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Art Athina / Athens

By the second day, the octopus had begun to stink. Exhibiters were grumbling. It lay rotting on the floor, hooked up to a car battery, sweating into the carpet — the work of American artist Tony Hope, shown in the booth of Ashes/Ashes. I was told the piece was meant to suggest the resuscitation of the creature, which, as attested to by the deepening stench, was surely a joke.

Really it would seem the young American sought to dramatize the nightmare of austerity and the doomed fable of reanimation in Greece with a staple of taverna cuisine. By day three, they had swapped the creature out for a fresh one.

Those of us who traveled from abroad to the twenty-second edition of Art Athina, the art fair founded by the Hellenic Art Galleries Association, inevitably read the event against the backdrop of the ongoing Greek crisis, even if that took the form of inert caricature, a dead cephalopod. Much as art fairs are designed to operate in a convention center bubble — a non-place where you are always spitting distance from New York, London, Berlin, Dubai — the Faliro Sports Pavilion Arena doesn’t hide the markings of its history so easily. Built to host taekwondo at the 2004 Olympics — Greece won silver in both men’s heavyweight and women’s middleweight — it has more recently been used for Syriza rallies and to house Syrian refugees. The stadium is part of a vast complex erected for the games, which now bears a distinctly neglected feeling — a contemporary ruin by the port of Piraeus. Lacerations and fixes make a patchwork of the temporary fencing around the grounds. I’m told that the government forbade any changes, improvements or even painting inside. The retractable stadium seating, stacked high against the walls, loomed over the booths, huge swaths of thinning dark cloth blacked out the windows, and small signs of entropy were everywhere.

The history of Art Athina itself was, in a way, inescapable as well. Founded in 1993, the fair has been marked by periodic scandal and corruption and has undergone a number of changes in direction. This year is the latest reboot, with a new director, Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos, brought in just three months before the opening and charged with, among other things, attracting more international participation to the fair, which has generally been exclusively Greek in focus. I learned that this is the fourth such peripeteia, in a section called Survey, a fascinating thumbnail exhibition documenting the institutional history of Art Athina through ephemera, newspaper clippings and a selection of works that had appeared in earlier editions. It posed the question of how to tell this history when faced with years of mismanagement and the failure to preserve materials and documentation. Among the works on display was Eva Stefani’s video installation National Anthem (2007), which combines pornographic images with the Greek national anthem, and which was confiscated from the fair in 2007 and led to the arrest of the director.

Across the rest of the curated parallel program you could trace a set of themes — distance and locality, Greece and the world. There was a tribute to Greek artist Jannis Kounellis, a key figure in Arte Povera who died earlier this year, focusing on his 1994 exhibition on a cargo ship in the port of Piraeus. It featured Heinz-Peter Schwerfel’s film Frammenti di un diario (1996), which follows Kounellis around Europe, folding his travels and the exhibition in the harbor into a kind of fictional diary. A video section, curated by Alexander Burenkov, presented a selection of works dealing with surveillance, precarity and interconnectivity, installed in a replica of Edward Snowden’s hotel room at the Mira Hong Kong. All of this was up on a large balcony overlooking the stadium floor.

Below, the game was, to state the obvious, one of sales. I heard rumors of who did well and who did not, but I wasn’t keeping score. The key dynamic that emerged as you moved down the rows of booths was one that grew out of this latest revision to Art Athina, the efforts to transform it from provincial art fair to something a little more global. Greek galleries predominated, rounded out by a handful from elsewhere in Europe and the United States. I was unfamiliar with nearly all of the work shown in the Greek booths, and it ran the gamut from lovely to kitsch. Painter Sofia Stevi’s booth with the Breeder offered an exhilarating moment in the sometimes-stifling arena, and AD Gallery had up a beautiful piece from Bia Davou’s Serial Structures 2 (1981), colorful threads woven vertically into a narrow strip of unstretched canvas, a craft translation of the rhythms of The Odyssey. Fascinating in its own way, however, was to see the work from some of the other Greek galleries, stuff that doesn’t conform to any of the familiar concerns, forms and figures of contemporary art — that is, truly local art — put in dialogue with the shipped-in booths, as in Shana Moulton at Galerie Gregor Staiger and Sophia Al Maria at the Third Line. Lingering over all of this was a question: not whether Art Athina might succeed in becoming a global art fair, nor whether that would, in turn, compromise something of its distinctively Greek character, but rather whether this has all come too late. You hear from gallerists how the fair circuit is becoming increasingly unsustainable; the model is in crisis. We might have another dead octopus on our hands.

by Eli Diner

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Flash Art International no. 315 June–July–August 2017

We are pleased to announce that the June–July–August edition of Flash Art International is out now. Rei Kawakubo is the cover artist for this summer 2017 edition.

