There and Back Again /

Passive Resistance

Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba has no passport. He is a young, Mexican artist with prophetic — almost guru-like — intentions. He is interested in the way wealth, customs, ideologies and modes of representation circulate on a global level, yet he has never left Mexico.

Working from his home in the Colonia Escandón, he engages a post-Marxist, antiliberal — oddly, even a little anticlerical — discourse, notably through Bikini Wax, an independent space he co-runs with Sandra Sánchez, Eric Valencia, Paloma Contreras, Gustavo Cruz, Roselin Rodríguez Espinosa, Cristóbal Gracía, Ramón Izaguirre, Rodrigo García and Israel Urmeer. Bikini Wax’s luminous web presence has garnered many fans worldwide.

Recently, Ruvalcaba placed a small 3-D printed sculpture on the frontispiece of the Sala de Arte Público David Siqueiros, the former studio of the celebrated muralist. The sculpture was a 1:1 depiction of a one-hundred-peso bill that reproduces one of Siqueiros’s most famous bas-reliefs, La Revolución contra la dictadura Porfiriana (1957). The miniaturization of such a major work as a tool in the service of the financial system is, to Ruvalcaba, a sign of the inexorable co-optation of Muralismo by bourgeois neoliberalism. The artist’s desire to spend most of his time in his workspace in Mexico City, and his refusal to ask for an American or European visa — against all encouragements to the contrary, and without providing much explanation for his reluctance — comprises a strategy of efficient passive resistance during a time when personal mobility, although seemingly accessible to all, remains a fantasy of the super rich.

Working foremost on local issues and refusing to be anything but a centrifugal point for the international community (virtually becoming the center), Ruvalcaba runs the risk of becoming anecdotal, but at the same time his experimental process of confronting essentialist questions may be successfully building an activist revival reminiscent of the grupos movement of the late 1980s. He is also becoming a symbol of a purely Mexican paranoia: the fear of the wall. His rejection of mobility ties him to those who stay and to those who have returned. The cold war–like nostalgia fictionally invoked by the artist and his Bikini Wax comrades seeks polarization — as much to annoy as to excite and seduce. Is it romanticism or cynicism?

The possible election of Donald Trump as president of the US, as well as the refugee crisis in Europe, are emblematic of a stay-at-home mentality, in this case “home” as a kind of bunker meant to afford protection from problems engendered by the Other.

We all know that isolationist tendencies are no solution, particularly given the intrusive power of Western countries and superpowers like Russia or China which, Medusa-like, are ever seeking to extend their influence. Home — or, in other words, the nation state — is no longer a safe place in this regard. It’s therefore from another perspective that we need to look at the temptation for localism: Could it be, paradoxically, an attempt to “decolonize” traditional nationalism?

Can nationalism be decolonized? A large number of Latin American artists have turned to an examination of the symbols that make up their state apparatuses, looking to deconstruct collective tales and symbols in order to reveal them as ideological tools of oppression and inequality. In tandem, recent collective artistic endeavors seem to suggest that the need for local conversation is more crucial than ever, precisely because international dialogue has become so divisive. We may intuit that change can barely succeed on a national level due to corruption, private interests and global regulation; thus, we overinvest in the local, promoting various reconstructed senses of belonging and identity whose mechanisms are actually analogous to those that once helped build nations.

These nation-groups are able to communicate with one another on an international level, participating in updated forms of union-like or activist activity. Inspired by initiatives like Chiapas and aligned with leftist philosophies, artists like Ruvalcaba pursue strategies for autonomy that tend to almost totally exclude the art market, and even minimize the support of the institution, seen here as a dubious figure. What is the future of these communities, of these new senses of belonging, of these conversations? In the time it takes to consider that question, it may be that others are deciding for us. But isn’t that what they have done all along?

by Dorothée Dupuis

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Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison Artangel / Reading

When it opened in 1844, Reading Gaol was hailed as the pinnacle of prison design. Half a century later, its most famous inmate gave the lie to such a statement. Between 1895 and 1897, the playwright Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for “gross indecency” after details emerged of his affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.  

It was in art that Wilde found solace, and it is for art’s sake that the prison has, for the first time, opened to the public this year. The doors to the claustrophobic cells that line the jail’s long corridors have been thrown open, and artwork and letters leading international artists placed inside. Display cases near the entrance present photos of old inmates, copies of the prison’s ground plan and design elements, and articles about the Victorian penal regime, emphasizing the long history and dark significance of the place.

The best artworks respond directly to this context, but the short planning period (Artangel received permission for the project in July) means some artists sent existing pieces, not all of which work. Roni Horn’s annotated photographs of the Thames seem tangential — though they are given a certain symbolic inflection by the presence of Robert Gober’s sculptures nearby. These are embedded into the fabric of the building: one digs into the floor to reveal a woman’s torso, which in turn is prised open to expose a babbling brook; the other consists of a filled-out suit jacket (as anonymous as any prison uniform) disappearing into the wall, with a viewing window in its back revealing another grotto. Here, water becomes a metaphor for an inner life, painfully constrained and yet also offering a means of escape.

