In the context of the post-Duchampian condition identified by the lack of “‘ontological’ difference between making art and displaying art”, Boris Groys defines the role of the curator as a mediator between the public space and the work of art (Politics of Installation, 2010). For him, the word “curate” is “etymologically related to ‘cure’: to curate is to cure” the work of art from its inability to assert itself independently in an exhibition context. In the biggest effort to date in introducing conceptual art to Estonian audiences, Maria Arusoo, the curator of Continuum_The Perception Zone, assumes this role with literal precision.
The exhibition is tied together by the curator’s interpretation of the works through the idea of perception. The rooms of Tallinn Art Hall become a laboratory set up to transform the audience from a passive viewer into a sort of flaneur in a theme-park of experiences. Works like Martin Creed’s eponymous Work No 227:The lights going on and off (2000) and Olafur Eliasson’s Your uncertain shadow(colour)—an arrangement of colored filters installed to turn the passers-by’s shadows into a rainbow of shades, remind the strollers of their sense of sight. Other works trigger hearing, a category which includes Bernhard Leitner’s SOUNDMIRRORPATH (2011), a wooden platform with built-in sound system transmitting different frequencies that bounce off a curve construction installed directly above. The sense of touch is represented in an Estonian production: Toomas Thetloff’s air sculpture, Displaced Air Particles (2011), is a flow of air generated by a structure located above the view point. Indeed, from a dubious perspective of popularization of art seemingly appropriate in the context of unfamiliar audiences, the exhibition succeeds in making conceptualism “accessible” by reducing the idea of experience to its physical—perceivable—manifestation. Yet, as expressed in the very title laden with philosophical references, Arusoo operates a twofold intention of making perceivable not only the art but also the discourse surrounding it. The lack of art objects in the show signifies an attempt to locate the essence of conceptual art in the historical shift, described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), from the object/subject relationship defined by the authenticity of objects to the replacement of authenticity with exhibition value. However, while the lack of objects in the show may be sufficient as a metaphor for the demise of experience of objects, it fails to reflect in itself the loss of authenticity; eventually, the exhibition never escapes the object but is faced with the ultimate one—the gallery space.
The video works on show—Ceal Floyer’s Peel (2003), a video producing an illusion of a peeling wall, and John Wood & Paul Harrison’s Twenty Six (Drawing and Falling Things) (2001), which explores the possibilities of a white box space through staged situations loaded with absurdist humor—suggest that Arusoo is not ignorant of this. The opposite is the case: ultimately, it is not the art object—painting, sculpture, installation—but space as an object that this exhibition attempts to extend into perception (something expressed better in the Estonian version of the exhibition’s title which translates as “Continuum_Art as perception. Space as process”). Here, however, the twofold nature of the curatorial intent short-circuits. The reduction of the idea of experience to its physical manifestation juxtaposes the art with the room in the latter’s own corporeal terms revealing the works to be merely tangible suppliers of physical perception; here, art becomes a technicality with its structures and workings uncovered. In its attempt to make aesthetics perceivable, the exhibition works towards aestheticizing perception instead. The desired accessibility of art is achieved by returning it to the sphere of “simple objects” (to use Groys’s terminology once more)—Spencer Finch’s Shadows (After Atget) (2007) are here merely colorful light fixtures. In this sense, Continuum is an exhibition not devoid of art objects but of art.
As such, Continuum is not an isolated case but a consequence of contemporary circumstances in which the popularization of art is dictated by the need to prove its democratic use outside of the financial and intellectual elite. Yet, while art (and democracy, for that matter) can be made to seem experience-able through metaphors (like “the freedom to consume”) it is only when it becomes non-art (or non-democracy); in any metaphor, the essence of a thing is revealed when it is no longer itself, the original remaining inaccessible. This is the gesture expressed in what has come to be Kafka’s greatest aphorism: “There is hope, but not for us”—an alienation that, outside of the exhibition context, can be grasped from The infinite number of artworks (2010). The creation of Tallinn and Tartu-based artist KIWA constitutes an empty room intruded by the generic voices of a computer generated program designed to count imaginary art works in an infinity of random number combinations. The indifference and apathy consuming the inner logic of this work is the point at which it accesses our perception of the world that has lost the ability to experience.
In the context of such world, Groys’s “curate” should not be interpreted as curing the work of art from the traumatic loss of authenticity by trying to simulate experience—a practice of interpretation that always finds its ends in metaphors—but by unveiling its gestural potentiality, by revealing in it the aphorisms of contemporary condition.