ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — The greatest temptations, in a show called The Temptation of AA Bronson, are not epicurean, sensual, or even sexual. Instead the visitor is torn between mysticism and reason, knowing that perhaps too much of either could be unbalanced.
Bronson has taken an intuitive approach to curating; he gathers his own art, work by friends and collaborators, plus archive material. And while there is some degree of method, there is also plenty of madness — with half a dozen performances at the launch alone.
The day began at dawn in the Witte de With arts center; at least one temptation was to go back to bed. But Bronson’s complex show soon kicked off with a Hindu blessing in a black box temple within this Rotterdam white cube space. Michael Bühler-Rose and a devout colleague joined forces to stoke an aromatic fire and chant 5,000 year old mantras.
“It’s by the book, literally, literally,” says Bühler-Rose when quizzed about the ritual. “It’s a Vaishnava ritual, in a traditional lineage of Hinduism for worshippers of Vishnu or Krishna. But much of it is also Vedic, so the original text that Hinduism was based on.”
Bühler-Rose considers himself as much a priest as an artist, his fascination with Eastern religion dating back to his teenage years. Since then he has lived in India for some years and studied the traditions which first took hold of his imagination.
He now refers to the “imagery and image worship” of his Hindu beliefs and to give them an art context appears a natural thing to do. However, his is not the practice of a “mystic wizard,” like say Joseph Beuys. As he also points out: “I’m not saying I’m some artistic genius,” which of course is a real temptation in the West.
Thanks to the architects of galleries and the curators of shows and so on, he claims exhibitions are designed to provide religious experiences. And yet: “You don’t want to tell people that, because no one wants a religious experience.”
Bühler-Rose is clear about this and lists the parallels we may try and resist: “Artist as priest, the art object as a deity, the gallery as a temple, the collector as the religious sponsor, the installation of the artwork as a sort of ritual consecration … ” And so the power of art appears here to stem from a temptation to believe.
Later on that day we see another performance by another artist who is sensitive to the charms of the East. Chrysanne Stathacos spends hours assembling a mandala from rose petals. It grows across the floor in mesmerizing fashion. By the end of the launch it is some 12 feet wide. That’s a lot of work considering the petals in this impermanent work will decompose over the run of the show.
Stathacos says she has been making works like this since the 90s and has before now put one together that was 60 feet wide. She also made work for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and, like Bühler-Rose, has spent considerable time in India. There should be a word for such wholesale integration with the East.
In the center of the colorful mandala is a blue mirror. “The idea is in terms of a lot of philosophy,” says Stathacos. “It’s about the reflection, the mirroring, the emptiness.” Emptiness, it might be said, has always hollowed out the Western love of presence. But how can one be tempted by nothingness?
The artist has before now quoted Sufi master Rumi: “There is beauty; therefore God is.” And what could be more beautiful and seductive than rose petals? The temptation, therefore, is to switch off the critical faculties, to indeed find divinity manifest in art.
But the rituals of launch day are checked by the work of Gareth Long. The writer and designer counters the show’s prevailing mysticism by offering temptations of the West: reason, logic, and science. And these can be found in his parallel text which accompanies the display, finding its way onto wall plaques and hangings.
The Temptation of AA Bronson is also the name of this novella or playlet in which the show’s wide ranging cast is given voice. For the most part that voice is a lifted quote from the most precise of Western writers, Flaubert. Long is a huge fan of the Frenchman and has sourced his material from letters and court transcripts, as well as the novels.
“I’m not the kind of artist who makes these different sorts of mystical, spiritual types of work,” he tells me. “It’s just not the thing that I go in for. And AA [Bronson] knows this about me. We joke about it all the time and so AA agreed that’s my place in the show as the sort of thing for reason.”
So despite his interest in the occult, Bronson is not immune to the consolations of reason: “I actually lent [Flaubert’s] book The Temptation of Saint Anthony to AA and I said, ‘Oh, this could be an organizing principle for you’, and he loved it and went for it.”
Long and We Have Photoshop designer Mike Gallagher even went so far as to develop a new typeface for the show. He describes it as “a reworking of Jenson, a very classic typeface. But it’s a sans serif.” And the name of this new font? Call it Hilarion, after Flaubert’s personification of rational thought.
“There are two slightly different versions of it,” Long adds, since, “There’s so many other binaries playing out in this show.” He begins to list them: “AA as artist and curator, subject and object, queer and not queer, inside and outside.”
To which we may add reason and faith. So what binds these dichotomies together? Could that be temptation itself, temptation as a motive principle? This multi-layered show provides plenty of chances to oscillate back and forth. Dizzying, seductive, conflicted; Bronson’s exhibition is all these things. But then life is too, both East and West.
The Temptation of AA Bronson, of which Hyperallergic is the media sponsor, continues through January 5, 2014 at the Witte de With (Witte de Withstraat 50, Rotterdam, the Netherlands).