On James Richards, Tolia Astakhishvili and “The Holding Environment” at the Bonner Kunstverein.
This place is only accessible through intuition: the images are sensually associating with what we can grasp as a social order of things – the bed is here, the table over there, the loo behind that wall – and with the invisible form of biopower that makes a prison what it is, a cruel space. This place was accessible within another space, an exhibition space that is namely the Bonner Kunstverein, and with the exhibition that its current director, Fatima Hellberg, titled “The Holding Environment”. The exhibition convened what is praised today as care with its dark side, in choosing the works of Tolia Astakhishvili, Morgan Bassichis, Gregg Bordowitz, Sarah Davachi, Sara Deraedt, Jason Dodge, Martin Erhard, Annika Eriksson, Ada Frände, Michael Fullerton, Michael Kleine, John Knight, Marc Kokopeli, Pope.L, Carolyn Lazard, Rachel Reupke, James Richards, Marianna Simnett, Niklas Taleb, Co Westerik and Jiannan Wu.
“The Holding Environment” was realized and developed during the pandemic, a year in which the tensions between interpersonal dependency and structural fragility turned into an exacerbation of our urgency and necessity for caring. How are ‘good intentions’ within this state of emergency and volatility formulated? This cannot be answered without ambiguity. The prison is thus the perfect typology – both actual and metaphorical – for the containers in which mass individualism is being experienced; lonely. This prison, full of reminiscences of sci-fi and fin-de-siècle, terror and softness at once, is James and Tolia’s contribution to the exhibition. It is also here, spread across this issue, acting both as a display structure and atmospheric scenery. It is an architectural framework that denounces the hierarchy of images that both artists recurrently challenge, by taking the uncanny to the place of the real. James Richards is known for blurring the line between the shape of death and the birth of aliveness. He is also known for touching the blurring boundaries between the bodies and the moving image, and for oscillating in that same boundary with collaborators, like Leslie Thornton and Tolia Astakhishvili. The prison as a commissioned installation, called “Tenant” and carefully placed between Marianna Simnett’s children’s musical “The Udder” (2014), the patient’s reports on systemic drug abuse in Carolyn Lazard’s video installation “Pre-existing Condition” (2019), and Shelter, an extra large sinister print by Annika Eriksson. It inhabits the corner of this gallery through its sampling nature. The Pope.L Small Cup (2008) projected at the entrance wall provides that animals, just as humans, are here confined, secure, rehabilitated or punished for the sake of ‘well-being’. If a prison is a holding environment, then only as the embodiment of displacement. The notion of “The Holding Environment”, oscillating between physical space and metaphor, was first proposed by the psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott in works such as “Holding and Interpretation” (1986). In his texts, he takes the figure of the child as his point of departure, whom he understands not only as a small person under adult guardianship, but also as a subaltern being without self-determination or power who must necessarily negotiate states
of dependency. In Winnicott’s work, the child and the act of holding become a way of understanding a “politics of the small” - a relationship that spans all dimensions, from intimate space to structural and institutional considerations of dependency. James and Tolia mirror the term in the structural elements and movements possible within and around their installation, betting on a strange kind of energy, implacable and erotic, and never simply structural.
The prison cell is the ultimate realization of the “Existenzminimum” sought by Modernist architecture; a memento mori of society, an exquisite corpse of human needs. Such reduction prefigures the loss of sight of difference, nuance, and mindfulness, and will influence the ground plans of hotel rooms, of the refugee camp, of schools, of waiting rooms, of the white cube. “Tenant” condenses the reasons of doubt and ambivalences, of dedication and empathy, in the realm and practices of care. The two exhibition parts composing “The Holding Environment” remained beautifully in that universal, incidental and concrete space of
care, addressing the pitfalls of a corrupted notion of care itself, but also honoring the possibilities of rehabilitation, restoration and reparation through a selfless spirit of holding.