Artists: Alicja Karska, Aleksandra Went
In their conceptual photography and video works Alicja Karska and Aleksandra Went explore questions of remembering and the mechanism of cultural memory. Working together since 2002, Karska and Went (guests in the AIR – Artist in Residence Lower Austria in the spring of 2017) do not only focus on the logic of inclusion and exclusion, that is, the question as to whether and in what way a cultural artifact or work of art finds its way into the archive; but they also focus their investigations on the omissions, imponderabilities, and hidden realms of the archive, which are often manifested as “blind spots” in the viewing of art.
The evocative power of the gaze, that is, the degree to which objects are invested with meaning through the imagination of the viewer, as well as subtle shifts in meaning, disruptions in context, and the distance offered by time are all key devices used in the works of Karska and Went. Viewers are challenged to read what is shown, to decode it and place it in relation to their own “archives.” Although all the works in the exhibition Absenteeism deal with the representation of sculpture, sculpture itself plays a quite peripheral role and instead functions as a model. Karska and Went primarily question how objects are presented, or represented, in the context of the archive. For example An Archive of Destructs does not as much address the morphological appearance or artistic quality of classicist sculptures as their status as artifacts which emerged within a specific artistic and cultural-historical context and were thus incorporated into the cultural archive. The artists do not probe the physical, phenomenological aspects of the sculptures but their cultural “labeling” and temporalization through the archive. By placing the temporal dimension of the works in the foreground, they draw attention to the alterability of their significance across the shifts of time and point to the range of possibilities for semioticization and the attribution of meaning in the here and now of looking at art.
In the five-part series Ebru (2015), Karska and Went work with mimetic illusion and the manipulation of perceived relationships in size. The viewer encounters five stone slabs, whose size, surface polish, and individual veining give them a degree of spatial authority and presence. As material (geological) accumulations of time, these are emblems of memory and commemoration. However, viewers soon realize that they are being denied this kind of auratic and contemplative experience of sculpture. When examined at a closer distance, the stone shapes are revealed as high-gloss Plexiglas slabs. Their marble structures are simulacra, taken from close-ups of the marbled paper on the sometimes damaged covers of old books.
Using this moment of disillusionment, the artists imperceptibly cause viewers to take a critical view of representation. The codes “stone” and “marble” give rise to associations on the part of the viewer that are intentionally triggered by the use of marbled paper in book design. Here marble is used as a code for attributes such as “culturally valuable, worthy being preserved and collected.”
By playing with the relative dimensions of a slab of stone and a book, Karska and Went create distance towards the observational dispositive, lending the scenario for observing art in which spectators find themselves an exemplary character. Through this heightened irony underscores the desire of the exhibited works to be recognized as worthy of being collected and shown. At the same time, on a systematic level, so to speak, the phantasm of the archive is manifested—the promise of constant progression and of symbols being readily available and controllable.
In a both conceptual and still visually poetic and open-ended manner, Karska and Went analyze the formation of cultural values through canonization. They raise awareness for the otherwise invisible processes and structures of archiving institutions that are largely responsible for regulating cultural memory. Using simple visual interventions and processes of analogy, the artists manage to interrogate viewers as to their own perspectives and modes of interpretation of “cultural significance/meaning.” Through what kind of “framing” enhances what is shown? What kind of “staging” or mode of presentation makes it seem culturally relevant or even valuable? The displayed item, the artifact or artwork, is not something that creates value on its own, but worth is largely generated by the archive. Instead, the integration in the archive, the process of being characterized in relation to the continuum of already collected artifacts, is what makes a work visible in terms of its reception in the context of art and culture and opens it up to techniques of comparison.
