31st August – 2nd November 2008
Groupshow with: Chantal Akerman (B), Katinka Bock/Guillaume Leblon (D/F), Karin Bühler (CH), Luca Frei (CH), Georg Gatsas (CH), Maria Nordman (D), Erik Steinbrecher (CH), Oscar Tuazon (USA), Fischli/Weiss (CH), Stephen Willats (GB)
Curated by Thomas Boutoux and Giovanni Carmine
«A Town (Not a City)» is an exhibition that takes for subject the peripheral or provincial middle-size city, the Mittelstadt. St Gallen is, of course, such a city, or town . Yet, «A Town (Not a City)» is not an exhibition about St Gallen – and this is not meant to sound like the disclaimer sentence which now opens or ends any movie being made today: "The events and characters depicted in this film (exhibition) are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." No, rather than an examination of a particular place, «A Town (Not a City)» is an exhibition where artists investigate the characteristic emotions and experiences that can be associated to the Mittlelstadt as an urban model, one which is part – and, still the main part by far – of the geographical and urban landscape of every country, on every continent.
Most of us were raised in a Mittelstadt, or have spent large amount of time at relatives who live in one. All of us have very precise feelings towards such cities. For some, they’re all about serenity, humanity or truthfulness, while others relate them to isolation, boredom and conservatism. Surprisingly, if the small or middle-size city has historically been, and remains today, a regular scenery for a great number of novels and movies, or is recognized as one of the most creatively productive context if we think for instance of the rock music scene, its significance has rarely been addressed in contemporary art exhibitions.
In the past decade an armful of projects have been organized on art and urban life, but the great majority of them
proposed to explore the recent mutations of the mega cities, the global metropolises, by showing art that has come out of, and reflect their particular context – vibrant, chaotic, unpredictable, hybridized, mother of all creative innovations, momentums, and forward-looking ideas – and no real effort was made to actualize our understanding, descriptions and representations of smaller cities.
The artists in «A Town (Not a City)» focus attention on the changing characteristics of the Mittelstadt, how it enmeshes in the complex mix of contemporary global forces, or how, simply put, it is lived out today. They also address in the show an idea that was put forward in the invitation to take part in this project, which is that an art exhibition can probably better narrate, translate and animate the experiences and feelings proper to the life in smaller cities – and thus add to their intelligibility – than it can satisfyingly convey the turmoil of capital cities, their sprawling prolixities, their sheer complexity. The reason why is simple: it is because what a subject like the Mittelstadt really foregrounds, are issues of size, scale, weight, memories and affects, narratives and regularity – issues that are key to artistic decisions and practices, and to sculpture in particular.
The works in the show are, with the exception of four historical pieces, all new productions done by artists who live in St Gallen or have conducted site research there for this exhibition. The artists didn’t aim at documenting or describing St Gallen in the most truthful possible way, but rather took it as witness point in a pendulum between the generic and the specific. A set of historical works, respectively by Chantal Akerman, Fischli/Weiss, Stephen Willats and Maria Nordman, complete the exhibition. They were created without relation to St Gallen and refer to other cities instead, at different times; they are used in the show as a typology of artistic methodologies that embrace the urban environment, and as illustrations of some characteristic city-dwelling experiences.
«Saute ma ville» is the first short of Belgium filmmaker Chantal Akerman. A slapstick movie from 1968, it tells the story of a young woman (played by Akerman herself at 18) caught in – but seemingly enjoying – her domestic routine until it spirals out of control, leading to chaotic excess and, ultimately, destruction. In the same room, Fischli/Weiss’ photographic series «Siedlungen/Agglomeration» (1992/1996) shift the focus from the humdrum of apartment life to the everyday outside environment, in all its objective banality. This work also illustrates where, geographically, the old model of the European concentric city dissolved as cities begin to sprawl due to modern urban and economic developments. Stephen Willats’ diagrammatic collage piece «Learning to Live within a Confined Space» (1978) looks, like in the case of Akerman, at the domestic living conditions - this time in public housing in Oxford during the 70s – but through an entirely different proceeding, documentary and quasi-sociological. Next to the frames, are displayed all the paraphernalia of the piece (notes, audio-recordings of interviews he has made, contact sheets) as to best exemplify Willats’ characteristic fieldwork-motivated practice and his political approach to the topic of city-dwelling. In the last room of the show stands «Vitis Vinifera», a sculpture from 1991 by German artist Maria Nordman. The title refers to Antiquity and the foundation myths of a city. The sculpture itself – a sliding drawer protecting marble and drawings on vellum – encapsulates the construction of a city as an overlay of stone and plans, objects and ideas. Like in a lot of her projects, the continuous play of natural light on the various elements that compose the work is what activates it, actualizes it, here reminding us that a city is first and foremost a social contract between individuals and their natural environment, bare of ornament.
