Woman and Man vs. Wild:
A survival guide for exhibiting beyond the white cube
1. Shelter: catching some shut-eye inside a rotting deer carcass
The gallery space hardly provides comfort, but for the artist, curator and the artwork, it can provide protection and shelter from the elements. Be wary, elemental assaults can include the deafening silence of the visitor-desert and its equal opposite, the verbal assault. The verbal assault is tricky to anticipate and is usually disguised by a kindly face, but can feature the stinging “Is this finished yet”, the crushing “Is this it?” and the discouraging “Can you tell me where the art is?”
Exhibiting beyond the gallery space or designated art-viewing zone heightens the potentiality of these threats, since it may appear that the artwork does not find a natural home here. It is important to find shelter for the artwork, and the artist and curator should undertake this task with extreme caution.
As adventurer, television presenter and survivalist Bear Grylls notes, “Shelter is usually found at the end of an exhausting day, when it is most important to find warmth and protection.” In an episode of the television program Man vs Wild, Grylls ‘gets lost’ in the Scottish Highlands and stumbles upon a rotting deer carcass in exposed terrain. He expertly demonstrates how to gut the deer and then he sleeps in for the night. What this suggests for artists and curators is that appropriation and collage can be one way to embark on an improvisation process, even if like Grylls, you find that once inside it, the original material stinks.
In the warmer, tree-lined climes of South America, Grylls also suggests “lifting yourself up” as being the key to shelter, and he proposes that the canopy is a great place to start looking for protection. Thankfully art history provides a progressive narrative of influences. This is a useful tool for organising information gleaned from the pedagogical canopy, and it can be necessary to identify the older stronger branches amongst the smaller more bendy newlings, in order to adequately prepare one’s shelter. Don’t forget the younger branches are easily pliable and almost essential for constructing your canopy within the wider tree roof. Positioning yourself amongst the canopy also provides a look-out spot in order to identify your route for the day ahead. Grylls recommends employing a variety of tree branch species, but ultimately it’s essential to keep alert, maintain curiosity and keep moving.
2. At the end of the day you’re alone
(except for that camera crew behind those bushes)
As Grylls has mused: “Many people find it hard to understand what it is about a mountain that draws men and women to risk their lives on her freezing, icy faces - all for a chance at that single, solitary moment on the top. It can be hard to explain. But I also relate to the quote that says, if you have to ask, you will never understand.”
One feature common to each Gryllsian adventure is his depiction of the biting loneliness wilderness provide. He counters this by talking to his hand-held camera.
Sometimes despite its promise, relocating the artwork from the studio to the exhibition space or site can be a lonely place. And as previously discussed in relation to the visitor desert, a project, residency, even a site visit can provide a lack of critical framework within which to determine a pathway through isolation. Sometimes the work is the best way out. And in these situations when you don’t choose your own hand-held camera, Grylls has suggested: “Listen to the quiet voice inside. Intuition is the noise of the mind.” By looking within it is possible to overcome a lack of supportive structures in your immediate environment and intuitively structure work.
Another inaudible conversation to be mindful of is the one had between artwork and exhibition zone, in ways that might have been unimaginable in the studio. In the making of exhibitions we also discuss ‘conversations between artworks’. It’s something experiential which can be unidentifiable on a map or in a floorplan.
3. Drink your own piss
So you have a small kit bag? One thing Grylls stresses is that you shouldn’t use everything all at once, because the fact is “you don’t know how long you’ll be out there and you need to maintain reserves”. This is also true for the exhibition. The artist can never treat the exhibition as his or her last exhibition and as such she or he needn’t say everything all at once (unless that is the conceptual framework for the project).
In addition, whilst Grylls looks ready for anything nature might throw at him, he is always clad head to toe in waterproof technical fibre. This kind of protection isn’t always possible for the artwork. To move artwork from the studio to the site (gallery and gallery alternatives) is to transplant the work from place of safe, controlled contemplation to place of exhibition. It is to uproot it from some place to no place or unknown place. It is more often than not to throw light on it, in some way, perhaps by bulb or by unclad window (the artwork is rarely allowed to lurk in a shadow, since even dark rooms containing projections require a bulb.) The key here is to focus your energies on the artwork rather than, say, pretty-ing up the space, since it is in fact no place at all.
Grylls’ thesis is that though you don’t plan to get lost, you can however use everything you have with you to your advantage, including your own piss. In perhaps his most famous episode Grylls’ uses a snake skin as a water bladder from which he drinks his own urine. He doesn’t recommend it, but sometimes, he says, it can be your only option. Grylls is a tough guy and sometimes even tough guys have to suck it up, or chug it down as the case may be. This is kind of a message about humility when being tested by a person or a place. It also represents the ways in which the site can demand experimentation that may even be harmful to your health.
Ultimately Grylls asks the question, “Are you the sort of person who can turn around when you have nothing left, and find that little bit extra inside you to keep going, or do you sag and wilt with exhaustion? It is a mental game, and it is hard to tell how people will react until they are squeezed.” Perhaps one day that little bit extra will be pee.
4. Lasso the wild Mustang or Why it’s okay to pretend to be a tough guy
In the Born Survivor series Grylls goes to California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains where he captures a wild Mustang. Grylls was later exposed by investigative journalists at the Daily Mail as having choreographed the event by using a trained horse from a nearby trekking station,
In another ‘stunt’ Grylls jumps into Quicksand in the middle of the Sahara Dessert in order to demonstrate how to get out of it. “What is nasty about this stuff is that the more you fight it, the more it pulls you in.” And the killer, as Grylls points out, is that the first temptation is to reach out and grab a helping hand, but the danger in this is either pulling someone else in or you could dislocate your shoulder. The trick again is to use your own body where possible, since the artwork can be diverted or dislocated by enlisting help from volunteers, family, friends, even trained installers.
In regards to trickery and choreographed stunts, Grylls in his defence has stated “If you really believe everything happens the way it is shown on TV, you are being a little bit naive”. And this is true of the exhibition space. Use audience plants and trained actors in performances; never rely on the audience to provide you with an imaginative, unrehearsed response, because the fact is they are as untrustworthy as wild horses.
5. Beware the white out
While filming a sequence ‘lost’ in the Dolomites, a cameraman slips in heavy snowfall, crashing into Grylls at high-speed. Next, we see Grylls clutching his leg in agony – a suspected broken femur. It’s true that sometimes documentation can damage the project or incorrectly capture it, but then again the crash was pretty great footage too. The ‘to camera’ interview with the worried producer revealed a little behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties of production.
I regards to planning of another sort, one thing Grylls never has in his kit is a guide book. His thesis is that text is null and void. Nothing you read can prepare you for the difficulties you may face in the wild.
The catalogue essay and the artist statement can similarly work against the artwork. Language can restrict, inhibit and disfigure the art work for the artist, let alone for the viewer. Particularly dangerous is the text that emerges before or just in time for the opening of an exhibition, site and work unseen. The essay, didactic, accompanying website, curator tour, and even review for unseen things is designed to construct poetry for art. And sometimes this poetry can be very engaging, but it is important to remember the text sits on the exhibition and/or artwork like a feeder fish, subjecting it to deterioration and feeding off its scraps. It is not to be trusted, as it stitches together truth and lies. It will reference philosophic texts, film, fiction and other unseen artworks as the basis for truth-telling, with fictional speculation about and around the artwork. It is itself a kind of performance of admiration and unnecessary ritual.
The text can provide bad visibility for the experience of the artwork, and a blizzard can be a killer. The key is not to be blinded by the white A4 piece of paper and rather, keep an eye on the artwork and its natural surroundings at all times.
Amita Kirpalani 2014