by Lee Ambrosi
Modular walls of different shapes, sizes and colors are scattered across a Venetian athletic stadium, about two-dozen intersect at irregular partial vectors. Visitors can walk various paths through this stoic assemblage as if amongst a drywall forest. The walls are also moveable, indeed, they are deliberately mobile and intended to change position throughout the duration of the exhibition. At the artist’s invitation, they have been lent from museums and institutes across Europe, but were not borrowed to fulfill their intended function as temporary structures on which to hang art. Collectively they became Cousins (2013), Gabriel Lester’s contribution to the combined Lithuania and Cyprus pavilion at the 55th Venice biennale. He calls this drywall assemblage a “scenography”.
There are hints of classicism in Gabriel Lester’s art practice, but not because he reinterprets ionic capitals or heroic nudes. His interpretation of classicism is a departure from the formalist references to a classical age to which we are accustomed. In fact, he deals in the psychological ruins of our more recent age: modernism. Our quotidian understanding of “contemporary art” is the logical heir of the modernist’s dream of a global age, where all nations are equals and where democratic values have proliferated, and social and economic progress is inevitable.
Inhabiting the politically and symbolically charged space of this Venetian court, these disembodied walls concretize the demise of the modernist ideal in which a pantheon of nations competes on an ordered and democratic playing field. Somewhere, on the edge of that now disintegrating dream of modernism lays the ruins of a “global contemporary” in art production. Here, the significance of each wall structure as raw material comes not only from materiality, but also from its social history—each wall is an ambassador from its nation’s exhibiting institutions, a silent stand in for “art”, which is the very reason for gathering in Venice at this time.
As a metaphorical assemblage of nations, walls stripped of their normal content and used as components within a dynamic space invoke an abstract global ideal. These walls role-play the “global turn”––every route bringing you into contact with ambassadors from multiple nations, proxies for international participation, voluntary cooperation and a continually negotiated space. Although they show traces of wear, their function has intentionally been subverted and they announce their emptiness. Compare these bare walls to the long disappeared polychrome on ancient Greek temples or a pristine white roman marble bust; the notion of a colourful Greek statue so long gone that the thought would have made even the Victorians cringe. Note the similar absence of any information that might indicate from where each of the walls hails from. Lester prefers anonymity to any trace of nationhood, just as we prefer gleaming white marble skin as a classical ideal.
Although these walls are anonymous, their materiality and provenance lend them significance. Their homogenous collectivist and evolving relationships are an allegory of global politics on the athletic field. Despite their relative newness, their aged and naked appearance implies a former glory, and as components of the “scenography” at the Lithuania and Cyprus pavilion, these walls now have added value. A return to functioning as mere spatial dividers would seem retrograde. This observer interprets them as relics of a modern exhibition age. Here, in a bi-national pavilion located at the geographic and symbolic fringes of global art practice, Lester has lampooned the global archetype of diversity with this multicultural collection of naked walls. Any hierarchies seem democratized by their uniformity and a level playing field, but do they pose a threat to the status quo? As vestiges of a grand exhibition age they perpetuate its ideals all the same.
This essay examines how Lester has reconceptualized the role of the artist as “scenographer,” and looks for how his most recent work integrates, and then transcends, a globalist stance. By identifying a lexicon by which he articulates these ideas, I hope to demonstrate how he uses experiential art to move beyond the inherent flaws and limitations of a purported “global contemporary” in the art world. Cousinsprovides the ideal opportunity to launch a discussion, it conjures the all-pervasive but largely unacknowledged residue of the classical world in our contemporary present. It also shares affinities to the art world’s current rapport with the global.
In scholarship and in popular culture alike, the classical world is conceptualized as chronologically predating our own time. It is understood as a place that only intersects with our world through material interfaces such as the Athenian Acropolis, or a Black Attic vase. Modernism itself requires an “othering” of the classical world and traditions at-large––yet classical knowledge continues to permeate all disciplines and academic learning in the “West” and beyond to shape our values and aesthetic judgments.
