Curator Series #5: Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty | Review

David Roberts Art Foundation London 5 April to 9 June 

 

Prescriptively positioned works against white walls, perspex cases atop plinths, the polished concrete floors; ‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Compendious Quest for Beauty’ at David Roberts Art Foundation didn’t strike me as enlightening or emotive. However, the transformative capability of curatorial narration is rarely rendered as explicit as in this exhibition.

In their accompanying script, the curators, Simone Menegoi and Chris Sharp, take on the personas of the two autodidacts of Gustave Flaubert’s last unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. The novel is a story of two friends who, when Bouvard inherits a sizable fortune, give up their positions as copy clerks and leave Paris for the countryside, where their search for intellectual stimulation begins. Their autodidactic thirst leads them to flounder through almost every branch of knowledge. Menegoi and Sharp infer that Bouvard and Pécuchet’s headlong approach is reminiscent of contemporary art’s obscure and sometimes questionable expertise in a multiplicity of subjects. Subsequently, they apply the hasty methodology of the perplexed copyists to the field of curating, seeking to expose this tendency and examine its implications.

Through the appropriated characters, Menegoi and Sharp’s script sees the pair attempt to define one of the most protean and subjective qualities of all: beauty. They do so by using the format of the exhibition, in itself a by-product of the Enlightenment. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s narration choreographs the reader’s experience of the exhibition, haphazardly and playfully framing and making sense of what would otherwise be a bewilderingly eclectic selection of works on display. The works are divided into ten categories of beauty: Classic; Expressive; Female Nude; Memento Mori; Realism; Landscape; Moral; Outsider art; Abstraction; and the Sublime.

For ‘Realism’, Gavin Turk’s filled black bin bag, Waste, 2006, and Susan Collis’s broom propped against the wall, Waltzer, 2007, share a wonderful symbology in their aesthetic referentiality to the mundane and the everyday; sitting beside Thomas Demand’s Zeichensaal (Drafting Room), 1996, a large pristine photograph of what is seemingly a banal, generic interior, with the gallery’s air conditioning vent above – perhaps reminiscent of Art & Language’s ‘The Air Conditioning Show’ – the composition could easily pass as an artist’s single work where everything is not quite what it seems. As could the category of ‘Memento Mori’; David Shrigley’s taxidermy cat holding a placard reading ‘I’m Dead’ standing in opposition to Gerard Byrne’s glossy print of a magazine rack, In The News, 2007. However, sitting in contrast to one another, disobeying and scrambling traditional histories of aesthetics, these categories offer little solution, refusing Kant’s proposal that judgements of beauty claim universal validity. Instead each category’s thesis is subsequently disproved or dismissed by Bouvard and Pécuchet’s conversation. The relational dialectics between them, between individual artworks and between categories offers conflicting views that don’t attempt to find an answer but rather contemplate the difficulties in concluding the subject.

At least since conceptualism’s embrace of JL Austin’s seminars on linguistics from the 1950s How To Do Things With Words, the productive power of language has been an assumption in both art practices and their associated commentary. More recent curatorial practices, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist’s discursive marathons and Mathieu Copeland’s spoken-word exhibitions, have seen the literalised realisation of conversation taking on a particularly significant role in art. Unlike these approaches however, Menegoi and Sharp’s dialogue is not an end in itself. Instead they take on a metacognitive tactic: focusing on the contemplation of contemplation itself, thinking about our emotive reaction to artwork and beauty.

While the subject of the ‘discursive turn’ has become a somewhat hackneyed phrase in curatorial debates, the term in psychology offers a more enticing proposition, proposing that it is within discourses, significations, subjectivities and positionings that psychological phenomena exist. This position assumes that underlying psychological phenomena are not revealed through interaction but that emotions instead exist out of and in terms of interaction. Using this proposition to analyse Menegoi and Sharp’s choice of contradictory displays and divergent narrations, it is perhaps easier to see the beauty within the contradictions and the disparities between works. Their conversation integrates into the choreography of viewing such diverse individual works and, as they do so, they fold curatorial mediation back onto itself, examining the tenuous relationships between spectator and spectacle.

The exhibition culminates with the question of the sublime. Pécuchet proclaims: ‘There are things that are in and of themselves sublime: the thunderous noise of torrential rain, the tenebrous depths of the ocean, a tree uprooted by a storm, pure, blinding light.’ Momentarily mesmerised by Graham Hudson’s rotating fluorescent light, Sign Odysseus, 2005, I am acutely aware that the drizzle outside has turned into heavy rain beating down on the skylights overhead.

Flaubert uses the copy clerks’ quest to expose the hidden weaknesses of the sciences and arts; nearly every project Bouvard and Pécuchet set their minds on ends in futility. However, in negotiating this exhibition it is clear that beauty is not expected to be in any of these works alone, but in the dialogue between artworks, between the curators, and between the curators and the audience. Unlike the proliferation of discursive curatorial projects that we have seen in recent years, Menegoi and Sharp’s fictional narration is not simply a case of curators once again talking about curating. They entice us to join them in an exploration of thinking about thinking, questioning our cognitive responses to artworks, resulting in what is ultimately an intimate and emotive journey: ‘The attitude of a man is beautiful in triumph’, Pécuchet concludes, ‘but sublime in struggle.’