Text & Visuals | Dua Abbas Rizvi
Too many of us have become accustomed to readying ourselves to view art – as one readies oneself to interact with a hallowed space or an official one. The exhibiting and viewing of art, as we largely know them today, are acts of purpose and preparation, ritualism and method. Works are displayed in a certain way inside spaces that have come to be known as white cubes. These spaces may not always be white, or cubical, but the term has become synonymous with a modern gallery aesthetic that prescribes a selective and orderly display of artworks on, or within, unblemished and even walls. These walls contain no orifices, like windows, and are lit by artificial lighting that can be tempered into consistency. What these spaces aspire to is neutrality, de-contextualisation, and a distancing of art from the heterogeneity, temporality, and complexity of life.
The idea of the sterilised, white gallery developed in the twentieth century in tandem with formalist concerns in art. Though adopted and favoured by European groups like De Stijl and the Bauhaus (and even the Third Reich) during the earliest decades of the twentieth century, the white cube is generally thought to have been institutionalised by American art historian Alfred Barr, by means of his 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, titled Cubism and Abstract Art. The exhibition involved a marked simplification of the interior, a whitening of walls and ceiling, and a chronological arrangement of works that eschewed any socio-political or interpretative approach to the display. The works, Barr insisted, were to be seen for themselves only.
Modern art, with its emphasis on pure form, its shrugging off of context and symbolic baggage, its move towards a kind of cleansing and purging of the extraneous, invited and embraced the impassiveness of the white cube. Such a space terminated a viewer’s contact with the world, transforming the art inside into esoterica and the experience of viewing into a purely visual and cerebral activity. Irish art critic and artist Brian O’Doherty famously ruminated on these alienating aspects of the white cube in a ground-breaking series of essays published in Artforum in 1976 (and compiled later into a book titled Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space). O’Doherty suggests that art inside a white cube “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time.” He goes on to write:
“The eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed, the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, and intrusion. The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not—or are tolerated only as kinaesthetic mannequins for further study…Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there.”
This hermetic setup leaves little, if any, room for processual or emotive presentation and understanding of art. It produces a remove between art and humanness, which alternative exhibitions, or displays of art in alternative spaces, seek to remedy. Protest and dissent are crucial to creating and there have been many instances of artists challenging the status quo by taking into their own hands the display and dissemination of their art. Sophie-Carolin Wagner, in a paper titled Art Space Archaeology (published in the online scholarly journal continent.), refers to 18th-century Irish painter Nathaniel Hone as the artist and curator behind the “first noted” artist-run space and alternative exhibition. After one of his paintings satirising Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy of Arts (London), was rejected by the Academy for its annual exhibition of 1775, Hone rented a space near the Academy’s gallery and exhibited his rejected painting, and others, in a show he labelled “The exhibition of pictures by Nathaniel Hone: mostly the works of his leisure, and many of them in his own possession”.
The move not only presaged a subsequent link between exhibitions in alternative spaces and greater artistic freedoms, it also countered the inevitable commodification of art that occurs in conventional galleries. And though earlier dissidents like Hone may not have acted out of a desire to establish an alternative model of art-making and art-sharing, numerous alternative exhibitions since have certainly been attempts at doing so. Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s World Soup, or the kitchen show, is an important example. In 1991, Obrist curated an exhibition in the kitchen of his apartment in St. Gallen, Switzerland. He recounts the experience in Ways of Curating and discusses why the idea appealed to him and the artists who collaborated with him – “To do a show there would mix art and life, naturally.” The kitchen show can be seen as prototypical of some of the concerns that continue to define Obrist’s curatorial practice: conversation, collaboration, the informal and the candid, the natural, the procedural. “It wasn’t an art exhibition in the kitchen, no,” he writes. “The art took place in-between.”
The alternative art space holds huge promise for contemporary practitioners. Our times are witness to ubiquitous debates over the accretion and abuse of power by institutions and certain sectors of society. Activism is an integral part of the millennial experience and alternative frameworks for the creation and exhibition of art offer young artists and curators in Pakistan, too, the room to be seen and heard when that room is not found in the cultural mainstream. In Karachi, in 2016, recent alumni of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture exhibited artworks in an abandoned apartment near the historic Denso Hall, on M. A. Jinnah Road, under the title of Pehli Manzil (First Storey). The works were made in response to the once-domestic space and addressed, among other topics, social expectations around gender and the effects of unchecked urbanisation on local flora and fauna.
In Lahore, artist-run initiative The Creative Process has held two exhibitions in alternative spaces since its formation in 2017. There are several factors that make The Creative Process a unique and pertinent presence in the local arts community. For starters, the group welcomes members of all ages and educational backgrounds, as long as an interest in art and artistic discourse is evinced. The group’s projects have been robustly collaborative, and have followed egalitarian procedures for selection. This was particularly heartening to witness with regards to the group’s second show, River in an Ocean, which took place in Lahore during the inaugural Lahore Biennale. The exhibition was the result of an open call for proposals for individual or collaborative projects (with a focus on gender and sexuality and their relationship with history, power, and resistance) and comprised perhaps the most diverse assortment of artists and artistic expressions in the entire biennale.
River in an Ocean was curated by visual artists Natasha Malik and Abdullah Qureshi (co-founders of The Creative Process) in a temporarily vacant warehouse on a busy thoroughfare in Lahore. Inspired by the activism, ideology, and artistic practice of Lala Rukh, the exhibition, taking cue from its name (a title of one of Lala Rukh’s works), looked at ways in which difference can be owned and celebrated and one’s identity and beliefs maintained in the face of pressure to conform. Works in the exhibition dealt with issues, and involved mediums, that do not often find representation in local shows or homebred art movements. Multiple performances, videos playing on unlikely surfaces, photographs and prints of a vivid range of sizes, drawings and doodles and text strewn all over the place made the show a loud, living, urgent mess. So, in addition to subverting existing patterns of, and motivations behind, art-making, the exhibition also defied the idea of an exhibition space being airtight and inviolate by situating art amidst industrial debris and din, human and vehicular commotion, and inconsistent, here-tenebrous, there-beatific lighting.
The Creative Process had achieved something similar in 2017, with their first show, Of Other Spaces, curated by Natasha Malik. In an empty, old-fashioned, ruined house in a formerly posh, residential quarter of Lahore (a house scheduled for imminent demolition and also used by Lahore-based visual artist Rabia Aijaz for her solo show earlier), the group had installed artworks that had navigated the shared and murky psychological space of memory, sorrow, and historical erasure even as they had provided visitors with new ways to navigate a physical space whose original purpose had been lost. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s 1967 lecture of the same name, Of Other Spaces had been a vigil, an experiment, an intervention, a dalliance – all at once. And it is this possibility of pluralism, allowed and activated in alternative spaces, that makes them increasingly relevant today. Sophie-Carolin Wagner, in Art Space Archaeology, posits:
“While museums as archival and conservational institutions need to establish an aura of timelessness and permanence, artist-run spaces can embrace their inherent mortality by being vigorously impermanent and focusing on highly temporal outbursts of artistic energy – rapidly expanding in every physical, thinkable or discursive dimension. This continuous process of deconstructing and rethinking strategies, frameworks, audiences, and formats of contemporary art and its spaces, allows these initiatives to become platforms for the discourse on artistic agency in an age of a widespread crisis of institutions.”