The first time I entered this show, or this show entered me, I was struck with an impression of freshness, something out of the ordinary, detached from and yet aligned with the standard procedures of what we know as the art world. My tongue went dry after writing those three words. As if there were a world within the world where everything is consumed by art; as if there were within this city, something like a village, a safe zone where the ignorance and pretentiousness of the world at large could be ignored. A hidden place where only people like us matter: creative, sensitive, solemn, deep, casual, and hip people. Emancipated to the core. The first impression matters, although it shouldn’t be all defining, since a valid reading of any given show is ideally dedicated to the dedicated. This show, Indoctrination: Multivalent Gestures, inspires on the surface. It forced me to tread lightly, step out of my comfort zone, while not projecting any immediate rays of discomfort.
So I stood there, watching this foundation of feng shui, a blue cuboid reminiscent of some unlikely collaboration between Yves Klein and Donald Judd, dominate the foyer. Behind it, a black void in CinemaScopic proportions loomed like a hollow monolith, a hallway as sculpture leading into some flickering moving images that shift and bend as I stepped around in the main gallery. I asked a Fotogalleriet employee, Alf Thomas Ollett, which of the artists made the perfect sky blue cuboid on the floor. “I did,” he answered and lay down on the surface of the cuboid, in his dungarees, closing his eyes.
The cube really ties the space together. It makes the gallery an easy place to be. It is also a fertile foundation for digging deep into the content of the tableaus on display. But this doesn’t change the fact that the show’s centrepiece was made by the technician. I pondered this as I stepped into the monolith and faced the heptagon of mirrors and screens merging together in kaleidoscopic mindscrew that almost sent me into vertigo, as I faced myself while a face wearing a Mexican wrestling mask morphed in an ayahuascian hallucination and a voice called out: “Reproduction is key. Along with survival. You must imitate to survive. You must be free to thrive. No one is free. You don’t need love to reproduce.” Hyperboles marry axioms here. As I took one step aside, the soundscape changed, the work shifted character. I tried to experience the whole caboodle at once, but to no avail. The images were constantly shifting, continuously drifting and twisting apart, while the voice chanted and whispered. If you take a step back and stand at the entrance of the piece, you complete the heptagon: you become the piece’s missing link. If you stand in the middle and use your eyes to orient yourself, you experience the force of the videos, but can only digest snippets. This is definitely a piece of becoming.
When I stepped out of the monolith into the white cube, I was changed for a while, and slightly annoyed. Like a trick had been played on me by Ilavenil Vasuky Jayapalan that I couldn’t digest until I left. The work comprises smartphone pixels, poems of depression, desire, the queer gaze, as the catalogue suggests. Ultrasound images of foetuses and artificial insemination merge with men smoking cigarettes and drinking beverages echoing with the voice questioning the standard approach to building a life, attacking the embedded pressure within the process of homogenous maturation. I felt the thrust, the expectations, the claustrophobia and confusion, in a society that demands you stand out and fit in simultaneously. The voice chants through the hallway: “You reveal yourself from time to time. Spend time with your new recruit. I doubt you are even real. I doubt you hold any truth.”
“So, back to reality,” I thought as I glared, gazed, or glided over the quite anaemic images on the wall by Lengua (Spanish for language): depressing scapes from Tbilisi, Georgia, on the edge of the zeitgeist – which is where these images are too. They function in totality, but collapse on closer inspection. Signifying nothing beyond themselves – neither aesthetically nor ethically – they remain on the surface of the matter, whatever matter that is. Both art and photography are great excuses and inspiration for travel, but you have to both catch something and tell something when you get to wherever you are going. It is not happening here. Still, these images underline the whole notion of this constellation as a transection of generation Z, no matter how inept it might be. I have to admit that the image Faint Music (2023), which is also the “front cover” of the exhibition, depicting a footless (stepping on a landmine or just hidden by long pants?) youth resting on an improvised wooden fence with “Hard Rock” written on his hoodie and some white powder smeared on his face, stayed with me.
