H1N1 Surviving

 

Curated by: Guillaume Rouchon

April 29 – May 29 2010

Evelyne Axell (1935-1972, Belgium/France)  Dalia Neis (Germany/Israel)
Alicja Kwade (b.1979, Poland/Germany)  Sasha Rossman (b.1978, United States/Germany)
Babette Mangolte (United States)   Annette Ruenzler (b.1968, Germany)
Nick Mauss (b.1980, United States)  Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973, Poland/France)
Duane Michals (b.1932, United States)  Jordan Wolfson (b.1980, United States)


Looking back at the past decade makes difficult to ignore that art historians and critiques have failed to denominate current art practices, that is, placing them under the umbrellas of homogenous movements while designating individuals as their leaders. For that was precisely the most valuable legacy of influential art writers such as Clement Greenberg and Pierre Restany. While the former was the front man of Abstract Expressionist theory in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the latter was that of Nouveau Realisme theory in the 1970’s. Each proceeded with formulating the characteristics of two respective movements by establishing criteria of eligibility according to intellectual stance and formal expression. 

If the 1990’s knew a few last attempts at defining movements - Orlan stamping her practice “Carnal Art” and French critique Nicolas Bourriaud describing Relational Esthetics as a new theoretical era, time has since shown that the effects were short-lived and failed to constitute ground for current strands of theoretical thinking. While these two distinct efforts were temporarily successful at generating a following and at granting access to stardom to a few artists, they shall not be dissociated from a clear branding effort and an inclination to traditionalism, regardless perhaps of the global cultural context and of whether or not perpetuating such endeavor was still relevant. 

In 2010, in spite of contemporary critiques of all horizons claiming a filiation to modern writings and their authors, intellectual efforts concerned with the arts are failing to be nearly as visionary or federating as in the past. In short, contemporary writers have ceased to emulate the strategies of their predecessors. In that sense, as memorable as Greenberg and Restany remain as per their trans-generational impact, they undoubtedly belong to a genre of critical writers now extinct. 

This conclusion however, only represents a symptom that cannot be understood without looking at the actual basis of art criticism, contemporary art itself. How does one explain, that art produced recently can resist categorizations and theoretical analysis? 

With various degrees of transparency, the artistic production of the second half of the twentieth century has been a witness to general trends in politics, economics and to societal characteristics at large. Daring shameless schematizations, one could posit that in the 1950’s, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism reacted to the birth of mass consumerism, and that the following decade was concerned with revolutionary liberation. In the 1970’s, minimalism, performative practices and installations took stands towards new utopias. In the 1980’s, artists celebrated the opulence of a prosperous economy before questioning its inability to deal with the AIDS crisis. Finally in the 1990’s, they were grunge, remixers or DJ’s.

Nonetheless what characterized art practices up to the late 1980’s was a global instinct for individuals to congregate and be part of a larger group. This enduring behavior found logical justification in the fact that by then - in art or elsewhere - power structures were visible, identifiable and above all inaccessible, which meant they could only be addressed from a collective perspective.  

Nowadays, while the systems in place are of comparable nature, it is the relationship (understood as the perception of the relationship) of the individual to its surrounding structures that has evolved tremendously. Why bother spending time gathering in groups and formulating mission statements while one can easily twit Nicolas Sarkozy? Similarly, how could one feel voiceless when having the the option, at any time, to express any thought via a website such as Facebook? The fact of the matter is, we have come to an age of unrestrained freedom of speech. One that necessitates no mediation and undergoes neither censorship nor delay. Also one that, if expression seems unbound, adversely suffers from abyssal invisibility. Never mind. The trick is working, and the general feeling of content found in western democracies in this regard has reached such a solid state that despite massive representation of popular expression, social cohesion as it used to exist has disintegrated de facto. 

In this light, one remembers times when artists, just like anyone else, took on struggles. They had an agenda and they intended to be heard. In yearning for attention and change, they devised manifestos and implemented active strategies, they held opinions and fought for ideals. The intention was simple: creating the conditions in which making art deemed relevant would be possible, if not encouraged. One can see why, now that “everyone is recognized, and every voice can be heard”, this longing has collapsed upon itself. May it be a by-product of the immense expansion of personal and social liberties that took place in the last decades, today’s post, post-modern individual tends to be an insular entity devoid of ideological beliefs, political convictions or  general sense of belonging to a larger project. 

