Shonky:The Aesthetics of Awkwardness, MAC, Belfast, 20 October 2017 – 14 January 2018

Upper Gallery view towards the entrance

 The exhibition aims to explore the nature of visual awkwardness through the work of artists and architects Arakawa and Gins; Cosima von Bonin; Niki de Saint Phalle; Benedict Drew; Justin Favela; Duggie Fields; Louise Fishman; Friedensreich Hundertwasser; Kate Lepper; Andrew Logan; Plastique Fantastique; Jacolby Satterwhite; Tim Spooner and John Walter. (Gallery handout)

Ignoring the slippery meaning of ” visual awkwardness” the aim  that it samples  an exploration  is perfectly achieved by  all the exhibits.  Moreover it includes not just visual awkwardness, the sound gets involved with a  force, as does the relationship between humanity and habitats. The work of  14 architects and artists fills (overfills)  the Tall and Upper Galleries at the MAC . John Walter’s proposal was selected from 125 submissions  for 2017 Hayward Touring Curatorial Open. The artist/curator  presents the curating of this exhibition  as a follow up to his PhD research.

On my first visit  the two very loud  neighbouring sounds overwhelmed my hearing/viewing   in the Tall Gallery. One was the installation by Benedict Drew (image  below)  the other , in the next  space,  oversized cards. boards and music by a group Plastique Phantastic.

Benedict Drew, A Dyspraxit Techno, 2017, Tall Gallery


Plastique Fantastique, fragment of the installation


On my second visit the decibels were markedly lower.

Tall Gallery view from the entrance

Thank you, MAC.

Comments on Facebook included several younger visitors  loving the show without reservation. To attract those who otherwise do not visit art exhibition is – in this case- wonderfully connected to a question what is art for – these works of art  and their curator answers loudly: for aesthetic experience.

Even if the artist/curator, John Walter( b 1978) admits that  it is a mission driven exhibition:”… to privilege shonkiness  over other aesthetic forms that have dominated recent visual culture…”( see the Gallery handout)

That carries a responsibility to ensure that there is no confusion or equivocation  what each exhibit foregrounds by its own awkwardness.   This is safeguarded by  an idiosyncratic grouping and separation, almost as if reading Timaeus on sameness and difference, and,   the aesthetic experiences a viewer has before coming to this display.  Eg. If you have no memory of soft sculpture by Claes Oldenburg (1929) and Coosje van Bruggen

Claes Oldenburgh, Cravate sculpture, 2010, SF MOMA

you may accept the ckaim that Cosima von Bonin

Cosima von Bonin, Oysters

is “one of the most influential artists  in Germany” and that her art ” mocks the pomposity of the process of viewing art” and  “pits itself against the slick production values of much contemporary art” (quotes from the gallery handout pp1 and 2).

Oldenburgh  appears also as  a predecessor to  Las Vegas based Justin Favela’s   Floor Nachos.

The gallery notes  state that the exhibition is a celebration of “shonkiness”, employing it for critical purposes that include questioning the cultural status quo.    It helpfully lists means employed to achieve this: “craft badness, mistakes, glitches, tears, precarity, fragility, amateurism…irreverence and visual awkwardness”.   That pluralism is not a problem –  the problem is what status quo in the culture it questions, and does it question  at all or  rather represent it.

One possible answer includes the experience that vulgarity and bombastic attitude  offers satisfying aesthetic experience to some and  not to the rest.  Be it Biedermeier or kitsch or blatantly  commercial  seduction.  Variants of all three are present, and it is not a new way of thinking.  Just another application of the old.  As always it polarises visitors – who excavate what they prefer and not necessarily why.  The copious notes and the curator’s video lecture both shy away of identification of the reason for this particular questioning. It is as if the Stalin and Zhdanov theory of reflexion was being given new lease of life.  What else would you expect from a challenge to the “late western capitalism” mentioned several times as the target?

Arakawa and Gins, Inflected arcade house

The two architects made the above design of a house  expecting it to have soothing, healing influence on  the brains of the users. Utopia coupled with awkwardness? Possibly, but the visual tenor of the above is that of maze, of labyrinth  for  getting lost, for  failure to find easily both entrance and exit, for endless detours and search, i.e. dysfunctional habitat, a multicursal puzzle.  Alternatively – if i read the green rectangle as a door  I come soon at another green rectangle on the left which prevents me to meaningfully occupy it.  Consequently, it frustrates every expectation I may have about a home.

By chance this appears in my inbox a few days ago.

Critical perspectives on the discourse surrounding artistic research might be argued to already be too formulaic or self-defeating. Making a case for its own institutional legitimacy could unwittingly reinforce some of the very things artistic research aims to critique.”

