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“Pedro Barateiro: The Opening Monologue” and ”The Absent Artist (An Exhibition for Jozef)” at Netwerk, Aalst

Text by Ellen Mara De Wachter

In September, the contemporary art space Netwerk—which was founded in 1981 in the Belgian city of Aalst—reopened after a change of directorship with the launch of a two-year program titled The Unreliable Protagonist. Under the new co-directorship of Els Silvrants-Barclay and Pieternel Vermoortel, who took over the space earlier this year, this evolving project begins with two exhibitions: The Opening Monologue, a solo show by Pedro Barateiro; and The Absent Artist (An Exhibition for Jozef), a themed group exhibition that explores the notion of the protagonist. Following these opening shows, over the next two years Netwerk will collaborate with six artists, including Barateiro, Ghislaine Leung, Daniela Ortiz, Imogen Stidworthy, Jozef Wouters, and Andros Zins-Browne—working across formats, from exhibitions to research, performance and publishing, and in ways yet to be determined.

The tendency to inflect curating with the languages and practices of other disciplines has, over the past two decades, led to analogies between curating and editing; the gallery and the laboratory or incubator; and more recently, as exemplified by programs such as Tate Exchange, a conception of the exhibition as a site of collaborative transaction. The metaphorical framework that presides over Netwerk’s new program, which the curators refer to as an “episode,” draws on performance and literary theory to consider the production of art, exhibitions, and their attendant artifacts as a kind of drama through which a protagonist might emerge and travel. As such, Barateiro’s exhibition provides the opener to the drama, and invites the audience into the unfolding action. A booklet accompanying the exhibition cites film theorist Jonathan Bellmer’s assertion that “cinema and its derivatives (television, internet, and so on) are factories in which the spectators do the work.” This notion extends to the exhibition as a site of spectatorship, establishing the audience in a position of productive viewership. The question is: What is being produced? Barateiro’s videos, prints, and sculptures are sufficiently open-ended as to leave the nature of the audience’s work up for grabs.

An audio track of ringing feedback, crowd noise, and ambient sounds beckons visitors from Netwerk’s foyer, up a wood-and-concrete staircase and into a corridor, where they pass under Spirit Shop (2017), an eponymous neon sign. From there, they duck through a black curtain into a darkened auditorium to watch The Opening Monologue (2017), a video commissioned as the inaugural work of the two-year program. Combining a voiceover of discrete statements with a sequence of GIFs and clips found online, it sets the tone for the rest of the show, taking us on a journey demarcated by familiar uncertainties. The script routes us through hopelessness (“We know by now that every word written is both fictional and real.”) via sites of techno-surrealism (“I’m a cyborg. I’m speaking from my computer, but I’m writing with a golden pencil.”) and through concern about the ethical quandary between spectatorship and agency (“I never forget Frantz Fanon’s words: ‘Every spectator is a coward or a traitor.’”) Across the room, Audience (2008-ongoing)—a work that has previously taken shape as a freestanding sculpture—here co-opts the room’s existing bleacher-style seating, allowing people to sit and watch their spectatorial counterparts bathed in green light, taking in the video. The installation sets up a two-way observation dynamic and reveals our complicity in the passive consumption of information, entertainment, and ideas.

If the statements in The Opening Monologue—which are helpfully reprinted in the accompanying booklet—don’t add up to an argument as such, perhaps that precisely the point. In foregrounding paradox, doubt and dread, they are laying the ground for future outcomes, in an open-ended way—after scattering seeds in the wind, only time will tell if they take root.

