The Politics of Sustenance

The FACE Collection presents Investigations of a Dog. Using the analogy of a dog questioning the origins of food, the exhibition considers what sustains mankind in the 21st century.

Investigations of a Dog features work by 40 artists taken from five European art foundations that constitute the Foundation of Arts for a Contemporary Europe (FACE). An ambitious undertaking, the show premiered at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy, in October, 2009, and travelled to the Ellipse Foundation, Portugal, La Maison Rouge – Fondation Antoine de Galbert, France, and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Sweden. The DESTE Foundation in Athens, Greece, is its final destination, and where the exhibition is re-interpreted with an emphasis on today’s social reality, with a slight reshuffle to the artist and work list by local curator Nadja Argyropoulou.

Based on Franz Kafka’s 1922 story of a dog tormented and emboldened by his questions on where food comes from, the canine finds himself marginalised for his curiosity. In the story, he explains: “I began my enquiries with the simplest things. There was no lack of material; it is the actual superabundance, unfortunately, that casts me into despair in my darker hours.” Reflecting on the realities of post-WWI Europe, Kafka questions the purpose of creativity in a world built on consumption. The exhibition expands on this by searching for a political dimension to art-making that precedes the content of the work in the hope of linking individual artworks to collective contexts.

The show opened one week before the violent protests against the second wave of EU/IMF austerity measures that passed through Greek parliament this June. A physical manifestation of the face-off between reality and representation in the public sphere, the economic and political turmoil in Greece creates a backdrop for Bruce Nauman’s upside down welded steel chair frame, Untitled (Suspended Chair, Vertical III) (1987), held by steel cables in midair, reflected onto the concave surface of Moon (1994-2000), Jeff Koons’ oversized steel relief sculpture of a balloon in DESTE’s entrance hall. Nauman’s rigid use of material speaks to industrial production, contrasted by Koons’ whimsical monumentalising of the infiltration of mechanical production into the everyday.

On a dividing wall, Sigalit Landau’s naked torso hula hooping with barbed wire in the video Barbed Hula (2000) plays on the individual experiences within violent histories. As the repetitive motion plays out, skin reddens and swells, visually recalling the thorn crown, flagellation, the exhaustive, cyclical nature of time, and the pain and passion mankind has both inflicted and endured. Barbed Hula combines the material language of confinement and conflict with the added innocence of a childhood game, suggesting the trivialisation of personal experience in the machine that drives the global zeitgeist.

In the main hall, Nauman’s suspended chair gives way to a greyscale image of a woman with her back to the viewer holding a chair frame around her hips in Annika von Hausswolff’s Live from the Ocean (2005). The work refers to Philosophical Chair (2003), on which von Hausswolff commented: “It has stepped out of its existing role, as a chair that you sit in. Partly, it has no seat left, and partly, it floats, it has surpassed itself, you might say.” This idea is visualised in Miri Segal’s video Downcast Autumn Day (2004); city scenes projected on a screen. A pool of clear liquid seeps out from the bottom reflecting the video and communicating the relationship between mediated reality and common reality. Concurrently, Kimsooja’s Bottari Truck (2005) packed with cloth bun­dles used to carry possessions during periods of migration, transfers the mediated image into an object, bringing the realities of political and economic refugees into the gallery space.

Reflecting on the possibility of today’s terrorists becoming tomorrow’s freedom fighters, the sound of military parades from Artur Żmijewski’s video Democracies (2009) fills the room, where a large, black chunk of earth bursts out from the ceiling: the ground level view of Urs Fischer’s apocalyptic Untitled (Hole) (2005). In Democracies, Polish protests, religious parades and military re-enactments are viewed alongside pro-Palestinian protests in Israel. Shouts of “Allah Akbar” and the sound of Polish actors kissing the cross in Warsaw Uprisings re-enactments cross into 9/11 Front Page (2001), Hans Peter Feldman’s installation of newspaper front pages documenting the 9/11 attacks. Here, history has been objectified into images that symbolise single events isolated from the pluralistic contexts from which they occurred. There is a sense that 9/11 has not been fully contextualised within the history of geo-politics and global economics, underlined by David Hammons’ macabre African-American Flag (1990) hanging insidiously nearby.

