The titles of Julia Rommel’s abstract paintings read like a trip down memory lane: Senior Year, Suburban Kids, and Rascals (all works 2018) are indicative of children testing the limits, or feasting on Fancy Cherries at fairgrounds — another title. Rommel’s bright color palette, which forms geometric planes, also plays into this rosy nostalgia. It’s only the title Ex-Husband that hits you in the stomach and throws the exhibition’s name, “Twin Bed,” into relief (note the singular suggesting one bed where people sleep apart). The nearly seven-by-seven-foot canvas includes two vast red rectangles — one fat, the other thin — divided by a blue border: two parts of a whole, now separated.
Taken at face value, Rommel’s paintings can be read as the result of yet another practice applying old-hat Greenbergian ideas of medium specificity and facture — work about the formal potential of abstract painting. She staples linens to stretchers, priming and painting before removing and restretching these on different frames, applying further paint and repeating the process on other structures. What results are varyingly sized, angular facets of color, often revealing the support and suggesting two-dimensional shapes moving in and out of three-dimensionality. For example, Happy Camper has rectangles of canary and lemon yellow underscored by baby blue, while Floater is a sea of lapis lazuli sliced through with planks of bubble-gum pink. They look like joyous harlequins, the texture of some sections smooth and thick, while others are dry and scrubby or even washy.
It’s the titles, and furthermore, the exhibition’s text written by Rommel, that lends another aspect to these works: one of storytelling beyond formal aesthetics. She describes her personal life: the “sadness coming in from the external world,” the momentary “good experiences” and the paintings being lively and thick when her intention was quick, thin, and light mark-making. Given that women artists continually struggle to be judged purely on their work, rather than biography or persona, this could play into a trap of feminizing abstraction, making it emotional. Indeed, this is what happens here: Rommel’s abstract paintings become about her life, her feelings — “women and their feelings!” people might shout as the gender binary digs its heels in. But everyone has feelings, whether they are taught to express them or not. The fact that Rommel pins hers to her practice with such honesty is as stirring and energizing as the work itself. I say: “Speak up and learn to listen!” — society needs it.
Trisha Baga’s “Mollusca & The Pelvic Floor” positions the viewer at a crossroads between virtual fantasy and scientific verification. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is ushered into a mise-en-scène of quotidian objects and oddities, all rendered in glazed ceramic: an Amazon package, a bust of RuPaul wielding a virtual assistant accessory (RuPaul: Calcified Encasing for Virtual Assistant, 2018), a shirt absentmindedly left on the floor (Elvis Has Left The Building, 2018), a pack of dogs in the shape of pyramids with fires calmly ablaze on their heads. Unbeknownst to the viewer, this confounding array is a forebear to Baga’s main attraction.
A thirty-seven-minute video, from which the exhibition takes its title, can be heard from a darkened room through a curtain of vinyl strips. Reclining on a gaming chair, behind the lens of 3-D glasses, the viewer is able to bask in splices of footage depicting scenes such as a night-time recording of the artist and her dog passing through Sicilian caves alongside sartorial mash-ups of blockbuster films such as Contact and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As the viewer bathes in this deluge of content, a glowing blue halo (recognizable as the awakened reaction of an Amazon Alexa) hovers in midair on the screen. At random intervals, Baga’s voice commands her Alexa, renamed Mollusca, to turn on a fan, activating various appliances that are dually integrated in the installation: an air conditioner, a radio, a clock. With each request, these objects come to life. The co-display of signifiers and the signified is a recurring trope in Baga’s oeuvre. Whereas the artist would once perform in front of her video projections, here she substitutes her body with the banal everyday objects that cameo in her films.
Baga’s exhibition is an attempt to reconcile the feeling of vertigo symptomatic of our current media overload. While she aptly conjures the fractured and overwhelming admission of infotainment, the lack of structure is at times too oblique for its own good. This sense of total confusion succeeds in suppressing the pure absorption that is typical of spectacle; yet the desire to grasp a connection between the layers of content leaves a somewhat nagging feeling.
Baga’s practice reflects the schizophrenic desires of our current age, in which we yearn for the authentic while compulsively yielding to virtual immersion. As the possibilities of a digitally augmented reality continue to proliferate, there is a counter desire to return to preindustrial methods of material reification — in which the magick of the machine is confirmed through something tangible. As our reality becomes increasingly abstracted by digital life-forms and AI, the pendulum swings towards a return to the real.
The institutionalization of “art from the regions” is, arguably, the main tendency in Russian cultural policy. If private capital has demonstrated any responsibility for geographic inequality, the state has finally recognized contemporary art as an effective tool of omnipresent control.
