Andreas Siekmann, In the Stomach of the Predators (detail), 2013, steel, wood, digital prints on canvas, dimensions variable.

Andreas Siekmann, In the Stomach of the Predators (detail), 2013, steel, wood, digital prints on canvas, dimensions variable.

Andreas Siekmann

Andreas Siekmann, In the Stomach of the Predators (detail), 2013, steel, wood, digital prints on canvas, dimensions variable.

This show took its title from a line by Karl Marx––both figuratively and literally. Witness to a parliamentary debate in 1842 that resulted in a ban on gathering fallen twigs for firewood in public forests in Germany’s Rhineland, until then a common practice among the poor, Marx imagined, “In the stomach of the predators, nature has provided the battlefield of union, the crucible of closest fusion, the organ connecting the various animal species.” The rural aristocracy was reshaping feudal standards of property, and, as Marx argued, the citizenry was becoming subject to control by private interests where natural resources were at stake. Timely in its own way, Andreas Siekmann’s exhibition “In the Stomach of the Predators” aimed his signature, isotype-style pictograms and patent critical Marxist methodology at the socioeconomics of agriculture, from multinationals such as Monsanto to the preservationist Svalbard Global Seed Vault project.

Twelve tableaux, white fabric printed with motifs in blue (and sometimes red) and mounted on stretchers, were arranged on six metal structures. The prints themselves depict complex arrangements of silhouetted figures and objects, symbols, corporate logos, and diagrammatic elements––minute in detail, accompanied by text, and composed using Microsoft Word. All twelve tableaux are also numbered, suggesting that they develop in sequence, perhaps outlining an argument. Their emphatically documentary, if biased, account concerns interrelations in the field of agriculture––going back over a dozen decades––between private businesses, NGOs, nation-states, the media, and technology. Siekmann believes disasters and market demand are integrally linked and points up instances of each with bullhorn-shaped graphics. But the links he envisions are complicated and opaque: A natural disaster, the Dust Bowl, is symbolized on one canvas not far from motifs relating to fertilizer’s increased role in the defense industry—this is in addition to three other disaster graphics, four demand diagrams, and a dozen graphs. To aid the viewer in making connections, boxes of note cards containing short blurbs and Internet links were available in the gallery.

Less didactic in intention but still related, small paintings of tulips hung across three of the gallery’s walls. They implicitly referenced the tulip mania that swept Holland in the seventeenth century—and thus vaguely acknowledged recent speculative bubbles—but each was also explicitly linked to the agricultural narrative through Siekmann’s inclusion of insects in silhouette. Still, a degree of ambiguity appears to be what the contemporary art world prefers; thus it might befit critical artists to let political and societal pronouncements abstract into form or iconography open to interpretation. This could trigger a crisis of identity for many who have codified conventional models of outright critique, including Siekmann and his frequent collaborator Alice Creischer. Nevertheless, such ambiguity already characterizes their work to some extent––although hers to a much greater degree, judging from her concurrent, identically titled exhibition at KOW in Berlin.

Creischer’s formal language is fragile and enigmatic, cryptic and performative, combining sculpture and collage. KOW’s main space was occupied by convoluted constructions: handbags stitched with laser-printed images of stomachs pinned to makeshift costumes via two-story-long rubber “bowels.” Through her extensive use of codes and costuming, Creischer elegantly acknowledges her works’ status as objects of speculation; they imply that concrete, literal meaning lurks beneath unreliable and often impenetrable surfaces. Siekmann is more forthright in his approach to information. Yet his pictograms already teeter on the edge of illegibility, given their overwrought, intensely subjective logic. Perhaps this latent quality represents a direction that would be more adequate to an art for the age of information exchange.

––John Beeson