The other day I went to the Whitechapel Gallery and found interesting surprises and refreshing ideas from a series of exhibitions on: Kader Attia, Acme Studios and Thomas Horsfall. All seemingly random, yet I would argue quite related, if not intertwined.
Kader Attia is an artist known for his internationally oriented work, he himself is in a sense the embodiment of internationalization. He was born in France but grew up constantly traveling between France and Algeria, the Christian Occident and the Islamic Maghreb. His work meditates on this mixed identity of East and West, and attempts to dig deeper into where transnational connection points exist. His work questions perception, cultural differences and globalization. These three terms are buzz words of today, nothing really ground breaking. International is the name of the games these days. People are international, businesses are international, traveling is meant to be assessable. Yet Kader Attia wonders about the history that got us to be international, and in his work at the Whitechapel Gallery his work shows us his version of international. For him, international is a quilt of experiences as opposed to a one-dimensional term.
Walking into the room of his exhibition, Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, one is in low light, and presented with a shelving unit that forms a cube. One can walk in and out of through two entry/exit points. The unit takes up the entire space, about seven shelves tall and around forty feet wide. These shelves contain books about a variety of subjects in a variety of languages. One is about the Etruscan tombs while the other is about astrology. Some books are propped up to be on display, others are stacked on top of each other. None of the books are open to any particular page but the titles face towards the viewer so they do not need to touch the books to know what they are about. Inside of the shelving is another display like a shadow box. In this display there is a clearer theme to the books, pamphlets and objects shown. While the language is varied, everything relates to space, astrology and cosmology. The objects are put under spotlights and our attention is directed to certain pages in the books through placed magnifying glasses over distinct moments of text. The objects seem far more untouchable and distant than the books that surround them. It is as if the knowledge from the books is flexible and inviting interpretation whereas the inner display is far more didactic and exact in its intended meaning. We begin by teaching ourselves and the more we enter into the exhibit, the more we are taught by someone other than ourselves. Yet we have to keep in mind that all this knowledge presented has been specifically curated. Even in the thousands of pages of books on the outer shelves, there is only certain knowledge and only certain connections to be made. The inner display is also characterized by four steps that one can walk up. Yet these steps lead to no where, at the top of them there is a wall one cannot pass. However, one does get a better view of the top of the shadow box, which is a mirror. Above the shadow box is another mirror. The effect is thus a never ending space that exists above this shadow box about astrology and the greater universe. One can only see this never ending space by climbing the steps that only changes their perspective but does not allow them to reach a specific destination. This work of art really brings to the forefront the idea of how knowledge is curated, and that even international ideas, documents and people are not universal. International-ness is still a certain group of curated things, not an indication of new boundaries. It is as if Kader presents seemingly infinite knowledge using books and documents and yet through this one staircase inviting a change in perspective reveals how much more there is that is unknown.
The next gallery I wandered into an exhibition of the archives of Acme Studios, which was an artists collective in London. Acme Studios worked to revitalize old spaces in the city that were no longer in use. They revitalized them to serve as artists studios and gallery spaces. Soon the Studios became a kind of land development group that was able to adjust to the specific needs of artists. It was fascinating to learn about the organic growth of this group and how it was never formalized into any kind of company but served needs and sustained itself all the same.
The final gallery of this exhibition led into the next exhibition Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful. This hanging looked at how the routine labor life could induce people to become complacent. Thus, places like the Leeds Art Club set out with a mission to “induce people to think” and to be invested in unearthing creative things. The arts were seen as the way to keep society engaged in life.
Kader Attica questioned what international actually means and if it corresponds to anything universal. Acme studios shows how art can be grown organically while the Leeds Art Club exhibit shows how art was used to counteract the potentially negative effects of routine labor life. These three exhibits showcased culture as something that begs to be interpreted, hopes to be regenerative, and strives to create life balance.