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9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Natascha Sadr Haghighian

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Natascha Sar Haghighian de paso courtesty the artist andJohann König Gallery, Berlin.

Natascha Sar Haghighian, de paso, 2011. Photo: courtesy the artist and Johann König Gallery, Berlin.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the second installment of this 10-part journey.

V. I Can’t Work Like This

In 2004 Natascha Sadr Haghighian created bioswop.net, a website for the free exchange of résumés and biographies. She described the project as arising from a gut reaction the first time she was asked to send a CV for inclusion in a catalogue. The CV acts as a legitimizing filter, conferring status within an art-world economy. For Haghighian, it simplifies, distorts, and excludes the complexity of contemporary practice, the means with which artists make their decisions, the range of collaborations, and the networks they develop. It also has a tendency to situate artists in terms of points of origin, nation- ality, ethnicity, etc., which is all very well if you can play a part in what that might mean, but in an art world and institutional culture obsessed with proving its global credentials, artists can often be instrumentalized for their points of difference along lines of geography and ethnicity, rather than mediated for their work in which these factors may or may not play a strong role. In a 2007 interview with curator Max Andrews, Haghighian describes the origins of bioswop.net. It’s worth quoting at length:

The idea for exchanging artist’s biographies which bioswop is based on originated from my multiple attempts to play with the conventional formats of art catalogues. If you want to study the mechanisms of representation, catalogues are a good thing to start with. Actually there is almost nothing about an art catalogue that I don’t find funny. More than anything else it shows that there is a great doubt about the value and necessity of art in general but also about every single artwork. So its foremost purpose seems to be validation and valuation. First it usually starts with a text by a specialist who is appointed by the art world to validate meaning and quality. Then it continues with presenting the artwork mostly in an iconic, fetishist, absolute fashion in order to make it impassible. Lastly it ends with the artist’s biography which localizes the imagery that one just saw in places of appointed significance. It proves the artist’s acknowledgement by the art world and helps evaluating his or her importance and relevance. In my eyes this format is the result of sheer paranoia and lack of confidence. But more importantly it is mostly just not interesting…. So starting the website bioswop.net first of all had practical motivations. As it is tiresome and time consuming to come up with new bios all the time I wanted to have a place where I could just go and click on something. But secondly I thought that it might be an interesting practice to share with more people. Maybe it would become a new movement. People exchanging, borrowing bios just like anything else that you get tired of.1

Haghighian’s desire to study the “mechanisms of representation” is also a desire to evade them, or at least to disjoint the easy flow of prescribed information, the ready formats with which the institution of art ascribes and maintains value, and the ideological currents, albeit shifting, that underpin this. At this point the artist is still generally introduced by way of bios constructed or shared from bioswop.net. However, in an art world conditioned by strategic placement and positioning, the gesture itself can become shorthand leading to and identifying the particular strategies of the artist. Her calling card as it were: something that situates her within the discourse, a gesture absorbed like most others into the ongoing building of cultural capital.

Yet, as Haghighian points out in her contribution to this publication (page 4), even in the years since 2004, the artist CV has become an increasingly archaic tool, with less and less utility in light of the expansion of the World Wide Web and its associated social networking and search capabilities. Now an artist, dealer, critic, curator, or the rare art historian who might attempt such a thing is much more likely to simply Google an artist’s name than to request or even search for an online résumé. There they will find a much more satisfyingly colorful portrait of their object of study by way of Facebook pictures, artist statements, interviews, YouTube records of lectures, scrappy reviews, or in-depth features.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian  Solo Show, 2008  sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer.  Format variable

Natascha Sadr Haghighian Solo Show, 2008 sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer. Format variable.

