Non-photography exhibition “Shadows of a Doubt”. An interview with curator Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk

Annika Toots

Shadows of a Doubt
Tallinn Photomonth 2013,
Tallinn Art Hall
2 – 27 October 2013

“Shadows of a Doubt” is a group exhibition that brings together works by seventeen international artists, proposing different ways to engage with the experience and the conditions of the present moment. The participating artists are Nina Beier, Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács, David Raymond Conroy, Filip Gilissen, Ane Mette Hol, Toril Johannessen, Flo Kasearu, Gert Jan Kocken, Laura Kuusk, Oliver Laric, Gabriel Lester, Katja Novitskova, Magali Reus, Meriç Algün Ringborg, Jani Ruscica, Mario García Torres and Tarvo Varres. The exhibition is part of the Tallinn Photomonth festival and will be open from 2 to 27 October 2013 at Tallinn Art Hall. Curator Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk answered some questions about the concept of the exhibition.

Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk 

You are the curator of Tallinn Photomonth’s central exhibition. Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

I’m from Rotterdam. I studied art history in Utrecht for three years: I did my BA there in Art History, Archeology and Visual Cultures. It was a very classic course at the University of Utrecht. In the Netherlands, we don’t have a university degree in curating, yet. So, the most obvious choice was to go to London, since there are now five or six different curating courses there. I applied for a fairly young and new curating course – a partnership between the London Metropolitan University and the Whitechapel Gallery. It is partially embedded within academia – it’s about methods of display, about critical and creative art writing, about arts and its markets, about exhibition history – and is based on both practical knowledge and on theory and philosophy. Simultaneously, there was the Whitechapel part: engaging in this organization that employs tens and tens of people in various departments. I think this course has strongly informed the foundation of my curatorial guidelines, and also the curatorial strains of thought that had already been triggered in Utrecht, although there, they were more like pre-conceived ideas about curating, and then in London they were partially confirmed and more grounded, in a sense. It was more of a coming of age story, about being more aware of how the curatorial act can work in various contexts and locations.

Work by Filip Gilissen

How did you get involved with Tallinn Photomonth?

In December 2012 I was in London, and I was lucky to be awarded this curatorial prize, which is called the Demergon Curatorial Award. It was awarded at the Whitechapel Gallery and Kristel Raesaar, the artistic director of the Tallinn Photomonth festival, was there. She had worked at the Whitechapel Gallery before and was in contact with one of my professors, Daniel Herrmann, and I think she enquired about whether there would be a curator he could recommend, so I suppose he mentioned me as a curator. I spoke to Kristel only briefly before the awarding of this prize, and from there on, we agreed that I would develop a proposal for Tallinn Photomonth. It has been a nine-month trajectory of conception, development and fund-raising. In the beginning, we had only the space, and we didn’t, at that point, have the necessary means to develop an exhibition on this scale, in the Tallinn Art Hall. It’s a monumental space of 600 m², and with an increase of scale, you also automatically increase the budget. I think that this project has given me a very proper overview of what the task of the curator could mean in the broadest sense – it’s  not only this “ivory towersyndrome”, in which you develop a concept and then you invite your artists and you bring the works over. It was really this full-on development, which of course, includes the head-aching stuff, such as fund-raising.

So, the space was an important part in the development of the current exhibition?

The exhibition is very context responsive. To be context responsive is one of these key priorities that should be taken into account – to consider the proxemics of the space and the context of what is this Kunsthalle in Freedom Square in Tallinn, in Estonia, in Europe. I think, in the end, it is ‘zooming in’. We go from this idea of how to cope with, for example, general and shared, or personal crises, to how this could be embodied by the works in a given space. I think that any kind of curatorial practice should take into account the connotations and the actual architectural setup of the space, and let the development of an exhibition revolve around those parameters.

 Work by Gabriel Lester

What is the idea behind “Shadows of a Doubt”?

Photomonth has an agenda of its own, its own aims and targets. To conceive an exhibition in the context of Photomonth – it’s implications are quite directly pointing towards photography.  If you work with one medium in an exhibition, in this case – photography, it’s very hard to find an inscription into contemporaneity. Working with a single medium delimits you, in the sense that a visitor can only partially develop an actual understanding of a subject. In the end, the project has moved from photography-based to lens-based, already being more inclusive of video and other lens-based media, and I think in the current shape of the actual exhibition, we are working with image-based media. It’s this image-based relationship between the visitor, or the viewer, certain works of art and this general overarching theme of the present moment. It’s the idea that the works of art, one by one, put forward a certain present condition, addressing, for instance, how our current behavior on the Internet affects our ways of looking, our ways of perception, and also our behavior in general. Also, it’s this anxiety, or fear, inherent to the proliferation of imagery that we are being faced with on the Internet, on a daily basis.

The introductory text in the Tallinn Art Hall says that this is not a photo exhibition. Why is it so important to emphasize that?

I have to say that if it would be a question, I would say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to that. Because it’s not principally not-a-photography exhibition, it’s not stating this boldly as a mere provocation. I think the exhibition has a very strong photographic angle; it’s quite an active reflection on the various ways of interaction between viewers and image cultures. For me, it was not an aim to defy photography as such, but to incorporate it in a more wider discussion. So, this exhibition within Photomonth can actually be something that is more strongly embodied by people that are living today. The aim was to make it more provocative and also, to slice through this necessity of working with one medium. Or, as I’ve framed it, to have an appointment with thought about one’s present moment.

