The Aichi Triennial 2019 and the “After Freedom of Expression” Exhibition – A TIMELINE

Title of the Unfreedom of Expression Exhibit from the Aichi Triennial 2019 website https://aichitriennale.jp/en/artwork/A23.html

Having conducted several interviews with Japanese artists in the recent years, I was no stranger to the difficult landscape artistic and cultural workers face in Japan when it comes to displaying critical or politically sensitive works. In fact, the existence of censorship or self-censorship due to institutional or governmental pressures is an open secret and does not only apply to artists but also to, for instance, members of the press. Therefore, when prior to the opening I saw that “After Freedom of Expression” will be included in the Aichi Triennial I was pleasantly surprised and thought of it as a move in the right direction, towards an atmosphere more open to diverging critical opinions.

While I think that the organizers of the Triennial must have known that they were treading on precarious terrain, no one seems to have been prepared for the spectacle that ensued. However, I do think the curse of a censored exhibition about censorship is a blessing in disguise. At least now, with extensive domestic and foreign media coverage and artists publicly taking a stand the issue is hard to sweep under the table and ignore. Who has ever wandered about art being political may have changed their minds, too in the process. In that sense, what has happened at the Aichi Triennial in the last month has implications that reach far beyond the artworld of the Japanese archipelago. For this reason and as a future resource I gathered a chronological succession of major events and developments regarding the issue below. Please let me know if there are any mistakes or major additions missing.

  • January to February 2015 – the small commercial art gallery Furuto in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward stages an exhibition with the title “Hyogen no Fujiyu Ten” (“Exhibition of Unfreedom of Expression”). The show comprised only of works that had been previously banned or rejected from exhibitions for their controversial subject matters, such as the comfort women issue.
  • January 22nd, 2015 – Otherwise, largely unnoticed, the Japan Times featured the show in an article that discussed self-censorship among members of the press, as well as within art institutions.
  • August 1st, 2019 – the Aichi Triennial opens under the title 情の時代 Taming Y/Our Passion.

In its concept statement the artistic director  Daisuke Tsuda (interestingly a journalist by trade) emphasis the interconnection of arts and politics and the productive power of art to foster knowledge and understanding. The author hints towards current political concerns such as the refugee crisis and Donald Trump’s controversial presidential candidacy and the proliferation of “fake” news. Tsuda makes a claim for art’s power to “taming jō [emotion and information] with jō [compassion].”

  • As part of the triennial an exhibition display called 表現の不自由展・その後 or translated into English as “After Freedom of Expression” (AFOE hereafter) opens, containing selected artworks from the original Furuto gallery exhibition, as well as additional works.
The “comfort women” statue at the Aichi Triennale | Source: KYODO and The Japan Times https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/08/20/national/social-issues/art-exhibits-comfort-women-freedom-of-expression/

Among the artifacts are a sculpture of a so-called comfort women (ianfu 慰安婦), mostly Korean women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels. The statue by South Korean sculptors Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung called Statue of a Girl of Peace depicts a Korean girl, sitting in a chair with a low back and a bird on her shoulder. Similar sculptures are installed in South Korea and around the world, and have been part of the heated conflicts surrounding compensation payments and wartime apologies between South Korea and Japan. Containing such politically sensitive works, the exhibit was on the one hand meant to provide a platform for open discussion, while on the other, draw awareness to artistic censorship or self-censorship prevailing in Japan. See this article for descriptions of further sensitive works contained in the show.

  • August 2nd, 2019 – the mayor of Nagoya  Takashi Kawamura sends a letter to Aichi Governor Hideki Omura, head of the festival organizing festival committee, to remove the comfort women statue from display. He reasons that the statue “tramples on the feelings of Japanese citizens” and such a display should not be funded with public money. (It is in fact not funded with public money, as outlined here ) Kawamura previously had also denied the Nanjing Massacre.
  • August 2nd, 2019 – in a statement (translated into English on August, 9th 2019) artistic director Tsuda reiterates his reasons for displaying AFOE, but states that the organizers and staff of the triennial have experienced immense backlash including harassing phone calls and emails, as well as a fax threatening arson if the exhibition was continuing to be shown. Especially the arson threat hit a nerve as it was reminiscent of the horrible incident at Kyoto animation studios just a few weeks earlier.
  • August 3rd, 2019 – under what seems like pretext, the triennial organizers decide to close AFOE in order to ensure the safety of their visitors and staff.

Following the closure of the AFOE exhibit the South Korean artists Park Chan-kyong and Lim Minouk send a request to the organizing committee to withdraw their works from the show. (However, the artists changed their withdrawal to temporary in the case of the reopening of AFOE on August 13th) Follow these links to read their individual statements: Park Chan-Kyong  Minouk Lim