Cue Thomas Hirschhorn’s characteristic photocopies. Spin Off (1998) presents a giant Swiss Army knife crudely-rendered in cardboard and foil connected to tableaux of photocopied texts mostly from Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share, An Essay on General Economy, and commercial magazine images and news clippings. Hirschhorn ponders Bataille’s words on sacrifice and consumption: “Sacrifice restores to the sacred world that which servile use has made a thing (an object) of that which, in a deep sense, is of the same nature as the subject.” He continues: “Once the world of things was posited, man himself became one of the things of this world, at least for the time in which he laboured. It is this degradation that man has always tried to escape.”

The Swiss Army knife poised against the installation frame somehow echoes the crucifixion, and recalls Barbed Hula’s allusion to the thorn crown, touching on the body as a vessel, just as Kafka places a messianic figure in a dog’s body, and newspaper images characterise the Twin Towers as a symbol of ambiguous martyrdom. It is with this realisation the exhibition expands. On the stairs, a child in a blue jumpsuit and beanie presses its face against a corner in Virginie Barré’s Untitled «Les Hommes Venus d’Ailleurs» (2007). Above, banners with phrases such as “We are creating enemies faster than we can kill them” and “Don’t believe everything you think” from Lara Schnitger’s Gridlock (2005) address the trivialisation of political discourse condensed into slogans and one-liners, and the alienation that ensues. On the 1st floor, Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Hole) is viewed as a massive hole built into the gallery, resembling a grave. But next to Maurizio Cattelan’s Mother, photographic documentation of a performance where a fakir was buried in a mound of earth leaving only his hands exposed to the air, Fischer’s work bears hope, suggesting resurrection as opposed to burial. Nevertheless, Mother’s reference to Albrecht Durer’s iconic print of praying hands again addresses repetition in collective histories.

In this sense, the pairing of Gardar Eide Einarsson’s Burnt White Flag (2005) bearing the word LIBERTY (without the option of death) and Mircea Cantor’s The Landscape is Changing (2003), a video of a group demonstration using placards made of mirrors, emphasises the inadequacies of traditional modes of protest. Is this why Jeff Koons’ bronze life vest Aqualung (1985) is strategically placed at the end of this curatorial segment like an escape clause? As Kafka noted, art is both necessary and futile. If so, what is the point? Echoing this, the next room opens with Marepe’s Rio Fundo (2004), a makeshift cachaça bar made of tables wrapped with inner tubes. DeAnna Maganias’ miniature white room The View from My Bed (2007) offers another artificial retreat – the individual’s refuge – something consumerism happily supports.

Next door, Martin Parr’s Common Sense (1999), an installation of images representing kitsch Americana elaborates on the artificially-constructed, consumer realities according to consumer-manifested archetypes. The effect is anaesthetising. Not even Santiago Sierra’s black and white surveillance-esque video documentation of PERSON OBSTRUCTING A LINE OF CONTAINERS, Kaj 3 Frihammen, Stockholm, Sweden (2009) can provide ample protest against the distraction of candy-coloured cupcakes and glazed cherries. In response, Mark Dion’s The Evolution and Fixivity of a Rodent Species (1990) charts the evolution of Mickey Mouse as an animal reduced to an object that facilitates popular consumption, showing how man has followed the same pattern.

In the largest space on DESTE’s 1st floor, Vasco Araújo’s About Being Different (2007), contains interviews with five parishioners from Gateshead discussing the realities of being different in a small community. Nearby, Fischli and Weiss’ hollow, polyurethane sculpture Animal (1986), with holes for its eyes, nostrils, mouth and anus, is positioned to face the video of a silent middle-aged woman in Philippe Bazin’s Une heure de travail «Dufftown, n°9, Ecosse» (2002). When one looks through Animal from behind, the woman’s silent mouth is framed by the animal’s hollow mouth. As Kafka’s dog exclaims: “How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at bottom!” The view from the animal’s bottom shows a mouth that does not speak.

