Sitting in my office sometime last spring, I got a call from a concerned neighbour, asking whether the building where I work was on fire. This took me by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have, because the day before we had been up on the roof, installing a system of steam machines. More accurately, they were clusters of water-nebulizing devices; the kind of contraptions used to cool down cafes on hot summer days. We were struggling to realize a new commission, a characteristically tricksy work by Lara Favaretto. Titled Thinking Head (2017), the artist’s proposal involved creating a cloud above the galleries, which would hover for a six-month period. The conceit was that the intensity of conversations inside the institution had caused itto overheat, building up a head of steam. But our artificial ecosystem was hard to control. On windy days, the cloud dispersed; on humid days, it sank, creating a dense fog that engulfed the street, stopping traffic. Intended to resemble steam, but produced using cold vapour, it had somehow never occurred to me that Thinking Head might read as smoke. Perhaps there was something in the air. A few days later, in London, on the terrace behind Tate Modern, Fujiko Nakaya’s London Fog #03779 (2017) involved a dancer slowly duetting with a chilly cloud. That same week in Kassel, artificial white smoke billowed from a baroque tower of the Fridericianum museum. Heralding the opening of documenta 14, Daniel Knorr’s Expiration Movement (2017) seemed to signal either celebration or distress. In each city, firefighters were called.
Aside from eliciting panic, each project was an argument for the public gallery as a specific kind of space. For Favaretto, it was a red-hot brain, erratic and incandescent. In the case of Nakaya, who has been making these installations for almost 50 years, fog marks out a stage for improvisation. Knorr, for his part, spoke of papal conclaves and factory chimneys – the museum as an ambivalent kind of beacon. Art institutions have conventionally seen themselves on the side of clarity and enlightenment, but here were atmospheres of confusion and even alarm. In place of certainty were blurred edges.
Exhibitions are always connected, in complex ways, with not seeing. This can sometimes cause anxiety. We don’t see enough, look long enough or in the right places; we trade in second-hand experiences or third-hand opinions. Biennials, still swelling in size if no longer in number, are perhaps where these anxieties are felt most acutely. A weekend is never enough, even when the maps are intelligible.
There’s a long history of feeling foggy in the face of exhibitions. I wasrecently reminded of this while reading Caroline A. Jones’s The Global Work of Art (2017), in which the MIT art historian traces a family tree for biennials, triennials and quinquennials. Her account goes further back than the usual genealogies. Rather than starting with the inaugural edition of Venice, in 1895, Jones locates the genesis of the biennial as the invention of the universal exhibition, sometime around the French Revolution. Such fairs were ways of picturing the world. These imperial presentations professed to gather everything into a single place, making it temporarily visible, even consumable, for the Western viewer. But the responses to these sprawling fairs and expos often registered confusion rather than epiphany.
In London, visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851, Queen Victoria admitted in her diary to being ‘really bewildered’; attending the 1862 International Exhibition, Fyodor Dostoevsky railed against its ‘terrible force’. Complaints of headaches were frequent. Within all of this, Jones identifies a recurring figure: that of the blind man. She finds him everywhere. He haunts many reviews of the grand expos, an everyman critic whose distance from optical distraction creates a space for disinterested critique. Not-seeing, for these 19th-century critics, implied a kind of retreat, a way out of the visual noise.
Today, I still can’t help but notice the haze. Works that cloud our vision, or invoke what Jones calls the ‘politics of the partial view’, seem to abound. Online, I come across images of Hormonal Fog (2017), by Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, a contraption rigged together with bungee ropes and a hacked fog machine. On my desktop is one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s magisterial seascapes, shrunk to the size of a laptop screen. Mist shrouds the horizon, hiding it from view.
This article appears in the issue 194 April 2018 print edition, with the title In The Air.
Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer.
First published in Issue 194