Rainer Ganahl

One could describe Rainer Ganahl’s work as a mutant strain of endurance-oriented performance art. Whereas most such work, created in the late ’60s and ’70s, centered around the body—getting shot or cut, squeezing into a confined space, living in extreme conditions for a prescribed period of time—Ganahl’s contemporary version is based on testing the intellect. Over the past decade, Ganahl has taught himself a variety of languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese—he’s now embarking on Arabic) and created projects like Reading Karl Marx, 2001, in which he led groups in various countries, in their own languages, through texts by the founder of Communism. Ganahl’s best-known work is an ongoing series of photographs begun in 1995, “S/L (Seminars/Lectures),” in which he captures speakers such as Terry Eagleton, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Rosalind Krauss mid-oration, along with their rapt audiences.

For this show, Ganahl led readings and discussions on the work of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist whose Prison Notebooks (1929–35) were composed in and smuggled out of Fascist prisons. The sessions, held in the gallery and at a nearby apartment in the week leading up to the exhibition, were conducted in Italian and included local students, artists, and others. Sitting in a circle around a revolving video camera, the participants read the texts aloud and talked them through. The resulting videotape, along with photographs of the discussants musing, arguing their points, or poring over the dense text, constituted the exhibition.

Like many performative projects, this one raised questions as to what the work actually consisted in. Was it the documentation—the photographs and hours of unedited videotape—or the discussion itself? Rather than centering on results, such as aesthetically captivating photos or video, Ganahl places his emphasis on production—specifically, conceptual production. In Ganahl’s lexicon Joseph Kosuth’s “Art as idea” becomes more like art as “idea production” or “exchange.” To watch the video—or, better yet, sit in on a session—was to join an exchange of ideas and, more importantly, a group creating an artwork together.

Behind the whole enterprise is the lurking notion that ideas are formed by language, an idea whose corollary might be that no text can exist as anything other than “local.” Even the ambience of the proceedings recorded on video takes on a local flavor: Vespas buzz in the background; students come and go with a ciao; a woman arrives with dolci and spumante; the arguments in the text are applied—as in any classroom discussion—to contemporary issues and situations.

Surprisingly, language remains transparent, a given, in Ganahl’s work. His rigorous self-educational preparation becomes an applied skill. There was almost no discussion of the mechanics of language in Reading Antonio Gramsci (except when an American entered and the Italians graciously offered to speak English). The only reference to the preparatory drudgery was a video and four drawings in the tiny back room of the gallery, documenting My First 500 Hours Basic Arabic, 2002. The video shows Ganahl at home in his New York apartment, staring at his language books and mouthing basic Arabic sounds. The drawings feature repetitions of Arabic characters. Together these serve as links to future artistic production: further exchanges of ideas in local languages, with other texts, and in other contexts.

Martha Schwendener