Klara Lidén at The New Museum

FIELD REPORT

I attended an opening for five new exhibitions at The New Museum.  Klara Lidén was one of the five artists whose work I will focus on.   In her video Bodies of Society (2006), Lidén is shown smashing up a bicycle with a baseball bat.  She begins by pacing back and forth lackadaisically with the bat in her hand.  Occasionally she touches the bat to the bicycle in a lazy, apathetical manner.  Eventually the tapping escalates to a half-hearted beating until the bike is destroyed.  Never does she seem out of control or angry as we would expect of someone performing such a violent action.    This scene gives enough context so that one may recognize familiar elements which provoke an automatic response : the bike, the bat, the pacing.  This situation generally indicates a assumptions (we know what the bat in her hand is intended for — to destroy, and to destroy with force), and yet, the actions defy our expectation.  The manner with which she handles the bat (so detached, so emotionless) does not fit in this context.  It feels bizarre and out of place.  I automatically wanted to make a story out of the scene, but the video is prohibitive any kind of logical ordering one may impose.  In a sense, I had to relinquish my control to the unfolding of the action in front of me, letting go of the automatic assumptions my mind wanted to jump to.  In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson discusses  “habit memory” versus “pure memory.”  The former is informed by reflex and conditioning, while the latter allows for new discovery to take place.  Bodies of Society  plays with both of these types of memories for me, straddling the line between the two.  Once I gave up trying to make sense of the scene, I let go of the “habit memory” and was more able to receive the video through the lens of pure memory.

Lidén uses her own body as a vehicle to draw the viewers in; we are intensely aware of her body but our own bodies as well are implicated in the experience of viewing her videos.These videos were projected inside of a flimsy makeshift cardboard structure.  It was one of those enclosures that reminded me of the kinds of dark, shadowy “forts” I was drawn to build and hide in as a child.   The cardboard gave off a damp and musty scent, a smell I found strangely comforting.  I wondered if this was intentional and/or if others felt the same way.  Lidén’s Teenage Room (2009) is not a digital projection and asks more participation from the body.  Viewers enter into a small room through a door, which is next to an ax suspended with rope that is lowered as the door opens.  In the room we find elements reminiscent of a teenage room: a furry beige carpet, a Chinese paper lamp hanging from the ceiling, and bunk bed; these stand as symbols of a “typical” teen’s room.  However, the bunk bed is spray-painted black and some of the paint has sprayed onto the floor and walls.  A regular bed is suddenly transformed into what looks like some kind of gruesome torture-machine.     In a corner of the room near the ground is a square cut out of the wall with a flap that opens; viewers can crawl in and out of the room on their knees through this tiny opening.  In this piece, the viewers interact with the materiality of exhibit itself.  By climbing through what I am calling the escape hatch, strangers actively engage in a shared activity in the same place and time.  This serves as an equalizer.  For me, the act evokes that teenage longing for escape.  Viewers can either crawl into the room or out — the question this brings up is whether we are escaping from outside world into this room, which can serve as a kind of sanctuary and safe space, or whether we are escaping out of the room, which for the teen can stand as a symbol for imprisonment.

The two works engage the audience with the place, so that the exhibition space becomes part of the work.  The cardboard boxes and the room are just as much part of the artwork as the digital video projection and the bunk beds.  These spaces implicate a bodily viewer, calling for a physical presence.  Speaking of relational art, Claire Bishop writes of how artists can work to create forms of participatory experiences rather than a passive viewing that denies the viewer of his or her surroundings.  With relational art, the gallery space  becomes a space of possibilities for interactions and discovery.    Of relational art, Bishop writes “Rather than a discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends its context, relational art is entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience. Moreover, this audience is envisaged as a community: rather than a one-to-one relationship between work of art and viewer, relational art sets up situations in which viewers are not just addressed as a collective, social entity, but are actually given the wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be” (Bishop, 54).

Given Bishop’s understanding of relational art, how might one understand Lidén’s works?  Could her video installations be considered in this category?  While the viewers do not directly interact with one another, there is still a focus on the environment created around the artwork.  That we all must huddle into this dark cardboard space puts us not only in physical proximity to one another but in a mental space as well.  We are sharing an experience together, unified by the strange childhood-ish experience of entering this cardboard box.  However, the essential act we are doing as an audience is still a passive taking in of a flow of digital data, a string of images without a material body that can cater to our haptic senses.  And what about Teenage Room?  Viewers interact physically with the room itself by traveling through it with their bodies — but does this create the kind of community Bishop speaks of?  While the viewers share the same kinds of environments, both mental and physical, they are not creating anything together.  The experience is still ultimately a solitary one.  This is not a critique of these works — the art Lidén created may not be meant to be experienced as a community forming experience, though it is a bodily one.

J.C.K.

References:

Henri Bergson, “Of the Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation,” in Matter and Memory, trans.
Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1911)

Bishop, Claire, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” in October 110 (Fall 2004)

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