Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg

An Exhibition, Postpartum

Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg

By A. Will Brown December 18, 2013

An Exhibition, Postpartum is a series that examines the components of making contemporary art exhibitions in order to encourage readers and art practitioners to evaluate an exhibition as a process rather than simply as a finished product. Each installment includes an interview with the curator(s) and/or the artist(s) behind an exhibition, preceded by a review for context and critical analysis. Accompanying these texts is a slideshow of images of the exhibition, from installation to de-installation, as a way of diagramming its true lifespan.

Located in the basement of a very small Chinese laundry, Union Cleaners, on the border between Chinatown and the Financial District, the relatively new commercial-arts space Et al has presented an interesting program of group and solo exhibitions with a number of artists varying in age and medium.  Three individuals run Et al.: curators Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im (the same duo behind the now defunct Oakland gallery and project space MacArthurbarthur), and curator, writer, and artist Facundo Argañaraz. (Full disclosure: Jackie Im is an Associate Editor at Art Practical.) As part of a continuing program built around Indonesian artist Virlani Hallberg and her work, the current exhibition Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg was produced in partnership with the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC).  

Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg features Receding Triangular Square (2012),  a large-scale, single-channel video projection made in collaboration with psychoanalyst Leon Tan, which explores the overlapping uses of Taoist ritual and Western psychoanalysis in Taiwanese culture. The thirty-seven-minute projection transforms Et al. into a narrow screening room with a roughly 5’ x 8’ screen on one end and the curators’ dimly lit work desk on the other. Descending a set of carpeted wooden stairs toward the projection’s soft, warm light was a strangely comforting experience, one that both complements and complicates Receding Triangular Square.

When the piece begins, one quickly realizes the slow and delicate pacing of the work. The video alternates between silent footage—people in conversation with one another, patients undergoing physical and psychological treatment, the Taiwanese land and cityscape, some populated and others devoid of human presence—and a black screen over which a narrator issues koan-like statements that peripherally or directly describe what was depicted in the prior imagery. Through this juxtaposition of soundtrack-less images and narrated darkness, Hallberg creates an experience that verges on physical cognitive dissonance.1 Or, it nearly does, as the video capitulates to a more narrative structure with each successive frame. There is an initial discomfort as the video begins, due to the dissonant imagery and narration, which mirrors the disordered thoughts and actions described by the narrator. However, as the work progresses, the story and tensions begin to resolve as the depicted spaces and characters begin to exemplify the unique overlaps and still-remaining disconnects between Eastern and Western schools of psychological healing in Taiwan, which continue to influence the psychological character of the island nation and its people.

In many ways, Receding Triangular Square is about trust: first, trusting that the narrator and imagery are leading somewhere meaningful in thirty-seven minutes, and second, trusting the curators in their presentation of both the space and the artwork. While it may have been merely due to logistics, the video thematically and formally aligns with the exhibition space. Throughout Receding Triangular Square, Hallberg shows patients giving up control, and entrusting their psychological wellbeing and potential physical safety, to their analysts and Taoist practitioners through talk therapy and sensory deprivation, respectively. Viewers of the piece have also had to put themselves in Et al.’s hands, as it were, journeying below ground into the dark of a laundry basement to engage with something potentially transformative. In this case, the experience is well worth the trip.

Note: Responses in which Harbour, Im and Argañaraz have answered collectively are attributed to Et Al. Individual initials correspond to answers given by that individual. 

AWB: What are some of the key differences for you between a group show and a solo show?

Et al.: For us, the key difference between a group show and a solo show is the level of conversation and interaction between the artist and ourselves. For all exhibitions, conversation is a key element, as we rarely curate exhibitions of works that are already in existence, and when it is an existing work, we feel that it is very important that we can expand upon the work through dialogue with the artist.

For our particular space, because it is quite small, we have focused on a “less is more” strategy. The current exhibition consists of a single video work, converting the entirety of the gallery into a dedicated screening room. In both group and solo shows, it is important to us that people are able to spend time with the works and to be able to extrapolate from them their own ideas and be able to bring in their own contexts to the works. Curating a solo show to us is more so a facilitation of a given practice, where it is now, or might be going—or in the case of the current show, how best to show an individual work. The goal is to allow for the works to draw their own narratives and connections. Often, viewers will make correlations between works regardless of an exhibition theme, and we like this play very much and want to encourage that kind of engagement with the works and the exhibition

AWB: Can you briefly describe the exhibition? Who are the artists; what kind of work is in the show?