Casual observation reveals that currently, what seems to drive people globally and  instantly; what prompts masses to be anxious, to go out on the street or to spend money is triggered by a frequent dramatization of events presented as potential causes for interruption - or worse, termination - of the current “satisfactory” state: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a volcanic eruption paralyzing air travel, an apocalyptic H1N1 flu pandemic. 

Artists can be typical of their time: privileged yet fearful, amnesiac and eager for comfort and satisfaction. They can also choose to embrace their position as heirs of a long series of historical efforts and accumulated cultural knowledge. Leaning towards the latter option doesn’t necessarily mean having to be “political” or identifying as an activist. Rather, it equates to feeling the responsible awareness of being endowed with a transitional role and in knowing so, acknowledging the efforts deployed by previous generations while building ground for those of generations to come.  

Under today’s circumstances, it is precisely deciphering and validating the practices of artists who enact this conscious choice of memory that seems to constitute the fundamental basis for relevant curatorial choices. In a context lacking the backbone of authoritative theorization, it is an educated and heartfelt sensitivity to art history that suffices to legitimize the intent of an artistic practice.

Guillaume Rouchon 
April 2010

Evelyne Axell held the rare if not unique position of female pop artist. Throughout her short but intense career as an artist, enthralled by the second feminist wave, she openly proclaimed (and practiced) the intellectual and sexual liberation of women. In 1968-69, Axell painted a series of portraits: the “Opalines”; portraits of anonymous females depicted as representatives of their respective country: “La Techeque”, “L’Italienne”, “La Persanne”..., and among them, the only one identified: young and upcoming writer Yael Dayan. After having been introduced to her by her husband (Belgian film maker Jean Antoine) Axell fell in admiration for the Israeli. Using enamel on plexiglass, her signature technique, she painted her as a sensual yet empowered woman. With the gaze of a queen, Dayan is shown decisive and determined, yet voluptuous. It is the first time the portrait is shown in Israel.

Alicja Kwade is a Polish conceptual artist based in Berlin and working with film, photography, sculpture and installation. In corrupting or intervening (sometimes minimally) on the objects she modifies, Kwade manages to skilfully shake notions of common logic, traditional functionality and material hierarchy. The sculpture Under Other Circumstances (2008) is a silver tray that appears shattered into shards. By endowing silver with a behaviour so recognizably glass-like, Kwade creates a tension between the expected and the uncanny, but also raises issues related to material nature, travesty, and grotesque, all with an acute sense of irony.

Born in France and established in the USA since the 1960’s, Babette Mangolte is one of the first female cinematographers in history. As such she documented projects by prominent figures of the NY avant-garde scene of the 70’s in the fields of contemporary dance, theatre and performance. Some of her most renowned collaborators include Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Robert Wilson, Chantal Ackerman and Richard Foreman. While Mangolte’s achievements as a documentarist have spanned the last four decades, she also completed four feature films of her own and conducted extensive personal photographic projects.  In recent years the reassessment of her production and its conceptual and experimental value have led to her becoming known as an artist in her own right. The photographic works presented here function as a quote from Mangolte’s installation at the current Whitney Biennial.

Nick Mauss was born in Germany and lives and works in New York. A graduate of the Cooper Union, Mauss worked mostly with drawing before expanding into the three-dimensional realm. His sculptural research further studies his points of interest in regards to techniques such as stencil-making, printing or collaging mechanisms. Mauss presents two silk-screens on sheet metal and a wood and silk sculpture reminiscent of  Sol Lewitt’s esthetics while bringing to mind the visual sensitivity found in Bridget Riley or Philip Taaffe’s paintings.

