“The State of Things (Part I)”

Start cramming. Catherine David is back with “L’État des choses (1ère partie),” her first major exhibition since curating Documenta X four years ago. Taking her cue from the philosopher Jacques Rancière, who links politics and aesthetics through sense perception, David proposes an anthropological development of the aesthetic, whereby art becomes indistinguishable from politics and media. The thirteen artists included in the show, mostly filmmakers and photographers, work in highly politicized and diverse cultural contexts in South Africa, China, Europe, and the Middle East. All use documentary methods, but they present events in a way that obstructs their content as information and yet falls short of beauty. David is interested in showing works that make visitors take a second look at images they would normally consume rapidly, if at all, in the mass media. We are asked to experience aesthetics without beauty, politics beyond the, state, anthropology without exoticism, and events as something other than spectacles.

A good example of this prescription could be found in Harun Farocki’s video installation Ich glaubte Gefangene zu sehen (I thought I was seeing convicts), 2000, which documents prison surveillance methods. Farocki focuses on the ultimate piece of reported information: death. On April 7, 1989, inmate William Martinez is shot from a surveillance tower at the California State Prison in Corcoran for fighting with another inmate. While Farocki’s subtitles describe what is occurring in the footage picked up by the surveillance camera, it is hard to know how to watch the killing as an event, let alone as an artwork. There is something horrific but also captivating in the slow-motion death dance of this prisoner who continues to swing his fists as he stumbles across the courtyard. The nine minutes that pass before the corpse is removed have been conveniently fast-forwarded by the prison to save time. But for whom? The addressee of these images becomes all the more unclear in the museum context, where viewers are unwittingly transformed into witnesses who can never testify, nor hope for justice.

While it may be surprising that the prison gave away the footage, Farocki’s use of the images for an art installation is also questionable. The issue here and in other works is not whether to look but how to look. Thus, the catalogue claims that Kader Attia is “no voyeur in search of sensations,” although it is hard not to sense the voyeuristic pleasure involved in his photographs of Algerian transvestites in Paris. Some interventions seem as ruthless as the dominant press images they attempt to question. In This is not Egypt, 1999, Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg filmed a woman eating an apple awkwardly behind her veil and, later, urinating in the desert. While suggesting that there is no correct way to film Egypt’s alterity, this play on (in)visibility shows that the camera itself forces every subject to striptease. Only Alejandra Riera’s collages of cropped magazine photographs frustrate the media’s original use of the images by displacing their focus from the main action.

The suspension of aesthetic pleasure is most explicit in photographs that undermine formalism using its apparent neutrality to depict politically charged subjects. Santu Mofokeng’s large black-and-white cityscapes cast Paul Strand’s ominous urban shadows, but on people in downtown Johannesburg, who seem to be waiting for an event one cannot fathom. Efrat Shvily’s shots of empty Israeli housing construction sites in the West Bank look like ready-made ruins from a Disneyland Greece, but the explosiveness of the new settlements is undeniable. Comparable are her portraits of Palestinian cabinet members, who peer out from their frames like Yousuf Karsh’s Hemingway—a series of interchangeable heroes ready for the postage stamps of a country striving to exist.

No amount of homework on contemporary geopolitics and French philosophy would be enough to betray the fraud in the collection of pictures of cars used for bombs in the Lebanese civil wars. Although an elaborate wall text tells the story of the “Fakhouri File,” these notebooks, like all the works in Walid Ra’ad’s “Atlas Group Archive” project, are fictions. Ra’ad’s installations raised questions about the veracity, if not the sincerity, of the other interventions, which seemed unfair to all participants. But perhaps the inclusion of this fake among realities revealed David's ultimate message: The state of things relies on entirely dubious circumstances.

Jennifer Allen