Classical forms are echoed in our modern architecture and in the visual arts, where they have left a tangled legacy of figural and mimetic representational form from which we have yet to extract ourselves. But despite how much the classical permeates the present, the “classical world” per se is kept at arm’s distance. Few theorize its role in the contemporary moment, and thus the many problems that have arisen in its Twentieth Century reception remain largely untheorized. Perhaps our archetypal representation of the classical world is embodied in the Parthenon, always imagined in its unpopulated and monumental solitude. Yet we are unable to imagine it as anything other: postcard images do not reveal the throngs of tourists, although they are the reality of the contemporary experience. Such images help create an idealized past which we are incapable of attaining.
The question is how this ideal relates metaphorically to the “global contemporary” in art twenty-five years after Hans Belting’s exhibition of the same name allowed the presence of a global art world to be widely accepted as matter-of-fact. Notwithstanding the Western critics who champion the theory of the global contemporary—and the “global” voices that take up their relay baton, many of whom are afforded few other entry points to Western audiences—the subject of global qua global is rarely the subject of art historians. Nonetheless, artists, curators, writers and patrons pursue its migratory axis of art fairs and -ennials around the globe, celebrating what appears to be the arrival of a new era or the “global turn”.
Like the implications of the “classical ideal” embedded in the racial politics of the Twentieth Century, the problems inherent in conceptualizing a “global” in art production are acknowledged, but await successful redress. Art history as a discipline still institutes its taxonomies along national, cultural, and geographic divisions, as do art production and art markets. Of where and when the fabled global intersects with contemporaneity, we are still unsure. In the “non-West,” artists are accused of pandering to its omnipresent gaze. Conversely, Amer-eurocentrism permeates globalist literature and dominates art markets. However, similar to the throngs of tourists carefully edited out of postcards, the tensions of identity, racism, inequality and conflicting national histories are eschewed subjects of discussion in the literature. In the same way our mind’s eye edits out the unsightly tourists to leave an image of unspoiled white marble, curators, art historians have idealized the “global contemporary,” and we assume it to be multinational, pluralistic, and critically inclined. In this sense, it can be considered the “classical” of our contemporary age: forever within our illusory field of vision, but nevertheless lurking in our blind spot.
The impossibility of inhabiting such imagined places––whether it be the classical age or a field of global cultural production––presents hermeneutical problems for artists working in this ever-shifting field of expectations. In his 1960Truth and Method, H.G. Gadamer proposed that a work of art couldn’t be separated from the totality of its interpretations. Similarly, the tourist-populated Acropolis and a homogenous, locally interested “global” are both valid interpretations among many. It follows that any reading of a work of art is tied to the interests and expectations of those engaged in the interpretation. This is where I discover an affinity in Gadamer’s postulations and the experiential nature of Lester’s anti-positivist approach to interpretation. We can also discover in Lester’s work a universality that is equally legible to culturally and geographically diverse audiences. His artistic lexicon is likewise derived from the narrative visual arts, theatre, cinema, comics and the performing arts, such as music and dance. As has been formerly discussed, his oeuvre employs and builds upon a cinematic legacy of “seeing” that, since its dissemination in the early Twentieth Century, has been unifying cultures around the globe. Cinematic grammar has narrowed the gap between the ways that different cultures read narratives, and perhaps strictly in this sense, is Gabriel Lester a global artist.
In terms of the inter-subjective communication that Gadamer addresses, Lester’s works provide corporeal experiences and enable a hermeneutic framework that can draw on the viewer’s personal experiences. Similar to our experience walking through Cousins, the artist does not designate a “correct” way to walk amongst the walls, only an invitation. An authentically globalist stance should likewise imply multiple co-existent realities and frameworks, and because Lester’s personal background is hybrid in multiple senses, perhaps he has already internalized the logic of a globalist vision.
