Generosity is the New Political
5 September–1 November, 2009, Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge
There is a quasi-strident, idiomatic ring to the title of this exhibition on giving, which, before witnessing the show itself, prompts questions about the curator’s intentions. In reality the curatorial tone, though highly critical, is neither soapbox scary nor satirically slick. Lotte Juul Petersen has brought together a group of eight international artists whose diverse handling of the generous act cuts deeply through the everyday, exposing tender, curious and unpalatable glimpses of the social roles and systems we inhabit.
There is nothing remotely simple about the concept of generosity and Petersen has been careful (give or take nods to Balzac and Derrida courtesy of the events programme) not to align that of the exhibition too closely with any particular theoretical perspective on it. One is encouraged to get lost in the holes and contradictions that connect the notion and reality of giving without expectation of return. The most interesting works here reflect the complex position of the artist as critic to, and participant within, systems of production and exchange.
The grubby world of human fallibility meets that of ethics in Bik Van der Pol’s outdoor yellow neon manifestation of a famous motto on greed, ‘Gold!’ by Thomas Hood. ‘How widely its agencies vary, To save—to ruin—to curse—to bless.’ The Rotterdam-based collective’s commodity-on-commodity effectively binds the investor to their weakness for material things. Inside, on the gallery walls, Luca Frei’s rather beautifully amateurish clock-faced ceramic disks also bear testament to the talents (and authorial presence) of another, and the gift of time—hours of tutorage by resident ceramicist Bob Race.
While Celine Condorelli’s ‘common room’ display (of research into areas of ‘common’ land) might be described as the domestic centre of the exhibition, film and video works dominate the exhibition. The gallery café screens film footage of British art collective Freee’s ‘re-naming’ the streets of Cambridge to reflect the city’s politically engaged, 18th century history. It’s irritating, funny and informative in equal measure and forces confrontation with two very different social stereotypes: the apolitical British public and the radical. Tellervo and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen’s cinematic staging of four Swedish employees’ difficult experiences of work holds one captive but suffers a little for its proximity to the critical relationship that bubbles between Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson’s ‘The Caregivers’, 2008, and Katerina Šedá’s ‘It Doesn’t Matter’, 2005-2007.
‘The Caregivers’ is an impressive, deeply affecting film which follows the situations of two migrant care workers (from Romania and the Ukraine) looking after elderly people in Italy. It is also an unlikely video opera, on which the soundtrack is sung and captioned as if one has entered a karaoke booth.
The message— the women’s capacity for giving despite their status as victims of an unequal system of economic exchange – is clearly and tenderly conveyed, and the discombobulating effect of text and audio keeps one in gallery as opposed to cinema mode. Yet, somehow, this styling of documentary as art still feels like an elaborate means of tenting the political distance between the artists and the subjects.
There is little distance of any kind between Šedá’s work and the subject of her film—her grandmother, who is slipping into mental decline following the death of her husband. The Czech artist attempts to coax the elderly woman back into the present through the process of recalling and drawing the items she used to stock in her hardware shop. These seductively childlike images, pinned to the wall, acutely describe the vulnerability of the subject but it’s not until witnessing Šedá’s filming of the process that one realises how much they also convey the stress induced by the artist’s questionable direction. One is left speculating on what truly motivated her to make this film, but the level of compromise she experiences (as practitioner and relative), on both sides of the camera, affords a rare, if uncomfortable, moment in the space between self-interest and moral obligation.
Rebecca Geldard is a writer based in London