Both the inauguration of the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art and the transformation of the Moscow branch of NCCA into a showroom for art from the periphery reproduce an imperial model of top-down administration. Artistic resources from across the country must first flock to the center to be infiltrated — and possibly become integrated into the international system. Against this common scenario, NEMOSKVA, initiated by commissioner and artistic director Alisa Prudnikova, attempts to challenge this hierarchical structure. Bypassing the metropolitan gatekeepers, the project invites internationally renowned curators to, in her words, “study the situation on the ground.”
The orientation toward “ground” could also be read as a provocation in times when curatorial research more often finds complacency online. Instead of planes, NEMOVSKA relies on the railway system; instead of emails, physical encounters; instead of digital presentations, analog shows. In the first stage, three groups of curators and other specialists take an excruciatingly long Trans-Siberian train journey, making short stops in twelve major cities. In each location, the project unfolds over one day like an accordion, comprising portfolio reviews of local practitioners, symposia, solo presentations by curators, and, finally, the opening of a site-specific show. Titled “Big Country, Big Ideas,” this traveling exhibition, which followed the experts in two trucks, presented drafts of unrealized projects by artists from the inner regions of Russia (some of whom have already moved to Moscow). Overall, these prospective interventions and ethnographic studies, selected by Alexander Burenkov, give the impression that younger artists are very sensitive to local issues in their multiplicity, such as ecological sustainability, urban transformation, and exploitative labor conditions. Curiously, a disproportionate number of works address architecture: the disappearance of wooden temples (Vladimir Chernyshev’s The Abandoned Village), vernacular style (Artem Filatov’s Myth), and the (re)sacralization of secular buildings (Sergey Poteryaev’s Landschaften). However, none of the works speak explicitly of the colonial past, globalization, or the current core-periphery dynamic: instead of federalization, Russia tends to become a more unitary state.
Decolonial critique could have been a counterpoint to the rest of the project. As I learned during the journey through Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, some of the members of the local art community were reluctant to participate, or even boycotted the project. Organizers of the successful Tomsk festival “Street Vision” did not want to be treated as “indigenous tribes” by so-called experts visiting from the mainland establishment. Unsurprisingly, the expedited process of portfolio review sometimes turned into an episode of X Factor, resulting in tragicomic miscommunication between the artists’ expectations and the experts’ inability to evaluate what could be otherwise considered design or documentary. While many artists understood open “crits” as a chance to evolve their exposure abroad, most of the proposals did not meet the discursive or qualitative criteria of contemporary art. The symposia and some of the lectures, organized by Burenkov and Antonio Geusa, similarly resulted in some misunderstandings between visitors and locals. While the former often spoke from a position of the public institutions’ responsibility, many artists and teachers supported a more meritocratic system. The incompatibility of discourses might have been a matter of privilege — rooted in a lack of sustainable education, international exchange, and functional institutions in the inner regions. The level of both works and discussions in Omsk and Tomsk differed significantly from Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, which have more advanced infrastructure, and might point to issues of uneven geographical development within the country.
NEMOSKVA’s intent is, to paraphrase Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincializing Europe, to provincialize the status of Moscow as an arbiter of taste. However, its fixation on regionalism inescapably verges on exoticization. Indeed, some of the artists overtly juxtapose themselves with Moscow’s commercialism, such as Omsk-based artist Nikita Pozdnyakov, who accepts the influence of his compatriot Damir Muratov’s “naive” art. Others see themselves as part of a digital realm that isn’t specific to a particular geography. The logic of negative theology that is used in the title (“nemoskva” literally means “not-Moscow”) only reproduces the gap between art center and periphery, and blurs different regions into one homogenous zone. In its current research-based structure, the project must face the “vertical authority” that permeates this hypercentralized and ill-connected country at its core: distribution of funds, social privileges, and cultural discourses are predominantly concentrated in Moscow. So it remains unclear how the local art scenes (and not particular individuals) would benefit from a couple of upcoming grand shows in Venice and Brussels. The database of artistic projects that is under construction sounds more promising in terms of establishing horizontal connections unmediated by the center.
In 1971, military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko took control of Congo, renamed it Zaire, and campaigned for a vast cultural reappropriation: he got rid of colonial signs and attributes and advocated for Africanization instead (“Zairianization”). In particular, he sought to establish the capital, Kinshasa, as a major metropolis and to glorify his reign by instituting ambitious architectural projects.
