Jaka Babnik: Pygmalions
Jaka Babnik’s exhibition, Pygmalions, can be seen as an attempt to explore the relationship that invariably arises between the photograph, the photographed object and the specific language of communication, which this exhibition reveals to be a medium in itself.
Jaka Babnik has been exhibiting in galleries and other art institutions since 2007, but the tendency of the informed public to rigidly categorise the various forms of art has meant he has been labelled a photographer, even though he has always gone well beyond photography in both substance and form. Any definite categorisation must always be unsatisfactory, since it defines artists and their artistic objectives in purely formal terms. It was this consideration that provided the basis for Pygmalions which, though still a photographic exhibition in formal terms, overtly seeks to challenge this categorisation by highlighting the relationship between the photograph, the object photographed and the viewer.
In terms of substance, however, Babnik goes one step further: in adopting this approach for his exhibition, he not only seeks to relativise the photographic image itself but – by either replacing the images with the original photographed objects, or placing them in new contexts – also creates a tension between the concept of the photograph as evidence of truth and that of the photograph as a means of creating fiction. This connection between the horizontal and the vertical can be understood as the artist reflecting on the role of traditional photographic techniques and processes, their relationship with other means of expression, and the way they act in the context of the exhibition as an expressive medium in its own right.
The art exhibition strategies of the 1990s have become a standard element of art discourse and still dominate displays of contemporary art, in particular. The aim of these exhibition strategies is to facilitate in-depth reflection on the part of the viewer; they are intended to be a set of procedures enabling the best possible presentation of both the individual artworks and the exhibition as a whole. However, some kind of natural law of dominance and interests has meant that the various entities of the art system have started to invade and supersede each other. The different approaches taken by different exhibitions mean that an individual artwork often serves only as an illustration of the exhibition as a whole. Even though most artworks are complex, requiring multiple levels of reflection, they are often compressed to fit a narrow aspect of the meta-discourse in question. The power of formal, theoretical, philosophical and geopolitical assumptions – or even covert economic objectives – which all seem to act as overarching exhibition concepts, has encouraged viewers to approach works of art with pre-formed expectations or demands.
According to Igor Zabel’s notions about exhibition strategies, each art exhibition is a global idea, a set of procedures and approaches designed to ensure that the artwork will be seen in the right way by the right viewer. The Pygmalions exhibition addresses this issue directly. It does not aim to tackle exhibition issues in general, but instead focuses specifically on the particular relationship arising between the photograph, the photographed object and the viewer. This approach deliberately eliminates the dualism between the artwork and the act of exhibiting: in this context the artwork is no longer an autonomous absolute for which an appropriate environment must be found or created; rather, it exists in the tense, dynamic relationships between object, image, space, viewer, curator and institutional framework. It is the highlighting of these relationships that allows this art project to be understood as a direct criticism of the concepts of neutrality and autonomy in either artistic production or context. The artist, the artwork, the curator, the space, the audience and the institution are not abstract entities: they are determined by ideological, political, class, gender, linguistic and other factors, and by the contradictions inherent in them. An artwork is invariably a way of learning more about life and the environment, seen through the various phenomena enveloping the artist. Through his or her work, the artist takes the shapeless mass of these phenomena and transforms them into a specific structure, a system of relationships. The system of relationships between the individual entities in the art system, and the inherent imbalance between them, is one of the reasons why the Pygmalions exhibition challenges the supremacy of a meta-discourse, or an ideology captured in the photographic image or object, and focuses instead on examining individual objects and images in themselves.
In this context, the selection of the objects in Babnik’s photographic images is absolutely crucial. Each of the objects or images in the exhibition has a very specific symbolic value that can only be seen in terms of the context in which the object is viewed. Rather than concerning himself with an object’s physical appearance, Babnik pays particular attention to its ideational and symbolic value, which is determined by a particular social context. As a result, the objects displayed represent various time periods, various geopolitical spaces and various social structures. Babnik never loses sight of the relationship between what the viewer sees in visual terms and the pure idea or symbolic meaning of the object in itself. What connects the objects on display is therefore neither the overarching idea behind the exhibition, nor its formal aspects, but the fact that each of them expresses – through its visual or ideational or symbolic value – an element of happiness. Whether – and how – the viewer recognises this happiness, however, is dependent on how he or she experiences the object.
Thus, the exhibition also explores the concept of happiness as we understand it today. In Western culture, the modern concept of happiness emerged in the 18th century, with the transformation of the Church and the gradual loss of its power over the individual. Today, happiness is no longer seen as being dependent on the individual’s religiosity but is more closely associated with our ability to exercise free will and reason. Since the 18th century our idea of happiness has been connected with the idea of progress in various spheres of life – education, science, art, technology, economy and politics; and these are the aspects that Jaka Babnik explores through the lens of his camera in the Pygmalions project.
Consequently, both the individual artworks and the exhibition as a whole can only exist in the presence of a viewer and that viewer’s perceptions, and exhibitions, as a language of communication, must take this into account. The more monolithic the art exhibition in terms of form or content, the more the viewer’s perception is impaired, leading him or her to perceive the individual artwork or even the exhibition in its entirety solely in terms of its form or its content, and thereby fail to see the connection between the two. This connection is what the Pygmalions exhibition is all about. Although the artworks have all been taken from different contexts, Babnik’s choice of medium means that they are all extremely precise, testament to his awareness of the importance of the medium in relation to its conceptual starting point. This holds true even when the object in question is not a photograph. Spanning all these dimensions, the exhibition creates a tension in the gallery, stimulating the viewer’s perception and inextricably bound up with his or her knowledge, memories and rational, emotional and aesthetic experience.
Production: Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana
Photographer: Jaka Babnik
Curator: Tevž Logar
Expert support: Marija Skočir
The project was made possible by: City of Ljubljana
1 January, 1 November, 25 December: Closed
24 and 31 December: 10:00–14:00
Adults: 3 €
Students, people over the age of 60, unemployed, people with disabilities: 2 €
Family ticket: 7 €
ICOM, PRESS, SMD, students of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, VIST – Higher School of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Engineering – OTGO, Faculty of Design: Admission free
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