written by Tom Trevatt
With the close of Lydia Gifford’s recent exhibition this November Laura Bartlett celebrated one year in existence in her narrow slice of space in Clerkenwell. Situated between two buildings this oddly shaped sliver is a seemingly impossible place in which to mount an exhibition, yet Bartlett has managed to make it work. Focussing on discovering younger or lesser known artists, she has carved out a dedicated stable of rising stars such as Becky Beasley, Nina Beier & Marie Lund, Lydia Gifford, Stefan Burger and Sophie Macpherson. Resistant to certain formal displays, the narrowness of the space has provoked some very specific responses from the artists invited to show there. Beier & Lund, for example, wedged a number of long objects between the walls; fishing rods, garden forks, walking sticks, bits of timber, all borrowed from a 68 year old man.
One year’s programme at any gallery comprises such diverse operations and opposing forces that any survey resists homogenisation. One must be aware that an adequate reading of the accumulation of material and outputs produced during a year requires a plurivocal approach, not to mention an indepth analysis. What inevitably results from such an enterprise is a series of assumptions and part-truths alongside more informed judgments of what curatorial concerns the gallery owner herself has. However, given the strange relationship any commercial gallerist has to what might be named a curatorial practice, it seems inappropriate to assume such strategic authorship. Yet, especially with Laura Bartlett, I would argue this is not the case. One could argue that the commercial sector increasingly allows a much greater curatorial freedom than that allowed in public galleries and museums. As Bartlett herself proves what is called curation is not a universal paradigm; to argue she has a ‘practice’ as such would be wrong. Or, rather to argue she has a sustained investigation of particular claims, counter claims, hypotheses, theories, provocations and the like, would be wrong. What Bartlett does express in her role, however, is a sensitivity to specific situations. As she invites only a small number of artists each year we could embark on an adequation that would link these practices together, yet I would suggest that any such endeavour necessarily underestimates the diverse practices collected together. Bartlett’s position is a curatorial one, one with a particular freedom to manoeuvre afforded to her by the market, but not one that is determined either by specific requirements, due to funding for example, or institutional pressure, or more general requirements such as an answerability to a populous or the state.
What is curious, then, about particular commercial galleries is their use of the relative autonomy granted to them by their position within the market. The freedom of capital gives them a very specific relation to art practice more in the model of a small independent gallery, but with an extremely inflated budget. How this is utilised critically is of real interest. Artists exhibiting within a commercial gallery, of course, have a bipartite relation to the art world; both within it and at the same time expected to be critical of it. But as commercial objects do their position within the market flatten or de-radicalize the critique?
Adorno suggests that the solution of critical art is not to refuse commodity, as this would just weaken art, marginalising it in a world where commodity dominates, or positioning it as the yet to be commodified (to oppose the dominant ideology runs the risk of being recuperated into it). His argument would be that the artwork must mount a critique out of its role as commodity by a subversive mimesis of it. Adorno asserts that the art object is both autonomous art and commodity, both destroyed by and a product of capital, both its critique and its ideology. It is this exact possibility that commercial galleries such as Laura Bartlett provide. Today critique is no longer easy to spot. The political content of work is diminished, not so much because there isn’t the taste for it, but that the lessons of history have been learned. Capital is flexible, it is able to accumulate and accommodate. Any direct attack against capital merely strengthens it. What is required now is a different conception of critique, not dependent on direct opposition, radicalised politics or the anti-commodity. The space it would seem to embark on this is inside these small galleries. Exactly because they are involved in the movement of capital the artwork has the possibility to exist both as commodity and its critique.
8th December 2008, London