Having founded her label Comme des Garçons in 1969, Rei Kawakubo is only the second living designer (after Yves Saint Laurent) to be honored with a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Jeremy Lewis, “What makes [her] clothes radical is that although they are not always recognizable as clothes, they were always meant to be worn.” Kawakubo’s deconstructed style –– raw and cerebral –– seems to take clothing outside of itself and to reposition it in a contemporary space nonetheless rooted within her own Japanese cultural tradition.

A season marked by global political uncertainty has foregrounded artist Pope.L’s long concern with just that: uncertainty, unknowability, misrecognition. In Whispering Campaign at Documenta 14, a fragmentary narrative is diffused throughout Athens twenty-four hours a day –– as it will throughout Kassel –– via city-wide speakers and wandering, whispering performers. In his conversation with Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Pope.L relates how he sees “language as a means of duration, and time as a way of making meaning.”

Also in this issue:

In “Macro”:

Tess Edmonson considers Lindsay Lohan as a cultural phenomenon.

“There’s a weird temporality to Lohan’s public flirtations with Islam under Trump, as though she’s misplacing Islam in the mediascape. Popular media has neither clichés nor discursive tools by which to attach her actions — those regarding the Quran, refugees, the Arabic language — to meaning.”

–– Tess Edmonson

In “Features”:

Chiara Parisi asks Pier Paolo Calzolari about his life and career, from Arte Povera to his current New York show.

“In the 1960s reality was different, totalizing, dictatorial. There was a sort of aristocracy of art, not a democratic ‘dissemination’ of it, which instead I observe now.”

–– Pier Paolo Calzolari

Amy Zion sheds light on the enigmatic art of Rodrigo Hernández.

“Instead of beginning from the premise that we all know what the world is, that it is one thing, and that an artist can find some sort of Archimedean point above it, from which she looks down and produces art and commentary, Hernández’s work remains stuck in the swamp of the world.”

–– Amy Zion

Jennifer Piejko considers the choreography of Ligia Lewis.

“In front of us, the dancers occasionally pause in a tense first ballet position, fists out at either side, before gracefully opening to a wide second and sliding into a discrete fourth before lunging into third position. Lewis maintains their tight stature: ‘Left foot!’”

–– Jennifer Piejko

Hyunjin Kim examines the filmmaking of Park Chan-kyong.

“In Park’s narrative, the history of Korean shamanism embodies the violence of the grand narrative of Korean modernization.”

–– Hyunjin Kim

In “Reviews”:

Jeff Geys at Essex Street, New York; Céline Condorelli at P!, New York; Lindsay Lawson at 8-11, Toronto; Mathis Altmann at Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles; Eliza Douglas at Overduin & Co., Los Angeles; Alexandre da Cunha at PIVÔ, São Paulo; “Disobedient Bodies” at The Hepworth Wakefield; Jacolby Satterwhite at Banner Repeater, London; Seth Price at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Bruno Gironcoli at Clearing, Brussels; Lucy Dodd at Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Rainer Fetting at Thomas Fuchs, Stuttgart; “Art/Afrique, le nouvel atelier” at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; Amalia Del Ponte at Museo del Novecento and Studio Francesco Messina, Milan; Stephen Kaltenbach at Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz; Malak Yacout at Townhouse Gallery, Cairo; “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at” at Beijing Commune; Lee Kit at ShugoArts, Tokyo.

We are pleased to announce Flash Art’s participation in the 2017 editions of Art Basel and Liste.

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Monika Szewczyk and Hendrik Folkerts on Documenta 14 / Kassel

Documenta 14 in Kassel will open to the public on June 10, 2017. Flash Art spoke to curators Monika Szewczyk and Hendrik Folkerts about some of the themes in this edition and the challenges of presenting a show in two such profoundly different cities as Athens and Kassel.

How has Documenta 14 manifested as a public presence in both of its constituent cities?

