The Romanian duo Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor have been making work about the transitions of Communist to post-Communist societies since 2000. The title of their exhibition in Vienna, “46º19'41“N23º12'44”E Geamăna,” refers to the geographic coordinates of the gold-mining region in Romania where they shot their latest film All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 2012–13. Not only are precious metals unearthed there, but also a large-scale overexploitation of nature is exposed. The film shows tracts of land that are saturated with poisonous chemicals, through slow-motion camera pans across green, ochre, and red marbled surfaces that at first seem like paintings and on closer observation materialize into a thoroughly apocalyptic scenario. A sound track underlines the destruction of nature represented here by means of abstraction. Excerpts of speeches by Socialist politicians such as Salvador Allende of Chile and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, as well as a reading from the Book of Revelation, turn the work into an impressive, total composition.
In a second gallery, Vătămanu and Tudor present the installation I dreamt the work of another artist, 2013, which was originally developed for the Kunsthalle Lissabon in Portugal. Here, construction materials such as rebar, gratings, dirt, and sheets of polyethylene are arranged in relation to a photograph of a photograph of a man in an exotic setting that they found in a garbage dump. “The image,” the two artists say of this work, “led us to some connection between geographical areas, some narrative that could link our modernist utopia in Eastern Europe with other stories maybe in Latin America or elsewhere.” The precariousness of contemporary living conditions in a post-Communist context take on a sculptural form of expression in this piece—globalization meets art, and content, ultimately, meets form.
Translated from German by Diana Reese.
Large, bright windows and dim inner spaces, landscapes plunged in melodramatic light alternating between idyll and dystopia, isolated protagonists with grotesque features, and bleak images that anticipate the catastrophic political developments of the 1930s: In this overdue exhibition, Franz Sedlacek is fairly characterized as a “Chemist of the Imagination.” With a magic-realist, graceful brushstroke, he offers a view on a shadowy world, he exaggerates an oppressive present with dark tones, and he transforms the uncanny into the transcendental.
Sedlacek, who was born in Breslau (then part of the German Empire, today the Polish city of Wrocław) in 1891, is relatively contemporary compared with the antediluvian artists who most commonly become subject to retrospective artistic rediscovery. His oil paintings of the 1920s and ’30s—representative of a fantastic combination of the influences of the Neue Sachlichkeit plus a skepticism of progress and neo-Romantic seascapes—also feel timely in that they invoke, as does so much very contemporary art, oppressive atmospheres and irritating states of mind. Sedlacek officially joined the Nazis in 1939 and his paintings negotiate the turbulence and disavowals of the First Republic and the repressive climate of Austrian fascism. “In my work I can say with colors what I think of my contemporaries without being sent to a concentration camp,” he once surprisingly said.
“Viennese Painter Revels in the Grotesque” was how Life magazine categorized his paintings in 1937. The canvases bear the traits of caricature; the parodic quality of his work was also manifest in his theatrical works, short films, and grotesque-absurd poems. Providing just a snapshot view of his career, this show, with its images of cities, still lifes, interiors, and landscapes, captivates with a visionary power that has lost none of its intensity.
Translated from German by Diana Reese.
This comprehensive retrospective of Franz Erhard Walther’s energetic five-decade career is carefully balanced, showcasing his process without overt interjection. It also layers his recurrent concerns—of artistic autonomy and social relations, utility and language—in a series of five well-paced rooms.
The first gallery opens onto a field of cloth objects collectively titled The Store of Trial Sewn Pieces, 1969–, which are frank in character: Austere capes and rolls of fabric hint at an indeterminate use-value—these objects suggest camping equipment or military gear, yoga props or stage furniture. Yet their flaps, abstract folds, and vaguely organic shapes prevent function from being precisely located, leaving the objects suspended between usefulness and senselessness. Nearby, early “instrument” pieces, such as 100m Schnur (100m Cord), 1963, are displayed on a plinth and contextualize Walther’s work specifically in terms of tools: material as well as social.
Language appears both as a poetic forcein Sternenstaub (The Dust of Stars), 2007–2009, an illustrated diaryand as physical intervention, in Walther’s comically large interactive structures: The plush textures and removable parts of Das neue Alphabet (The New Alphabet), 1990–96, for example, explore how words bear upon physical life. Depicting what could be protest tactics or Minimalist choreography, photographs from the early ’70s show the original enactments of the fifty-eight actions of 1. Werksatz (1. Work Set), 1963–69the most intimate of which, such as #20 (Gathering), a sit-in of five people arranged on one of Walther’s canvas squares, and #30 (Closeness), an apron-like garment which pulls two men closely together by the neck, separated only by a panel of fabricexpose the gap between the serviceable titles and their potentially political implications. Far from an empty institutional gesture, the show’s re-performances (in addition to a performance by the artist, viewers are invited to enact several of the 1. Werksatz actions) are in keeping with the forthright vitality of Walther’s practice, where action is inbuilt, and a requisite aspect of viewing.
