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Symposiumsbericht: Art and/or Politics

There is a moment during the video piece "Die Kleine Bushaltestelle (Gerüstbau)" (2007/2010) when Isa Genzken makes the observation that political artists, or as she describes them, “artists who want to show the miseries of the world”, often make art that is aesthetically miserable. The question of how much (if at all) artists should sacrifice formal concerns in the service of political activism has gained renewed importance of late and as a result conferences on art and politics seem to have been springing up in cities across the world. "ART and/or politics, or: How political may/must art be (today)?", a two-hour long panel discussion featuring Monica Bonvicini, Adam Broomberg, Thomas Demand, Peter Geimer, Philipp Ruch and Beat Wyss, started with moderator Michael Diers showing a number of slides of political art works: David Young’s highly aesthetic photographs of G-20 demonstrators being hit with water cannons, "Open Casket" (2016), Dana Schutz’s painting of murdered black teenager Emmett Till and Sam Durant’s "Scaffold" (2012), a sculpture which draws on the gallows used for the mass execution of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. The latter two works have been mired with controversy after protests erupted in response to their display at the Whitney Biennial and The Walker Art Centre respectively. The inclusion of these images didn’t just serve to give the six participants a common starting point for the discussion, but also added another focus beyond the question of artistic autonomy. Namely, do artists have the right to use the (tragic) histories of others in their own (political) work?

The artists Thomas Demand and Monica Bonvicini showed some sympathy for Schutz and Durant, with Bonvicini pointing out that Durant had been working consistently with these themes for over 10 years (such as in his 2005 exhibition "Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions", Washington D.C.) and Demand musing that: “You want to do justice to the original [Schutz’ painting is drawn from photographs of Till’s mutilated body]. Did she? You could argue that she did.” As talk turned away from these controversies to the panellist’s own practices, Demand, who is best known for his paper reconstructions of historically-relevant media images, stressed that the role of art is to communicate but insisted that it wasn’t compulsory to be political as an artist. Adding: “The bus driver doesn’t have to know our views on everything”. When asked by Diers whether his art was political, he seemed reluctant to view his works only through this lens and answered, “It’s a condition, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that.”

Monica Bonvicini also expressed frustrations about the expectations put on artists to be political. She spoke at length about the problems with the biennial format, where curators can expect artists to make a critical statement about the city or country after spending only a few days there. Her complaint that “You put out a banner and then you go home” was an especially interesting choice of words considering that another panellist, Philipp Ruch, had done just that during a political intervention in front of the German Chancellery recently. As a part of the Berlin-based art collective Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty), Ruch organised an installation featuring a black Mercedes next to a banner with the faces of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz, with the words “Do you want this car? Kill dictatorship.” The same week, the group also held a leaflet drop in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, where the text urged readers to “Defend the democracy. Fight against Racism. Bring the dictatorship down.” Ruch’s position ignited some criticism from the art historians Peter Geimer and Beat Wyss, with them objecting to his interest in actions that merge the categories of art and politics. While for Ruch, “That’s the most important thing… when art and politics come out of their boxes,” Geimer expressed his concern that art not only loses its specificity when viewed in this way, but that Ruch as an artist/politician operates from a ‘comfortable’ position, because he can hide behind either shield depending on the context.

With all of the participants bar Philipp Ruch remaining cagey (some might say realistic) about art’s potential for political change, Diers noted the rather downbeat tone of the discussions and asked towards the end of the afternoon, “Could it be that as artists, critics and art historians we’re not in the camp of wanting to change the world?” Perhaps determined to finish on a positive note, Adam Broomberg chose to tell the story of his art professor bringing his attention to sculptures that were being built by the communities in the townships across Apartheid-era South Africa. In order for the state to control these environments, they had built 120-foot lights in the townships and cleared of rocks and anything else that could be used as weapons, but these modernist-looking sculptures turned out to be armaments, “There was no concrete so people would just grab a brick and it was arms”. In this case art was a direct and unmediated tool for political change, which was desperately needed. An intervention that gave Broomberg “a kind of optimism that I’m still living with.” (Chloe Stead)