June 16-August 8, 2009
Vyacheslav Akhunov, KP Brehmer, Shahab Fotouhi, Igor Grubić, Nilbar Güreş, Vlatka Horvat, Jesse Jones, Runo Lagomarsino, Marina Naprushkina, Trevor Paglen, Lisi Raskin, Canan Şenol, Walid Sadek
Curated by What, How & for Whom/WHW
TANAS - Space for Contemporary Turkish Art, Berlin
The exhibition "Red Thread" in Tanas, a space dedicated to the promotion of Turkish art in Berlin, presents artistic positions related to 11th International İstanbul Biennial1, its inception and developing themes. The Biennial focuses on the figure of Bertolt Brecht, not as a simple reference but as a means to examine the actuality of his methods and ideas about political role of the art today. It is therefore pertinent that the Biennial starts from Berlin, the very city of Brecht's famous Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, later called Berliner Ensemble, that for better or worse firmly codified his smooth transformation into a "classic". Berlin is also the biggest Turkish city outside of Turkey, a city formerly divided between East and West, where the fall of the Wall in 1989 signified the beginning of the new era of international political relations (the current "biennialization" of art being one of its symptoms). It is a city burdened with the processes of unification since that time, and as such represents an important example for understanding the debates related to Turkey's (or Croatia's) planned accession to the EU.
Some of the artists included in the "Red Thread" exhibition will be presented in the final exhibition of the Istanbul Biennial, but "Red Thread" is not a preview of the Biennial or a top-ten selection to aid its marketing strategy. Rather, this exhibition seeks to set its own agenda, one that emerged through the process of curatorial research and the series of round table and public lectures organized in Istanbul in 2008 and 2009 under the same title. This "Red Thread" programme in Istanbul included a number of artists, cultural theorists, curators, architects and urbanists, gathering together in an effort to initiate discussions and a critical examination of the social, temporal and spatial limitations of representative "event" culture such as the contemporary art biennial. The loose structure of different formats stretched over time tried not to obsess about the blunt opportunism of urban promoters using art to put themselves on the world map. Instead, the programme joined with the already widespread discontent with a sort of art that is over-determined by a regime of public visibility and discussed the transformation of the productive status of artists in the context of a "biennalization" of the art sphere.
Our curatorial researches for the biennial were targeted at the non-central zones of the European modernist project, in places that constantly reconfigure their status as semi-peripheries2. This exhibition therefore took shape through the tentative encounters that we had with the lived experiences of multiple, experimental modernisms posited not as examples of "another modernization", but as "integral part of modernization per se"3. This form of understanding the consequences of worldwide modernization is related to the specific pasts of a place, considered as living, productive and open to future developments and critical reworking, as well as still pregnant with all the unrealized possibilities of commitments to experimentation and collectivism that goes well beyond any particular case.
The individual works in "Red Thread" seek to create fragmented narratives dealing with auto-histories, artistic self-positioning, political contexts and ideological conditions, languages of power and moral hypocrisy, visibility and distance, in which regional articulations are inter-related in what Brian Holmes calls "interscale" - the way interconnectedness clashes with different scales, from "the intimate to the global by way of the urban, the national and the regional"4.
In the sunken depths of an abandoned swimming pool, a youth brass band plays the emblematic "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Richard's Strauss, a tune most famously used in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". The video "Zarathustra" by Jesse Jones, an artist based in Dublin, conveys a sense of modernity in general, remaining undecidably placed between a doomed past and a time yet to come.
In a series of collages from 1970s and 1980s, the artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, reworks the experiences of Moscow conceptualism from the 1970s from his base in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan and a model city of Soviet urbanism of the 1960s. His condensed memories of historical experiences and the historical context of Soviet era cast a shadow over the current incapacity of global society to project itself into the future.
In "Presidential Elections", Marina Naprushkina investigates the political landscapes of the countries that became sovereign states after the collapse of the USSR, and underlines the limitations of "democratic choice", by exploring the educational impact of visual interpretations of political and social reality.
The possibility of art as a tool for political action through working out the visual system of mapping and statistics is at the core of KP Brehmer's (1938-1998) artistic investigations. During the 1970s, the artist created a method for critically interpreting contemporary social and political developments by using colour and form in the mediation of statistics, revealing the consequences and failures of political decisions.
Wooden letters saying "If You Don't Know What the South Is, It's Simply Because You Are from the North", a work by Runo Lagomarsino, addresses and implicates the viewer in the role of a double agent, an "objective" observer and an accomplice. It also frames the exhibition in the problematic space between universalism and post-colonial realities, burdened by so-called dichotomy of the local and the global as shaped by a hegemonic geo-political understanding of the world.
The paranoia of power and mechanisms of control in Shahab Fotouhi's video "Pinned Pawn in the Landscape" keep the soldier doing nothing, yet passive-aggressively holding his position against any discernible reason. The action has nothing in particular to do with Iran, yet suggests that there, as everywhere, such tensions are apparent. The invisible threat that the soldier faces conveys the uneasiness equally fitting to the effect of the works by Trevor Paglen, in which the "imaginary enemy" governs the "black world" of state secrets, hidden budgets, covert military bases, and disappeared people, re-ordered by the artist into a peculiar visual, aesthetic and epistemological grammar.
"Red Thread" is constantly concerned with cultural practices that escape the games of representation and deal dialectically with the tensions between the West and the rest. It follows a certain geographical orientation led by the curatorial researches for the 11th International Istanbul Biennial, with a main focus on specific geographical zones such as Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In the exhibition, artistic production is not mistaken for "a densely saturated metonym for politics"5. Rather, the title "Red Thread" refers to a consistent aspiration to imagine in reality the consequences of a new possibility repressed by the dominant state of affairs. This aspiration then serves as the guiding principle that threads and circulates through times and places. The thread may stretch, meander or bifurcate, but it never breaks. The "Red Thread" is a metaphor for invisible but unbroken relations that link up different endeavours and explorations, regardless of their spatio-temporal determinations.