These four historical works give a set of coordinates to «A Town (Not a City)». They also formed a pattern to which the artists invited to produce new works for the show could respond. Luca Frei’s «Brilliant Corners» (2008) is impossible to survey from a distance or take in at a single glance. His work is an experiment with space, an object looking for a function or an identity, and which requires that the viewer engage with it intensely, maps it almost. Despite its definite static character, Brilliant corners set the exhibition into an exploratory mode. Katinka Bock and Guillaume Leblon, both Paris-based artists, are doing on the occasion of this exhibition their first collaborative piece. «Dry man on a wet ground» (2008) is composed of two elements, a limestone sculpture and a wooden one. The two pieces form an elegiac dramatization of the Mittelstadt and the sense of time passing that is often associated to it. Bock and Leblon’s scene bears attributes of a tale, yet an invented one, alluding to the small-city as an historical literary topos. Erik Steinbrecher’s contribution to the exhibition is a give-away magazine produced in an edition of 1300 copies. A visual sequence composed of many snapshots, «BUY BUY» (2008) inventories price signs and labels found in several locations and shows that, in a world where the origins and the qualities of products have gotten muddled with the acceleration of the consumerist society and the globalization of economy and culture, prices and their design are maybe the only thing that remain truly local in the world of objects and goods. For «A Town (Not a City)», Steinbrecher also invited Rebau-Markt, neighbours of the Kunst Halle, to install an extension of their shop inside the exhibition. The room serves as a display for Steinbrecher’s magazine but remains fully functional as a business for this company that pursues a social rehabilitation project through the re-sale of domestic wares. American artist Oscar Tuazon has built for the show a sculpture that, to his eyes, condenses the joy and boredom of living in a Mittelstadt: a shuffleboard («Nancy», 2008). The shuffleboard is a bar-game, which is popular in the Northwest region of the United States where Tuazon comes from, but completely unknown in the rest of the world, and even of the US, despite having a proper league and a history of tournaments and champions. Integrated in an exhibition, the shuffleboard constructed by the artist is as much a testimony of a particular ‘subculture’ incredibly rich and storied within a little world of small town bars but unknown from the outside, as a proposal to import and invent in St Gallen a new practice with social implications, since the board is made to be used and played, and will maybe lead to the foundation of the first ever European Shuffleboard tournament. Georg Gatsas is a young photographer from St Gallen, known for his portraitist work. In the exhibition, Gatsas presents two different forms of portrait. The first is one of the city itself, composed with pictures taken at night in the most eerie parts around town. This is probably the less distinctive image from St Gallen that emerges from the show, yet this is the more strictly documentary work. The other portrait is of Norbert Möslang who is both a pivotal figure in the culture scene of St Gallen and a world-famous name in the field of experimental music, constantly on the move – very much a man with two lives. An audio-guide to stroll the city of St Gallen, the contribution of Karin Bühler to the exhibition can be picked either at the reception of the Kunst Halle or at the City’s Tourist Office nearby the train station. «My world is not your world» (2008) is a 18’30 min account of the apprehension of the city by a blind man. With this work, Bühler speaks about the routine of itineraries in the Mittelstadt but also about the broad spectrum of social interactions and senses of place that any urban configuration, whatever the size, can guarantee. Like any city, like any Mittelstadt, this exhibition is spatially and conceptually organized as a configuration with many routes, each distinct, but that always connect somewhere, at some point. Constantly swinging from the specific to the generic, from the past to the present, from there to here, the exhibition «A Town (Not a City)» yet wishes to have direct repercussions on the ways the inhabitants of St Gallen view and understand their city, and to stress the role of the Kunst Halle, which occupies a specific place in the city, spatially and socially, as a catalyst of civic imagination, and an irreplaceable contributor to public discourse on our present condition.
«A Town (not a city)» is supported by Culturesfrance.