The Part in the Story Where a Part Becomes a Part of Something Else is an exhibition that covers a lot of ground. The Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art brings together over fifty artists with multifaceted disciplines, but despite the large scale, the show can be distilled to a few threads that highlight the potential for art to create constructed moments. This underlying premise can be found in one word in the title: “Becomes.” This word reveals the potential of the transitional object of projection, just prior to the actuality of transforming into “Something Else.”
On Kawara’s Lat. 31º25’N, Long. 8º41’E (1965), one of his rare coordinate works, tells of an exact location. Its addition serves to anchor the show’s general thread of location as a symbolic or constructed place. Without looking up the coordinates, it’s an idea of somewhere else, a projection left to the viewer. Having seen this work the day before the artist’s death, I notice new weight in the piece’s reference to place. Why would Kawara want to make a point of this location? One potential answer might be that it records the location where the work was made, but the coordinates point to the middle of the Grand Erg Oriental, an unlikely part of the Sahara Desert in which to engage in a bit of painting. This is not at all a desirable destination but a place to not be at. However, in 1965, the incredible isolation of Lat. 31º25’N, Long. 8º41’E may have appeared to be the only safe haven from postcolonial global turmoil. Perhaps it’s the only site on Earth that still cannot be imposed upon except conceptually, by coordinate.
One floor up, and directly above Lat. 31º25’N, Long. 8º41’E, hangs Patricia Reed’s Pan-National Flag (2009). Stripped of color and printed on industrial-grade flag fabric, it’s a composite of the outlines of every existing national flag superimposed on each other. Its presence as a stately symbol is heightened by being inset into the wall, and its visual weight comes from the point at which the thin black lines merge into a messy black knot in the center—a dark, global mass argument. Painful to look at, this flag proposes a state of existence that considers every national ideal simultaneously, and what results is a symbolic state of obliterated understanding.
When mergers are proposed, they have a way of offering idyllic optimism. They proffer the possibility that the union will result in the best of both worlds. When two artists take on this concept, it follows that the art might be about the failed attempts of two entities acting as one. Ahmet Cevdet Bey: “Jacket” (2011) is a remnant of Ahmet Ögüt and Cevdet Erek’s first (and to date, only) project together. It’s a physical manifestation of an attempt at compromise, and of failing to form into one person. Acting in unison as “Ahmet Cevdet Bey,” this specially constructed suit jacket manifests the possibility of symbiosis, of being joined side by side in the attempt to make art as one. The double-width jacket draped across the backs of two matching chairs makes the absence of the artists feel momentary, as if there were only a temporary break in activity. Yet, in this Waiting for Godot-like scenario, the anticipated arrival leaves the viewer to wonder exactly what the pair had gotten up to and when they will return to collect the jacket and resume their activities.
In Minja Gu’s work 42.195 (2006), the artist attempts to prolong the inevitable. She documents her participation in a marathon—and walks the entire distance. Completing the race long after everyone else has lost interest, Gu presents the quintessential artistic dilemma of accepting the idea of becoming; as it is with an art practice, usually that becomes moment is the one in which the work is recognized. She raises the question of how an artist might succeed and also still be true to herself. In 42.195 she attempts to do both, and her actions not only subvert the conventional points of fast movement, winning, and achievement, but also entirely dodge the act of becoming the marathon with all of its adrenaline, angst, and pain.
Some works in the show negate the present as a means to embrace it. Pierre Bismuth offers the satisfying In Prevention of Technical Malfunction – Unplugged Bruce Nauman Video Work (2003). It’s exactly as you would expect from the title: Two side-by-side Sony Trinitron monitors, complete with standard metal frames, sit blankly on white plinths. As a video that is simultaneously ready to be played and never to be played, the efforts that protect it from “technical malfunction” keep it tethered to the present but also extend the work into the potential of a speculative future. Katarina Löfström’s Loop (The End) (2006) welcomes the inevitable by presenting a string of flashing red light bulbs draped from the ceiling that blink out the Morse code for “the end.” The work uses the present as a device to announce the imminent future that has yet to happen.
On the whole, Witte de With presents one of the most rewarding group shows that I’ve seen in a long time, and there are many more works that deserve mention. Curators Heman Chong and Samuel Saelemakers group the works within each room to draw out congruent threads without forcing new meanings. It’s a huge feat to curate a massive show that still makes sense, and the exhibition is a far cry from the recent trend of heavy-handed tactics by the curator-as-artist. Instead, the show flows effortlessly, as the works are given just enough room to be considered and then reconsidered in the larger context. And that moment of reconsidering is the transition to becoming.
The Part in the Story Where a Part Becomes a Part Of Something Else is part of Moderation(s), a two-year collaboration of events with Spring Workshop in Hong Kong. It is on view at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, through August 17, 2014.