Revolution on display
There are more and more exhibitions of protest art that play an interesting role in this complex relationship between art and activism. Throughout the last year I saw such exhibitions in Buenos Aires in one of the Centros Culturales, at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, at documenta 15 in Kassel, and at Kling&Bang gallery in Reykjavik. They again and again sparked my thinking on the effects of the institutional framework of an art or cultural institution when protest artifacts are displayed arranged by curators that generate histories of protest art and fitting narratives. I observed that exhibitions in such institutional settings fulfill different functions that are most importantly determined by whether the exhibition results in a process of commodifying aestheticization and elimination of context or if it succeeds to not present artifacts as art objects but as traces of complex social processes of communication and organization.
The exhibition “19y20. Archives, works, and actions that disrupted the visual narrative of the 2001 crisis” that I saw in the beginning of the year in Buenos Aires, is an example of a display of protest art where the exhibition becomes a potent source for remembering the outburst of creativity and resistance in 2001 in Argentina. It did not intend to create an art historical narrative instead the exhibition is an affective knowledge reservoir that addresses the people of Argentina and the international solidarity movement at the time. The exhibition is designed in a way so that it allows you to learn about how the state crisis and respective artistic activism unfolded. Furthermore, it is situated in ‘El Conti’, a public cultural centre dedicated to public policies of memory, truth, and justice, named after the writer Heraldo Conti, who disappeared in 1976 at the beginning of the military dictatorship. The exhibition was accompanied by film screenings, group discussions and several guided tours and talks by artists and activists who were active during the years before and after 2001. In my impression this exhibition did not centre the aesthetic quality of the artifacts but rather conveyed the complex entanglements of artistic practice, protest, and collective resistance. But it was also an occasion to realize that neoliberal capitalism and corruption continue to create precarity and instability, and it painfully reveals that the economic crisis has become a normalized permanent condition.
Beyond this exhibition, there is a range of protest art exhibitions that in my view are rather problematic due to their decontextualization and focus on aesthetic qualities. An ambivalent one is the exhibition, ‘Graphic turn. Like the Ivy on a Wall’ at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Graphic Turn. Like the Ivy on a Wall is the outcome of a long collective research process conducted by the Southern Conceptualisms Network, in collaboration with the Museo Reina Sofía. The exhibition puts forward a survey of graphic art initiatives which have, from the 1960s to the present day, confronted urgent, politically oppressive contexts in Latin America, articulating strategies of transformation and resistance that radically changed approaches and actions and the way in which they established intersubjective links, built communities, and even circulated graphic supports.
The exhibition creates a positively overwhelming visual opulence that, like to the exhibition in Buenos Aires, transmits the force of these diverse forms of art-activist expression. However, it does not manage to account for the complexity of the political and social struggles that these graphic artifacts emerged from – which turns them into aesthetic surfaces. But it is precisely their respective contexts that is an inherent part of their creation. I said that this is an ambivalent example because this rather conservative exhibition did fulfill the productive function of introducing these impressive forms of art activism to a broader audience and there were also efforts to understand this as a toolbox for activism that could be used in the local communities of Madrid. What prevails, however, is that in this prestigious art institution Museo Reina Sofia these artifacts become art objects that apparently must speak for themselves. The lack of some form of contextualization like explanatory texts that account for the respective histories and local specificities makes this exhibition visit a quite superficial experience. This decontextualization is surprising because it was a South American research collective that carried out the research process and design of the exhibition.
Yet another example is the exhibition ‘Velvet Terrorism. Pussy Riot’s Russia’ at Kling&Bang Gallery in Reykjavik, Iceland – the first overview of the feminist political-art collective.
The exhibition is created with Pussy Riot member Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and exhibits documentations of the activists’ actions from the beginning of their movement in 2011 to the current day. Showing the performances in context – prelude, action, reaction – the exhibition will shed light on the oppression and the growing brutality of the dictatorship in Russia for the last ten years.
The effect that this exhibition had on me was a feeling of deep admiration for the courage of these women. Their actions and performances are bold, radical, and creative but it is much more the risk that they are taking, and their devotion to change, that is the actual art. Certainly these aspects are not separate from each other, but the context of an art gallery creates this overly dominant focus on the aesthetic dimension. So, I am grappling with these questions, how to rethink exhibiting protest art that allows the audience to engage differently with the respective struggles that go beyond looking at artifacts? What are modalities of creating affective ecologies? In the sense of creating an emotional and affective response to activism, the Pussy Riot exhibition was quite powerful, but its situatedness in a fancy gallery space just above of Ólafur Ellíason’s atelier and another contemporary art exhibition, also evoked, in its paradox proximity to the commodified art world, mixed feelings. Pussy Riot’s deeply political activism is somehow disarmed by the white cube. On the one hand it is important to create awareness and attention outside of Russia for Pussy Riot, on the other hand who goes to a gallery such as Kling&Bang? A group of people with affinity to contemporary art, but Pussy Riot’s work deserves and needs a much broader audience.