Critics’ Picks

View of “The Beast and the Sovereign,” 2015.

Barcelona

“The Beast and the Sovereign”

Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)
Plaça dels Angels, 1
March 19–August 30, 2015

The most dramatic, and popular, exhibition in the museum’s recent history borrows its title from Jacques Derrida’s late lecture on the beast and the sovereign—the two entities he identified as being beyond the law’s reach due to ignorance and supremacy, respectively. For Derrida, the two subjects are not only a binary opposition; they are also engaged in an act of co-becoming. This idea infuses the most intriguing works in a thirty-artist exhibition exploring dominance in surprisingly intricate ways. Artists address surgical pandrogeny and fictional identity, provide a narrative analysis of suicide terrorism, and display rare archival photographs of SS officers cross-dressing and heatedly embracing. In the animal realm, Jan Peter Hammer’s documentary film Tilikum, 2013–15, on SeaWorld’s and humankind’s cruel attempts to control nature, made me ashamed of all of us.

The seat of controversy here, however, is a sculpture by Austrian artist Ines Doujak, Not Dressed for Conquering, 2010, which depicts the former Spanish king Juan Carlos engaged in a backward-facing sexual act with Bolivian labor leader and activist Domitila Chúngara and a joyful dog. The day before the exhibition was to open, MACBA’s director cancelled it. After protests, the show finally opened, but days later the director resigned and rumors are still circulating. The supreme irony is that the director’s final act was to fire the two talented curators of “The Beast and the Sovereign,” Valentín Roma and Paul B. Preciado. The institution’s power struggles are a timely reminder that a commitment to creative sovereignty isn’t merely theoretical: Artists and curators fight to make such exhibitions possible.