Lester’s history with performance is imbued in the experiential nature of his works. InTransition, 2012, he invited audiences to partake in a physical process as conceived through the artist’s projection of the audiences’ corporeal movement through time and space. In such a work, the act of “viewing” becomes multi-sensory, and individual human experiences become relativized within the enveloping space. The signifiers in Transition are culturally non-specific and range from mundane physical experience to universal forms. Shadow and light are combined with the personal time of passing through the space––all of which relate back to the cinematic arts. Narratives, too, are subject to cultural and geographic specificities. But film, as a product of our modern age now inseparable from modern urban life, is a narrative structure that demonstrated globalizing tendencies from its earliest inception.
Artist as scenographer
Clearly Gabriel Lester works in the post-plastic arts, but in what ways are his works experiential, rather than participatory? I propose it is because he has embraced his history in the performing arts and reconceptualized the role of the artist as “scenographer.” Consider the principal artist’s vocabulary that he established with How to Act,1999/2011, and this seems an obvious assumption. The role of a scenographer, vis-á-visthe artist, is to manipulate the performance environment, which he or she approaches holistically; the physical construction of an environment is likewise considered of equal importance to the construction and reception of meaning. In this scenographic, or experiential artwork, the audience is integral to the activation, reception, and the completion of the artwork.
As a scenographer, Lester conceives of his works as temporal, cinematic experiences. Although they always have a strong aesthetic component, he is never just creating an artwork, but is instead conferring with his audience about a narrative experience. It may be a short walk, as in Transitions; or actor-less theatre, as in Super Sargasso Sea (2013); or a viewing experience, as in Anyang Scope (2007)––all have dynamic experiential elements irrespective of the medium.
A cinematic lexicon
Lester’s temporal strategies differ across mediums, but all of his works envelop narratives that mimic cinematic time. This could be a storyline carried by the body in motion, as he used in Kaufhaus Incidentals (2012) where the artist arranged for the recording of silent film scores whose recordings were played in a shopping mall. Here, accompanied by the rescued sounds of a near-forgotten silent film era, the seemingly mundane act of shopping is transformed into a cinematic moment for the audience.
Another form of cinematic temporality is the “freeze frame,” a device that Lester so successfully exploited in Melancholia in Arcadia (2011). Here, the haunting image of billowing curtains fills the empty room and is frozen like a film still. The sound and feel of wind, although technically absent, are vividly implied. He uses the freeze frame again in a recent commission for Stockholm University, TWIRL (2013): here acrylic polymers in the shape of A4 paper are suspended in air, frozen in a melodramatic scatter across two flights of stairs. The stop-motion frame captures both the dreams and fears of the countless students who will walk among them daily. In another classicizing detail, one is urged to wonder if tablet computers would capture the same effect fifty years from now.
The second element in his artist’s lexicon is meticulous design, including that of architectural and material aspects. These are the “sets,” the lights and the physical elements that “frame” our experience, guide our viewing, or create ambiance. Similar to Dutch design, Lester’s aesthetic sensibilities are always pragmatically simple, unembellished, and, in a sense, are striving for universality. In tandem with his stance on post-globalist universalism, the only identity to be discovered in his works is one’s own. For example, in How to Act the space is a performance merely by virtue of its music and its lights; using imaginations we project the enactment of the bodily presence, another essential element in his work.
Perhaps we take it for granted, but the body—more succinctly, the interactive presence of the body—is a relatively new addition to the hermeneutic circle. The artist’s body, and by proxy our own, is an essential consideration in Lester’s practice. The act of walking through, alongside, or even projecting our imaginary proxy bodies is essential to activate, and thus read these works. Examine Big Bang Bang (2013), installed in the new Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing China, where bodily presence is both inferred and realized in tangible terms. The illusory body is projected to the outside of the museum in Lester’s choice of materials, they are the same as the museum’s distinct facade, designed by American architect Steven Holl. When the white translucent PVC walls have been folded back into the interior of the space we imagine ourselves simultaneously inside and outside the building. The actual, physical body moves through the successive sheets of the semi-transparent material, which have been cut to resemble cross-sections of an explosion. The audience must pass through the artwork en route through the museum, and we seem to be traversing a dissolving cloud, or reliving the suspended aftermath of a “big bang”.
