‘The Message and the Medium: a Symposium’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset
By Professor Sarah Wilson and Dr Irene Noy
On October 19th 2015 three Courtauld pilgrims made their way by tube, train and taxi to a much welcoming Hauser & Wirth Somerset (near Stourhead). Formerly the medieval manor of Bruton, its Farmhouse, Stables, Cowsheds, Piggery & Threshing Barn were repurposed as the country playground of the international art set – attached to the blue chip gallery which has branches in London, Zurich and New York. Set in Piet Oudolf’s wild landscaped gardens – far from the aesthetic of the farm itself or from a Capability Brown (despite a nod to the Oriental) the farm buildings have had new wings for art added to the original plan. Precursors might include the Insel Hombroich, Neuss (near Düsseldorf) with its ancillary pavilions. In Somerset, Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion (2014) was marooned in the park like a biomorphic spacecraft in autumnal landscape. Inside, playful and seemingly messy junk décor decorates The Roth Bar & Grill.
The impressive Jenny Holzer installation which for the first time filled all the display spaces, functioned as a backdrop to the event entitled ‘The Message and the Medium’. The short abstract indicated that the symposium would deal with the issues raised by Marshall McLuhan in regard to language and innovations in technology and their usage by artists. In addition, it proposed to address issues concerning those who make, who view and who consume art (the self-selected audiences, predominantly local, paid high fees for their participation and lunch). Instead Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex University, focussed upon the shared preoccupations and generational transition between Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and Holzer, with whom she was friends. Holzer’s archive of redacted documents from American military archives underline her recent series Dust Paintings. Her turn to paintings references suprematist precursors and the fetish of Greenbergian flatness. Ruth Blacksell, Lecturer in Typography and Graphic Communication, focused on Art & Language and the ‘story of conceptual art’. The art polemicist, Dave Beech, gave examples from his contemporary performative practices and insisted on manifestos as a voiced performance, relating to the actions by his group Freee, which transforms read text into a democratic process of interpretation and voicing. Lastly, the experienced conceptual artist Pavel Büchler presented his Honest Work and his subversive play with the meaning as well as the materiality of actual letters.
Discussion generated by an ‘is it art?’ question evoked by Holzer’s work led to an amusing internal polemic around Duchamp’s urinal versus his eponymous Fountain. Yet the display of neatly cleaned and arranged human bones on charmingly rustic gate-legged tables in the barn — the Lustmord tables of 1994, which ‘materialised’ debates on rape and murder during the Balkan war — provoked no comment during the whole conference. Holzer’s recent ‘painting’, which appeared to be conceptual as Büchler pointed out, looks like it is entirely the work of anonymous assistants. A disturbing play of aesthetics, pathos and indeed bathos, nonetheless related to extreme instances of abuse and torture — the redacted documents from American military archives, which become increasingly invisible as suprematist/Greenbergian references take over. Not only does Holzer ‘make the inhuman visible’ as Bird argued: the signatures of perpetrators as well as victims added a dialectical comment on the state of the human race at war.
‘Pastoral conceptualism’? the Hauser & Worth Somerset framing demonstrates the art world ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson): uncannily echoed by the displays of carcasses and dead fowl in the designer kitchen.
Interestingly, Holzer’s exhibition was accompanied by an education guide (which was included in the symposium pack) and included some of the following questions for discussion:
1. Do you think that Jenny Holzer’s work is Feminist? Discuss reasons for your answer.
2. How does art make you politically aware? Think of some examples.
3. What emotions do the texts in Lustmord evoke in you?
4. How do Holzer’s Truisms work in promoting social change?
5. How does protest become art?
6. Do you consider what Holzer does as art?
7. Do you think it can still be considered Jenny Holzer’s artwork even if the text comes from a different author?
It would have been beneficial to refer to at least some of them and perhaps voice the contemporary connections between those who make, who view and who consume art – issues that were perceptible and visible within the Hauser & Wirth Somerset setting but went unspoken.