Exhibiting Elsewhere 11.8.2014

Axel Straschnoy 11.8.2014

“To look only at a finished art product is to ignore the conditions of production and reception that make a work possible”
Jens Hoffmann [1]

I have written before about the relationship (or the lack thereof) between the Finnish fine arts funding and exhibition system and the artworks produced within it.[2] What is particular about this system is that funding is available directly to artists, that most spaces are unable to support the production of the works they exhibit, and that most other spaces (galleries) charge artists a fee for exhibiting in them. Furthermore, there is no art market to speak of.

As most galleries do not commission shows but select them through open calls, works are the results of the artist’s initiative. The artist looks for funding, looks for an exhibition space, produces the work, pays the fee, and exhibits his/her production. Most exhibitions are solo shows.

This system has been justly criticized by, among others, Jussi Koitela in Mustekala [3]. What interests me the most, however are the positive aspects of this system. In the same way that it restricts certain ways of working – which are common abroad – to prosper, there are certain things that only such a system allows. So, what artworks does the Finnish system enable that no other system does?

Art is a Mediated Experience

“Currently, the work of art is a combination of results from a process that starts with the realization of a work (traditional) and continues until such work is converted into material transmitted by the media. Now we propose a work of art in which the moment of production disappears. In this way it will be made clear that works of art are, in reality, pretexts to start up the apparatus of the media.”
Raúl Escari, Eduardo Costa, and Roberto Jacoby. [4]

In 1966, in Buenos Aires, Raúl Escari, Eduardo Costa, and Roberto Jacoby submitted pictures of a happening that had allegedly taken place (the Happening para un jabalí difunto – Happening for a Dead Boar) to a popular Argentinian magazine.[5] At the time, happenings were regularly reported in such magazines. Thus, news about this event was picked up and repeated by other media outlets. After a period of time, the artists informed the public that no such happening had actually taken place and that the photographs were staged. They then published the Primer manifiesto de arte de los medios (First Manifesto for a Mass Media Art) in which the role of mass media in creating reality was analyzed.

Happening para un jabalí difunto demonstrated that an artwork exists not so much because it is exhibited but because it is mediated. The gallery is one of the mediating agents, but not the only one. A work of art does not exist because it is exhibited in a gallery. Rather, it exists because it is discussed, because it is documented, and because it is written about as art, in popular magazines or in art historical contexts.

In the work of Federico Manuel Peralta Ramos (1939-1992) this premise is taken to its logical conclusion. Peralta Ramos developed the sixties ideal of merging art and life into a continuous practice, declaring himself “a living artwork.”[6] As such, his work was not dependent on exhibitions – nor did he document it. Instead, it has passed to us mainly as narrations, both in the press and in an oral/mythical form Gerard Genette defines the paratext as those parts of a book which, while not the text proper, frame and present the text: “…the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public.”[7] The paratext includes the title, the author’s name, the preface as well as interviews, articles, and notes in a diary. Both in Happening para un jabalí difunto as well as in Peralta Ramos’s work the paratext plays a central role in the construction of meaning. Art is understood as a discursive sphere where meaning is created by the mass media, art criticism, art history, catalogues, group exhibitions, and artist talks.

The White Cube

“A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along cynically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall.”
Brian O’Doherty. [8]

Someone aiming to get certain things perceived and discussed as art has an infinite variety of places where to place those things. Tradition would direct him/her to a gallery.

We are all used to going to galleries to see art. People passing by recognize them as places in which art is exhibited. Journalists and critics visit them regularly to see what is being exhibited, and granting bodies recognize them as spaces in which art is shown.

The exhibition space is a part of the paratext. It contributes to the construction of meaning of the work, creates certain expectations for the audience and places it in a specific mood. The audience knows they are going to a gallery, they know they are going to look at art, and they have some expectation of what art looks like. They probably have seen art in that space before. They can compare what they are looking at with things they have seen before in the same space. The whiteness of the walls won’t disturb them in their appreciation of the material on display, providing a neutral backdrop. Outside reality does not interfere. In O’Doherty’s words: “The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art.’ The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself.” [9]

I would posit that, on the artist side, one of the reasons for the international preeminence of the white cube is financial. Exhibiting in the white cube (theoretically) provides artists with the
possibility of producing work while securing their livelihood. Commercial galleries sell artworks, public galleries provide production funding and pay artist fees.

