by Aarthi MohanAug 12, 2023
Over the course of the 20th century, the ‘institution’ has taken shape as a set of directives and value propositions that inform our understanding of several aspects of culture, including historicisation, cultural output, spectatorship, and so on. Neoliberalism of the 21st century, however, has become a lens to view the world as sets of cost-effective measures, pre-positioning capital as an informing method, where financial investment seeks profit. The publicly funded institution is considered to be a dead weight that drains money post the privatisation of space. How do we investigate the set of relations produced by the notion of the institution?
As part of his solo show ‘Volcano’ at Grey Noise, Dubai, Lantian Xie produced an assemblage of informational and critical material, through an eponymously titled video work and a condition report paired with wearable paraphernalia. Both sets of works speak to institutional infrastructures and para-protocols that inform the contemporary European museum context. What Xie proposed was the consideration of museum protocols around works of art, and as an extension - production of history, occurring across various paradigms that include the managerial, legal, moral and Newtonian registers. The video work begins with found footage in a cinematic reference to the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in 1882, and then goes on to present a didactic framework with which to view European museum standards of risk assessment, management, and relocation protocols within the museum structure. The global event of the historical volcanic eruption, where tremors were felt from America to Asia, became a larger metaphor to view the seemingly monolithic museum infrastructure as a set of tectonic plates, always under the threat or productive potential of shifting, depending on one’s point of view.
The visual artist in an interview with STIR shares, “What was interesting from a conversation with a geologist [while we were working on this project] was the volatility of the local event that can imprint an indeterminate, extended perimeter, to produce certain breaches, rearrangements, and distributions of whatever is cast as stable and solid. That there are tectonic forces that are constantly at work as opposed to something being a moral, legal, Newtonian given.”
What Xie proposed was a set of productive forces that perform museumification, through built models of meaning-making, taking into consideration the culturally denoted infrastructure. Through the video work, one of the explorations that took place was the production of ‘threat’ through risk management protocols, as the artist tells STIR over an interview. The primary work takes shape as the video work that is expository in form, documenting the almost comical process of moving a painting by an inch. As mentioned in the video work, if an artwork is to move an inch, it can move several inches, due to the (cost-heavy and time-consuming) supportive infrastructure being drawn out, including a team of art handlers and various technical equipment.
Lantian Xie says, “The institution is not immobile as a given, but rather that the inertial forces and systems of production immobilise, in turn producing a set of inertias as scarcities. These scarcities are framed along multiple registers, such as the moral register, for example, saying that the thing ought not to or shouldn’t move. There is also the Newtonian register, which says that this thing “can’t” move. The Newtonian immobility [around the art object] is a highly designed and produced thing.”
In considering the highly designed set of structures that surround the cultural value and production of the ‘art object’, one is also aware of the European museumification model as a colonial and imperial set of practices that cannot be detached from its own historical context. It also extends to the production of the art object as a scarce commodity that functions along the axes of the social, financial and cultural models of an asset class.
As the artist tells, “The institutional motive is to commemorate through a kind of storage model, the idea of lock and stow is representative of the European model. We can view this as keeping life safe by removing life from life. It is a securitisation or controlled demolition of the possible.”
One of the narrators in the video asks, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” where the former is “seismic” forces that are ambiguous yet productive in nature, and the latter is the institution, or its synecdoche, the painting. What is produced is a tension between the notions of movable and immovable that become a matter of ‘life and death’ for the art object, as understood within the sanitisation framework that compels us to consider it fragile. The art object is conceived of as being on the verge of death at any given moment as purported by risk management protocols, as gestured by Xie’s work. There is a certain morbidity that we can observe in this set of overlapping structures that inform the viewing of an art object, where the mere potential of oxygen, highly flammable and indicative of human presence, is a threat to the work. It is a Sysiphian struggle against the wear and tear of linear time.