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Translated by Anna Knight

Introduction

by Julie Portier

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To broach an embarrassing subject, we started by pondering some deliberately tiresome questions:   “What is political art?” or “can art (still) be left wing?” If the title of the fifth thematic dossier of La belle revue has wound up sounding like an advertisement for a service provider, of the kind that flatters the freedom of the customer, among other illusions conveyed by the pathetic images of a “nice” neo-liberalism, its aim is by no means to take things lightly. We have come to observe the ambiguity of the relationships between art and political commitment for which the institutional scene has become the more or less scandalous theatre in recent years. We have not been insensitive to this timetable clash that has seen the consecration of conservative art via major monographic exhibitions in French museums, while we’ve been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of May ‘68. For instance, Zao Wou-Ki at the Musée National d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, followed by César at the Musée National d'Art Moderne then, closer to home and no less demonstrative of an anachronistic male creative power, Bernar Venet at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon. Concomitantly, the art world’s track record of delayed integration of cultural and gender minorities, at confronting postcolonial problematics, the migrant crisis, at definitively decentring the Western point of view, has been expressed through a multiplication of thematic exhibitions and cultural programming whose systematic nature has become suspect, or even consensual. Contemporary art’s complex with respect to its political conscience seems to have been aggravated to the point of asymmetry not only between the discourses and the facts, but, more than that, between the political enunciation and its enunciator, who is positioned beyond criticism. In an article that took stock of the way in which the big international events allow us to think about the role of art, Elitza Dulguerova ponders the scope and impact of the political texts that make up the Reader1 that serves as the catalogue for documenta 14. She notes the insistence of the artistic director in his introduction to fight “the discursive order and neo-colonial, patriarchal and heteronormative power […] the hegemonic order that supports the neoliberal war machine today.” She notes that “here, the emancipatory project is left in the readers’ hands”, considering with good reason that the networks of contemporary art and its international events are closely linked to the neoliberal economic system.2 The fact remains that the exhibitions of the latest documenta by and large gave the impression to its visitors of having missed the point of the art or of having given them their fill of propositions that took the artists’ messages denouncing various forms of injustice and invisibilisation literally. Meanwhile, in Münster, the library composed of thirty Diaries from associative gardens, available for consultation in the allotments on the outskirts of the city, gave a clearer idea of the way in which the dominant language could be conveyed. The project initiated by Jeremy Deller for Skulptur Projekte under the title Speak To The Earth And I Will Tell You (2007-2017), simply consisted of suggesting to a social group (not identity-based, not directly political) that it take charge of writing its own story, thereby revealing its legitimacy and, almost as an afterthought, the emancipative value of its everyday actions, in which social structures, their ramification, and their development relate to that of plants.

Today, asking questions about politically engaged forms of art and the various ways they’re presented obliges us to brush out the cobwebs of the debate.  This would entail doing away with the lovely turns of phrase that still fall within a mystification of the role of art and artists in society, charging it with being a “rampart against barbarism” or a “tool of emancipation”. Along with the artist Simon Ripoll-Hurier, interviewed by Sophie Lapalu, we distrust the use of the singular in political discourses and we turn our attention to the framework in which they are uttered, where cultural stakeholders maintain their positions at the top of the hierarchy by never-endingly reassuring their financial backers of the fact that art is a practice of public interest. In this context, the evaluation of the effectiveness of art mapping the experiences of revolutionary avant-gardes has had a long enough history. Haven’t we had enough of these conclusions that continue to suggest that the condition for art to recover a critical function and act on the social and political space would be to leave its visible frameworks? These ideas are still emitted from the field of art and can only be accommodated within its defined framework, in such a way that, in our opinion, this polarised vision between art in the singular and its system of production and dissemination stem – beyond coquettish sixty-eighter nostalgia – from apathy. It’s something else to start thinking about the ways in which the frameworks of visibility of art could be profoundly restructured to deconstruct the systems of domination, alienation, and production of inequalities that they maintain while showing artworks on their walls that criticise them. In this vein, art historian Vanina Géré intimates the vital necessity she has felt to displace the contours of her research on the subject of political art and conclude that there are no political artworks per se, or in other words, that there is no autonomy of political art that would allow us to disregard its system of production and dissemination. This structural change is also what artist and activist Po B. K. Lomami has called for, through her involvement in self-managed art centres in Montreal. In her interview with Marie Bechetoille, she provides an edifying testimony of the discriminations observed from within an art scene placed under the banner of openness, plurality, and progressivism. For her, the decorative militancy in which cultural stakeholders wallow all too often is a violence, as is the use of a politicised vocabulary emptied of its content. This could partly explain the trend that can be observed among a new generation of activists to reaffirm their membership to a racial community or a sexual identity, even if it means claiming ownership of it… The maintaining of artists from minorities or extra-Western art scenes within a certain regime of representation of their identity within contemporary art exhibitions is the observation that forms the basis of Maura Reilly’s research. Her book entitled Curatorial Activism: Towards An Ethics Of Curating (Thames & Hudson, 2018) is on display in the bookshop of the Moma PS1 among other books with red covers  – while upstairs, the exhibitions served as counterexamples. In the preface, Lucy Lippard suggests to those curators unable to integrate within their exhibitions a majority share of non-white-male-heterosexual artists for reasons other than the quality of their art, that they simply need to work harder!

