In a time of their likely extinction, sex among pandas is a rare and desirable event, as much as it has become a profitable business for Chinese zoos – who rent out their pandas internationally – and Far Eastern diplomats. Panda Sex also makes for a quite catchy exhibition title. For his show at State of Concept, then, curator Tom Morton followed an anticonceptual thrust, choosing to avoid the choice of a theme and pragmatically picking an animal, the unfathomable and phlegmatic figure of a panda bear. If the sexuality of a panda might not sound like a pointed or profound enough subject on which to found an exhibition – pace the commitment of zookeepers and environmental conservationists – next time it could be a dolphin or a honey badger. Deprived of a theme, Panda Sex is instead structured by bullet points about how to put together a group show: mainly black and white; scarcely sexualised; bits of colour here and there. The bigger picture, then, does reflect the impassive character of the titular elusive bamboo-chewer (and its colour scheme and low sex drive), while the single works rejoice in their individual freedom to face in disparate directions.
Indeed the only apparent connection between the works of the 12 selected artists is exactly this: mostly black and white with infrequent flashes of colour, and not particularly lustful. Aliki Panagiotopoulou diligently turns the appearance of a panda into a ceramic sculpture placed on a black-and-white drawing (The Occasional Snap, 2014). In Television Advertisement (2013–14), Scott King comments on an old advertisement for RBS, a bank that was bailed out in 2008 due to the financial crisis. In an old video by Natalia LL, Consumer Art (1972–5), naked women engage in nasty play with various types of sexy food. The only splash of colour is Alexander Tovborg’s painting Hyperion’s Song of Destiny (2014), while Sophie Jung chooses instead to speak about the colour black. In a touching performance on the opening night, COS of the Grand Change (2014), she recites the lyrics of Johnny Cash’s Man in Black in a black outfit from fashion retailer COS, possibly creating a poignant mismatch between the words of the songwriter and the uniform of a normcore disciple: “Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose / In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes / But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there oughta be a Man in Black.”
An exhibition abiding by a set of rules is a classic approach that feels progressive enough, especially in times of automated problemsolving and workflow patternmaking. In a science-fictional near future, the rules could be fed into an algorithm for curating the perfect exhibition: what tasks could such a tool perform? Selecting artists through Facebook, weighing their connection between your friends and the friends of your friends? Sorting them according to their media or their nationality – or possibly their eligibility for funding opportunities? Could this process measure their success along with the activity of their accounts on a wide range of social medias? Or browse their portfolios and select works via a tagging system? Eventually, would such a tool turn curators themselves into an endangered, or at least unemployed, species? For the moment it might be better not to fantasise too much about similar scenarios; they might be coming anyway. In the meanwhile, it feels quite pleasurable to be reminded how the unemotional expression on the face of a panda represents the essence of, say, my Nike trainers: not very sexy, aesthetically undemanding and fitting with everything.
This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.