After the video and architectural interventions, a group of Barateiro’s prints and sculptures installed in adjacent rooms provides evidence of a material output anchored in the studio and reinforces the sense that language is at the heart of the artist’s enquiry. For Rumor (2015), the letters of the word “rumor”—rendered in iron at roughly human scale—are scattered around the room, some leaning against the walls, others lying on the floor in various states of alertness. The word “data,” painted on canvas and then cut out, is draped on the steel frame of a derelict modernist tube chair for the humorous sculpture, Relaxed Data (2015). Prints from the series Fulfillment Center (2015) demonstrate the artist’s interest in the cumulative effect of phases of drawing, printing, photographing, and scanning. Five black-and-white prints bear the title, Fulfillment Center, at the top of a white sheet streaked with printed and painted marks, like the accidental scribbles produced by an uncapped pen floating in a bag with a block of plain paper. Other prints are reworkings of advertising slogans and wry versions of cliché phrases such as Portrait of the artist as a young snake. Information here is presented as something to be worked, reworked, and détourned, becoming a character in its own right, imbued with different moods and traits. And although there is an initial feeling—through the generous list of questions and concerns included in The Opening Monologue—that Barateiro is performing as a guide, the pictorial and material enquiries of The Fulfillment Center reveal him as an artist in full quest. Here, he seems to be grappling with the nature of our contemporary condition: over-saturated with information and suffering from hermeneutic anxiety.

In Netwerk’s ground floor gallery, works engage with different forms of irony, ranging from the pictorial to the existential and political, in an exhibition dedicated to Jozef Wouters, the artist scheduled for the last slot of The Unreliable Protagonist season in early 2019. Anna Jermolaewa’s video Political Extras (2015) documents a performance for which she paid people to take supporting or opposing positions in a demonstration at the 2015 Moscow Biennale. Bearing placards with slogans such as “Make Biennale, Not War” and “Down With Contemporary Art,” the gaggle of performers—mostly middle-aged women—placidly walk through the exhibition. When a woman touts her services to the group as it rallies outside, saying, “I can help you organize any rally,” the indictment of protest as a commodity is crystallized with desperate irony, throwing the possibility of sincere agency up in the air. Patrizio Di Massimo’s painting The Roman Kiss (2017), in which a couple embraces on the floor of an opulent interior, reads like a lost scene from a Luis Buñuel film, dripping with visual irony and mystique. Sophie Nys & Danai Anesiadou’s 2008 film X, A & M transports us to the Nyphemburg Palace in Munich, the location for the French New Wave film, Last Year in Marienbad (1960). Anesiadou re-enacts scenes from surrealist paintings and performs optical tricks. There is a distinct echo of images by René Magritte when, wearing a voluminous fur coat, she walks into the corner of a room facing away from the camera, or when she seduces a man—played by the artist Diederick Peeters—using a human skeleton. The irony here is playful, paying affectionate homage to artistic icons and reveling in the glamour of the situation. It’s a feeling that is absent in the more recent works in the show, in which the taste of irony is less sweet.

Peeters is included with an installation of disembodied automated heads, produced after a performance at the opening of the exhibition and installed mid-way through its run. Viewed through a small opening in the far wall of the gallery, the setup uses theatrical tricks such as Pepper’s Ghost to make a trio of clownish male heads appear and disappear as they turn, grimace, and moan. Here, too, the specter of Magritte makes itself felt, in particular at the moment when a headless body suddenly appears from behind a curtain.

In Francesco Pedraglio’s The Protagonist (2015), the action alternates between two men in an empty cinema discussing the creation of a central character for a film and a lively house party. The work is installed on rolls of red carpet and set out in a cross-formation that extends towards each corner of the gallery, seeming to hold the entire show in its grasp. Watching the two men in the empty cinema, sharing visions of an unseen protagonist, I remained none the wiser and fell back on my own fantasy of who this person might be. It made me think again of Bellmer’s analogy between spectators and workers, and I questioned the type of work I was actively performing. I also wondered again at the absence of the artist name-checked in the show’s title: Who—and where—was Jozef? As the first turn in a two-year episode, these twinned exhibitions were a provocation to my self-consciousness as a spectator, but just as they piqued my interest, they never let me lose sight of the work that lies ahead.

At Netwerk Aalst
Until December 17

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