In her text, Haghighian describes her surprise when a friend e-mails her a link to the website ArtFacts.Net, which collects data on artists and posts it online, creating a basic metric of success based on institutional affiliations, and ranking the artists accordingly for the elucidation of bottom-line cautious collectors. Despite the fact that the algorithms and data-collecting bots deployed by the website have miscategorized her biography based on data that she herself inserted into circulation, she is disturbed by the website’s assumption that it has the right to undermine her own artistic project, and also to present her within such a narrow metric. Yet, despite an initial attempt to have the information removed, Haghighian comes to the conclusion that to fight the cloud is as futile as Don Quixote tilting at the windmill. Instead, she embarks on a meditation about the shifting sands of identification within a world where the body and the subject are becoming ever more imbricated within that cloud. She takes up the call of Hito Steyerl and others to identify with the object, rather than the subject, exploring the possibilities for a renewed form of agency within this approach, one that acknowledges the power of market forces to manipulate how we are formed and subjugated as subjects, by way of commodities that act as portals to this or that lifestyle and construction of one’s sense of self.2

She thus identifies with the object of the graph, which on ArtFacts indicates her rising and falling fortunes as an artist since 2006. She converses with it, animating it through her address, so that ultimately it is decoupled from its narrow function and can be seen, at least provisionally, as an entity participating in a conversation. In a sense, what happens with this approach is that she subjectivizes the object (an interesting reversal on the objectification of the subject). The reader becomes aware of the curve as something with agency, and then can meditate on its enslavement by ArtFacts, see the structures that contain it, and embargo its freedom. After all, perhaps it is just as unhappy with the situation as Haghighian? Perhaps it would rather redefine the metrics of its own rise and fall along more intuitive lines in dialogue with the artist. Rather than go down in the months where the artist does not exhibit, why not go down when she has a cold? Or conversely, rather than go up because of an exhibition at the Walker, why not go up when she is reading a pleasant romance novel on a breezy afternoon in Berlin? She and the curve enter into a complicity that, even if only provisionally, sidesteps the narrow intentions of its owners and consumers, emancipating it through a kind of perspectival displacement.

Haghighian further problematizes and explores these questions in her text, so I will dispense with my summary here. What’s important to hold onto is the contextual and shifting means with which the artist engages the world and her place within it, whether through videos, online projects, texts, installations, or designed events. Haghighian is known for her site-specific projects, or investigations of the format with which she is invited to participate, often highly collaborative engagements with other writers, makers, and thinkers whose ideas influence her and whom she in turn influences. It’s a shifting practice, certainly associated with the history of Institutional Critique for the way in which it can subvert, upturn, and point out the workings and inherent ideologies of institutional processes. In my first conversation with the artist, she mentioned that her New Year’s resolution might be to stop being reactive in relation to a prospective project, to be able to accept the terms and then proactively pursue her own interests within it (as many artists do). Yet often she feels like that very pursuit is inevitably closed down by the way in which the invitation demands her participation with it: that the structures of inclusion or exclusion are such that she has no choice but to deal with them first. Nevertheless, rather than adopt arch positions that situate her in the role of heroic and enlightened outsider, she, like every artist in this show to greater or lesser degrees, navigates her involvement with a sense of the complicity with power dynamics that is inevitably associated with participation within an art industry, or any industry for that matter.

For example, when invited by her gallerist in Berlin, Johann König, to contribute a work for an art fair, she ultimately agreed (it remains the only work she has produced for this purpose), and after a month of being in a bad mood submitted the piece, an installation constructed out of nails hammered to a wall in such a way that the negative space spelled out the declaration “I can’t work like this …”(PLATE 35).3 The piece had a conceptual richness, deploying the same material of construction that is used to mount art fair displays, an economy of means that also draws attention to the most proletarian signals of labor itself (hammer and nails). It is perhaps unsurprising, given the universality of the sentiment and the clarity of the final piece as an “object” (i.e., collectible item), that this work might be termed Haghighian’s most successful to date (following the metrics of success that ArtFacts would enjoy). That is: it is featured on the gallery website as the introductory work to her oeuvre, and was snapped up by collections, including that of the Guggenheim Museum.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian's I can't work like this

Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s I can’t work like this, 2007

To give another example of Haghighian’s way of working, she was on her way to the Sharjah Biennial and met Uwe Schwarzer of mixedmedia Berlin, a company that helps with the manufacturing and development of artworks.4 She befriended Schwarzer and visited his Berlin factory, scene to the production of countless artists’ works in different styles bound for various art fairs, biennials, and gallery exhibitions. While Haghighian rarely works with assistants, she doesn’t dismiss anything that fails to arise from the artist’s hand. Nevertheless, she was curious about Schwarzer’s dis- avowal of his own contribution (or that of his staffs) to the authorship of the works, his claims to be following the personal style of a given artist to the letter, despite the obvious occasions where he would need to intuit or interpret what such a personal style might mean. She wished to look into these questions further, but Schwarzer was understandably reluctant to have her document the inner workings of the company, given the discretion with which he must often proceed. Haghighian and Schwarzer devised a foil with which they could continue their investigations, namely the fictitious artist Robbie Williams, whose debut exhibition would be composed of works produced by mixedmedia Berlin. They settled on the name because, as Haghighian relates, people would generally be satisfied not to ask too many questions so long as she clarified “the artist, not the singer.” She expanded:

