“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
DETROIT — I don’t pretend to know ancient Greek, but my understanding is that the term “philosopher” translates as “lover of wisdom.” I don’t pretend to be a great scholar or student of philosophy, but I am a strong reader and a voracious consumer of art, and engaged in an active process of trying to understand ideas, both professionally and in a sort of hobbyist capacity. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I have cultivated a deep wariness for a particular strain of academic and arts behavior that consists of conveying ideas in a manner so overwhelming, reference-heavy, and disorganized that it becomes simpler to assume it is smarter than you and proclaim it genius than it is to work all the way through it.
“I will fight against rationality and any pretensions to it,” proclaims the opening paragraph of a 15-page “press release” written by curator and Kavita B. Schmid co-founder Eric Schmid, furnished as an accompaniment to Eric Schmid is an Idiot — a group show organized by Kavita B Schmid (of Chicago) and What Pipeline (of Detroit), and hosted at Cave (in Detroit). I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that Eric Schmid is an idiot, but neither would I characterize him as a “lover of wisdom.”
Through various social media platforms — including Instagram, through which he met What Pipeline co-director Alivia Zivich — Schmid is rather open about his ongoing struggles with mental health complications. His manifesto contains dozens of unattributed quotations, receipts for concert tickets, tapes, and other music merchandise, page layouts perhaps displaced from critical theory or meditation guides — and generally reads as untethered ranting. Schmid’s commentary on the mélange of reference documents is rendered in 15-point Comic Sans type, which smacks of just enough ironic self-awareness to make a fool of anyone who attempts a good faith effort to understand the validity of his ideas. If Schmid is, as he states early-on, in a fight against rationality, I can cheerfully assure him, he is winning!
Well, all right. What of the work? The show has more than 80 participants, with contributions ranging from live performance, two- and three-dimensional works, video, and, in the continuing motif of Schmid-related enterprises, it feels like a bit too much.
“When we were installing, people kept saying, ‘Is this too much?’” said Zivich, during a conversation at Cave, following the opening. “And I was like, it’s all too much. That’s what we’re doing here, right?” She likens the experience to one of “tying loose strings to other loose strings.”
When Zivich and What Pipeline co-founder Daniel Sperry were approached by Schmid with the idea of collaborating on a show, it was immediately apparent that their home gallery in Southwest Detroit could not possibly host an exhibition on the proposed scale, and they turned to Cave Gallery’s approximately 2,000-square-foot space as a more suitable location. Even in Cave’s more expansive, ex-industrial environs, the exhibition is overwhelming and crowded. If, as the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth, then perhaps too many curators spoil the concept of a curated experience.
Much like standing inside a hoarder’s house, the exhibition space feels like an externalized form of insanity; and much like being inside a hoarder’s house, things of potential interest or value become obscured by the sheer volume and density of objects in need of reconciliation. Because of an extremely truncated installation window, visitors are not furnished with an exhibition guide or any other kind of orienting document, and so, from an arts writing perspective — aside from a handful of contributions recognizable to me as the work of Detroit artists with whom I am already familiar — I cannot begin to speak of the work in a remotely informed manner. Any commentary I might produce would be little more than a survey of unattributed idea-objects, much in the style of Schmid’s manifesto — for instance, there was a sound piece created by leaving dozens of novelty bang snaps scattered on the floor, causing intermittent, spontaneous explosions as one wanders the gallery. I don’t pretend to be a bastion of mental health, but I cannot, for reasons of self-preservation, buy into Schmid’s insanity.
What remains available, then, is attempting to address what value such an exhibition has to offer, and to whom. Certainly, there is a model within academia to present ideas so opaque and difficult that they force an audience to rise in order to meet them. The trouble comes in discerning between someone who is operating on a higher level, and someone who is sketching out a diagram of the world on the wall in their own feces. I cannot speak to the collective intentions of Kavita B. Schmid, and neither can I follow them. I know Zivich and Sperry, as well as members of Cave, to be actively engaged in pushing the fringes of contemporary art practice and presentation, and Eric Schmid is an Idiot bears several of the earmarks of the What Pipeline/Cave aesthetic: conscious primitivism, repurposed and decaying materials, chaos, experimental sound/performance art, employment of cool intellectualism to create emotional distance between maker and object. It does not, from my personal perspective, make for a terribly pleasant viewing experience — but sometimes it does make me think. In this case, it mostly makes my head hurt.
During a walk through the gallery, Sperry characterized the collaboration as a “social experiment” as much — or more so — than an exhibition. I’m generally in favor of experimentation, but it is certainly less comfortable when it turns out that you are the guinea pig. It is impossible to tell, through this presentation, if Kavita B. Schmid suffers from a lack of empathy for their viewers or, by literally embedding us within a bewildering warp of perhaps-connected and dislocating pieces, an overabundance of willingness to force empathy with their particular strain of madness. I could offer my opinion, but then, I never pretended to be a psychologist.
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