Thursday, 15 May 2014

(...) the kind of eccentric wisdom I am trying to conjure up for our postmodern times, which turns on a plurality of little truths.        - John Caputo 1

Order and chaos are two opposing, or we might say, complementary forces at work in nature. These forces are evident in the apparent randomness of life, and in its overall but more subtly perceived pattern: there is a certain order in the seeming chance or chaos of nature. Artists know this very well - albeit intuitively - and much of what they do in practice is concerned with bringing that pattern into focus, in perceiving a certain order - one might say design - in ‘mere chance’. A key to achieving this is what we call ‘spontaneity’, which is never far from the creative process, even if it is only in the way that the artist thinks about how to achieve the apparent order of the created piece. The paradox is - of course - that it is difficult to ‘be’ spontaneous: in fact that phrase is almost a contradiction in terms; for as soon as we try to be spontaneous, true spontaneity seems to desert us. Order and chaos are also important to politics: our democratic system appears at times to be chaotic, but there is an underlying order. Totalitarian states appear to be ordered, but are in fact deeply chaotic.

Another feature of nature is that there is never really any centre to it. Even the corolla of a petalled flower is not its centre, its heart or core. And if you look for the centre of a forest, you will find nothing to indicate that you have reached it. The sun may be the centre of our solar system, but not of the universe. Nature appears throughout to be eccentric. Again, in politics centrism and de-centrism have in recent times become major issues in democratic countries.

What has all this to do with hanging an exhibition of art? Well, hanging an exhibition is itself a creative act, where one must allow for both order and chaos. It is also often a political matter, where the ‘politics’ of how and where a work is hung is an almost unavoidable product of the exhibition space.

Order is essential for logical presentation: as viewers we appreciate tidy presentation, as it enables us to comfortably ‘read’ the exhibition in its totality, as well as to appreciate individual works. Arranging pictures in horizontal or vertical lines on a wall, or sculptures in a free space, is a grammar we can readily understand - and one that we are familiar with - in the same way that we are used to and understand our own verbal and conceptual language. At the same time, within that order, there is a need for freedom - each piece needs a space wherein it can express its own peculiar individuality, its own meaning. An exhibition is - or should be - a kind of ‘democracy’ of artworks.

Now, as within any democracy, the ‘centre’ is problematic. Polity has a lot to do with the centre: undemocratic systems, for example, give the centre overriding priority, at the expense of the margins. This is what leads to conformity, to oligarchy, or even autocracy. But centrism in human affairs - like centrism in nature - is perhaps a kind of optical and conceptual illusion. In the same way that before Copernicus people believed the earth to be the centre of the universe, we have continued to pursue that illusion in many forms. Our very perception of truth is more often than not the tendency to think in terms of a ground and a centre, of one proposition or idea having ascendancy or privilege over all the others, or at least of a hierarchical structure of importance.

Paradoxically, this modus operandi is common to the way that the general harmony of nature appears to work in its particularities, ‘on the ground’ so to speak: our human political systems are arguably not much different from those of animals and plants, in the way that the differential between weak and strong, power and its lack, is played out. We only have to think of other hierarchical systems that exist in the plant or animal worlds to recognise this, and to see that unconsciously we often cannot help but conform to it. Democracy, indeed, is a conscious human effort to improve or transcend those inconscient systems, and autocracy a conscious effort to valorise and perpetuate them. A fortiori, our conscious human efforts to ‘improve’ upon nature can be beneficial, but are often questionable, and at worst perilous.

In what we call ‘continental philosophy’, the critique of this tendency towards centrism in human thought has had a tremendous impact on other disciplines, such as anthropology and history, for example, and consequently upon culture and politics. We now tend to view our own culture as one among many, rather than as an exclusive dominant. Pluralism is the ‘order’ of the day, and multiculturalism one of many related aspirations of what we sometimes call a ‘postmodern’ world.

But in the arts eccentricity has, arguably, always been of paramount importance. There is in visual art not only a tension between order and chaos, but also the possibility of their resolution. The modernism of a Jackson Pollock painting, for example, is arguably highly postmodern - and supremely democratic - in the way that every part of the painted surface is valued for its individual character, with no particular area gaining supremacy; while the whole lacks a central focal point, yet functions perfectly as an aesthetic arrangement. The ‘centre’ is, in fact, absent. It has its dominance by not ‘being’ there at all. It is implied, but invisible. As Lao Zi said of political power, it is best applied lightly, if at all.

Hanging an exhibition, particularly a large and public one like the Aberdeen Artists’, is always a challenging task. Every room has walls, and spaces. Every wall and every space has a centre, and margins. And this is true of the exhibition space as a whole: it has its ‘good’ and not-so-good areas of light, of prominence, of visibility - all of which can be crucially important to the optimum presentation of any particular piece of work. The constitution of the Society - which, like all good written constitutions seeks to establish rules to ensure fairness and justice - allows for this to some degree by stipulating that an artwork selected by majority vote as a priority for exhibition should be accorded “appropriate” consideration as to its visibility when hung, or shown: in other words it should be privileged. Other selected works may be granted some degree of privilege according to their democratically approved hierarchical status, but only if it is deemed both possible and practicable, with regard to the overall design of the exhibition and the rights of all the works to be shown well. At the time of writing there are, theoretically at least, no political factors involved in the selection of work and the outcome of the exhibition ‘hang’, other than the ‘politics’ of aesthetic judgement, and the afore-mentioned practical contingencies. These, however, cannot help but produce the hierarchical and therefore political system outlined above.

