Mirror Telescopes and the 57th October Salon
[Introduction by Marta Saccavino]
The invention of the reflective telescope significantly improved the field of astronomy. The big and slightly concave mirrors gave a much clearer reflection of the slice of sky under investigation, especially when compared to the previous lens-based telescopes in use. However, the practical limitations imposed by the fabrication of the concave mirror also held back the progress of astronomers, that is, until a new system of smaller, flat mirrors, which could be grouped together and finely oriented, enabled the astronomers to overcome this limitation.
In my opinion, the curatorial field would greatly benefit from employing a similar approach. For a long time monocratic institutions have given us a clear but restricted rendition of the art world. Now more than ever, those can render a more inclusive picture of the “slice of sky” that is art, both old and new, are individuals, each one with a peculiar way of conceiving the practices of curating. With the “biennalization” of the art world, the emphasis on teamwork becomes all the more crucial.
The October Salon, or, as the curators of the 57th edition—Gunnar B. and Danielle Kvaran—refer to it, the Belgrade Biennale, has the notion of diversity at the heart of its very conception: “[it] is envisaged as a grand festival of diversity, as the meeting point between different sensibilities, different means of artistic expression, different universes, as a place for exchanges with the public, who will also be received in all its diversity.”
But does it stand up to its premises? It is true that there are no vertical hierarchies anymore, no more centres and peripheries? But has the art word really become a horizontal field where players act freely from the constrains of the Western notion of art?
In its five venues, the Belgrade City Museum, the Cultural Centre of Belgrade, Redmond Gallery, U10 Gallery, and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the October Salon stages a “marvellous cacophony” of works from Serbian and international artists, that is, in the vision of the curators, “without the constraint of a guiding thread be it thematic or formal”
Does the curatorial approach of the latest edition of the October Salon mirror the diversity that it suggests? Does it enrich the vast landscape of biennials?
In the following statements, my colleagues of WCSCD try to make sense of the experience of the October Salon and its curatorial implementation.
Field notes from the 57th October Salon
When art becomes “human beings.”
Is it then still art?
Is it then “bioart”?
Or is it just “bio(graphy)”?
When participative work triggers shivers, when persons generate shivers, when the story provokes shivers, doesn’t it in the end all just amount to the same? The visitor takes his/her experience away, far away from the exhibition space, long after the exhibition ended.
What makes a good artwork? What, when the (capitalist) concept seen numerous times, works? Do we take home with us the images of good art, or do we just continue conversations in our minds?
What remains? Does the conversation remain? Does the dust remain? Yoko Ono. Ivana Bašić.
[Karen Vestergaard Andersen]
The soft spoken voices of two lovers, a man and a woman, draws us into the simple almost crudely modelled alternate world of “La Town,” a video work by Chinese artist Cao Fei. Intrinsically, Fei animates this plasticized scenery with immense attention to sensorial details evoking a simulacrum of our contemporary society that works flawlessly. Like a conversation between two worlds the 57th October Salon works in a strikingly similar but disjointed manor. Caught somewhere, between historic national significance and desires of inclusion and courtship by the international art market. Simultaneously, in bed with its own reality and mimicry: a somewhat arid consummation between socialism and capitalism.
When we read we accommodate in order to reach the right level of signification. “It is only when it looks into infinity that the normal eye has no need to accommodate.”
I would say there are two ways of reading the concept of cacophony. One being an appropriate approach to showcase contemporary art in the context of salon display culture. The second as an excuse of having no concept, visually presented as a non-narrative which brings viewer in a passive position of experiencing the show only on the level of the (re)presentation of art.
If the cacophony was meant to be a positive affirmation of today’s art world, which is decentred, disoriented, and hence disharmonious, the curatorial gesture of optimism took too much space in this year’s October Salon that the “diversity” it’s supposed to present generates a kind of déjà-vu uniformity (i.e. another echoing polyphony of international art fairs). Among the few that were “marvellously” dissonant were Aleksandra Domanovic’ video work “19:30,” in which she cuts and mixes the former Yugoslav daily news idents with underground rave scene footages. Calling upon the glitch digital aesthetics of the 90s, the rising ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia find its temporary consolation in the repetitive flow of an electronic beat—creating no harmonious archive of the collective past but a lively reactivation of the cacophony in its audio-visual realm.
Is the term “cacophony” expected to have therapeutic meaning for the periphery? Can we treat it in earnest while power and capital are still strongly divided? Who can hear all these low voices while there are still some that are very loud? If we put local artists near “big names,” it looks protective, but for how long? The 57th October Salon has a simple concept, which sounds very positive, but at the same time I could not get rid of the impression that the domestic public and scene were not taken seriously, as if they wouldn’t distinguish simplicity from banality.
