Meditations in an Emergency, or an Auschwitz Moment: Questioning Art and Criticism
Meditations in an Emergency
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
21.05.20 – 30.08.20
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
In May 2020, after a long period of isolation, I returned to Beijing and to the still high-ceilinged halls of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art ( UCCA ). It felt unfamiliar in a way it never had before and, oddly, this sense of estrangement came from a sense of familiarity.
Meditations in an Emergency, called ‘the first major exhibition of 2020’, opened during Gallery Weekend Beijing 2020. The title for the show comes from a poem and anthology by the poet and former MoMA curator, Frank O’Hara. The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘The Fragile Everyday’, ‘Vital Signs’, ‘Beyond Animality’, ‘Othered Movements’ and ‘Out of Focus’.
As a curator, I am familiar with all of the methods employed in this exhibition: the citation of poetry in the title, the structuring of the exhibition sections, the wording of the preface and section texts, the choice of works, the list of artists from China and abroad, the pleasing asymmetry of the installation, the different colours assigned to the exhibition sections, and the construction of geometric open-work walls.
As the title has already signalled, this exhibition is focused on the pandemic and wants to respond to the current situation. However, from what I could see in the final presentation and from what I could infer about the working methods, it was almost the same as any show that could have taken place before the pandemic. In an exhibition with a pandemic-related title, the impact of the pandemic was not evident, and the pandemic almost seems not to have happened in that space. This was really bizarre, and left me with a strong, profound sense of estrangement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, as someone in the industry, I truly understand how curatorial teams work when faced with tight schedules. In that situation, there is a lot of uncertainty, hesitation and things one simply ‘has’ to do, so my discussion of this show does not come from a place of detached criticism; it is first and foremost a way to question myself and offer a confession of my own.
I wanted to focus on a systemic and methodological crisis and ask some general questions of those of us in the industry. We must begin with this question: Why did an exhibition, which is titled with reference to the pandemic and with all the hard, visible work that went into it, still look like something from the ‘before times’, without all of the emotions surrounding the pandemic itself and the disruptive energy of a decisive event? Does discussion itself scatter that energy, or is an immediate response fundamentally impossible? If the gallery is an autonomous time and space, how should it confront that vivid and concrete sense from several months before that something was constantly tormenting, attacking and enveloping every one of us?
Obviously, there are a few issues of format that transcend form.
First, a dissertation-style curatorial method has existed for a long time, including setting a key topic for discussion, with subtopics extending or radiating from it, like in a mind map. The sections often directly reflect the division of labour among members of staff.
The second issue is a way of thinking, reminiscent of a search engine, that centres on the same keyword. Curators then make sense of the scattered points of meaning through a kind of matching game.
These two symptoms typical of our era are quite difficult to avoid. They allow understandings of reality to proliferate, but their substance is divergent and removed. Specific kinds of entanglement and confusion disappear in this topic-focused working method, offset by certain works of art that are essentially citations. By transforming reality into something that can be discussed, or even a process that corresponds to certain artworks, these methods isolate a pain that is keenly felt yet difficult to articulate.
In the poem ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, O’Hara offers an autobiographical account of emotional tumult: ‘Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous ( and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list! ), but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.’¹ This line could be appropriated into the contemporary art context in the same way, as a form of mutual encouragement.
This would produce a sense of even more meaninglessness. During normal times it would be accepted as something positive and new, but the pandemic, this extraordinary time of heaviness and pain, has revealed its true colours as optional alienation. No wonder the art it produced does not take direct aim at the human heart and evoke shared emotions.
A crucial question may underpin all of this: How are our actions – art, creativity, curation, criticism and related work – connected to reality? How can we establish a true sense of reality? These questions are asked of all of us – and they are very difficult – but fortunately there are a few clues in the exhibition.
Wolfgang Tillmans’s Time/Mirrored, Beijing ( 2020 ) features several sheets of photographic paper affixed to the wall in his typical fashion, highlighting some simple events that are seldom connected or associated. For example, the year 2000 was equally far from 1980 and 2020. In 1969 the same number of years had passed since the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Spanish flu pandemic. Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream’, twenty-seven years before 1990; and Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States twenty-seven years after 1990. In December 2020, John Lennon had been dead for as long as he had been alive. The Second World War ended seventy-five years ago; and seventy-five years from now, in 2095…
These latent and even circuitous facts in Time/Mirrored repeatedly establish the sense that a lifetime has passed; the work offers a picture that comes from a broader perspective and is delineated by an artist’s insights, but it also presents the comfort that comes from something greater. The calm space produced by this precarious, stifling time may be a position on which we can eventually rely. All we need is a few thin sheets of paper.
