Violence to Endurance: Extreme Curating at the ICA

Originally published on Spoonfed, September 2008.

What would your reaction be if this happened? You go to an art lecture at the ICA, sit down and listen to each member of the panel speak, occasionally taking notes. Periodically they are interrupted by a 50-year old man with a thick Russian accent saying ‘Bullshit, this is not shocking.’ Then, this man stands up and walks to the front of the room (it’s not far – he’s sitting on the front row). He undoes his belt, drops his trousers and takes a shit into his own hand. He does his trousers and belt up, walks up to the man in the centre of the panel and deposits the shit in his glass. He then sits back down, a slight look of triumph on his face.

Well, I’m shocked, certainly. I’m also anxious that he might choose to share his excrement with members of the audience. And I’m acutely aware of the foul smell emanating from this peculiar man. Why has he done this? Well, it’s hard to say. The man in question is Russian performance artist Alexander Brener and he’s accompanied this evening by long-time artistic collaborator Barbara Schurz. Brener has a history of doing odd deeds in the name of art: he’s defecated in front of a Van Gogh painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, had sex in public and, most famously, sprayed a green dollar sign on Kazimir Malevich’s painting Suprematisme. For this latter act, Brener spent several years in jail.

The discussion is about extreme curating, strategies of shock, and the relationship between art and violence. The panel consists of the chair, Dr Dorothée Brill, lecturer and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, ’60s performance artist Stuart Brisley, curators Lauren Wright and Yasmin Canvin, political artist/novelist Stewart Home, and notorious corgi-eater Mark McGowan.

Brener’s wrath is directed in the main at Brill and Brisley, whilst Schurz takes objection to Home and throws peanuts at him (or is it cashews?). There are reasons for this that go some way to perhaps explaining their strange behaviour. Brill is an elegant young woman (from the grey-clad super-chic school of curation) and it’s possible that if you consider yourself a great art-revolutionary, such a figure holding forth about strategies of shock might be a little grating. Brisley on the other hand is one of the best-known of controversial ’60s performance artists. He also set up the UK Museum of Ordure, a website dedicated to the exploration of dung, dirt, excrement and the like. Perhaps Brener simply wants to test how far Brisley’s love of dung extends. The fact that he leaves the room suggests not as far as having it plonked into his drinking water.

Is this art? Well, I’m not going to try to answer that here: Brener himself dodges the question by claiming – however problematically – that ‘I am not here as an artist. I am here as a spectator who wishes to participate.’ Let’s leave aside the difficulty of this statement and take it at face value.

The point that Brener and Schurz may be attempting to make is this: for all this talk of violence, endurance and strategies of shock, all that is really taking place here is that six more or less well known art world figures are talking about themselves, their work, and their thoughts. Brener – to some extent understandably – objects. Early on Brill cites Roland Barthes and how he argued that shock can be employed as a means to disorganize, that destruction can be a constructive option. Brener is simply enacting these ideas, here and now in this little room in the ICA.

However, we the paying audience are here not to be shocked but to learn about shock, not to see art occur, but to discuss it. A discussion about violence need not always involve violence. That is why we have language: however flawed it may be, language enables us to think about things without necessarily having to enact them all the time.

When the discussion opens to the floor (after a fight has nearly begun and Brener and Schurz have been evicted) somebody argues that it comes down to an issue of context and consent. Neither the expert panelists nor the paying audience have consented to this. This – a lecture about art, not a piece of art itself – is neither the time nor the place. But if you consent to be shocked (going to a horror movie, for example) then it is not ‘truly’ shocking. The abrupt revelation of context as an inadequate guarantor of proceedings: that is what is really shocking here.

Mark McGowan‘s contribution to proceedings thus far has been to sit in complete silence, even when it was his turn to speak. Instead he has merely played a video-montage showing news coverage of his own wacky/daft/shocking performances. The importance of context (media attention) and the desire to shock (eating swans and corgis) are fundamental to McGowan’s work. At the end of the evening though, he grins a big grin, and says, ‘I really enjoyed tonight actually’. In retrospect, I think, so did I. But I wouldn’t want it to happen again.