Issue #40, 2012
Scene

The Same Old Friends: to State, to Challenge, to Resist
Vlad Morariu

 

Artists: João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva, Swantje Hielscher, Thomas Hirschhorn, Bethan Huws, Kitty Kraus, Marcellvs L., Christian Schwarzwald, Richard Wright, Haegue Yang

Art and Philosophy, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 3 September – 30 October 2011 

Philosophers: Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Ray Brassier, Simon Critchley, François Jullien, Catherine Malabou, Boyan Manchev, Chantal Mouffe, Nina Power, Marcus Steinweg

 

On What Is Obvious, to the Extent That It Is not so Obvious 

The German word is offenbar“, says Marcus Steinweg at the beginning of a long discussion in a café, near Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. The statement of the exhibition begins like this: “Es gibt offenbar eine Freundschaft zwischen Kunst und Philosophie“ and offenbar, he continues, “shows the obviousness of this friendship: I believe that we are dealing with a more than obvious friendship“.

It may be that this sentence is based on the experience of more than ten years of friendship and collaboration with Thomas Hirschhorn. It is a relationship that changed them both equally. While Hirschhorn built “monuments“ dedicated to philosophers (Deleuze, Spinoza, Bataille), Steinweg was exhibiting, in parallel with the n.b.k. exhibition, at the BQ Gallery in Berlin, some of his diagrams. Steinweg – suddenly, a philosopher, a curator and an artist? Nevertheless, a very productive hybridization of the ways of expressing the thought. Yet this time, our discussion began from a word which, it seemed to me, at least, stubbornly played us a trick. After forty minutes since the beginning of our talk, we still hadn’t moved from the first sentence of the statement. In fact, it was not I, but Steinweg, who patiently went about many episodes of philosophy and art history; I had just asked the question. A question which had to do with the English translation of offenbar by apparently (that is... “in appearance“? “it seems“?). A small difference, of course, but which made way for doubt, for the suspicion that things may not be quite as obvious.

And, I must say, it was also from here that I became interested in going to Berlin to see the exhibition and discuss with Steinweg. For the question was: how to articulate a discourse, either as an exhibition display or as a series of lectures by philosophers held every Thursday, to make justice both to art and philosophy, both of them being self-centered, both narcissistic, both claiming pre-eminence? Steinweg labelled this friendship as offenbar and I was rather prepared for the hostility of their points of intersection, where one betrays the other, all those promises of alliances that often end up in tragic desertion. On the one hand, the philosophers: Plato expelled the poets from his republic and repudiated painting as an inferior occupation. Hegel, much later, wrote art’s obituary, declaring it as definitely belonging to the past. And, closer to our times, Danto would resume this thesis and announce us that art has turned into its own philosophy. And there are many other examples. This is why philosophers who approached art were often accused, particularly by artists or by those declaring themselves art lovers, that they did not understand it at all. And on the other hand, artists or future artists, which I had to deal with at university seminars, refusing to read, angry at the much too theoretical atmosphere of the art world, nostalgic for the days when art meant working in the studio, where one would seek for the perfect expression or simply for the perfect form. “Too much theory, too much philosophy, we want to do things!“ Where and how, therefore, does the friendship between philosophy and art articulate itself, if we are really dealing with a friendship? 

 

About Friendship, to the Extent That It Calls for the Opponent

But think about whether there can be friendship without tension or love without conflict: things would simply be boring.“ (Marcus Steinweg)

Boring or downright... monstrous, these things that are part of the unthinkable? Steinweg often refers to Marguerite Duras, who, at one point said “Je n’arrive pas à m’imaginer la non-violence!“ (I cannot imagine non-violence!). So what does that full consensus mean or announce if we think that friendship is only consensus and harmony? There is an exercise of political imagination that we may use: Derrida wrote a whole book about the politics of friendship and a large part of it is a commentary on Carl Schmitt’s thesis about the origins of politics: it exists only as long as we can articulate the opponent’s figure. Because otherwise its absence does not necessarily call for harmony, social progress, reconciliation and an eternal space of peace. On the contrary, just because we lose sight of the opponent’s figure, we lose the possibility to identify and safeguard what he can produce – all known forms of hostility, war, conflict, rivalry, cruelty and hatred. In other words, the disappearance of the opponent promises a totalitarianism of violence forms still unheard of, unknown, without measure, without the possibility to be conceived and recognized. And, on these reflections, Derrida asks: “Without an enemy, and thereby without friends, where does one then find oneself, qua a self?“1 This question becomes interesting in view of the very fact of showing that friendship or hostility are only secondary; or, better put, they occur together with a decision regarding our way of being in the world. Not all art is political and not all philosophy is political, but certainly both art and philosophy are considering this type of being in the world. And it is just because we can articulate a position, whatever it may be, that we can name and identify our friends and opponents.

