Spectacles. Speculations… exhibition review by Billie McTernan
Imagine you are watching some action on a digital screen and the screen goes blank. The sound continues but you see nothing. You keep your eyes on the screen urging the action to return to it. You shuffle in your seat. You look around you. You desire it. What if the action, as you saw it, never returns. Instead another image appears on the screen and it is of you. You are now looking at yourself, looking at yourself.
Curator Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh introduces the exhibition hall for ‘Spectacles. Speculations…‘ as a laboratory, a testing ground for visual and auditory stimuli. The exhibition seeks “an experimental exhibitionary approach to analysing the contemporary condition of the image given its immanence of aesthetics and politics,” he writes in his curatorial statement. To this end Ohene-Ayeh focuses on spectacles by way of mass media, advertising, and the Internet. Tools of our time used to transmit, and receive, information.
Pointing to the last century, he further describes the spectacle as “a regime of images manufactured by ruling classes to subvert reality and indeed to replace it.” It is the means by which the global power struggle between capitalist, socialist, communist and fascist ideologies played out in the arts – in film in particular – and the way images were used and disseminated as a means of justifying causes. In the current age, as capitalism rules supreme, images are created to feed an appetite of consumerism. By regime, a word associated with political oppression, there is little room to mistake the curator’s misgivings about the modern way images are presented.
To think about the image I look to philosopher Vilém Flusser’s forward-looking essay – first published in 1985 – Into the Universe of Technical Images. In which he writes:
“Technical images are currently connected so that their senders are at the center of society, places from which the images are broadcast to scatter and disperse the society.”
With the propensity of social and digital media, we are in the position to increasingly observe but not necessarily interact with each other. He points to the illusionary nature of these centres of society, the subversion of reality.
He later adds:
“They are like the proverbial onion: layer after layer comes away, but when everything has been understood, explained, there’s nothing left. It appears that no one and nothing lies at the center of contemporary society: senders are nothing but those dimensionless points from which the media bundles stream.”
Where Flusser views this as a non-place that has developed from an increasingly automated and functionary use of technology, here, in this room filled with screens and video projections it feels as though we have stepped into a control room. A physical behind-the-scenes place we would normally not have access to.
One of the most striking pieces in the show is ‘Fooding‘ by Poku Mensah, who, like a roasted turkey, is crouched, tied up and gagged on a chopping board, while hands grab the potatoes and oranges on plates around him. Occasionally a meat cleaver is clenched and a piece of bread wiped along his back. When the artist, in his portrayal, looks around the room he is in and occasionally looks into the camera there is a sense of desperation. It is uncomfortable to watch and yet I can’t take my eyes off of it. I feel like a voyeur, passively observing the destruction and exploitation of his body.
On four screens, adjacent to each other, we watch a sequence of a man performing sequences of Karate katas. It would seem that he has mastered those steps, he moves methodically, carrying out a ritual. Through Kwabena Afriyie Poku‘s installation we are peering into his space, his process, watching his hands sway, the thrust of his leg and stamp of his feet. Though less harmful than that of the previous piece, the voyeuristic feeling returns.
There is a fly stuck to an old television screen, in a piece by María Leguízamo. At first glance it appears to be inside the box, part of the image that is being shown. But as you get closer, as you put your nose up against it, you see that it has been stuck on. Let’s take ourselves to be the fly. Edging ever closer to the alluring images on our screens until one day, we are stuck.
The three-month long exhibition culminates with the screening of a black box theatre production by MENonBLACK, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In the piece the protagonist is arrested and charged with a crime that is unknown to him and unknown to the state that has charged him. The dangerous absurdity that comes with an almost deranged system is cutting. What if the order flips? How does one know what should be considered normal or just when the establishment is ultimately flawed?
A Big Brother of sorts appears in different parts of the exhibition. There are the serialised face masks by Edwin Bodjawah that run across the wall and the ceiling upon entering the exhibition hall, and a live camera feed overhead recording the visitors seeing themselves seeing things.
‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ encourages viewers to question what they consume. It encourages a questioning of the systems that propagate that consumption and the question about who benefits from our consumptions. We are reminded here that data is king. The hottest commodity of our time.
To drive home this point a more deliberate social media campaign by the curatorial team would have been welcomed. A considered anti-campaign approach to counter what fills our mobile and laptop devices. Though the exhibition hall as a centre for the points of consideration was fulfilled, interaction through newer technologies and platforms on which these issues currently play out could have been more engaging.
While Flusser posits that there is nothing at the centre of contemporary society, no “dark men behind the scenes or gray eminences with evil intentions that can be exposed,” Spectacles suggests that these sinister beings do indeed exist, or at least a sinister system, couched in purposeful manipulation to control thought and subvert reality. But we are not removed from this system. We are both the senders and receivers of images. We also create, and curate, our own spectacles.
As the visitors shuffle around the exhibition hall I watch them through the live camera feed. I catch a glimpse of myself and check that my hair is not out of place or my clothes dishevelled. I look around with caution to see if anyone noticed. I can’t tell. Maybe there is another camera in the room, watching from some undetected place.
— Billie A. McTernan is a writer and editor covering the arts, culture and political affairs across Africa and the black diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @billie_mac.
Read more about the Exhibition here.