Fictions critiques

Aneta Szylak



Believers, Players, Seducers, Pretenders:

On Posed, Ex-Posed and Positioned
in Contemporary Art

‘She got up and walked about – rather stiffly just at first, as she was afraid that the crown might come off: but she comforted herself with the thought that there was nobody to see her, “and if I really am a Queen,” she said and sat down again, “I shall be able to manage it quite well in time.”’1

The relationship between the exhibition space and the viewer’s body is strongly connected with the theatralization of the museum spectacle and culture-shaped modes of reception and display. Evolving its relation with the space through the centuries, art in modern times turned the exhibition space into a separated, clinical laboratory. Yet the viewer’s body turned out to be an additional item on view. ‘Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion. The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not – or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannequins for further study,’2 writes O’Doherty in his legendary essay. The bold presence of the viewer in art discourse and his/her own knowledge of the museum stereotype direct the focus of this essay towards the idea of posing, positioning and exposing the human figure, within the context of contemporary exhibition practice. The exhibition offers a broad range of examples from contemporary art practice and the variety of languages contemporary art has been communicating through from the 1970s up till now.
The point of departure for the project is the set of works from the Frac Lorraine collection in which cultural coding of the human figure appropriated from art history appears to be a striking component. The second set consists of the works that are concerned rather with an art institution as a framework of display enforcing the specific behaviours of the model and of the viewer. Both parts also include some outstanding works from outside the collection, discussing similar matter and expanding the context being discussed. The project involves questions of presentation and reception in contemporary art. There is the artist, the model and the viewer. There is an institution and there is an architecture, the space that engages the artwork and the viewer’s body in the spatialgame of appeal, fear, seduction and rejection. They captivate the viewer with the seductive manners, intensity of gaze or beauty of the body. But they also send out a specific message about the aesthetics of the represented body and the expected behaviour patterns imprinted in the virtual sphere of the work. Are posing for art and self-positioning in the specific institutional or social relations just two sides of the same coin? Who are the people whose way of seeing themselves is affected by experiencing and memorizing art? Who and where are the ‘Believers, Players, Seducers and Pretenders’?
Three major figures here are the artist, the model and the viewer. But the situation between them is complicated. The artist often plays the role of the model. The model can become the means of visual memory. The viewer feels forced into some specific behaviour towards the artwork and finally may be eager to become the model. ‘It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world – if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should like to be a Queen, best,’3 says little Alice in Carroll’s novel.
Changing the position and location might mean a change to the role played. And the growing role of the figure of the viewer within exhibition discourse has a great effect on the way art is being produced and perceived.
There is a tension between being posed (or positioned) and striking a pose or taking a position of our own free will. Who decides? Who obeys? The show is intended to make the viewer think about the complexity of this relation. Desires, expectations, needs, lack of fulfillment, all the components of human relationships are hidden within. It points to psychological mechanisms of reception, acceptance and rejection. Do we behave properly? Do we understand and interpret the expected way? The space of the institution is considered here as both bodily and emotional space, where clichés of cultural memory and practices of contemporary exhibition-making take the spectator on an adventurous journey. But there is also another space, the space framed by the artwork, and the relation between the two. The psychological mechanism of reception and absorbance is crucial for the project, the way it is planned to construct the visual message and to entangle the viewer in the intensity and complexity of corporeal sensations.
Andrea Fraser, in her video Little Frank and His Carp (2001), documenting her unannounced performance recorded by a hidden camera, is joyfully strolling through the main lobby of Guggenheim Bilbao, and following the instructions from the museum’s authentic audio guide urging the spectator to experience its space in a specific, sensual way. Museum goers find themselves watching Fraser in her hilariously exhibitionistic entanglement with the museum space, reading, experiencing and performing the erotic message behind this seductive, masculine building. Doing a bit more that the audio guide demands, Fraser unveils the reality of the contemporary museum, where the viewer plays an important staging role in this theatrical spectacle of watching. The architecture replaced art in creating the artistic event, just as the artist is replaced by the spectator. His or her posing and positioning within the museum plays no less important a role than the model used to play in relation to the artist. Strongly erotic, based on demand, need and continuously unfulfilled desire, the museum or gallery experience absorbs all of its actors, forcing them to play according to culturally established roles and behaviours.
There is a significant number of works included in the project ‘Believers, Players, Seducers, Pretenders’ which are video-performances. Early video pieces by Belgian artist Lili Dujourie open the chapter of the exhibition on the representation of the human, especially female body in art while at the same time referring to the body of artist. Working as her own model, in her _Hommage à … _(1972), Sonnet (1974), Sanguine (1975) and Passion de l’été pour l’hiver (1981) Dujourie appropriates the way the female body has been represented in the work of mostly male artists. The specific passivity and obedience is striking, although no real emotional bonds are evidenced here. And there is no real eye contact between the model and the camera, so the viewer cannot feel he/she is the addressee of the action being staged. This puts the spectator in the uncomfortable role of the voyeur.The artist both mesmerizes the viewer by the extreme intimacy of her performance and disturbs by confronting the viewer with his or her own expectations and perceptual habits. Suspended in the net of ambiguous feelings, Dujourie’s work in a way examines the way the female body has been subjugated in art by (male) artists and violated by the viewer’s gaze. But there is another layer to her work that leads to the desperate feeling of an emotional void, the abyss of waiting. It happens both in emotional relationships and between the artists and the spectator. In Jean Fisher’s words: ‘Flesh and fabric fold over each other as she turns and changes position; slow, restless movements alternate with intervals of repose, her limbs sometimes sprawling over the empty side of the bed as if seeking an already absent companion. This trace of absence comes to haunt much of Dujourie’s work with the lightness of a caress.’4 This intimate longing can be understood directly, as a need for presence of another human being, and indirectly by the presence of the spectator and fulfilling his or her needs and demands. Screened in the exhibition space, Dujourie’s work points to the generally voyeuristic aspect of museum display, analyzes the impact of art history on the way the body is observed and the complex emotional and intellectual reasons behind the act of watching.
Another artist who takes herself as her preferred model is Anneè Olofsson, who in her Cold (1999), like Botticelli’s Venus, exposes herself to wind by the sea. But, unlike Venus, she also experiences heavy frost – about 20 degrees below zero – on a South Baltic beach. She looks into the camera lens for about 15 minutes, trying to bear these extreme conditions. Olofsson is challenging the patience of the viewer doing ‘nothing’. But her intense gaze is a scream for compassion, a desperate act of having an authentic contact with those who come to stare and judge. Even her eyes, made blue by contact lenses, are colder than usual, and glitter on the floor mixed with beach sands turns the entire space into an experience of cold on an emotional and aesthetic level, and seems to be emblematic of the contemporary human condition and the way it is represented in art.

