Report /

AB6 / Athens Biennale 2018

A naked yellow body, head wrapped in bright orange fabric, clasping an enormous bamboo crucifix, spills out of the former Esperia Palace Hotel on Stadiou Street in central Athens. Followed by other figures, one’s back crudely scrawled with the emblem of Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-nationalist party, another circulating with arms raised recalling an ancient Minoan figurine, these members of Panos Sklavenitis’s tribal cargo cult (Cargo, 2018) inhabit an imaginary near future and appear to worship artifacts of Greece’s present and past. Manifesting itself as a mutating, reflecting, and at times grotesque “screenshot” of contemporary experience, the 6th Athens Biennale achieves something not dissimilar to Sklavenitis’s writhing army.

Adopting the title “ANTI,” the Biennale and its four neighboring venues brim with contrasts, reactions, and oppositions. Although careful to point out that “ANTI” is not necessarily a call to resist, the curators Stefanie Hessler, Poka-Yio and Kostis Stafylakis have nevertheless drawn together an uneasy-making collection of provocative artworks and performances that at once provide relief through their conceptual “otherness,” yet still feel uncomfortably familiar.

Drawing us inside a former hotel is Michail Pirgelis’s enormous Memory Games (2017), a section of a decommissioned airliner portraying the vastness of human-made infrastructure and our antagonistic relationship to it. Opposite this hollow hulk is one of Miltos Manetas’s brilliant large-scale oil paintings of cables and USBs, Cables (Togetherness) (2009), which, along with Cables III (1997) and Untitled (hand with cables) (1998), remind us of the apparent simplicity underpinning a constant and tiresome information overload. Elsewhere in the building, one of the most palpable of diametric oppositions: a Chess-boxing arena — the sport’s hybrid matches involve alternating rounds of chess and boxing, straightforwardly straddling the chasm of intellectual and physical pugnacity.

Across the road, the former Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation building, TTT, houses the majority of the artworks contributed by the Biennale’s one hundred participating artists. With the building only officially released to the curators mere weeks before opening, and with the bulk of the artworks themselves not arriving until just days before, AB6 seemed destined to suffer the same fate as the previous Biennale (AB5to6 “OMONOIA,” 2015–17), which was nothing short of a “failure… an experiment with no tangible results,” as Poka-Yio, also founding director of the Biennale, puts it in the AB6 catalogue. Nevertheless, the team behind the Biennale have successfully achieved what they set out to do, citing assistance from large numbers of volunteers working long days.

Despite the somewhat limiting nature of the former office cubicles in which the video-dense selection of works is installed, the six floors of TTT offer a range of discomforting sensations. Ted Davis’s endless youtube.pawgorithm (2016) plays YouTube videos with zero views, essentially self-destroying its future as an artwork. To watch Jon Rafman’s Sticky Drama (2015), which depicts slime-covered live-action role-playing children in saturated color, the viewer must sit uncomfortably close to the screen, ensuring retina burn. Korakrit Arunanondchai’s slick dystopian collaboration with Alex Gvojic (There’s a word I’m trying to remember from a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction), 2016) can only be experienced while being overlooked by a monstrous rat-like creature lacking legs. If Marianna Simnett’s video, The Needle and the Larynx (2016) (the name says it all) or Rachel Maclean’s Eyes 2 Me (2015), in which a doll-like girl is ordered around by an instructive male voice-over, aren’t enough to unsettle viewers, the toxic smell that pervades the rooms of the TTT only heightens the stomach-churning sensation.

Ascending the building, one notices that the depictions of fleeting subcultures, drooling into our sensory orifices, morph into more established representations of resistance: the throb of gabba music subsides into the chirping of Spyros Aggelopoulos’s shadow puppet show (Amusementorium, 2018); and high-contrast digital screens give way to elegant and tender erotic pastel works by Lauren Wy (forty-one in total, displayed in a room with its original carpeted walls). Eighteen portraits in oil from the 1970s and 1980s by the late Celia Daskopoulou line the corridors and still give an uncanny stare. The overarching feeling of unease remains, however, and is successfully contributed to by the docu-film The Seasteaders (2017) by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller, which charts through deadpan clarity the megalomaniac plan of Peter Thiel and others to construct a floating and tax-exempt “substate” off the coast of Polynesia.

