In Response to the Review of the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2017

Defining the subject of this year’s Gothenburg biennial as being just about religion is a fundamental misunderstanding.

Shilpa Gupta, WheredoIendandyoubegin, 2015.

I write in response to Sinziana Ravini´s review of the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA) 2017. Setting aside the facile tone of the review which in itself is worth some reflection, it is important in this instance to give some essential clarifications and a little critical riposte. I do this also in appreciation of Kunstkritikk as a platform open to such dialogue, and because dialogue around exhibitions should perhaps exist more. The intention here is not to be pedantic, but in the first instance to point out a central misunderstanding in the review.

It is early on in the review that the author states that the subject of the biennial, that of ‘secularity’, is defined as being about religion, in particular of “freedom to exercise one’s faith”. This is too simplistic. Secularity is not “freedom to exercise one’s faith”. The principle of secularity is about creating the conditions for allowing different ‘modes of living’ to co-exist due to protections and rights provided to individuals in society – in the absence of religion. This is how the subject has been described in the context of the biennial, and it is how someone in the fields of political science or theology would define it – such as how Ola Sigurdson has done in the special issue of PARSE Journal produced for the biennial, where he states: “… secularity is a space of negotiation between different modes of life, some of which are religious, some not religious, some in-between. Secularity is not an anti-religious concept in this way, whereas secularism is. Rather it produces questions about how we should live together if we are so different. Hannah Arendt’s definition of politics is how those who are different could live together in a community. Secularity is about the problem in this definition”.

There is a single mention in GIBCA’s own description of the biennial, explaining that religious freedom is but one social facet amongst many, alongside such things as sexual freedom, gender equality, minority rights and freedom of expression, that come under the broad rubric of rights and freedoms to be provided by secularity. Thus, defining the subject of the biennial as being just about religion is a fundamental misunderstanding, or at very best a one-dimensional understanding. Secularity is to a greater degree about freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. This is initially touched upon in the review, but then side-lined.

I can only think that there has been a conflation between the epistemological ‘secular’ with ‘secularity’ as a social process. This is easily done – it is the kind of misunderstanding that anyone might for example easily make through using the rather muddled definition found on Wikipedia and elsewhere. It is though, a misunderstanding that seems then to shape much of the rest of the review. On this basis, the writer then goes on even to ask why “bad guys” such as Andres Serrano or Lars Vilks are not in the exhibition, and all culminating in a rather fanciful diatribe about the desire to replace religion with art. Indeed, many works, and even whole sections of the biennial have little if anything to do with religion, including the exhibition of video works presented around the extremely dynamic space of Gothenburg City Library described inaccurately and dismissively as an “archive section” (I cannot think of a better place for presenting the video Get Off exploring female sexuality in the public sphere by “bad girl” Elin Magnusson than in the City Library), or the entire survey of works by Jens Haaning that is a transversal presence across the biennial, amongst plenty of other works.

The word “cowardly” is used when I apparently give anonymity to an artwork that may not be given permission to be shown due to sensitivity. This is patently false. It is there on the very the same page of the PARSE Journal that is referred to. It is additionally in my interview in the biennial guide – the main source of print information about the biennial, distributed in an edition of 70,000 copies. I discuss that the request to exhibit a work from John Latham’s God is Great series from the early 1990s was turned down. Works from this series have been the subject of incidents, due to being perceived as sensitive, but often without specific foundation. Most visibly when the Tate removed a work from this series from a collection display without any specific threat, rather due to a general ‘atmosphere’, which was heavily criticised. As well as being key examples of the practice of this remarkable artist, the works from this series offer the most pertinent measure of how an atmosphere of sensitivity has changed over a short period of time, compared with the era when Latham made the works, when there would have been no issue at all in exhibiting them.

It is stated that exhibiting caricatures of Jewish people is reopening a wound on a subject that has been dealt with, supposedly now too many times. The caricatures may well have been reflected on, but the physical artefacts themselves are rarely seen. We have worked in dialogue with Jewish representatives towards the re-presentation of these images, who understand that the caricatures hold up a mirror to the society that not only created them, but also formed a self-image in relation to the supposed otherness of Jews. The fact is, anti-Semitism, along with prejudice against other groups, remains very real, and there is a need to address this endemic in society, including in Sweden. It is simply ingenuous to state that these artefacts should not be shown. All this whilst Neo-Nazis march freely through Gothenburg on Yom Kippur, demanding their own ethno-state.

It is briefly worth addressing the criticism that the works have been arranged according to “the throw of the dice”. Of course, this opinion is subjective. The spatial aspect of exhibition-making is typically influenced by a certain vernacular of narrativisation or classicism. But other modes are possible. Despite a common belief to the contrary, curating is not like social engineering. A one-dimensional reading of the biennial’s subject, together with the desire for the controversial, or a frustration with the perceived lack of narrativised tension in the exhibition, are all indicative of a normative mode of viewing art and exhibitions.

I might now begin to argue that artists like Andres Serrano or Lars Vilks are not interesting in this context because they are artists whose practices have been overshadowed by their banal iconoclasms. But I don’t want to follow this trajectory, as there is ultimately a wider point here. I was very interested to read Frans Josef Petersson’s analysis of Documenta 14, in which he describes the lack of artworks being either spectacular or instrumentalised (commercial, political, aesthetical or otherwise) in the exhibition as being emancipatory. It is a very pertinent point to describe these facets as being part of the capital of the artworld. Of course, GIBCA is far far removed from the megastructure of Documenta. However, this approach of foregrounding experimentation over the spectacular or the controversial was more appropriate and liberating. It doesn’t mean though that sensitivities are avoided. I would include Maddie Leach’s unrealised project The Grief Prophesy about the murder of Josef Ben Meddour, Public Movement’s Debriefing Session: Gothenburg or Haaning’s Foreigners Free as examples of works in the biennial negotiating deep sensitivities.

The main intention here has been to raise awareness that secularity is a real thing, and that the role it plays as a mode of ethics is not to be taken for granted because it finds itself in a very precarious situation. As a “space of negotiation”, secularity is open to invention and ownership. In their own ways, key works such as Jonas Staal’s New World Summit: Rojava and Sille Storihle’s Stonewall Nation are examples of some projects exhibited in the biennial that address the radicality of these possibilities, with implications both positive and negative. Identitarian impulses run deep, including for those seeking social emancipation, and artists clearly have something to say about this. What better than contemporary art, with its qualities of reflection and proposition, to advocate a central idea of secularisation – individual free will.

The engagement of Kunstkritikk with GIBCA 2017 started rather intelligently back in May of 2016 with some interesting and probing questions from Matthew Rana, and GIBCA should be pleased overall to see that Kunstkritikk is attentive to the biennial. I care little for example about lax errors of the minor kind, like the title of the biennial being wrongly noted. There is an important place for discussion being opened up on Kunstkritikk and other platforms. Critique as well as polemicism, whether positive, negative or otherwise, are important when thorough or thoughtful. A discourse of the facile should be left at the front door.

Additionally, it is always congenial that readers of art criticism, along with all other visitors to art events, make up their own opinion about the biennial too, which I very much encourage them to do.