New York based artist Duane Michals has been faithful to the photographic medium for the past forty years. His explorations of matters of morals, desires, dreams and fears relate to the cinematic realm as per their sequential format, yet depart from it drastically when it comes to concepts of real-time and naturalism. Apprehended as a succession of stills, the mini narratives have far more in common with painting. Always concerned with situations that strike us as rich in possible explanations, but forever unsolved, Michals offers open-ended, poetic and endearing base for individual interpretation. Michals presents three works from his latest series Photographs from the Floating World. (2008)

With the video Charles Bronson is Ibn Arabi (2010), Frankfurt-based filmmaker and performance artist Dalia Neis makes an intervention into the site of the Spaghetti Western museum in Southern Spain, exploring the relationship between the popular artifacts of this American film genre and the repressed cultural history of Spain during the Islamic empire from 711 – 1492. Drawing from the legacies of the lecture format, feminist performance art, and allegorical storytelling, she uses the seminal film ‘Once upon a time in the West’ (1968) as a micro parallel study of colonialism and the myth of the frontier in the Spanish South. The figure of Charles Bronson invokes, and is accordingly displaced into multiple figures from Spanish history: a medieval Islamic scientist; a Jewish rationalist philosopher; a Sufi; and a female Berber warrior. In doing so, Neis interweaves a dense, multi-layered imaginative re-construction of this overlooked and inter-connected history.

Living and working in Berlin, Sasha Rossman works on paper, and extends into sculpture with ceramic and fabric pieces. In using casual found material as a base for his formal research, Rossman gives preponderance to the line, the hand and the material. While his marker drawings appear as carefully constructed geometrical compositions, the rough edges and the visible details of the surfaces they were made on contribute to balancing the inner rigidity with a sense of domestic enlightenment.  Their casual presentation in shadowboxes further highlights their incidental existence as art works and raises questions as to their preciousness as such.  Displayed on floor or walls, his patched fabric works retain an essential quality of non-functional objects while owing their material existence to a daily life commodity.  

With the silkscreen series Silent Curtains (2008), Berlin-based artist Annette Ruenzler addresses the topic of flawed communication. In weaving short textual content into the enlarged pattern of domestic curtains, she raises concerns of validity of a message in the face of a non-existent recipient. Dealing with the vacuousness of human expression, these statements are hindered from reciprocal understanding and fall short from their original function. In her three part sculptural piece First Love (2009), Ruenzler addresses the long-lasting effects of subconscious material individually accumulated throughout formative years. While acknowleding the reminiscent potency of forgotten early traumas, Ruenzler’s prime interest holds in the universal aspect of having to deal with such phenomena.

Polish Holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow held a unique position in the post-war European avant-garde: in the 1960’s she was one of the first female artists to experiment with polyester, which she used to montage cast parts of her face and body into grotesque and sexually charged assemblages. Szapocznikow created an entire body of works - drawings and sculptures - by way of an unseen fusion between a late dark Surrealism and the bright and provocative side of Pop Art. The last variation in her series of polyester sculptures, Cendrier de Célibataire (Grass Widower's Ash-Tray) (1972) was intended to consist of a piece of butter with cigarette butts stuck in it randomly. The piece was realized in her studio and photographed in this experimental stage.  Choosing consumable objects - butter, and cigarettes - as sculptural materials, Szapocznikow extended her investigation of corporeality to investigate substances that pass through the human body and are formally altered by it. As Szapocznikow was already too ill of cancer, she formulated a letter with instructions for her friend and colleague Anette Messager to realize the piece in a show in Paris in 1972.

Working with film, video and installation, conceptual American artist Jordan Wolfson presents Untitled False Document (2008),  a cross-combination of 16mm film and high definition video. The 16mm film element shows a flat screen television set in a domestic environment. The camera movement
zooms slowly in and out on the television. The video on screen depicts a female model standing on a boat releasing photographs of fruits and vegetables into the sea. 
The 16mm film counters however, the movement of the video. The audio track, a text by Wolfson is spoken by "Vicky" and "Fred", early computer generated voices. The narration written in the first person begins with the story of a rediscovered hip/hop mix tape from the early 1990’s and develops into a self conscious examination of  the piece as an artwork in its own right. In questioning the very essence of his work, Wolfson exemplifies a critical view of his own work, and manages to orchestrate a skillful legitimization of the piece, as it is being played.