Yesterday evening at Copper Union, I saw ‘A Guiding Light’ a 22 minute diptych video commissioned by Performa, for the Shanghai Biennal. What we see is 6, 7 attractive and well spoken artists speak to the role of the art exhibition, the artist and public. The setting is a sound stage and the format the self-examining, self absorption familiar to both an artist round table talk and the soap opera. In this soap, the actors, the artists are in search of an outside or a definition of the inside in which they are, which is the international or globalized art circuit.
The point of departure is the site and occasion of the art exhibition (The Shanghai Biennale) and the knowing torpor and malaise it occasions because no matter what one’s tact, one’s work, even if it’s a critique becomes spectacle recuperated by capital. This malaise produced by a longing to define, even inhabit an outside by artists, perhaps romantically, only reproduces and further engenders the very thing it wants to resist. Like the film, Exterminating Angel of Bunuel, the art exhibition and the artist’s work is within an entrapment and as such is the setting and endemic condition of the soap opera.
You can’t find a way out of a soap opera, and any way out or form of being and suffering through it is from the perspective of those outside, a self-pitying, a soap. What then, who then are we are and what are we doing, we, that are named artists. What is this condition of looking for A Guiding Light?
This condition of how to live, how to work frames and propels the desire to find an opening, a way to change or accept this condition. What is the way to carry one’s self in this soap opera?
The conversation looks back at the advent of the condition of the modern artist, who by the mid nineteenth century, no longer with a patron, becomes but another wage earner, though a special kind. But just what kind? So two positions are staked out around which the conversation turns. One voiced by the very attractive Bosko, who seeks out alterity, a space outside art defined by the exhibition and its attendant institutions, a space that meets the public, touches and is in touch with the everyman, an otherness that might escape globalization. The other by Shuddhabrata, posed and erudite, who suggests the artist feel comfortable as a wage earner and as such, feel no shame in earning a wage, and in being in the cog of capital and the swell of globalization. Along this line the others suggest that the artist be thought of as a practitioner, a doctor, a lawyer, a worker like any other. This as much so that the artist not be placed outside by either themselves or the public by a type casting that places them in the romantic idea of the artist and outside society. An outside, they argue which does not exist.
The group of contemporary artists, if not understood by the general public, ask then how to position themselves in their ‘work’ and with their work, vis a vis the public. Should they lobby to be thought of as a cognitive class toiling in the realm of representations, deconstructions, scenarios and situations. Shuddhabrata suggest they see themselves as a privileged aristocratic elite, the artist being an exemplary human, living precarity. Theirs is a living in the vanguard, whose erudition and elan give definition and example of how live to be alive, to be noble. The world will go on being the world, but the artist’s role is to live in the fullness of all its contradictions and definitions.
Returning then to its point of the departure, the exhibition then is a complex site and situation, on the go and contingent, a site in the flux of market forces and global capital. Its artists, curators, institutions, patrons, collectors, academics and public will keep the conversation going. The Guiding Light asks what is this conversation and where is it going. At this moment, too self-critical (perhaps) and too keenly aware of the fatigue of self, institutional and society critique, we find ourselves, like in the Bunuel film mentioned above, inexplicably unable to leave. This I think is a very knowing critique of this formally very astute piece. Where is there to leave as we always return to questions of how to live, how to think, how to feel and imagine ourselves and the world, and in turn how to act and make the world.