Modern Art Oxford
April 18—June 21, 2009
The tremendous power of self-surveillance was clearly demonstrated at the G-20 protests in London this past April. Filmed and photographed by thousands of cellphones, the marches generated a significant archive of police misconduct on a day that ended with an allegation of manslaughter. This impressive record was compiled soon after a law had been passed that made it effectively illegal to photograph a police officer.
The contested nature of these sorts of archives — both in war zones and in daily life — has been the subject of a number of recent exhibitions in the UK, perhaps most bluntly articulated by the subtitle of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial: ‘The War of Images and Images of War.’ Sean Snyder’s recent exhibition at the ICA in London included Soviet propaganda footage sourced online and the digitizing (and subsequent destruction) of the artist’s physical archive, while the Barbican’s ‘On the Subject of War’ presented recent pieces — reenactments and investigative work by, among others, Omer Fast and Paul Chan — made in the context of ongoing events in Iraq and Afghanistan. These politically oriented shows aimed to engage with how images and their associated narratives register with us and, finally, shape our experience of the world.
Opening just over two weeks after the G-20 summit came to an end, ‘Transmission Interrupted’ at Modern Art Oxford was poised and timely, perhaps even the smartest of these topical exhibitions. Comprised of fourteen international artists, the group show investigated post-Soviet issues of hopelessly unmanageable archives and the veracity of official claims, taking in a range of approaches that tended toward the diaristic, documentary, and investigative. Each work attempted to stall these narratives, deflating them with varying degrees of subtlety.
Curated by Gilane Tawadros and Suzanne Cotter (whose 2006 show ‘Out of Beirut’ shared some approaches with ‘Transmission’), the exhibition component also included a lively public program and a number of “interruptions” in the city, from a pub quiz hosted by Yara El-Sherbini to Sislej Xhafa’s elegant sick bus performance.
Unfortunately, the exhibition began rather unpromisingly with a limp opening salvo: Adel Abdessemed’s Practice Zero Tolerance (2006), a full-size ceramic sculpture of a burnt-out car from the 2005 riots in Paris, and El-Sherbini’s A Demonstration (2005), a children’s TV–style video showing how to make a cartoonish bomb from household materials. Both tried too hard to shock.
Hung on either side of Practice Zero Tolerance, Xhafa’s two monochrome paintings, If you see something, say something (2006), featured the title printed almost indiscernibly in the center of each. They depended on the title’s double application — as a political slogan but also as a message to viewers baffled by the abstract paintings — and yet the work had little to say about either protest or abstraction.
But early missteps aside, ‘Transmission Interrupted’ was an excellent show. Lia Perjovschi’s Timeline: Romanian Culture from 500 BC until today (1997–ongoing), a continuous line of dozens of A4 acetate sheets, were scrawled with a secret history — unavailable before 1989 — of the artist’s native country.
In the same room was Monument for the End of the World (2006), a wooden architectural model of a crane standing in wooded parkland above a tiny city, by another Romanian, Mircea Cantor. From the crane hung a wind chime set off by a fan. While the work had the scale of a model, it was identified as a monument, a pathetically downsized memorial for a presumed near future.
In May 2006 (2006), Simryn Gill presented more than eight hundred black and white photographs she took using a discontinued Kodak camera around her neighborhood in Sydney. Similar in ethos to Zoe Leonard’s photographic documentation of faded New York shopfronts, Gill’s work used obsolete technology to document a dilapidated area.
Filmed on a hand-wound 16mm camera, Jem Cohen’s NYC Weights and Measures (2006) was a lush short film of dreamy moments in city life, yet these whimsical meanderings — in the gauzy mode of American indie movies — were a calculated provocation: as the closing credits noted, the project was cut short when Cohen was apprehended while filming from a train window, his film confiscated. Post-9/11 security measures have placed a number of restrictions on filming in public spaces in the US, though — after heavy petitioning from filmmakers, including Cohen — at least one ruling was recently overturned.
“It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” Quoted in Michael Rakowitz’s The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series) (2007), this line from — who else? — Donald Rumsfeld was central to a quasi-museological display concerned with assertions (and impositions) of universal freedom. The work was comprised of three dozen taped and papier-mâché artifacts fashioned of packaging and newspapers sourced from the Middle East. This abject collection of figurines, weapons, and fragments was presented as a surrogate for the National Museum of Iraq’s missing collection. The fragile reminders were categorized by dimension and excavation number and appended by accounts of the looting from museum curators: “They knew what they wanted and rushed to get what was most salable”; “Some 10,000 years of human history were destroyed”; “Status: unknown.” Quoted in the middle of these eulogies, Rumsfeld performs the classic maneuver of the Bush administration: using opposition to the US as an argument for, rather than against, hawkish neoliberalism, and in the process making himself an apologist for the desecration of Mesopotamian relics.
Shown next to Rakowitz was Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s It’s not my memory of it: three recollected documents (2003), sharp-eyed documentaries about governmental obfuscation and how categories of permissible speech have altered in the past forty years. Meltzer and Thorne used to make work under the shared moniker of Speculative Archive — an apt name for a tendency shared by several of the artists in ‘Transmission Interrupted.’
Also taking on an archive of sorts, Jimmie Durham provided handwritten labels for a careworn collection of objects included in his large-scale, wall-mounted assemblage, Various elements from the actual world (2009): “Glass from Murano”; “This stone is alabaster from Iran”; “These are parts of a single-engine airplane that I had in Berlin.” While Durham hoped to open up his own decision-making processes, he also worried that such gestures toward transparency would prove untenable: “Warning: words are used to conceal as often as they are used to reveal.”
Shown close by, Yto Barrada’s twenty-minute video The Botanist (2007) was projected on the slatted interior of a wooden gazebo. Filmed on the coast close to Tangier, the work followed Mr. Pasti, a keen botanist, as he introduced his guests and described his garden of endangered indigenous vegetation. This metaphorical approach staged a friendly encounter in an embattled sanctuary, an artificial environment with carefully enforced herbaceous borders.
Neither Barrada’s nor Durham’s approach was explicitly politically engaged, though they both lingered on possibly imminent disappearances, memorializing personal encounters while fretting about the future. ‘Transmission Interrupted’ was an exhibition of melancholic records rather than angry interruptions. Eulogizing episodes that have been overlooked or else ignored, it suggested quiet manifestations of defiance rather than the less coherent mass protests that have come to be seen as signs of resistance in these curious political times.