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…proper chaos and gentle aftercare

Marten Esko (4/2021)

Marten Esko on Jeremy Shaw's large-scale video, sound and light work at Kumu.




8. X 2021–20. II 2022
Kumu Art Museum, Great Hall
Coordinator: Kati Ilves



What can I say from personal experience? When I heard that Jeremy Shaw's "Phase Shifting Index", originally displayed at the Centre Pompidou in 2020, was coming to Kumu, it was one of the few genuinely surprising things to expect from 2021. My own experience last year as curator showing his earlier video work "Liminals" (2017)1 and especially viewing the work on site at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) had been remarkably uplifting. This experience (as viewer) was something that is difficult or rather impossible to put into words without falling back on generalisations. So, to put it in very general terms, it was an immersive and carefully progressing experiential journey that used a single projection screen, 5.1-channel sound, clean aestheticised (grey) space and various video formats. It had an intriguingly deceptive beginning, initially imperceptible tension building, a cathartic culmination, followed by proper chaos and gentle aftercare.

Among other things, this brief collaboration (as curator) also made me somewhat familiar with his latest project, as communication with Shaw's studio went more or less in parallel with the completion of "Phase Shifting Index" at the Centre Pompidou.2 Still, it was hard to believe the rumour that that project would also be coming to Kumu. But it turned out that anything is possible when acting at the right time and doing a great job – on 7. X 2021, the show opened in Kumu.

Until then, I had kept myself in an information vacuum regarding the project, knowing only that Shaw's new work existed and was essentially an elaboration of the "Quantification Trilogy"3 series, shown on seven screens. But as the opening day arrived, my anticipation slowly started to grow. In addition to the hype in Kumu's press release, which described this powerful big-screen vision of the future playfully balancing between fiction and documentary,4 a long interview with Shaw was published on Estonian Public Broadcasting's cultural portal on the opening day of the exhibition, where Shaw mentions enjoying this kind of confusion that derives from the way the work is structured, and is not necessarily attempting to say something specific with it.5

Although the opening event started out with a fairly ordinary rhythm, the way the audience behaved after the speeches was rather uncommon. Of course, it's nice, if a little unusual, when most of the audience lingers in the exhibition space after the event, without paying the usual amount of attention to the wine and snacks. It happens. However, the fact that the culmination of the video was followed by applause from the audience, and that this happened again and again, was something I had never experienced before. It seemed strange, but not inappropriate, because the work does operate at a level that can provoke applause. Moreover, everyone I remember meeting later at the event was immediately able to comment on their wonderful or shocking experience, or offer a more harsh description. Interestingly, though, no one really talked about the content, if I may use this term.

I also felt elated, once again, and putting aside emotions and thinking about what the work was actually about, my experience was still rather positive. I wasn't even really annoyed that not all the expectations based on promises had been (or could have been) fulfilled, but there was still something that didn't feel right and that set "Quantification Trilogy" apart from "Phase Shiftig Index", especially since the latter is built on almost exactly the same structure that I mentioned above – an intriguingly deceptive beginning, initially imperceptible tension building, a cathartic culmination, followed by proper chaos and gentle aftercare. But this something that set the two works apart from one another was the fact that the "intriguingly deceptive beginning" had ceased to be as intriguing or deceptive.

 

 

 

Jeremy Shaw
Phase Shifting Index
2020
Seven-screen video, sound and light work,
total duration 36’
Exhibition view at Kumu Art Museum
Photographer Aron Urb

 

 

 

As in "Quantification Trilogy", the somewhat shorter narratives in "Phase Shifting Index" interwove science and religion, technology and spiritualism in general terms, but also flirted with the theories and concepts of quantum physics specifically, although for the viewer, the latter largely remained at a merely verbal level of signifiers. The narrator, reminiscent of a BBC documentary, makes these signifiers sound meaningful, seeking to convince the viewer that the "evolutionary state of mimetic transformation" and "the combination of free energy and perturbation theory resulting from the direction of energy flows" are undoubtedly something concrete. But hearing a similar story from seven parallel screens, it sounds far less deceptive and not intriguing enough to invite you to dive deeper, not to mention the general atmosphere that made it difficult to concentrate, or the fact that you should watch the whole work seven times over in order to follow each of the individual narratives. Still, by the end of the opening day, I had to admit that it was a great work of art, and if I weren't familiar with the artist's earlier works, or if "Quantification Trilogy" did not exist, it would be very difficult to complain.

A week or so later, the first substantial coverage appeared in the daily and weekly newspapers. First, Postimees published an interview with the artist by Juhan Raud, followed by a review by Sveta Grigorjeva; Eesti Ekspress published an interview by Maria Arusoo. At the same time, I received a request to write a review for KUNST.EE, which motivated me to delve into previous reviews as well as the local coverage in Estonia because the work had previously been shown at the Centre Pompidou and Frankfurter Kunstverein.6 What surprised me at first was the friction between the two pieces in Postimees, mainly concerning visions of the future, but then also the fact that previous reviews did not seem to focus on this issue at all. What I have in mind is outlined in the following two quotes:

"Jeremy Shaw is one of the most important visual artists today. He uses 21st-century tools to explore the future of the human condition."7

"What is particularly strange about the exhibition is that the works, which seem to be intended as pointing to a possible future world for us, instead show a caricature of holism. [---] Despite all the apparent utopia, to me the show still seems to perpetuate the status quo and existing structures of oppression."8

It is not even that important here whether this confusion stems from the great PR promises about what the artwork "does" or from what Shaw himself observed in the interview for Postimees: "People have a weird relationship to documentaries: they are always laden with their creators' value judgements, but watching these old media, they immediately strike us as somehow more authoritative and authentic. We tend to treat what is presented in these formats as fact."9 However that may be, observing the work even moderately closely (or rather abstracting away from the details), it doesn't really talk about a conceivable future. Although it does tell us in retrospect about something that, from our perspective, could perhaps be seen as the future – events that have mostly taken place in the 22nd century – but this is a formal device rather than a prophecy.