Monika Szewczyk: I think it’s important to say that the public program has already been taking place on a weekly basis in a place where people can access it, before the public openings. Some of it is in the municipal gallery in Parko Eleftherias, named after the statesman Eleftherios Venizelos; but of course, eleftheria means “freedom,” so there is a kind of resonance that comes with the name. We started the public program with “34 Exercises of Freedom” involving different artists exercising freedom in many different ways. Not much was prescribed, discussed or guided as to what freedom was supposed to be, so it produced, in some way, a real polysemy. There is a language of diversity and polyphony that circulates around public institutions, but I think this moment was different because it trusted artists to redefine the meaning of freedom through actions and rituals, or rather exercises — keeping in mind that freedom is never something you possess but something that must be constantly renewed to exist.

Monika, in a recent press conference you spoke about the notion of value — the way that museums or art institutions can be stores of value — and about how these forms of value relate to larger economic questions. Could you speak about this and the ways you’re hoping to realize it in Documenta 14?

MS: We’re interested in looking at the way value is asserted ceremonially, the way it’s a kind of social agreement rather than something stable and held, even though the ceremony often involves material substances that are highly stable: things to anchor oneself to. I think we arrived in Athens looking out toward the Acropolis at the EMST and asked ourselves, “What is this place?” The Acropolis was many things in the past; it began as a temple to the virgin goddess Athena Parthenos, and the statue of the virgin inside functioned as a kind of bank — holding a lot of gold and a lot of ivory looted by member states of the Delian League. So it was a place of worship and a space of constantly reasserted value; and then it was a Christian church during the Byzantine era, then a mosque as well as a gun store. Now it’s a tourist attraction, but one which still holds a kind of sacred value because people still have a sense — as with a lot of Greek antiquities, but particularly with the Parthenon — that this is a kind of holy place, a space of strong energy that need not be captured by institutional religion.

Hendrik Folkerts: As much as the EMST is a national museum of contemporary art, Documenta has, for a very long time, existed as a symbolic exhibition with strong connections to a particular German history and culture, with very strong political and ideological undercurrents. I think this movement between Athens and Kassel is about questioning that history and trying to assess what kind of a value Documenta adds — perhaps on a monetary level, as it continues to define its relation to the art market, but also on a historical, cultural and political level.

Hendrik, you’ve spoken of how spaces have expectations of audiences, of how they can exert a kind of pressure by their design or arrangement or, as with Documenta 14, by displacing and recontextualizing artworks from one institution to another in a way that crosses both physical and political geography. How do you see audience reception functioning in relation to this displacement and recontextualization?

HF: Something Adam Szymczyk raised in the very beginning — which I only later came to understand in full — was that in the experience of the exhibition there would be a sense of loss; not only because for over a month things will be going on simultaneously — so you’ll never be able to access everything at the same time — yet also because not everyone has the means or the will to visit both cities. So the exhibition’s bi-located structure, its displaced configuration, will play quite an important role in the experience; not in the sense of, “ha-ha you can’t see it,” but more symbolically — how to despectacularize and reconfigure the way we look at exhibition-making and spectatorship.

MS: You’re supposed to give people plenty; you’re not supposed to give them loss. Within people’s experience of both cities, I think there’s an expectation that people will actually get lost, so there’s this sense of loss where you can’t see everything, but there’s also a sense that in order to learn you need to lose yourself in a place rather than allow a Cartesian grid to organize all the information for you.

Shifting our focus to the works themselves: Monika, you’ve spoken about the role of weaving as a technology in some of the works on show. Given weaving’s resonance in Greek mythological terms, could you explain how it features in the wider exhibition?

MS: I have mentioned this amazing woman, Bia Davou, who was somehow completely on point in connecting cybernetics to the epic tale of Penelope through diagrammatic, graphic works. We also have another artist involved, Irena Haiduk, who works with weavers and seamstresses in the former Yugoslavia, and who also activates more industrial textile manufacture, aware of its history as a forefront in the industrial revolution, as well as the informatics revolution. So this story keeps circling back.

HF: In the exhibition at large we’re looking at how weaving, which is established on patterns, relates to a score as an object in contemporary art and performance. There has been a lot of discourse produced around scores, but we’re interpreting it quite openly, thinking of a score as, on the one hand, an instructional device yet also as a notation that can be interpreted and performed freely, by anyone. At the EMST, we’ll be presenting an artist from Hungary, originally from Serbia, Katalin Ladik, who’s been producing visual scores based on sewing patterns, newspaper clippings and actual music notation, but also on computer chips found in radios and handheld devices. She reads that source material with her voice and produces sound based on them. The relationship between pattern (the score) and the body (her voice) are open to many interpretations. So you’re going to see and hear how these relationships are woven together in this body of work, yet also in many other artists who deal with patterns, weaving and scores.