But how are we situated in the world? This appears to be the red thread connecting that which art and philosophy have in common. Shall we accept therefore what Steinweg calls “the texture of facts“, “their commensurate status“, that is to say, what is given and considered as indisputable? And, especially, how is this given given? One could answer: in the way that the socio-economic and political evidences appear to us, which subsists both in what we see, perceive, in everyday life and in the dimension of what Lacan calls the symbolic order consistency. Which both art and philosophy show as inconsistent, incommensurable, contradictory. Art and philosophy appear as a collection of circles tangent, sometimes crossing each other, sometimes differing from each other, building a resistance against history and against what is already established as philosophy, as art, as reality. A lot of philosophers, a lot of artists, each with his vocabulary, his ideas, his language, his concept of art and, respectively, of philosophy, thus difference, rivalry and dispute, but also a friendship defined almost minimally by a common question: “One could say that there is a measurable status of the world, involving everything that is or appears to be certain, obvious, and by that I mean the socio-political and economic evidences. There is a friendship between art and philosophy precisely because every artist and every philosopher questions, above all, the consistency of the texture of the facts, the established order of existence, the world as it is, as it appears, the evidence of the world.“ (Marcus Steinweg) 

 

About Order, to the Extent That It Opens Disorder

First of all, all this show is not “messy“ at all. I have to admit the prejudice I had when I entered n.b.k.: Steinweg worked with Hirschhorn for so long, that I expected something of the precarious constructions of the Swiss artist, something of the oversaturation sensation of its installations to transpire in the curatorial discourse. These expectations, hereby, I assume as unfounded. So, instead, the display looks almost like the diagrams that Steinweg draws sometimes. And diagrams open, so to speak, a field of problems which they articulate conceptually, they help us get directions, like maps, but fail to include the totality of the field as such. The lines joining the works are so thin, that that they could easily fade away; however, the works would still prevail, like separate autonomous chapters in a contemporary philosophy reader, and perhaps in another occasion they would have been entirely otherwise distributed. A very “clear“ display: “I agree with this observation“, Steinweg said to me, “but it was not my intention to create something messy: and I think one can touch the incommensurability of the world, which means to touch chaos. To open it. And that’s why the articulation of this opening must be as clear as possible.“ Let’s say Cartesian, “clear“ and “distinct“, which means that each work and each reading took possession of the space offered and developed, in an almost monadic manner, independent of others. Even the kitsch of Thomas Hirschhorn’s work, reminiscent of one of the works which could be seen at the crowded Swiss pavilion in Venice is more like a controlled chaos, much more delimited, methodical and ordered. A work with two plastic mannequins about five meters high, each staring intensely at the other, dressed in evening outfits covering the floor in concentric circles and spreading dynamically over the walls. Contrary to expectations, there was little adhesive tape at sight (and that which is seen is transparent) allowing for the images of “fire“ to dominate. On the one hand, one of the mannequins’ dress displays heavenly sunsets and landscapes, where one can often glimpse silhouettes of loving couples. On the other character’s dress, images of disaster, with accidents, fires, explosions and mangled bodies. There are hundreds of images taken from the media which work together, operating the dialectic synthesis of incandescence. A Thomas Hirschhorn which, this time, is not “too much“, and who appears “flawlessly“ accurate, attributes that make the experience of this work (and perhaps any work that the Swiss artist would install in a group exhibition) something pretty different from the experience of an installation in a space fully occupied by Hirschhorn. And this way of self-limitation, equally spatial and conceptual, characterizes each work. For example, in Marcellvs L.’s video work Toga (Icelandic for draw), the camera insists for 15 minutes on the recovery operations of a net in a motorboat at sea. The monotony of the engine sound and the constancy of the rhythm in which the whole network of strings and meshes pass before the fix camera becomes a visual-abstract metaphor of the social reality fabric, equally characterized by networks and relationships that overlap and intersect. At the same time, however, it is precisely this acoustic-visual uniformity that contains the threat of a spectrum: the eye does not perceive it in Marcellvs L.’s work since we ourselves exist by building safety belts, networks of plans and expectations, forecasts with minimal risks; or, in other words, because our own eyes are not adapted for seeing ghosts. But, undoubtedly, the ghost of what occurs uncontrollably, unpredictably, manifesting in everyday life ruptures, installs beyond the limit of the visible. This makes Toga a comment on presence as well as on absence, on the islands of consistency in the oceans of inconsistency. Kitty Kraus’s work, whose kinetic installations I had seen the day before at the Hamburger Banhof, lacks a title. Or, rather, is “Untitled“: an installation with two rectangular glass panels, with thin edges “stuck“ in a nearly impossible manner one upon another, with the edge of one leaning on the wall, while the edge of the other anchors the construction to the floor; similarly, a halogen lamp lighting thanks to an open electric arc. But I think that the fragile balance of this installation is not only visual, but also symbolic, so an “entitled“ title would only add an extra semantic load, which would perhaps disturb this precarious, poetic order of the fragility of existence on which the artist is rather silent. Also in the same vein – of the great questions about one’s own existence and our relationship with the world – in Vol. 2: METANOIA, Christian Schwarzwald installed 470 A4 drawings in colours ranging from blue to grey and black and which display a mixture of words, abstract patterns, wrought iron window frames and people in reflective positions (among them, Auguste Rodin’s Thinker). This ensemble refers to the question about the conditions and possibilities that limit our thinking or, rather, about the ways in which it can anticipate and articulate the changes in the ways of seeing the world.

