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Talkin’ Loud and Saying Not That Much

Mika Hannula (4/2015)

Mika Hannula analyses the problems and opportunities of political and contemporary art, taking an international group exhibition “Demonstrating Minds – Disagreements in Contemporary Art” at Kiasma as an example.


Artists: Kader Attia, Sylvie Blocher, Tanja Boukal, Vadim Fishkin, Rainer Ganahl, Lise Harlev, Clara Ianni, Amal Kenawy, Cristina Lucas, Goshka Macuga, Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado, Jonathan Meese, Tom Molloy, Tanja Muravskaja, R.E.P. Revolutionary Experimental Space, Mika Rottenberg, Jari Silomäki, Mladen Stilinović, Suohpanterror
Curators: Marja Sakari, Kati Kivinen, Patrik Nyberg, Jari-Pekka Vanhala.

It is a fact that the world is changing. What was once granted and clear is now on the move, very insecure and unstable. Things are not what or how they used to be. But how do we react to the vast number of opportunities and challenges? And what kind of role, if any, can contemporary art play in this confrontation with a reality that escapes our grasp and our attempts to define it?

Not so surprisingly, many institutions near and far have been trying to make sense of the alterations in the forms of navigation and negotiation in regard to who we are, where we are from and what we are supposed to do now and here. And it is also not so surprising that these trials and attempts at making sense of what seems to evade our understanding, are by nature truly and duly inter-disciplinary and also tentative. At Kiasma, one project that sets out to make sense of this is called "Demonstrating Minds". It brings together a group of artists that do not do much more together than simply being part of this group effort, and one way or another, claim or are seen to be dealing with what can labelled as the political, as in the opening up of the scope of politics from its structures and party organizations towards individual takes and stakes.

What, nevertheless, does indeed connect all the artists and their works is how their try-outs vehemently and without much grace underline the very difficulty of: a) dealing with a reality that is fast, furious and tumultuous; b) trying to relate to something that is happening somewhere out there and brought close by the flatness of the fast-forward access to information, and not, in comparison to and as a counter-attack of the day-to-day experience of slowness and sweatiness, and; c) the very tiresome attitude of knowing a priori who is good and who is bad and concentrating on the good fellows, and finally; d) the difference and distance between being a tourist or a fellow traveller, or in another vernacular, the difference and distortion between following the rules of a spectacle, and on the contrary, moving towards what is called an honest dilemma.

This is an argument as in an essay that is divided into two sections. The first takes up three distinct works in the exhibition and analyses them under the heading FAIL. The second part changes direction and deals with two examples, which are actually able to provide an alternative perspective and even add up to something new as in the title SAYING SOMETHING. Needless to say, but it's worth emphasizing, these interpretations are personal, and yes, they are not innocent but let's hope they are argued for in the spirit of the give-and-take interaction of a loving conflict.


FAIL, part I

What could possibly be the biggest type of failure in an enterprise like this? Options for the brevity or depth of a failure are clearly numerous, not to say also indefinite, but this question in particular bounces back to what is promised in comparison to what is delivered. To paraphrase this with the help of a writer that is somehow strangely and often awkwardly instrumentalized in many of the works in the exhibition, the one and only Karl Marx: what once was a tragedy, when repeated becomes a farce.

Because this is what it is: a bloody cliché and a boring farce what Cristina Lucas with her work "La liberté raisonnée" (Rational Freedom, 2009) is doing and making. The background is easily described. Lucas takes as a focus the classic example of a political artwork, the painting "La Liberté guidant le peuple" (Liberty Leading the People) by Eugène Delacroix in 1830. Then, well, I am not making this up, within 4 minutes and 29 seconds she invents a beginning and an end to the very site that the original painting proposes – therefore bringing up the notions of liberty, fraternity and equality as still unsolved concepts and constellations.

But what exactly is Lucas doing? Is she trying to make the classical painting come alive with the help of the contemporary means of moving images, and all the painstakingly acted up scenes with fireworks and wonderful action within which there has not been saved a single euro in paramounting the imagined reality into the scene? If yes, why would she do it? The painting does not need to be saved or brought to this new millennium with a new medium and technology. It is safe and sound as what it is, waiting where it is to be seen and to be felt. It does not require a re-make.

Perhaps Lucas is after a re-enactment? But a re-enactment of what? How, and to whom and with what connection to the past, the present and the future of the site and situation of the original position? What on earth can be interesting in a professionally and well re-enacted painting that is a derivate and a farce of the original? This is and will always be as interesting as the act of explaining the joke in a site where there is not a single meaningful happening.


FAIL, part II

Tanja Boukal is present in the exhibition with one theme and four works, all combining the same ethos and pathos with them. The problem here is not so obvious as in the above-analysed example, where the move from one medium to another was a priori a dead-end. With Boukal, the focus is on the vast and, without a shadow of a doubt, huge problem of the Spanish enclave on the north coast of Africa called Melilla. It has become one of the burning and festering symbols, and daily realities stemming from the mess and the gap between the refugees and the EU territory with daily repercussions of hopelessness and violence.