MS: There’s a center in Athens called the Mentis Center for the Preservation of Traditional Textile Techniques, whose director, Virginia Matseli, told me of how the various threads leading into the grooves of these machines actually follow traditional Greek dances. So you see the bobbins performing this incredible choreography on the machines, whilst there is this sense of choreographing as another kind of weaving, in a beautiful dialectic. We keep coming across these connections that open up once again a discussion about Greek mythology, in which weaving is portrayed as this ultimate way of making. Athena is a goddess who, amongst other things, is also the patron of weaving.

by William Kherbek

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E. Jane American Medium / New York

On a small TV screen in the window of the Bed-Stuy gallery American Medium, E. Jane kisses and folds successive pieces of paper into small squares before drawing a heart on each one. This forty-minute video, saved.mp4 (2016), documents the making of Saved (2016), which can be seen inside the gallery. A stack of printouts reveals that the images E. Jane caresses are large stills from 1990s music videos.

Across the purple-lit gallery walls, stars, including Brandy, TLC, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Aaliyah, populate six large, silk-printed collages. The effect is something between teen shrine reverence and digital cathedral. This pantheon of “Black ’90s divas” assembles and reassembles itself; many of the images are stills from video-recorded performances. The titles of the works point to their tonic effects: Loves Herself, Regardless (2016–17), Periodically, for Health (2016–17). In three videos that play on the gallery floor, E. Jane performs R&B hits, including Kelis’s Caught Out There, new vocals overriding the originals.

E. Jane describes their first NY solo show as a “love-based project,” and “love” is among the production materials in each of the digital collages. The show “Lavendra” might be considered an exercise in cherishing black women performers and honoring black emotion. In popular culture, black women’s performance styles are frequently the means by which nonblack people access and express emotion. By positioning the avatar’s back to the audience, turning toward the mirror, folding the printed images inward, singing with little regard for pleasantness of sound, “Lavendra” draws a line around its vulnerability. The work does not function as an even surface for others’ projection or reflection; its visible cuts and edits, pixelation and glitches, are the conditions of this intimate space where black women can lavish themselves with love. Showing the strain of its creation is part of the point.

by Derica Shields

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Britta Peters, Kasper König and Marianne Wagner on
Skulptur Projekte Münster

This year, just as Documenta is engaged in a dialogue between Kassel and Athens, Skulptur Projekte Münster has sought to collaborate with Marl, a city that, despite its close proximity, has experienced a very different social and visual development since the end of the Second World War. The exhibition has always stood out for its sensitivity toward art’s democratic role within public space. The fifth edition will open to the public on June 10, 2017 and is a timely chance for reflection a decade on from the last. Flash Art speaks with curators Britta Peters, Kasper König and Marianne Wagner.

The “Out of” magazine series that accompanies Skulptur Projekte 2017 calls attention to ways in which our experience of sculpture has changed recently, mediated by an increasing digitalization of life. How do you see our understanding of public space having changed since the last Skulptur Projekte a decade ago, and how does this year’s exhibition reflect that?

Skulptur Projekte Münster: Since we are in the middle of a rapid development, it is hard to define the situation we are in now. But digitalization changes our ideas of public and private dramatically, that’s for sure. The term “private” today only seems to fit for property, no longer for private data or a private atmosphere. Numerous aspects of the term “public” might, these days, be understood in terms of “transparency,” which doesn’t necessarily lead to a critical public — think of Trump and how little all the knowledge of his lies and manipulations affected the election. In some sculptural projects the questions of digitalization are very much in the foreground — for example Hito Steyerl, Aram Bartholl, or Andreas Bunte — in others it is a more implicit subject. A lot of works are reflecting the body, which can be read as a way to think about digitalization; focusing on a body which disappears and is substituted through digital and mobile devices.

From its beginnings Skulptur Projekte has engaged in a robust dialogue with municipal authorities and private entities, emphasizing its democratic foundations. Has the current political climate brought a greater urgency to this edition, perhaps informing its greater emphasis on performance?

SPM: The first two editions of Skulptur Projekte caused a number of conflicts with the citizens of Münster, additionally kindled by the local press. Since 1997 this relationship has altered towards one of greater acceptance, even including a misunderstanding of the exhibition as a city marketing tool, something the curators and artists are definitely not interested in. These days it is just part of the frameset we have to deal with. The interest in performance takes its starting point from various directions: the interest in the body, as well as questions about sculpture and time. What does material presence mean and how does this relate to a more ephemeral experience? The latter may also be felt very strongly, remaining as lively in its remembrance as the encounter with a material work of art. In Münster one encounters a lot of “ghosts” of former art works, and the performance pieces will add some new ones. It is important that the exhibition itself is always set up temporarily, even though many works have stayed in the city since 1977.