Up until now, this has resulted in exhibitions that inevitably generate, among exhibitors and audience alike, healthy debate as to the perceived success or otherwise of the show: opinion may very as to how the exhibition is composed, and what its priorities appear to be, as a political as well as an aesthetic whole. In many respects the exhibition is like a work of art in itself: it requires a degree of aesthetic judgement, an appreciation of design and composition, acquired skill, and an awareness of contemporary context. It also requires a sense of colour, of the merits of both harmony and dissonance, of balance and contrast, and so on. And like a painting or sculpture, even if the priority focus is in one or two areas, the ‘lesser’ parts are essential in complementing those and in constituting the whole.

We are all familiar with the boundaries and constraints that painting, sculpture and design, have faced in their history, and with the progress that results from loosening those constraints, and extending - or transgressing - those boundaries. In a public gallery exhibition like the Aberdeen Artists’, we can readily see this creative dynamic at work in individual pieces, but not usually so much in the way those pieces are displayed, or ‘hung’. Any exhibition space is in itself to a certain extent physically and aesthetically delimiting, and for that reason a modern gallery tends to be self-consciously neutral, self-effacing, or even invisible in proportion to the degree that it provides pure efficacy of light and space. The modernist ‘white space’ is now almost universally accepted, even taken for granted. But despite this, we are yet constrained by certain inescapable limits. One of these is the way that we simply assume that paintings must be hung in neat rows, or columns, with symmetry and order high on the list of requisites. Indeed, there is often a strict sense of order in the display of the most minimal of modernist works. There is certainly nothing wrong with this view, but as far as it is a conditioned assumption, there is equally nothing wrong with disrupting it, transgressing it, or expanding upon it, if the result is exciting and works well.

In this year’s exhibition, the convener of the hanging committee - former AAS president Lyndsey Gibb2 - has gone some way to moving the exhibition into the postmodern age. Influenced by a recent visit to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, she has imbibed elements of a postmodernist aesthetic to present a fresh and novel approach to hanging the exhibition. Lyndsey has devoted one long wall in room 8, and wall sections in room 9, to an experiment which will hopefully become part of normal practice in future exhibitions. On the long wall, mostly smallish pieces of work are deliberately arranged out of alignment. They include a variety of style and subject - typically characteristic of an open exhibition - but organised in such a way that there is no ‘centre’, or focal point(s), to the wall. This seemingly haphazard composition - by paradox carefully prepared and worked out - lends to the wall a feeling of liveliness and spontaneity. There is little trace of the traditional ‘line’ - at eye-level - which tends to favour some works over others: rather, the ‘line’ seems to flow through all the pieces together, regardless of height, the eye moving from one to another not logically, orderly, or progressively, but in any sequence, starting from and finishing anywhere. Thus the viewer is first of all captured by the movement within the composite whole, and then is drawn at random to focus on or inspect in detail one or other of the works. This inspection continues until on withdrawal the eye is again seduced by movement and rich variety to find another gem within a floating galaxy of gems, each one with its own particular effect, its own world, its own aesthetic. Significantly, there is no visual clue, no received grammar, to inform or instruct as to which works might be considered of greater or lesser merit, or in what order they should be seen, and thus no hierarchy of preference or privilege other than what appeals at any moment in time to the fluctuating taste, or interest, of the individual viewer. There is no centre, and thus there are no margins. The pieces are all equally valid if taken individually: their individual interest and autonomy resting in their difference to one another in a free space, which is in fact their true similarity and oneness. This shared ‘democracy’ of works and audience is enhanced and strengthened not by order of size, geometrical symmetry, or allotted position, but rather by the asymmetry, eccentricity, and openness of the arrangement.

Neither does ‘the wall’ exclude the ordered, the symmetrical, the politics of sameness and conformity. One piece, for instance, is a pattern of several real working clocks, all in time, arranged in strict geometrical fashion. Yet this work can and does co-exist with all kinds of differing subjects, many of them more organic in form, in varying media: all of them not too large, but by no means uniform in size or shape. Of course, they could be hung in a more traditional manner, and still retain their individuality and specific interest: but the ‘new’ arrangement seems to enhance individuality and difference, not by trying to contain them within an imposed order common to all, but by placing them as if they had found their own particular place by themselves in perfect accord with one another, by letting them live and breathe in a world of carefully crafted freedom.

This carefully crafted freedom holds within it a kind of invisible order, the kind that we find in the seeming spontaneity and ‘chaos’ of the artwork: indeed, the effect of ‘the wall’, taken as a whole, is similar to that of a work of art. Art and politics are resolved in one aesthetic.

Much of the thought and sentiment expressed here, in sympathetic response to ‘the wall’, is derived from the poststructuralist movement in philosophy and critical thought: not surprisingly perhaps, some of that movement’s finest thinkers implicit herein - namely Lyotard, Derrida, and Rancière - are French by birth or by culture. And so, of course, is the Pompidou Centre, and thus perhaps ‘the wall’ too. Encore, Lyndsey; et vive la France!

   The Aberdeen Artists Society annual open exhibition runs from 10th May to 21st June at Aberdeen Art Gallery, admission free.


1 Caputo, J., Truth: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 154.

2 Lyndsey’s idea was creatively put into practice by Keith Byres, Sjarifah Roberts, and Donnie Ross of the hanging committee of Aberdeen Artists Society, and expertly installed by staff at Aberdeen Art Gallery.

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