Pratchaya Phinthong, Give More Than You Take, 2010–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “and Materials and Money and Crisis.”

Pratchaya Phinthong, Give More Than You Take, 2010–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “and Materials and Money and Crisis.”

“and Materials and Money and Crisis”

mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien

Pratchaya Phinthong, Give More Than You Take, 2010–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “and Materials and Money and Crisis.”

As T. J. Clark and other Marxist critics have argued, the thorny entwinement of modernity and aesthetic praxis has, since the late-nineteenth century, preoccupied some of history’s most inventive artists and intellectuals as they have sought ways to engage this nexus through their given craft. Particularly urgent for curator Richard Birkett, who together with artist Sam Lewitt conceived of this show, was the dematerialization of the art object beyond the physical specificity of its medium in an era characterized by intensified economic abstraction and a growing separation between capital and the means of production. Originating as a symposium at Artists Space that coincided with the Whitney Biennial in 2012, this exhibition took various markers of financialization—among other events, the elimination, in 1971, of gold as the standard that guaranteed the value of the US dollar and the development, shortly after, of the Black-Scholes-Merton model for trading derivate investments—as signaling an epistemic shift, a historical condition characterized by the instability of the exhibition’s three operative terms: “materials” and “money” and “crisis.”

Though it is easy to quibble with this periodization—Yves Klein was performing a similar problematic in his “l’Epoca Blu” (Blue Period) exhibition in Milan in 1957—Birkett and Lewitt’s project strikes an important, if somewhat distant, note. The claim that structures of visualization internalize neoliberal systems of exchange could pertain to countless contemporary artists, but a thought-provoking idea was pursued here in examining how the constellation of materials, money, and crisis at once transforms the visual economy employed by the grouping of artists in this show and is altered in turn. Such an operation was evident in the exhibition’s most compelling contribution, Pratchaya Phinthong’s Give More Than You Take, 2010–13, the artist’s two-month stint as a wild-berry picker in northern Sweden during a time of strained relations between Thai workers and Swedish employers in 2010. To make the work, Phinthong sent SMS updates regarding the amount of berries (measured by weight) he picked each day to CAC Brétigny curator Pierre Bal-Blanc, who, reciprocally, had been asked to collect an equivalent amount (by weight) of random objects in the vicinity of CAC, thereby transforming Phinthong’s electronic labor data into tangible “artistic” forms. Three years later, Birkett was similarly charged with assembling a collection of “useless” objects comparable in weight to Phinthong’s daily berry yield. If the outsourcing of labor is not new, the paradigm here is, with the curators acting as both proxies and cultural producers and the nominal artist functioning as both manager and employee. What makes this transfer between contexts—the field of art and the field of berries—a critical gesture is Phinthong’s simultaneous recasting of the procedures of “participatory” aesthetics and the way these implicate current social structures in relation to categories of race and class.

Indeed, if at times the exhibition appeared like an idiosyncratic compilation of viewpoints by some stellar artists (among them, R. H. Quaytman, Cheyney Thompson, Emily Wardill, and Lucy Raven) rather than a precise mapping of models, one must also take into account the matter of location. In the heart of the European Union, Vienna has long been a hub of refugees and migrants from the former Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, and the global South. It is hard to reconcile this specific backdrop of racialization and racism, which is both rife in the current European discourse and—as Achille Mbembe and Marina Gržinic´ have demonstrated—at the crux of global capitalism, with the diffidence one feels within the gallery. The connection between capitalist abstraction and the arbitrariness of life and death, which is the basic condition of many refugees, is barely alluded to in these antiseptic museological surroundings. Instead, what we see is a sequence of formal procedures that try to imbue the emptiness of capitalist abstraction with formal transgression. The very node in which global capitalism’s political ideology breeds and propagates unequal relations of power—abstraction and arbitrariness—is thus depoliticized and offered as a tamed narrative of modernist aesthetic permutation.

Nuit Banai