Wolfgang Tillmans displays three photographs taken on-site, two showing his own face unsettlingly distorted in a prison mirror, the third depicting the mirror dimly reflecting empty space. They are an eloquent comment on the devastating impact of the Separate System, revealed as nothing less than the forced erasure of the self. Marlene Dumas has painted portraits of Wilde and Bosie: there is something sad and uncomfortable about seeing the two men, whose fates were so tempestuously intertwined yet ultimately so separate, sharing a cell.

And throughout all this, you can wander freely. Some spend hours there, others explore at speed, taking in — in a few minutes — meditations on prison sentences that last and destroy years. You’re free to run or walk, free to stray into disused rooms, free to take pictures. Free, even, to pick up a print by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, of a bird in flight, and take it home. In De Profundis Wilde wrote, “People point to Reading Gaol and say, ‘There is where the artistic life leads a man.’” Artangel has turned that statement and all that it implies briefly on its head.

by Maggie Gray

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Franco Bernabè on the 16th Quadriennale d’Arte / Rome

From October 13 until January 8, the 16th Quadriennale d’Arte, held at Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, will present a survey of 99 artists and 150 works of Italian art under the title “Altri tempi, altri miti” (Other Times, Other Myths). Flash Art spoke with Franco Bernabè, president of the Fondazione La Quadriennale di Roma.

There are ninety-nine artists in the exhibition and ten curators who, through many projects, recount aspects of Italian art of our time. How was the structure of this Quadriennale defined?

This edition arises from Minister Franceschini’s endeavor to strengthen the initiative of large public exhibitions in support of the Italian art system. Of course, with its rather afflicted recent history, among these was the Quadriennale. Many will remember that the last edition was skipped due to a lack of funding. So once we found the resources (of which half are private), we set ourselves the goal of reviving the Quadriennale both in terms of approach and content, with the aim of outlining the broadest vision of Italy possible. It was vital that this vision take the art system and especially its components into account: not only artists, but also curators and publishers.

The first step was a call for a project from about seventy Italian curators active in Italy and, in many cases, also abroad. Out of the projects that we received — about thirty-five — an interdisciplinary commission selected ten, and these will shape the next Quadriennale.

One of the main problems of the initial call for a project was the heterogeneity of the candidates (which included some museum directors). Yet the final selection — with some exceptions — seems very consistent in terms of age and professional background.

The curators included in the initial list were quite diverse. Understandably, at the beginning there was some hesitation, then a choice based upon cohesiveness prevailed: that is, to focus on a generation of curators in their thirties and forties, with strong international exposure.

Why ten curators for the final show? Is this not too many? Will this choice not be at the expense of a more concise and thus more readable vision?

No, this is precisely the point. We did not want to provide a single vision. We wanted to narrate complexity and allow space for the liveliness and variety of the Italian landscape, for a plurality of voices. The choice of an edition that is carefully structured is risky, but the alternative, in my point of view, was never simply to select one or two. If anything it was to choose the artists directly through a commission, but we wanted to recognize the crucial role of the curator today.

Does it not then risk becoming the Quadriennale of curators rather than artists?

A similar and certainly legitimate critique was made by Giuseppe Penone, who was on the selection committee. Yet there are nearly one hundred artists in the exhibition, and choosing to involve ten curators weakens any absolutism or the dictatorship of a single curator. It gives space to the artists and to a debate that thrives upon their engagement with the curators.

The province, the portrait, Pasolini, Bartleby the Scrivener and his refusal, de Tocqueville: these are some of the ideas that will be developed by the projects of the selected curators. In what way will you try to construct a narrative that ties together the ten exhibitions?

The possibility of an organic narrative — if indeed one exists — is the basis of the selection. We looked for ten projects among those that we received which, even if not complementary, nevertheless explored a piece of Italian reality and could thus be placed in dialogue with each other. But you cannot provide a unified vision of our country because this unified vision simply does not exist.

What problems does Italian art have, and what are the causes of its weakness? And how does the Quadriennale try to respond to some of these difficulties?

I think the main problem is the fact that in Italy there has not been a stimulating creative environment in the last twenty-five years. Unlike in the past or in the 1950s and 1960s, it is as if the stimulus required to trigger a mechanism that can nourish a creative process has been insufficient. Such stimulus comes from aggregation, from a plurality of situations and people moving. For this reason, this Quadriennale was conceived with the idea of creating of a network between public and private spaces in the city and the main exhibition.

“Other Times, Other Myths.” The title, taken from A Postmodern Weekend by Pier Vittorio Tondelli, is also interesting because in some respects it is contradictory. It comes from a book that describes a bygone decade — the 1980s — and a form of postmodernism that we should leave behind.

The choice of the title — decided upon following a joint reflection — amazed me. Given the age of the curators, I imagined that that they would have chosen a title that expressed a much more radical antagonism. Instead, Tondelli is a very Italian choice, and the book deals with a gentle yet psychologically painful protest, where the provinces are in the foreground. It perfectly represents the kind of experience we are having, telling the story through fragments of Italian life — protesting gently rather than aggressively.

by Davide Ferri

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Mary Ann Aitken What Pipeline / Detroit

Empty lots, busy restaurants, silent houses and crowded garages: each a part of the landscape of southwest Detroit, and each evidence of life that either implies or absents the individual. In what is only Mary Ann Aitken’s second solo show at What Pipeline, a single line of large paintings stake out views from inside the city.