Whether working with 35-mm film or state-of-the-art digital video technology, Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni play with temporal conventions of filmmaking. Referencing the past, present, and future, the eleven works included in “The Unmanned”—the artist duo’s first institutional show—establish an eerie alternate reality wherein humanity is barely present and automated technology reigns supreme.
The exhibition opens with Untitled (La Vallée von uexküll), 2009/2014, an ongoing series of digitally filmed desert sunsets. Made using progressively higher-definition cameras, each video is screened on a correspondingly high-tech projector. Five such digital recordings are shown here in a suite of walled-off but connected white-cube rooms. Notions of time and progress in these videos—which are as hypnotic as light installations by James Turrell or Doug Wheeler—are both subtle and stirring. Though the series as a whole is overwhelmingly white, in the company of the 2014 depiction of a distinct glowing orb surrounded by a graduated halo, the 2009 video appears vastly different—more blown-out and pixelated. Each projection documents part of the Earth’s rotation in minutes and, cumulatively, the series measures five years of technological advancements.
Chromatically and conceptually more complex, a trilogy (also titled “The Unmanned”) that describes man in competition with technology was appropriately shot from cameras attached to drones or otherwise controlled by computers. The most straightforward episode is 1997—The Brute Force, 2013–14, which portrays the room where chess champion Garry Kasparov suffered defeat to IBM’s Deep Blue on May 11, 1997. As the camera pans around the abandoned set, narratively significant details (miniature Russian and American flags, a framed poster advertising “Kasparov vs. Deep Blue: The Rematch,” the final chess board) are treated to the same detached examination as ostensibly irrelevant minutiae (paint cracks, a dangling coiled phone cord, swaths of drab gray carpeting). This disconcertingly nonhuman POV, the work of a camera mounted on a computer-programmed robotic arm, is a chilling illustration of technology’s unsympathetic brute force.
Korean artist Lee Bul’s first major European museum exhibition begins in the air. Cast in white polyurethane and suspended across Mudam’s I. M. Pei–designed glass and concrete atrium, two squads of sci-fi species appear frozen in the midst of a celestial ballet or battle. Perhaps a little worse for the wear (variably missing arms, legs, and heads), the hard-bodied, humanoid “Cyborgs,” 1997–2011, face off against the amorphous tentacled “Anagrams,” 1999–2006. Alternately evoking classical Greek marbles and “Star Wars” creatures, these ghostly human-scale beings appear to have arisen from Lee’s alien universes and landscapes exhibited on the museum’s lower level.
Playing with scale and legibility, Lee’s topographies are ambiguously utopian or dystopian. A Perfect Suffering, 2011, is part of a sculptural series featuring helical metal armatures adorned with shiny chains, crystals, and glass beads. Hung from the ceiling, these steely, glittering chandeliers are also microcosmic landscapes—floating mountains colonized with winding roadways and Frank Gehry-style buildings. Installed atop a table like an architectural model, Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (My grand narrative: Weep into stones), 2005, recasts real-world attractions—an upside-down Hagia Sophia, a roller coaster-like ring road, a flashing billboard—as a miniature amusement park ride that is at once anachronistically futuristic and ancient. Having observed Lee’s sci-fi terrains and creatures from afar, the viewer also has a chance to experience these elaborate fantasy worlds from within. Past a black curtain and through a low-ceilinged tunnel (Souterrain, 2012) is a large-scale installation whose mirrored floor is populated by two structures whose curious forms tempt the viewer to venture inside. The more disorienting is Via Negativa, 2012, a snail-shaped labyrinth made of wood, mirrors, and LED lights. Excerpts from psychologist Julian Jaynes’s text on the bicameral mind (in English and Korean) plastered to the structure’s exterior walls appear a vain attempt to verbalize the overwhelmingly discombobulating experience of Lee’s hall of mirrors.
An old showcase in the center of the gallery space, like those in jewelry shops and archaeological museums, contains nine small objects on a piece of black velvet. Nearby, a continuous line of nine fourteen-by-fourteen-inch photos, exhibited in black frames and white mats, mark two walls of the gallery space and a corner, while a third wall features nine short descriptions of each object in the showcase.