As well as being a linguistic prefix, in Greek, anti on its own means “instead of,” which feels prescient in venues such as the Benakeios Library of the Old Parliament, where 32,000 more-or-less obsolete volumes have been replaced with two artworks. Rumba II: Nomad (2015), a video by Cao Fei, which follows robot vacuum cleaners around demolished Beijing hutongs, is projected below a ceiling of the Library that has crumbled to the (un-vacuumed) floor below. Across the corridor lies Pigpen (2016), an enormous latex sculpture of a sow suckling its young, installed by Saeborg, a Japanese collective blending BDSM latex outfits and anarcho-veganism, which is activated during performances by a group dressed as piglets and a maniacal farmer.

Opposition today plays out in a wide array of formats, some of which we may endorse, consciously or otherwise. While the relationship between progressive and reactionary attitudes could be described as a feedback loop, each pole inciting the other, it might also be seen as an ouroboros, with attitudes consuming, rather than feeding into, each other. Either way, our particular idiosyncratic moment is ripe for analysis. This Biennale doesn’t provide a solution, but rather investigates differing and current reactions to it. A man sporting a tutu and painted from head to toe in the colors of the Greek flag wanders back up Stadiou Street; a homeless lady lying adjacent to the Biennale’s entrance looks right through him, unfazed.

by Andrew Spyrou

read more
Report /

Ghost:2561 / Bangkok

Instead of wall text, the inaugural Ghost:2561 — a new video and performance triennial in Bangkok curated by New York–based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai — deployed a team of human “storytellers” to talk about each work.

In the month preceding the October 11 launch, these storytellers attended workshops, at which they were introduced to some of the participating artists and deconstructed various texts — including essays by Hito Steyerl and Édouard Glissant, and a tale by the nineteenth-century Thai poet Sunthorn Phu — from an ontological perspective. On completion, they were then tasked with serving as “neither exhibition guides or didactic machines” but enablers of a discursive structure. “They are mediums for the work,” explained Korakrit, standing amid the burnished teak and Burmese nat (spirit) statues of the city’s famous Jim Thompson House, and as Jon Wang’s You Belong two Me (2018), a site-specific commission, played out on two screens. Here, at this top Bangkok attraction, the tour guides who work there did the explaining, but elsewhere visitors might encounter a storyteller upon exiting a video installation. Sometimes these interactions led nowhere, but other times conversations that helped guide the viewer down a path of meaning were struck.

Ghost:2561’s storytellers were not the only mediums in attendance. From the eerie promotional video to Korakrit’s curatorial letter (“Dear Ghost, Welcome to my body…”) and the performers (Boychild, Ashland Mines and Thanapol Virulakul), everybody and everything channeled something during this two-week event. Some of the ten venues even took on a spectral quality. This was most evident at Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Gallery Ver, within the N22 warehouse gallery enclave, where flames gently kissed the walls as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s phantasmagoric short Blue (2018) crackled into life. Next door, a more discombobulating immersiveness was achieved by Lumapid Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise, 2016), Stephanie Comilang’s sci-fi-inflected documentary about three Filipina migrant workers. In a room lined with cardboard boxes, three screens concurrently played mobile-phone footage of them spending Sundays, their only day off, socializing amid cardboard cities in downtown Hong Kong. “I am the transmitter… they are stored in my cache,” muttered the deadpan narrator, a drone voiced by the artist’s mother, as images gamboled frenetically around the room.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Ghost2561 (@ghost2561ghost) on

Just as Korakrit hoped his storytellers would smooth the introduction of video art, most of it theory-driven and hailing from outside Thailand, to Thai audiences, Ghost:2561’s animist conceit was intended to foster comprehension and engagement with new modes of narrative. “I wanted to bring things together using a metaphor that felt local and somehow naturalized,” he told Garage magazine before the opening. Often this metaphor was quickly effaced, the dialogue at talks stumbling into the realms of structural critique, object-based ontology, and Derridean concepts. At one of three curated screenings, for example, curator Aily Nash spoke about the hauntology of cinema, namely its temporal and spatial boundlessness, and introduced three films, including Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History (2009), that navigate embodied and disembodied experiences, and physical and psychic spaces. A few hours before, at the Thailand Creative & Design Center, Monica Narula from the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective and Amalia Jyran gave an elegiac lecture-performance that, through fragments of film, images, and letters, seemed to both bend time and long for a future that never arrived.

