Friday, 4 November 2022

I get to be a hypocrite, you get to be a hypocrite, everybody gets to be a hypocrite!

During the last decade or so the critical discourse on art has focused heavily on privilege. The question who gets to say what and why repeatedly comes up. Because these strong voices are leading the reception of today's artists, I was extremely surprised to see the critical response to Ragnar Kjartansson's exhibition Time Changes Everything at De Pont in Tilburg, the Netherlands. The nine reviews I have read unequivocally praised the exhibition, with uncritical descriptors like 'fantastic', 'spectacular' and 'gifted' being thrown around. Yet when I visited the exhibition myself, it struck me how the works on display could only come from an extremely privileged position.

In various interviews about the exhibition, Kjartansson waves away the need for authenticity in art, as he claims that he doesn't even know what authenticity is supposed to mean. But the need for authenticity in art boils down to intellectual honesty. If one is not at the very least sincere in one's own aims, then art is nothing but a con, aimed at making others believe you. If deception has to be used to convince the other, then so be it. Like the emperor and his new clothes, it is only the powerful and the privileged who can get away with consistently bullshitting an audience in this manner. Perhaps that's even what could define power, namely the possibility to have your merit and integrity go unquestioned by others.
An artist, then, like the little boy at the end of Andersen's story, is somebody who can hold a mirror up to society only because he speaks the truth and is willing to stand up for that truth, regardless of his position in that society. The importance for authenticity in art thus stems from the wish of art to be anything other than entertainment for the wealthy, as it has traditionally been.

Yet Kjartansson seems to embrace this latter half as a worthwhile approach. In an interview with the Guardian he says of the position of a successful artist that 'it’s like life at the court of the 1%. You really feel like a court jester'.
In that same interview he nevertheless purports to 'think I am a very critical, good-thinking political person, or try to be'. This seems to indicate that he sees himself, and by extension his work, as a critical reflection on his privileged surroundings. In his mind he is the little boy and not the naked emperor.

I can't help but to disagree with his self-assessment. While I could agree with Kjartansson that he isn't at the centre of the court, but merely its entertainer, I can't be convinced that he is wearing any clothes.
As I am reaching the limits of how far one can push that particular analogy, perhaps we should simply examine the works in the exhibition. In particular I will take a look at the resources they require as well as the lack of diligence present in the ideas they profess.

Because it is the ideas that are important to Kjartansson. 'What you see is less important than the message that is contained in the object', he says.
Yet it's in the field of ideas that his works tend to come up short. He makes up for this lack of substance with top of the class production values. Even I have to admit that every single work in the exhibition is museum-quality in the way that a professional maker of movie props would use that word. However, such high production values require a lot of money and little else, something that the other reviewers have failed to note.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a work titled Woman in E. In this work, a woman dressed in gold, holding an electric guitar, stands on a slowly revolving stage in the middle of a big circle of golden glittery curtains. Every minute she plays a single E-minor chord, which resounds throughout the open exhibition halls of the museum.
In the caption of the work it's mentioned that the E-minor chord is particularly suited to expressions of sadness, mystery and heartbreak. Like many of Kjartonsson's works, it wants to evoke a sense of pathos and melancholy. Yet realistically, one chord on its own isn't ever going to do that.
Therefore the critical reception pays much more attention to the performer. The women performing the work do so in shifts of 90 minutes at a time. This is explained as being about endurance. '90 minutes is a long time, but only then do you get the kick of exhaustion', says Kjartansson. Yet again I have to question his claims. Is 90 minutes really that long of a time to do something like this? The museum guards similarly stand around in the museum while not interacting with the public for many hours every single day and this certainly isn't heralded as a great achievement. Perhaps being looked at as an exhibit is a bit of an odd experience for the performers, but that's something you will quickly get used to.
The work does require one type of commitment, however, and this is a substantial financial commitment.
Let's do some quick calculations. The exhibition runs for four and a half months. That is 134 days. On each of those days the museum is open for six hours between 11.00 and 17.00h. This means that there are 804 hours, at the very least, that the performers are getting paid. If they're paid the Dutch minimum wage, that amounts to € 8.892,94. Which in turn is the same amount of money that the Dutch Mondriaan Fund provides to 'proven talents' to sustain their artistic practice for an entire year. To spend that kind of money on one temporary work for one exhibition is thus an impossible proposition to most artists.
But of course this is glossed over by Kjartansson. He is interested in other things. 'The performance premiered in Detroit in 2016', he told De Tijd, 'Martha Reeves, the famous Motown-singer, came to see it. She told me that I had used the wrong chord. According to her B-minor would fit the project better. I think she was wrong'.

