New York

Fia Backström

The prodding began before you entered Swedish artist Fia Backström’s most extensive New York show to date, “That social space between speaking and meaning”; primary-colored vinyl lettering adorned the gallery’s front door, spelling out multiple directives, including STAY AHEAD OF THE IMAGES, placed directly below the open sign—both an impossible task and a playful gesture. According to the press release, such a tactic was central to the gallery-size installation, its somewhat iffy premise being that it was “an environment without any ‘images’ that takes the form of a discussion club: a space to be socialized through informal and formal meetings, gatherings and readings.” Neither a typical group show nor strictly speaking a solo show, Backström’s endeavor maintained an in-between form, where artworks and texts by a host of artists were inserted into an overall design by Backström that included her own original contributions and that sought to subvert, disrupt, and ultimately open up expectations regarding exhibition format and display.

As Backström offers in one of her many texts in the show, “Let’s disagree a bit. In re-writing the world, let go of obedience to format. Let’s get engaged.” Indeed, disobedience to format and medium has been one of Backström’s calling cards in the collaboratively produced publications, exhibitions, and readings that she has organized over the past few years. And yet it was not the transcripts of two meandering conversations held at White Columns near the beginning of the exhibition between the artist and two writer friends— printed as banners pinned to a central kiosk and representing the most direct trace of “socialized space” in the exhibition—but Backström’s own writings and mercurial ingenuity for arranging others’ artworks that provided the most compelling maneuvers.

For example, Backström’s placing of a Wade Guyton “X” canvas in witty juxtaposition—both in formal and generational terms—with a circular white monochrome by conceptual painter Olivier Mosset was indicative of her flair for choreographing a visually appealing, art-historically attuned presentation. A serigraph by activist, nun, and 1960s graphic-design innovator Sister Corita Kent found itself adjacent to, and complemented by, Kent-inspired, Backström-designed wallpaper composed of blunt assertions about what “you won’t hear” taken from a speech given by Ralph Nader titled “What the Candidates Avoid, January 14th, 2008.” In another seamless sequence, a Roe Ethridge photograph, cropped to include nothing beyond the lettering and signage for a bevy of stores at a mall, Weight Watchers and Perfect Health among them, nearly disappeared within a Backström collage of printed material, including Getty Images search keywords and placardlike reproductions of taglines from advertisements reading YES YOU CAN; WE’RE A PARTNER IN OUR COMMUNITIES; WE CAN HELP; and so on. Here, she rather effortlessly underscores the illusory split between image and text within our list-obsessed culture, with its reassuring slogans and manipulative branding.

In contrast, a wall on which Backström displayed unorthodox press releases and critical reviews from recent years—Seth Price’s oblique yet seductive monologue for the press release of the exhibition “Grey Flags” at SculptureCenter (2006); Sean Landers’s review of his own show in Frieze magazine (2004); Jesse Ash’s contribution to a group exhibition in Chelsea this past fall, a faux review commissioned from an Artforum writer before the show opened—proved surprisingly listless. And though this editorial gesture seemed related to an underdeveloped critique within the exhibition—namely the artist’s impatience, stated elsewhere in the show, with such notions as “productive failure” and her not unrelated challenge toward “the vanity of self-reflexivity” and “chic radicality” within the art world—any direct correlation or critical assertion regarding specific art practices or social positions was neatly sidestepped. Nevertheless, as with many of Backström’s restless projects, she has struck upon provocative strategies worthy of future elaboration.

Fionn Meade