Friendship happens in the space between you and me: two beings poised at the edge of themselves, acknowledging that they mean something to each other. Friendship lets me be real with you. But what does it mean to be a real friend? Do we ever truly cede ourselves to someone else’s company?
Myriam Ben Salah’s inaugural curatorial project at the Renaissance Society, “Smashing into my heart,” scrutinizes the intricacies and incongruities of our attachment to others, through the work of thirteen artists. As a format, contemporary group shows can make for terrible friendships. Often divorced from a historical trajectory and loosely tethered to a theme, group shows are latent sites for clutter, clumsiness and conflict.
Rather than narrate a tale of unlikely affinities that coalesce into a succinct and mellifluous ode to companionship, Ben Salah shrewdly leverages the inadequacies of the group-show format to trace the uneasy contours of spaces where friendships end and begin. The artworks on view are at odds with one another. Their spatial rapport is uneven—some works take up too much space while others hide in a corner. Some works are doubled, placed on opposite sides of the gallery, cutting across space and talking over one another. Vying for attention, the artworks express relationships through their deficiencies—to be a friend in this space is to be everything and never enough.
Maybe we surpass the limitations of shared experience in the moments where we are in on the joke. Tita Cicognani’s video tracks a zombified heroine’s long crawl of desperation and desire along a desert island terrain. Saturated with cultural references from the late nineties and early 2000s and accompanied by the effervescent drone of a trance anthem, this video may mean more to you if you grew up with Shakira, the bend-and-snap and “Mean Girls” quotes, but at its core, the video is about getting it. It enacts a sense of collective comprehension and speaks to the kind of friendship that is both embodied and performed through shared tastes and touchstones.
A counterpoint to the allure of universal kinship arises in Park McArthur’s inkjet-printed correspondence with Ben Salah. McArthur’s email, with subject line “Involuntary Questions,” inquires, “What kinds of arrangements would you not even have to think about at all / What kinds of arrangements cannot be described.” Juxtaposing the privilege of being effortlessly understood and the simultaneous impossibility of being understood at all, she interrogates the ways that care can fall apart when we presume we know what someone else desires.
But knowing someone intimately is about more than gratification. Casting aside the lachrymose and saccharine, friendship can be about being someone’s someone. Dispersed throughout the exhibition, Hervé Guibert’s intimate black-and-white photographic prints from the eighties offer tender vignettes of the moments where friends come through: someone to bum a smoke off of; someone to greet you when you come home; someone who will stay by your side when you are sick. Being there may be cruel, passive, erotic, funny, performative, loving, friendly and everything in between. But being there, in the space between you and me, is sometimes all we need. (Alexandra Drexelius)
“Smashing into my heart” is on view at the Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, through November 7.