“Here is the bad news: political art systematically avoids discussing these  subjects,” says Hito Steyerl in her text entitled “Politics Of Art: Contemporary Art And Transition To Post-Democracy”3 and continues: “even though political art manages to represent so-called local situations from all over the globe, and routinely packages injustice and destitution, the conditions of its own production and display remain pretty much unexplored. One could even say that the politics of art are the blind spot of much contemporary political art.”4 And the artist, with her cutting wit, insists on the fact that art remains a powerful tool of embellishment of devastating capitalism as well as an unstoppable diplomatic weapon (“A country with human rights violations? Bring on the Gehry gallery!”5) According to Hito Steyerl, only this awareness of the politics of art within political art could allow us to overcome a “politics of representation”. At this point, we could’ve mentioned a whole host of foils, among the artworks whose popular success is based on the confusion between political engagement and scandal, which contents itself with aestheticizing the violence of the world while claiming to denounce it, to produce unequivocal symbols that maintain spectators within the passivity of rapture. But let’s abridge: art that stupidifies has no political virtue. By making the case for subtlety versus loud demonstration, for concrete – or even unitary – action within a specific space versus the brandishing of vague guarantees of engagement, could we think of artistic forms whose very production, or part of it, has political and social efficacy while this form would possess more artistic qualities than a banner or a marker of the efficacy of art? In short, an art underpinned by a political conscience (which is the least we can expect from all of the artists who address subjects – even the most formalist – in the contemporary world), linked to activism rather than it being the defined field of this activism?

It is this angle that the work of French artist Jean-Marie Perdrix seems to take, when he created a workshop for production from recycled materials, namely discarded plastic bags, in Burkina Faso. First, the workshop provided the production of sculptures moulded from a totem that had been brought back by a relative on their travels in the African continent. Brought back to Africa, the ritual object made for tourists becomes the matrix of a cluster sculpture. This sculpture, presented in series within the exhibition space, is based both on an animist presence – multiplied like an army – and on the result of a process of production and display that deconstructs north-south and craft-art relationships… Secondly, the economic and social operation of this workshop is reinforced by the production of school desks whose top is made from this material developed for the sculptures. The virtue of this system of production is summed up by the artist in a few statistics: “The project is founded on numerous objectives: the establishment of a workshop with three moulds and ten employees; the manufacturing of 2 000 tables a year; the commercialization of production and the sale of the product to the primary schools of Burkina Faso; the manual collection of 100 tonnes of waste plastic from 20 000 households in the town; the expansion of this collection project to reach a net worth of 10 000 0000 CFA Francs, thereby strengthening the city’s economic situation; the cut in deforestation by 130 hectares per year; and the full provision of equipment for 6 000 primary school pupils and around 100 classrooms.”6 When copies of these desks are exhibited their status is clear, even if their nature is multifarious (artist’s furniture, sculpture, prototype) and their market value in this regard is indexed to the art market, even if the revenue from the sale of these artworks in particular is reinjected into running the workshop. 

Another example of efficacy in art production – giving rise to a politically charged œuvre, without this charge relying on the demonstration of its efficacy – is provided by the film Walled Unwalled (2018) by Beirut-based Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. This body of work also seems to respond to a definition of politics in art formulated by Hito Steyerl on the subject of the documentary, in another text, “The Language of Things”.7 Here, she broaches the critical function of translation. In her view, “politics are played out in the forms in which the translation between the language of things and the language of men takes place.”8 This translation of the “language of things” (meaning all that links individuals to the world, stones, animals, or technological objects) would contain the potential to transform visual and discursive language, based on systems of power. The film by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, shot in a recording studio in the former East Berlin, talks about fortified walls that have been built between borders around the world and whose number has risen, since the year 2000, from fifteen to sixty-three. We see the artist record the soundtrack that explains to us why no walls are currently impermeable, following various technological advances, such as thermal vision technology (use of which has given rise to a legal precedent in the United States) or communication networks. His tale takes a metaphorical turn while he also draws on his research into auditive memory based on a technique of spatialised sound broadcast using technical tools inherent to cinema. This technique was implemented in a series of interviews commissioned by Amnesty International with survivors from the Syrian prison of Saydnaya where 13 000 prisoners had been executed by the regime since 2011. In an interview given within the framework of his exhibition at Chiesenhale in London, the artist thus specifies the relationship between the installation that partly prefigured the film Walled Unwalled and its contribution to the defence of human rights: “If you want a comprehensive account of all that was revealed through those interviews it is all on Amnesty’s website, this exhibition does not seek to tell the whole story of Saydnaya but to act as a space in which key issues and concepts derived from this experience are explored in a way that are not possible in other forums.”9 Here, art remains a space to think about its language, provided that it tells us about the way in which we are connected to the world.







Next —»
Interview with Po B. K. Lomami