The Battle of Opposites

30 artists are presented in the first large-scale exhibition of works from the collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos, in a grouping that re-visits the ideas of life and death, creation and decay, materiality and immateriality, as well as thought and action, in a divided world.

Nikos Kazantzakis wrote: “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life” in the prologue to The Saviours of God. Written in Berlin between 1922-23, shortly after World War I, the first fully-mechanised war and the second deadliest conflict in world history, killing nine million out of 70 million combatants in four years, the text ponders the co-existence of creation and destruction at a time that witnessed death on an unprecedented scale.

Articulating the experience of generations racing towards an uncertain future while striving to make the most of a fleeting, mortal and ultimately disposable existence, The Saviours of God responds to the birth pangs of a 20th century built on the fruits of 18th and 19th century industrialism and the death of old world imperialism. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian Empires all collapsed as a result of World War I. Soon after, the Great Depression brought about a major global economic crisis, giving way to the rise of socialism and fascism. “We are living in a critical, violent moment of history; an entire world is crashing down, another has not yet been born,” Kazantzakis observed. “This is our epoch, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor – we did not choose it.”

Plunging headfirst into the 21st century, group exhibition The Luminous Interval at The Guggenheim Bilbao takes The Saviours of God as a starting point to address the myriad and often uncontrollable dualities that surround the cyclical nature of life, from the conception of a foetus or an artwork to the birth of a nation, and the subsequent demise of both. Curated by Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Nancy Spector and Assistant Curator Katherine Brinson, some 60 mostly large-scale works made in the 1980s to the present day by a bevy of 30 international heavyweights including Matthew Barney, Mona Hatoum, Robert Gober, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Paul McCarthy and Gabriel Orozco have been taken from the vault of collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos.

The urgency with which the collision of national and international systems and their impacts on the individual and collective experience must be mediated has never been greater. Walid Raad and The Atlas Group’s I Was Overcome with a Momentary Panic at the Thought that They Might Be Right (2004) underscores this. In the work, photographic and written observations of bombings during the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1991 by a senior Lebanese explosives and ammunitions expert are presented alongside foam sculptures marking out the craters left by explosions. Coupled with Alexandros Psychoulis’s Body Milk (2003), which imagines the aftermath of a female Palestinian suicide bomber’s attack in a supermarket, there is a sense of demand for critical engagement with a fragmented world that continues to act violently and without remorse, despite the lessons of its collective past.

The pairing of Annette Messager’s Dependence/Independence (1995), and Wangechi Mutu’s Exhuming Gluttony (2006/11), best visualises the spectrum of creation and destruction that drives the contemporary allegory communicated in the show’s grand narrative. Messager hangs stuffed animals, hand-sewn cloth letters, colouring pencils, photographs and drawings from reams of wool falling from the ceiling and arranged to form a heart. Walk through a red, ink-stained curtain demarcating the space and childlike nostalgia melts into Mutu’s darkened room rank with the smell of fermenting wine dripping from bottles hung over a luscious, wooden table. Animal pelts line one wall, while a spray of bullet holes marks another. The guilty scene suggests the aftermath of a gluttonous ritual, or a frenzied massacre.

The two works illustrate the dichotomy of innocence and experience in creativity and how childlike desire often gives way to a similarly instinctive tendency to destroy. Exhuming Gluttony responds to the capitalist excess Mutu encountered when relocating from Africa to the United States as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars raged. Expressing no geographical or temporal marker, the one certainty in Mutu’s installation is that the wine will soon run out, and the table will rot, just as empires eventually fall into decline. Underfoot, hair covering the installation floor attaches to most viewers’ shoes and disperses around the gallery, implicating all who enter in a grotesque spectacle of excess; not a bad way to describe the exhibition in its entirety.

Presented independently in its own space, John Bock’s 59 minute and 14 second film murder-slash-road movie Palms (2007) acts as a prologue or even a disclaimer to The Luminous Interval. The film follows two German assassins played by Thomas Loibl and Rudolf Waldemar Brem in an odyssey that attacks time and space through a nonsensical narrative so ridiculous it makes the absurd a point of contemplation when projected alongside the physical relic of the Lincoln convertible used in the film. Blurring the lines between staged and experienced histories, swollen, red, vein-like tentacles flow out of the car engine, attacking the space like a parasitic organism.

As Bock’s props spill out over the red wave, Daskalopoulos’ collection spreads into the exhibition spaces with combustive and unstoppable nonchalance for Daskalopoulos’ position as collector and board member at the Guggenheim. But despite the show’s scale, obvious market value, and selection of incredibly established and widely-exhibited artists, viewers are challenged to re-engage with human consciousness, creativity and its tempestuous relationship with wealth and power despite the well-trodden debates surrounding collectors and their relationships with museums. After all, like the parasite that has taken over Bock’s Lincoln convertible, in many cases money is the parasite that gives art life, and art gives meaning to otherwise meaningless existences.