… It moves onto more esoteric points that may or may not become apparent to a visitor of the “Shonki”:

”  Yet such onto-epistemological paradoxes can offer a rich territory for exploration along with generative practices that involve reflexivity, automorphogenesis, and recursive feedback loops. In recognising auto-cannibalism as an analogy for broader socio-political and environmental concerns, one of the challenges for artistic research is to respond imaginatively to the dynamic tensions between self-destruction and regeneration.” (from the invitation to 9th SAR-International Conference on Artistic Research planned for 2018)

The gallery handout defines “Shonky” term thus: “…corrupt, bent, shoddy, unreliable or cobbled together..”  significantly it  adds “ It is a form of making that purposefully pits itself against the slick production values of much contemporary art and transgresses  accepted boundaries of taste within late Western capitalism”.

The assumption that  the awkwardness transgresses accepted boundaries of taste  of current western society  is only a conjecture, not an established evidence.     The slang  word – as any word- has both narrow meaning and flexible range of meanings , and as such does not align with  art practices  in this exhibition any more than with those elsewhere, documented and accessible even online.

Beryl Cook, Tea Party, 1988

Freewheeling. amorphous,  can still pair with energy, empathy and inventiveness  without preference for any of the meaning of that slang word.

Fernando Botero, Mona Lisa Aged Twelve, 1959


A work of art wiggles out of any narrow category with an ease of an invisible chameleon combined with a serpent.  Not in vain Antoin Artauld compared art to a plague.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)

Niki de Saint Phalle used to shoot art objects before she settled on the  a mixture of the phantastic like in  a Juan  Miro and  earth bound like in a  Pablo Picasso.  Well known  to any visitor looking at the  the fountain near Pompidou centre in Paris she has been   a building blog of the cultural  status quo which this exhibition aims to subvert.  If people perceive it as that  challenge – they are not  likely   challenging the same cultural  status quo. In turn, this is an unintended fate of this exhibition  that it both confirms and questions various sets of aesthetic  categories, including the awkward.   There is nothing unexpected  in that,  given that system of art changes place to place, time to time, and not in a simple  vertical line as envisaged, for example,  by Marinetti.

Panem et circenses  come to mind on entering the multicoloured  Upper Gallery  – manifesting in the  distribution  of opening ceremony drinks  by the artist/curator.  He favours  the  practice of a sculptor/jeweller/performance artist Andrew Logan (b 1945), whose portrait of Molly Parkin (1988) oversees the space.

“they are goudy and gorgeous- full of colour, bejewelled and visual glorious” 

(Gallery handout)

Logan’s exhibits appear  distributed in several places in both galleries. In the Upper Gallery his hard  high definition objects  forge an exchange with equally determined and colourful  but soft  objects by Kate Lepper. She includes pre-owned  materials,  like dry leaves by nature  and plastic by  people.  No equilibrium attempted.

The other insistent memory is of  too loud exhibits in the Tall Gallery. Indeed, the status quo of current visual art   questions its insecurity to stay silent. When Denis Donoghue thought and wrote  about the Anxious object  (Reid Lectures, 1982) he considered art objects like A  Warhol’s  Brillo Boxes, silent insecurity about identity.  With the increase of sound/noise  and words – the visual thoughts are offered a help they do not need. A help which decreases the “mute poetry”   –  usurping the precious domain of visual arts.

That visual thinking is fully engaged by Niki de Saint Phalle, Kate Lepper, Duggie Fields. Cosima von Bonin and in the rather wonderfully playful  installation by Tim Spooner.    Cosima von Bonin  successfully reworks  common expectation  of  a low relief  in stone or metal  by  a collage of soft materials.  Spooner affords his constructions vulnerable absence of certainty, by irregular animation, including falling.  His small black  objects animate into a world of animals, cuddly and benign.  Or not?  Sadly, neither MAC not the artist website have   images of this installation. Instead -I copy his statement:

“I am interested in ways we try to explain the world: metaphysics and creation myths. My own approach to the mystery is to experiment with how materials behave, to get a better understanding of them. From these I construct collections of objects which come together into ideas for possible universes.”  (


I looked up other exhibitions of Louise Fishman (b 1939) to compare those exhibited here with the rest.    These two rectangles are exceptionally vacuous   in comparison- these paintings do not represent her dominant strength, so in that sense they challenge her  habitual take on abstract gestural painting.

Andrew Logan (left) ; Louise Fishman (right)

On the other side of the curtain with Hundertwasser’s facade , Tim Spooner’s kinetic  and inflatable objects share their endearing humour and vulnerability with ease  and elegance that mitigates against any pedestrian awkwardness. Their sincerity of being playful  does not extend to revelation, they guide some secrets with sophisticated resolve.

Since John Walter insisted on Shonky as an umbrella term – it may unfairly dismiss the more important  and valuable thesis, which comes directly from the exhibits: tolerance of differences, freedom and sincere co-operation. Not so much of any ideology – rather on the essence of art – the aesthetic function.   Jan  Mukarovsky famously defined it as transparent (in 1938 essay  Aesthetic Function …. accessible in English on Google Books) capable of appearing as different qualities to different viewers in different historical periods.  Well – not too far from phenomenology, isn’t it ?


This edition of the  aesthetics of awkwardness reminded me of this:

 “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself,” said Oldenburg, “that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”     (


Images courtesy of MAC and Simon Mills.



About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay, review and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.