Based on the texts – for example, the exhibition booklet that visitors can pick up in Kumu – these narratives of 22nd-century subcultures can be construed as vignettes of science fiction. But if we also take into account the visual side of the exhibition, which is plainly anachronistic in relation to the narratives and provides an obvious and quite realistic imitation of the aesthetics of various decades of the 20th century, then things get kind of confusing. With some reservations, this could be seen as something between retrofuturism-flavoured sci-fi and superficial hysterical realism, but I don't see much point in digging this deep, especially when still only talking about the beginning of the work and not the work as a whole.

An over-serious take on a relatively playful piece also inhibits the less serious, but no less real, parallel spaces for interpretation suggested by the work. As an example of a less serious interpretation, "Phase Shifting Index" could be seen as a mockumentary-like parody of different club scenes. Given the artist's background10 and adopted place of residence,11 as well as the suspicious resemblance between the spelling of MDNA – for "machine DNA", which is referred to in several of the narratives – and MDMA,12 this interpretation does not seem purely arbitrary. On the other hand, these stories can be seen as hysterical realism type of social criticism – for example, drawing parallels between "unit dependence" or "virtual trauma" and screen dependency or social media addiction. Similar interpretations abound, but the question "Does this work mean all these things?" cannot be answered. Concrete meaning is something that the work does not offer, and the meanings that arise in the viewers will inevitably remain superficial due to being inadvertent; they are most likely forgotten as soon as the low frequencies kick in and catharsis beckons. In its own way, the work is confusing enough, in terms of its different levels of reference and largely intentional contradictions, so that any concrete meaning would simply ruin the party.

What stands out when looking at the work as a whole, then, is the word "experience" and the way the innumerable references, apparent meanings and impressions are composed into a harmonious whole; and it is sound13 that plays a crucial role as a kind of guide, with the futuristic narratives operating more like a warm-up act. As an experience, "Phase Shifting Index" is, in the end, a set of signs. While, unfortunately, it does not allow the indexed to take centre stage, the shortcomings that are due to its panoramic and synchronised anxiety seem to allow the work to provide an even more authentic reflection of our time and its deficiencies, as well as the expectations we place on art.

 

1 See more at https://www.ekkm.ee/naitused/tiger-in-space/. – Ed.

2 See more at https://www.centrepompidou.fr/en/program/calendar/event/cEgea94. – Ed.

3 Jeremy Shaw's earlier series of video works, including "Quickeners" (2014), "Liminals" (2017) and "I Can See Forever" (2018).

4 The press release is available here: https://www.sirp.ee/s3-pressiteated/kumu-kunstimuuseum-toob-eestisse-2020-aasta-rahvevahelise-tippnaituse/.

5 Ave Häkli, Shaw: ma ei ürita teosega "Phase Shifting Index" ilmtingimata midagi öelda. – kultuur.err.ee 7. X 2021.

6 For those interested, I recommend reading Kristian Vistrup Madsen's article "Dance Dance Revelation" in Artforum (11. XI 2020) and Francesca Gavini's review "Jeremy Shaw's Exit Strategy for a Technology-Driven World" in Frieze (24. IV 2020) and to some extent also Lilian Davies' thoughts in "Jeremy Shaw 'Phase Shifting Index' at Centre Pompidou / Paris" in Flash Art (18. IV 2020).

7 Juhan Raud, Ekstaas, tants ja narko – mees, kes teeb Kumus kulda. – Postimees 16. X 2021.

8 Sveta Grigorjeva, Tantsivad utopistid tekitavad küsimusi. – Postimees 13. X 2021.

9 Juhan Raud, Ekstaas, tants ja narko – mees, kes teeb Kumus kulda. – Postimees 16. X 2021.

10 On the one hand, Shaw's (artistic) interest in both subcultures and ecstatic, cathartic or psychedelic experiences, and on the other hand, his previous international career as a musician and DJ, especially his Circlesquare project.

11 Berlin.

12 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA is an amphetamine derivative that is on the list of prohibited narcotic and psychotropic substances in many countries, including Estonia. – Ed.

13 The soundtrack for the videos is, of course, by the artist himself, in collaboration with Todd Shillington.

 

Marten Esko is a curator, art worker, exhibition organiser and art writer. He is a board member of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) and managed the museum from 2016 to 2020. Since 2015, he has also been a board member of the Tallinn Print Triennial.

 

Quotation corner: "Unlike science fiction films, I do not speculate on what the future might look like and what could happen there; I submit my own proposal. It is based on the visually highly recognisable pictorial language of the 1950s–1990s, 16 mm films and VHS recordings, but the textual part is distorted and tells a story taking place 50, 200 or 500 years from now. [---] I use nostalgia almost like a weapon – it's a way for me to create a sense of familiarity and comfort in the viewer. [---] As Canada is a British colony, I grew up watching BBC documentaries, where a God-like male voice delivers narration that seemed like an authoritative and unshakable truth. [---] When I hear British English, it is coded in my brain that you, Jeremy, must believe this! [---] The biggest conceptual question in my films is that if people lose the ability and need to believe, and everything becomes purely pragmatic and instrumentalised, then how do we get back to humanity from there." – Maria Arusoo, Kunstnik Jeremy Shaw: keskkoolis hakkasin lisaks ecstasy'le ja teistele peodroogidele tarvitama ka tugevaid psühhedeelikume. – Eesti Ekspress 3. XI 2021.

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