All the work, Korakrit explained, was about “renegotiating our relationships with data, whatever that data is,” and, while the tone varied from snarky to contemplative, it was hard to disagree — slick attempts to parse the contemporary condition, to reveal the hidden and shadowy, were everywhere you looked. The prospect of data as people, for example, was brought to a heightened level of consciousness by Ian Cheng’s Emissary Sunsets the Self (2017): a towering AI simulation wherein primitive races compete to assert their authority in a mutating dystopic ecosystem. Also at Bangkok CityCity gallery (the co-founder of which, Akapol Sudasna, co-initiated Ghost:2561), Jon Rafman’s Deluge (2018) found visitors queuing to experience a serpentine VR landscape that felt like a portent of what may come. Other dense, rewarding works included a send-up of modern life’s free-associative onslaught of imagery knitted together out of Hokusai Tumblr memes, spoof weather reports, and Bruce Lee sound-bites (Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc, first shown at London’s ICA back in 2014); an unsettling fever dream from a posthuman future, the narrator of which pondered “the weight of a soul, measured in terrabytes” (Metahaven’s Information Skies, 2017); and a transmigratory romp through the evolution of the spiral motif that culminates with an advert for a rejuvenating snail gel (Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Golden Spiral, 2018).

Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Golden Spiral
Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Golden Spiral. Courtesy of the artist and Ghost Foundation.

Known for his histrionic Gesamtkunstwerks comprised of trap music, portentous spirituality, action painting, denim, drone footage, and madcap assemblages, Korakrit’s first curatorial endeavor offered cerebral escapism — and a certain subcultural cool quotient — at a time when much of the city’s art scene was in the thrall of a less cogent and more conventional spectacle. Timing Ghost:2561 so that it overlapped with the opening of the public- and private-sector-backed Bangkok Art Biennale was a deliberate move on his part, as he hoped that the context provided by a standard biennale format would throw its elusive conceptual form into sharper relief. And so, at times, it proved.

A few days before Ghost:2561 concluded, an evening of screenings, talks, and performance at Beam nightclub, in Bangkok’s Thonglor neighborhood, offered the most dissonant experience of all. After screenings of short films from New York’s DIS Edutainment Network and a discussion with two of its founders, a live performance by DJ-artist Ashland Mines did something unexpected — hypostasized the collective consciousness of America’s “Black Identity Extremists,” to coin a heated FBI term, in an unforgettable manner. In the twenty-minute Pit Saint, a furious collage of juddering imagery and looped audio snippets, sourced from internet recordings of black American spirituality, accompanied a sexually charged one-man show that was part live-cam BDSM fantasy, part explosion of Dionysian energy. It ended with a nightclub full of people staring up at a bondage-gear clad figure standing, hands cupped in prayer, on a speaker. Of Ghost:2561’s many acts of possession, its attempts to “give form and presence to invisible systems,” this was, to put it mildly, the most confrontational.

by Max Crosbie-Jones

read more
Report /

steirischer herbst ’18 / Graz

The Popular Front was a reckless attempt to unite different political forces in the 1930s against the rise of fascism. In order to create a more powerful image, it attracted not only politicians but international artists promoting socially responsible art. In the current wake of neoconservative tendencies, it has become common among curators to redefine the notion of “popular” in opposition to the idea of “national.”

Consider the exhibition “Political Populism” by Nicolaus Schafhausen (2016), which tried to progressively reappropriate ideological mechanisms used by the right. “Volksfronten,” led by the new director of steirischer herbst, Ekaterina Degot, goes one step further. Identifying with the aggressor, it launches an offensive attack on Graz’s actual urban fabric, and therefore reignites the festival’s spirit that was originally conceived in the late 1960s: to oppose the remnants of Styria’s fascist affinities.

One might suspect that making broad historical analogies, i.e. comparing historical Nazism with the current political climate in Austria, only serves to empower an “enemy.” For instance, it is not clear what the value of provocation is in Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space (2018), in which artist Yoshinori Niwa disseminated printed material advertising a depository for Austrian memorabilia belonging to the fascist era. Such a negative gesture, reminiscent of a bonfire of the vanities, might only endow these mute historical objects with an almost animist omnipotence. However, if one were to abstain from such analogies, it could become easy to misrecognize potential future tribulations. To avoid both of these traps, theorist Boris Buden found an obvious solution. According to him, one should not treat the rise of neo-fascism as something serious, but should instead emphasize its intrinsic ridiculousness. Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “popular laughter” might generally describe the tactics employed by other participants who, freed from the oppression of eternal and immovable categories such as “nation” or “motherland,” were instead “exposed to the gay and free laughter of the world.”

Yoshinori Niwa, Anzeige für Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space, 2018
Yoshinori Niwa, Anzeige für Withdrawing Adolf Hitler from a Private Space, 2018. Design by Yelena Maksutay.
Courtesy of Künstler.

