lne Gevers curator  \  writer  \  activist

First Impressions
A critical discussion of Niet Normaal · Difference on Display. Beurs van Berlage, 17 December 2009

With: Ute Meta Bauer, Joseph Grigely, Ines Doujak, Louis Hock, Fulya Erdemci, Okwui Enwezor

Gabriëlle Schleijpen (moderator) introduced the discussion as an occasion to “exchange our first impressions of the Niet Normaal · Difference on Display exhibition, and to reflect critically on its concept and execution” within an international context.

Fulya Erdemci (director of SKOR) had been intrigued by Niet Normaal’s central concept from the project’s inception. It seems that society is becoming ever more conservative, throwing up all manner of problems for minorities and efforts at their inclusion. Erdemci’s first impression of the actual exhibition was a positive one. Niet Normaal’s offer of diversity on a range of different platforms and levels is inspiring, and may be summed up in two words: plurality and polyphony. Its central question is thought-provoking, as is the design of the exhibition space itself, with its organic, flowing lines suggesting a non-rational approach to the work. Niet Normaal · Difference on Display breaks with established exhibition practices, both in terms of spatial arrangement and in composition.

Ines Doujak cited Niet Normaal’s strong emotional charge, its speaking from a sense of urgency.

Joseph Grigely spoke of the exhibition as rich and layered. Rather than answer its own question, Niet Normaal complicates the issue, which is not disability as such, but a continuum of difference that is irreducible to any one individual or work of art. Niet Normaal addresses a general narrowing of bandwidths, aesthetically as well as socially. It has the potential to promote the development of a new, broader aesthetics, one that incorporates ways of being different. The exhibition generates knowledge, then translates that knowledge into a lived reality between people. Grigely cited his own preferred means of communication, writing, as an example of a different way of being that is by definition shared between individuals. One of Niet Normaal’s principle strengths, then, is its resistance to reproducing a separation of minds, moving beyond “us” and “them” to deal with a “we” instead.

Schleijpen interjected at this point that such practices are integral to art in general and thus, ironically, fairly normal.

Louis Hock seconded Grigely’s call for a broader aesthetics, bringing up another possible example from his own experience. As a young boy, Hock had looked up to a slightly older friend who lived next door. This boy had only one leg, and Hock had wished that he, too, could be like that. Grigely associated this anecdote with the now fairly well-known phenomenon of trans(dis)ability. Hock stated that as an artist, he had grown accustomed to having his work appropriated by curators when taking part in a group exhibition, but also stressed that works retain an agency of their own, even when subsumed under an exhibition’s thematic umbrella. Perhaps Niet Normaal’s most distinguishing feature is that it is an exhibition, rather than that it is made up of works of art. Hock found Niet Normaal’s multimedia approach and the resulting synaesthetic cacophony intriguing, a way of bringing the fullness of street life into the exhibition space.

Ute Meta Bauer objected to Hock’s use of the term “appropriation” for its implied assumption that there could be such a thing as unappropriated art. After all, no exhibition space or context is neutral. Even MOMA – especially MOMA – has a subtext, if not an agenda. Bauer did not see the distinction between art exhibitions and exhibitions in general as particularly relevant. What interested her was an artist’s approach to a subject, the way subjects materialise as works of art. Do the pieces provide a topic, or does the topic work its way into the pieces? The amount of symbolic capital generated by a project like Niet Normaal should not be underestimated.

At this point, Hock brought up Niet Normaal’s unusual mode of operation on the institutional level. While not being an institution in any traditional sense of the word, it nevertheless behaves as if it were, Royal endorsements and all. The project copies existing structures of power for its very own, potentially subversive purposes. Bauer added that visibility and its symbolic value seem to have factored into Niet Normaal’s quasi-institutional set-up, including its monumental setting in a major architectural landmark at the very heart of Amsterdam. The question remains whether such mainstreaming-through-art is feasible, and if so, whether museums and other institutions should be striving to do the same.

Doujak seconded Bauer’s emphasis on visibility, adding that many people go through society like vampires, not seeing themselves reflected anywhere. She did wonder, however, if Niet Normaal’s given theme might be too specific. She had had reservations about the exhibition, fearing a freak show, and had been relieved to find that it was not.

Ine Gevers underlined the scope of the phrase “niet normaal” which, though admittedly a very specific Dutch expression, can actually be applied to anything that is out of the ordinary, either positively or negatively. Niet Normaal hinges on this ambiguity, on an absence of labels and the inevitable distinction between us and them.

Erdemci worried that emphasising diversity could end up blotting out actual difference in favour of a range of token identities. Grigely expressed doubts about tokenism as a workable means of representing difference, citing Emmanuel Levinas. If we think across difference, connections that we would never have thought possible might emerge, offering the tools to question normative policies. What mattered most to Grigely about Niet Normaal was its insistence that difference is not an individual matter, a matter of you or me, but of the spaces we share.

Bauer added that Niet Normaal allows plenty of room for empowerment and joy in being different, next to the usual narratives of alienation and misery.

Gavin Jantjes expressed some disappointment at seeing so many familiar pieces included in the exhibition, which he suggested makes it less rewarding to members of the art community.

Okwui Enwezor disagreed, arguing that Niet Normaal cannot be reduced to the sum of its component works. The exhibition speaks a clear and distinctive language of its own, not only focusing on structures of difference and control, but providing visitors with the tools to process the matter. In addition, Enwezor claimed that well-known works of art may develop blind spots that go unnoticed when viewed in their usual context. Niet Normaal offers useful alternative perspectives, bringing to light dynamics that previously may have been overlooked. Enwezor concluded that the baggage Niet Normaal carries lies in its productive potential, and that the exhibition should be viewed as a processor of different readings, and of reading differently.

Over the course of the afternoon, Niet Normaal · Difference on Display emerged as a unique initiative, the likes of which are as rare abroad as they are in the Netherlands.