Calvert 22, London
Curated by What, How & for Whom / WHW
28 September - 8 December 2013
Review by Anya Harrison
First published (in the original Russian) in the Moscow Art Journal
Dear Art, I’m writing you a love letter to cheer you up and encourage you to come and visit me some time. [Mladen Stilinovic, 1999]
It seems apt that Calvert 22’s new exhibition, which opened as London’s cultural calendar reached saturation point in October, should make a proposal that exchanges opulence and spectacle for modesty. Curated by the Croatian collective, What, How & for Whom (WHW), ‘Dear Art’ draws on Stilinovic’s letter to propose an alternative trajectory, or trajectories, to be followed in order for art to regain its social standing and relevance.
In Stilinovic’s text, the artist addresses art’s misuse by market forces and ideological pressures. He offers words of solace, but also a solution:
I think that the time has come for you to hide yourself and keep a low profile for a while, just tell me where, so that people will no longer be able to find you so easily. This is a difficult operation, and a very risky one, but it might be worthwhile to try. Perhaps they’ll even forget you. Then you’ll be free, completely.
Written in 1999, the letter expresses Stilinovic’s personal anxieties at a time when the countries of the former Yugoslavia were undergoing a process of ‘normalisation’, an ideological construct which aimed to assuage the effects of the Yugoslav wars and the transition from a socialist to a capitalist operational model by hiding them from view. In the process, it left cultural production bereft of long-term cultural policies. Translated into the current global situation of economic crisis and budget cuts, Stilinovic’s concerns retain their urgency.
Let us assume that art took heed of this advice and retreated from the spotlight. In its absence a field for reflection and debate opens up. An iteration of a previous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana/Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, the show questions the political effectiveness of art in the dominant economic and ideological climate and, as such, is predicated on misunderstanding, precariousness and the looming possibility of failure. It originates from WHW’s own doubts as curators and is a reaction to finding oneself in a society where value is conferred solely along economic criteria (the first work that comes into view when entering Calvert 22 is Stilinovic’s ‘I am selling M. Duchamp’ (2006)). Using Stilinovic’s observations as a conceptual springboard, and the interconnectedness of art and politics as a framework for the discussion of cultural production, the exhibition prises open Pandora’s box to release a whole set of questions about art and its institutionalisation: What is art’s purpose and what can it achieve today’ And can we still trust in art and call upon it to effect change’
To step into the exhibition space, then, is to encounter a sea of Bakhtinian heteroglossia; this is reflected in the works, a large majority of which are either text-based or film and video pieces from which a multitude of voices rise up. A film installation by Wendelien van Oldenborgh, ‘Bete & Deise’ (2012), stages an encounter between two women - Bete Mendes, who has maintained a double career as political activist and television actress since the 1960s, and Deise Tigrona, a young woman from the impoverished community of Cidade de Deus who has made a name for herself as a Funk Carioca singer - each of whom gives meaning to the power of public voice across generations and socio-political conditions. Taking turns to talk about their experience of performance and their position in the public sphere, Bete and Deise make manifest the contradictions they each carry as public figures and, at the same time, as private individuals.
The work finds its counterpart in ‘Troika’ (2013), the documentation of an eerie (mis)interpretation of language wheeled out by the dominant political machinery and the making of a collective in its most literal sense. In 2007, three artists joined the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). The welcome letter they received from the party’s leader and Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Jan’a, ended with the slogan, ‘The more of us there are, the faster we will reach our goal!’ Taken by the artists as a call to arms, they immediately legally changed their names to Janez Jan’a. The video presented shows the letter written by the artists to Janez Jan’a soon after their name change and is accompanied by a display of official documents - SDS membership cards, ID cards and Mastercards - that serve as literal manifestations of the triad of contemporary biopolitics: politics, law and economy. Despite the ambivalent nature of the action - homage’ political critique’ pure provocation’ - and its framing as a deliberately artistic gesture, it is telling that the gesture was labelled pornographic by Jan’a's supporters. In his letter to art, Stilinovic evokes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in an effort to assuage the anxiety caused by the misappropriation of art’s name: ‘What’s in a name’ That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Extended to Janez Jan’as’ action though, it foregrounds the fine line that divides identity from identification, whereby a simple homonym reduces the power generated by a single voice rather than strengthens it through numbers.
< br>Everywhere, conversations about art, its purpose, and our commitment and responsibility to it proliferate. Chto Delat’s ‘Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX’ (2011) is, to use the collective’s words, a ‘scary film’ insomuch as their framing of politics and politically explosive situations as art, ‘Beautiful, Timeless, Revolutionary Art!’, diffuses the former’s potency and hides it from view. The museum, as architectural monument, preserver of culture, and bastion of beauty becomes a safe haven in which politics - meant as a constant stream of everyday practices and lived experiences - is forever foreign.
Elsewhere, politics and art are forcefully realigned by Croatian collective Fokus Grupa in an open series of delicate pencil drawings. Based on ‘visual’ documents of vital moments in history when artists have publicly asserted their roles and rights as workers, ‘I Sing to Pass the Time’ (2011/2013) is an ongoing project that forsakes the traditional linearity of art historical narrative for the intersecting and parallel lines of the socioeconomic systems in which art operates. The title of the series, appropriated from a Croatian song that expresses disbelief in the political potential of music, is purposefully made to confront the work’s content and the ephemeral events that too often disappear from cultural and collective memory.
Asking us to invest our time and attention, the strength of ‘Dear Art’ lies in the plurality of voices and positions that are allowed to come together and inhabit the same space. A sheet of paper stuck on the wall bears another text by Stilinovic: ‘The conditions for my work are not in my hands but fortunately they are not in yours either’ (1979). More than 30 years later, the statement hasn’t lost any of its force. By fostering awareness of the myriad conditions and shifting undercurrents at play in cultural production, the show suggests that we can begin to reinvest our trust in art - and in the exhibition format as its still dominant modus operandi - through a constant state of alertness.