Publications

Beyond the Former Middle East: Aesthetics, Civil Society, and the Politics of Representation

01 June 2011

Tunisian protesters demonstrating beneath a poster of Mohamed Bouazizi.

‘There exists a specific sensory experience – the aesthetic – that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community.'[1]

–Jacques Rancière

I
A slap. An act of violence visited upon an individual that proved to have an afterlife that exceeded anything imaginable in the moment it was both delivered and received. On the morning of 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed Tunisian residing in Sidi Bouzid, a small town south of Tunis, was attempting to make ends meet by selling vegetables from a cart when, at 10.30am, he was harassed, slapped in the face by a municipal official, had his wares and scales confiscated and, upon complaining to the local governor’s office, was denied a fair hearing to air his grievances. These are the known facts of the matter according to eye-witnesses but it is what happened next that would give rise to an unprecedented revolution throughout the Middle East: at 11.30am, almost one hour after being harassed and slapped in the face, Mohamed Bouazizi purchased a can of gasoline (or possibly paint thinner), doused himself with it in front of the governor’s office, and set himself alight. These are the brute facts of the matter: a slap translates into an unforgiving act of self-immolation and thereafter into a conflagration that has brought with it both unforeseen freedoms and brutal repression in equal measure. (more…)

All That Fits

2011

In an era defined by a widespread suspicion with journalistic means as a way of generating both discussion and open enquiry, it would seem that artists are engaging with issues more commonly associated with journalistic discourse. Whilst this is not necessarily a complete departure from previous practices, the imbrication of both art and journalism has produced a different series of questions about the ethics and politics of representation. What, for one, are the implications of artworks employing the apparent objectivity associated with journalism? Does the use of an investigative methodology within contemporary art shift our understanding of spectatorship and our relationship to truth and forms of subjectivity? And what challenges—to the viewer and curator alike —are being made by these works in the broader context of current institutional and exhibitionary practices? (more…)

Camps (or the Precarious Logic of Late Modernity)

Spring 2011

Susan al-Khatib, Sofas: A Series, 2007–08, and Doors: A Series, 2005–08. From How Beautiful Is Panama! A photographic conversation from Burj al-Shamali camp, 2008.

To a rock-hewn chamber of endless durance,

In a strange cold tomb alone to linger

Lost between life and death forever[1]

In the late 1970s, during a drawn-out house move, my parents sent us to holiday camp. This was no ordinary holiday camp, but the renowned and much-loved Butlin’s holiday camp in Mosney, a small town forty-five kilometres north of Dublin. Butlin’s holiday camps were the brainchild of one William “Billy” Butlin, an entrepreneur who had set up his camps throughout the British Isles with the expressed wish of providing affordable holidays for all. The motto of Butlin’s was “Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight,” and that was precisely what our family believed. We spent a halcyon week there unaffected, as we later recalled, by the fact that the camp itself was rather makeshift, the chalets substandard, the facilities inadequate for purpose, and the swimming pool an accident waiting to happen. Moreover, the maritime-themed restaurant was nothing more than a chipboard facade with some plastic seagulls suspended from the ceiling and, bizarrely, an underwater view of the swimming pool complete with the unwholesome sight of submerged, sunless-white legs and torsos.[2] Needless to say, all of this would remain largely anecdotal and the stuff of family lore were it not for the fact that, as 
I recently found out, the Irish government subsequently saw it fit to turn Butlin’s Mosney—after a period of decline in its fortunes—into a holding centre for immigrants.[3] (more…)

127 Cuerpos: Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Commemoration

01 October 2009

Teresa Margolles

Teresa Margolles, 127 Cuerpos (127 Threads), 2006 (and details) as installed in Kunstverein für die Rhein, Lande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf Photo: Achim Kukulies

Death is most frightening, since it is a boundary.
– Aristotle

A length of thread, stretched tight from one wall to another, spans the wide, corridor-like gallery space of the Düsseldorf Kunstverein (fig.46). At more or less waist height, it cuts off one third of the gallery along its longitudinal axis, leaving the viewer with the majority of the space in which to walk and examine the thread. On closer inspection, this turns out to be 127 separate pieces of cotton thread that have been tied together using a basic knot. On each of these threads there are uneven stains; mottled, reddish-brown traces that call to mind the colour of red wine dried on a white tablecloth. And that is it. Apart from this enigmatic installation by the Mexican-born artist Teresa Margolles (b.1963), there is nothing else to look at in the Kunstverein on this day in 2006. Whilst this may appear ‘minimalist’ in the extreme, and Margolles’ work does draw upon a minimalist aesthetic in its display, the sheer, if not vertiginous, ‘emptiness’ of the room encourages us to look more closely at this length of thread. There is, after all, nothing else to look at – nothing else in which to take visual refuge. (more…)

An Ethics of Engagement: Collaborative Art Practices and the Return of the Ethnographer

September 2009

Renzo Martens, Episode III, 2008, colour video, sound, duration 88 minutes. English subtitles, courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery London

The conditions under which contemporary art is produced, disseminated, displayed and exchanged have undergone significant changes, if not radical transformations, in the last three decades. In a broad sense, this period has been concomitant with a series of incremental shifts from object-based to context-based practices to, more recently, artworks that primarily utilise forms of collaboration and participation – or so-called socially engaged artworks. I am, of course, abbreviating a highly complex system here and it would not be very difficult to find a number of conceptual holes in such a schema. I should also note that I am not promoting a teleological reading to such developments. Participation and collaboration, for example, could be dated from the period covering Dada onwards, in particular the spectacle of audiences participating, willingly or not, in the Dada Season in Paris in April 1921. To this we could add the collaborative gambits of Situationism in the mid- to late 1950s and the participatory improvisations employed by Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clarke throughout the 1960s. Moreover, if we were to broaden the scope of contemporary art to include theatre we could also cite Bertolt Brecht’s ambition to ‘re-function’ it to a new and more collaborative form of social participation and political engagement.[1] Nevertheless, and putting to one side my own truncated account of the possible pitfalls inherent in my opening statement, the fact of collaborative and participative-based practices in contemporary art has certainly become more notable of late, and with this other more immediate concerns have emerged too, not least the sense that contemporary critical discourses are struggling to both criticise and, indeed, support such practices. (more…)