Alex Gawronski: Belonging, 2010

Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (I.C.A.N.), Sydney

(Timber, MDF, brackets, microphones + stands, paint)

Visiting a gallery is assumed to be a simple affair: we go, we look, we pass judgements. This last point is crucial to our apprehension of any artwork. Traditionally, at its basest, judging art becomes merely a question of taste, “I ‘like’ it”/ “I don’t ‘like’ it”. Far from a self-evident issue of taste or personal choice though, the real question when judging art pertains more fully to the very judicial dimension of the gallery.

Of course, the space most obviously associated with judgment is the courtroom with its definitively drawn figures of institutional authority. In courts, the Law makes its presence most emphatically felt. However, The Law ultimately represents a labyrinthine space where, although we might expect them to be, decisions are rarely made according to the straightforward differentiation of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ (even in situations where they ought to be). Justice, alas, is not always served. Even though we are frequently encouraged to imagine justice as purely objective, and righteous, it rarely plays out as though it were. Instead, rather than readily apparent, judgements in a strictly legal sense, are founded upon the manifold complexities of legalise.

‘injustice is clear, justice is obscure’ 1.

With this in mind, it is revealing to consider that the gallery is habitually supposed to be a space outside the bureaucratically banal or otherwise intimidating reach of the Law, as such. Art is conceived alternatively as a space of freedom and ‘free expression’. Upon closer analysis though the art world is connected inevitably to the wider space of the Law. From a particular perspective, it might even be seen as a microcosm of the legal domain. Indeed, there are unspoken laws of behaviour and production within the art world that, even while allowing for freedom, also proscribe and condition the very types of art made. For example, in a contemporary situation where it is possible, in fact where it is a common occurrence, to present the most extreme and ‘offensive’ subjects as art, it is equally the case that ‘shock’ and provocation can equally constitute a type of orthodoxy.  In such situations, these expressions merely confirm the traditionalist ‘law of art’ where art is the naturalised domain of ‘unlimited’ expression, or expression for expression’s sake. Thus, art is only ‘naturally’ free because effectively contained by its freedom as represented. Meanwhile, the testing of the legal boundaries of contemporary art effectively reinscribes the immanence of the Law as law.

Of course, the hierarchical dimension of the contemporary art world and its various branches also mirrors the legal status of the world ‘outside’. Here however, questions of belonging, while undoubtedly inescapable, are rarely directly broached. Really, the art world, like the ‘real’ world, is a stratified territory comprised of separate entities to which one may belong or not (and where there are also fissures where questions of belonging remain suspended, ambiguous and anxiety inducing). In the outside world, the problem of belonging is even more blatantly apparent, the most obvious instances regarding ongoing and interminably biased discussions of the legal identity of those portrayed as ‘illegal’ others. Such serious legal considerations in actuality disguise the truly exclusory impulse that animates them and which are based on a legalised sense of innate superiority. In a similar, though less dire way, exclusory impulses partially dictate the machinations of art. The most literal cases illustrating this relate to decisions made as to who shows where and/or how often as well as related consensus-determined issues like access to funding.

As far as the subject of belonging goes, the notion of the artist as an outsider has long been discredited and quite rightly so. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that in contemporary art – a field of production regularly viewed as inessential and peripheral – degrees of ‘outsiderness’ prevail. Furthermore, rather than the utopian field of free-play – or more commonly today, the naturalised site of ‘art-as-entertainment’ – contemporary art is equally an area subject to the most precarious, ill-informed and arbitrary judgements. As far as this particular installation is concerned, art’s belonging to the law is rudimentarily spelled out in Kafkaesque fashion via objects whose identity teeters between the prop-like and bathetic and the sober monochromatic formalism of minimalist sculpture.

Written by alex gawronski

November 27, 2016 at 9:56 PM