Beyond urbanism, an impulse for reimagining a novel society was set. As a result, Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015), who fell in love with Kinshasa and lived in the city for most of his life, contributed to this nascent collective dream with his urban maquettes — miniature sculptures of buildings and cities. Looking at his models (Kimbembele-Ihunga, 1994; U.N., 1995; Ville Fantôme, 1996; Ville de Sète 3009, 2000) we wonder where the lines between engineering and fantasy, architecture and sculpture, become blurred — whether theses cities are functional or simply dreams from an imagination on fire, or both. Using colored paper, commercial packaging, plastic, soda cans, bottle caps, and other cheap commercial materials, Kingelez expresses a “more harmonious society of the future.” Inspired by a welcoming utopia where all races live in peace, free of violence and disease, the structures (hospitals, campuses, towers, parking lots, electrical plants, etc.), infrastructures (roads and waterways), and meta-structures (cities) are meticulously organized to serve this common purpose. “If you succeed in building a model,” as he once said, “you visualize what is inside of you.” Thus does the architect eventually realize his true nature: he is an artist with a vision, working with a purpose. The hope for a loving, carefree mankind manifests at every level, from the microscopic details to the macroscopic ensemble. In his “ghost city” (Ville Fantôme, 1996), Kingelez said “there is no police force in this city, there are no soldiers to defend it, no doctors to heal the sick. It’s a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in paradise, just like heaven.” In this politically corrupt setting, which would lead to the demise of Mobutu’s government in 1997, Kingelez’s sculptures would precisely entomb a naivety to propaganda, an audacity for power, and a cult of glamour all their own.
Palermo, June 16, 5:25 PM. Three men at the corner of Via Degli Schioppettieri recite in steady voices, “I wonder what mothers you’ve had. / If they could see you now at work / in a world so unknown to them, / taken in an endless circle / of experiences so different from their own, / what kind of look would they have in their eyes? / If they were there while you, conformist and baroque, / write your piece / or pass it along to editors who break / at every compromise, would they recognize you?” It is the “Ballata delle madri” (Ballad of the Mothers, 1964) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, performed to accompany my last afternoon in Palermo. It comes back to me now while I write this text, “conformist and baroque.”
The performance of this bitter poem by the Friulian writer and filmmaker was a “station” in Palermo Procession (2018), organized by Marinella Senatore for Manifesta 12. The procession is drawn from an ancient urban ritual that drags the city from Piazza Pretoria out to the sea, involving hundreds of citizens in a narrative of pluralities that aspires to living form.
Manifesta 12 both physically and symbolically inhabits Palermo, a city that has gone by various names — “Sys,” “Panormos,” “Balarm,” “Balermus” — its toponymy signaling its Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman influences. Inspired by this dense interweaving of cultures that has transformed the Sicilian capital into a map of diversity, Manifesta occupies historical palazzos and other non-institutional spaces such as the ZEN housing development and the hill of Pizzo Sella. The nomadic biennial proposes itself as a kind of workshop of coexistence and, significantly, was launched not far from the dock where the migrant rescue boat Aquarius was recently turned away by the new Italian government.
The curatorial concept developed by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis, Andrés Jaque, and Bregtje van der Haak departed from the survey “Palermo Atlas” conducted by OMA. An interactive research project, and probably what would become the real legacy of Manifesta 12, the study aims to act as a fluid link between disciplines and calls for shared responsibility as an antidote to “datacracy” (or the rule of data) and environmental transformation, reaffirming Gilles Clément’s metaphor of the world as a “planetary garden.”
However, Manifesta 12 also acts as a privileged observatory of political and socially engaged art that, in this context at least, is unable to prove itself equally as valid in terms of its aesthetic discourse; it rests, instead, on a sticky moralism or the recycling of poststructuralist tropes, as if ethical propensity and self-questioning were enough in and of themselves to justify artistic value. With particular emphasis on process and collaboration, several works on display end up as didactic or merely documentary. They become testaments to what Jacques Rancière defined in Aesthetics and Its Discontents as the “ethical turn”: a flattening of the conflict between art and politics, reshaped into new, concordant, and orderly forms.
The challenge — of criticism as well — should rather be one of considering socially engaged projects as artistic works, against the easy conviction that these practices should simply be judged by the results of their intentions; or, as Benjamin writes about in “The Author as Producer,” for the purpose of including participants in the process of production. In other words, it means believing in a critical art that can (also) tell us about the future of artistic forms. Therefore, one must address and elaborate upon the ambiguities and the paradoxes that inherently accompany the tension between art and politics, positioning the work as a third entity that guarantees “the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification” (Rancière).
