Friday, March 5, 2021

ARTSPEAK: Who needs it?

Recently, I posted to Facebook this artists’ statement in the Gagosian Gallery’s February 17th press release about sculptor/painter Adriana Varejão:
"My work is always in the territory of hybridity. All of my content is built in terms of decolonizing subjectivities, because it deals with countless cultural references, not only from official history, but also from many other hidden or obscured histories that lie at the margins."
As anyone who has read my blog or Facebook posts is aware, I’ve long crusaded against artspeak to the point that a few years ago, in the Guggenheim Museum, railing obviously all too audibly to a friend about the wall text, a woman near me asked, “Are you Carol Diehl?” But this press release was over the top—and the more than 100 comments on my post let me know I was not alone in my reaction.
The gallery, however, must have realized that more explanation was needed, so they extrapolated:
"Varejão’s rich and diverse oeuvre embodies the mythic pluralism of Brazilian identity and the complex social, cultural, and aesthetic interactions that created it. Based in Rio de Janeiro, Varejão draws upon a potent visual legacy informed by the stories of colonialism and transnational exchange to create a confluence of forms that exposes the multivalent nature of representation, history, and memory."
The release includes a portrait of the very photogenic Varejão, her eyes gazing up soulfully into the camera as she reclines in her studio on a leather couch adorned with accidental/intentional paint handprints, surrounded by the detritus of art-making, randomly positioned to indicate the busy workplace of a serious artist whose work is worth a lot of money—and indeed, as her Wikipedia page informs us, she holds the auction record for a Brazilian artist with a $1.8 million sale in 2011. The release included no image of her painting because it is from a new and yet unseen series that will be revealed…dum-de-dum-dum… a week hence on the Gagosian website and available for sale for 48 hours only—accompanied by a short film featuring a time-lapse sequence documenting the making of the support for a tile painting, “the first time the artist has ever revealed her working process to the public eye.”
The suspense is killing me.
Meanwhile, research reveals a backstory. Varejão used to be married to one Bernardo Paz, a Brazilian art collector (ARTnews “Top 200”), mining magnate, and creator of the Instituto Imhotim, a nature preserve that contains one of the largest outdoor art centers in Latin America, featuring art by internationally celebrated artists and a pavilion dedicated to Varejão’s work. In 2017, Paz was sentenced to jail for nine years and three months for money laundering related to the institute. Later, Frieze reports, other allegations about Paz’s business practices came forth, including claims of violating environmental law and use of child labor in his charcoal production business, causing him to ultimately resign from the Imhotim’s board and cede ownership of important works. In February, 2020, ARTnews reported that Paz was acquitted of the money-laundering charges and although the government can still appeal, Paz’s lawyer said it was unlikely they would, given that “the laundering occurred through a criminal organization wasn’t part of Brazilian law until 2013, and the alleged wrongdoing happened some six years prior.”
But I digress. What were we talking about? Oh yes, confounding statements, which are particularly mystifying when coming from Gagosian, who can afford the best writers in the world. However artist David Levine, who has studied the artspeak phenomenon, suggests in the Guardian that it could have a commercial application: “The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work, the more you can keep the value high."
Ah, so chances are Gagosian’s use of artspeak is intentional, just another means of protecting a work’s monetary value—and perhaps increasing it by sounding politically current and “woke” (anything that includes the words “colonialism” or “pluralism”) while vending an artist who is clearly not of the underclass, and promoting transactions in an unregulated market that functions to exacerbate income disparity.
Artspeak has been around a long time, but it now seems particularly egregious, yet another fiction thrown at us as truth in an era where we are drowning in a tsunami of hype and propaganda. If anything qualifies as “fake news,” this press release is it. I recall Adam Curtis’s prescient 2016 film, “HyperNormalisation,” the title a term coined by a Russian professor of anthropology, Alexei Yurchak, who emigrated to the United States. In his 2006 book, "Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More," Yurchak wrote about the paradoxes of Soviet life in the 1970s and 1980s when, although it was clear that the system was failing, no one could conceive of an alternative, and therefore went along with the status quo. Eventually the fakeness became accepted as real—hence hypernormalisation.
Today’s hazy mental climate of illusion and delusion requires that we keep critically observant while constantly asking ourselves, what is reality? – even as it seems to slip further from our grasp. However, should it be of some comfort, one thing is absolutely certain: if and when reality does decide to present itself, it will not come shrouded in a cloak of decolonized subjectivity and hybridity.


Note: Adam Curtis's film, Hypernormalisation can be watched on YouTube here.

Photo: Adriana Varejão in her studio, courtesy of Gagoisan Gallery.

Carol Diehl (c) 2021

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