Those in Ireland who remember Charles Esche from his role as chief curator of 2005’s Cork Caucus will certainly associate him with ideas of social change, the permeability of the border between conversation (about art, art theory and politics) and art-making itself, and with certain loose groupings of artists, known for their social interventions or practice of institutional critique: Superflex, Bik Van Der Pol, Maria Eickhorn, Surasi Kusolwong, etc. Esche’s speeches and writings tended to betray a certain communist, or rather post-communist sympathy – his construal of Lenin’s phrase ‘What is to be Done’ at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre in 2005 was not entirely distanced from the spirit of the original. One has only to look at the care and inventiveness with which Esche has treated the collection of El Lissitzky’s works at the Vanabbemuseum in Eindhoven, where he has been Director since 2004, to understand that the early transformative culture of the Soviet state remains an inspiration (‘[Lissitsky’s] ideas and his artistic objectives correspond closely with the museum’s own engagement with experimentation, radical creativity and public participation,’ as the museum’s website declares). Considering his ideological positioning, there was much of interest politically about this same appointment to the controlling position of a staid, if once progressive, European contemporary art institution. Doubtless it had a lot to do, not only with his international reputation – forged during the Glasgow ‘golden years’ when Simon Starling, Douglas Gordon et al. were on the rise, and secured by his co-curation of the Gwangju Biennale in 2002 – but with his achievement at the Rooseum in Malmö, which had seen a provincial museum become galvanised through a programme of experimentation with the borders between artist, institution and urban public. And this would have been the agreement that brought Esche and the Vanabbemuseum together: a kind of institutional critique, curated by the head of the same institution, that would shake up and invigorate the museum.
Straightforward enough, but what it said about the relation of art and politics in the mid-2000s went deeper: for instance, how far could institutional critique go and still maintain at least that margin of detachment and commitment to real change from which its radicality was derived? How was it that the institution, for that matter, could so easily embrace its revolutionary criticism? It was a hybrid of left and right that gave radical discourse a handhold on the social real, and the conservative institution an antidote against stagnation, but which suggested a greater centrist environment where political values had taken on the status of mere instruments of adjustment for a quasi-technological socio-economic apparatus. And then the ground shifted.
In October of last year a political spokesman called Arnold Raaijmakers, a member of the PvdA party on the Eindhoven City Council, publically attacked both institution and directorial policy. The Vanabbemuseum had become ‘too radical’ – in straitened times this called for an extreme reduction in its budget and an injunction that it redirect itself toward the production of popular, profitable shows. After a show of outrage by the international art community (emails of support came in from Hans Haacke, the Museum of Modern Art San Francisco, the University of Arts Berlin, among many others, including this periodical), the City Council’s culture committee met and the most extreme formulation of Raaijmakers’ demands was voted down. But it remains likely that a watered-down version will yet be implemented. Ironically the PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) are a Social Democratic party, but appear to be bending under the wave of right-wing populism sweeping across continental Europe, especially since the 2008 financial collapse. Political ‘values’ have returned, but now demagogic, loud, politically incoherent but with a grip on mass opinion, likely to garner easy votes in uneasy times. And with much of the avant-garde gathered into the fold of the art-as-commodity-centred Art Fairs since 2000, and institutions like the Tate Modern reinventing modern and contemporary art as spectacle and leisure, the model of Esche’s Vanabbemuseum has suddenly found itself at some distance from the status quo.
So, the invitation by Michelangelo Pistoletto to the Vanabbemuseum to exhibit at the CAPC in Bordeaux last year was certainly timely: here was a chance, at a crucial juncture in its progress, to see in nuce what the Vannabbemuseum stands for. What we encounter is the work of 23 artists or artists’ groups and a recording of a lecture by Homi Bhabha from which the title of the exhibition comes (there are also interviews with Bhabha and Esche shown on screens near the lobby). The main exhibition area of CAPC, a former colonial warehouse built as if it were a romanesque cathedral, is a grand, cavernous affair, and has a mezzanine floor on all four sides, but Strange and Close managed to just about fill the space, often with large works, like Marjetica Potrč’s colourful full-size model of a house for a newly imagined New Orleans. Still, the general effect was aesthetically modest – a far cry from the grand spectacle of the Turbine Hall – which seemed to be part of the Vanabbemuseum ethos. Recent acquisitions to the Dutch museum’s collection made up most of the work: even the slightly incongruous guest appearance from the Arte Poverist himself, Pistoletto (Donna Che Disegna, 1962-1975), turned out to be owned by the Vanabbemuseum.