The curatorial statement of the October Salon—Belgrade Biennale, is based on a misunderstood status quo. When Danielle Kvaran and Gunnar Kvaran say that “contemporary art [..] is now open to artists from every continent,” they oversee the struggle around the status and validation of art from the global South. The utopia they describe in their concept ignores the precariousness of the art scene in the periphery and the contribution biennials—such as the ones in Dakar, Havana, and Istanbul—have made in the decentralization of the notion of contemporary art.
As stated by the curators, the exhibition represents the cacophony of artistic approaches. In that sense this exhibition shows a mixture of particular works that are important for the understanding of different artistic practices and themes from both local and wider contexts. On the other hand, this charge of optimism is made through the avoidance of themes that refer to social and political tensions, local or global. In that sense I wouldn’t say the exhibition refers deeply to a complex artistic, cultural and political situation in the region or local scene. At this moment in Belgrade we are witnessing a lot of protests that deal with social problems (privatization, corruption, unsafe working conditions, undeclared work, LGBT rights…), which are themes relevant to the global context as well but are not discussed thoroughly through the exhibition.
Even though exciting and eye-catching art works are being exhibited (Yu Honglei, Cao Fei, Ann Lislegaard, Maja Đorđević, Vuk Ćuk), this year’s OS can be described as an art kermesse without a modern and relevant concept. The mere presentation of the coexistence of the multitude of cultures and artistic approaches is actually an antithesis of curatorial work, which should place art works in a dialogue and produce new meanings and questions that are significant for the social, political, cultural and artistic context. It’s known that multiculturalism is obsolete, so let’s try something new. There is no future with this kind of approach.
Does necessarily choosing the concept of diversity allow us to put together so many different generations of artists with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, without raising any questions in terms of the main concept of the exhibition? Shouldn’t this “cacophony” lead us somewhere? Shouldn’t there have been a critical point of view that the curators urged us to discuss with regard to the potential that this diversity offers us? Since there is no critical approach in the curatorial statement of the exhibition, I believe that the 57th October Salon simultaneously tries to talk about diversity and confronts us with the notion of integration. From this point of view, “Obvious Cacophony” instead of “Marvellous Cacophony” would be an appropriate title for the exhibition.
What is in a name such as The Marvellous Cacophony, this year’s title of the 57th October Salon? Hinting at the themes of diversity and transformation, it is reminiscent of Alexander Dorner’s ideas in The Way Beyond Art (1947) and the necessity for a heterogeneous space as a type of kraftwerk or a powerhouse. To what extent though could this heterogeneity be exploited before it becomes random? Or is it more about the powerful momentum and looking into the future as the Salon’s statement reflects? Or the hope that, as Blixa Bargeld sings, “should be a controlled substance.”
The feeling I had about this year’s Salon “The Marvellous Cacophony”… I think it is best explained with a line form Agnieszka Polska’s work, one of the best in exhibition: “your heart, confused between poetry and politics.” When Salons don’t have to be all about politics, all on the exact same page, then shows like this—and art in general—will again be allowed the complexity, diversity, richness, and strangeness of all of its possible structures. Then we will experience the real cacophony.
“The marvellous is always beautiful,” stated Andre Breton in the Surrealist Manifesto referring to the unconscious, inexplicable, chaotic. Moreover, the notion of the marvellous, wondrous variety of materials, shapes, and patterns of natural but also artificial objects, interested already a curious mind of Renaissance collector. The contemporary art world is, every day more, looking like a great Wunderkammer of diverse objects, media, plants, representative creatures, artists’ collections, and experiments in expressing the subconscious. Is then this cacophony of 72 parallel voices really offering a peak into the future, or is it just another look into the past in the non-linear, circular flow of time?
The only common element or “thread” at the cacophonic display of this year’s exhibition might be Yoko Ono’s “Wish Trees.” They resonate with the curatorial approach that leans toward wishful thinking: while trying to enact the image of a decentralized, egalitarian, and diverse art world—without actually addressing the power relations that structure the networked, global system of art—it ends up concealing and reaffirming them. Despite the horizontality of networks, hierarchies here don’t just disappear but are realigned according to new values. Mobility, connectivity, fluidity, circulation, etc., “serve as the very medium through which particularly oppressive forms of hierarchy now exert themselves.” The celebration of the diversity of artistic techniques, materials, themes and approaches is thus allowed and grounded in systemic uniformity, terms and conditions that regulate the access to and participation in the marvellous cacophony of contemporary art.
Kvaran, Danielle and Gunnar B. The Marvellous Cacophony, 2018, pg. 21
Kvaran, Danielle and Gunnar B. The Marvellous Cacophony, 2018, pg. 15
 Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard), University Of California Press Berkely and Los Angeles, 1977, pg. 134
Marchart, Oliver. The Globalization of Art and the Biennials of Resistance. In CuMMA Papers 7. Helsinki: Aalto University, 2013. <https://cummastudies.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/cumma-papers-7.pdf>
Relyea, Lane. Your Everyday Art World, The MIT Press, 2013.