This sharply focused survey follows an introductory exhibition of her work at What Pipeline three years ago, which presented paintings produced on a number of rough materials, all with a heavy palette. That density of paint remains here, but all eleven of the oil-on-masonite works are uniform in material and more standard in size (the seven of them forming the line are 122 x 122 cm and the remaining four presented separately in the gallery office are each 61 x 61 cm), and all date from between 1985 and 1989.

In Why Not Live, a text by Maureen Aitken written to accompany this exhibition, she talks about tending to her sister’s estate just prior to her death in 2012 and entering a home absolutely stuffed with work, both in storage as well as occupying multiple surfaces. This material occupation of the domestic sphere by Aitken is inextricable from her prolific practice of everyday life.

Untitled (night scene) is one of the four large paintings that offers a view from the window of Aitken’s live/work studio in downtown Detroit. Here, green plants in the foreground climb up toward glimpses of a bright orange field in the upper-right corner, which has been effaced by another top layer of black. Segues of color borne out over the course of day linger in a single frame.

The remaining three large works all show the artist turning her eye to a different residential sphere: the home of Aitken’s parents. Here, the grid pattern of the garage door that dominates Untitled (basketball net) appears to carry over to the background of the adjacent Untitled (red car); our body becomes the space between them. This canny curatorial gesture then makes the doors of What Pipeline the next image. The way in is also a way out.

by Jacob Korczynski

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Renaud Jerez Institute of Contemporary Art / Miami

Renaud Jerez has taken his biomorphic-cyborg-skeletons to their logical conclusion: he has given them a small world of their own. His dimly lit intervention at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, feels strange and timeless.

The windows are covered in red, green and blue film, creating a wash of subtle color that penetrates the room’s dark depth. Seemingly slipshod wooden structures, mounted on pedestals, have the look of dark taverns; viewers are invited to step inside these tiny houses, lit with Victorian-era street lanterns and filled to the brim with layers of fabric and the occasional recognizable symbol (a plush, goofy Grover makes an appearance). Humanoid figures made of PVC piping and swaths of textiles are suspended in animation, standing, pointing and sheltering themselves from invisible rain. One dons a glittery Uncle Sam hat atop its wiry head; another is partly a house.

We enter the room not as viewers but as visitors to a staged environment, a city street set in either the past or the future — or arguably both. Influenced heavily by cyberpunk, steampunk and a self-professed love of Japanese animation and manga, Jerez’s forms have always referenced a potential future, a singularity in which bodies have become not only connected to their technological apparatuses but also merged with them.

The breadth of their complexity is extended into an architectural environment, one that mimics the individual structures. The small buildings are stuffed with textural items — pincushions and fibers and more colored film; likewise, the figures’ cable-and-pipe skeletons are made soft and thick with gauze and cloth, with parts that suggest medical supplies, camera apertures and preternatural communicative devices in equal measure. Their elongated bodies and the eerie visual din of their homes suggest haunted, antiquated eras, but they are nothing if not cyber-futurist, too. The past and the future are, in these closed quarters, one and the same. In a world devoid of anachronism, everything requires a closer look.

by Monica Uszerowicz

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Mediations Biennale / Poznań

Every two years the city of Poznań, Poland, opens up as an international forum for contemporary art. This year’s edition of the Mediations Biennale, titled “Fundamental,” invites participants to give expression to such elementary human values as freedom, identity and religion.

Some featured works take a critical approach to contemporaneity, celebrating the dignity of mankind while looking down upon ideology, violence and manipulation, while others seek to discover common values and universal visions of beauty. All are meant to be presented in dialogue with the places they are set within — such as the castle of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler’s cabinet and a Jesuit monastery — and with works of earlier historical periods, from the collections of the National Museum and the Museum of the Archdiocese of Poznań.

The most intriguing highlights of the program include a show by Belgian artist Peter Puype. His work Iconoclasm — composed of a market stall containing plaster figures of the Virgin Mary, along with a pile of stones for viewers to toss at the statues — created quite a stir in Bruges in 2010. In Poznań, Puype has set up his installation in the former Jesuit chapel. Stoning in today’s Poland can be read as a commentary on the status of women living under a government whose latest legislation is aimed at curbing their freedoms.

Ada Karczmarczyk, who has deemed herself a Catholic pop superstar, also walks a line between evangelical fervor and desecration. Her video works, presented in the Kaiser’s castle, feature the young Polish artist exploiting kitsch and the language of pop culture to promote Christian values.

The National Museum in turn hosts works dealing with identity and patriotism. These include a steel burka by French artist Laure Boulay, and Belgian artist Gery De Smet’s vision of an eagle — Poland’s official emblem — sprinkled with confetti and captioned “There’s No Need for Change.”

by Agnieszka Sural

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