duh? Art & Stupidity

Duh? Art & Stupidity, 2015-16. An exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-sea.

Well, I feel stupid. Having arrived at Focal Point Gallery on a free train direct from Fenchurch Street for an exhibition private view I found myself almost immediately in a long queue to get inside the gallery. At this point I was mildly frustrated at having to wait, but only because I assumed that the gallery must be checking off some sort of guest list, which I did not see as particularly necessary or welcoming. However, as I got nearer to the entrance I realised that the delay was in fact due to a small gaggle of women, all roughly middle-aged, who were blocking the doorway with a poorly situated conversation. This, it seemed, was caused by nothing less than their total obliviousness to anyone outside of their group. As it came my turn to squeeze past, I tried to catch one of their eyes, but they showed no recognition of the awkward situation they were creating. People were just about managing to edge themselves into the space one at a time, either by pressing themselves up against the far side of the door, as I did, or awkwardly wriggling through the middle of the women. This provoked a little flash of anger, or at least social disapproval — how could they be so inconsiderate? How could they be so stu… Oh, of course: ‘Duh!’

Curated by Paul Clinton and Anna Gritz, ‘duh? Art & Stupidity’ is an exhibition that looks at stupidity as both a subject in art and a tactic of art making. The first work I encountered, organised especially for the private view, was Annika Ström’s Seven women in the way, Saturday 7 November 2015, which has been realised several times since it was first performed in the doorway of an art space in Berlin in 2011. Here it functioned as a truly effective introduction to an exhibition that attempts to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of stupidity. The performance, as specified in Ström’s instructions, which are made available as a postcard, is very subtle: the women were not aggressive, nor could they be mistaken for some official capacity, they were simply in the way. As an experience it swiftly moved me from superiority to inferiority and underlined the centrality of judgement within stupidity. While other works in the show also attempted to wrong foot me, to provoke or trick me, it was this disruption to my evening that best enacted what the curators describe as ‘the intrinsic irony of stupidity’. This irony is exemplified for them in the exhibition’s onomatopoeic title, ‘duh?’, which is the sound made by those who fail to understand as well as the dismissive, but similarly unintelligent, response of those who see themselves as too smart to explain.

Inside, stupidity has over taken Focal Point completely. In each of the exhibition spaces there are layers of the stuff plastered and projected onto the walls and cluttering up the floor. With over 30 works included, the exhibition’s timespan (the 1960s to the present) crosses from the blank, feigned stupidity of Andy Warhol in interview mode in 1966 to the ferocious onslaught of Clunie Ried’s In the Pursuit of the Liquid, 2013, here shown on two 50″ monitors, superimposing flashing layers of animated porn stars, rearing unicorns and smiley-face GIFs. It is clear from the number of works amassed, and the slightly neurotic nature of the press release, that the curators have been thinking about stupidity for a long time. Clinton has conducted extensive research into the area, which gives a theoretical backbone to the exhibition, specifying the curators’ interest in artists who take stupidity as subject and/or tactic of artistic production in connection with the politics and performance of identity. A number of the moving-image works on show were previously grouped together as part of Stupidious, an event at South London Gallery in 2014, where Gritz is curator of film and performance, and which was organised in collaboration with Clinton. These videos reappear dispersed amongst other moving-image works, sculptures, sound works, works on papers and a full-length feature film.

Part of the neurosis of the curators’ strategy for engaging with stupidity is their attempt to cover all bases, even messing with museological displays, such as in a wall text by Kim Schoen (Gallery Text, 2015), which rambles elliptically only adding to what is surely an already widely accepted and now somewhat clichéd critique of the emptiness of art speak (see BANK’s ‘Fax Back’ series, 1998-99, also presented here). The staging of the works is more effective in some places than others: the off-site presentation of a video work by Erik van Lieshout (Rotterdam — Rostock, 2006), shown in a lonely portacabin, for instance, enhances the experience of watching a man out on a limb encountering the insidious simplicity of prejudice in the form of everyday ignorance and violent anti-Semitism. Elsewhere they create a stupefying spectacle in an exhibition space that features a colossal projection of Sturtevant’s The Dark Threat of Absence, 2002, alongside a TV and a row of box monitors arranged on the floor. The sound and image bleed between these works reaches fever pitch as Sturtevant (as Paul McCarthy, as a wonky version of Willem de Kooning), shouts ‘I want my money! Money, money, money’ in an increasingly shrill voice. Like Reid’s wall of silent-scream images, a plateau is reached in all this stupidity, allowing for some respite and reflection.

Amongst all this noise and confusion, although arguably very much the stuff of stupidity, some quieter notes are lost, however. The multitude of avenues explored, and in particular the complicated issues of identity that are engaged with — for example in Celia Condit’s strange and joyful sing-song cannibal fairytale Possibly in Michigan, 1983, which is placed between two other videos, and in Rosemarie Trockel’s Continental Divide, 1994, which is placed uncomfortably high — are overshadowed by this focus on staging. Two works by Lily van der Stokker, in typical bubblegum and pastel fashion, are displayed in the windows of the gallery, which after the crowd had dispersed I was able to see clearly. In conjunction they read ‘Wonderful Nothing’, which felt strangely apt to describe the irreverent pleasures of stupidity.

Review published by Art Monthly, December 2015

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