Spaces of Exception

Spaces of Exception
Чрезвычайные и Полномочные

Curated by Elena Sorokina & Jelle Bouwhuis

The exhibition ‘Spaces of Exception’ takes as its starting point the Book of decrees, which was created by the legendary Russian conceptualist Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007). The book consisted of only six pages, but each of them proudly promulgated a decree signed by “D. Prigov, chairman". These included the following: the decree of the animal, decree of the air, decree of closeness, decree of unit, decree of black, and ultimately, the decree of decree. Enunciated in 1977, Prigov's decrees evoke an antiquated image of the artist as legislator, an absurd revolutionary hero in times of stagnation, blending sincere imitation, stylization and parody. The decree is the legal language of the "state of exception", associated with revolutions and wars, and, in Prigov's case, a conceptual work. Prigov often acted as a "performative legislator" and mythical custodian of the law. He enunciated laws, performed them, and famously embodied both legislative and executive functions, playing militia men, marshals and clerks. All that was delivered in his own indefinable genre of oration, positioned somewhere between the solemn sermon of a patriarch and enthusiastic declaration of a parliamentarian.

This project takes up the myth of the ‘artist as legislator’ from today's point of view, when artists assume multiple identities: producer, researcher, worker, romantic entrepreneur, cognitive proletarian, etc. In this context, the "legislator" evokes Prigov's conflicted set of ideas, celebrating and questioning it at the same time, and highlighting its performative and transformative aspects. Our project does not replicate it but rather works around it in a space of homage, investigation and analysis. The exhibition defines itself as a space of imagination or counter-imagination of the artists, hosting their legal utopias, proposals, analysis, and reflections. In their projects they invent their own rules of engagement for specific social, political or economic problems. They stage legal texts or cases, create their own laws or legal systems, – i.e., their own rules of the game – and apply the subversions of aesthetics to them through image or anti-image, the performative and the fictional. The resulting work ranges from self-defined spaces for legal utopias, almost science-fictional in nature, up to moments of documentary truth and poetic justice.
Today, when laws and regulations failed to prevent the markets' free spin into crisis, huge efforts are being made to finally instill some "rule of law" in the unregulated global circulation of money. A text published by the Russian collective Chto Delat in 2005 and originally reflecting on the world ruled by the Bush-doctrine, resonates for us with a new relevance: "Not so long ago, "state of emergency" still sounded like an abstract juridical notion, and seemed reminiscent of the fascist regimes of the last century. Yet today, as the result of recent catastrophic changes in the situation, a "state of emergency" is in the process of becoming a quotidian reality, a strange new "norm" that affects all areas of life, a grey backdrop for the everyday. New systems of surveillance are implemented; public space is privatized and placed under strict control; censorship dams the flow of information; passport controls and travel restrictions limit freedom of movement; suspicious individuals are searched and detained; elections are falsified, all in the name of the battle for democracy and human rights." Naomi Klein has explained capitalism’s ability to profit from catastrophe and crisis, or any other "state of exception", and financial crisis is our current state of exception turning into the rule, the permanent economic emergency.

One of the collateral effects of the crisis is the new boost to populism and a yet greater expansion of nationalisms in many countries, including the Netherlands, previously known for its multiculturalism and tolerance. Rising in an unprecedented fashion, it started with the murders of the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, whose comet-like trajectory across the political sky came as a big surprise even to himself, and the controversial writer/film maker Theo van Gogh, which were then succeeded by the infiltration of anti-immigrant and anti-European sentiments into the political spectrum and media alike, and which have been further fuelled by the general mood of an economic downturn. Such an atmosphere naturally has also influenced artistic output in the Netherlands. Over the last decade we have seen many an artist trace back violent episodes from history, signalling nasty cracks in the national varnish that until recently was commonly referred to as the ‘Dutch tradition of tolerance’ or, even more self-confidently, ‘Holland as the guide’ (Holland gidsland). We have to go back to the 19th century to trace this preoccupation with the national in art, and we can fairly say that the straightforward applause of the self-image of the nation back then has today yielded to a far more introspective evaluation of what until recently seemed a law of nature.
This evaluation often concerns reflections on periods in national history which come out of the shadows of the trauma of World War II, especially the Dutch ventures into colonialism. In his work Gert Jan Kocken goes back as far as into the time of the religious wars in the 16th century, inevitably associating the iconoclastic fury in North-Western Europe with more recent ones such as those "performed" by the Taliban in Afghanistan with the Bamiyan Buddha's. Kocken's photographs record the destruction, or rather defacing of icons, creating a forceful counter-image.
A painful return of patriarchal rules and legally endorsed discrimination against women, migrant groups and other minorities is under way today, inconceivably so. Yevgeniy Fiks' work reflects on the criminalization of homosexuality in the Soviet Union and the current utilization of this issue as another heavy-handed attempt to reinforce "national consolidation". Marina Naprushkina's work is based on the legal anachronism of the Berufsverbot for women in Belarus. Entitled 252+1, the title refers to the number of professions forbidden to women there. In her mural, Naprushkina reproduces this list, adding a grammatical correction - a female ending to each profession, thus transforming this interdiction into a feminist manifesto of sorts. Belarus is the extreme case in the former Soviet periphery, but Naprushkina's work, deeply based in her home country's democratic deficiencies, can be read as a reflection on the epic struggle in all post-Soviet countries to become societies based on the rule of law.

