Avant-propos: Writing about a graduation show – similarly to curating one – is a double problematic and ambiguous task. The curator has little (if any) choice when it comes to the exhibition space, no choice in the selection process of artists and works; and so, his or her role seems to be closer to a teacher than the actual curator in the process. Then, even if there is no intended narrative, the fact of placing the artworks in an architecturally defined space will likely create dialogues and connections between them. Who really has the responsibility for how the works are presented and what ideas are readable? Should we still talk about the exhibition or is it something else; a presentation of works, a collection of ideas etc.? I leave those questions open. This problematic setup influences the way minus plus minus equals plus can – and can’t be – described. Additionally, the unusually large number of graduates makes it impossible to give equal attention to each of them. I take this impossibility as a starting point to comment on the show in a bit broader context.
It is accurately right to state that minus and minus is a plus, but if there was any value standing together with both minuses the sum would always be negative. So what hides behind those unnamed minuses? Is it just a nod to abstract thinking, an accidental, poetic title, or a mathematic nostalgia? Or maybe – as the opening line suggests – an equation that represents a black hole that instead of consuming stars produces them; a positive change stemming out of negative circumstances. I prefer the last metaphor. Not because I’m particularly interested in faraway galaxies (and who needs more stars anyway?), but because it makes me think of something else, another art show also born in a crisis.
Walking through minus plus minus equals plus presenting various kinds of material-based art, I was thinking about the Les Immatériaux (1985) exhibition curated by Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput, devoted to – broadly speaking – how new conditions of communications and technologies influence all; from everyday habits, perceptions and understandings to more general domains of art, science or philosophy. As Lyotard was describing – back then – a contemporary crisis; “The insecurity, the loss of identity, the crisis is not expressed only in economy and the social, but also in the domains of the sensibility, of the knowledge and the power of man (futility, life, death), the modes of life (in relation to work, to habits, to food,…etc.).”
Reading those words almost forty years later, in the middle of the climate crisis – among many others – and after the pandemic that exposed various inequalities and made many tired of the digital, sound familiar: the need for new sensibilities, modes of life, and knowledge together with new structures, approaches, understandings, and storytelling.
Going through the minus plus minus equals plus what was the most striking and noticeable was the way the materials were obtained and used. I would describe this method as a learning from nature approach that also included thinking of possible minimalization of the resources. The earth thinking also appeared more or less directly as a theme, but not in a classical mimesis understanding, but more in a sense of reworking or reflection; what is the place of art (and me as an artist) in given contemporary circumstances (crises). In this context, I should mention the practice of Hanna Halsebakke in creating artistic eco-systems (harvesting pigments, plants, and minerals from the surroundings), Sara Svensson working within the forgotten or overseen narratives of plants and animals, the textile objects of Alexandra Skog Booker, the ceramic pink clouds of Amina Baker Shubar, the fragile sculptural forms made of ceramic sticks (like those found accidentally in the forest) by Hågen Gade, the colorful yarn installation by Susanne Roti (in which colors to dye nylon yarn were obtained from regular mass-produced clothes), the curiosity cabinet by Kari Ibel Kolltveit (reflecting on superior relation of human towards nature) or approach in the creative process in the textile works of Ingrid Aarvik Berge. This earth thinking can to a certain extent also be read in the textile performance by Rosanna Vibe that in a subtle, yet pinkish-purple visible way – due to the used beetroot pigment – commented on a relation between the body (as material) and the outside world. Mentioning the body; perhaps reflection through, around, and on the body – with or without issues of identity and/or politics at the background – was another important and visible theme (the works of Rosanna Vibe, Amalie Vöge Jensen, Lill Yildiz Yalcin, Renate D. Dahl, Karoline Kvalheim, Debangona Paul, Shitika Agrawal and Kamil Kak spring to mind).
Yet, looking at these new climate conscious approaches in creating artworks of 29 people beginning a new chapter, I felt thwarted. The show is in a way a product of the times of the pandemic, and during the pandemic, as it was the cultural sector that was hit the hardest (just after aviation), and many precarious art workers outside of the stable contracts were forced to find other sources of income in order to survive.
Many, not all.
There seems to be a huge inconsistency between various elements of the art system. On the one-hand there is a growing understanding of dealing with climate crisis, diversity issues, changing academia curriculum, breaking the Euro-centrism, focusing on inclusiveness, socially engaged thinking. On the other hand the whole system tends to think of networks and products (finished works, exhibitions, biennales, published art texts, art travels, etc.) instead of activities, communities, and lives (the art workers), thus privileging the ones that already have resources to create and produce art.
Coming back to the unnamed minuses: Perhaps they can be found in a simple found object, and they have an important task to do;
If we could crack the
fineness of the shell
we’d see the
stacked as in a safe,
ready for use
if things don’t
But of course, we definitely need more than just poetic spells.
 Kay Ryan, In Case Of Complete Reversal
Zofia Cielatkowska is a philosopher and an independent researcher, curator and art critic. She holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and works across the fields of visual culture, feminist art history, contemporary French thought, Norwegian contemporary art, and environmental humanities. She publishes in various art magazines (Billedkunst, Kunstkritikk, Hyperallergic, etc.). Cielatkowska is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA Norway), International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) and The Norwegian Critics’ Association (Norsk kritikerlag). She lives in Oslo, Norway.
This text is a result of Zofia Cielatkowska taking part in VISP and KHIO´s Critic´s talk about the graduation show minus plus minus equals plus at KHIO June 7 2022.