  • August 5th, 2019 – While Japanese art festivals such as the Aichi Triennial otherwise often receive little foreign news coverage outside of the artworld, foreign news outlets report on the closing of AFOE. This is presumably due to the international implications for Japan and South Korea relations. Read the New York Times article here.
  • August 6th, 2019 – An open letter was posted to Facebook signed by 72 of the 90 participating artists (this number has since increased to 87 out of 90 as of August 10th ) asking for the “After Freedom of Expression” exhibition to remain on display. The artists cited the following requests: “(1) the immediate restoration of the Aichi Triennial 2019’s autonomy from political pressure and intimidation; (2) the continuation of the exhibition under the assurance of safety for all its staff and visitors; and (3) the establishment of a platform for free and vigorous discussion that is open to all, including the participating artists.”
  • August 7th, 2019a 59-year old male suspect is arrested by the Aichi police in connection with the arson threat received by triennial organizers.
  • August 13th, 2019 – a group of 12 artists sends an open letter to ARTnews.com asking for the removal of their works from the triennial. This kind of protest has previously successfully been used at the Whitney Biennial 2006. The undersigned artists are Tania Bruguera, Pia Camil, Claudia Martínez Garay, Regina José Galindo, Javier Téllez, Pedro Reyes, Dora García and Ugo Rondinone. Remarkably not one of them is Japanese.
  • August 16th, 2019a statement by the triennial organizing committee mentions having received two further requests by CIR (The Center for Investigative Reporting) and Mónica Mayer, who ask to have their work withdrawn and altered respectively.
  • While it seems like Pedro Reyes and Ugo Rondinone’s works remain on display after all. The final list of kinds of alterations and withdrawals as of August 20th can be found here.
  • August 18th, 2019 – as first and so far only Japanese participant artist TANAKA Koki signs the open letter previously signed by Bruguera and co. and asks according to this open statement for the alteration and part closure of his work Abstracted / Family.
  • August 14th, 2019 – a group of volunteer artists participating in the Aichi Triennial, among them artists Tsubasa Kato and Bontaro Dokuyama announce the opening of the artist-run space Sanatorium in order to create room for free expression and dialogue. With this they wish to “transcend the binary oppositions of organizing committee/artist and Right/Left which have fueled the furore.” The space is located in in the Endoji Honcho Shopping Arcade (Nagoya).
  • August 25th, 2019 – the participating artists of Sanatorium hold their opening event. The purpose of this discussion, open to the public, is to establish future proceedings of the space. At present the works of Tsubasa and Dokuyama are on display. These will be followed with exhibits by Pedro Reyes, Kyunchome, Goro Murayama, Hikaru Fujii and Akira Takayama.
  • Curator and researcher Jason Waite reports on his Instagram that discussions were drawn out and fueled by five far right wing protesters joining the talks.
  • August 27th, 2019 – the board of the Museum Watch Committee of the CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art), an affiliated organization of ICOM (International Council of Museums formally associated with the UNESCO) publish an official statement. The undersigned express a great concern about the cancellation of AFOE and ask the organizers to meet the artists’ demands expressed in their open letter.
  • In a regular press conference, Kanagawa Governor Yuji Kuroiwa states that he would not allow an exhibition such as AFOE to be held in his prefecture, while also denying the existence of comfort women.

To be continued…?

 

Inside Fukushima – Part 3

Read part 1 and part 2 first.

I take a last look, tracing the wall with my eyes to where it vanishes into the distance. Visible on the horizon is a tall chimney that belongs to the Haramachi power station, not a nuclear power, but a coal processing plant. Huffing and puffing white vapor into the sky, the smoke proves it is running again. Having been severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, the plant was relaunched in spring 2013. I am thus reminded of the fact that the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was not the only plant accident resulting from the massive natural impact of the earthquake and the Tsunami waves, which reached up to around 30m in some areas. As well as the Haramachi plant, several other thermal and nuclear power plants were damaged by the Tsunami.[1] However, the terrific outcome at the Fukushima Daiichi of a Maximum Credible Accident (MCA) was arguably the only man-made disaster resulting from the natural disaster, human error giving bearing the 3/11 disaster a radioactive triplet.

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Condition of Japan’s nuclear reactors as of May 2011. Source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/bild-764907-219565.html

Along Tohoku’s eastern shoreline the prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, and Aomori have nuclear power plants (NPP) that were affected by the earthquake and Tsunami.[2] Aomori’s Higashidori NPP luckily was in maintenance shutdown when the disaster struck. However, the severe aftershocks that came about a month later on the 7th of April with a magnitude of 7.1 caused a power outage at the plant. Nevertheless, plant failure was avoided and the reserve system worked fine.[3]

After initial complete shutdown, as of the 10th of March 2016, only one of the 43 operable nuclear power plants of Japan, the Sendai plant is running again. However, under the guide of President Shinzō Abe’s pro-nuclear political agenda many more are awaiting their restart.[4] The recklessness of such an energy policy seems all the more apparent after the recent 7.0 magnitude earthquake in April 2016 in Japan’s southwest on the island of Kyushu.  What irony to have the strongest earthquake since 3/11 strike so close to Japan’s only running plant. The feeling of discomfort caused by the alterity of this dystopian landscape doesn’t leave me when I get back in the car and we start driving again. We are still outside of the exclusion zone.

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On our way closer to the Daiichi, we pass a couple of houses partly dismantled and severely damaged by the natural disasters. The bottom floor pulled away, standing like a stilt house, screen shields in flares, windows and panels removed, like someone took it and shook it violently, outside of the exclusion zone these houses are a rarity now. The areas outside of the strictest no-access zone are already cleaned meticulously. With their superimposed decontamination grid lines they have an almost sterile and orderly feel to them.