There was no doubting the role of a certain kind of politics in the collection and presentation of the artworks. A list of some of the artists’ places of origin gives some sense of the affiliations – Sarajevo, Kfar Yehezkel in Israel, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Marrakech, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul – the majority were from international crisis points, the margins of Europe or the former Eastern Bloc. On this evidence if the Vanabbemuseum is ‘a neighbourhood’, as the exhibition’s title prompts, then it is a neighbourhood for which the figure of the refugee, sometimes as dissident but most often as testifier, is central. With each new work a further narrative of overlooked or tolerated oppression unfolded: Harun Farocki on the Jews at the Dutch camp of Westerbork in 1944; Danica Dakic on the House for the Protection of Childhood and Youth near Sarajevo; Akram Zaatari on Lebanese political prisoners; etc. Added to this were reformulations of contemporary art from its margins: Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin immersed us in popular cultural imagery from the Eastern Mediterranean, almost daring the viewer to treat it in terms of the exotic, though it represented the real minutiae of historical existence; Ivan Boccara carefully presented scenes from Morrocan Berber life picked from the Bordeaux archives, drawing out the materiality and atmosphere of the images and texts; etc. All directed towards a new political imagination, or at least, the effort towards the generation of a political discussion that might house such an imagination, the ‘What is to be done’ of the Project speech. (This also happened to be the name of a Russian art-group [Chto Delat?] who, on a large screen at one end of the hall, enacted the progress of post-Soviet Russia in terms of simple stylised characters representing different political positions, a DIY Threepenny Opera for the age of gallery-based digital screenings.)
Strange and Close was not entirely about politics, but even the less overtly political work tended to be concerned with matters of social relations (Andrea Zittel), communication (Joseph Grigely) or power relations (Artur Żmijewski and the witty Nedko Solakov), which clearly took part in a wider metapolitical mesh. With this relentless political or metapolitical agenda the lack of strong aesthetic operation was often sorely missed, if only to provide breathing space in what sometimes felt like indifference to all but the topic and narrative being transmitted. That said, a subtle work by Yael Bartana, Summer Camp (2007), which played two films simultaneously, back to back on a single screen, provided a pointed reflection on this question of aesthetics and their role. On one side appeared Herman Lerski’s 1935 Avoda, a piece of propaganda about Zionist pioneers building on the West Bank, but a masterpiece of cinematic oratory all the same, with often stunning aesthetic power. On the other side Avoda was shadowed using footage of members of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions rebuilding Palestinian houses in the same territory. Here the aesthetic strength of the original had been curbed and muted, the twenty-first century supplement providing a quiet rejoinder to the confident power of the original. But of course the aesthetic working of Bartana’s piece didn’t simply reside in the modest refilming, it comprised the ‘double film’, as it were, and the thin screen of interpretation between primary and secondary. One could refer to this aware, critiquing adaptation of the idioms of modern art and media as a kind of ‘refugee form’, in keeping with the general orientation of the exhibition. As the refugee inhabits the state as outsider, and confronts the ‘insider’ as a fact of the limitation of that state, making exposed the state’s character as a system of legitimacies and power relations, so the ‘refugee form’ works by the addition of an outsider supplement to an established artistic or significatory idiom. In Strange and Close’s best works such a form was evident, and a precise balance was achieved between narrative content and the presented work. Not everything was up to this standard.
Ordinarily with an Esche-curated show much of this pressure towards a balanced, finished product would be eased by the conversation-centred events surrounding the exhibition: the works appearing as markers of an ongoing discursive process, the presence at the venue of artists and artists’ groups reducing the distance between viewer and artwork. Here, with the emphasis on pieces from a collection, a different aspect of Esche’s curatorial practice came to the fore. The recording of Homi Bhabha at the exhibition’s centre, presenting his concept of the neighbour in places of mixed ethnicity as ‘strange and close’, and the extensive notes accompanying the works, both on the walls and in the ‘map’ of the show given to each visitor on admission, gave a distinct educational colour to the show. This is worth noting: the reconstruction of the modern / contemporary art museum as an educational institution (there’s a very interesting precedent in the Barnes Collection in Pennsylvania, itself a centre of controversy) could be a way of sidestepping expectations of spectacle and crowded, media-friendly shows, while playing a strong democratic (as opposed to populist) role in its locality. There is always the danger (as there was in early Soviet Russia, to return to Lissitzky) that education might degenerate into indoctrination, but Strange and Close’s theoretical identification with the ‘refugee’ would appear to preclude this possibility, as well as grant a certain purchase on a deep layer of Europe’s political condition, while aligning itself with a subtle, unshowy aesthetic.
Strange and Close was on view at CAPC Bordeaux 6 October 2011 – 12 February 2012.