And indeed, as Steinweg said, both philosophy and art sometimes perform an exercise of resisting their own histories. There are plenty of works in this exhibition alluding to modern art references. Richard Wright, for example, is working with the white cube quality of the n.b.k. space. I should observe that all exhibitions I saw here always tried to avoid the white cube constraints, by partitioning and sectioning the space differently. This time, however, the interior architecture remained airy, retreating, somehow, from the way of the works themselves. Well, Wright works in an inert corner, whose ceiling and walls he covered with a decorative pattern composed of green zigzags. An “Untitled“ work as well, and monotonous, too, at least for the creative hand, which should show much patience; as for the visitor’s eye watching from a certain distance this overcrowding painted lines, there are all the prerequisites for perceiving a mirage, that of vibration and movement, as if that portion of the cube could overcome its condition of clinical death and could come to life. Then, there is a direct reference to the two versions of Marcel Duchamp’s work Nu descendant un escalier (1911/1912) in Bethan Huws’ four pieces installation and, one could say, the same interest to question the relationship between art and reality. In this ensemble, Duchamp work’s title is written in white and framed by a black background in a painting-like image. In front of it, a glass case containing the miniature of a boat made from dry grass, floating on a wooden board. Then a pencil drawing showing ladders and snakes. And, finally, perhaps the centre of this composition, the video work Ion On, where an actor, walking through wide landscapes and ruins, recites with different tones and rhythms 45 fictional dialogues between an artist and a curator, passing through a variety of places and discourses, realities and fictions. Further, the universe of images in the work Wheels, signed by João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, reminds of the first avant-garde experiments with moving images from the early twentieth century. Yes, again, it concerns movement, and in this case it’s about the bicycle wheel (perhaps another hint at Duchamp?). First seconds of the movie, where we look at the bicycle wheel, could be preparing us for a kind of archaeology of the technical conditions that make mobility possible today. Yet, while the bicycle wheel remains in position and rotates at a relatively low speed, the entire background begins to rotate all of a sudden, faster, a vertigo which perhaps means that this world is not based only on technical and rational scientific explanations: there is, in addition, a part of it which belongs to the magic, to the esoteric, to the para-scientific, things we suspend in oblivion, but which insistently demand attention. Schnur im Nebel (Introtourismus) by Haegue Yang (produced in collaboration with Peter Luetje) is composed of a locked safe, placed on a table before which is a chair. It is a work shrouded in mystery, making us think about what is absent, since we receive no indication of what’s inside; that, if we don’t read the exhibition brochure. In fact, it is an installation that pays tribute to the work Exotourisme of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (based on a 1960s science fiction movie full of psychedelic images): Yang and Luetje travelled to the Baltic Sea taking with them nine single use cameras, seven of which are unopened in the vault whose key was “lost“. The journey not printed on photographic paper moves to a new register, less real, less according to the facts, since it only remains in the memory and imagination of the two artists. And so, again, we have a meditation on the border between real and unreal. Finally, Swantje Hielscher came with a work conceptually hybrid, with an almost Foucauldian title Für die Wahrheit (For truth). It’s an installation with a steel frame mounted on two large sheets of glass, but in a way that the glass does not allow to be tamed, escaping from its frames. On the one hand, there is a connection with the large windows at n.b.k., which Hielscher’s glass panels exceed in size. In other words, a new act of resisting the preconditions of the space in which the work is installed, a rupture produced in what one might call the white cube’s measurability. But, at the same time, Hielscher’s work is quite close to that of Schwarzwald, by questioning the frames of our thinking, and I described this work as almost “Foucauldian“ because it reminds the Foucauldian reclaiming of the term parrhesia: that is, a relationship between the speaker and his statements, in which things are said like they are, using the most direct forms of expression without hiding anything and without resorting to rhetoric or to the art of persuasion. Viewed this way, this work describes the situation where the subject of the statement and the subject of the enunciation are absolutely transparent and identify themselves (the transparency of the huge panels) in an act of courage to face both present limitations (the narrow steel frame) and possible future negative consequences.