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Source: http://www.meti.go.jp/english/earthquake/nuclear/roadmap/pdf/150905MapOfAreas.pdf

Throughout the last five years since the disaster, the demarcation lines, zones and checkpoints have been anything but rigidly fixed. The initial exclusion zone of the 20km evacuation radius around the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has been transformed into areas with different levels of access restrictions and security measures. Besides the strictest no-go exclusion or difficult-to-return zone closest to the power plant, there are those that can be accessed for short periods of time, as well as areas where evacuation orders are ready to be lifted. The zone at the core is off-limits to the public, special entrance permits are required to access it and even former residents are only allowed in for short periods of time around a dozen times per year. While you don’t need an official permission the second stage zone is accessible only during day time and any kind of business is prohibited. However, even these demarcations are continuously in flux, and we are surprised to see a checkpoint at a previously accessible road.

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A checkpoint into the restricted area.

We revert to using a white lie and the guard grants us access. He notes down our number plate and we are free to pass into the restricted area. There are more carcass-like housing structures here, but I am surprised at how busy this area is, less than 6km from the power plant’s smoldering reactors. There are construction workers around. Former residents digging up their belongings from beneath the foundation walls of their houses that look like Roman ruins now. Even the Geiger counter confirms a radioactive contamination that is less than that measured in some parts of Tokyo. Governmentally inflicted borders are somewhat arbitrary and free to interpretation after all. Radiation doesn’t stick to a superimposed boundary and there hardly ever is a strict division between the here and there, the inside and the outside of the zone; except maybe for the linguistic labels that us humans stick to certain geographic terrains. Instead, the here and there of the Fukushima exclusion zone and the rest of Japan, or even the rest of the world, is metaphorical and hardly comprehensible at all. As I stand by the ocean, the chimney of the Fukushima Daiichi peeking out from behind some trees in front of me, I think about the impossibility of discerning where the fiction the nuclear catastrophe and its zone ends and where its reality begins. Radioactive contamination is elusive, and so are the ecologies it creates. I turn around: this is as close as I will get to the heart of the disaster, this time.

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[1] https://www.tohoku-epco.co.jp/ir/report/annual_report/pdf/ar2012_p08p11.pdf‘

[2] There are no nuclear power plants located in Iwate.

[3] Besides the Higashidori NPP, Aomori is also the location of the Rokkasho Repossessing Plant, a nuclear waste dump, uranium enrichment and plutonium processing facility.

[4] http://www.nei.org/News-Media/News/Japan-Nuclear-Update

All images and content ©Theresa Deichert, 2016.

Inside Fukushima – Part 2

Read part 1 here.

Saturday, 05.03.2016:

The next day the journey continues towards the shore and closer to the hotspot of the nuclear disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi. More mountain ranges of black decontamination bags are passed. The tallest ones, which measure three or more stories of bags are half shielded by walls of grey-blue panels. At the end of the day it is all about appearance; out of sight out of mind, or so the saying goes. Since day one of the catastrophe, the Japanese government and TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) have worked and continue to work hard to “save face.”  To convey an impression of control over the sheer untamable situation at the Fukushima Daiichi and the surrounding exclusion zone seems to take first and foremost priority. There is not only the hard working public relations machine of the electric power company itself, but additionally also a severe lack of credible journalistic reporting by the national press.[1] The latter is due to the structure of the Japanese press system, in which journalists often have to undergo self-censorship in order to secure their jobs and future access to governmental sources.[2] Subsequently, one may notice big discrepancies between the national and the international press in terms of the reporting on the gravity of the ongoing meltdown. However, governmental cover-ups and secrecy are only one of many misconducts related to the issue. Sub- and sub-subcontractor structures (and the involvement of the Yakuza) are determinant of the way workers are employed at the plant and for decontamination work. This results in great salary gaps between individual workers, ranging from exorbitant compensation to a below-minimum-wage payment for some.[3]

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Mountains of decontamination bags

Driving past the busy-bee workers, I am told that, while the decontamination workers visible from the highway are required to wear their protective suits and masks, those further away and shielded from sight are not, and often remove the uncomfortable gear during the hot summer months. However, radiation is patchy and unpredictable. Some areas in the vicinity of the nuclear plant measure doses as low as 0.02 μSv/h. The fallout, spread by wind and rain, does not stick to human-imposed zones or artificially drawn borders. Nor does it stay where it once settled. Decontaminated school- and playgrounds are often re-contaminated through soil or dust that is blown in by the wind from other, still contaminated areas, which are often way too close to those decontaminated.

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A sign documenting the reconstruction efforts. Taken Saturday, 05.03.2016, 12:02:48

At around noon we make our way towards the ocean. Large plates beside the road document the reconstruction efforts and proclaim that it has reached 91% as of the end of November 2015. Besides a large graphic showing the construction matrix of the tsunami wall, photographs along the bottom of the sign document the development of the area beginning in 1963 (Showa 38) up to 2013 (Heisei 25). Where the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami happened, a photograph is missing. Instead black letters on white ground indicate zero hour. The last square of the succession still remains empty, a blank slate left open for the final photograph, as if to say a bright future is still possible. I sense propaganda on every corner, but I am also not sure whether I have just become overly critical?

