A Gig Economy
The thing about burn-out is that, if you’ve never experienced it, it can creep up on you. Before you know it, it envelops you whole, you hate everything, something that you loved now seems futile.
It comes on and it can take some time to recognise it for what it is. Your brain slowly changes itself - betrays you. An exhaustion settles in that you’ll never be able to sleep off. It stands over you, taking over your entire visual field. You can’t see things in the same way.
The depth of my own burn-out was a slow realisation that made itself glaringly apparent while spending time with Kosmos . The cosmic exhaustion that marks that month-long period still determines the way I remember it. I try to recall the exhibition now in relatively objective terms, go through the motions. There are several building blocks of art writing that you can always return to, even if you don’t care for the work – process, materials, concepts. With these three things I can usually churn out a piece of writing about art, no matter my own individual feelings about the matter. I still can’t do it for Kosmos. Thinking about it returns me back to a moment where I was, at best, indifferent to art. This may seem unfair on the work, but this is a piece about burn-out, not the merits of Kosmos .
Hazard (2018), Cosmos (2018), An organic threat (2018), The way in (2018), Tooth and claw (2018), Do-nut (2011), burn-out . It so naturally sits alongside the exhibition.
During the four-week period of this writing program – when I was spending a lot of time with Kosmos – I did three public talks on cultural diversity in the arts. It was a stupid idea, but I needed to pay the rent. The level of anxiety involved in this work brought on the huge level of burn-out, along with the exhaustion of a brain that can’t stop questioning whether you’re doing the right thing, of a creeping sense of futility.
Walking in to predominantly white spaces and talking about race, with people who generally take themselves to be progressive and on top of racism, is crushing. When you start talking about racialised power to white progressive people you become a cypher for insecurities, guilt, fragility. Your presence is a release valve for that pressure. The presence of one diverse person is signal enough of progress. People talk earnestly with their other white colleagues about how committed they are, how they can do better. I’ve been doing this sort of writing and public speaking for two years, a very short amount of time, but it’s ultimately the repetition of a discussion that has been happening for decades. White people love talking about diversity.
I – and many others – do this sort of work on diversity with the hope that we’re working towards a time where it will never have to be spoken of again. On bad days, it feels like it’s just broadening the world view of a very narrow section of society (white people), without any substantive change. Where the people you work with seem to view structural racial inequality as something that non-white people can fix (‘it’s not my story to tell!’ they say). On a lot of good days it feels like that too, but with the tiniest hint of momentum behind you – around you – in the amazing People of Colour arts community that exists locally; who go out of their way to hold each other up, bust down the door behind them, support each other.
When I reach this level of exhaustion doing diversity work, I re-read parts of Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included . 1 1. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: racism and diversity in institutional life, She writes a lot about walls, as a way of thinking about the institutional barriers that are built from the sediment of their histories – they make themselves apparent when there’s talk of structural change. You can only ever get so far before a wall comes up to block the way. Walls are only ever as porous as an institution will allow, and at the will of the spaces that put them up in the first place, they can be made solid again. The flow of bodies, ideas and power can be oriented by these walls – for some they remain invisible, for others, they always reappear.
Writing can shape who you are. The tiniest sliver of a platform afforded to me in local art discourse has been determined by a couple of essays that I’ve written on race. I can’t switch it off. My hope was that engaging in a program called Writing in the Expanded Field with an exhibition like Kosmos I would allow myself to write or think about something else – it didn’t happen.
Kosmos was a difficult exhibition to be around while I was doing this diversity work. It felt like it was putting up walls on the momentum of the discussion, insofar as it seemed to repeat a pattern often encountered in predominantly white spaces – a tiny step forward is followed by several steps backwards.
Encountering Kosmos felt like running in to a wall. It presented what felt like the antithesis of the work of thinking about power.
The crash of my burnout against this show felt harsh given the momentum that seemed to be building from the previous exhibition in the gallery, the energy of Southbank as a whole, and the flows of discussions in the Australian arts community about its blind spots, about how it excludes. A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness (The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) and Blackie Blackie Brown (Malthouse Theatre) were both presented at the same time in July 2018. They felt like seismic shifts in how we think about art in Australia. Rothschild’s is an exhibition that moves easily with the flow of currents and eddies of power that shape the contemporary art canon. It seemed to do nothing to question it.
Rothschild is interested in the narrative potential latent in purely formal work. Her minimalist sculpture opens up a productive encounter between object and viewer. Usually, if I spend enough time with work there’s a breakthrough, where a point of entry in to the work becomes apparent. A narrative built up through talking about process, materials, concepts, ideas, art history, contemporary contexts, politics, emotions, coalesces and makes itself apparent. The thing with art writing is there’s always an object to return to that can anchor a series of thoughts, or threads of ideas. That the artwork can act as a centre of gravity for the writing.
In that space between myself and the work, all I could feel and project on to the work was my burn-out. The only thing I received back from it was exhaustion. The works felt inert. All I could think about was that pushing back at the interminable whiteness of contemporary art is circular motion, you always end back at the beginning.
I think it’s Do-nut (2011) that did it. Do-nut has the social potential of sculpture at its heart – where the claims of the exhibition being a conversation between space, bodies, sculptural forms seem to all come together in one form. Where the presence of the body has a role in the act of making and experiencing the artwork. It is probably one of the artworks referred to in the exhibition blurb that ‘consider the potential of sculpture as open-form spaces and informal social settings in which to convene and converse’. A sculpture in a gallery that’s a space to sit facing others, to facilitate conversation, or some sort of social interaction, but you were not allowed to sit on the work (and galleries can be an awkward space to talk to others).
The dynamics of power within a gallery space made themselves most apparent in this work, it is a ‘social sculpture’ that must have a phenomenal insurance value because of the profile of the artist, which is only increased by her imminent participation in the Venice Biennale. The presence of your body doesn’t act to make or experience the artwork, it serves as a liability to the value of it. The works felt like social sculpture that could only be viewed from the sidelines. As you grind against the limits of cultural participation that is depending on access to power, walls always reassert themselves.
There’s an Eva Rothschild piece that I love that was glaringly missing from this exhibition: Boys and Sculpture (2012). Interestingly, this work will be included in the City of Wellington iteration. I feel like it’s omission from the ACCA exhibition is a lost opportunity to draw out the tensions between the power within the gallery space and the presence and materiality of Rothschild’s sculptures. I believe these are questions that are latent in her work, provided the right activation, the right context, the right curation.
Boys and Sculpture is a strong performance. It uses the power and elitism ascribed to Rothschild’s work and brings it apart, it draws out that tension and lets it fester. The sort of air that one would assume could be found in Rothschild’s work is broken down. That these incredibly valuable works are given over to young boys , asks questions that Kosmos as it stands is unable to.
I spent a lot of time with this exhibition. And the main thing I recall about it is the rate at which the gallery attendants were required to ask visitors not to get too close to the work. If you’re meant to ‘navigate [your] own corporeality in proximity to the work, the composition of the exhibition, and the architecture of the gallery’, this navigation is one that is highly monitored, controlled, according to the value and mores and power that is ascribed to the work. Don’t get too close to it. Only certain bodies can be the ones to activate it – to complete it – to constitute its meaning as an artwork.