This is but one of many not-so-subtle showings of Kjartansson's showbusiness connections that he displays both in and outside his work. In one room in De Pont there is a video registration of The National performing their song Sorrow for six hours. The work is simply titled A lot of Sorrow.
Again many commentators remark the repetition and the length of the work. On the Endurance Art wikipedia page it's even listed as one of the examples of the practice. Kjartansson seems to agree with this interpretation. In an interview with the Financieele Dagblad, he has said that 'the performance also simply becomes hard work'. Yet at the same time he has asserted elsewhere that the band enjoyed the performance and 'didn't find it tiring at all'.
And quite frankly, such a performance shouldn't be tiring. In the end all that has happened here is that Kjartansson asked a group of people to carry out their chosen profession for six hours. Such a feat was described by the writer of the Financieele Dagblad as a 'war of attrition'. While it might be for his readers, I personally don't see why doing your job for less time than a regular 8-hour workday should become a lauded museum-worthy achievement.
And this is just one of the many of the things one could question about the work.
I ask myself if this work would have the same impact if it simply were some hired session musicians playing a cover of the same song? I would argue that such a work wouldn't be some extraordinary event that the audience should be glad to have witnessed, but rather one more drawn out rehearsal session in a long list of drawn out rehearsal sessions. If the power of the work thus depends on the stadium filling headliners featuring in it, then there probably isn't a whole lot to be found in the message contained within such an object, to use Kjartansson's phrase.
The croony, soft-sung Sorrow also isn't a particularly difficult song to physically sustain for a longer amount of time. This fact isn't denied by Kjartansson. He has remarked about his surprising trouble of finding opera-singers for his work Bliss, that the three minute section he had them repeat 'was a comfortable passage' with 'no great highs or lows'. In other words, he had explicitly chosen something that would provide little discomfort to the performers. Even in the pursuit of endurance, Kjartansson stays within the confines of Hollywood, where there is very little real danger. Yet it is nevertheless of vital importance that the audience believes that there is. In this environment it is the appearance of the world that's important, not it's factual reality. It doesn't matter whether or not something is actually difficult, what matters is the audience's uncritical perception that the thing is difficult.

This avoidance of reality and its genuine challenges, while nevertheless presenting them as truth, is a recurring theme in Kjartansson's work. At the entrance to the exhibition there is a large room with six paintings. Each is a wintery landscape that measures a comfortable art-for-the-living-room size of 85×105 cm. They're paintings that are clearly made by somebody with some higher art education, but are otherwise fairly unremarkable. Upon reading about the works, however, it turns out they were made en plein air in the cold landscape of the Icelandic lava field Eldrhaun. Kjartansson wanted to test himself with the painting series; 'in the freezing cold I wanted to finish a painting as quickly as possible to return to the warmth of my car', he says.
Yet the paintings were made with dabs of undiluted oil paint and simple chemistry tells us that it thus can't have been much colder than -10 to -15° Celsius, as otherwise the paint would have simply been frozen to a solid block. While such a temperature is certainly uncomfortable, with a warm car close by it can't really be seen as a test of the self unless that self has been treated particularly well by life and it's not used to discomfort or adversity.
In comparison, the well documented recent en plein air paintings of David Hockney are monumental undertakings. Painting in the Yorkshire winter, he too complains about the cold and wet conditions. But Hockney instead assesses that the cold 'makes you want to work fast, but you also don't want to work sloppily just because it's cold'. To Hockney, the painting itself is still the end goal and the, less extreme, cold is merely an obstacle to overcome. His paintings eventually led to some highly ambitious multi-panel paintings, that would be complicated logistical undertakings even if made in a large studio, let alone in chunks in the outdoors. Yet Hockney goes through all this effort to make his paintings, even if the chain smoking artist is an elderly gentleman who has absolutely nothing to prove to the world.
If we look further beyond the arbitrary status of painting as a particular artistic activity, then artists like Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy have had a far more extreme and intimate relationship with nature, which they have nevertheless moulded into unique forms that make their works and their practice instantly recognisable, as good artists do.
When we thus look again at Kjartansson's paintings we can see that they are better explained by envisioning a rich kid spending fifteen minutes in moderately cold weather to create something his gallerists can more easily sell to private collectors. To think these paintings are anything other than this harsh description is simply mistaking the romantic notion of reality with reality itself.

