Installation view, the Lithuania and Cyprus pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale
We think, feel, and speak. Does an object also think, feel, speak, and voice its will? In the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant said that a thing has its own cognition and intellection, known as “thing-in-itself.”¹ He proposed that there is an existence of immaterial entities in objects, which can only be apprehended by a special, non-sensory faculty that he called “intellectual intuition.”
Recently, a group of philosophers who have labeled their works “Speculative Realism”—among them Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux—have suggested the existence of an object world through the non-anthropocentric lens. What this achieves is a reevaluation of nonhuman entities such as objects but also redefinitions of ontology and the nature of existence or being as such. Objects become “things” qua autonomous agencies: a thing “does something besides sit around as a target for human awareness of it.”² Speculative Realism redefines the most fundamental relationships between things and rebalances the human and nonhuman, proposing a system that does not exclusively depend on human signification.
The Lithuania and Cyprus pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale, oO, curated by Raimundas Malašauskas, proposes a living assemblage. It was held in a large public gymnasium located right next to the Arsenale, one of the main venues of the biennale. The sports activities do not stop when the show opens: the gym is running while the exhibition is running. It is a merge between the art exhibition and daily sport activities. In the exhibition, there is no single core or substance: art objects, non-art objects (balls, blooms, etc.), performance artists, local people, photographs, graffiti, lights, are equally distributed, while each element intersects with one another by being placed in a relation. Humans and non-humans, art and non-art, intersect with each other as they share the space together. What the viewer experiences are not just individual things, but the gestalt of an emergent whole. The multiple universes co-exist in one space.
Performance artist Maria Hassabi places herself as a thing among all other things in the exhibition. In her performance, Intermission (2013), there were three performers, including herself, crawling slowly on the stairs in the large courtyard. The performers perform for eight hours daily. They are located alongside one another with other art-objects, while contrasted with local people who enjoy sport activities. Subjects and objects are completely blurred here. The performers’ bodies appear as art objects by virtue of the way they are placed in line with other art objects. The performers also become subjects, slowly moving with their conscious acts. At the same time, the bodies of local people who enjoy sport activities contrast with the performers and their slower motions, creating different rhythms and time sequences that integrate as a whole. Since the local people in sport activities are not intended as art works, their status is not clearly determinable—they have a double presence as subjects and objects to the viewer’s eye. The local people are involuntarily exhibited as art-objects, but they are subjects who just choose to exercise. On the other hand, Hassabi’s performers are voluntarily shown as art-objects, but they are unavoidably subjects in the nature of conscious human beings.
In her performance, Hassabi is a sculpture—a living sculpture. The performers crawl along, or roll very slowly down the large stairs. Their movements are barely perceptible. Curator Malašauskas beautifully describes the performance: “Think of a volcano that moves slow, takes its time and attempts to be still. Trembles and tension become the motion. Separated at adolescence, sculpture and dance move towards a shared destination where they are inseparable like Gilbert and George. 17 steps on the south wing, 18 steps on the north one are made out of pauses, interruptions, loops and delays. To commemorate it, several living sculptures from one or two countries may arrive.”³ Hassabi imagines things like a volcano, a glacier, or the earth that move slowly. In order to perform the thing, she has to understand the nonhuman entity, its knowledge, habits, and traits such as how the volcano moves. The volcano thinks itself in her, and she is its consciousness. Borrowing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the “body without organs,” everything has the immense, unending, and, finally, unrealizable potential to re-form itself, to become any other thing. Hassabi desires to become a new other thing. In the unique situation of the exhibition, Hassabi’s performance structurally defies the logic of the spectacle in the history of performance art. Her performance is just one actor among all the others including both art and non-art, human and non-human. The earth-like slow movement is hardly to be seen as spectacle, while daily sport activities are also unlikely spectacular.
1. Immanuel Kant, “Of the Ground of the Division of all Objects into Phenomena and Noumena,” The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (The Electronic Classics Series Publication, Hazleton, 2010), 180.
2. Graham Harman, Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger, Cambridge Journal of Economics (2010), 24
3. Raimundas Malašauskas, http://www.mariahassabi.com/intermission_text.php
JaeWook Lee is an artist and a writer. He has shown his works nationally and internationally at venues such as Chelsea Art Museum, Recession Art, Invisible Dog Art Center, Momenta Art, Whitebox, Microscope Gallery, Visual Arts Gallery in New York, Gyeonggi MoMA, Coreana Museum, and Seoul National University MoA in Seoul. He has participated in international major exhibitions, such as a Manifesta 9 parallel event, and the Seoul International Photo Festival. He has participated in artist residency programs such as the Wassaic Project, Vermont Studio Center, and Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.