Et al.: Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg is a solo presentation of Hallberg’s Receding Triangular Square (2012), a single-channel video piece. Hallberg is an Indonesian-born artist, currently based in Berlin, Germany, and Ekerö, Sweden. The piece was a commission for the 2012 Taipei Biennial and is a collaboration between Hallberg and psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Leon Tan. The film explores philosophies and practices of healing in Taiwan that are alternatives to the dominant Euro American psychiatric and psychotherapeutic paradigms. The piece juxtaposes images of Daoist rituals, traditional healing practices, and Western-style psychiatry in an effort to examine the history of colonization and modernization in Taiwan, and how counterintuitive or incommensurable belief systems exist.

AWB: What is important about this exhibition, this artist, and the kind of work she is doing?

Et al.: Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg is the first U.S. presentation of her work, and we are incredibly excited and honored to be the venue for that. The exhibition also is the first in an ongoing partnership with the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC). The series provides the groundwork for a long-term conversation and collaboration with artists. The series will focus on diasporic practices, particularly those coming into conflict and contact with Asia, and will expand upon the artist’s practice through collaborations with other artists, curators, writers, and scholars.

Hallberg’s practice was of interest to us because it is very much research-driven but still very much elusory. We were drawn to Receding Triangular Square because of how it explores the effects of colonization without being didactic. It correlates to our own method of curating—to bring works together without having a theme rest heavily on their shoulders, to allow viewers to approach a work or exhibition and extrapolate from there.

AWB: What are some exhibitions and artworks that have changed how you think about art and exhibitions?

JI: The way I have approached art and exhibition-making have, in large part, been shaped by the conversations I have with other artists and curators —including Post Brothers, Xiaoyu Weng, Zarouhie Abdalian, Anthony Discenza, Dena Beard, Chris Fitzpatrick, Brandon Drew Holmes, McIntyre Parker, and many more. There is a ripe community of artists, writers, and curators here, and I feel lucky to be able to converse with such a diverse group. I am also very inspired by other spaces that have creative programming and go out on a conceptual limb: Objectif Exhibitions, Pied-a-Terre, The Artists Institute, Yale Union.

If I have to single out a particular work or practice that has fundamentally changed how I think about art and exhibitions—I have been very struck by the practice of Nina Beier. Her practice varies a bit but often deals with paradox. Beier’s work involves strange encounters between things and frustrates some of our expectations when seeing a work of art or exhibition. Being able to frustrate expectations and to do so with a sense of humor is something that is very important to how I work, and I feel an affinity with that aspect of Beier’s practice.           

AH: Stuart Sherman was a teacher of mine; his work and way of dealing with objects constantly challenges me to think stranger. I am continually influenced by works whose description succeeds as a form of the work, apart from the work itself and documentation. Also, new spaces which allow themselves to be strange… a space in Geneva, Switzerland, called Portmanteau recently opened with the works all neatly fitting in the drawers of a piece of furniture, for instance, and spaces like TIF SIGFRIDS, a space not terribly different than ours whose first show occurs in the gallerist’s ears

FA: My way of thinking about art has changed many times over the years, curiously, mostly by writings and critical essays on art and/or philosophy, and literature. Similarly, some of the most influential exhibitions for me are those that I never saw in person, for example: Steven Parrino's exhibitions, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, at the New Museum, or Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Locally, I was very engaged by the exhibitions curated by Hou Hanru during the first three years of his tenure as a Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at SFAI (World Factory, in particular, which was effectively a testing ground for part of the Istanbul Biennial in 2007)—those exhibitions challenged the discourses that were contemporary to the S.F. landscape, while also opening up new conversations within them.

AWB: How do you envision your role(s) as independent curator(s) to be different than your role at Et al. gallery?

Et al.: We don’t tend to differentiate our role as independent curators from what we do at Et al. Et al. is intended as a commercial space, but we approach it as we would a project space. The main difference that I can see is that through Et al. we can form long-term relationships by virtue of having a space where a prolonged conversation can happen—over months, over years. We can explore new exhibition formats and different scales temporally and spatially. Our curatorial practice revolves around giving artists opportunities to explore what excites them the most—whether that be a project that they’ve been thinking about which hasn’t come to fruition, or giving them the impetus to explore new trajectories. It is on this edge of artists’ practices where the strange and wonderful things happen, so while being hopefully quite freeing for the artists we collaborate with, this often leads to the best work. That, above all, is the most important to us; it is something we take to every project.


  1. Receding Triangular Square’s disruption of the filmic convention that sound should accompany imagery coupled with its exploration of the conflicts between Western psychotherapy and Eastern philosophy create a sensation verging on cognitive dissonance. 

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