These components are the work of Daniel Djamo, a young Bucharest-based Romanian artist. His practice sometimes incorporates his own stories and objects, which, when transformed into images (whether photography or video), free themselves of affection and intimacy, and reveal an almost art-historical approach. It all seems part of an effort to reflect upon personal memories and archives, and create new conditions for them—by installing them in an aseptic pseudodiorama. The items in his solo show appear to form a game of fake tautologies, wherein the actual objects, their meanings from Djamo’s personal perspective, and detailed shots created with a macro lens all evoke the question: “What is the use of an art space today?” Djamo shows the viewer objects from his childhood—a special chimney sweeper, a pocketknife, a handkerchief, a bow, a St. George medallion—and then tells the story behind each of them, sharing the year in which he received them, their source, and their meaning to him. The photos are all details, apparently aleatorily chosen. Cut from the original objects, they’re alternately abstract forms (for example, something resembling a blue mandala) or precise representations, such as a metallic torso. The original is hardly recognizable in these depictions, which have become pure timeless icons, acts of exorcism.
The artist ironically plays with viewers, trapping them in Sherlock Holmes-ian thought patterns by compelling them to unceasingly read meaning into image. Djamo seems part of a new generation to whom personal experience is no longer subject or fetish but rather an object of research and a starting point toward a metadiscourse on art’s duplicity.
The practice of Rotterdam-based artists Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum explores social transformation in the West brought forth by late capitalism. In their latest exhibition, organized by the independent curatorial group Latitudes, they examine the “image” of labor that has emerged as economic systems based on Ford-inspired models of mass production have gradually been replaced by immaterial, service-based economies. Producing Time In Between Other Things, 2011, for example, is inspired by the woodturning that van Gorkum’s grandfather picked up after retiring. The artists retrieved the wooden objects (made by the elder van Gorkum) from the homes of their family and friends across the Netherlands, and united them in the gallery alongside photographs of their original locations. The items sit on top of platforms, the supports of which are pieces the artists produced using the same lathe employed by van Gorkum’s grandfather while training in the craft.
In Work in Progress, 2013, Jaio and van Gorkum consider the gradual shuttering of factories across Europe, as provoked by the relocation of many Western manufacturing facilities to the East. A video documents an assembly line of rubber car parts in a Basque Country village, which are destined for international markets. One sees this mass-production at work in a plant managed by blue-collar workers, but also in a later phase during which a female immigrant workforce hand-finishes the components in informal facilities. Jaio and van Gorkum commissioned some of these contracted workers to make resin casts of Spanish artist Jorge Oteiza’s serial, miniature abstract pieces created in the context of his 1970s experimental “Chalk Laboratory” enterprise. These elements are displayed on dedicated shelves alongside a plinth on top of which lie their molds. By establishing a parallel between the alienated action of the laborers and sculpture’s formalist tradition in Spain, Jaio and van Gorkum resort to personal narrative as much as history to activate debates on art’s autonomy, or its capability to engage in a critical assessment of the real.
Directed by Maria Lind, this dynamic project encompasses exhibitions, excursions, and lectures about the people and city of Tensta, a suburb northwest of central Stockholm. The immense program explores history and collective memory while pivoting around a seven-month exhibition cycle with a rigorous schedule of almost daily events. The current session (January 18 to May 18, 2014) sees the participation of over thirty artists—including Minouk Lim, Mila Ivanow, and Tarek Atoui—as well as architects, local collectives and associations, sociologists, cultural geographers, and academics who will discuss issues related to Tensta. Originally a farming area, today Tensta is home to nineteen thousand people, and many live in modernist apartments that were built in the late 1960s as part of a government initiative to solve the housing crisis. With this rapid growth, the identity of the suburb transformed dramatically; the project addresses the problems of a shifting collective memory and the role of cultural heritage.
The museum is a hub for fruitful dialogue. A highlight is Petra Bauer’s collaboration with the local Women’s Center of Tensta-Hjulsta (KITH), political scientist Sofia Wiberg, and architect Filippa Stålhane. Together they present eight “acts” or workshops focusing on listening as a political act and pedagogical tool. The acts thematically focus on housing, home, and living conditions. These ideas continue in the museum with the Grand Domestic Revolution’s open-source library, workshops from artist Ahmet Ögüt and the Silent University, and a lecture by Marion von Osten on her project-exhibition “In the Desert of Modernity—Colonial Planning and After.”
For the duration of the exhibition, the Konsthall has also adapted the institutional title of “Tensta Museum,” an act that critiques institutional authority while simultaneously claiming that authority for as its own. This assumed title manipulates the hierarchy of institutional rhetoric (and associated funding) and reflects a desire for Tensta and its konsthall to be valued by the state. In all, the project weaves together a compelling cartography of a new Sweden: a country beyond stereotypes, which engages with a complex political and social landscape. It manages to orchestrate audiences into meaningful encounters with the city and boldly celebrates and gives voice to the multifaceted lives of the people and communities that form this place.