When looking at young Polish artist Pawel Kruk, striking different poses in the nude on a plinth in an uncanny surroundings in his Messiah College, Foundation (2002), we begin to think about the eroticism and seduction in and through art that seems to shape relations between every-one involved in the process of its making and perceiving. Who is the artist, what is expected of him? The kind of hope we cherish or at least still try to apply? Is he ‘a handsome man’ or ‘a prophet’? What does his narcissist posing mean? Is he enjoying himself or rather trying to convince someone else? ‘According to the dictionary definition, a messiah is a prophet who embodies some Cause or Hope. The artist would thus be a messiah whom no one awaits and the prophet of his or her own, individually defined Cause. Kruk considers solitude to be a constituent element of the artist’s condition. In Kruk’s opinion, solitude is the ontological basis that enables an artist to venture beyond the material dimension of existence,’ writes his exhibition curator.5 In the proposed show this solitude will be one of the major premises, leaving alone the one who is posing, the one who is creating and the one looking.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s Thank you (1995) seems to be based on the opposite premise. As François Piron points out, ‘the pretension of “image making” is not familiar to him [ … ] but this is his trademark of the important role.’6 So there is no detail-oriented precision in the way the stage is being designed or the artist represented. Holding his collage on one side of his face he continuously slaps his face with the other hand to the rhythm of the rock music in the background. When the music stops, he places the collage on the other side and goes on with the same activity, when the music starts over again. Everything is ordinary, even banal beside the weirdness of the artist’s behaviour. But there is not even any punishment or transgression in the way the artist is treating himself. It is more act of forbearing with himself on the one hand and denying or at least resisting the myth of the artist on the other.7
The strong difference of the contexts in which certain artworks were made, appears to be an important factor in understanding the artist’s position. When we see self-aggressive performance by Marina Abramovi, facing the risk she is taking, and the pain being experienced, and when we receive her deep and intense gaze in Thomas Lips (The Star), 1975-1993, then we consider the body itself as the carrier of an ideological message beyond the politics of representation. The personal, corporal hazard taken by Abramovi in most of her performances, where she is putting her body in danger, is a strong counterpoint to the works that ironically play with the figure of the artist. It expresses the political aspect of the body and the situation of the artist targeting more than purely aesthetic matters.

