Political Art

Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios (2001)
Doris Salcedo, Atribiliarios (2001)
My current writing project is 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. 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.

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 is in the final stages; it is currently under review, and I expect I will have to make changes before it goes to press.

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. I am still working on this volume, but it is close to a finish draft.