Of the more than thirty-six sculptural projects that remain in situ in Münster from earlier iterations of the exhibition, are there any that feel especially resonant to you right now?

SPM: The so-called public collection is very important, because it offers the public a longtime relationship with the presented works of art. Some of the contributions of the artists from 1977 to 2007 are stronger than others, but the majority hold great aesthetic power. Some of them, for instance Maria Nordman’s plant-based work De Civitate from 1991, lay “dormant” for over twenty years and now seem to get more relevant. By contrast, Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression, proposed in 1977, was only realized in 2007. It is certainly of the most interesting ones.

This edition is marked by the collaboration between Münster and the nearby city of Marl. What was the rationale behind this, and how has this dialogue been born out?

SPM: To put it in a nutshell: the identities chosen by the two cities after World War II — reconstruction and continuity in Münster, radical modern architecture in Marl — could hardly be more different. For various reasons, art in the public space plays a decisive role in both. Whereas the development in Marl can be understood, broadly speaking, as an integral element in the conveyance of a modern humanist worldview, it would be another decade before the first Skulptur Projekte was realized, in conflict with and in opposition to the conservative town society. All this makes the exchange very interesting for both sides. And it is not far between the two, only sixty kilometers by car — everyone can visit and appreciate the different settings. For the fifth edition of Skulptur Projekte this collaboration means to open a window: not only focusing on Münster, but to put this island-like city — with its educated, wealthy population working in administration or at the university — in a relation to the surrounding Ruhr region, which was formed by the rise and fall of industrial work.

by Alex Estorick

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Viva Arte Viva / 57th Venice Biennale

At the Sterling Pavilion I find a copy of Representations of the Intellectual by Edward W. Said (Vintage Books, New York, 1996). It’s one of the volumes chosen by Frances Stark for Unpacking My Library, a parallel project within the “Viva Arte Viva” exhibition for which curator Christine Macel has invited participating artists to share their “favorite readings” with Biennale visitors.

Representations collects the talks given by Said on BBC Radio, in 1993, as part of the prestigious “Reith Lectures” series. It’s an impassioned examination of the public role of the intellectual, understood as outsider, “dilettante,” contester: what distinguishes the role, according to Said, “is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation”; a spirit “that grips me, because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them” (p. xvii). From a remote shelf in the “Viva Arte Viva” library, the slightly more than one hundred pages of Representations offer themselves to me like an objection to a show that, setting aside the facts of the world in order to rediscover the most genuine expressions of human creativity, presents art as a contemplative, emotional and, at least, therapeutic activity; yet, at the same time, it presents it as a nonprogrammatic and disengaged activity, seemingly discarding that which Said identifies as “the vocation of the intellectual” and therefore of the artist: “maintaining a state of constant alertness” with respect to the exercise of power (p. 23). Prompted instead by the notion of the Latin otium — according to the press release, the interval “of laborious inertia and of the work of the spirit” in which the artwork is born — “Viva Arte Viva” flattens its contents into innocuous displays of isolation and evasion. The vitality of art, which, personally, I have always discerned in the possibility of giving space to feelings of misalignment and antagonism, takes on pastel hues and is consumed in the festivity of the kermesse. (On the other hand, the inoffensiveness of “Viva Arte Viva” justifies the response, bordering on collective hysteria, provoked by a project such as Anne Imhof’s for the German Pavilion, in whose narrative of defiance against institutional power the visitor searching in art for a form of dissent exorcizes precisely his own libido).

A big show that eschews any sense of the epic inevitably compromises itself. Such is the case with “Viva Arte Viva,” in which the works shown are rarely dramatic and, though neatly organized, attend one another without an engaging syntax, without a climax. The installation by Liliana Porter, El hombre con el hacha y otras situaciones breves (The Man with the Ax and Other Brief Situations, 2013) — a diorama in which the figurine of a man holding a hatchet seems responsible for an apocalyptic landscape that pours forth, a crescendo of waste that culminates in a real, eviscerated piano — is not only an exception that proves the rule, but, presented in one of the last rooms of the Arsenale, seems like a sarcastic metaphor for what this show is not. The vehemence that permeates Porter’s installation is largely missing in Macel’s exhibition.

