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.
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…)
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. 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…)
On April 28, 2004, a series of images from Abu Ghraib prison were aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes II. This was the first time that these photographs would be seen in public and they counted amongst their number an image that was to become instantly iconic. A man, in a penitential shroud, stands aloft a box with a hood on his head and what appears to be electric wires attached to his fingertips. The image is poorly taken, stark, and under-lit but, in all its purgatorial undertones and abject hopelessness, it would sear its way on to television screens and the front pages of newspapers worldwide; its iconographic wretchedness acting as a lightening rod for both anti-American and anti-war protestors alike. And yet, for all the opprobrium and shock directed towards both this image and the perpetrators of this ghastly scenario, I have to admit that I did not find this image shocking as such. More images would follow this one, some more disturbing in their content, some obviously depicting torture, others showing a dead and obviously abused Iraqi—later identified as Manadel al-Jamadi—packed in ice and wrapped in cellophane. A significant number of images depicted forced acts of prisoner-on-prisoner fellation and masturbation; prisoners in enforced stress positions with women’s underwear draped on their heads; and prisoners stacked one upon another in a grotesque human pyramid. Others showed a man with a leash around his neck being led naked from a cell and a faeces-besmeared man standing forlornly with his arms akimbo in the face of his gun-toting tormentor. Amidst this abecedarium of abuse, specific images stood out, none more so than a petrified prisoner with a snarling dog inches from his face. But none of these photographs were as redolent as the hooded man standing on the box. This was surely, in all its casual arbitrariness and yet methodical application, the brute fact of what Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life”: the application of a brute sovereign form of power upon that most vulnerable of entities: the rightless and thereafter forsaken subject. (more…)
Artur Zmijewski, 80064, 2004, single channel video, 11 min, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
Lives lived on the margins of social, political, cultural, economic and geographical borders are lives half lived. Denied access to legal, economic and political redress, these lives exist in a limbo-like state that is largely preoccupied with acquiring and sustaining the essentials of life. The refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed – all have been excluded, to different degrees, from the fraternity of the social sphere, appeal to the safety net of the nation-state and recourse to international law. They have been outlawed, so to speak, placed beyond recourse to law and yet still in a precarious relationship to law itself. Although there is a significant degree of familiarity to be found in these sentiments, there is an increasingly notable move both in the political sciences and in cultural studies to view such subject positions not as the exception to modernity but its exemplification. Which brings us to a far more radical proposal: what if the fact of discrimination, in all its injustice and strategic forms of exclusion, is the point at which we find not so much an imperfect modern subject – a subject existing in a ‘sub-modern’ phase that has yet to realise its potential – as we do the exemplary modern subject? What if the refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed are not only constitutive of modernity but its emblematic subjects?
Shonibare employs a wide range of media – sculpture, painting, photography, video and installation pieces – to explore matters of race, class, cultural identity, and history. The artist is best-known for his use of a colourful batik fabric, which, though labeled as ‘African’, actually originates in Indonesia and was introduced to Africa by British manufacturers via Dutch colonisers in the nineteenth century. Incorporating the fabric into Victorian dresses, covering sculptures of alien figures with it or stretching it onto canvases, Shonibare uses the fabric as a metaphor to address issues of origin and authenticity.Published as a companion to Shonibare’s first retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, this survey explores all aspects of Shonibare’s work, offering a fully comprehensive portrait of his projects. Whether he is lampooning Victorian propriety or commenting on the latent ambiguities of the term ‘alien’, Shonibare makes art that challenges straightforward interpretations. Essays by Rachel Kent and Robert Hobbs, together with a generous selection of colour illustrations explore this talented young artist’s work.
Following on from the faddishness surrounding the critical uses and abuses of the term ‘postmodern’ in the 1980s and 1990s, a singular and somewhat disconcerting question came to light, one less involved with the apparent ‘post’ of modernity as it was with finding out whether we were indeed modern or, perhaps more gnomically, whether we were even premodern. A significant part of this project found purchase by enquiring into that which modernity had elided along the way, namely, the disavowed alter-modernities that consistently threatened to usurp any univocal global claim to postmodernity. It was with these and other issues in mind that Manifesta 7, with a firm eye on the so-called ‘residues’ of modernity, set out its latest curatorial stall. Taking place over four different locations, all in the shadow of the South Tyrol Dolomites in Northern Italy, and employing three curatorial teams (made up, in turn, of six curators), Manifesta 7 included over 200 artists and collaborators, not to mention 100 off-site projects. It was, in fine, ambitious. Travelling north to south, the first venue on the itinerary was Fortezza, an impressive fort which is also known locally as Franzensfeste, the latter being its original Austrian name. Since its completion in 1838, the only forces to have breached its defences are a road, two railway lines and a motorway. There is certainly a moral to be had in this tale and the curators, all three groups in this instance, set out to exploit it: a fort that had never been overrun subsequently becoming a white elephant of sorts and eventually a venue for an international exhibition of contemporary art – that had to be worth a curatorial gambit or two. However, and despite the size and the uniqueness of the location and its legacy, this section of Manifesta, entitled ‘Scenarios’, was the least interesting, and not only because there was so little to actually see. (more…)
The aesthetic criteria used to interpret art as a practice have changed radically since the 1960s. To note as much is to observe a truism: the idea (or should that be the ideal) of a universalist aesthetic point of reference, or even the notion of aesthetics as a nominal interpretive baseline, has been discursively displaced by identitarian, theoretical, political, economic, ethical and social interventions. And yet aesthetics as a topic, far from fading into a minor role, has become something of a notional cornerstone in recent discussions about contemporary art. Putting to one side the pre-eminence of performance and installation art in debates about aesthetic form, one of the more prominent statements on the matter has come from Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential volume Relational Aesthetics (2002), a book that has attracted much by way of both criticism and support. Stemming from essays published from 1995 onwards in Documents sur l’art – a journal jointly edited by Bourriaud and Eric Troncy – and in part from the 1996 show ‘Traffic’, curated by Bourriaud for CAPC Bordeaux, Relational Aesthetics was first published in France in 1998 before being published in English in 2002. For a relatively short series of essays the book has attracted a considerable amount of interest; a consequence, no doubt, of Bourriaud’s rather grand claim that he has not only isolated a new aesthetic ‘movement’ in contemporary art (albeit one that is formally diverse and based on loose rather than close associations), but also a critical language within which to discuss this development. (more…)