However, in Finland, these incentives do not exist. Most galleries (non-commercial, not public) do not sell (in practice if not in theory) and most public institutions do not provide production funding nor pay artist fees. Furthermore, most galleries will take up to several thousands of euros in rent. Given the known problems of the white cube as an exhibition space and the costs associated with exhibiting in it, I find the success of the gallery exhibition surprising.

Exhibiting Elsewhere

“Whether the place in which the work is shown imprints and marks this work, whatever it may be, or whether the work itself is directly – consciously or not – produced for the Museum, any work presented in that framework, if it does not explicitly examine the influence of the framework upon itself, falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency – or idealism.”
Daniel Buren. [10]

Site-specific artworks were developed in the sixties and seventies as both a critique of and an alternative to the gallery show. Today it works somewhat differently. As Miwon Kwon describes it: “Typically, an artist (no longer a studio-bound object maker, primarily working on call) is invited by an art institution to execute a work specifically configured for the framework provided by the institution (in some cases the artist may solicit the institution with a proposal).”[11]

It is interesting that in Kwon’s quote, it is normally the institution that takes the initiative. In Finland, where traditionally art is not commissioned by institutions, but submitted to institutions by artists, the reverse of the gallery show is not site-specific or public art (which descends from the publicly commissioned commemorative monument) but making art elsewhere.

Elsewhere is by definition not-a-gallery-show but is also by the same token not-public-art – even if it might exist in the public space. Exhibiting elsewhere means that the exhibition space is a creative choice by the artist. Instead of working within a site that has been provided with the commission, and structuring the work around it, the artist looks for a site in the same way that s/he might choose the other formal qualities of his/her work. Thus, the site creates part of the meanings of the work. It implies collaboration with the institution or the people that oversee it and — inasmuch as collaborating implies also making a space for the other’s desire — it becomes a site that will necessarily modify the original project.

In other words, it means that the artist is aware of how the space will condition the reception of his/her work. In Jens Hoffmann’s words: “… Often […] art needs the context of non-art to draw out its relevance. A work might speak most clearly when paired with historical ephemera, or viewed through the lens of a novel. Displaying an artwork alongside a kindred but distinct counterpart can increase the impact of both.” [12]

When funding is not linked to a specific exhibition space – and traditional exhibition spaces can represent a noticeable part of a production budget – the incentive to work in a traditional white cube disappears. A host of venue possibilities are opened up. By working elsewhere an artist is able to sidestep the known problems of the Finnish art system by making work that takes advantage of its qualities instead. It implies negotiations: with a venue which probably has not hosted works before, with its public which is not used to finding visual art in it, and with the visual arts public which is not used to going there to see visual art. It means understanding that the way art is presented is a construction in which artists necessarily participate but which they can also alter.

1. “Art after the End of Art” Mousse Magazine, #44, summer 2014, 120.
2. STRASCHNOY, Axel. “A Different Solution to the Same Problem” Mustekala Blog, January 27, 2014.
3. KOITELA, Jussi. “Taiteilija maksaa? Kuratoinnin uhka ja muut pelot” Mustekala Blog, January 16, 2014,
4. “Art after the End of Art”. Originally published in 1966. Translated and reprinted in ALBERRO, Alexander and STMISON, Blake. Conceptual
Art: a Critical Anthology
. Cambridge, London: MIT press, 1999, 3.
5. EICHELBAUM, Edmundo, “Happening para un Jabalí Difunto, Edmundo Eichelbaum”, El Mundo, 21 August 1966.
6. OPPENHEIMER, Andrés. “Federico Manuel Peralta Ramos: ‘Soy una obra de arte’,” Siete Días. n.d.
7. GENETTE, Gerard. Paratexts. Tresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge, Melbourne, New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1997, 1.
8. O’DOHERTY, Brian. Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkley, Los Angeles, London:
University of California Press, 1999, 15.
9. Ibid, 14.
10. “Function of the Museum” in HERTZ, Richard. Theories of Contemporary Art. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985, 192.
11. KWON, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity” in SUDERBURG, Erika. Space, Site,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 51.
12. HOFFMANN, Jens “Art after the End of Art,” 119.