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The Tsunami Wall. Taken Saturday, 05.03.2016, 12:08:00

Then, close to where the Minamisoma ward of Kitahara once stood, we reach the shore.[4] Despite that it is a sunny day, the landscape seems dismal. Behind us there are fields of Tsunami-emptied land, trees washed away or bend like matches, the larger vegetation reduced to patches that sit like little hoods on the remaining hills. And in front, there it is: the Wall. Defining the view, this massive concrete construction stretches from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye can see. White washed and immaculate, the Wall is something that crept out of your latest science-fiction nightmare, a real life dystopia. Stretching along Japan’s Eastern coastline, each of the Prefectures along the shore have begun to construct tsunami protection walls, which once joined, will stretch more than 300km along the coastline.[5] However, the construction of this protective barrier against nature’s unpredictable forces has been the source of many controversies. While some scientists have argued that it will disturb the marine ecology, others argue that it might not even be effective. Instead of alleviating the effects of a tsunami and warding off the water masses, they argue that the Wall will keep them from flowing back into the ocean, creating a deathly pool of water on the land.

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The tsunami wall with the Haramachi power station in the distance, which was severly damaged by the tsunami.

(To be continued in the last part, where I enter the exclusion zone…)

[1] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/japan-s-nuclear-cartel-atomic-industry-too-close-to-government-for-comfort-a-764907.html

[2] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/02/25/national/media-national/japanese-media-self-censorship-seen-growing-abes-reign/

[3] https://www.rt.com/news/fukushima-workers-nuclear-yakuza-006/

[4] Close to Kitahara Kashimaku Minamiebi, Minamisōma-shi, Fukushima-ken 979-2312, @37.7095073,141.0023834

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japan-to-build-250-mile-long-four-storey-high-wall-to-stop-tsunamis-10131013.html

All images and content ©Theresa Deichert, 2016.

Inside Fukushima – Part 1

Friday, 04.03.2016

We start the trip at 9:40am and leave Tokyo headed in north-westward direction. We drive along the highway through Chiba Prefecture and towards Ibaraki Prefecture. After shortly stopping in Iwaki City, we continue to follow the Joban Expressway up North. This highway which spans around 300km in its entirety had been closed off in a 20km radius between Hirono and Tomioka after the Fukushima disaster and was only accessible with an official exemption certificate issued by the government authorities. However, it was reopened to the public on the 22nd of February 2014.[1] Shortly after, the construction of the route Namie to Minamisoma was continued and finished on the 6th of December 2014.[2] The last part, a 14.3 km long stretch between Namie and Jobantomioka was finally opened on the 1st of March 2015. Radiation exposure is displayed at 6 points on this route.

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A plate along the Joban Highway showing the outside radiation in micro Sievert per hour. Taken Friday, 04.03.2016, 16:36:08.

Driving along the highway, overhead plates show the current radiation exposure in micro Sievert per hour. Somewhere close to the town of Tomioka (Futaba district) the measurement increases to as high as 5 μSv/h (micro Sievert per hour). To put these numbers in perspective, whereby 10 μSv/h translates to immediate physical danger and an urgent requirement to relocate at once, 5 μSv/h presents a high risk of harm and requires you to relocate as soon as possible; even as low as a number as 2 μSv/h presents an elevated risk and the need to take safety precautions. At the moment of the highest outside radiation the Geiger counter does indeed show the value measured inside of the car as 2 μSv/h. Not only the urgent piercing beep of the counter makes this experience a stressful one, but also knowing that even inside the car, whose metal plates act as a shield from radiation exposure, the radiation is so strong as to pose an immediate threat to human health made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Never having been knowingly exposed to such an amount of radiation at once, for such an extended period of time, I feel like I can sense my body being irradiated. This is of course impossible, but serves as a personal proof of the way in which something so intangible and invisible, and at the same time so hostile to the human organism, could cause severe mental stress and a feeling of being reduced to ones bare and unprotected life. I remember my father’s concerns about this trip and cannot help wondering if, in this very moment, I am doing anything harmful to my potential future offspring.

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One of many radiation measurements inside the car. Taken Friday, 04.03.2016, 16:41:50.

The view along the highway is defined by fields whose surfaces have been lowered to a few decimetres. This reduction of surface level is due to the extensive excavation of irradiated soil, which in strenuous, labor-intensive work is dug up and stored in massive black bags. The latter are even more defining of the landscape than the strangely lowered squares of land. The black bags are almost everywhere. Rows and rows, mountains next to mountains of squarish bags bursting full with dirt, once source of life, they are now through the impact of human technology turned into toxic radioactive waste.  I ask myself, from this moment onwards, what is this matter that they contain? Is it nature or is it something else?

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Rows and rows of decontamination bags, filled with radioactive soil.

