At a legendary seminar held at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, two high-profile philosophers, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard, confronted each other. Their conversation gradually evolved into metaphysical speculation, and they agreed that this was both “delirious and reasonable”. But then Baudrillard disengaged: “I am highly perplexed by this ….” Baudrillard was keen on discussing post-modern melancholia now that everything was “post” and “dead”. But he could not relate to the dizzying time scale for diagnosing contemporary society that Lyotard presented in these terms: “Everything may already have exploded, but nevertheless we may still be certain that one thing has yet to explode – and this explosion will not constitute a revolution: The sun … We know that it will happen 4.5 billion years from now […] I would say that regardless of whether one realises it or not, all the endeavours of techno-scientific work is carried out in order to allow for the preservation of brain functioning after the solar explosion. ‘They’ are all preparing the solar exodus …”
Twenty years later the Lyotard quote resurfaced on a whiteboard in an exhibition held at Overgaden in Copenhagen. Above it artist Ferdinand Ahm Krag had written: “PLEASE NOTE!!! NEW SCHEDULE FOR ‘THE WORK’”. Artists have long studied the cracks and fissures in the postmodern condition that transformed them from creators into powerless “deconstructors”. But only now are the art scene’s yearnings for once again pondering the broader scheme of things being satisfied. New theoretical schools such as New Materialism, Speculative Realism, and Object Oriented Ontology are currently being investigated in depth by artists, curators, and theorists.
In Denmark the curator Birgitte Kirkhoff at Sorø Kunstmuseum – located a one-hour drive from Copenhagen – has been in the vanguard of this development. She has just opened the final exhibition in a highly pertinent trilogy about materiality. The first exhibition, presented in 2012, focused on “things,” the second instalment in 2013 was about “earth”, and this final part of the series is about “consciousness”. Considered as one, the three exhibitions might be said, respectively, to deal with object, world, and subject. And yet it is exactly the separation of subject and object that the trilogy seeks to surmount. The third and final exhibition must be considered in light of the two previous instalments, and the new theory introduced by Kirkhoff in Sorø. In other words, Materiality is an ambitious, highly thought-provoking and incredibly difficult project.
All three exhibitions – of which this writer has only seen the final instalment in situ – appear to have been beautifully staged. Seemingly unconnected objects have been presented side by side as if they were extensions of each other rather than mutually exclusive. The same level of attention and care has been lavished on the three appealing catalogues. Each catalogue is numbered in pencil, rather like editions, as if these catalogues were not mass-produced. Here, we delve so far down into the matter that – to paraphrase Levi’s – “no two pairs are the same”. The catalogues have no spine. The materials are unsullied by texts – quite in keeping with the perception of art advocated by Kirkhoff in the first catalogue: “rather than using language, words, and readings as the point of departure for understanding the communicative faculties of things, we should use the body’s full spectrum of sensory functions to understand, categorise, feel, and enjoy. To feel ourselves, decipher one another, navigate the world, and remember our history.”
Kirkhoff is a master of the art of “communicating” her ideas through the materials she works with; for example a catalogue. One senses the project within the project, and it is an excellent one. However, the theory that is referred to – and which makes these exhibitions so startling – often becomes lost in the curator’s I-centric presentation. In the text of the first catalogue Kirkhoff explains how an object may change a subject’s state of mind: “I myself only have to taste a specific menthol-flavoured sweet to be swept back into my grandmother’s living room”. The final catalogue states that it is “damned difficult” to reach beyond the subject – beyond grandmother’s parlour, as it were. Over the course of the last two catalogue texts her thoughts unfold in an ongoing exchange with new theoretical schools of thought and in a revolt against the linguistic turn from Wittgenstein to post-modern philosophers such as Lyotard, whom he inspired. Like so many others who wish to introduce new theories, Kirkhoff sets out to reduce the position she opposes. That is just fine. The problem is, however, that it is difficult to determine where she herself stands on the issue.
