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. Art, that is, which contributes to turning the tables on the current vague of horror that demonstrates, as Adorno wrote, that the second world war has never been really closed.
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.
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.
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.
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, which I have discussed in my book Of What One Cannot Speak.
This essay will not be a monograph. It will be part of a catalogue. Another writer, David Rhodes, will discuss the sculptures - he is himself also an artist - and 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 image - past, present and 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, an in-depth study that no exhibition catalogue can really be. The still below is from the shadow play Remembering Mad Meg.
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 still from a work that has special significance for me, Remembering Mad Meg. Its title and the inspirational painting it recalls is also the point of beginning of our project A Long History of Madness. The connection between violence and the madness that results from it, and the silence it imposes, is a deep theme Malani’s work and my own have in common.
Below is an 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. I am now in the phase of obsessively picking up catalogues of her work whenever I have a minute. The problem is that her work with its layering lends itself only meagerly for reproduction in books.
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. And then there is all the scholarship on cultural memory, to which I have contributed myself. But most importantly, Malani and I find ourselves on the same battleground against violence that specifically targets women. Malani is one of a handful of artists of a world-wide reputation who keeps that focus alive. In the current climate of violence, this is a small but significant contribution to an attempt to turn the tables.