The night is spent at a local Ryokan in Minamisoma-Shi, a city who has been severely affected by the impact of the Tsunami. Being located high enough on a hill the elderly owners’ house was just spared by the hungry flood. However, due to the radioactive contamination all around they had to discontinue their occupations as organic farmers. In an attempt to keep his most prosperous collecting spots a secret and maybe also in a desperate grip on normalcy, the husband, Mori-San, continues to collect the local Hatsutake mushroom. This is a mushroom variety, which is highly sought after, but as mushrooms tend to pull out the radioactive elements from the ground, it will remain inedible for the next decades, maybe centuries. Mori-San and his wife tell stories of how gravely the local community was affected by the disaster. When the Tsunami ate its way inland many citizens evacuated to a Shrine, located at the top of a hill. However, tragically enough, the elevation proofed to low and all of the refugees there fell victim to the merciless waves. Now, tales are being circulated of the ghosts of the deceased haunting the area. Strange instances of ghost-sightings are amassed and shared between residents. Deeply impacting and irreversibly altering everyone’s life, the disaster has entered the oral culture.

(To be continued in part 2 and part 3)

[1] http://www.fukushimaminponews.com/news.html?id=314

[2] http://www.fukushimaminponews.com/news.html?id=442

All images and content ©Theresa Deichert, 2016.

Political Beauty & the Fence of Melilla

“When you strike the word ‘beauty’ and the word ‘politics’ together, you create the spark for a revolution” Philipp Ruch

The memorial comemorating the victims of the Berlin Wall.

The ‘Zentrum für politische Schönheit‘(Centre for Political Beauty) or short ZPS is a Berlin-based association of artists and activists headed by theatre director Philipp Ruch. They describe themselves as an ‘assault troop’ (Sturmtruppe) who aims to establish “moral beauty, political poetry and human liberality.” Since 2010 the group has raised awareness for political matters and unfairness, such as the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. It does so through actions that dissolve the boundaries between art, theatre performance and activism. Floating in a politically charged space that is yet to be securely defined the ZPS’s actions are based on conceptual performances, internet-raised awareness and the public’s willingness to become an accomplice. All of it is translated into direct, often shocking and (thought)provoking action or ‘hyper realistic theatre plays.’

The Berlin memorial after the crosses have been taken down. Photo (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit, 2014

1 November 2014, Berlin government district: around lunch time a handful of members of the ZPS armed with a drill and a wheelbarrow dismounted seven white crosses which are part of a memorial to commemorate the victims of the Berlin wall. A couple of days later the white crosses, shown in a video message published by the ZPS on YouTube, resurfaced at the boarders of the European Union. Meanwhile, the ZPS started an Indiegogo campaign to crowd-source the funding of a trip to the European outskirts. The centre hopes to transport busloads of people armed with bolt clippers to the outskirts of the EU to deconstruct the fence that separates the Spanish city of Melilla from Morocco. Leaving Berlin on the 7 November, the day of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the trip is part of an action conceived of to raise awareness for European boarder politics and the mass of sub-Saharan refugees who in their attempt to travel to and cross the border get killed and injured.

African refugees pointing at one of the crosses (or a look-alike) of the Berlin memorial. Photo (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit, 2014

However good the intentions, this kind of political art-activism employed by the ZPS is as radical as much as it is problematic. Firstly, how are they radical? The ZPS’s actions are original and profound. The ways in which the group operates seem to take art-activism one step further to where it has been previously residing; that is mostly in symbolism. Art-activists like Liberate Tate (with admittedly very different incentives for their activism) often engage in gestures of protest that remain inherently symbolic. For example, ‘License to spill’ (2010) saw the group staging an oil spill at the Tate Summer Party to raise awareness for the controversial and environmentally unethical conduct of the oil company BP, the primary sponsor of Tate.

Liberate Tate, “License to Spill”, 2010

In contrast, ZPS complements the symbolic removal and dislocation of the crosses with a direct call for action through its Indiegogo campaign. At the time of writing the campaign has raised around 21.700 Euro, enough to bring two busloads of people to the EU border. Through contributing their money, as well as through the possibility to go on the trip, the general public, you and me, can become an active and vital part of the action. An action which potentially shares responsibility between many and at the same time multiplies impact is, in principle, admirable.

A schematic drawing outlining the cruel mechanisms of the Melilla fence. (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit

Nevertheless, there are several problems with the ZPS’s activity. As direct as the act of bringing people to the border and physically destroying the fence is, as much is this act a calculated theatre performance. I would be surprised for Philipp Ruch to be as naïve as to believe that this act will bring immediate improvement to the refugee’s situation let alone the associated policies. Secondly, the comparison that is made between the victims of the Berlin wall and the African refugees is quite simplistic and flawed. While in both cases people are suffering from a type of cage-like border constructed to restrict their freedom, there is a massive difference between forcefully separating a people that belongs together and separating two people with different cultural backgrounds from each other. Just because it says wall refugees on the package it doesn’t contain the same thing. No doubt in both cases human rights were and are violated, however the circumstances are very different. In this sense, the activism of the ZPS is too idealistic and it seems not completely thought through. Nevertheless, it is at least partly successful in the way in which it has already raised a lot of awareness for the issues of the European refugee policy. It remains to be seen how exactly the activism of the ZPS will play out this weekend and next week, and moreover, how the media will react. In any case, I will be following closely.

The Krauts & the Tommys – A glance at the German/British Relationship

Subconsciously and then consciously I have noticed, over the last few months, more and more articles about Germany, German culture  and German leadership. Identified as a sign of German efficiency her ability to strip herself of unnecessary decision-making, articles regarding the latter often focus on Angela Merkel and her choice of jackets; in my eyes this women has perfected the concept of #normcore.