On the one hand the Materiality trilogy marks a break with the notion that language constitutes the world – and, hence, with constructivism as such. This allows for dropping examples from various scientific studies, giving direct access to and knowledge about the world. On the other hand these examples are supplemented by mysterious observations in the realm where science fails and art is unleashed. In order to make it all cohere Kirkhoff repeatedly seeks support in common sense and idiomatic expressions that are not challenged by anything but a few scattered question marks and exclamations. The third exhibition, which bears the punning title Im-materiality no. 3 (Consciousness) presents a vast array of states of mind such as “intuition”, which is at one point identified on the basis of an entry in a Danish encyclopaedia; then by a reference to the expression “gut instinct” and Adam Bencard’s small – and actually quite stringent – text about how our intestinal flora affects our consciousness.
Hordes of the issues that Kirkhoff addresses have already been treated in a systematic manner in Bruno Latour’s slender We Have Never Been Modern, a so-called modern classic first published in 1991 and in Danish in 2006. Latour, who turns against modern and post-modern thinkers by claiming that we have never been modern at all, is hailed as a leading light by several new materialists and realists such as Jane Bennett and Karen Barad, whom Kirkhoff references without truly committing to. Latour effects a break with what he calls the “modern constitution”, according to which subject and object and society and nature are strictly separate. Rather, we are embedded in a network where human and non-human actors or “actants” – such as the intestinal bacteria referred to in the above – are interlinked. On the one hand Latour is a constructivist who, like Lyotard, delegitimises the sciences that present the climate crisis as fact, as objective knowledge. On the other hand Latour makes it incumbent on us – in a way that is different from much postmodern thinking – to think about the climate crisis as our concern, for we are not separate from it the way a subject is separate from an object. This means that we have gone beyond postmodern mourning. We have lost the grand narratives, but this in turn means that we are part of something that is greater than the narratives and ourselves.
Even though these recent additions to the history of philosophy is not addressed in any great depth at the three exhibitions at Sorø Kunstmuseum, Kirkhoff’s project can nevertheless be said to continue along the tracks laid down in Latour’s writings. The curatorial approach used at Sorø excels at presenting the links between products of non-human and human actants, as was compellingly demonstrated at the second exhibition with Robert Smithson’s land art and a meteorite from the Danish Geological Museum. While Baudrillard found it difficult to relate to Lyotard’s ‘premature’ concern with the solar explosion, visitors at Sorø will find it less perplexing to encounter an entity from the very dawn of our solar system.
At the current exhibition about consciousness as immateriality the artist-as-unique-creator is challenged in a range of collaborative efforts that elegantly expand the concepts of who is producing what. In the centre of the room we find a number of minimalist concrete blocks. Inside these blocks a variety of objects are firmly embedded, for example an umbrella and a vase, and the artists Ebbe Stub Wittrup and Troels Sandegård have asked a psychic to identify these objects. The psychic’s descriptions and a list of the hidden objects are presented as texts on the wall, but it is up to the visitors to identify which objects belong to which texts – and which of these belong to which blocks. In their work the artists’ duo have also discovered old photographs from the Danish Society for Psychic Research, chronicling phenomena such as ectoplasm; and it is up to the visitors themselves to determine who or what gave rise to those phenomena.
Here, Wittrup and Sandegård work either as readymade artists or as curators on a par with Kirkhoff. Here, deliberations on the identity and nature of the mediator are expanded into the field of art. The roles as artists and curator are redistributed, rendering it difficult – in a very contemporary fashion – to tell who or what is mediating whom and what. As suggested by Latour, not only does what the modern constitution calls an ‘object’ have agency, too – the same applies to the medium that was formerly viewed as a bridge between subject and object. While this holistic world image is presented in an admirable fashion at the exhibition itself, it is not addressed in the catalogue. It would, for example, have been an obvious choice to include the story of how the photographic camera with its so-called “objective” was used, shortly after its invention, to testify to the objective existence of paranormal and mysterious phenomena.
