Tuesday 10 January 2023

Many Things Are Gone

At the present time the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven hosts the exhibition 'Rewinding Internationalism', in which 'the curators, collectives and artists who have curated the exhibition invite you to ‘rewind’ to moments from the 1990s and reflect on them from the perspective of today.' 

One of the things that I remember from the 1990's is the 1994 work 'Models' by Marlene Dumas. It is found in the collection of the museum and it's currently on display in the collection presentation 'Delinking and Relinking'. It consists of 100 paintings in ink on paper, each of them a display of Dumas' skill as a painter.

Marlene Dumas, Models

Marlene Dumas, Models (detail)

That collection presentation opened in 2021 and will be on display for a full four years. I was thus surprised when I saw the work 'Many Thousand Gone' by Olu Oguibes in the temporary exhibition 'Rewiding Internationalism'. This work was made in 2000 and consists of '84 painted portraits of unidentified people.'

Screenshot from the virtual tour of 'Rewinding Internationalism'.

Olu Oguibes, Many Thousand Gone (detail)

When I saw this work the question 'is this good enough to be in the museum?' immediately popped up in my mind. Which in all honesty is a ridiculous question to ask. I've seen shows where children's doodles and anonymous handicraft were unironically included and I myself have made shows where wrapping paper and found pamphlets where hung on equal footing with works by well-known artists. And in those cases nobody was asking themselves if that was good enough to be in those shows.
The difference was that the function of those objects in those exhibitions were well thought-out and clearly presented to the audience. The children's doodles were shown in expertly made frames and it were those frames that were the artist's work, while the handicraft was featured in a collection presentation that highlighted unusual items from that collection and my inclusions were done because everything was connected through certain formal aspects of colour and size.

This presentation, but also many others I've seen elsewhere in the past, uses the mode of so-called high art, by presenting hand-made paintings in an art museum. The expectations that accompany this kind of presentation is focused heavily on material knowledge and skill, even if that fact isn't always mentioned explicitly in the critical discourse. However, it is clear that this work from Olu Oguibes lacks such essential paint handling skills, especially in comparison with an expert like Marlene Dumas.
If the curators then choose to create a situation where two superficially similar works are presented in an similar manner, a direct comparison between the works is inevitable and the major difference between them turns out to be the amateurish brushwork of the latter. The attention of the audience is consequently aimed at that difference. Which is extremely detrimental to the work and the narrative it wishes to tell, because at that stage you get from a question about the merit or relevance of the ideas in the work, to the question of why these two things are presented as equivalent on the same museum-shaped yardstick if the skill on display is so disparate?

In this particular case it might have been a better idea to present something along the lines of a photograph of each person, with the date of their death in big handwritten letters. That would focus the attention on the fact that they too were individuals who had their impact on history, without giving any attention to the mediocre craftsmanship of the artist. Because ultimately the fact this person can't paint very well isn't what he or the curators wish to impose on the world.
It's extremely troubling to me that this kind of basic communication knowledge is so often absent from public institutions, because it says that the curators either do not know or do not care about how their audience will perceive the work, and either of those explanations is worse than the other.