Nevertheless, the complicated networks and value systems artists navigate today is something Thomas Hirschhorn touched on when speaking of an “artist’s dilemma” during the artist’s discussion panel (9 April, 2011). Having signed a petition to boycott the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in reaction to treatment of workers in the construction of the institution, Hirschhorn related his problem as an artist balancing personal beliefs with a natural desire to effect change while discussing Cavemanman (2002), a sprawling installation of an underground Marxian utopia exalting equality and knowledge. In doing so, Hirschhorn exposes a sense of latent hypocrisy that lies in every crevice of our cracked reality – even an artist’s pure intentions can be quickly polluted once exposed to hierarchical value systems, just as ideologies can quickly mutate into something unrelated to their initial intentions.

Fellow signatory Paul Pfeiffer, presenting footage from the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium when England beat West Germany coupled with crowd noises by people from the Philippines as an intervention on historical narrative in The Saints (2007), furthered the discussion. Accepting the contradictory undertones of showing at the Guggenheim, Pfeiffer justified his actions with the notion that art provides the possibility to address such inconsistencies. In response, Daskalopoulos informed the artists that such a dilemma should not exist; the fact that a Western institution like The Guggenheim was able to enter Abu Dhabi and perhaps effect change through artistic discourse was positive.

At this point, it is impossible not to ignore the Ibedrola building, one of the Guggenheim Bilbao’s main corporate sponsors, towering directly over Frank Gehry’s landmark design. There is no shying away from the monetary cloud that hangs over much of human output, from the work of an artist, to the running of an institution, to the operations of multinationals. The burning question is how we accept such double standards enough to formulate sincere contributions to a wider discussion. As Kazantzakis said of the opposing forces of creation and destruction: “It is our duty … to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonise these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision, to modulate our thinking and our action.” We could do the same with other oppositions.

For Kendell Geers, the relationship between art and money is a non-point that detracts from greater issues such as the human cost of innovation when used to dominate. “Show me money that isn’t dirty,” he deadpans. Through Akropolis Now (2004), Geers addresses the conflicting identity of the Greek goddess Athena as goddess of war, wisdom and civilisation through the construction of razor mesh columns. A material used as human barriers in contemporary warfare, conflict zones, prisons, and borders, Geers had to wait for supplies of razor mesh to replenish during the Iraq war due to its sustained use within the conflict. By turning the mesh into sculpture, Geers inverts the use of the material as a tool that speaks for humanity rather than suppresses it.

Like Geers, Steve McQueen’s video Gravesend (2007) approaches material and its political use through the journey of coltan, an ore used as a conductor in electrical devices from laptops to mobile phones. Like blood-diamonds, coltan has fuelled bloody conflicts within the Congo, where 80% of global supply is sourced. From the Congolese mines to manufacturing in an electronics factory in the UK, scenes of bare hands cleaning extracted rocks in a jungle stream juxtaposed against the robotic arms of mass production highlight the realities of neo-imperialism driven by the ruthless proliferation of resources. Yet the world remains caught in an international race that mistakes material wealth for transcendence, which may only lead to self-annihilation. Rivane Neuenschwander’s 10-minute video work Contingent (Contingente) (2008) underscores this by rendering the world map in honey and letting ants feed hungrily on the mass until it disappears completely.

In Küba (2004), Kutluğ Ataman interviews 40 residents in an Istanbul slum known for social outcasts and rebels. One resident explains how inhabitants of the impoverished neighbourhood are united by material deprivation. On the flipside, viewers of Ataman’s interviews at the Guggenheim most probably suffer from spiritual deprivation amidst material abundance accumulated at a grave and historical cost. In this light, the delicate treatment of the human figure and the individual experience becomes the most moving element in a show that seeks to overwhelm. From Louise Bourgeois’ Cell IX (1999), which imprisons a tender moment of touch between an adult and child in a steel cage, to the powerful grouping of Kiki Smith’s sculptures from the early 1990s that approach the physical form as transient, we are reminded of the immaterial body – the soul – so often overlooked and in danger of vanishing altogether.

As such, Paul Chan’s 3rd Light (2006) from the series The 7 Lights (2005-07), speaks to a divided world that has lost its spirit. Modelled on Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-98), a wooden table is placed in a room upon which lights that correspond with the colours of the day projects the form of three windows. Silhouettes of everyday items – starting with an apple – drift upwards into the sky while occasionally objects, including human figures, fall. Through the work, Chan questions what a disaster without chaos might look and feel like. If 3rd Light is anything to go by, it feels like nothing. Yet in its reductive minimalism, the absence of clutter expresses a weightlessness that forces the viewer to surrender to the inevitable. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” The challenge is to find light within ourselves so that we might discover it in the darkest places.

Maybe that’s why cleaning a dirty skeleton with soap and water in Marina Abramović’s Cleaning the Mirror #1 (1995) feels like a remedy to the spectacle. As much as the thought of peeling back your skin to cleanse your core stings, the work echoes the desire for renewal. As Kazantzakis wrote: “As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment.” In the face of destruction, creativity – in whatever form – remains the oldest and most potent weapon against forces greater than us.

The Luminous Interval continued until 11 September 2011.

Stephanie Bailey