Meanwhile, Look at Me I Look at Water (1999), Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of people living in the Soviet Union’s decline, includes a harrowing image of a bewildered-looking man with blood smeared around his face and hands, having eaten something contained in his plastic bag. The image depicts the carnal nature of people reduced to animals in an orgiastic display of physical and political degeneration. Consumers are implicated with blood on their hands and mouths, or, in the case of David Hammons’ museum-style exhibit of an oriental woman’s robes, Untitled (1995 – 2002), blood on the groin. Meanwhile, Paul McCarthy’s female Pig (2003) lies, as if to suckle, on its side, in front of Aurel Schmidt’s So Damn Pure (2008), an abstract-inspired painting containing urine, spit, blood, coffee, beer, medicine and mouthwash, pushing the exhibition to a messy climax.

In the next room, Lorna Simpson’s triptych of inverted masks in Myths (1992) recalls Fischli and Weiss’ Animal. Of course it is easier to say that society is ultimately driven by an inherent, animal nature to consume, but it in no way enlightens what it means to be a political entity. William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint (1996) acts as a moral to the story. In characteristic stop animation style, Kentridge depicts an entrepreneur on his death bed, recounting the excess and power that eventually consumed him, thus identifying what drives contemporary history and human behaviour. And it is not animalistic; money is what feeds humans.

Moving into the adjoining suite, Kara Walker’s 19th century portrayal of slave men and women in the American south, Untitled (2000), depicts a scene where a bright light pierces through a dark, tempestuous sky over a crowd. It is paired with Sherrie Levine’s bronze torso of a pregnant woman, Body Mask (2007), installed with a spotlight that creates symmetrical reflections on the surrounding walls like wings of light. The reprieve is fleeting. Moving into a confined, adjoining space, Esko Männikkö’s suite of photographs depicts bachelors at home in a remote part of Northern Finland (1990-1995) as Gregor Schneider’s architectural intervention, Das Große Wichsen (1997) plays on the artist’s interest in threatening spaces disguised by ordinary appearances. Entering what looks like a white crate, the viewer comes face to face with a sculptural rendition of a decomposing bust staring out into the gallery from behind a two-way mirror.

In many ways, Schneider’s work sums up the show. Seemingly straightforward, the show becomes a sinister quagmire that infiltrates every level of reality. At the show’s end, Cady Noland’s Drag (1990), a stripped down version of Americana made of steel bars and trinkets, precedes Lorna Simpson’s Water Bearer (1986), a black and white image of a woman in white, holding a metal water vessel in one arm, and a plastic water container in another. Water flows out from both vessels freely, as if it were in abundance, though in today’s world, it is all too clear that it is not. Below, a phrase is stencilled onto the wall: SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER / THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED / ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY.

Leaving the space, Robert Cuoghi’s portrait of DESTE Foundation president, super-collector Dakis Joannou, MEGAS DAKIS (2007), hangs indiscriminately at the foot of stairs leading to the exit. As Simpson had promised, the portrait threatens to erase the memory of the exhibition in that it is a reminder that art is also a form of consumption locked in a system that encourages the neutralisation of political and revolutionary discourse. Once you leave the gallery, it could be as if it never happened. In the end, it’s an individual choice.

Running in parallel to Investigations of A Dog at the DESTE Foundation, three solo presentations were also on show: Kerstin Brätsch & DAS INSTITUT: Treat Your Own Neck (2011), Jakub Ziolkowski’s History of the Eye (2010) and Paul Chan’s My Birds … Trash … The Future (2004) until 30 October 2011. Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror was on show at DESTE project space, The Slaughterhouse, on Hydra until 25 September 2011. or

Stephanie Bailey