Nature / Culture
Along with modern art interested in abstraction, the white cube was an aesthetic that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. “With an emphasis on colour and light, artists from groups like De Stijl and the Bauhaus preferred to exhibit their works against white walls in order to minimise distraction. The white walls were also thought to act as a (neutral) frame, rather than the borders of a photograph1.” But, who still believes that white is neutral after 2020?
Through the book Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty questioned the white cube already in 1976. He pointed out that inside the white cube every object became almost sacred, making the reading of art problematic. The mythification of art is already complicated in itself, yet another layer that builds on to what O’Doherty already exposed, is the belief that the white cube is neutral. The white cube isolates us from our context and prevents us from a direct dialogue with the environments that surround us. What does this division imply? Does it in some way resonate with the modernist dualities of culture/nature, civilized/savage and human/subhuman?
Breaking the Walls
As an effect of two of the most immediate consequences of COVID-19 – the restriction of public gatherings followed by economic reductions – the cultural sector was severely impacted.
One of the impacts is described by Biennale of Sydney CEO Barbara Moore as: “If anything, COVID-19 has reminded us of how art in various ways brings us together and keeps us connected and makes us feel good.”
It was not precisely due to the white cube, though. On the contrary, the exhibitions on the digital realm, along with those taking place in public spaces or those using front windows, terraces, or other semi public infrastructures, allowed art to be more reachable and accessible to a wider public than before. Suddenly, we did not have to come to where art usually was, art came to us. Who would have thought that working with the restrictions of what is available locally, with what’s accessible economically and with what’s health wise secure, has contributed to diversifying the modes of exhibition?
In Berlin for example, Universität der Künste, for its end-of-the-academic-year exhibition KUNST RAUM STADT, reserved about 200 sq. meters of public space along its headquarters so that all affiliated artists or cultural producers could install and develop artistic concepts publicly. I found this approach well thought because it allowed a great variety of grass-root approaches that established a dialogue broader than the one between artworks or pieces inside a room, also including people in everyday life situations and related directly with the neighbourhood where the main building of the University is located.
The University Open days were lead by the #exitracismUdK protest, a demonstration which examined, denounced and made visible daily life situations of discrimination within the academic environment. There were also diverse manifestations of art including the rental of a truck to exhibit artworks inside it, public space projections, outdoor performances and installations, door concerts where the program was written in the ground, posters attached to trees or standing in the sidewalk, among others.
Weißensee Kunsthochschule, another renowned academy of the arts in Berlin had some alluring approaches for its Rundgang: it rented a boat where spectators could reserve a free place and get a ride full of scultoritc manifestations and performances. Additionally, the academy offered an offline program with exhibitions on parks and other public places of the city.
It has also been interesting to see how other spaces, such as KOW gallery chose to exhibit some of the art works from their storage rooms. The curatorial text stated: “Now, as a monthslong lockdown on the entire art world comes to an end, we give ourselves the gift of another exhibition starring some of our old flames. Works of art that no one sees are tragic creatures. Locked away, languishing in obscurity, pictures, sculptures, and videos can’t meditate on what they mean, can’t quietly grow and mature — indeed, they can’t even despair”. A white cube with no spectators, can easily become a tragic place.
It is amusing to examine the correlationality of such proposals with their carbon footprint, and realize they are the lowest in years. At Gropius Bau, a large art venue in Berlin, the exhibition “ Down to Earth” proposed several modifications to how museums normally operate, and developed an exhibition based on environmental considerations. From the chosen materials, to the fact that it is an unplugged exhibition which implied no air travel, “Down to Earth” is proof that we can rethink the operational system of the white cube.
As the exhibition catalogue suggested, ““Down to Earth” will focus on the boundary of Nature and Culture and how it can become porous. An important element will be its audit of its own “operating system”: 20 °C and 50% humidity in the exhibition hall — how did that come about? How did our predecessors come to prescribe this standard of modernity for museums? How did they work in this building before air conditioning? How does our air conditioning work and where is it exactly? Which hotels are ecologically viable? Which companies, how will our program change if the people working with us had to come by train? Turn off the air conditioning and the lights — open the windows! But then, the insurance of the loans is at stake and the corona restrictions pose a problem, and the large collections and museums would never lend us anything again. And if we open the windows, then only with fly screens anyway, otherwise animals and insects will get in. (…) Life stays outside and only death soil is allowed in.”
If life is to stay outside the white cube, and only the portrayal of such is allowed inside, maybe in 2021, as Irmgard Emmelhainz suggests, we need to go from representation and recognition to relationality and reciprocity and to place relationality before aesthetics: “In relationality, alterity is encountered without mediation or instrumentalization.”
Perhaps it is time to embrace the frictions and complexities outside the white cube. Let’s hope 2021 is able to bring an expanded frame for contemporary art beyond the white cube: a multi gradient globe.