In naming an exhibition passive aggressive, the viewer is placed in a complicated position. Where does passiveness, or aggression, begin or end? Is the audience of an exhibition the patient or the aggressor, or both? The term is quite loosely defined in psychological literature but London-based artist Morag Keil seems to be arguing that aggression can take many forms at her solo show running at Berlin’s Eden Eden from September 10 to October 29. Some do not even require direct physical contact: visual engagement alone can become an act of aggression, even if merely seeing is an overtly passive act. The scopophilic times in which we live provide ample instances of this dynamic. Standing before a CCTV camera is as likely to make one feel inspected as it is to make one feel protected, and, of course, the violence inherent in the gendered or militarised gaze is well-documented. The mythological connection embodied in the naming of the current US aerial drone program known as ‘Gorgon Stare’ is perhaps only a kind of codification of the tacit relationship that has long been acknowledged between visibility and violence.
Keil’s exhibition, in which a single video plays on a loop on various screens in several rooms of the Eden Eden gallery, is concerned with the sense of intrusion and possession visual consumption of objects can engender. In the film, the camera gourmandises a number of parked motorcycles from top to bottom, around their exhaust systems, even, in some cases, up them. Interspersed with these probings are excerpts from adverts for apps, banks, energy companies and the pioneering British reality show, Big Brother, in which the fully-monitored contestants fight over the expenditure of their surveilled sharehouse’s budget.
Keil’s press release makes much of the connection of objects, desire and visual interaction, but what I felt was an equally pressing issue that the show highlights is the ways in which individuals use objects to define their identities, essentially outsourcing subjectivity to objects. As the camera scrutinises one bike, for example, the viewer sees on it a decal of the Grim Reaper. Either the owner of the motorcycle put it there, or the company that made it did.
As I left the gallery, I found myself pondering which case would actually have been more depressing. Either your motorbike speaks for you, or you tell the world about yourself via your motorbike. The obsessive branding of said two-wheeled vehicle is also a key aspect of Keil’s work. I can, even several days later, remember the brands featured in the video in more or less the order they were shown. Here, the artist touches on one of the most pervasive instances of passive aggression experienced in contemporary life: advertising. Adverts seek to redirect your gaze, forcibly if necessary, from the direction in which you believe it should be going toward the direction that makes most financial sense for the advertiser. Keil is agnostic, both in the press materials and in the video, as to whether this dynamic can be meaningfully overcome, but by foregrounding it in the work, the ubiquity of branding is made strange.
At some point, hypervisibility becomes invisibility, and Keil’s video, manifested six times across the space, seems to both literalise and problematise this dynamic. Visual engagement may be the beginning of knowledge, and, therefore, of power. passive aggressive seems to argue, it is only ever a beginning.**
Exhibition photos, top right.