The installation "Learning to See Less. Lebanon, A Protracted Civil-war" by Walid Sadek takes exile as the starting point for dealing with the impossibility of containing and describing the limits of loss, also alluding to that which it is not possible to name. Fears and the ever-present paranoia of Cold War rhetoric in Reagan-era U.S. politics form the background to the Lisi Raskin's investigations into different aspects of land use and its relationship to the architecture of war and nuclear power. In the project "East Side Story" by Igor Grubić, dancers re-enact the recent violence against Gay Pride celebrations in Zagreb and Belgrade. The violence against sexual minorities in the ex-Yugoslav context becomes a substitute for violence against ethnical minorities.
The forceful everyday enforcement of femininity and its request for well-mannered adherence to a set of structured behavioural rules and beautification procedures occupy the frame in the collages of Nilbar Güreş, while the demonstration of the role of a woman shaped by the strict statements of sins and shame, is the point of departure for the work "Nisai" by Canan Şenol, whose book consists of miniatures and calligraphy that all refer to statements in Koran under the title "Nisa". Vlatka Horvat's collages and objects test various reorganizations of physical and social space and the body structured as abstract patterns. All these works, while not without allusions to territorial politics, comment on the body subjected to disciplinary regimes and refuse to be anchored by an imposed identity or exhausted by the hegemonic idea of "particularity".
In its timing and presentations, the exhibition "Red Thread" can be understood as a prologue to the 11th International Istanbul Biennial. The form of a prologue as theatrical convention of introduction began in early Greek drama and is invoked here in part as a pun related to the Biennial title and its investments in Brecht's song "What Keeps Mankind Alive". Brecht's concept of theatre and the role of art in emancipatory political transformation, which Alain Badiou analyzes as the figure of Brecht as "German, a theater director, a communist and a contemporary of Nazism", plays a central role both here and later in Istanbul6. As a prologue to the biennial in Istanbul therefore, "Red Thread" sets the central dilemma and the premise of the show to enable the rational judgment of the audience to begin to play its role in the reception of the whole project.
As a metaphor, the concept of the biennial goes back to Benjamin's words that "The most hackneyed communist platitude has more hierarchies of significance than contemporary bourgeois profundity, which only ever signifies apologetics"7, and holds on the belief that history is open, future meanings are not determined in advance, and the present is fundamentally open to the risk of new meaning, even when the immediate social and political conditions prevent its becoming. Against the frustrated impossibility of even a promise of the reconciliation of art and collective social experience, and the ambiguous status of political desire that is easily digested by the market and perfectly suited to the neoliberal regime's demand for aestheticization, "Red Thread" holds on to the idea of artistic production as one potentially privileged way to construct the transmission and formation of cognition. It pleads for the role of art as one of experimental agency and the organization of perception in a society dominated by systematic blindness to anything outside of economic circulation. In keeping with Slavoj Žižek's interpretation of Brecht's prologue, in which "the uncanny effect of Prologue does not hinge on the fact that it "disturbs the stage illusion" but, on the contrary, on the fact that it does NOT disturb it"8, "Red Thread" presents the audience with a situation to be critically observed, not allowing it to forget the conventional format of the exhibition, yet with an awareness of everything it is not doing, containing the traces of what it represses, and thus the possibility of difference. "Beyond that which is authoritatively put in view, there are possibilities of as yet unarticulated motives, actions or judgments".9
1 The 11th Istanbul Biennial (September 12-November 8, 2009) is entitled 'What Keeps Mankind Alive?', which is the English translation of the song 'Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?' from The Threepenny Opera, written in 1928 by Bertolt Brecht, in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann and Kurt Weill. The Threepenny Opera thematises the process of redistribution of ownership within bourgeois society and sheds an unforgiving light onto a variety of elements of capitalist ideology. Brecht's assertion from this play, that 'a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal' is as true as ever, and the correspondences of rapid developments of liberal economy on disintegration of hitherto existing social consensus in 1928 and in present times are striking. The concept of the Biennial proposes not to go back to Brecht as a classic that needs to be rediscovered and shown to new generations, but rather to reflect on latencies of the past in the present and investigate possibilities of art to re-examine old and open new relationships between social engagement and aesthetic gesture.
2 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays by Immanuel Wallerstein, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979
3 Viktor Misiano, 'We and the Others', in "Continuing Dialogues, A Tribute to Igor Zabel", JRP/Ringier, Zurich, 2008, p. 103.
4 Brian Holmes, The Interscale, Art after Neoliberalism, http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2008/10/22/the-interscale/
5 Omnia El Shakry, Dense Objects and Sentient Viewings: Contemporary Art Criticism and the Middle East, in 'What Keeps Mankind Alive', book of the 11 IB, Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture, Istanbul, forthcoming, September 2009
6 Alain Badiou, "The Century", Polity Press: Cambridge/Malden, 2008, p.39
7 Walter Benjamin, Letter, March 7, 1931; published in Briefe (Frankfurt, 1966). Quoted in One-Way Street and Other Writings
8 Slavoj Žižek, The Sex of Orpheus, http://www.lacan.com/zizekopera2.htm
9 Elin Diamond, "Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism", in C. Martin (ed.), 'A Sourcebook Of Feminist Theatre and Performance: On and Beyond the Stage', Routledge, London, 1996.