The Problem With Exhibitions About “The Times We Live In”

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The Problem With Exhibitions About “The Times We Live In”

Upon emerging from the United Kingdom’s third national lockdown into the summer of 2021, the first thing I wanted to do was visit an art gallery. The art galleries I visited, however, only wanted me to revisit what had happened in the previous year. At Talbot Rice gallery in Edinburgh, for instance, The Normal proclaimed itself to be “a vivid reflection of life during the pandemic”; UNTITLED: Art on the Conditions of Our Time at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge offered artworks by Black British artists that “ask important questions about some of the most important cultural and political issues of our turbulent times.” Yet the noble ambitions of these shows also doom them to be, in effect, listicles: box-ticking exercises that struggle to meaningfully speak to the issues of our sociocultural moment.

Any recap of what happened in 2020, after all, feels like a 21st-century rewrite of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”: the COVID-19 pandemic; the amplification of Black Lives Matter and associated antiracist movements; climate crisis; post-truth politics; ever-worsening disparities in wealth, gender, and class. It is suspiciously easy to reel off the monumental sociocultural, political, and technological changes of the last 18 months. And, for The Normal and UNTITLED — and any show that centers itself around “the times we live in” — that’s the problem.

Admittedly, this is not an entirely new problem: Broadly thematic shows always risk superficiality for breadth. UNTITLED itself is framed by its curator Paul Goodwin as an alternative to the traditional Black survey show that reductively takes Blackness as its organizing principle. In contrast, UNTITLED is presented as a dual conversation about Black British identity and the “conditions of our time.” Nor is it wrong for contemporary arts spaces to respond to — or be stimulated by — the turbulence of the last two years. The unprecedented speed and scope of contemporary sociocultural change, however, has only exacerbated the preexisting limitations of the zeitgeist theme and format to the point of untenability.

Installation view of UNTITLED: Art on the Conditions of Our Time at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 

The Events of 2020 are, after all, extensive yet tantalizingly itemizable and can be boiled down into an exhaustive list that maps neatly onto individual artworks. At The Normal, this results in an experience not unlike playing 2020 bingo. Ecological devastation? See James Webb’s insertion of “foreign” birdsong into local environments. Rape culture? See Gabrielle Goliath’s sonic reworking of trauma through music. Racism, BLM? See BLKNWS, Kahlil Joseph’s broadcast of Black culture and experiences. Climate crisis, gender violence, racism: check, check, and check.  

I do not intend to suggest that the common presence of artworks focused on issues like Black identity or sexual violence in multiple zeitgeist shows should be cynically reduced to identity politics. Any art show that seeks to respond to the “current moment” will naturally address the same topics and issues. My issue with the zeitgeist format is that these shows end up almost indistinguishable from each other, with little engagement between the artworks that constitute the show and the gallery in which they sit — the question of why this artwork is exhibited, in this space, in this city, is left unanswered. If a prescriptive list of what happened in 2020 structures the pandemic-zeitgeist show, any nuance between individual shows at different galleries is quickly ironed out. This inevitably begs the question: what is the value of multiple, concurrent art shows that speak to their contemporary circumstances, if they say similar if not identical things?

One might argue that the exhibition of different artworks is justification enough for multiple zeitgeist shows at different galleries, that even if the broad strokes are the same, that individual pieces may approach similar topics in distinct ways. This is an uncompelling reason to persist with this exhibition format: If a show like The Normal must nod to a range of sociocultural issues, it ends up attributing broadly one artwork per issue. Although the issues of 2020 are not discrete or disconnected — virology and ecological crisis, for instance, are causally related — it is hard not to see individual artworks as undermined by their being slotting into a listicle framework, as are the expansive issues to which they speak.

Given that you could curate entire shows around the single issue of virology, or eco-crisis, the tentative conversation offered by zeitgeist shows on such matters will always feel unfinished, unsatisfying. As a result, these shows feel like the curatorial equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall, seeing how much (if any) sticks. I won’t blame underpaid and overworked gallery staff for being unable to meaningfully process everything that has happened in the last year in a single show — especially when the “conditions of our time” remain ongoing realities rather than abstract concepts. The limitations of the zeitgeist format are just that: formal.

The listicle-ness of the format may be transcended, however, by commissioning new artworks that speak to contemporary issues and their gallery context. A new installation by Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom for UNTITLED, for instance, is delicately sensitive to the uniquely domestic rhythms of Kettle’s Yard as the former home of British art collector Jim Ede. Boakye-Yiadom uses music recorded on the pianos in Ede’s old house to think through domesticity, (in)visibility, and performance — themes with obvious relevance to an audience only recently told to stay at home. Similarly, at Talbot Rice, Edinburgh’s changing ecology during the first coronavirus lockdown is magically visualized by Tonya McMullan in honey slides, arranged like swatches of yellow and amber paint: Paradoxically, the ephemera of lockdown is preserved, crystallized, and curated.  

Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, “After: Many Long Conversations” (2021), bespoke divider screens, digital C-type prints, speakers, shelving

There is no question of how or where McMullan and Boayke-Yiadom’s works fit within their respective display spaces. Yet they are outliers within shows tenuously constituted by artworks that are jumbled, distinct elements cobbled together by the woolly concept of “the times we live in.” While contemporary art doubtless has much to say about the last year, it clearly needs more time to figure out how to start and continue these conversations.

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