It is upon this terrain of ambiguity that the most successful works in Manifesta 12 are established. The sound installation The Third Choir (2014) by Lydia Ourahmane — the first work of art to be legally exported from Algeria since 1962 — is made up of twenty empty petroleum barrels, once belonging to the company Naftal, and by twenty cellular phones, each sitting at the bottom of the barrels; set on the same FM frequency, the cell phones recreate the monotonous noises belonging to an industrial atmosphere. The work embodies the struggle against the suffocating Algerian bureaucracy and functions as a symbolic representation of migration. The three-part experimental semi-documentary by Melanie Bonajo, Night Soil (2016), is an exploration, humorous at times, of various strategies of disconnection from the logic of capitalism. The film’s characters engage in an unedited and radical relationship with elements of nature, which the Dutch artist manages to merge together by way of intense visuals, creating both a display and an empathetic mise-en-scène. Contrastingly, the connection between man and the vegetal world reaches a point of no return in the eco-queer visions of Zheng Bo, who in his work Pteridophilia (2016–ongoing) shows seven young boys engaged in the act of frenetic coupling with the ferns of a Taiwanese forest; and elsewhere it is creatively reworked, as in The Drowned World (2018) by Michael Wang, which lit up the green waters of one of the pools of the Botanical Garden, thanks to cyanobacteria. Finally, for her installation-performance i’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina) (2018) — housed in the late-sixteenth-century building Oratorio di San Lorenzo — Nora Turato finds inspiration in the figures of the Sicilian donas de fuera (mythical female beings who suffered persecution under Spanish rule). By constructing an immersive and emotionally modulated space, an ensemble of timbre and movement, Turato invites people to refuse sexism and gender stereotypes.
In keeping with the ideas of Manifesta 12, these works reveal a renewed sense of otherness. They speak of constructed identities built on the fatigue of meeting with those unlike us, via a process of mutual co-individuation. Secretly, they seem to suggest that it is the plants we should be asking about the meaning of the word “coexistence.” Always on the periphery of Western thought, yet a paradigm of being-in-the-world, plants are “the purest observation post for contemplating the world in its entirety. Under the sun or the clouds, mingling with the water and the wind, their life is an endless cosmic contemplation that does not disassociate itself from objects and substances or, in other words, accepts all nuances, and comes to merge itself with the world and coincide with its substance” (Emanuele Coccia, La vita delle piante, Bologna: Il Mulino, 2018). Perhaps the feeling of coexistence lies between these lines, in this unconditional surrender to life, indeed taught by plants.
“Pluriverse” is a brilliant exhibition threatened by a fatal oversight: only a few of its fifty-five films have English subtitles. German-speaking audiences may know Alexander Kluge’s work from broadcasts of his cultural programs during the late 1980s — shows like Facts & Fakes, News & Stories, and Prime Time — but his Anglophone reception seems limited to people educated in Frankfurt School critical theory. To explain “Pluriverse,” we must balance descriptions of the films with the context of Kluge’s life and approach to film for non-German-speaking viewers.
Once a confidant of Theodor W. Adorno and legal adviser at the Institute for Social Research, the legendary filmmaker’s work is entrenched in ideas from critical theory. One example: for Adorno, thinking in “constellations” represents the relations between autonomous ideas without isolating them from the whole or forcing their integration; Kluge’s “constellative montages,” however, bring autonomous images into new interstellar clusters to release their unrealized promise. There’s a clue in the title. A “pluriverse” suggests multiple antagonistic universes, each with their own contradictory potential.
In practice, silent film–style intertitles — their text in peculiar colored typefaces to give the words new energies — interrupt the smooth flow of images. This aims to create invisible epiphanies between contrasting elements, producing antagonisms between image and spectator, who must generate the relations between the images.
The Willful Child / A Goat in the City (2018) juxtaposes a discussion between Kluge and celebrated director Michael Haneke about the bleak Grimm fairy tale “The Willful Child” with scenes of a goat going for a nighttime walk through a major German city at the same time as a public demonstration.
The triptych Forging Press (2018) places footage from a Czech factory alongside images of English industrialist Abraham Darby and Industrial Revolution–era engravings and paintings. Haggard Czech workers use machines to pick up and squeeze huge slabs of blinding-hot molten metal to a tune of grinding noise; but woodcuts of industrializing England remind us that things were once different: human beings had to be disciplined into working, and we had to subject nature to our collective will to make way for factories.
At certain points in Work. Anti-Work. Industry 4.0 (2017), Kluge contrasts the relentless toil of workers in a Chinese coal mine with a clean, automated German car factory. Covered in coal dust, the sweating, bleeding, and occasionally resting and smoking Chinese laborers are reduced to their labor-power. In the German factory, meanwhile, the movements of the machines are uncannily human. They look like arms with mouths at the end, but no digestive tract, and their movements as they attach bolts to car doors jarringly resemble those of a baby at a mother’s breast.
Kluge’s theoretical background suggests that the exhibition’s fragmentary parts (films) and constellatory whole (spatial organization) mutually reflect one another, but he refuses to reduce this to a mechanistic logic that would produce direct connections between the different elements. Their relation leaves an unpredictable remainder, simmering with prospects. Most important for Kluge is that we come away from his films filled with hope for radical social change, despite the many catastrophes we see around us every day. When I ask him if there is still a role for utopian thinking in art, politics, and theory, he responds by referring to a line from one of the films: “Utopia is becoming better and better the more we wait for it.” Kluge thinks a better future is still possible, and our task is to seize the possibility of that possibility.