Melilla is nowadays both a gateway and a dream trashed with an unflinching border. This is the site and situation of almost unlimited sadness and misery. Boukal's strategy to deal with this mess is to transform and translate it into a completely new form. This takes shape in the medium of, for example, needlepoint works and prints on canvas, hand-knitted cashmere plaid or woven textile panels – all taking their images from the Melilla site, ranging from official police photographs of the ways and means that people have tried to get over the fence, connecting this with photographs of the very fence made by the artist and combining them with images chosen by the refugees in a collaborative workshop provided for them by the artist.

So far, very good. The artist is not just dealing with an issue out there far away with no hands-on experience. The artist has proven how she has invested time and energy in the problem, getting attached to its origin, and its scope of complexities. But does it work? The somewhat brutal thing is to ask: can she transmit something more from her actions than we gain from the daily news and reportages?

Sadly, the expectations are not met. Strangely enough, with all her hands-on material, she could not resist the opportunity of taking up of yet another cliché. This time, the cliché at work, the cliché re-produced is the ode "An die Freude" (To Joy, 1785), known as the libretto of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (1824), with the text going back to Friedrich Schiller. An excerpt of this text is here hand-knitted into a shawl that is show in the exhibition. Like the other objects, not perhaps of desire, but objects that demonstrate a feel for domesticity and shout for not being used so often in their current context, this object alters the perspective and changes the flavour and sensitivity. But, unfortunately, it does not add up to more than is already there. To take the "Ode to Joy" as an example of how the EU policy fails, to connect the dots between those who are and those who are not responsible, is a failure. There is too much wishful thinking and even more cutting corners between different spheres of conscious histories.

For some reason, Boukal cuts the corners and cannot resist the feel-good sentiment of pointing the finger: here, we got the good ones, the refugees who suffer, and there, as an abstract notion of EU policy, are the bad ones, who do not understand the problem. The point is not to ask: so what? The point is to underline that yes, the required and necessary elements are indeed there, but it is not yet enough. Choosing the right side and the right materials is not yet sufficient substance and insight for a proper confrontation with the political. It needs more, much more. It needs a personal view and vision that connects the specific with the general. To realize that this is a lot to ask for, is the tantalizing point of the inherent difficulty of the political and contemporary art. And, yes, while at it, please try harder, and please, please do anything, try anything, but please do not blame Beethoven for the boogie.


FAIL, part III

This much more is indeed found in the installation by Jonathan Meese. But quite predictably, it is "more" as in the type of quantity, not the quality. The difference between the abovementioned Boukal and Meese is striking. While the former is trying to be a politically active artist, and has a convincing record for it, the latter is content at playing the part of the crazy and weird provocateur with no interest at all in meddling with any aching contemporary political site or issue.

The focus of Meese is now as ever history and coming to terms with the past in his home country of Germany. This is, of course, a past, especially how that past is dealt with or refused to be dealt with in movies, magazines and art, that is almost kind of a machine that never stops producing new material that is often enough painstakingly moralistic. There is, as it were, limitless material for Meese to use and abuse while he laughs out loudly at the good citizens who care and want to do the right thing. This time, Meese starts with a title that could almost be funny if it was not trying way too hard to be so über-cool: "HIPPOTHALAMUS FANCY'S PHARA(O)BYSSOZ (WALK LIKE A MEESYPTION, ADAGOO MI ON)" (2015).

The problem is that even if at the very beginning, let's say 15 years ago, Meese's performative painting installation did manage to provoke, and to provoke the neat and nicely categorized symbolic order, he has managed to flatten this strategy into a sad one-trick pony. Having seen these demonstrations of the pre-determined provocation through the years at least a dozen times, what strikes me as perhaps the strangest notion is how this endless repetition of more and more of the same could be interesting and fun? Well, of course, it is a business, and a serious business that he surely does attend to with all the energy at hand that is a somewhat beautiful reminder of a bank manager, not the anarchist he still pictures himself to be.

But the main thing is that the resulting contemporary art is boring. Just plain bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-boring. A stale and static spectacle that does not deliver what it promises. It is just empty noise with an ugly background and a guy who needs both a shave and a haircut – and well, while at it, for a bit of human kindness, also throw in some new clean clothes.



Before taking up the first of the two examples under the title of SAYING SOMETHING, let me re-track the reasons for the seemingly harsh divisions and loud interpretations of what is a yes and what is a no.

It goes without saying that in the contemporary climate of dealing with politics from the side of the good people, we are not that used to clearly articulated opinions, sentences and direct words. Somehow, that kind of language belongs to the side of the bad people, the one's with less vision and even less education and almost no sensibility of the differences between cultures, sexes and let's say religious views. But what is wrong with the direct response, especially when the subject and the focus of these works deliberately claims to be political in the sense of open quarrels and discussions?

