of this text has more than once attended biennales where organisers have set aside a space for video works. It didn’t matter whether these were long films or short ones, atmospheric video installations or harmonious narratives, people, and among them professionals, fled these spaces as quickly as possible).

But blockbusters are like cancers, and once more they began to stir the souls of the directors of major institutions. However, in the altered conditions that followed the global lockdown, returning to the old rules of the game was no longer possible. It was for this reason that institutions began turning their attention to a win-win format within which many of them had worked before: the elastic “festival” genre took the place of the exhibition as strictly formalised exposition. Programmes, seasons, series, fairs—all these were taken up with renewed vigour. Biennales of the old type, which were exhibitions in the superlative degree, began to give way to other formations, heterogenous and hybrid. In the foreseeable future, such forced “festivalisation” would have meant the total disappearance of exhibitions. However, here too there was a counterbalance.

Galleries and independent venues, which had long abandoned everything superfluous in this new world (some due to the austerity of available resources, others due to their complete absence), were able to endure the realities of the pandemic relatively painlessly. Small, dynamic museums and exhibition halls did not lag far behind them. The internet, if by this term we understand a global structure, continued to work, although splits and segments were already discernible within it. Documentation appeared regularly on the web. The time slots allotted for exhibitions were reduced. In the midst of this cycle, there was a tendency to canonise exhibitions of the past as monuments of sorts, making performances of Japanese No theatre or of the Alexandrov Choir akin to frozen pictures.

The first signs of this tendency had been evident long before the pandemic. Reconstructions of significant projects from the history of art were already being undertaken in the 1990s, and this trend only grew stronger in the two decades that followed. Suffice to recall the Venetian branch of the Prada Foundation’s 2013 reconstruction of the curator Harald Szeemann’s epochal project When Attitudes Become Form (1969), which had remained a golden standard for many generations. When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 was overseen by another legendary character, Germano Celant. The project’s attempt to fully reproduce the original extended to space itself: the Venetian palazzo’s premises were larger than those of the Bern Kunsthalle, where the original exhibition had taken place, and Celant not just symbolically but literally cut off and deprived excess space of light. The result resembled a sacred ceremony (and was in keeping with Mircea Eliade’s theory of the ritual repetition of gods and heroes), with visitors behaving almost like pilgrims.

Curated by Dmitry Khvorostov and Yan Ginsburg at the Vosnesensky Centre in Moscow during the pandemic, Closed Fish Exhibition. Reconstruction. (2020) was designed as mini-blockbuster. Inevitably, the exhibition’s run was repeatedly extended—in the end, it was open nearly five times longer than originally intended. Closed Fish may not have been as literal as Celant’s reproduction, but it was nevertheless a reconstruction of Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich’s eponymous 1990 project, which had itself been an imaginative reconstruction of a 1935 Soviet art show. The famous pair of Moscow Conceptualists may have created their exhibition primarily in jest, but thirty years later, their reconstructors took themselves rather more seriously—Khvorostov and Ginsburg were more interested in connections running through the history of art that would allow them to get in touch with cult figures and events. Unlike Celant, they did not work with a sacralised form, but within a canonised method.

Over the last couple of years, reconstructions have begun to take on the features of ritualised action (Celant, it would seem, caught a brief glimpse of the future). Indeed, what else could an exhibition become after its end if not a deity or a demon—something for sects to organise themselves around or that demands an exorcism. Through such an approach, material from the past turns into a set of devices for ritual or sacrament, with everything this implies: the ironic and constructivist (not to mention critical) approach disappears, and cultural-historical orientation in time and space is lost. One could already find such characteristics in the exhibition-reconstructions of a decade ago, but modern “exhibitism”[7](Andrei Monastyrsky’s term, picked up by Khvorostov and Ginzburg) was absent from them. Monastyrsky’s concept should not strike anyone as alien—the phenomenon is not solely Russian, but truly global.

Something similar is also taking place beyond the reconstructivist niche. Stemming from the initial enthusiasm of a relatively narrow group of authors, a quasi-religious attitude to art, and, most importantly, to its history (which has traveled the path of reverse secularisation at an accelerated pace), has flowed into the wider artistic field. The phrase “exhibition of contemporary art” has come to denote a phenomenon in conflict with its own name. Instead of a constantly mutating and evolving organism, what we receive is an essence, clearly formalised according to a range of vague but intuitively understandable criteria. Another niche with contents of an unchangeable nature has been added to the existing list—standardised exhibitions of fine art, “naïve art,” “Union of Artists,” and so on. “Contemporary art” has now taken its place in this row of cork-sealed flasks.

But no one felt this cardinal change to be a problem. In purely everyday terms, the state of affairs might even be said to have been convenient for participants in cultural life. To invent or turn everything upside down in a revolutionary manner requires strength, nerves, and intense thought—it is far easier to approach artistic production as something clearly schematised. Any scholasticism is powerful in that it offers a simple set of options, while a sacred status lends the pleasant feeling of belonging to something sublime and priceless. Today’s scholasticism no longer takes the form of discursive expression through texts and theories. Instead, it is expressed through visual forms and a network of relations running between them, meaning the system is not immediately visible but not for that any less strict. It won’t do to underestimate this fusion of technicism and magical thinking. All the more so given that in parallel with the conservation of the art exhibition format, the whole cultural landscape was changing.