Decision detox. While her fashion sense remains questionable, Angie choses to focus on the important things.

This is not a completely recent development. More or less frequently, all major English newspapers have had their bit to share on our chancellor, our country, our football. However, it seems that especially in the wake of recent economic developments, the UK has become more interested in exploring their (often ambivalent) relationship with Germany.

Caricature via the Guardian

Now there is a major exhibition, as well as two massive retrospectives of seminal German artists picking up on cultural mouthpieces of German culture. They seem continue where Gerhard Richter and the major exhibition in 2011 at Tate Modern left of.

Gerhard Richter, Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1), 1988 depicting Andreas Baader, co-founder of the terrorist organisation Red Army Faction (RAF) and arrested in June 1972.

Popping up on the cultural landscape are numerous museum shows with a ‘German flavour.’ For instance, there is the British Museum exhibition “The Other Side of the Medal – How Germany saw the first World War,” which examins German history through a selection of medals and their engravings. In this context, both the Observer and the Guardian ran buzzfeed-style lists of things that ‘made modern Germany.’  The weight that is attributed to sausages’ contribution to the development of our country, however, seems rather questionable to me.

With Anselm Kiefer  at the Royal Academy, which just opened this Saturday, and the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern, scheduled to open next week on the 9th of October, two major London museums turn their full attention to German artists.

Anselm Kiefer, Wege der Weltweisheit: die Hermanns-Schlacht,1978

What these artists, have in common is that they reflect and are a reflection, if not magnification, of German history and historical developments.  Kiefer, for example, is well-known for his work’s occupation with Hitler and the resulting collective silence in  post-war  German society.

Arguably, these exhibitions then come to surface in a process, wherein the British try to understand and come to grips with Germany’s political, social and economical development after the war. After all Germany, as a country, has made its way out of their (self-inflicted) misery like a well-plucked phoenix ascending from the ashes. In a time of Scottish referendum, terrorist threat and possible economical downfall, it seems the Empire is looking for an example or a backup-plan to follow, when and if they have to struggle to their feet again; Something they never had to do before.

Unendlicher Spass – Infinite Jest

Millenials,  Generation Y, Generation Me – Its demographic spans those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s and I am myself part of it. We are a generation that, according to Jean Twenge author of the book Generation Me (2006), is characterized by a strong sense of community, tolerance and confidence, but at the same time also a sense of entitlement and narcissism. Growing up in a post-Cold War world, we witnessed the delimitation of actual and metaphorical boundaries, the sheer unstoppable increase of consumer culture and, most importantly, the beginnings and the rise of  the internet. Especially the latter was and is, as we all know, the catalyst that would change our lives forever.

Paradoxically, in today’s #YOLO-culture of seemingly infinite possibilities and opportunities, of #self(ie)-indulgence and generally accepted exhibitionism we often find ourselves in a state of perceived immobility and depression. The perpetual hunt for never-ending entertainment, for infinite jest, leaves us feeling empty and dissatisfied – A party that lasts forever is bound to become repetitive.

Peter Coffin, Untitled, 2008
Peter Coffin, Untitled, 2008

The exhibition Unendlicher Spass (Infinite Jest) at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, named after the book with the same title by David Foster Wallace, is concerned with this I at the beginning of the 21. century, the I of the Generation Me. The I which has boundless options and is simultaneously utterly unable to cope with this abundance. While in today’s world every nobody has theoretically the same chance of suddenly becoming somebody – be it through casting and reality shows on TV or by being discovered on the internet – there is also this sense of longing for normality, banality, and the average. This is reflected in such concepts as normcore, a fashion and lifestyle trend striving for the bland anti-style.

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Still from Helen Marten, Evian Disease (2013), watch the full video here.

Unendlicher Spass is set up in a cluster of rooms, often accessible in more than one way, whereby it is free to the visitor to decide in which order to view the artworks. The curatorial set-up, with no real beginning or end to the display, thus mirrors the infinite self-centred circularity of the Generation Me.

Joep Van Liefland, Video Palace #36 - Archive I (Shadow Hunter), 2014
Joep Van Liefland, Video Palace #36 – Archive I (Shadow Hunter), 2014

Artworks like Peter Coffin’s Untitled (2008) and Alicia Kwade’s Journey without arrival (2012) directly translate perceived immobility or pointlessness. Coffin’s work takes as its model the conveyor-belt packaging system of a New York electronics shop. Instead of goods, Coffin’s belt now transports a bundle of balloons in an endless loop, up and down, and around the gallery space. Kwade’s installation consists of a bike which has been bend to form a circle, making it impossible to ride it in any other way than around itself.

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Installation view
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Maurizio Cattelan, Spermini, 1997

The incessant occupation with the self is dealt with in Maurizio Cattelan’s Spermini (1997) in which the artist multiplies himself into scores of three-dimensional selfie-sculptures, spread out to swarm the walls. In Andrea Fraser’s two-screen video installation Projection (2008) the artist sits facing herself mimicking the patient on screen and the therapist on the other.

