Towards a Forward

Sunday, 11 October 2020

I am always curious whether artists feel it is important for their work to be exhibited; whether it is at all important for others to see, hear, or otherwise experience what they create. As someone interested in psychology and spirituality, I understand a core driver and human desire to be that of acknowledgement and recognition. I don’t mean recognition in the sense of ‘accolade’ or ‘reward’. I am referring to something deeper. Acknowledgement of who we ‘are’. The very right to ‘be’.

Earlier today I had the good fortune to attend the preview of ‘Towards a Foreword’, the first public exhibition by Notes on Hapticity Collective – in collaboration with Print Room, and with curatorial support from Yindi Chen and Alexandre Richardeau – presented at the Art Bar on Rijnhoutplein, Rotterdam. As an added bonus, I was the first visitor, and quite early, so I could spend a good amount of time in the space, with the artworks, and with my own thoughts and feelings. Importantly, for my passion, I also had the chance to look at the artists.

See, though I’ve attended quite a few galleries and exhibitions over the years, I’ve always found them challenging and often frustrating. There is often an expectation to ‘engage’ with the works and formulate ideas about them; to ‘have gotten something’ from certain works I ‘like’. But that never really interests me, and yet I love art. An exhibition is, in my experience, an adventure of following the creation back to its creator, so I tried to listen to what the artworks wanted to tell me about the artists, and what they wanted to tell me about myself.

Just past the entrance, the first work I spent time with was a neat, clean-cut sculpture of concrete, wood and black sand by Kees van Leeuwen. Untitled (2020). The information on the floor plan informed me that Kees is a bunker specialist, and I could feel that in his work. Not because of the elements he used, but because his sculpture has a ‘cross section’ and ‘textbook figure’ aesthetic that wants to teach you what it is. This is amplified by part of the sculpture being a table; an actual means of presentation. It is interesting that it was decided to display this work at the entrance of a building, the literal and only point of access to a real bunker. I saw ‘walls’ enclosing something, just as the outside of a building is on show, rather than the contents. Yet these walls are revealing. There was a rigidity and groundedness to his work, as if to say, ‘This is what you get; this is who I am; there it is; nothing to hide’. And yet bunkers are all about hiding.

Karolina Rupp’s work I noticed through the window even before I entered the space. Suspended in the air, an amorphous fractal of black pond-lining, electrical tape, wire and chains, her Untitled (2020) trades grounding for floating, as if to escape the mortal world of predetermined form, yet is somehow reluctantly bound to this reality. It is through the barely noticeable attachment wires I had a sense of how imperceptibly we are bound to this dimension that continuously shapes and molds us. The way her work is laid out invites you to consider it from different angles and perspectives, an investigation that Karolina’s exploration into elements of chance and the essence of things no doubt finds amusing. Something was being formed from the primordial chaos here. This was a birth, not a death. Standing there, realizing I couldn’t label anything, I felt a sense of, ‘I don’t want to be anyone specific; I can be anything I want to be.’

I hesitantly picked up a paper I at first thought was inadvertently left after someone’s visit, but, being the first one there, I cautiously decided it was ‘part of the experience’. Looking around, checking the floor plan again, I noticed another warped sheet with faint inscription partially dangling from the wall beside me. My attention then scrolled to large decorated panels of paper gently swaying from the ceiling near the exit; in the corner of the L-shaped exhibition space. It was then I had more certainty I was engaging with Inscriptions (2020), Hannah Dawn Henderson’s work. As I walked over to inspect the delicate panels, another early bird who hastily passed through quickly flung open the exit door to leave, producing a gust of wind that sent every page fluttering for balance. Looking down at the one in my hand, my eyes fell on an isolated sentence: “I was petrified”. And for a moment I truly was. Regaining my composure, I became aware of the other elements of her exhibition and noticed that, by now, these tools of the scribe had me surrounded. I was in a story that was still being written. Hannah explores the frailty of incertitude, and her work wrote me a letter that read, ‘I’m not so sure who I am; I’m contemplating; I’m figuring it out’.

Having turned a corner, I was immediately pulled in by the self-assured quality of Tomasz Skibicki’s work. There was a literal and figurative gravity to his three pieces on display. These were truly ‘materials’ I was grinding to consume. Spruce beam, wood-mesh, LCD screen, saw handles, plywood, coffin fabrics from a scrapyard… Even the titles were certain of themselves, stylised to give them a specific identity so as not to be confused with other names: póśą łęftą (2018), ghóśt (2020), and ćhąiń (2020). There was talk of kick-boxing in town, chains spoke of soon being broken, and another work’s ‘eyes’ (though unintentional) reminded me of the mixed martial arts and motocross brand, ‘Bad Boy’. Very assertive. There was no drifting off into daydream at this hour. I was being reminded that we are here to work. It takes determination and resolve to shape an identity, and protecting one will cost you blood, sweat and tears. Tomasz’s work was taking me firmly by the shoulder, looking me in the eye, and saying, ‘This is who I am, and I’m breaking free.’

Had I not seen the floor plan, I may have accidentally overlooked the last work on display. At the very back of the end wall, inconspicuous and quietly abiding, hung two prints by Elena Kostenko. Approaching the larger one, titled Watched (2020), I at first only noticed what looked like a frame of trees through a slightly hazy lens. As I got closer, I noticed what seemed like a labeled design element: a crop line within a cropped image. Mystified over the ‘pixel dimension’ numbers, I suddenly realised there was a human element in the image. It caught me completely off guard. I was looking through a window at someone who was hiding, yet was more aware of me than I was of ‘her’? In the second smaller print, Watch later (2020), my observer was now taunting me, letting me know that ‘she’ was there, but guardedly willing to reveal only chosen aspects. Was this Elena herself or another model? Even the fact that I was looking at a digital print of the original analogue piece had me feel I was only seeing ‘half the picture’. Elena’s work is influenced by her roots in the East and West, allowing her to see both sides, and choose what to present. The fact that she wasn’t yet present when I was there added layers to the riddle. I felt as if her work was whispering, ‘I know who I am, but you won’t find out’.

In our current circumstances of wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other, we are reminded of the struggle for identity; the journey of knowing ourselves. Retracing my steps in ‘Towards a Foreword’, I recalled the entrance, where I first learned how to present myself to society. I remembered the conflict, shortly after, between who I can be, who I want myself to be, and who I am. I recollected thoughts from when I turned a corner to face the uncertainty of my fragile self-discovery, which fuelled the grind to define myself; a grind which incited the rebellion of my persona. I looked back on the memory of how I tried to hide from that confusion; tried to hide from myself. I was forced to turn back and again face the grind and uncertain process of discovery.

These were my experiences, of course, but I enjoy that, to me, the word ‘art’ will always be an archaic form of the word ‘be’, which means art explores elements of who we ‘are’ through what we ‘do’. Who art thou? Who am I? I found it interesting that on the information leaflet, Elena and Tomasz wrote about themselves in the first person, while Hannah, Karolina and Kees wrote about themselves in the third (or chose to be written about, perhaps).

On my way out, reaching for the handle of the exit door, I was reminded of that gust of wind and found myself again in uncertainty. Perhaps I didn’t know who I was yet, but that was okay. In these challenging times, let us remember to acknowledge one another. Art gracefully allows us the discovery that it is only through relationship with each other we are able to learn who we ourselves are. Let our recognition of each other allow us all the right to discover who we are.

To Notes on Hapticity Collective and Print Room I say, ‘I acknowledge you’.