Instead, “Viva Arte Viva” unfolds through idyllic representations. On the one hand, there is otium, the inactivity that stands as the prerogative of artistic activity. Mladen Stilinović’s photographic series Artist at Work (1978), in which Stilinović depicts himself serenely asleep in his bed, is echoed by a group of works by Franz West, among them photographs showing West languishing on one of his chaise longues; a drawing and collage by Frances Stark, Behold Man! (2013), in which Stark depicts herself chilling on her sofa, surrounded by a picture gallery displaying her own visual references; and an installation by Yelena Vorobyeva and Viktor Vorobyev, The Artist is Asleep (1996), a reconstruction of a domestic bedroom environment in which an individual appears asleep. During my visit to “Viva Arte Viva,” I even encountered Dawn Kasper, whose contribution consists of having relocated her studio to within the show for the entirety of its duration, sleeping on a cot.

Now, every worker has the unquestionable right to rest. But in “Viva Arte Viva,” unproductiveness does not affirm itself as a counterproject to the logics of productivism — logics from which artistic work is obviously not exempt; and the inertia of doing appears more like the artist’s privilege, an attitude rooted in her lifestyle. (In the Central Pavilion, surrounded by all these artists at rest, the only ones “busy” are the young refugees assembling the Green Light lamps in Olafur Eliasson’s workshop; meanwhile Eliasson’s paternalistic project necessarily ends up insinuating a disparity founded on the exploitation of the workforce, ironically in the same room where Marx’s Capital was read out loud two years ago.)

At the other extreme of the exhibition’s thematic parabola lies transcendence. A project of emancipating the work of art from facile materialistic readings is needed and warranted; but Macel’s exploration of metaphysics in art doesn’t go much further than presenting nonnarrative and hieratic works. Indeed, suspension is the most frequent “figuration” here: in Broken Fall (organic) (1971) by Bas Jan Ader, the artist is suspended over a canal; in Law of Situation (1971/2017) by Kishio Suga, ten flat stones lie suspended on the surface of a body of water; in The Worldly Cave (2017) by Zhou Tao, groups of individuals are suspended in limbo-environments between dream and reality. There are many more similar examples. But the mesmerizing power of these works is short-circuited: Jan Ader soon falls into the canal beneath him; Suga’s stones rest on a visible fiberglass platform; and Zhou’s surreal spaces are clearly ruins of industrial civilization. Contrary to the curator’s metaphysical aspirations, for me, these works resist spirituality by falling back on reminders that physics, as well as equally pervasive and concrete powers, are at work in artists’ practices.

Even in the realm of direct action, which “Viva Arte Viva” does tangentially consider, Macel chooses gestures that are underwritten by an ambition to redefine an ideal of collectivity alongside others that are instead more acupunctural “practices of everyday life,” the latter foiling the former. This happens, for example, in the second room in the Arsenal, in which Lee Mingwei’s action The Mending Project (2009–15) is placed alongside photographs documenting Maria Laii’s collective action Legarsi alla montagna (Tying Oneself to the Mountain, 1981). In The Mending Project, Mingwei or one of his assistants offers to mend articles of worn clothing given to them by visitors, using colored thread from the dozens of spools hanging on the walls around the work table; eventually, they store the repaired items in the exhibition space. In Legarsi, Lai used a ribbon to “tie” together the houses (and the families) of her native Sardinian village of Ulassai, and in turn tie Ulassai to the mountain that overhangs it. Both of these works are rituals for exorcizing individualism, first of all on a micropolitical level; ça va sans dire that the challenge Lai throws at her community — to think itself as a holistic organism, fused with the landscape in which it is immersed — betrays a “vocation” much broader in scope. By virtue of this vocation, and despite being symbolic and anti-monumental, Legarsi emerges as “grandiose”; yet the proximity of Mingwei’s bid to “tie” visitors’ clothes to the exhibition space, in what feels like merely another participatory art-cum-stitching project, annihilates Lai’s gesture.

In Legarsi, Lai demonstrates what the artist can and must be: to say it once again with Said, “a crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task” (p. 8). Unfortunately, in “Viva Arte Viva,” her voice — and the voices of several other committed artists — is undermined by a system of loose associations. If these facilitate the visitor’s approach to the conceptual and formal strategies employed by artists, they suffocate artists’ promptness in responding to historical and political circumstances — the challenge of every intellectual life.

by Michele D’Aurizio

(Translated from Italian by Tijana Mamula)
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