The name also carries the connotations of the glamour and tragedy of a solo career. And that is an important aspect of the Solo Show project. It is about the construction of the “solo” artist, whose name floats above the Tate Modern in big bold letters. But actually he relies on a huge team of people, specialists, technicians, architects, assistants, engineers, management staff, etc. At best, their names will be listed in the imprint of the catalogue. But the public is fed the intact image of a singular individual whose extraordinary talents or whatever have enabled his works to float so boldly above the Tate Modern. There is a discrepancy, a distortion of the actual relationships in the art scene that is increasingly veering towards a mega-event culture. So we needed an icon to engage in iconoclasm. And “Robbie” took the job.5

Robbie did a really good job; his exhibition Solo Show opened at MAMbo in Bologna in 2008.6 The white cube exhibition had two entrances; in one was a series of five sculptures that took show-jumping fences as their inspiration—they were made in a number of styles with a host of materials that acted virtually as quotations of contemporary sculpture. For example, one was composed entirely of televisions, another of fabric folds, and a third of a birdhouse platform with ensconced dragstyle wigs. A Frieze review at the time described it as “looking like weird hybrid mockups for artists such as John Armleder, Monica Bonivinvi, and Liam Gillick.” 7 The mixed-media installation certainly mined the history of postmodern sculpture, from contemporary pop culture–inspired assemblage works to media-based installations and feminist craft-based reclamations. The gallery included the title of the show and Robbie’s name. In the next gallery, a series of elegant speakers were hung in the round with a looped surround sound of a horse galloping and jumping. Here a vinyl text listed the names, without hierarchy, of some fifty individuals who had contributed to the project, including Haghighian and Schwarzer.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the reviews of the exhibition concentrated on the structural conceit of its instantiation rather than the material and conceptual properties of the exhibition itself. What would it have meant to review it on face value, to tease out the relationship between the horse and the sculptures, the delicate and perceptive play of the materials, the deliberate vulnerability displayed by the artist(s) in making such an over-determined relationship between the objects and the jump- ing horse? Is the horse the figure of the artist, on show for the pleasure of its owners who move from vernissage to vernissage following the upward and downward curve of its motion, waiting for the next horse to take its place? Is the horse a stand- in for the career of Robbie Williams? (The singer, not the artist.)

Perhaps it is obvious that we are not trained to consider the decisions of a collective as deserving of such consideration (the group of individuals who authored this collaborative work). At the same time, there is a sensibility to the project that belies any idea of a one-liner. Why not collectivize under a name and produce for a market? Is it because you are doomed to simply imitate the production of a more singular voice? Or isn’t it true that without the parameters of imitation of this particular structure, the collective might be capable of something far more radical?

 

1Max Andrews, Uovo Magazine 12 (2007): 156–173. See also Johann König Gallery website.

2Hito Steyerl,“A Thing Like You and Me,” e-flux journal 15 (April 2010),.

3For more on this work and the artist’s oeuvre in general, see the excellent artist talk she gave, “when night falls in the forest of static choices,” at the Guggenheim, organized by associate curator Katherine Brinson: “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Conversations with Contemporary Artists at the Guggenheim,” YouTube video, artist talk presented as part of the Conversations with Contemporary Artists series at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on January 21, 2012, posted by “Guggenheim Museum,” March 12, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013.

4The artist discussed the project in some depth in Raimer Stange, “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Nobody Does Anything on Their Own,” Mousse Magazine 15 (October/November 2008): 72. See also Johann König Gallery website.

5Ibid

6The exhibition Solo Show, curated by Andrea Viliani, was on view at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) from September 7 to November 2, 2008.

7“Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Institutional critique and collective author- ship; money, fruit and Robbie Williams,” Frieze 119 (November–December 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.