In a more straightforward way, The Underneath the Above Parade #1 (2018) by Bread & Puppet Theater appropriated mystery plays from Medieval theater and organized processions through the streets of Graz during which fascist papier-mâché idols were loudly debunked. The parade felt like a pseudo-collective agency initiative, coming off as a rather passé nostalgia for the DIY participatory aesthetics of Fluxus. This idea of mass engagement was problematized in a more sophisticated way by Roman Osminkin in Putsch (2018), an adaptation of Dmitri Prigov’s conceptual poetry. Following a polarizing dialogue, amplified via two loudspeakers, between liberative revolt and Stalinist putsch, performers climbed the Castle Hill staircase and used lettered signs to reveal words from the script. The crowd was activated by extras screaming and laughing into megaphones in sympathy and antipathy. And amid this dichotomous “claque,” the idea of national unity was confronted by a multitude of individual, agonistic voices.

Irina Korina’s Schnee von Gestern (2018) and Kozek Hörlonski and Alexander Martinz’s “Demonic Screens” installation series (2017–18) appealed to the populist aesthetics of amusement parks and B-grade movies, respectively. Korina produced gigantic, pompous inflatables in the forms of chains, snowdrifts, and skydancers, appealing to the imagery of rodina, the Russian equivalent of homeland as a patriotic construct taught to school children. Soft and hollow, the sculptures undo their own monumentality. Printed patterns of birch trees turn out to be commercial advertising upon closer inspection, and immaculate white snow is simply a decorative cover for the dirt beneath. In their installation and film series, the Austrian duo produced what they call “Heimat horror,” oversaturated suspense on the verge of slapstick. The idyllic landscapes of Styria and Carinthia are populated by parodic zombies, a Lynchian doppelgänger, and mechanized puppets. In both cases, Heimat, the romantic notion of homeland as a guarantor of immutability and belonging, was flipped inside out, while the infamous racist slogan “Blut und Boden” was taken quite literally, spelled out in artificial blood and dirty snow.

Roman Osminkin, Putsch (After DA Prigov), 2018
Roman Osminkin, Putsch (After DA Prigov), 2018. Photography by Jasper Kettner.

If the previous works problematized outward engagement and entertainment, others referenced an interpellated address of the individual. In The Iran Conference (2018), a play staged in the form of a university symposium, Ivan Vyrypaev dissects liberal, pseudo-scientific discourses on the “other” through the figure of an imaginary Iranian. Themes on Jordan Peterson’s biological determinism, the optimist proselytism of TEDx, and UN peacekeeping were presented by professors, journalists, and other conference participants. The result was a series of irrelevant detours and disputes. Over the span of the symposium, several Western speakers covered a far-flung range of topics, and a talk by Shirin Shirazi, the only Iranian woman in the program, was postponed until the very end.

In a new adaptation of his 2010 work Hilarious, Roee Rosen transform a stand-up comedy routine into an embarrassing participatory exercise. Actress Hani Furstenberg performed in front of a screen that indicated when the audience should laugh or applaud. Through Furstenberg’s queasy jokes and vulgar quips verging on hate speech, Rosen exposed a double standard: a hypocrisy hidden beneath notions of human rights, multiculturalism, and political correctness. If The Iran Conference functioned as a mirror, parodying the alleged internationalism of the art crowd, the latter lifted it to a meta-level in which the artist must take the role of the oppressor. Part funny, part unbearable, the Rabelaisian laughter of Bakhtin’s “grotesque realism” was here liberated not only from external censorship, but more importantly from our own interiorized sense of decorum.

by Andrey Shental

read more
Report /

NEMOSKVA International Travelling Symposium NCCA and ROSIZO / (Omsk / Tomsk / Novosibirsk / Krasnoyarsk)

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.

by Andrey Shental

read more
Report /

The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence Manifesta 12 / Palermo

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.

Nora Turato, i'm happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina), 2018
Nora Turato, i’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina), 2018. Detail. Sound installation and performance at Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Manifesta 12, Palermo, 2018. Photography by Wolfgang Traeger and Francesco Bellina. Courtesy of the artist and Manifesta 12.

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).

Lydia Ourahmane, The Third Choir, 2014
Lydia Ourahmane, The Third Choir, 2014 installation view at Palazzo Ajutamicristo, Manifesta 12, Palermo, 2018. Photography by Wolfgang Traeger. Courtesy of the artist and Manifesta 12.

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.

by Vincenzo Di Rosa

Translated from Italian by Caroline Liou

read more
Report /

FRONT International / Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

The theme of the first FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art is “An American City.” Like most art festivals, the idea is not only to present and celebrate art, but to use the work of contemporary artists as an introduction and invitation to experience the host city. This summer saw a profusion of new art festivals springing up in the Midwest — which is doing its best to rightly assert itself as a hotbed of artistic talent and opportunity outside some U.S. capital cities that have become difficult places for artists to make a living.