Margaret Abeshu defines herself as a designer, which makes it ironic that her contribution in this ensemble is the most easily identified as contemporary art. These items are truly appealing, though what they signalise is appalling to the common spectator, for subconscious reasons. These mirrors on the wall, close to the ceiling, look down like CCTV cameras, but play with our urge to see (or avoid) ourselves; they play a vivacious game. Entangled motorcycle mirrors, some of them spiked, are seemingly attached to a steel rod and bound together with what may or may not be ropes of human hair. Standing in the red light (with the obvious connotations it has) viewers confront two human-sized objects claiming the space: a torso and corset, a leather jacket and a dress, hang from the ceiling, chained to spikes attached to rivet holes. As soon as my immediate reaction to what is immediately a successful display – appealing to body, eyes, and mind – faded, I began judging. Spikes, rivets, leather, hair, mirrors, red light: like the ingredients of a stew, they triggered bigotry, not from the mind, but from the guts. It felt both harmonious and threatening. The work pinpoints our fetishism of objects, moving along with the Marxist notion of a phantom life force. Fetishism played a major role in the process of colonisation, used as a tool by Europeans claiming superiority over the colonised by fetishising their objects and their physicality, their traditions and ways of seeing.
As in Julie Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning film Titane (2021), the objects in the installation initiate an internal discussion around revulsion, fascination, power, and subjective beauty, which shifts and swirls, as the clothes behind me made their presence felt like creatures surrounding me. I peeked at fragmented pieces of myself in the Duchampian mirrors, moved about and danced around the dead commodities once alive or faux-dead. The assemblage pinpoints the essence of consumption culture, the system of global slavery and climate collapse circulating around the acquisition of commodities. Obviously, art is not emancipated from the structure of capital. Quite the opposite: capital is one of the structures on which art most depends. I looked down at my shoes. Leather. I looked down at my pants, the chain attached to my wallet. I touched my head and my hair; another commodity right there: cut neatly yesterday to project representability.
Jinbin Chen has written a catalog text that transfers the logic of wolf packs onto the future of human reproduction in the “Imperial Calendar 500.” This gives me vague flashbacks to Foundation (1951) by the Russian-born American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. However, the premise of Chen’s work in the exhibition is more like something from the flick Gattaca (1997), a movie which pinpointed, with ironclad solemnity, the dangers of demographic segmentation based on DNA. I’ve always loved these kinds of thought experiments, but here the concept is a bit thin, to be honest – which I struggle to be, especially when I need to be critical. Alpha, Beta, Omega. Leader, accomplice, victim. In his catalog text, Chen draws a semi-intricate chromosome tableau that mirrors the ongoing global debate on fertility, gender, and sex. I have no opinions on such matters, but I can relate to the conclusion: that the role of the omega is to hide, disguise, and escape. In fact, I sometimes believe the urge to do all these three things is the reason I began to ponder artistic ventures at all. Freedom is not free.
Chen’s works themselves read like the criminal records of an alpha, a beta, and an omega in a science fiction universe. On each quasi-believable ‘document’, a silhouette of a penis is spliced together with passport photos of suspects and descriptions of their crimes, all neatly presented in white spray-painted frames. These pieces are naïve on the verge of being cute; they generate several thoughts on hierarchy and the power of sex in society, but to me they fall short. These thoughts are already so well represented within the sphere of science fiction that Chen’s feel like redundant add ons. The painting on the left flank illustrates the documents, yet is independent of the narrative: an androgynous backside turns away from the viewer with something vaguely resembling testicles attached to or inside of the neck. Together with the police reports, the whole thing simply functions in a very weird way – like everything else in this exhibition.