The point here is not to solve the mystery, not to stop the train of thought but to give that needed and necessary food for thought by actually and openly taking sides and not seeking to hide behind a pre-paid comfort-zone of political go-go correctness. It all reminds us of the words sung by the one and only real deal social-political activist of his very own time, a man called James Brown – it was the end of the 1960s when James got a bit bored of his fellow Afro-American citizens who were so pleased and so content at screaming all the right words but hardly ever following them up with deeds. It is still so very acute and up to date, this cry for balance when singing: "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing."

This said, times up – and it's time to move to the first example. This is Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado's work called "The Century" (2011), which gives us a video projection that was both installed and positioned adequately within the whole exhibition. What we see is a glimpse of the results of the surrounding set-up and the action. We see a sort of a relay of a consequence, sort of the after-thought of what happens and what might go wrong and fly around when things get out of order and the heat is on.

The video camera is not moving. What is moving is the stuff that is thrown and trashed into the evident non-site, a kind of an alley or empty lot, that becomes a place not through selection but through just accidentally being there. There is smoke, there are noises – something gets broken with a brutally effective soundscape, while the other elements of stuff leave less dramatic sound traces.

Here, we get the scene and we get the context, but we are not tortured with the actual image of the demonstration or the riot. This is not a document. We get something different, we get an invitation to think-with and to feel-with. The absurdity of the sequence of not showing the reason for the act, but us being confronted with the part that kind of loses (and at the same time, gains a new type of interpretation) its meaning when the first part is cut out. And yes, herein lies the potential of a work like this: it manages to escape the burden of the actual, the lure of the real, and to take those symbols of violence and symbols of demonstration to an abstract level that opens the door to thinking openly instead of closing it with already known facts and attitudes. This both allows and forces us as participants to connect the dots between the particular and the common, the personal and the public.



Cinthia Marcelle & Tiago Mata Machado
The Century
video, 9'37''
Courtesy of the artists and Galeria Vermelho




When finishing off the travels with the travails of the potential saving or failures of the political acts of contemporary art, we end up with a work that in the first instance seems everything but political. This is the five piece sculptural work by Kader Attia called "Culture, Another Nature Repaired" (2015). The title of the work might leave something to be desired, but the work itself has the intensity and integrity so often missed in such group engagements like this.

The work takes its direction from seriously disfigured veterans of the First World War. Attia recalls how not so small a number of these soldiers were from existing colonies, fighting for rights they did not have. There is the backdrop of the histories of colonialism that is then brought to this day with the collaboration with Senegalese and Cameroonian artisans in crafting these silent but very loud figures, these heads on a pedestal.

These terrible disfigured and over-proportioned heads are indeed striking. They are awesome in their rigid stillness, their proud silence that breeds an echo, which does not point a finger, does not propose a cure, but instead, make us see and feel the link between the abstract overall and the single body-bound individual suffering. Nothing more, nothing less. It is adequate, it is credible, substantial and highly political. These sculptures have a sort of a sensitive and sentimental background, are kind of partners in crime. These are two works that are made with yarn on canvas, a minimalist painting with stiches on it. These small but effective gestures, these laconic interventions into the canvas that don't scream "Murder!", they do not play the game of running after the spectacle. They stand tall and proud, with their own characteristic solemnity and sobriety. It is a remarkable group of works that allows us to be with and to think with – and to engage ourselves, one-to-one. Without any moralistic ambition of pointing the finger or celebration of feel-goodism, with the sense and sensibility of loss and trauma.


Mika Hannula is a writer, curator, teacher and art critic who lives and works in Berlin.


Quote corner:
"For at least the last two decades, I have both thought to myself and had to answer questions about whether art can be used to change the world. Sometimes I believe it can, sometimes I do not. My faith in the power of pictures created in an artistic context to influence society has begun to waiver for several reasons. One of these, of course, is that the world does not seem to be changing for the better. [---] The stereo video installation "Three Sisters" (2015) by Tanja Muravskaja, who has addressed nationalism in many of her works, puts high demands on the viewer. Understanding the two women talking over one another is already difficult in itself, but as the work is, furthermore, located in the public space within a field of interference generated by other viewers and artworks, a complete reception of it is impossible. Until you realise that that is how it is meant to be. Speaking in the videos are Muravskaja's nieces – the film maker herself is the third "sister". As children, they used to call themselves sisters, stressing the closeness they felt to each other. Now the world and especially the events in Ukraine have thrown them apart: one lives and works in Estonia, another is a Maidan activist who has remained in Ukraine and the third has moved to Russia. Defining their ethnic identity has become complicated for all three; their closeness to each other is also at stake. All live in spheres of influence of different nationalistically defined forces. Arguments fail to persuade. Soon I found myself contemplating my own relationship with Estonia. I have many Estonian friends and acquaintances with whom I often joke about the exaggerated nationalism of Estonians. The upshot these days is that I am often seen as a communist, which however, I have never been. Nevertheless, I am sometimes branded with this label in Estonia and have to wear it on my shoulder. This makes it difficult to advance analytical discussion. And yet, one has to do it, amidst all the noise and disinformation. Perhaps one fine day mutual understanding will be reached."

Otso Kantokorpi, Kunsti maine jõud. – Sirp 23. X 2015.

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