Recent Work on Political Art

MY ongoing project is the exploration of the way art can be politically effective, not because it is “about’ politics but because it imaginatively explores what the social domain of the political (as articulated by Chantal Mouffe) can offer social reality as alternative modes of being and doing.

My recently completed writing project was a trilogy of three volumes on the question of political art. I seek to understand and advocate art that is political without being about politics. In each volume, one contemporary artist is central in order to examine the question in close dialogue with art of the present. All three artists are strongly committed to deploy space as their medium; one in sculpture, one in video installation, and one in abstract spatial interventions.

In the first volume, I put the work of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo at the heart of the discussion.

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios (2001)
Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios (2001)
Her oeuvre is clearly and explicitly political, although never “loudly” so—never becoming propaganda for a particular cause. Although she has ample cause to make a political statement, Salcedo refrains from narrowing her work down to such statements. If her work is political, it is due to the intensity with which she creates objects in environments that changes our affective relationship to world-political issues such as violence, exclusion, and the ways in which even mourning becomes impossible. Even when a singular event, such as a political murder, inspires one of her works, Salcedo will never accept nor address the narrow interpretation of such an occurrence. This book has just appeared in Spanish.

Nor can the state of permanent civil war in Colombia be construed as an excuse to provincialize her art, in an anxious attempt to confine the horror to an area that then can be left to its own devices. Paradoxically, it is the way Salcedo makes art objects out of used objects that forbids such an escapist interpretation. The used furniture she transforms and reworks into sculptures are traces, indexes of lives destroyed. The materiality of those lives creates spaces from which no one can easily withdraw. In the absence of figurative representation, it is the lines from one area of horror to another that together form a web spun around the viewing subject. This book has already been published.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Where is Where? (2008), installation view
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Where is Where? (2008), installation view
In the second volume, in contrast, figuration is central. Here, Finnish cinematographer Eija-Liisa Ahtila is the artist whose work I explore to deepen our understanding of figurative art. Nothing is easier than resorting to figurative art to depict political causes, and many have done so, sometimes to great effect. One only needs to recall Goya and his horror-impregnated Los desastres de la guerra (1810–15) to realize the possibilities. In the contemporary world, however, too many images of horror make horror invisible; too frequent depictions of it make us impermeable to empathy with the experience of horror, or other politics-driven affects. Excess “naturalizes” horror and obscures the mechanisms of that process. And as Adorno famously wrote after the Second World War, art “after” horror risks turning horror into pleasurable experience.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, still from Where is Where? (2008)
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, still from Where is Where? (2008)
This makes the brief of art to achieve political impact nearly impossible. I chose Ahtila, like Salcedo before her, because of the restraint with which she manages to move us deeply on a political level without ever falling into propaganda. Her oeuvre demonstrates that the political impact of art is not dependent on political statements, but, on the contrary, must stay away from the rhetoric of politics. To put it bluntly: political of art must stay aloof of politics in order to be effective. Although Ahtila’s work invariably touches us with issues that have political ramifications—such as colonialism, gender politics, and the streamlining of the imagination—even in the face of the most blatantly political issues, she will not pronounce. This volume appeared in 2013.

Salcedo’s art is insistently material. Ahtila’s work is lucidly and limpidly figurative. It is why we are drawn into it, and attune to its subliminal messages, or rather, its affective impact. To avoid a one-to-one relationship between figuration and political impact I have limited the corpus for my analysis of Ahtila’s work to her video installations. This art form is not simply figurative: as soon as it consists of more than one channel, it cannot even be seen in its totality. But so much of modern and contemporary art is not figurative in the traditional sense, a sense that usually equates it with representation. Hence, it cannot even be suspected of such propagandistic endeavors as Ahtila so carefully avoids. It is my contention that art as such can be political. Whatever the forms it takes, whatever the discourse surrounding it, or within which it intervenes, art can have a social impact that answers to the political.

Ann Veronica Janssens, Horror Vacui (1999)
Ann Veronica Janssens, Horror Vacui (1999)
To make that case, I have selected for the third volume art that is without figuration and without objects; almost without materiality. What is left corresponds to Valéry’s vision of works of art: “I have the habit or mania of appreciating works only as actions” (222). No body of art is more fit to explore this than one that is exclusively “abstract” in the sense of non-representational, yet “concrete” in its strong appeal to viewer participation as well as its insistence of the materiality of even the most fugitive of things, light; and one that is at the same time “political.” This is the case of Ann Veronica Janssens. The two characterizations come together in “actions” in that, as I wrote in the prologue: “The world as we knew it, art as we knew it, the limits and concepts and distinctions by which we lived: all are transformed by the brief sensation of losing clarity.”

