Bitterness & Wit

Jelly Luise, untitled (kop) (2024). Courtesy the artist

What follows is an extract from Bitterness and Wit (2023), published by the Asymmetry Art Foundation, London, a collection of three texts by its then curatorial fellow Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

The world functioned on terms that caused him great pain. He believed his life had amounted to nothing more than the accretion of learnt fantasies, and the conflation of such fantasies with happiness, which he understood, now, as an entirely false way to live. By the time he realised his life had been produced by the purgatory of study/matriculation/work/forever, it felt too late to refuse the destiny laid out for him, which, in any case, did not relent in its onslaught onto what others called his soul; that metaphysical shadow he believed was an object of pure conjecture. That he was tormented by life was no proof in itself that he possessed a soul, though he found such a premise more substantive should it be considered a container or gauge for the reality of his circumstances. If the soul was indeed a container, it must have a limit as to how much suffering it can bear, and if he stayed close to monitoring it, he might grasp the absolute limits of this feeling, which he might then learn to tolerate. But his soul never overfilled with suffering in this revelatory manner, and it seemed tolerance expanded each time it neared its threshold. He lived in hope that such deep unhappiness would eventually become an ambient sensation in the vista of everyday life.

He never liked describing the work which made him unhappy and suffer (the two, unhappiness and suffering, were functionally the same for him) beyond it involving looking after displays in a contemporary art museum. He refused identification with the term “curator” despite his official designation as one: perhaps having his labour rendered so legible to an industry and profession he had so little respect for exacerbated his spiritual discontents. He had little to do with the museum’s programming and even less of a hand in its acquisitions. Instead, he was tasked with the grunt work of writing interpretive materials which would appear on neat white rectangles announcing some thing’s supposed meaning and value. But as the curators above him showed no desire to lose their appetite for the fatuous, the writing he produced for them felt wholly debasing. Privately, he referred to his job as the codification of extreme stupidity.

Dance, Dance For The End of the World is a video work by X that presents a speculative narrative around a fungal-human entity capable of changing the biological make-up of the natural world through seemingly erratic but controlled movements. Through the interplay of bombastic visual effects, an original electronic score, and abstracted ballet choreography, X challenges the ways we understand human volition and the enormous yet undervalued role that fungi have in shaping the natural world and combating the climate catastrophe.”

Days writing such texts were days spent with the destruction of meaning. The author of these didactics (however diminutive within the economy of curatorial labour) was, in his belief, the most proximate to the public, and hence held the most important role in dispensing the museum’s purported remit; to invigorate curiosity and intellectualism in civic life. But when presented with such absurd source material, day in and out, each sentence he wrote made only the fact of his circumstances clearer: the museum was a place where meaning was trickery, and to toil inside its hallowed and decrepit offices for minimum wage and a licence to self-aggrandise was a condemnation of one’s criticality. To the museum, he was an executioner of truth, tasked with enchanting language to give credence to artistic illusions. His work felt like a deception so profound he thought he couldn’t bear it, and yet he did. And though he incessantly measured the volume of suffering he felt because of this, it was, rather, the heavy burden of his free will, however notional, which proved most tormenting—always whispering to him that there is a way out.

A way out: refusing to elucidate ill-informed artistic abstractions, taking a truncheon to his superiors’ desks, setting the entire building on fire: all part and parcel of a dream to live untethered to this wage, a dream he was most prone to indulging as he sat alone in his cubicle, staring out of the mildewed window, through the copper-coloured maze of maple trees and into a world which so foolishly gave weight to this stronghold of charlatans. He felt the building shake as the walls around him caved in, the smell of melting silica and burnt wiring, liquified oil paint and charred paper, the sensation of being crushed by layer upon layer of plaster and dirt, falling through the ceiling from his office down into the gallery where all the artists and curators were gathered and saw what was coming for them. He would make sure to stay alive long enough to revel in their horror. As he got up and walked towards the kitchenette to pour himself some water, past the other offices with all their doors left ajar, he realised he was there alone. He could’ve sworn the day had just begun; he had barely done any work. But his phone confirmed it was fast approaching seven, and it was likely that whilst imagining his little utopia he had missed the exodus. He drank quickly and returned to his desk to throw on his overcoat, fumble through its pockets for a cigarette, tie the waistband, turn off the lights, and make his way home. As he rushed downstairs, he noticed a man standing just outside the glass doors, peering in, expectant, as if searching the foyer for some kind of object to study or signs that life was happening inside.

And in a flash our eyes met. I felt myself almost sprinting towards him, cigarette in mouth, imagining ways to change the impersonal quality of our silence; to ask for a lighter, to ward him away from this house of horrors, to take him past the maple trees and into a forest whose canopy of rippling emerald was surely from where his eyes derived their colour. As I stepped into the autumn evening, we stood for a second staring at one another, searching for recognition, until a smile dislodged the cigarette between my lips—he smirked as it fell to the ground. He was passing through from a country in the east where war had erupted a few years ago, and today, while exploring this new city, in this district he had not yet ventured into, he was told by a stranger to visit the museum. I apologised that he had missed his opportunity, but it was open again tomorrow, unfortunately. He let out a hearty chuckle. Unfortunately, he repeated, what a strange word for a curator to use, and indeed how unfortunate was it, he asked, with the war creeping westward, that this museum’s existence was in jeopardy; I might be so lucky that its operations would cease by virtue of circumstances beyond its control. Who was this man? So brash to suggest that a military front could stop the torturous every day of the museum! In times of great crisis, curators quickly join the war effort, turning the museum into a factory of motivational graphics and state slogans. Banners fly between ionic columns under the pretence of sustaining the morale of whoever looks in their direction, constructing the flimsy psychic conditions for resilience without ever opening their doors as shelter for the displaced— […]

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is a writer and cultural worker based in Berlin. He is the founding editor of Decolonial Hacker and, in 2023, was Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow at Whitechapel Gallery. 

ArtReview is partnering with Asymmetry to publish a series of cultural reflections by the foundation’s fellows

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