The title, Big Bang Bang––an explosive, or post-explosive moment––brings us to the last in Lester’s lexicon: the element of sound. Even where his works are silent, they imply an aural dimension–imagine the “papers” in TWIRLswooshing through the air, or the echo of your own voice while experiencing Transition. A symptom of his own musical training, aural appreciation is a significant component is some of his works, such as soundtracks for How to Actand Super Sargasso Sea, which are spectacularly produced pieces that contribute to the cumulative drama of the works. Here, sound is critical to “seeing” and experiencing. In discussing art, the aural dimension is often neglected, but Lester is changing that, bringing sound and music to the foreground of our “seeing” experience.
Vayu Vata (2013), four Aeolian harps installed outdoors during the Sharjah Biennial, captured sound through the skilful design of the harps themselves. Ephemeral resonances can also take on Lester’s preferred “aesthetic” of universal characteristics; take the performance piece Music for Riots and Fights, as example. In this work, silent film scores originally intended for use in “generic” moments of dramatic tension were performed, sans film, as an artwork in their own right. What is a soundtrack for “riots and fights” without some degree of melee? In poetic indulgence, we imagine some violence unfolding in the very space where we are listening to these scores: our bodies colliding with our neighbour’s over a spilled champagne glass, maybe crashing into a table of canapés.
Thus is the formula by which our artist becomes scenographer. The only element that is missing, dear audience, is you.
But what is the relation to the global? When considering his international, multilingual frame of reference, I frequently wonder how living in Shanghai has changed Lester. What did he take away from its bicycle and bamboo-steamer congested streets? Did he enjoy the racial dichotomies that permeate everyday life there? Did he grow weary of them? Was he driven to self-essentialization?
After many years of observation, I concede that Lester’s reception as a “foreign artist” was remarkably successful. As testimony to the post-global appeal of his work, his exhibition “ROXY” (2012) was an incredible success.
In another instance, I wonder if the bustle of urban Shanghai inspired Chance Encounters(2011), where modular but abstract sculptural works blend with artificial plants on wheels, moving with the audience within the space. By creating complex algorithms for navigating the space, Chance Encounters reminds me of the unspoken traffic rules that dominate the Chinese metropolis: travel where the road leads you (or where you see an opening), for the shortest route is not always the quickest. However, I remain unconvinced that life in Shanghai changed the trajectory of his practice too profoundly. Although I surmise he may have become more confident mobilizing universal forms in his aesthetics, both aural and visual.
Similar to the classical referent in Western art, subjective human experiences may be the defining characteristic of a post-global age in contemporary art. Lester clearly demonstrates that every interpretation can and will be inter-subjective. He takes for granted that any interpretation will derive from the unique cultural imprint of the viewer. Thus he gives us an alternative to a global ideal and it’s attendant “national” frameworks, providing distilled forms that can be as diverse as we allow them to be, and experiential artworks that are activated only through our bodily presence. If photography changed the way we see, cinema has changed the way we experience because it collapsed drama, tension, and emotions onto a flat screen. In a sense, Lester has reclaimed and liberated the individualism of the cinematic moment, amplifying the spaces between these layers and re-gifting us the experience of living through heightened dramatization.
17 June 2014 Selinunte, Sicily
 For this observation, I am indebted to my mentor of all things in the Greek and Roman Classical world and archaeology, Professor Clemente Marconi.
 In The Future of the Classical (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006) Salvatore Settis examines how each era has reinvented the idea of the classical, and is an exception to this.
 Please see The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, edited by Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel for a more thorough theorization of the global contemporary. For online resources, see www.globalartmuseum.de