The works of Karska and Went certainly evince a subtle critique of the concealed routines of the archive, which is revealed as being shaped and even instrumentalized by certain predominating structures. However, the artists do not engage in an explicit assessment or deconstruction of certain art-historical conventions or classifications. They instead insert a question mark into the acts of valuation and attribution carried out by the viewer and point to the cultural influence and education of the gaze. For example, in the black-and-white video Difficult Age (2015) Karska and Went show a close-up of a hand paging through an old art catalogue, in which different representational categories of sculpture are depicted. The shot has been chosen in such a manner that one only sees a portion of the represented sculptures and their legible captions below them, including descriptions such as “portrait of a hero,” “first love,” “family,” or “geometric composition,” which expand upon the content of the image or in some cases even overwrite it. In the act of paging through the catalogue, the calm, persistent presentation of various conventions of representation and staging causes the sculptures seem lacking in autonomy and authority—in contrast to the original intentions that inspired them—and the contemplative reading of a book takes on the quality of a subversive reading of art history.
The distance of time illuminates the extent to which these works of art are dictated by norms. Once considered contemporary and significant, these works seem to convey that although they were originally created in an clear understanding of what they represent and how, precisely this inability to describe difference has largely precluded their inclusion in the cultural archive. However, although the mediated representational norms generate a sense of unease and the authority of these works in now diminished, Karska and Went are not interested in repudiating or making fun of the periods represented in the book or its notion of art. Instead, they focus on the conditioning of the classifying gaze, while at the same time they point to the contingencies and alterability that characterize the cultural archive in and of itself.
In the five-minute video An Archive of Destructs, Karska and Went take the viewer into the basement depot of the Old Orangery in Łazienki Park in Warsaw, where damaged and rejected classical plaster casts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century are stored. At the beginning of the film a white peacock, an albino, appears in the depot on its own accord. An exotic status symbol within European landscape design, the animal seems alien here, an odd manifestation of its species. Initially out of place and utterly disoriented, the bird begins to explore the storage area. It starts to “take on” its new environment, almost as if it were touring and exhibition closed to the general public. Following the peacock on its unexpected “walk through the museum,” viewers of the film are shown the orphaned state of these damaged works, removed from the public eye.
Not only is the role of the white animal is puzzling but also the items shown in this “behind-the-scenes” exhibition at this archival non-place seem to vacillate between conveying their former exhibition value and and their pure monetary worth. The damaged sculptures take on a questionable status, being too valuable to be discarded, on the one hand, but then not valuable enough to be restored and exhibited anew, on the other. Their lack of stylistic autonomy makes these objects of classicism valuable as skillfully crafted works but nonetheless shows them as having diminished significance. In contrast, the fact that they are damaged, the reason why they have been sorted out, simultaneously gives them a certain patina and makes them, even while remaining generally unseen, a sad testimony to the shifts in cultural history.
In An Archive of Destructs address the hidden side of a collection—the unseen, rejected, and culturally dysfunctional—thus indirectly making evident the mechanisms of selection that guide processes of exhibiting and archiving. The archive is emphatically not a neutral collection and arrangement of objects with an inherent meaning. The mechanism behind what, how, and by whom something is determined to be interesting and worthy of collecting are revealed as neither “reliable,” lasting, or in any way “fair.” Something that in a certain period and in a certain cultural context is viewed as valuable and worthy of collection can at some point forfeit this status, become forgotten, or be removed from the archive. Viewed from the outside, the archive thus seems a hermetic entity unto itself, on the one hand, and malleable, alterable, and even unstable, on the other. It negotiates contemporary objects (that wish to enter the archive) and those of the past (and their status within the archive). In its approach, it is also continually proposes a vision of the future as embodying an imagined, and even utopian quality.
The works of Karska and Went are not concerned with producing a unilateral critique of existing or past mechanisms of classification, categorization, and archiving art. Their works also focus on vague and latent aspects of the archive, on uncovering the “acquired” nature of the gaze and modes of viewing art as manipulation. The archival gaps and discontinuities in their works encourage the viewer to explore the realm of possibility for semiotic transformation and symbolic variability—a space of archival polysemy in which the past is confronted with its potential and imponderability and continues to impact the present in this manner.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner