Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Without reality: There is no utopia

Without reality there is no utopia in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts attempts to compile a collection of artworks that "focus on political systems, their temporal nature, and the fragility of democratice ideals".
The show features a varied range of meiums, artists and messages, tied together by a rather tenuous claim to the political. I found the scope to be too broad, encompasing too many voices and losing its stated purpose amidst the chatter of so many voices of protest, freedom and revolution.

The exhibition takes its premise from the philosophical conceptions of Jean Baudrillard and Andreas HuyssenAccording to Baudrillard, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” he is suggesting we can no longer distinguish between nature and artifice.(Full text here) (artists are claiming to break through this barrier ??)
Huyssen is then brought in to conclude that since the real has been lost and supplanted by the simulacrum, utopia can no longer exist, since it is intricately related to the superation and improvement of reality.  The disappearance of the real thus results in the disappearance of the utopian. This is why, according the curators of the exhibition, it is "urgent and necessary to reset the real, to return to reality, or, at least, to its analysis, in order to attempt to apprehend a new utopian thought. the situation demands it". I find several problems with this statement, besides to over enthusiastic use of commas. Although not being all that well versed in Huyssen's theories I am a little shy to criticize, it does seem to be rather a leap to presume that utopia cannot exist without reality- for how then is it supposed to become a reality? Surely the dreamscape of the simulacra make a ripe ground for the introduction of a utopia? Or must utopia always be on the outside, a ghost dogging the edges of the real?
Either way, the exhibition sets up a nice philosophical premise as its introduction that gives the viewer a lot to chew over before the any of the art itself is introduced. Then we come to the problem of how to connect this grandiose concept to tangible works of art. Here the curators insert another conceptual step: they divide the exhibition (and the physical space) into two asymmetric sections. The first is titled: "Description of the Lie", as a prologue to the systems of production of the simulacra of the real. The second section is titled: "Collapses", which is further divided into four collapses; the collapse of communism, the collapse of capitalism, that of democracy and that of the geo-political. This further categorization is defended by another quote from Huyssen "Utopia never dies alone: it drags along its counter-utopia". Thus communism is suggested to have dragged along its counter utopia, capitalism, which in turn involves a geo-political implosion.

With all this complicated conceptual setting up before any artwork is even introduced, I was starting to feel the need for a map to trace the development of these ideas. And as you turn from the descriptive written introduction on the wall, there before you is indeed a map. Perestroika Timeline is a long black banner interrupted by white text and images which cut into the smooth line that circumscribes the gallery walls. The text refers to various incidents in the collapse of communism: the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the soviet union, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Warsaw pact. At the end of the timeline there is a split, between a utopian idealistic possible outcome and the negative damaging reality. Created by Chto Delat? http://www.chtodelat.org/ a loose collective of Russian poets, artists and philosophers, singers, designers and critics, reality is presented as a chronological sequence of events that leads towards a political collapse, and is presented as preventing and obstructing reality. So far, so political.

The rest of the exhibition follows this same vein, works that are engaging with the negative outcomes of specific political regimes, while not actually positing any alternative, escape or even addressing any more pressing questions. Many of the pieced felt like filler, chosen for their mildly anti-capitalist or pro-minority focus, such as Carlos Motta's Ideological Graffiti, which archives the opinions of citizens of 12 Latin American countries focusing on the perception of interventionist policies of the USA.

Another timeline, which was a little more successful as a work of art, was Daniel Garcia Andujar's Postcapital 1989-2001 Which takes imagery from the media and ideological stereotypes and generates a bizzare melding of two extraodinary resonant moments in recent history: the collapse of the Berlin wall the the destruction of the twin towers in 9/11. A digital archive gathered from images on the internet, the piece covers the majority of an entire wall, the shiny colourful images attractive like familiar adverts. It's only on closer inspection that the message is revealed: Che Guevara in an ad for sports shoes, an ad for a men's magazine with an image of the Kennedy assassination, in which Jackie is the one shot and a tagline of "if men are your target make sure you don't miss them".

As described on the project website:
       "Here, Andújar views the developments subsequent to the “fall of the Wall” not as aspects of postcommunism but rather of postcapitalism. Emerging here is the question as to what extent capitalist societies have changed in absence of their erstwhile counterparts and which new walls have been erected through the global politics following events of 1989 and 2001. The triumphal course of capitalism and of the Western democracies has by no means proved to guarantee peace, security, and stability, as the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, or, even more recently, the slumps in the U.S. financial markets have demonstrated. “Postcapital” is an attempt at reading the complex and divergent realities of the twenty-first century by virtue of their forms of representation: the review of an age whose prelude has been pinpointed by Andújar as localized between 1989 and 2001". 

Ignasi Aballi"s Listados (World Map) 2010 takes a less pictorial approach. In a series of frames, the artist lists the names of every country to appear in news headlines in every section of every edition of the spanish daily, El Pais over the course of one year. The result is a printed version of a tag or word cloud, with the size of the font and recurrance of certain names indicating the bias and focus of news media. It is a measurement of the appearance and disappearance of collective or individual presence of countries and events that took place, based on the priorities of newspaper editors. By default this creates hierarchies of visibility of some events over others. Listed alphabetically I found myself wanting to know how the list would appear if ordered chronologically, or if compared to similar listings from other newspapers, both in the same country and in others. 

While Aballi's work raises a complex set of questions about the relationship between media and public interest, other works in the exhibition were more blatantly political, not always to positive effect. 

Oliver Ressler's work contained too much news and not enough art, and the predominance of charts, maps, timelines of political developments and ideologies became tiresome, such as Zeina Maasri's political posters depicting various signs of conflict from Lebanon's Civil War. While visually pleasing, the posters have very little insight besides revealing bias and design strategies for propaganda.  This is symptomatic of the general failing of the exhibition as a whole, the leap between the first and second proposal is not made, the response of the art to the collapse of utopia is a loose collection of political imagery with no message. 

This for me, sums up a major problem with group exhibitions, while the theoretical premise contains an interesting and powerful idea, the actual art fails to measure up, perhaps due to it being a group show, I felt that some of the works were being made to ascribe to a preset concept  in which they did not fit comfortably

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