Ann Veronica Janssens, medium pink / turquoise (2007), acquired by the Belgian Senate in 2010
Ann Veronica Janssens, medium pink / turquoise (2007), acquired by the Belgian Senate in 2010
The brief of this volume is to demonstrate the political value of that loss. I explore what makes us lose that clarity, what this loss entails, and how that helps us to live in the political, with all the tensions and contradictions that environment holds. I argue that this art proposes performing in the sense of playing (as in ludic) as its task, which in turn overdetermines its eminent suitability to stay away from propagandistic notions of political art, with its self-righteous rhetoric and empty, condescending commiseration. From the verb “acting,” then, the meaning of play must not be excised from the performativity, lest the serious impact of art become invisible. This volume also appeared in 2013.

New Projects on Political Art

Clearly, these three books have not at all exhausted the subject. Continuing this search for effective political art I am currently exploring the work of two other artists, from the same angle. One is Polish artist Agnieszka Kalinowska. I first encountered her work when we were in Lodz for the installation of our first Madame B exhibition. I was asked to give a lecture at the Muzeum Sztuki. During my search of the museum’s holdings I found Kalinowska’s video Silencer from 2013. Watching it I realized how profoundly political a video can be without addressing anything specifically political at all. It stages estrangement, the just-not-fitting-in of young people who are out of place in the chic restaurant where they meet up. From that moment of discovery on, I have been looking more into her work, much of which addresses issues of migrations and refuge. This recent sculpture is a good example.

What is so strong about her sculptural work is the use of materials always fitting the subject of the work quite precisely. Another great force of her work comes from her own commitment, sometimes expressed in actual participation in the imaginary scenes through which she explores in video the social and individual behavior and potential, existence and foreclosure of people. Her work demonstrates the enormous potential of art to explore the social world and invent solutions to political problems. I am currently writing a long catalogue essay on Kalinowska’s work. Central in that essay will be her sculpture and video installation Draughty House. Here is a still from that work. The sculpture titled The Fence will be shown along with the video. The combinations of sculpture and video make her also a brilliant installation artist.

I am eagerly awaiting more news on the work Kalinowska is producing right now for the exhibition in Gdansk, for which the catalogue is being planned. I intend to continue my reflection on the inherent moving quality of images, in the triple sense of movement in the image, movement of the spectator in the gallery space, and emotional, affective movement. I also seek to connect Kalinowska’s work with some international artists who also work with that triple movement. I was inspired by the exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where I realized how his search for abstraction and for the expression of movement join forces, in his most famous Nu descendant d’un escalier from 21913, for example. I also connect her working with thresholds as dubious boundaries - both un-just and permeable - with Salcedo’s work Neither.
This essay will not be a monograph. It will be part of a catalogue. Another writer will discuss the sculptures, I will (try to) limit myself to the videos. But it is becoming a substantial essay that may, one day, lead to a larger writing project. For, my fascination with Kalinowska’s work is enduring.

The other artist on whose work I plan to write a book is Indian artist Nalini Malani. I had encountered her shadow play work at the Centre Pompidou, in the exhibition Paris-Delhi-Bombay in 2011. Images like shadows, projected on semi-translucent cylinders that turn, so that the shadows end up enlarged on the walls, and moving. The result is an extremely powerful deployment of the idea of the (multiply) moving imahe - past, resent and perhaps future. When I met the artist later and conveyed my enthusiasm for the shadow plays, the idea began to take shape. I told her these works needed a book.

She agreed. And then, yes, I should have been able to predict this: she asked me to write it. Now, after getting used to the idea of yet another big writing commitment, I can’t help growing more and more eager to do this, whatever other commitments stand in the way. Here is a truncated image from her current exhibition in Delhi, Twice Upon a Time. I will go to see it, study the documentation of the previous two chapters of this three-partite show, talk with the artist, and trust I will be able to at least make a good start soon.

In addition to my passion for the many ways images move, and moving images “theorize” those movements (according to Hubert Damisch’s concept of the “theoretical object”), Malani’s shadow play works will make me delving deeper into the theoretical writings on the specter, initiated by Derrida and to which my friend Esther Peeren recently contributed a wonderful book, The Spectral Metaphor (2014, Palgrave Macmillan). Peeren’s book alerted me to the usefulness of the concept of spectrality as a tool to articulate the interweaving of past and present I have been so interested in ever since Quoting Caravaggio. Malani’s shadows embody that complex and vital relationship. Andreas Huyssen’s book William Kentridge & Nalini Malani: The Shadow Play as Medium of Memory that appeared last year will offer a great starting point as well.

Tables have turned from Nalini Malani on Vimeo.