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Installation by Claire Fontaine including Untitled (The Invisible Hand), 2011, Untitled, 2008 and Untitled (Tennis Ball Sculpture), 2011
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Alicja Kwade, Journey without arrival (road bike), 2012

While some works, like Francis Alys’ Time is a Trick of the Mind (1998) show a more philosophical approach to the theme of cause and effect and circularity, it is especially Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s installation Living Comp (2011), that reflects the dystopian, dream-like state of the Generation Me most up-to-date.

In a sort of sculptural theatre with beds and benches spread across the room, the visitor is invited to consume Trecartin’s film Ready (Re’Search Wait’s) (2010). The piece is a tour de force of a home-quality video showing the artist assuming different roles and engaging in monologues that verge on self-indulgent hysteria. The whole assemblage is fast-paced and overlaid with flashing graphics. The artist presents an exaggerated, but shockingly accurate caricature of the 21 century I.

If you happen to be in Frankfurt, you can catch the last day of Unendlicher Spass (Infinite Jest) tomorrow.

(Dis)obedient Objects at the V&A

The exhibition entrance
The exhibition entrance

Disambiguation of disobedience.

disobedience
dɪsəˈbiːdiəns
noun
noun: disobedience
  1. failure or refusal to obey rules or someone in authority.
    “disobedience to law is sometimes justified”

These are not only objects of disobedience, these are objects of defeat and of victory, of pain and of triumph, but most of all of struggle.

They are touching, story-telling objects. They move you to tears, as much as they make you smile, and they embody in every possible way the object agency argued for so vigorously by Bruno Latour.

The danger of objects larger then their physical mass is reflected in the fact, that the museum takes on a design perspective. Expectedly, this is a seemingly fitting stance, possibly pre-determined by the very purpose of its standing as a chronicler and harp-bringer of all things design-related.

Forgoing any kind of explicit political message, staying on the save side, obviously, the exhibition let’s the objects speak. At the same time, the very fact, that they are still moving you deeply and are perfectly capable of telling the story of the human struggle, negates this imposed design-focused a-politicalness.

26 July 2014 – 1 February 2015

Entry is free.

The V&A provides you with a couple of printed How-to guides to take home and make your own ‘disobedient object.’ You can also download them here.

I also recommend the blog that accompanies the exhibition and explores individual objects exhibited and protests represented in more depth.

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Papier-mâché puppets from the American ‘Bread and Puppet Theater.’ The political theatre was formed in the 1960’s initially protesting against the Vietnam War and is still active today.

 

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The costumes and signs used by the Guerrilla Girls (formed in 1985 and still active) to protest against sexism in the art world and the under-representation of female artists in the canonic museums of the world.

 

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Examples of spoof newspapers printed and distributed to gain attention for political causes.

 

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Display of ‘book blocs.’ Signs that resemble book covers are used as shields in protests. These were first used in 2010 in Rome, Italy in student protests against budget cuts and the increase of tuition fees. You can read more about them here and here.

 

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More examples of protest signs.

 

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A bike bloc and sound installation using original sound footage from protests, as well as, sound material that responds to the exhibition.

 

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The Photographers’ Gallery – Deutsche Boerse Prize 2014

Just off busy Oxford Street lies a not so hidden gem, The Photographers’ Gallery. I had been wanting to visit for a long time and finally made my way there this past weekend to view the current display of nominees for the Deutsche Boerse Price.

Annually (since 1996) The Photographers’ Gallery awards a photographer of any nationality for his or her outstanding contribution to the medium of photography in the previous year. The Deutsche Boerse has been sponsoring the £30 000 prize since 2005. This year’s nominees were Alberto Garcia-Alix (Spain), Jochen Lempert (Germany), Richard Mosse (Ireland) and Lorna Simpson (US). On May 12th 2014 the prize was awarded to Richard Mosse.

Alberto Garcia-Alix, My Feminine Side, 2002 (c)Photographers Gallery

The nominees’ works are displayed over two of the four exhibition flours of the gallery. Upon entering the lower floor, I was greeted with the black and white works of Alberto Garcia-Alix. The works of Garcia-Alix, who was nominated for his publication Autorretrato/Self-portrait, consist of his self-exploratory portraits, documenting his experiences with drugs, prostitutes, and the Spanish punk-scene of the late 70s and 80s.

Exhibition view, Deutsche Boerse Prize 2014, The Photographer's Gallery
Exhibition view, Deutsche Boerse Prize 2014, The Photographers’ Gallery

In a kind of nostalgic retrospective of cause and effect, these relics from his youth are juxtaposed in particular with his 2002 self-portrait My Feminine Side. I found the latter especially engrossing, as it captures the photographer’s body as an ultimate testament to his past and present. The body, covered in tattoos, is at the same time seemingly emaciated by past drug-abuse. This stands in opposition to his clenched fists, a posture of determinism and strength, again contrasting his facial expression, which displays a sense of defeat and, as the title suggests, an air of gentleness or femininity.

Deutsche Börse Prize 2014, Jochen Lempert, Untitled (four swans), 2006 (c)Photographers Gallery

On the same floor are displayed the photographs by Jochen Lempert. These formed part of his solo-exhibition at Hamburger Kunsthalle in 2013. I found his photography to be equally as intimate as Garcia-Alix’s, although in quite a different way.

