Beyond the Pleasure Principle Affective Operations

09.05 – 02.07.2017 Beyond the Pleasure Principle Affective Operations

Zachęta – National Gallery of Art

artists: Marina Abramović, Kader Attia, Monica Bonvicini, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Douglas Gordon, Aneta Grzeszykowska, Mona Hatoum, Jesse Kanda, Teresa Margolles, Petr Pavlensky, Aleksandra Ska, Taryn Simon, Andreas Sterzing, Mircea Suciu, Roman Stańczak, David Wojnarowicz, Artur Żmijewski
curator: Maria Brewińska
cooperation: Magdalena Komornicka

The exhibition takes its point of departure in the popular humanistic category of affects, which organise its emotional space. Affect is construed here as the body’s automatic reaction to external stimuli or internal processes. These reactions, pleasant or not, occur beyond consciousness and the rational mind, and are not immediately subject to cognitive reflection. Affect is commonly identified with emotions, but in the context of this exhibition it is a proto-emotion: an experience of ‘intensity’ (anxiety, tension, tremor, uncertainty, experienced in the body, under the skin) that – when cognitively worked through, made conscious – triggers off specific emotions such as joy, fear, disgust, shame, anger, and many other related emotional nuances.

The exhibition concept posits that affects have their source also in objects. And so works of art belong to those significant material stimuli/transmitters through which the ideas of affects, or, in other words, the potentialities latently present in the works, are conveyed into the receptive sphere, provoking arousal. Generally speaking, all art works are affective: affects leak from them imperceptibly. But they differ in strength; in some we notice no clear affective operations, which does not mean there are none – reception is then turned towards apathy, which also has an emotional dimension. Affect is associated chiefly with states of strong agitation. This has played a role in the selection of works for the show, which is above all about ‘intensity’ (in Gilles Deleuze’s meaning of the term)  – an affective experience that can be a kind of strong tension, a nerve in the body initiating qualitatively new emotional states and meanings. Most works in the exhibition affect first, signify later: the viewer’s affective reaction is often more important than his or her intellectual reception and analysis. Some of the most powerful stimuli are provided by Marina Abramović’s installation, Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), with its transgression of a certain order of presentation of human eroticism, or by corporeality in Arca & Jesse Kanda’s film, as well as by the documentation of Petr Pavlensky’s radical auto-destructive protest performances. Dialoguing with the latter are David Wojnarowicz’s photographs, touching upon issues of queer and silence about AIDS from two decades ago. Aleksandra Ska’s Unproductive (2011) or Artur Żmijewski’s iconic photography series, Eye for an Eye (1998), offer a kind of affective dissonance. To a large extent, the featured works concern the body and its various functions, since it is the body that experiences affects, delights, and unpleasant sensations. Pushing to the forefront in this respect are the sculptures of Berlinde de Bruyckere – nude human destructs, dead or nearing death. Monika Bonvicini’s fetishistic objects or Aleksandra Ska’s emotional instrumentarium, in turn, are laden with latent potentialities of affects.

The exhibition concept has also been informed by a sense that the reception of art involves automatic affective processes of, among other things, uncontrolled valuation which determines reception in terms of like/dislike. Research indicates that such processes, non-consciously influencing our judgements and choices, play a significant regulatory role. The exhibition presents works that strongly attract or repulse, going beyond conventional and clear-cut depiction, beyond easy meanings generating predictable reactions. This affective relationship between the work and the viewer is the stronger, the more the works deviate from familiar, widely accepted meanings or a conventional manner of their presentation. After Brian Massumi, we call what they do a ‘shock to thought’, albeit one initiated in the body by vague feelings. This shock becomes an important event, opening up new possibilities of feeling and thinking. Consequently, the exhibition features works, employing diverse codes of representation, that convey significant messages able to provide such shock; these are the works of artists such as Teresa Margolles, Douglas Gordon, Kader Attia, Taryn Simon, Petr Pavlenski, or David Wojnarowicz.

The exhibition’s title is a reference to the Freudian ‘pleasure principle’ – the instinct to reduce tension by avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure. The theme of psychoanalysis, where a turn towards affects and emotions, i.e., speaking about them (in both research and therapeutic practice), took place, reveals a crucial, hidden aspect of human psyche. In psychoanalysis, affect is directly linked to instinctual life. It is precisely  affective states that bring about the manifestation of unconscious instincts: the life force (Eros), conveying creativity, harmony, sexuality, reproduction, survival, and the death drive (Thanatos), responsible for aggression and self-destruction. The meanings of the featured works stretch between the representation of these two instincts of the body and psyche: from the sexual and self-preserving, as for example in Marina Abramović’s monumental installation, to the (self)destructive, as in the works of Taryn Simon, Petr Pavlensky, or Teresa Margolles. They go beyond the pleasure principle by investigating the possibility of experiencing pleasure/ecstasy in various forms of sexual life and by tackling unpleasant, often repressed experiences: pain, suffering, trauma, masochism, in which the life instinct meets the death drive. This reveals contents uncensored by the Freudian reality principle, which can be suspended in art. After psychoanalysis, we can assume that if an instinctual energy is sublimated through art works, the ecstasy or pain experienced by the artists and the satisfaction/fulfilment achieved by them in the creative process can be communicated to the viewers – by materialising repressed, unpleasant, yet unconsciously desired contents. This applies to works going beyond the safe function of art as beauty, which usually mounts an obstacle in access to forbidden pleasures, delights, fantasies, or the dark field of Thanatos.

The exhibition focuses on works that challenge the formal, emotional, cognitive, and ethical status quo. It is a kind of game played with the viewer, a field where the affective and psychoanalytical experience meets the artistic and the receptive one.

Please be aware of the exhibition's subject matter before deciding to view it. The exhibition features adult contents.

Monica Bonvicini, Belts Couch, 2014. Photo Roman März

Related media
  • Grafika obiektu:
    mediateka / audio
  • Grafika obiektu:
    mediateka / audio
  • Grafika obiektu: Zachęta. May, June 2017
    mediateka / folders / Texts
    Zachęta. May, June 2017
  • Grafika obiektu: Beyond the Pleasure Principle
    mediateka / posters
    Beyond the Pleasure Principle
    Affective Operations
  • Katalogi
    5,00 złZachęta - may, june 2017


Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Affective Operations
09.05 – 02.07.2017

Zachęta – National Gallery of Art
pl. Małachowskiego 3, 00-916 Warsaw
See on the map

Godziny otwarcia:
Tuesday – Sunday 12–8 p.m.
Thursday – free entry
ticket office is open until 7.30 p.m.  

Partners of the exhibition:
British Council