Lu Lei’s The Square, a work originally from 2005, conjures up a new context and experience when presented here. This lead-grey, cold and silent piled sculpture that evokes the Cold War era is also bound up in the synchronous clarification of interpersonal relationships and national boundaries during the pandemic, as well as the unprecedented negative oil prices in the futures market on the New York Mercantile Exchange ( NYMEX ). The work invites us to reimagine the energy economy that seems to have withered and died after long having been obscured by the digital economy and information society. Has the old politics that mixes broadcasts and loudspeakers, propaganda and surveillance, oil drums and incendiary bombs really faded away? Under the ancient spectre of revival, regional strategy and even war, we hear the artist silently asking ‘Why are the dimensions of oil drums so much like those of loudspeakers?’
What are meditations in times of emergency? The first requirement may be abstaining from action, stopping or suspending previous habits – just as our society stopped abruptly, worn out from constant acceleration. The first thing we must be clear on is not what we want to do or what we will continue doing, but rather what we will no longer do.
If we really understand the pandemic as an ‘important thing’, then we may consider the previous controversy over Theodor W. Adorno’s statement that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’,² and make an extremely simple demarcation. Because this event, whether we view it as a brand or a scar, was so crucial, we must actively define it as an ‘Auschwitz moment’ in our own lives and make a promise to ourselves that things must be different before and after this event.
Perhaps it is only after we have maintained calm through strength and not weakness, preserved an inactive sense of distance and meditated as a latent practice that we have a reason to ask a question that has almost become a slogan: What is the meaning and purpose of action?
Next, we must confront the issue of reality, which sits back to back with the issue of impossibility. We must consider how, in the boundless everyday or moments of crisis, we can reach that impossible boundary line, where creativity is able to find a foothold for necessity and true resistance, both ethical and artistic.
1. Frank O’Hara, Meditations in an Emergency ( New York: Grove Press ), 1957, p. 38.
2. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ ( 1949 ), in Prisms, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber ( Cambridge MA: The MIT Press ), 1981, p. 34.
这是在重启后的2020北京画廊周同期开幕的，被人称为“2020年第一个大展”的“紧急中的沉思”（ Meditations in an Emergency ）。展览标题引自诗人、MoMA前策展人弗兰克·奥哈拉（ Frank O’ Hara ）的同名诗歌与诗集，展览分为五个章节：《暴风眼中的日常》《生命的体征》《超越动物性》《他者的迁徙》《失焦》。
显然，这里存在着若干个超出形式（ Form ）问题的格式（ Format ）问题：
正如《紧急中的沉思》的原诗，是在自述意乱情迷的爱欲心事：“每次心碎之后，我的放纵都变本加厉（ 而同样的名字怎么会重复出现在拉不完的名单上！），但总有一天继续冒险将落得一无所有……”（ 许舜达 译，联邦走马 x 不是制作 出品 ）——这句话，值得被以同样的方式“挪用”入当代艺术的语境体会，足资共勉。
沃尔夫冈·提尔曼斯（Wolfgang Tillmans）的《时间/镜像，北京》（ 2020 ），用几页以他的经典方式粘贴的打印纸，提示了一些简单却少被想起或联系在一起的事件：在2000年的时候，1980年和2020年同样遥远；1969年，距离一战结束的时间，和西班牙大流感距离1969年的时间一样久；1990年的27年之前，马丁·路德·金说出“我有一个梦想”，1990年的27年之后，川普宣誓担任美国总统；2020年12月，约翰·列侬死去的时间将和他活过的时间一样久；75年前，二战结束，75年后，是2095年……
陆垒2005年的旧作《广场》，在此次的置入中带出了全新的语境和体验：这个铅灰色的，冰冷、沉默的，带着冷战气息的堆积的雕塑体，伴随着疫情期间对于人际和国界的同步明确，伴随着纽约商业交易所（ NYMEX ）原油期货史无前例的“负油价”，引导我们再次想象：那被数码经济、信息社会遮蔽已久的、似乎早已老旧而故去的能源经济，那混杂着广播与喇叭、宣传和监听、油桶以及燃烧弹的“旧政治”，真的已经消逝了吗？在重温地缘战略乃至战争的古老阴影时，我们却听到艺术家悄悄地问道：油桶和喇叭的尺寸为何如此接近？