Towards a Strategy of Weakness
Olafur Gislason‘s artistic oeuvre is exemplary of a cultural production of the late 20th and early 21st century which transcends the limitations for which the term avant-garde stands. This production is beyond the criticism of being labelled neo-avant-garde or being classed as the mere reiteration of artistic positions of the sixties or seventies, as its objectives and approach have in many respects outgrown the dialectics implicit in the notion of the avant-garde. Gislason‘s work is not about a desire for a radical renewal, nor is it a matter of an antagonistic attitude towards previous artistic aims, practices or institutions. The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, referring to the artistic practices of postmodernism, speaks of an explosion of aesthetics beyond its traditional boundaries: “This explosion becomes, for instance, a negation of the places which had traditionally been assigned to aesthetic experience, such as the concert hall, the theatre, the gallery, the museum, and the book. A series of developments (…) which appear somewhat more limited in regard to the revolutionary metaphysical ambitions of the earlier avant-garde movements, but also more concretely within reach for contemporary artistic experience. No longer is art to be rendered out-of-date and suppressed by a future revolutionary society; rather, the experience of art as an integral aesthetic fact is immediately to be sought out.“ (Gianni Vattimo et al: The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991, p. 53.)
In Gislason‘s case, as with other artists of his generation, this explosion can be seen in the explosion of the work of art as such – yet equally and more specifically it becomes manifest in his doing away with the classical notion of the artist, the notion of an outstanding, unique author. In many of Gislason´s works, the point is not the abolition of authorship, but rather its detonation and fragmentation, allowing the construction of an intricate frame of reference that embraces the complexity of multiple authorship. In this frame of reference it is no longer individual subjects who take the foreground; rather the emphasis is on the frame of reference itself and its suitability as a mechanism for complex and many-voiced processes of subjectivation.
All the projects of Gislason focus in a similar way on the cathartic and conceivably vital function of speaking, of articulating oneself: It is this focus that makes it clear that Gislason‘s work is miles away from a sociological approach of establishing individuals within an abstract and pre-set frame of reference with quantifiable data. His work is never about sociological observation, but about a (possibly even fictitious) self-determined location of those involved in the project from a purely inward perspective. It is this process of self-expression, of aesthetic articulation, that is the decisive factor in overcoming predesignated limiting and objectifying categories – members of a particular social class, migrant, patient, worker –, to replace them with individual and active subjects. The crucial step that takes place in Gislason‘s work is precisely not speaking about people as part of a certain group or category – a stance which has become the object of criticism in a variety of different areas of discourse –, but rather communicating with a multitude of authors relating to each other within the context of a particular given issue and presenting a multi-voiced individual articulation.
Gislason develops a frame of reference, chooses a group of co-authors and establishes connections at different points. This frame of reference takes the place of a static notion of the work of art as such, and simultaneously sets up a framework of contingency. In many cases this frame takes as its starting point a specific situation found in the outer world, within which different subjects relate to each other, and transfers this situation into the work of art and the exhibition space. It is the framework of this contingency, the idea of acting within certain determined coordinates, that breaks with the traditional concept of the primacy of the indifference of aesthetic expression derived from Kantian thinking.
Bringing these encounters and contingent situations into a museum or gallery context represents a radical shift. This makes it all the more evident that under normal circumstances that is exactly what constitutes that which is lacking in the museum of art, as its raison d’être and the unquestioned nature of its social function still embraces its role as guardian of the autonomy of the artistic expression, a role which entails keeping societal conflicts of the present at a remove.
Yet while the clearly antagonistic attitude inherent in the critical gestures of the sixties and seventies meant they remained directly dependent on their object of critique, Gislason‘s work transcends these limitations. His projects are exemplary of an artistic practice that turns its back on the institutions to re-enter them, as it were, through the backdoor, transforming them not only by introducing current social conflict, but also through the co-authorship of the protagonists of this very social conflict and a new concept of subjectivity. In Gislason´s artistic approach, the breach with the concept of a singular author and of an object-related concept of a “work of art“ in favour of a process of reflection that perceives one‘s own subjectivity as a platform for other subjective sensibilities constitutes one of the most problematic issues of contemporary thought, i.e. the surrender of a strong sense of self in favour of a formulation that gives scope for interdependence. Vattimo refers to a change of paradigm which gradually took place within the philosophical development of the 20th century to be most fully realised in postmodernism: the transition of the concept of “strength“ (or force), entailing notions such as “grandeur, evidence, definiteness and permanence – and also, probably, (…) domination“ (op. Cit., p. 60), to a pensiero debole, a thinking of “weakness“.
Such a concept of “weakness“, applied to artistic and perhaps also potentially to social practice, might suggest a solution to one of the most crucial issues of social co-existence and integration in our time: How is a complex and subtly diversified system feasible, in which different concepts of living and diverse traditions can be thought and lived in simultaneity, without streamlining or negating individual and collective subjectivities.
Gislason’s projects investigate the bases and conditions in which communities are formed and emphasize the need for continuous renegotiation within these structures. His works stipulate social interaction based on the potentials and capacities of single individuals, and at the same time of a multiplicity of individuals, to express themselves. Perhaps in these multi-voiced and contingent models put forward by Gislason‘s projects there is a blueprint for a practice of “weak thinking“, offering a starting point for a social practice based on the concept of weakness. This “practice of weakness“ requires mutual respect, which has nothing to do with the “repressive tolerance“ (cf. Marcuse) implicit in conventional notions of the “multicultural society“; it calls for the ability and willingness of the individual and society to absorb the simultaneous expression of diverse viewpoints of speakers and actors into the space of their own subjectivity, and so for each individual to become the site of a continuous many-voiced negotiation and agreement.
Summary of a text by Christiane Mennicke, director of Kunsthaus Dresden, written 2003, translated by Ruth Feuchtwanger. Find the whole text at www.olafurgislason.de