Ljubljana, Slovenia

Sachiko Kazama, Nonhuman Crossing, 2013, woodcut, 5' 8 7⁄8“ × 11' 8 3⁄4”. From the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts.

Sachiko Kazama, Nonhuman Crossing, 2013, woodcut, 5' 8 7⁄8“ × 11' 8 3⁄4”. From the 33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts.

33rd Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts

Multiple Venues

Humor is political. From stinging ridicule that reveals more about the mockers than about the targets of their taunts to childlike silliness and drollery, all forms of humor showcase our common humanity. Yet shared laughter is also contradictory: It can divide as well as unite. This contradiction is a key point of departure in the work of the international art collective Slavs and Tatars, and it guided their curation of the Thirty-Third Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, “Crack Up-Crack Down.”

The art on view at the biennial’s nine venues offered plenty of evidence that the best satire—whether it critiques specific events, social states of affairs, or public figures—always also involves self-reflection and fun had at one’s own expense. Take The Aspergistan Referendum, 2019, which welcomed visitors at the International Centre of Graphic Arts, the show’s sprawling hub. Created by Hamja Ahsan, the installation encouraged audiences to join the Aspergistan Federation, a movement dedicated to the “global Introfada struggle against Extrovert supremacy” that Ahsan first imagined in his 2018 book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert. Adopting a pseudo-populist rhetoric, the London-based artist focuses on issues apt to exacerbate divisions, subversively appropriating networked structures that are hallmarks of twenty-first-century politics, which privileges salesmanship over substance as a tool for the timid and the self-effacing.

For this biennial, Slavs and Tatars conceived of “graphic art” as a form of engagement rather than a medium, playing on an idea that has been a cornerstone of their own work and editorial activities. The Aspergistan Referendum exemplified this attitude, and not only in its decentralized presentation at several sites in Ljubljana. By originating the memes #VoteAspergistan and #ShyPower, the project also effected the dissemination of a graphical element typical of the digital age: The hashtag fed Ahsan’s demands into a circulation of signifiers that extended well beyond the art world.

In addition to such experimental formats, the biennial’s thirty-six participants also offered works in traditional genres: For instance, Sachiko Kazama’s Nonhuman Crossing, 2013, a technically flawless (and, at roughly six by twelve feet, imposingly large) woodcut, imagined Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya Crossing as an urban dystopia and global visual hybrid. Blending manga, socialist realism, and esotericism, this vivid tableau wove together history, the present, and the future. Nicole Wermers, meanwhile, employed sculpture. Her Givers & Takers #2, #3, and #4, all 2016, combined off-the-shelf kitchen vents with hand dryers. One readymade’s exhaust—hot air—was the other’s intake, the arrangement forming a closed circuit immune to contamination. Yet there was something distinctly sinister in such self-containment. Once you connected the idea of cleanliness evoked by Wermers’s appliances with abstruse fears, stoked by certain political forces, of ethnic contamination—of a “great replacement”—the laughter might have stuck in your throat.

“Crack Up-Crack Down” modeled the ways in which politically motivated art can demonstrate awareness of its own place in society without being ham-fisted. Because if humor is eminently human, it also reminds us of difference, just as each of the works on view represented a specific vantage among a multiplicity of perspectives.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.