There is a certain knowledge or at least the absorption of certain images, often transferred through the media and popular culture, which shape the visual taste and expectations towards art and the artist. In Katarzyna Kozyra’s Boys (2001–2002), videos and photographs were shot based on these conditions. Asking the invited young male models to wear specially-prepared string underpants, equipped on the front with – flower-shaped – replacement female parts and making them wait on the spectacular, neo-classicist stairway at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw, by remaining silent, Kozyra put them into the position of acting without a director. After a while the undirected models started to stretch their bodies, take up poses, both as individuals and as a group. What was most interesting in the work was that the models tried to fulfill the unexpressed will of someone who was supposed to lead them, to decide. They tried to obey the unspoken but culturally known expectations and as well as specific needs. In his photographs, such as Famille Torlonia, Rome (1986), Famille Ruspoli, Rome (1986) or Famille Capponi, Florence (1986), Patrick Faigenbaum represents members of once influential Italian families in the form of group portraits, influenced by historical representations of the nobility. Photographed in natural light and their own home environment, his characters subconsciously or consciously transmit centuries of hieratic, hierarchic posing, based on controlled image and staged prestige.

Some other works take into consideration the place where art and culture are being observed and where the relation between the artwork and the viewer is being celebrated and sometimes even staged. Thomas Struth in his Kunsthistorisches Museum III, Wien (1989) , showing the spectators in the museum in front of the historic paintings, turns our thoughts toward the posture of the museum goers, the way they watch, think, perceive or pretend. Settled and focused, the viewers in Struth’s photographs are becoming new heroes of art. Turning into the spectacle itself, the museum employs the viewer as an actor and even demands specific scenarios, movements and poses. Among the selected artwork there is Ann Veronica Janssen’s MUHKA, Anvers (1997), in which the gallery space is filled up with white foggy smoke. Instead of experiencing the spatiality of the gallery, the viewer is confronted with the density of the translucent whiteness, where the other spectators appear to be shadows or ghosts, not as real as the space appears to be. This work is something to look at, but to be watched through, or even felt through. How does the spectator move in it? How does the body behave? And how does this work make us look at the other works, put on display in professionally set lighting and elaborate mode of display? This work is a navigating tool, as the coming out of the fog makes us see more clearly when our vision adjusts to the lighting conditions in another room. As a counterpoint there is an installation and performance by Paulina Olowska in which, using her own wall painting and works by the other artists and furniture, she prepared a space that appears to be ‘a gallery space’. Then she allows the group of young, smartly dressed people with pretentious behaviour to become ‘the viewers’. They stroll from work to work, from painting to painting, exchanging conventional kisses, embracing one another and chatting on sofas. It is an ironic version of what is being made heroic by Struth, pointing towards the hip relations between art and fashion and between the hip art-institution and trend-setting.
‘Looking at you, Sir, so naturally proposing the new sets of “poses” during the breaks at our studio, I saw in it a kind of beautiful photography, a dance nearly, in slow tempo and the moments of “freezing” in time. The effect was tremendous [ … ] What you proposed is kind of recovering memory, playing the choreographic movements worked through and practised during the years of work at the Academy. Moreover, your stance and engagement emanates the pride and dignity of the profession, which since the 19th century has accompanied the creation of today’s image of the Academy and the birth of art history and the research field,’ wrote Grzegorz Sztwiertnia to a model from his own Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, with whom he finally developed the project The Academy of Dance (2004).8 Existing both as a live performance and its video recording, the piece is a spectacular sequence of postures performed on stage by a dressed-up white, older male model in costume. His supple, slender body is trained to be exposed, his muscles and joints remember every possible pose. Passages between the poses are made smoothly and fluidly, following the bombastic music.
The man is focused but all the time aware of being seen. It is mesmerizing in the way it reveals the artificial and theatrical aspect of posing, and seductive in the way the human body becomes the subject of canonical aesthetics. The work is at the opposite pole to that of Lili Dujourie. It is self-oriented, narcissistically twisted, ecstatic and triumphant in the way it wins over the viewer. At the same time the other models mingle with the public, making the spectators think about their own body, its position and the borderline between those who watch and those being watched.
Dora Garcia’s Proxy / Coma (2001) performance relates to the idea of the artist possessing the space and questions the relation between artists, institution and the artwork. In order to realize the utopian idea of a permanent presence of the artist within the exhibition space, Garcia proposes forever (2004). Her work records everything happening in one spot of the Frac by on-line camera, making any people and things that might happen to be there at the time the subject of real time surveillance. The images are selected by the artist, who then builds them up into a free interpretation of what is going on in the Frac space. What is at issue here is curiosity as to the possibility of such surveillance and the unexpected exercise of control over the institution by the artist. Dominik Lejman’s Stealth Painting (1999) captures the image of the viewer to project it onto a particular plane of his painting. The viewer can see him/herself in the picture, while looking at the footage recorded earlier that is also being projected on the other side of the scene. The spectator’s image is entirely absorbed and the life and adventures of this alter-ego largely escape the owner of the actual body.