Events like Open Spaces in Kansas City and Detroit Art Week also debuted this summer, and all of these new festivals are figuring out their identities. FRONT is perhaps the best organized and most heavily financed among them, having taken the last three years to develop its inaugural content and curriculum. It’s clear that curator Michelle Grabner, a Wisconsin native, made a serious and successful effort to engage with the city of Cleveland, in part by not restricting herself to conventional art institutions as settings for dozens of installations featuring more than one hundred artists.

For example, the downtown Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland is a financial institution, and while its interior is elaborately appointed with decorative metalwork, inlaid marble floors, and historic frescoes and murals, these serve primarily to bolster confidence in the abstract system of federal finance and the American dollar. There is a kind of delicious tension, then, to Grabner’s decision to make this venue host to a new iteration of a work by Philip Vanderhyden, Volatility Smile 3 (2018), which directly references ideas of financial insecurity from both a personal and a market perspective. Vanderhyden’s installation is a digital video work that plays out across a series of twenty large flat-screen televisions on stands, arranged to form a kind of digital folding partition along one ell of the Fed’s wing of teller stations. The looping content of the video is a dynamic, psychedelic whirl of morphing and transforming imagery, rotating in virtual space. The figurative elements draw details from the location’s architecture, among other sources; there are telescoping eagles, gilded faces, leaves and wheat drawn from representations of the commodities of the region. The title refers to the smiley-face shape that appears on a pricing graph during moments of great market instability (causing a sharp dip in the value of a given entity), and the work is intended to convey some of Vanderhyden’s feelings about the financial instability of being a professional artist — someone whose stock might rise or drop precipitously, due to forces beyond one’s control — as well as to invoke that same kind of roller-coaster anxiety in the viewer. Certainly, the ceaseless churn and change of Volatility Smile 3 gives the observer no easy resting place. Its modern-ness, both in content and form, stands out in high contrast to the classic and ornate 1923 architecture of the high-ceilinged bank, leaving one with a sense that perhaps these structures were built without being able to predict the change that capitalism would wreak on the future. One wonders if the center can, indeed, hold.

Michael Rakowitz, A Color Removed (2018 — ongoing) installation view
Michael Rakowitz, A Color Removed (2018 — ongoing) installation view. Commissioned by SPACES for FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Photography by Field Studio.

One thing conspicuously missing from FRONT’s otherwise ambitious and expansive effort to present Cleveland, the eponymous American city, is a lack of Clevelanders. Not only are the bulk of regional artists relegated to a single exhibition space, but most of the city’s local talent — which, it should be understood, comprises a community that has held Cleveland in trust as it struggled through decades of dissolution and financial collapse due to waning industry — was excluded entirely from the festival’s design and content. One cringes a bit at the great investment of resources in a Cleveland art event, when so little of it ultimately ends up supporting the artists of that place, or addressing the concerns of its permanent residents. The exception to this oversight is the exhibition hosted by SPACES, a longtime grassroots exhibition space and residency program that has, for decades, staked its identity as a place for Cleveland art, even as its SWAP program brings in residents from around the country and the globe.

For FRONT, SPACES presented an ongoing installation work by Michael Rakowitz, whose oeuvre demonstrates a similar passion for making art that connects with the people of a given place — especially overlooked or neglected communities. A Color Removed (2017–18) is an attempt to redact the color “safety orange” from the entire city of Cleveland (an effort that would be impossible, even if it were not one of the colors of the football team, the Cleveland Browns) as a response to the 2014 police shooting of a twelve-year-old boy named Tamir Rice. The official justification for the shooting, which took place within seconds of cops descending upon Rice as he played alone in a Cleveland park, was that the toy gun he was holding had the orange cap — which indicates it is not a weapon — removed. Rakowitz’s work raises questions about who deserves safety: if not Tamir Rice, then perhaps no one in Cleveland should have “safety orange.” The work has collected hundreds of objects via street kiosks. These have been installed in the back exhibition space, which hosts a battery of community-based programming. In the front gallery, Rakowitz turned the space over to a curated group of Cleveland-based artists, ruminating on the subject of gun and police violence, and the impact it has on their lives and communities.

These two very different approaches to FRONT show the wide range of possibilities presented by this extraordinarily complex and dynamic festival. Grabner’s work is detailed and will be a tough act to follow. But one hopes, as this American city begins to take its place among the pantheon of international art destinations, it remembers to bring its residents and artists along for the journey.

by Sarah Rose Sharp

read more