And at this point I will commit an injustice, because although Steinweg warned me that the philosophical readings are not simply a Rahmenprogramm, a framework program, but additional events with the same status as the works themselves, I cannot address them here but in a very modest way: during the time I spent in Berlin, I only attended Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s reading. It becomes quite clear, however, that Steinweg’s intention was to invite a number of philosophers to present their concept of philosophy, their own approach and their own collection of interests. Finally, the question that each of them tried to answer was “What is philosophy?“ Kacem, in particular, is interested by the various configurations of the historical relations between science and politics, on the one hand, and art and philosophy, on the other hand, as the latter articulate areas of resistance to the positivist universality of science. But the interests of those present were as different, perhaps, as there are different branches of philosophy. For example, while Simon Critchley has developed in his speech a defence of tragedy in face of philosophy, Catherine Malabou engaged in a critique of the notions of biopolitics and biopower, and Chantal Mouffe discussed the project of radical democracy showing that the antagonistic dimensions of politics are necessary, considering as illusory any attempt to find a philosophical basis for policy. 

 

One Last Word about Our Old Friends 

A curator, perhaps like an artist or a philosopher, would have to invent his own concept of curating.“ (Marcus Steinweg) But what does, in fact, mean to curate? If we are to examine the Latin roots of the word, it means to take care of something, to be responsible for the care (of souls). Care, that is, fear, anxiety, foresight and anticipation of a danger. Care and caring – hazardous concepts, as long as the lines between the attention for the other and the narcissistic glorification of the self are very narrow. One never knows whether one crossed the line. But I would say that the n.b.k. show was more of an anti-narcissistic therapy, which did not yield to temptations of a one-sided discourse. Steinweg remained in the background, as more of a temporary host and confirming, if I may say so, those he invited. Thus, the site has turned into a space for searching common areas, but also for the manifestation of opposites, where assumptions are questioned, revisited and discussed again. An activity which, ultimately, manages to penetrate to the bottom of things and to turn both the (contemporary) artistic discourse and the (contemporary) philosophical one in faithful companions of our daily lives.

Translated by Alex Moldovan

Note:

1.  Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, London–New York, Verso, 1997, p. 77.