‘Believers, Players, Seducers, Pretenders’ tracks the emotional component of the reception and production of art and the modes of its expression. The exhibition paints the situation of art as a catalogue of failures, unfulfilled dreams and miscommunications. It questions the impact of art on the way the viewer reacts to specific contexts and how the media and culture shape the vision of an artist, his or her model and the viewer. The project is suspended within the framework of ongoing discussion about the status of art and the artist. It builds emotional bridges between the artist and public, and denies the objectifying role of the exhibition display. Should I play, seduce or pretend? Each of us, even the convinced believer, has to answer this question sincerely. It is a very personal journey. It is a story about an individual within the artistic and institutional games. It expands the artificiality of the exhibition space. Performative in its core, the exhibition leads the viewer between frozen and moving images and towards the scene. It seeks the spirit of art in the notion of absence, lack of authenticity and the need for fulfillment. It asks what is happening within the process of creation, production, presentation and institutional communication and finally reception. To what extent the history of art affects our expectations of the work being presented and how the situation of mixed up roles within artistic discourse changes the relationship between its actors. ‘“But how can it have got there without my knowing it?” she said to herself, as she lifted it off, and set it on her lap to make out what it could possibly be. It was a golden crown [ … ] “Well, this is grand!” said Alice. “I never expected I should be a Queen so soon.”’9

Aneta Szylak, Poland. Curator, art critic. Director of the Wyspa Institute of Art, Vice-president of the Wyspa Progress
Foundation, Gdansk. In residence at the Frac Lorraine from October to December 2004.

1 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Penguin Books, London, 1994, p. 154.

2 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1997, p. 15.

3 Lewis Carroll, op. cit., p. 40.

4 Jean Fisher, ‘The Intimacy of the Infinite: Lili Dujourie’s Videos’, in Lili Dujourie, Videos 1972–1981, Argos Editions, Brussels, 2002, p. 96.

5 Stach Szablowski. Messiah College, curatorial statement as press material, CAA Zamek Ujazdowski,
Warsaw, 2004.

6 François Piron, ‘Thomas Hirschhorn’, in Réalités: Collections sans frontières II, Zacheta Panstwowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszaw, 2003, p. 78.

7 Ibid.

8 Grzegorz Sztwiertnia, letter to a model written in preparation for the exhibition Bialy Mazur.
Quote from the material delivered by the artist.

9 Lewis Carroll, op. cit., p. 154.