Which is also what Kjartansson has done himself with the earliest work on display. Titled Me and my Mother, it is a seven minute long video that shows the artist's mother repeatedly spitting in his face. This version from 2000 was made when Kjartansson was still in art school and the ritual has since been repeated every five years. In his own words, he had made the work to impress Aernout Mik, who visited his school as a guest teacher. Yet Mik's observation was that Kjartansson's mother was seemingly enjoying herself, while Kjartansson was aiming at drama. This matter of fact observation calmly asserts the truth before us. The truth that while having your mother spit in your face is an offensive gesture, if she's an experienced and well-known actress who can very well understand the difference between the appearance of a performance and its ultimate function, then it's not that big of a deal. In all actuality, it seems to me that if a mother is willing to do this only because her son asked her to, then that shows that she has a lot of faith and trust in the artistic judgement of her child. It's a loving gesture, really.
Furthermore, it should be noted that saliva is about as clean as bodily fluids get. There is very little taboo associated with spit. In fact, most of us had our mother's spit on our faces when she licked her finger and cleaned some smudge of our cheeks when we were children. And we all have done similar things to our mothers. If Kjartansson ever becomes a father, then chances are pretty high he in turn will be inadvertently be puked, peed, spat and shat upon by this newborn child.
If on the other hand we contrast this work with somebody like Leigh Ledare, who has made a whole series of properly pornographic works of his own showbusiness mother, then it's clear that Kjartansson's position is once again nothing but a very safe space where nobody is challenged and nobody can be hurt. It's all very pleasant and comfortable, but somehow the audience is implored to be moved and feel deep emotions.

It's possible for me to say similar scathing things about all the works on display in the exhibition, but I would prefer to end with one last work that was presented in the smaller cabinets of the museum. It is titled Guilt and Fear and consists of 500 sets of salt and pepper shakers. The artist has had them made in porcelain by a local ceramics workshop. On each of these pots there is written either 'Fear' or 'Guilt'. While there is some merit to the obelisk-shaped works, and they're pleasant objects to look at, I'm confused as to why there are more than two of them present in the exhibition.
They are lined up on shelves against the back walls of the eleven small cabinets at the museum. While they fill most of these cabinets, the 1000 objects aren't quite enough to fill all the spaces wall to wall. So unlike Antony Gormley's Field or Ai WeiWei's sunflower seeds, the work shows a sense of restraint, rather than limitless abundance. And if you have a sense of restraint, then why would you restrain yourself to the rather large number of one thousand?
It is also not the case that one could marvel in the differences when comparing individual specimens to each other, as would be the case with a work like Francis Alÿs' Fabiola series. Thanks to the good work of the ceramics workshop, the pots are about as identical to each other as any handmade object can get. To see one literally means to see all. Making a thousand copies is then once more nothing but expensive. The only reason Kjartansson seems to do what he has done is because he can and this is the kind of reasoning the worst of the oligarchy employs.

On the whole it thus seems that the ideas present in Ragnar Kjartansson's exhibition are watered down or child-proofed versions either of what we already know, or what some other artist has brought us in the past. To Kjartansson this doesn't matter, because he describes himself, and his fellow artists, as court-jesters. What they produce is self-conscious entertainment by the rich and famous, for the rich and famous.
While I do not have a problem with this attitude per se, in a cultural landscape that claims to reject precisely such values, it is baffling to me that such a hollow, yet conscious and complete, embrace of those core beliefs is gaining such universal critical acclaim.