Niet Normaal: Difference of Display – Reviewed

Amy Jones reviews Niet Normaal: Difference on Display, an exhibition provoking the question: ‘What is normal anyway?’

Last Thursday DaDaFest 2012 launched and with it a thought-provoking new exhibition at the Bluecoat; Niet Normaal: Difference on Display. The exhibition first materialised in Amsterdam as a huge, almost Biennial-size show including ninety artists and more than one hundred different pieces. Scaled down in its Liverpool incarnation and with a unique focus on language, the exhibition is not so much interrogating issues surrounding difference, but ‘Normalcy’.

Curator Ine Gevers explained how the theme of ‘normal’ operates within the show. “It’s about what is normal and who decides … basically, it’s about how we construct society. The whole word normal only came to exist in the 19th century and there is no such thing as normality. On the one hand everybody is different so how do we construct this ‘normalcy’ how do we do that?”

According to the exhibition, ‘normalcy’, is constructed through the various institutions that govern our daily lives which we often mistakenly view as objective. These institutions, Language, Science and Technology are positioned in the show as the filters we use to perceive the world. Gevers has selected a unique combination of works, highlighting the role of language in our perception and experience of ‘Normal’.“The whole angle I chose was language in terms of how it limits us. ‘Language as a prison cell’,is  a famous remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein, and language as … the only way to set us free. Language, as soon as you can play with it, can become more imaginative, more poetic.”

One of the first works you encounter is Javier Tellez’ film Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008. This beautiful, stylish, black and white video is based on Robert Weine’s famous expressionist film Kabinet des Dr Caligari, one of the first films to be recorded inside a real functioning asylum. Where Weine’s film used actors to play patients, Tellez turns this around by using psychiatric patients as actors. The result is a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality, the rational and madness. In the film’s opening sequence we see a lone figure delivering a piece to camera. The monologue contains the phrase “When my speech is over everything will be played out here”. This remark sets the pace for an exhibition that is encouraging us to ask questions and allow our thoughts to take shape and unfold outside of our typical systems of perception.

“The documentary is the type that’s secretly your guilty pleasure mid-week on Channel 5″

These ideas are reinforced by Ben Cove’s work Untitled, 2006, in the second gallery space. On first impression the piece appears to be letters which have tumbled from their ‘rightful place’, into a pile at the bottom of the wall. After some consideration, you realise these letters are not as jumbled as they first appear and are legible, barely, as the phrase ‘Everything is Going to Be Alright’. Cove’s work often explores our desire to create utopia, and this theme is prevalent here. Visually the work provokes associations with commercial graphics and we expect to see the letters neatly aligned, easy to read and easy to understand. Cove makes us work harder to discover meaning, and in the process we question why it is, that these familiar symbols can easily become so alien. As a viewer you become acutely aware of the process you are undertaking, neatly placing each letter into the rules of language in order to make sense of it.

This playful undermining of systems and institutions that perpetuate many of societies’ most sinister preconceptions is prominent in the show, and several of the artists use playfulness to draw attention to the serious social and politcal issues that are dealt with in the exhibition. This is especially true in Floris Kaayck’s work Metalosis Maligna, 2006. As you walk down the cloister-like space that connects the galleries you come across a plasma screen showing a medical documentary. The documentary is the kind that we’re all too familiar with. The type that’s secretly your guilty pleasure mid-week on Channel 5. Such frequent exposure means we are slightly numb to the graphic images of operations and the horrifying fact that this man’s technological implant is growing in his body like a cancer. In fact, the most shocking thing about the video is that it is not a documentary at all, but a complete work of fiction from Kaayck. Our faith and reliance on technology, science and language as ways of understanding the world are simultaneously questioned and brutally undermined, as you realise the work is playing on a format that we are all too accepting of.

“Difference in the exhibition is used as a tool to throw back our gaze and ask us to assess what ‘difference’ is different to”

When you reach the upstairs gallery, just as in Kaaycks work, technology and the body meet head on. You are confronted by a series of strange objects. Oversized crutches sit in the corner of the room, Koert van Mensvoort’s , Next Nature Baby, 2008, depicting a foetus holding a mobile phone, sits on another wall, creating a space that feels surreal and otherworldly. On the other side of the room sit Karin Sander’s work Body Scans, 2009. The piece is made up of hundreds of tiny figures created by using 3D body scans of attendees of the Niet Normaal exhibition in Amsterdam. The figures represent the different demographics that attended the exhibition spanning a variety of ages, abilities and nationalities.

It is as you approach the mass of figures, that you begin to categorize and dissect in order to process the work. Just as you begin to divide people into their various pigeon-holes, the rest of the exhibition catches up with you. The work perfectly draws your attention to those filters that have been undermined throughout the show, your trust in the visual, in language, in the technology that created the work, is thrown again into question. With the process of 3D body scanning now being so sophisticated that Sander’s own hand hardly needed to intervene when making it, we, the viewer, become central in a piece that is all about our participation. The culmination of the show with this piece works brilliantly, highlighting exactly how these institutions are working within us and around us.

Art is often viewed as a highly subjective form of representation. Within the context of Niet Normaal, art acts in the opposite way, probing at methods and modes of perception in order to highlight how ‘normal’ is constructed and reinforced by us all everyday. Difference in the exhibition is used as a tool to throw back our gaze and ask us to assess what ‘Difference’ is different to. Normal is being reviewed, laughed at and picked apart to be reformulated as something else, not so it can be cast aside altogether, but so ‘normal’ can become something much more inclusive.

Amy Jones 

Images courtesy Mark McNulty

Niet Normaal: Difference on Display will be showing at The Bluecoat Monday -Sunday 10am till 6pm until 02 September 2012.

Posted on 17/07/2012 by thedoublenegative