One chapter from the Soviet dissident movement is particularly interesting in this context - the strategy of a completely counter-intuitive approach of radical ‘civil obedience’ to the law. Developed by Alexander Esenin-Volpin (born in 1924), this technique was designed to confront an autocratic state legally. Son of the celebrated poet Sergei Esenin (1895-1925), Volpin defied any classification — poet, mathematician, and lawyer, he was engaged in the dissident movement since its very inception. Being one of rare people in the Soviet Union who took "laws" seriously, he initiated the famous action on Constitution Day in 1965. This first unsanctioned organized civil protest in the Soviet Union, which, at the peak of the Cold War, was inconceivable for anyone, can be considered a "legal performance" of sorts. But instead of openly challenging a regime that would immediately criminalize such an attempt, Volpin insisted on ‘official’ constitutional rights. Like every constitution, the Soviet constitution was full of good intentions and grand declarations; it guaranteed, for example, freedom of assembly or transparency of judicial proceedings. In reality, of course, these were never followed, and never claimed. Thus, Volpin called upon the Soviet regime to simply obey its own laws and international obligations, taking ‘socialist legality’ not just seriously but literally. To some extent, some of the projects in 'Spaces of Exception' can be related to this strategy, which the artists adapt to different times, different social conditions and different problematics.

This strategy is of course used by Naprushkina in a number of her works. But quite another take is that of Jonas Staal, who uses the possibilities of "freedom of speech" to develop platforms for political organizations and movements excluded from the democratic process. His artistic and political organization New World Summit develops what he calls “alternative parliaments” for organizations that face systemic exclusion from the political order, for example by use of so called “designated lists of terrorist organizations.” As such he hosted, among others, representatives of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the Kurdish Women Movement, the Basque Peace Process and the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA). Staal creates a "space of exception" as a space of experiment for new models of debate and new criteria of inclusion and exclusion.

Staal temporarily suspends the divisions between what is considered ‘national’ (as a rule) and ‘exceptional’. Such divisions are the outcome of former colonial empires whose demise resulted in more subtle manifestations of continuous inequality and discrimination, right into the present. Various artists dig into the Dutch colonial era and its aftermath. Willem de Rooij subtly embodies a Dutch history of colonization, (slave) trade and migration between Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia in his Blue to Black textile piece. Maryanto creates an epic counter-monument to the recent history of Papua New Guinea almost unknown to the outside world, not focussing on the Dutch colonization (as in the defaced portrait of Queen Wilhelmina by Kocken), but rather on its re-colonization by Indonesia. The work of Roy Villevoye is haunted by a long tradition of ethnographic focus on the same region, and how this tradition as a matter of fact distracts from the political and economic reality there.

Finally, the exhibition defines itself a public "space of exception" through a specific agreement, designed by an artist. Carey Young's work, included into the exhibition, concludes a "magic contract" with the viewer. The work features a legal text written backwards and reflected in a black mirror, a device traditionally used in witchcraft and the occult in many cultures. The text drafted by the artist proposes the exhibition space visible in the mirror as a new area of publicly-owned land, in which certain activities considered illegal in public space at different times are made permissible.

The exhibition will in turn serve as a stage for the choreographer Anna Abalikhina. She will appropriate the show and use it as an exceptional space of rehearsal after its opening. Engaging with the entire exhibition, she will reconsider the Soviet tradition of the parade and its lavish mass ornaments as a carnival-cum-demonstration. The results of this collaboration between the curators and the choreographer will be performed on September 17th.

Elena Sorokina is an independent curator
Jelle Bouwhuis is head curator of Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam

Participating artists: Yuri Albert, Ivan Brazkin, Chto Delat, Yevgeniy Fiks, Nikita Kadan/Alexander Burlaka, Gulnara Kasmalieva/Muratbek Djumaliev, Gert Jan Kocken, Irina Korina, Jiri Kovanda, Maryanto, Taus Makhacheva, Renzo Martens, Metahaven, Aernout Mik, Marina Naprushkina, Nikolay Oleynikov, Anna Parkina, Dmitry Prigov, Tima Radya, Willem de Rooij, Haim Sokol, Jonas Staal, Roy Villevoye, Carey Young, Katarina Zdjelar
Choreographer: Anna Abalikhina
Exhibition architect: Maria Kalinina

Artplay, Moscow
11 - 26 September 2013
Open every day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Spaces of Exception” is organized by Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA), the Netherlands. It is a Special Project of the Moscow Biennial 2013, held in the framework of The Netherlands/Russian Federation Year 2013.

On 11 and 14 to 17 September the exhibition space also hosts "The Dutch Art Assembly". This is a series of lectures and debates on the changing role of the art curator, initiated by the Mondrian Fund (The Netherlands) and programmed by Elena Sorokina. The full schedule can be found on