Scientific measuring devices are hard to evade for anyone who wishes to understand the scientific developments that the trilogy introduces to the realm of art. The interplay between science and technology is a central feature in Latour’s writing as well as for those theorists he was inspired by – and those who are inspired by him. And indeed Lyotard was also interested in that issue on the aforementioned day at the Academy: “I would say that regardless of whether one realises it or not, all the endeavours of techno-scientific work is carried out in order to allow for the preservation of brain functioning after the solar explosion. ‘They’ are all preparing the solar exodus …”
Today, when we all make our daily contributions to Google’s “preservation” of our states of consciousness, ranging from the most affective to the most rational, Lyotard’s speculations seem less zany. In fact, this techno-scientific evolution permeated the legendary exhibition Les Immateriaux curated by Lyotard back in 1985 at the Centre Pompidou. It provided concise outlines of five concepts of materiality unfolded in an experimental curatorial presentation of art and non-art. The catalogue consisted of a dialogue between intellectuals conducted via the French precursor of the Internet, Minitel. Today the exhibition is still hailed as a challenge to the modernist museum and the way in which it celebrates the artist as a unique creator by launching one monographic presentation after another; a museum whose “humanism” and anthropocentrism Lyotard would challenge, as would the new materialists and realists – whose ranks include Kirkhoff.
One understands why Ferdinand Ahm Krag, who reviewed the second Materiality exhibition here at Kunstkritikk, was disappointed that the “earth” referred to in the title was untouched by everything from nuclear explosions to geo-tagging: “We began with the creation of the solar system and stopped just before we reached our own time.” The same applies to the third and final exhibition. At Sorø they want to “remember our history”, but we need to visit Paris 1985 to see anything resembling our present day. Kirkhoff’s curating of works by the mentally ill artist Ovartaci, Hansjorg Dobliar’s reworking of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Ursula Nistrup’s work with dissonance all continue and expand the curator’s investigations. But here things also become one-sided. These artists’ work with spirituality is relevant to New Materialist holism. But today spiritualism is also relevant because intelligent technology seems animated; because there are – as the title of a New Museum exhibition proclaimed in 2012 – Ghosts in the Machine.
One of the excellent choices presented at the exhibition are text-based works by Robert Barry: in the 1960s he took the dematerialisation of conceptual art to its logical conclusion by venturing into telepathy. The conceptual artists were affected by the democratisation of the fax machine and the telephone, so he too was featured at Les Immatériaux. While Lyotard believed that all matter is energy, Kirkhoff seems to be interested in pretty much the opposite. As Kirkhoff points out in the catalogue, Barry also – concurrently with his experiments with telepathy – worked with emitting gas out into the atmosphere. He was not just interested in the encounter between two consciousnesses, but also between two “materialities”. However, according to Barry’s collaborator Seth Siegelaub we cannot be sure that he actually worked with gas, for Barry was only interested in the idea. This discussion with Lyotard seems to be of more pressing significance than re-readings of Expressionism, Surrealism, and l’art brut.
With catalogue contributions written by illustrious figures such as the speculative realist Graham Harman, who writes about Wittrup and Sandegård, Kirkhoff has single-handedly overtaken most Danish art institutions, which continue to hesitate to stage current, contemporary, thematic group exhibitions. Right now, Sorø is where you will find artists presented in a state of interplay with new theories that expand our horizons. Kirkhoff’s misstep is reminiscent of that of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s at Documenta 12. Here, too, the curator was overwhelmed by new theory, which was mediated from the homely setting of “grandmother’s parlour”. The two curators are good at tracing connections and links in complex webs, but they struggle to find their own place in them.
At Sorø Kunstmuseum and a Documenta you get the sense that the curators have been in something of a hurry. This is because there is a lot to catch up on. But when you read the new theorists you may also get the feeling that they are the ones in a hurry. They are the ones who have never been modern because they used to be postmodern. The new discussion about realism and materialism is not quite as new as it is often made out to be. But it could be if other curators and institutions follow suit and develop a new plan for such work.