It is a shame that Modern Art Oxford has launched two exciting new shows just as Oxford students prepare to leave on break – thankfully, they both run well into the new year. In A Storyteller’s Inadequacy, a new exhibition by Eva Kot’átková, and the navel-gazing exhibition of nearly fifty years of Modern Art Oxford posters, MAO is presenting work that is refreshing, earnest, and playful.
The visual centrepiece Kot’átková’s installation is ‘Speech organ of Anna’, a combination of both playground-style sculpture and performance art that Kot’átková uses to explore the limits of communication. For Kot’átková, those limits are clearly defined and much stricter than one might think in everyday life–the live performers who inhabit this space make no eye contact with the viewer, instead wrapping themselves around, though and inside the bizarre and mildly grotesque cages that fill the piece. Whatever the viewer may or may not interpret from the piece, the addition of live performers inside the work adds a thrilling touch of danger to the work. The human presence breaks the usually cool veneer of visual art, but by performers who will not look at you, speak to you, or acknowledge your presence in the slightest. The addition underscores her central theme powerfully.
The Middle Gallery centres around a lecture given by Petr Kot’áko, which pits the ‘narrator in good shape’ against the ‘narrator in decay’. As Kot’áko presents an exposition of the narrated world, his own narration is interrupted by heckling and laughter. These heckles come from acting members of the audience, which raises questions about the boundaries of social conduct in line with Kot’átková work – to what extent can the non-instructed public intervene? This fascinating piece came with only one drawback: it is placed along side Kot’átková’s ‘Black theatre’. As I entered a world of sensory deprivation to focus on the “display of the fragmented body”, all I could hear was always the lecture in the outskirts of my consciousness. This is not a problem that will be encountered in future visits to the gallery as the lecture only takes place at 2pm on a Saturday.
Kot’átková has previously maintained that “there is no unity of form or style in the outcome of her experiments,” and yet a clear theme emerges, both in terms of aesthetic coherence and ideological content, that holds the three rooms together. Whilst this is very effective in creating unity, the repetitive use of motifs leaves one with a sense of déja vu. Personally, I felt that nagging sensation of “haven’t I seen this before?” particularly keenly after seeing Kot’átková’s piece ‘Asylum’ at the Venice Biennale. Entering into the Upper Gallery I was washed over by memories of charcoal grey, industrial cages, cut outs and collages, followed swiftly by a small pang of disappointment. That pang came from the fact that I wasn’t having the emotional same response to Kot’átková’s questioning of how to live “in a problematic age”. However, some the strength of Kot’átková’s work lies in that cohesive sense of an argument, or should I say question. So that in seeing similar ideas played out in a new context you are given an opportunity to observe from a new angle.
Notice! Modern Art Oxford in Print, offers a respite from the thought-intensive work of A Storyteller’s Inadequacy. Aesthetically pleasing individually, well structured collectively this fun poster gallery is printed in a way that doesn’t forsake personal memory for modern precision or vice versa. As an added bonus, if one really catches your eye, you can pick up quite a few of the posters for £1 in the shop downstairs.
The posters serve as telling windows into history as well–not just that of the institution, but of the cultural processes and landmarks that brought the art about in the first place. Fonts change slowly with the decades, and two posters for 1988 exhibitions of photography from the height of the AIDS crisis hauntingly sum up both the deep tragedy and the strength of those years. In all, both exhibitions are thoroughly worth the trip, and a welcome respite from 8th week papers and packing.