Work by Nina Beier

Why do you think it’s so important to draw the attention to the present moment?

What I found striking about living in Europe today, is that we have a very strong over-indebtedness to the time-values of the past and the future. We have such a strong reliance on what these time values have to offer us, in terms of evidence of the past, certain histories, certain memories and recollections, and on the other side, certain fears, hopes and ideas about progress and things to come. Whereas actually, these time spans have, in essence, been made up by humans; I mean, these are human time-frames, and they are so much more speculative and fictitious than they seem, or are normally considered to be. With this exhibition, I wanted to focus on the here-and-now. I think that there haven’t been many possibilities for exhibitions to really focus on what is taking place, or on what could take place, within a present moment. This quote by Boris Groys has been very influential, as he stated that we use the present moment to become certain, to make decisions, to be active, to be productive; but he claims that the present moment is actually best employed for the opposite – that is, as maybe more of an infinite period of delay, of doubt, of uncertainty, of postponement. And we don’t use the present moment for that, really, because we are active in it, through this imperative to perform within our time-pressured culture of high-performance. There’s a lot of decision-making in the present moment; in a silky flow of time, you will flow through it and make your decisions. I feel that there’s not such a strong sense of reflection on that moment, in a proper sense. The exhibition, as a format, is a great way of inviting the visitor to actually make this appointment with thought about the present moment, or in the present moment. And there are not many other formats and media through which you can address these values, conditions and now-points in such a specific way.

Work by Toril Johannessen

How do you see the importance of photography in the present moment?

My feeling is that through the proliferation of digital devices, and the capacities the technology has at this point, a photography practice has become more secured as a form of artistic practice. Whereas at first, people were walking around with these bulky cameras, like your Canons and your Nikons, to make this great and beautiful imagery in the most technologically advanced way possible. However currently, with the iPhone, for example, we have overcome the obstacle of the camera being this device that we have to position and take a good amount of time in order to make an image. It’s really about capturing your life in snapshots and little fragments; and the connection between your camera (or your digital device) and your social media accounts has changed the role of photography tremendously, because now, many people are inclined to think that in order to live your life, you have to document what you are doing. So, if you’re in a cafe and drinking coffee with your friends, you have to take a photo of that coffee – because it’s like  ‘latte art with a heart on it’ – and publish it, otherwise other people will think that you are either dead or boring. This paranoid feeling about having to be in touch – being in tune with the present – in this very schizophrenic way has also changed the nature of photography and how we employ it. I mean, there’s still a strong sense of artists who work in this medium, and for the right reasons, I guess, but then, to dedicate an exhibition to solely that –  I think it's not really necessary.

Meric Algün Ringborg

You also visited the other exhibition presented by Tallinn Photomonth at Tartu Art Hall. “Where You End, I Begin” focuses on photographic art in Estonia from 1992 to 2013. What did you think about this kind of temporal and spatial division?

Well, I think that the aims of that exhibition were to give an overview of what it means to be a photographic artist in Estonia, an overview of recent and some on-going practices, and I think it’s quite historically charged. In my practice, I have a strong dedication to creating a certain dynamic within the exhibition, in that one should not feel obliged to work solely with art or contemporary art. I think if you want to address a certain subject or a situation, there’s nothing wrong in, for example, working with record sleeves, or working with a pair of jeans, as signs of a specific time. They are all means of communication. Also, if this is supposed to be Photomonth, and it’s got to be photography – proper photography, two-dimensional, classic photography – I think that’s fine, in a way. Although, I feel that in order to let this approach come across, it needs this dynamic, and not medium-specific approach, to become resonant, to transcend this kind of flat imagery and really make it something that can be embodied, that can be experienced in a more personal and direct way.

Work by  David Raymond Conroy

And is this what “Shadows of a Doubt” is offering the viewer – a more personal and direct experience?

Partially so, I think. Through at least some of the installations. There’s the need for you to be there, specifically there.

One very characteristic thing about “Shadows of a Doubt” is that there are no labels – the art works are only accompanied by numbers and a catalogue that encourages you to stop, search and think. Aren’t you afraid that people might get lost without getting the textual guidelines that they are used to?

I think we have to overcome this idea of the necessity of text in order to engage with a work of art. I would call it pre-conceived knowledge, or pre-conceived expectations. It’s shaping the potential of works of art in a very limiting way. We have this feeling about contemporary art that we need the book, or at least we should have read Deleuze and Guattari before we can enter any kind of space. It makes me quite angry at times. Or maybe, also a bit sad, because many well-educated people still have the feeling that this has to be the way – first you read, then you look. It would be better if you were to consider reading about works, or about an exhibition, as an option. That’s why I always present it as an option. I mean, it is there – all the people visiting the exhibition can read as much as they like. And even if the descriptions are short, they give you maybe one or two connection points. But I’m not going to spoon-feed it to a visitor; they shouldn’t be lazy, but they shouldn’t be talked down to. I want to show works of art and not tell about them: it’s showing, not telling. Or, tell about them in a dedicated space. And it will never be different. I will never put a nice explanatory text next to the work.