Exhibition essay on Linda Duvall’s “The Toss”

by | Mar 2, 2012 | Curatorial, Exhibition Essays | 3 comments

For her latest exhibition, The Toss, Linda Duvall has created a fascinating, self-reflexive installation about her experience of learning “to toss” other people (basically a self-defense/stunt trick where she grabs someone by the arm or around the neck and flips them to the ground). Including two larger-than-life-sized video projections and an audio recording, the show just opened at Gallery TPW and is accompanied by a critical essay I authored, with a lot of help from Linda and from cheyanne turions, on the way that Duvall’s work seems to engage with the experiences of violence and latency that attend both learning and care.

I feel like I’ve become a bit of a convert to pedagogical theory, especially the kind that tries to grapple with our psychic identifications with one another (or with representations of one another), something I have talked about before in this venue, but I am still trying to figure out how to integrate it into the writing I do about art. So this text feels in many ways like a speculative one that tries to bring a few different theoretical discussions together around one artwork.

Watching the videos in their final form for the first time at the opening last night, and watching how other people watch and respond to them, made me realize how often we, as viewers, want to immediately make hermeneutic sense of a narrative, especially by trying to latch on to the artist’s biographical details. Duvall admits that the impetus for this project was her own experience of being tossed by police several years ago, but has strategically tried to avoid autobiography in The Toss through her aesthetic choices, from the parameters she set for herself to make the project, through to the filmic conventions and editing decisions she made in its presentation. Yet, at the opening last night and in my discussions with others about the work, many people persistently asked Duvall questions about where and why she was originally tossed, as though that would provide an interpretive key or answer to understanding the rest of the installation.

Given that I had just come from a lecture by Mieke Bal on the performativity of curating, where she spoke at length about the importance of curators acknowledging their agency and subjectivity by using framing devices that are obvious in their construction, watching the public response to Duvall’s installation felt like a perfect case study of how these framing devices can sometimes exacerbate viewers’ experiences of a work. Duvall is not a curator, in this particular case, but in The Toss, her installation and editing choices do mimic some of the framing strategies used by curators to stage the encounter between the viewer and the artwork. Though Bal was quite clear that she wanted to prolong the time viewers spend with a work through her framing choices as an artist-curator, and I think Duvall is trying to engage the same kind of long-term viewing as we puzzle out what is happening in the installation, I am always curious about how to toe the line between engagement and frustration. How, as a curator, do you encourage the viewer’s fascination with a work without making them feel that it will take too much (time, patience, investment) from them to fully engage with the work and your curatorial framework? When is interpretive frustration productive, and when does it become an obstacle to fruitful discussion and dialogue?

These questions probably don’t have (simple) answers, but it’s something I wonder about whenever I encounter these kinds of viewing experiences. More and more, it seems to me that pedagogical theories, which often assert that frustrations and resentments are vital to our learning (and viewing) experiences, have a lot to offer in how I think through these curatorial issues.