On the floor stands an inverted pyramid, or what would be left if one would dismantle any pyramid, since most pyramids had a basement the size of the visible floors, which thus makes any pyramid a diamond in essence. Dev Dhunsi is playing on these shapes, but the motivation is unclear. This pyramid functions more like a frame for a collage of a group of people rowing a boat and some other guys sitting on some stairs, one image upside down to the other, depending on your vantage point as a spectator. A speaker within the deflated pyramid generates vibrations which cause small ripples in the water gathered in the pool. A video projector shoots a ray of light on this square, sand moving about within the shallow water. Images of men with turbans are plastered on the wall, and something reminiscent of children’s drawings – but considering today’s painting trends, these might as well have been made by grown-ups. These are displayed inside and outside what are seemingly coincidental green squares painted on the wall. The placement of the images and what they signify seemed so complete that I felt the urge to understand an undisclosed and profound meaning. Reading this piece was difficult because the constellation of objects is so opaque, but the assemblage generates another token for a conversation on the myriad suggestions presented in this exhibition. The installation’s naïveté mirrors Chen’s work in a way that is both charming, cheeky, and generous.
In the exhibition pamphlet, the Director makes the bold claim that he is from “the Global South,” which is quite a stretch considering that he is from the south of Italy. I move on to the more relevant essay of the curator, Dahir Hussein, who raises issues that, from a standpoint of relevance, are precarious. “We are constantly fed the same arguments where we find protection for fear of escaping our limited knowledge and realities,” he claims. This sentence manages to criticise ignorance in an ignorant way. I agreed with Hussein until I reached this conclusion. We don’t fear escape; we’re ignorant of our entrapment. This is universal and has roots in the global economy that cages all. To source the issue in a fear of enlightenment is a hyperbole based on generalisations. “My curatorial reasoning of the concept that forms this exhibition comes from lived experience and first-hand knowledge and approach to indoctrination as a process primarily unconscious and unquestioned by the majority culture,” Hussein continues. This thought is valid enough. But today the main threat is algorithmic indoctrination, which can take all shapes and hit us from any angle (artist or not), an ignorant and omnipotent beast which has become us, emulating a median of humanity, a bit like Jayapalan’s smoke and mirror heptagon. Though the minority position is more challenging and strenuous than that of the majority, it makes me question; what makes someone a majority? Which majority are we talking about here? The majority culture of the Western world? The whole world? Or only the art world? We know what a minority is, but what constitutes a majority? It makes me wonder whether a majority is whoever isn’t a minority, which only strengthens the idea of an us and them. It is a label too grand and general to be used as a valid signifier for identification.
From an identity-political starting point, this exhibition manages to encapsulate and mediate tenderness, vulnerability, and fragility, which is the human condition. The exhibition is subtle, beautiful, and elegant. I can’t see that it has anything to do with indoctrination. If not, then the point of the whole exhibition is to show artists that haven’t adapted to homogenous conformity, or non-homogenous anti-conformity, which is both a very comfortable and generic stand to take in today’s reality, at least in the ‘Western world’, a term as condescending and preposterous as ‘the Global South’. This exhibition might as well have been named Juxtaposition or Colloquy. Making sense isn’t the point here. It never was and, hopefully, it never will be. Multivalent gestures are physical movements or actions that have multiple possible meanings or interpretations. They can be intentional or unintentional and can be used to convey a variety of emotions, attitudes, or messages. A pat on the back can be interpreted as a friendly gesture or a way to assert dominance. That’s where this exhibition succeeds: the ambiguity of its premise, the subtitle becoming the title, the map of the maze.
Indoctrination isn’t the premise of this show, even if it was the starting point. Because like the texts for the show, it obscures the autonomous intentions of the artists, which are more about open-mindedness, experimentation, and play, creating a vast space for subjective interpretation, than adapting to a discourse with strong sociological and political guidelines. The artists in the show break free from these metaphysical chains, making agreements instead of arguments. Calm replaces controversy, harmony extinguishes the squabble. They are not indoctrinated. They are un-doctrinated. They do what artists do: place modified objects in spaces. Sometimes, when the art lingers, the objects become metaphysical objects and the space becomes the sphere between our ears, the void behind our eyes.