Renzo Martens and Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, White Cube (trailer), 2020, video, color, sound, 5 minutes. From “Monoculture: A Recent History.”

Renzo Martens and Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, White Cube (trailer), 2020, video, color, sound, 5 minutes. From “Monoculture: A Recent History.”

“Monoculture: A Recent History”

It is somewhat ironic to have to speak in brief about the prodigious new exhibition “Monoculture: A Recent History,” organized by M HKA associate director Nav Haq. One could see the show as a reflection on the simplification society—simplistic society, even—in which we now live, an era where rash judgments reign. It is as if there were a systemic resistance to grasping the world’s complexity, even though we’ve never had such a clear image of it. The exhibition suggests that our current reality, far from being holistic, is structured by various factions of thought. Each is entrenched in its position, no matter how extreme, and the show illuminates the resulting battlefield of one-way conversations, with everyone wanting to impose their particular morality on others. It also highlights the mixed, often paradoxical realities appearing in the gaps between contending parties.

Specifically, “Monoculture” attends to a range of univocalities and blind spots in scientific research, food production, and monetary and aesthetic value systems. The parallels drawn are telling and fertile. More subtly, the exhibition integrates the senses into this seemingly purely discursive terrain. The shape of the galleries (some specifically modified for this show), the lighting, and the general design register distinct ambiences that correspond to differences in thinking on a subliminal level.

To take one example, near what would constitute the center of the show is a gallery with an indefinable form. One almost feels it to be a place of transit, a passageway, as if it weren’t strong enough to hold any significant content or the attention of a visitor. The works in this space seem to engage phantasmic dichotomies: European/African, white/black, monetary value and its absence. Between these antagonistic positions, a strange sense of emptiness emerges, as if feeding a third, spectral reality, often abstract or ethically paradoxical and not really habitable by anyone.

Here are some of the works on display in this space: a ca. 1978 negative black-and-white Marilyn Monroe from Andy Warhol’s “Reversal Series,” 1979–86; the trailer for a 2020 film showing Renzo Martens’s provocative construction of a “white cube” in the middle of the African bush with the support of a local artists’ enterprise, mimicking a capitalistic logic; an untitled white T-shirt from 1994 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres with the slogan NOBODY OWNS ME written on the back; and a dollar bill signed by Andy Warhol in 1981 along with four dollar-sign screen prints, posthumously issued in 2013 by some Belgian printers to whom Warhol had ceded the right to produce them. Rounding this all off is a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in a glass display case, briefly “summarized” through an extended caption next to it.

Every single room of this amazing exhibition functions in a similar way, though with its own specificity: Mapping underlying ideological dichotomies through the combination of the works, the lighting, and the architecture, the juxtapositions show unexpected nuances, sketching an incredibly dense and accurate portrait of our times, accounting for their inner complexities. Presenting the works of forty-two artists next to some famous, controversial, or underestimated theoretical books, magazines, and exhibition catalogues (by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Simone de Beauvoir, G. K. Chesterton, and Friedrich Nietzsche) and improbable but revealing items (A Record from Ronald Reagan to All Californians, distributed for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign), this exhibition is as intense as a whole biennial, while occupying only one level of the museum: a rare stroke of genius.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.