In his work, former biologist Lempert has occupied himself closely with nature. He seems to have done so in a way that is twofold –  firstly, in his subject matter, composed of plants and animals, and secondly, in his inquiry into the medium of photography itself through the exploration of the properties of light. These interests are mirrored for instance, in his photograms Four Frogs from 2010.

Jochen Lempert, Four Frogs Series, 2010 (Photogram)

From afar, pinned directly and unframed onto the wall, the series blurs to a set of greyish monochrome papers with a few white dots strewn across. However, viewed closely, the white dots disclose themselves to be tiny frogs, which have, whether by chance or not, rested on the light-sensitive paper to leave their contour.

Jochen Lempert, Four Frogs, 2010 (Photogram), © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

The works of the two remaining artists are  displayed one floor up. Here the large-scale and impressively coloured photographs by Richard Mosse are given a lot more breathing space then the tightly hung works of Garcia-Alix and Lempert on the level below. This way of displaying Mosse’s photographs seems to reflect their grandeur, while the close hang of Garcia-Alix and Lempert’s works mirrors their intimacy.

Richard Mosse, Poison Glen, 2012 (c)Photographers Gallery

Mosse’s images are beautiful to look at with their vibrant tones of red, contrasting a foggy green and pale blue. However, their subject matter is that of a landscape infiltrated by human tragedy and war. These works, part of the exhibition The Enclave which was displayed at the Irish Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennial, show the landscape of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The incredible colours are in fact the result of the use of military surveillance film, rendering the landscape in the vibrant spectrum of infrared light.

Richard Mosse, Safe from Harm, 2012 (c)The Photographers’ Gallery

In a corner of the upper level, almost hidden, hangs Lorna Simpson’s work LA ‘57-NY ’09 (2009). It consists of numerous small square black and white photographs from the 1950s and 1960s in which a black women, performing household tasks or striking poses within her domestic environment, coyly poses in front of the camera. These photographs are almost indiscernible from a second set of photographs that intersperses the former. In these the artist herself can be seen imitating and re-staging the historic pictures.

Lorna Simpson, LA-57 NY-09, 2009 (c)The artist

By juxtaposing the black women’s past and present, Simpson comments on gender and memory and thus, goes on to explore her own identity. In this context, it appeared as a (unintentional) paradox to me that her work was given so little space in the exhibition.

Mosse, whose works without doubt are equally visually stunning, as well as, in regards to their content, fascinating and at the same time disturbing, was chosen as the recipient of the prize. Nevertheless, for myself I have to say, I was a lot more captivated by the intimacy of Garcia-Alix’s self-documentation, or even Lempert’s close encounter with nature. Simpson’s work, for some reason, left me rather untouched and indifferent. Then again, I imagine that it is precisely the fact, that all four artists are so different (and produce work so different from each other) that makes this year’s nominees and the display at the Photographer’s Gallery especially exciting.

The exhibition is still on until June 22nd.

Find the Photographers’ Gallery at 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW. Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus
Mon – Sat 10.00 – 18.00, Thu 10.00 – 20.00, Sun 11.30 – 18.00
Free admission

Online Exhibition

As part of the curatorial team of the New Media Gallery (INMG) I have been involved in the conception of an online exhibition. I am happy to announce that it went online today. You can find more information and links below. I hope you will check it out!

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The International New Media Gallery (INMG) is pleased to announce the opening of its second exhibition, ‘Thomson & Craighead: A Short Film About War’ (20th May – 25th October 2013).

Visit www.inmg.org.uk to see the show.

‘A Short Film About War’ (2009) is a two-channel video which explores the way contemporary conflict is represented on the Internet. The left-hand screen is comprised of photographs found online, released under a creative commons licence. The right-hand screen references the source of each image. Weaving the sequence together is narration based on blog posts, written by individuals involved in the events depicted.

This year is the anniversary of two important events: twenty years since the first web page went online, and ten years since the second US-led invasion of Iraq. The INMG’s current exhibition marks both of these occasions. The Internet has had military connections since its inception, and this exhibition aims to explore some of the current links between the two. Since 1993, the Internet has become a dominant tool for communication. This has changed our understandings of war: today at the touch of a button we can access a myriad of blogs, photographs or footage by soldiers or citizens from across the world. As certain conflicts unfold through real-time Twitter updates, sometimes it can be hard to shift through the excess of information; turning each web user into a data-hunter in a vast archive.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with contributions by Jo Chard, Edwin Coomasaru, Alan Ingram and Tom Snow. It can be downloaded for free at:

www.inmg.org.uk/thomson-craighead/catalogue

Snow places ‘A Short Film About War’ within the context of the essay film genre and discusses the impact of digital technologies as artistic medium. He also discusses the representation of war as a circulation of digital data. Chard and Coomasaru approach such issues with Thomson & Craighead in an interview, focusing on the way conflict is mediated online. In their conversation they also deliberate tensions between the Internet as a tool of mass surveillance and platform to organise collective political activity. Ingram’s essay also touches on this point. His text investigates the idea that ‘A Short Film About War’ might be engaging in an experimental geopolitics, reflecting on information infrastructures and the links between technologies and power.