The posthumous existence of the exhibition genre coincided with the unnoticed end of the “contemporary art” project (the precise moment of its appearance has been located at various points in the 1960s and 1980s—but this is not of the first importance).[8] Absolutely every epoch in the history of art adheres to a particular ideological framework, though this framework is often forgotten. So it always is: new trends expose the blinkered looks of their predecessors, but try not to notice their own shortcomings. This is natural and understandable. “Contemporary art” was no less ideological a construction than everything that came before and after it. Contemporary art’s main fetish was the free self-expression of the curator and artist—but not long ago, even this once unshakeable convention was discarded by curators and artists themselves as unnecessary. There is no longer any such thing as an “I”: transpersonal identities, circles, parties, and schools have taken its place. The post-conceptual tradition had previously served as the basis for any author’s strategy, but the past five years have seen this to be abandoned: complex (auto)referentiality, multileveled commentary, self-criticism, and self-awareness have almost completely disappeared from art. Works have ceased to be prefabricated structures with many inputs and outputs, and have instead become solid, often almost completely impenetrable objects (although, paradoxically, in formal terms, they are mostly prefabricated structures). The aggregators mentioned in this text, by the way, noted this break, this sharp shift to a new regime in the artistic process. Geographical and social segmentation have destroyed any possibility of maintaining a universalist and globalist discourse of “contemporary art” (yes, that’s exactly what it once was). Wars at all levels of today’s world only exacerbate this trend.

The cultural paradigm, despite unambiguously equating itself with the present and categorically asserting its continued relevance (“contemporary art”) has remained in the past. In the interregnum that has ensued, the next big project has yet to be proposed. Individual hypotheses have been voiced, cautious movements made. Some hold that there will be no big project after all—many diverse, not particularly interconnected trends await us, the international artistic project has long been coming to nought. Others point to signs of an approaching planetwide art (in as far as globalisation cannot be stopped), even though we cannot yet discern its contours. Whatever point of view prevails in the future, whatever theory comes true in practice—it falls to us today to exist and take decisions in a ruined world that has lost its meaning and justification, that is post-apocalyptic in all parameters. Some are deciding to abandon art entirely, to set it aside—and such a choice is justified. Or at least as justified as any other.

In a world of inertia, where museum exhibitions, galleries, and independent spaces are already predetermined in most parameters, where ideological order is already trying on the clothes of orthodoxy without the slightest hesitation, it is only imagination that can provide us with a lifeline. Now is the perfect time for the most daring and unpredictable fantasies, for incoherent deliriums and sudden revelations. Religions require heresies just as stories require falsifications (the reverse is also true: all anti-systemic movements require heavy blocks against which to fight and thereby create themselves). The point is not just in the sloganism and bannerism of half of today’s art, but in the strict “school” dogmatism (not even always associated with real art-schools) of the other half. In all likelihood, one need not make clever choices—to be athome/a stranger among one’s own/strangers—but rather produce projects out of personal martyrdom, return to barbarism, forget the exhibition cannon, or at least attempt to do so.

Pluralism (religious, historical) will evidently be inevitable here. Fractions have become visible in the sealed flask labelled “Contemporary art.” These gradations depend on who has done this or that project—representatives of different social groups, art schools, or regional associations. This makes sidesteps even less possible, narrowing the room for manoeuvre until there is barely any space left to breathe. But people exist and work in such conditions with pleasure, in as far as a rigid framework lends value to their activity, while meaning disappears faster and faster from their artistic work itself. Which, again, is neither good nor bad, but simply the world we now live in.

At the lowest point (let us imagine ourselves at an exhibition of contemporary artists of such and such a city or artistic school), there is nothing to be done. Any surge of transgressive or visionary force will be immediately nipped in the bud by colleagues in the shop—a dense, homogenous environment. At the highest level—for example, at a biennale, or in a museum—the free work of the imagination will also be doomed. Within moments, the curatorial bureaucracy will swiftly pack fresh breath into old flasks. And only somewhere in the middle, between these poles, at the intersection of various interests and organising forms, will it be possible to fruitfully go out of one’s professional mind. What is at hand is not, of course, the tired concept of “interdisciplinarity” that has indefatigably met visitors to exhibitions large and small over the last decade, but rather strange and accidental meetings with people outside the artistic bubble (unlike planned collaborations with sociologists, philosophers, workers, and other examples of multifaceted inclusion). Or violations of the conventions that presume the non-intersection of the zones of existence of different, irreconcilable micro-communities within the artistic field—this, by the way, is a real rarity. Or the bringing of the insanity taking place on all levels of social and cultural life to an even greater level of absurdity. Given the artistic world has become so religious, why not trust in the irrational—or at least in intuition—to the fullest? Only in such circumstances might exhibitions get a second lease of life—although here too there is a great risk of slipping into a motley festival whirlwind. But all this only makes the attempt all the more exciting.

Translated by Charlotte Neve

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