Rules are essential in the work of Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda: grammatical rules applied to representational diagrams; conceptual rules to determine the format of an exhibition; rules of role-play; rules of filmmaking. The first piece the artists made together, having met at Frankfurt’s Städelschule art academy in the early 2000s, was determined by a rule that prescribed their separation. In Modus Tollens (2003) – Latin for the argument form of denying the consequent in classical logic – they created an elaborate mental fiction in which they forced themselves to believe that, in a month’s time, Maeda would have to return to Japan and break all contact with Chung (who was the only person to know this). The month was spent in anticipation of Maeda’s departure, and when, on the given day, he did not leave, they repeated the procedure again for another month. Modus Tollens is manifested merely in the form of two, small, nearly identical photographs of the artists standing in front of a plane on the airport tarmac before the anticipated departure that never took place. Reducing a complex gesture or strategy to a visual residue proved to be a consistent feature of their subsequent exhibitions.
For their 2009 show at Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin, Chung and Maeda left the gallery’s 19th-century apartment space empty, save for cumbersome triangular cupboards placed in each corner of the oddly shaped rooms, including the small office and storage spaces (Toter Winkel [When Buffetted], Dead Corner [When Buffetted], 2009). These traditional gemütlich pieces of furniture appeared to fit so seamlessly in the darkly wood-panelled period interior that they were almost absorbed by the space, allowing the gallery to exhibit itself. Closer inspection ruptured this harmony: the cupboards were cheap particleboard reproductions made in the 1970s or ’80s, not weighty hardwood originals. Prop-like, a-historical, and denuded of any obvious purpose, the artists’ delegatory strategy itself – the simple rule, one cupboard in every corner – became an essentially abstract, conceptual performance, with shoddy furnishings standing in as place holders. The erasure of reliable trails of reference left the task of reading the work and investing it with meaning more than ever in the hands of the viewer, albeit with the aid of the artist-scripted press release which duly noted the cupboards’ provenance and the installation’s links to Minimalist and Conceptual trajectories.
The exposing of exhibition conventions has been an artistic strategy for decades – the gesture has become taken for granted. Chung and Maeda’s approach is to dissect, even dissolve, these conventions into something elusive or strange; to circumvent or complicate their given constraints. For an exhibition made with the Museum of Modern Art Bologna (MAMbo) in 2006, the artists presented the 16mm film Caducean City (2006) at the local cinematheque. The film follows (from the driver’s vantage point) an ambulance through Bologna’s elegant streets on an ordinary April morning. Though the blue light is flashing, the ambulance is not rushing to the scene of an emergency, but rather following a preordained circular route. Through the short, unedited two-reel film, a complex portrait emerges, not so much of streets and architecture, but of the city’s citizens, abiding by the unspoken rules that grant an ambulance free passage, falling automatically into their given roles in this social contract. This ‘emergency’ in the absence of an emergency transformed the city into a stage and its inhabitants into extras, while it also required the museum to engage directly with the city’s other institutions: police, paramedics, administrative offices, making it responsible for the initiation and negotiation of the event. Again, through delegation of creative responsibility, the onus falls heavily on the other parties – audience, but also institution – to fill the parameters of the work with content.
For Outtakes and Excerpts (2009), Chung and Maeda delegated the rule-making to the machinery itself. Using a digital camera with a ‘smile shutter’ feature, they took pictures of people in urban settings. Led by its smile-searching mission, the camera only took pictures in which a person was smiling. These grins, detached from all meaning, are the common feature that sews together these otherwise random images in a string of ambiguous happiness. While the insidious effects of such a feature can be readily dissected, in Chung and Maeda’s hands, this becomes another carefully considered method of how to make art now.
The task, it seems, is to find a way to make something that looks – but only just – like something we readily recognize within the accepted realms of contemporary art. Their recently published first book is a brilliantly concise example: in a blindingly time-consuming act, the artists translated the first thick volume of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Interviews (2003) into Japanese (Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews Vol. 1, 2010). Taking an artefact dense with contemporary art-historical relevance, they turn it into an abstract, unreadable tome (at least for anyone who doesn’t read Japanese), stacked alongside – but oddly out of place amongst – the similar-looking publications in western art bookshops. While Chung and Maeda’s calculated strategies may account for the bare-bones blankness that often characterizes their exhibitions, perhaps it is more a case of testing how much weight (or how little) these conventions, and their audience, can bear.
First published in Issue 135