New York

Felix Gmelin

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

Whether artistic or political, revolution aims at a tabula rasa. Think of Malevich’s quest for painting’s ground zero or the First French Republic’s decree of “year 1.” Paradoxically, though, the leap into post-revolutionary time tends to proceed from a backward glance, from Jacques-Louis David’s nod to ancient Rome in The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, to May 1968’s evocation of October 1917. But as our faith in historical progress—which sustained the idea of a revolutionary break along with its utopian aspirations—appears increasingly on the wane, so, it seems, is our ability to use elements of the past to forge a future that feels genuinely new.

Felix Gmelin’s sense of this impasse is particularly acute—and not surprisingly, considering that his father was a charismatic left-wing professor who rallied his students to political uprising during the glory days of 1968. In Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (Color Test, The Red Flag II), 2002, first shown at last year’s Venice Biennale and one of the three video works included in the Swedish artist’s New York gallery debut, Gmelin puts an oedipal spin on the problem of revolutionary inheritance. The piece consists of two side-by-side projections: The first displays historical footage of a demonstration spearheaded by Gmelin père, in which his students passed a red flag to one another while running in relay fashion through the streets of Berlin; in the second, Gmelin fils is seen restaging the event with his own pupils from the art academy in Stockholm. There is something unsettlingly Warholian about this homage-cum-repetition. But if Gmelin’s copy serves to empty the original gesture, exposing its status as always already a photo op, a crucial difference remains between the two tapes. The ’60-sera students shoulder their load with buoyant eagerness. For them, the red flag is a potent symbol. Their contemporary counterparts, on the other hand, appear to be carrying out a purely formal exercise, a connotation reinforced by the use of the phrase “color test” in the work’s title.

A similarly ironic melancholy pervades Two Films Exchanging Soundtracks, 2003. On opposing walls, the artist presented antithetical paths to revolutionary consciousness: a 1974 agitprop documentary on Maoist education and a 1967 film by German hippies extolling the liberating value of hashish. The mismatched sound tracks result in moments that are darkly comic (crisply uniformed children marching to the strains of psychedelic rock; a hookah-smoking session accompanied by a Five-Year Plan-style report on high school athletic achievement), underscoring, as in Farbtest, both the initial naïveté and the eventual failure of these utopian visions. But, more powerfully, Gmelin’s severing of image from ideological text instills these once passionately held beliefs with a sense of utter arbitrariness, as if, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, they were dreams in a dead language. It is only with Flatbed, The Blue Curtain, 2003, that Gmelin’s appropriation of the historical fragments of revolutionary culture suggests the possibility of a meaningful reinvention. Shot in negative to resemble the eerie incandescence of surveillance-camera footage, the four-hour video shows five anonymous painters meticulously replicating Picasso’s Guernica. The blue curtain in the film’s final frame references the one used to cover the Guernica tapestry in the UN before a speech by Colin Powell arguing for the necessity of invading Iraq. But what really imbues Picasso’s 1937 painting with renewed resonance is less the allusion to current politics than the way that Gmelin’s repetition releases Guernica from the cult of artistic genius, reimagining it as an instance of collective labor.

Margaret Sundell